Sunday, October 16, 2011

Music for Grown-Ups (An Almost Post)

I like jazz. 

I like how the sounds are complex and unpredictable. I like the syncopation and the synchronization. I like the eye contact and the winking and the nudging. I like the metaphors it lends itself to. I like the big, glossy, gleaming instruments, the sharp suits and the wing-tips. I like how the old-timers bring their children and grandchildren along, hoping that their love for the music will somehow 'rub-off.' 

I like the history and how jazz is sad but not so sad that it forgets to be sharp. I like how it puts me in mind of New York, flapper dresses and Langston Hughes. I like the names that are a mouthful, the Dukes and Monks and Kings. I like the smokiness and the sexiness, the baritones and the mellow men and elegant women. Music nourishes, but jazz isn't exactly nourishing. It's too seductive for that - intriguing and intoxicating, a witches brew. Isn't that a song?

I know very little about jazz, but I like it a lot. 

Music for Grown-Ups. 

Bodies in Buildings, Minds Elsewhere

It was Ratan Tata's comments on the work ethic in his British offices* that got me thinking - what is it that those of us who work really contribute to our companies, businesses and organizations? Our employers lure us with recognizable currencies - the promise of money, status, privilege, power and opportunity. But what is the coin in which we pay them back? Is it talent, ambition and energy? Is it loyalty and commitment, the willingness to serve as dedicated footsoldiers in corporate wars? Employers want all of this, of course, but I think that's just part of the answer. Increasingly, what they are seeking from us is our time.

There are organizations in which it is no longer enough to be punctual - to get to work on time, and to leave as per schedule. These companies will have you work 8 hours a day and demand that you work 10, and once you have worked 10 hours a day, they will demand that you work 12. They will encroach on your weekends and schedule company retreats to coincide with public holidays. This insistent intrusion is problematic, but at least it's direct. Any employee knows what he or she is up against. And there are other ways to consume an employee's time that are more insidious. Companies 'free' their people from their work-spaces by giving them laptops and cell-phones, guaranteeing accessibility that comes disguised as mobility. Other office cultures implicitly require one to spend time socializing with colleagues after work. They will encourage you mull things over after (or before) work, to just 'check in' every once in a while when on holiday.

Most people seem to agree on that fact that one should work hard, and work intelligently. Very few people  will ever say (or admit), that an employee should get away with making a bare minimum, or even a functional effort. But when it comes to time - everyone has a different point of view. Some people think it's best to throw yourself into work, others will say that you have no obligation whatsoever to be available on weekends, on holidays, or even after 6. There are people who will fight to preserve their weekends, and there are those who will shrug off the working Saturday.

The one constant that emerges from all these strains is that one's attitude to time spent at work, often seems to define one's attitude towards work itself. But why does time - as opposed to variables such as effort and talent - seem to be the definitive marker of a person's relationship with their work? I suppose it's because time is fundamentally scarce, and in our increasingly crowded and complex lives, it becomes difficult to apportion time satisfactorily among all its claimants - friends, family, errands, hobbies, oneself. How we spend our time is an indication of we prioritize things.

It's no small surprise then, that corporate-speak has evolved an entire lexicon around time - time-management, flexi-time, work-life balance, 4-hour-work-weeks. There are seminars and books telling us how to allocate our time well. Employers, especially in India, equate time with attention and commitment, and time spent at work serves as tangible proof of both these precious commodities.

Notice that I used the qualifier 'serves as.' Because time dedicated to work often stands in for nothing other than itself.

Employees have elevated time-management into a performance art. They will write e-mails at 9 PM but send them out at 11.30. They will linger long over their PCs, reading and watching whatever catches their fancy and hasn't been blocked. They will drape jackets over their chairs to indicate they are in the building, but will have actually wandered off for lunch. They will go for spontaneous market visits and client meetings, and will fill out time-sheets and expense reports for both. They will get colleagues to swipe them into the office well before they get there. There are those who will do what it takes to get the job done well, and on schedule - but when everyone is staying back late, who is to notice the difference?

Time is contested terrain. Employers are right - people will do what it takes to get ahead. But they tend to forget that people cheat, especially when they are being asked to part with something that there is little enough of already. It takes an enlightened and mature employer to distinguish between time, effort and truly valuable contributions. Commitment and dedication are elusive - they can only be earned. Very few organizations understand that by insisting that their people work late, they are only keeping bodies in the building. Minds are most likely wandering, somewhere far away.

* Read the Indian coverage here and the original story here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sunshine & Light

There's a reason India is the land of rain dances. The sun doesn't just shine here, it sears. It isn't just hot, it's often difficult to breathe. Stepping out into the street is sometimes an act of endurance. In this country, showers, or even cloud cover, are a welcome reprieve from heat, dust and frayed tempers. When it rains, life seems more manageable and the world, more tractable.

Even so, I love sunshine.

Sunshine makes everything seem possible. It has a way of percolating into the corners of a room, rounding out edges, slanting on books, illuminating dust motes, and making furniture look less shabby. Early morning sunshine is like a cup of hot chocolate that goes straight to the bones. In the afternoons, sunshine invites you to take a nap, and in the evenings, it has you lingering over cups of tea. And then of course, there are sunsets - great shows of fading sunshine that give you pause, everyday.

There is a particular strain of bright, harsh sunshine that seems unique to India. It has echoes in the hot spiciness of Indian food, and the unabashed color in Indian wardrobes. Indians are at ease with light and brightness. Which may be why we take sunshine for granted, noticing its absence only after an unbroken string of grey days.

There was a time when it was fashionable for artists to go to Italy and paint landscapes. They weren't there for the scenery, although that was certainly part of Italy's appeal. What they were pursuing was a certain 'quality of light' - a robust luminescence that lent the country its charm and inspired its artists.

John Ruskin, the great critic, often spoke about light, dedicating a chapter in his book 'Lectures on Art' to the topic. Ruskin believed that only the masters could truly illuminate their canvasses, and faulted Indian art (or what the world had seen of it then) for failing to accommodate the subtleties of sunshine and shade. Perhaps he had a point - it's likely that Indian artists were so accustomed to light that they didn't think to represent it. Ruskin believed that it took a certain intellectualism and sophistication to appreciate light  - "To a quiet heart, and healthy brain, and industrious hand, there is more delight, and use, in the dappling of one wood-glade with flowers and sunshine, than to the restless, heartless, and idle could be brought by a panorama of a belt of the world, photographed round the equator."

He was right. Sunshine does have its delights. And on a hot summer morning, perhaps we could do ourselves a favor and notice them.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

From an Unhelpful Index to....

The best thing about Alan Fletcher's book, 'The Art of Looking Sideways' is that the index is totally useless. The only way to find something you like, once you've liked it, is to go through a whole bunch of other pages, and find something new you like, and forget all about that thing you first liked that you were looking for.

Which is cool.

I like linearity and conclusions myself, but there's something to be said for spinning around in circles, for chasing ideas, for seeking out the needle in the haystack, and for having more thoughts at one time than a sane person reasonably should. It keeps conversations interesting. And it makes the world a little bit more interesting, too. Imagine a day spent going - 'Hey! Did you see that.....wait a minute, what's going on there....I know, wasn't he just the most......Hey!It's been forever since....Are you listening to me?'

Well, maybe not a day. But an hour.

Cognitive unruliness means there's always something new out there. That attention isn't jaundiced. That the train of thought has been so frequently derailed that it is past re-assemblage and its components have wandered off to find themselves.

Like I said, maybe not for a day. But maybe an hour, or 75 minutes.

Cognitive unruliness. A bit like Question Hour in Parliament, but better. I like the sound of it.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Punctuation Pedantry

Words are wonderful, but they're tricky. It's hard to pin down that one word or phrase that expresses precisely what one wants to say, with all the requisite nuance. Particularly if one is writing, and doesn't have recourse to all the non-verbal signals and natural inflections of spoken conversation.

Which is where punctuation comes in.

Like most people, I learnt my first few lessons in punctuation from a battered copy of Wren and Martin. We were assigned sentences and later paragraphs, and asked to punctuate them correctly. Back then, this seemed like a less than compelling way to spend one's time. An improvement on needlework, but not by much. Seventh grade English brought with it another seemingly obscure exercise - précis writing, or the compression of 250 to 300 words into 75 or a 100, impossible to accomplish without the correct use of punctuation.

It’s only now, when I read text messages in SMS speak, when I notice that the Times of India routinely uses ‘i’ to express the first person singular, when I read essays and e-mails that are indecipherable because people think that their written departures-from-the-norm are charming idiosyncrasies, that I realize that grammar (and by extension, punctuation) is a social contract. The rules exist so that we are able to understand one another. When one doesn’t write by the rules, it means that one either assumes that one’s rules (or the absence thereof) apply equally to everyone; or because one is concerned only with expression and not actual communication.

The space left vacant by punctuation, is now being filled with emoticons, which is part of a larger shift towards a more visual vocabulary. It’s interesting to see how rules around the use of emoticons are developing – is it OK to insert a smiley into a work-email, or not? Companies now have policies about these things. I’m also intrigued by the ways in which we use emoticons to ‘manage’ conversations – redeem a seemingly rude or stinging rebuttal with :), turn down an invitation slightly more gently with :(, indicate that a comment was tongue-in-cheek by using ;), take the edge off sarcasm with :P *

But do emoticons really mean the same, or even similar things, everywhere? What if some nuance was to get lost in translation? With punctuation, what you see is what you get. It’s used differently by different writers, and helps them cultivate a certain style, but we’re all in agreement about what the characters indicate. In some cases, such as with Jose Saramago’s writing, the almost complete absence of punctuation makes for difficult and demanding reading. The sentences move in their own way, and have to be read and re-read to be fully comprehended. At least Mr. Saramago has a logic for why he’s evolved this style – it may not be for everyone, but there’s no arguing with a Nobel Laureate.

Those of us who aren’t in the running for literary awards, but still retain some commitment to the idea of written coherence, have punctuation and grammar to fall back on. What's unfortunate is that this is increasingly beginning to feel like a Last Stand.

*We’ve all done it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mid-Week Myth-Busting

Inspiration comes upon us in a flash. Ideas strike us, light bulbs blink and wink when things fall into place. There’s a certain poetry to the speed with which our intellect and intuition are supposed to work. It’s exciting to think of the mind operating in terms of powerful, lightning quick neural connections.  

And yet, when we’re speaking in terms of flexing our intellectual muscles, we fail to acknowledge the fact that it is persistence – slow, steady, patient and plodding –   that does most of the heavy lifting.

Untangling mental knots, teasing pieces of a puzzle apart, and then together, thinking, re-thinking, writing, re-writing, crafting, re-crafting, doing, un-doing, finding solutions and then improving upon them - all of this takes work. But in our eagerness to be inspired, in our desire to wait for that one, golden moment, we tend to forget that it is equally important to be enthused and to get started.

Persistence is deeply unfashionable. It indicates that one is committed to actually doing things, and what could be less suited to a careful cultivation of world-weariness than that? Persistence is bourgeoisie, athletic rather than aesthetic, and I doubt very much whether it has ever been at the heart of the zeitgeist, anywhere. Except perhaps in times of war and strife.

But if creativity is a process, and intelligence is a journey, we’d do well to embrace persistence in all its ungainliness, in its insinuations of considerable, almost corporeal effort. Even the Greeks among the Romans would have to agree that there’s no going anywhere without first getting there.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Praise Of, And Thanks For, Style.

This weekend, I've spent more time than I'd like to admit, looking at clothes, thinking about them, tracking them down, exclaiming to myself as I chance upon something particularly beautiful or striking. Over the years, I've come to recognize that clothing has the capacity to transform a person. Or perhaps transformations aren't effected so much by clothing, as by the evolution of a unique personal style - an individual aesthetic. People who have the ability to style themselves honestly and interestingly are wonderful communicators, mobile studies in art, design and self-expression. Style is one of those qualities that seems to transcend the usual barriers of wealth, race, gender and culture, but it invariably distinguishes. The stylish, always, everywhere, stand out.

To look at street-style, popularized by blogs such as The Sartorialist, is to see ordinary people looking radiant, pensive, mysterious, happy, preoccupied, distant - and always compelling. They seem like characters, figures one would more easily imagine populating a movie, a story, or even a music video. They remind us that people - 'ordinary' non-celebrities - are in fact, routinely intriguing, beautiful and elegant. Of course the skill of the spotter/photographer comes into play in noticing the right people and capturing them in the right light and at the right moment. But the fact that the street-style spotter's canvas is so large and varied is a tribute to human ingenuity and artistry. 

We read about sex scandals, wars, corruption and ineptitude on a daily basis. As our collective errors of judgment and moral and ethical lapses stack up, it often seems impossible for humanity to redeem itself. Which is why it delights me to think that everyday, stylish men and women are going about their day bringing a little bit of beauty to the world - and that other men and women are committed to documenting this effort.  You may think fashion and style are frivolous. But grace is in much too short supply for us to carp about the form in which we receive it. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Agony Aunt is All Ears. Or Should Be.

India have just won their first World Cup in 28 years, and I'm sitting here, thinking about....advice columns. More specifically, advice columnists.

This has the ring of something of a confession, but I find that advice columns occasionally make for interesting reading. I'm not sure whether its my inner psychologist, or my inner voyeur, that is to blame - but I find that advice columns deliver drama in more compelling doses, and with more texture, than the average television show. They offer insight into lives lived by other people, often in other places, and very rarely, some measure of insight into one's own.

What is it that makes people write in to advice columns? After all, unlike health, fashion, beauty and even tarot columns, these aren't necessarily anchored by experts. Advice columnists are often just well-known personalities, who commit to delivering little other than a point of view on an issue.

Support systems and therapy are luxuries too few have access to. For those contending with emotional needs, situational complexities and financial constraints, the advice columnist is often the only accessible coping resource. Writing in is free, anonymity is guaranteed, the columnists have answered other questions in the past - what's the worst that could happen?

But the truth is that several letters and emails are also sent in by those who describe themselves as being well-off, as members of functional (even supportive) social units, and as currently being in therapy. Which begs the question - wouldn't these solution-seekers be better off seeking the perspective of those who know them well and are more familiar with their situations, or those who are actually qualified and licensed to help people cope with their circumstances? What could an agony aunt possibly tell them, that they haven't already heard, or couldn't easily hear from someone else?

Which brings me back to what I've mentioned earlier - personality, and a point of view. My assumption is that advice columnists are chosen, for better or worse, for their personalities and their supposed 'life experience.'*  They may be minor celebrities (think Pooja Bedi, Sandhya Mridul, Sapna Bhavnani, ) writers or actors, but they've also had their struggles - some more widely documented than others. I would also assume that these experiences allow columnists to empathize with their readers - and that experience and empathy jointly inform their points of view, which in turn inform their responses.

But it's hard to think of an advice columnist's point of view as pristine and wholly personal. Columnists speak in a certain voice, and very often, that voice adheres closely to the spirit of the publication or website that houses their column.  It's possible that this congruity exists before-hand, but it's equally likely that it develops over time. In any case, publications (particularly in the US) do not hesitate to take each other's columnists to task - Jezebel is a case in point,  and the Huffington Post recently described Salon's Cary Tennis as being certifiably insane - evidence that the advice carries more weight than the average well-intentioned response. 

While the substance of a columnist's advice is likely to be contentious, there's no arguing that some voices (and some personalities) resonate better with some readers than others. People read a couple of advice columns on-and-off and like what they see. When they feel the need to reach out - but want some objectivity, or a response untainted by familiarity, or just anonymity - they write in. They write to someone they think they know - either through the column itself, or through a public persona, or through some combination of both. They may or may not get a response - and they may or may not like the response that they get. If they do, and they are serious about effecting change, they will make the effort that is called for. If the advice fails to find favor, they will continue looking for something or someone who will say what they want (and need) to hear. 

Come to think of it, eventually, people will pretty much do what they think is best. Just as with therapy, and conversations with family and friends. The rest is all just good intentions, and self-expression. Sometimes I think we need to be heard more than we need to listen. 

* This does not apply to columns of the Social Q's/ Miss Manners variety, where wit, snarkiness and an awareness of the minutiae of social codes are prerequisites.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Weekend Project

I spent most of my life blithely unaware of the possibilities inherent in 'the weekend.' Saturdays, in particular, were treated as a more or less ordinary part of the week, to be spent no differently than a Thursday, or perhaps even a Monday. Sundays had their moments - large and calorific family lunches, visits to galleries or libraries or the beach, and afternoon naps. Weekends only assumed their significance once I started working. Even then, it was a while before I recognized the connection between my uncharacteristic Thursday night beatitude and the possibility of Friday night plans (even if these were limited to movie nights, at home, with popcorn serving as the proverbial icing on the cake). 

Since then, I've had all kinds of weekends - good, bad, memorable, dull, action-packed, long and lazy. Like birthday parties, brunches and sneaker shopping, the weekend, too, has become a 'project.' It needs to be utilized optimally - those 48 hours allocated efficiently so as to maximize pleasure (and leisure). Which realization begs the question - which is the best kind of weekend to have? I'm no veteran, but as far as I'm concerned, the perfect weekend would call for some combination of at least 4 of the following -

  • Instant noodles or chocolate cupcakes
  • Movies
  • One excessively indulgent meal
  • High street shopping
  • Budget shopping
  • 2 interesting conversations (gossip counts)
  • Books
  • Perusal (yes, perusal) of the Sunday papers
  • Naps
  • Caffeine
  • Something 'constructive' which may involve fixing things, paying bills, making boring calls or a diffuse sense of purposefulness
  • Abandonment of all plans for fitness-improvement
  • Watching back to back episodes of Frasier or 30 Rock while eating instant noodles or cupcakes
  • Something cultural (watching Frasier or 30 Rock does not count)
  • Something to dress up for/ something to wear flip-flops to
Having distilled weekends into a to-do list, complete with options and possibilities for customization, it is safe to say that 'something constructive' has been accomplished, for which instant noodles slash cupcake would serve as a legitimate reward. This may sound suspiciously like organization-speak, but to be honest, I'm too busy relaxing to notice.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deliverance. Check. Anxiety? Check.

Lists. They're everywhere. Telling us what we should read, eat, buy and accomplish before we die. Performing a therapeutic function for minds that would otherwise be overwhelmed with fragmented thoughts of what needs to be done, but hasn't, as yet. Organizing the world, ordering its confusions, anchoring routines and schedules, determining priorities. Allowing us to come to grips with life, careers, motherhood, presidencies. Spawning breakthroughs in the stationery and technology industries.

Where would we be without them?

And yet, it's worth considering whether lists aren't, at least occasionally, difficult to contend with. Looming large in our consciousness, channeling our super-egos, compelling us to delay gratification, reminding us that time is limited, that goals remain unachieved, destinations unvisited, victories unwon.

The id, ego and super-ego are constantly in the process of playing out their dramas. It's interesting to think of the to-do list as one of the psychic theaters.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Just Saying...

We’re all supposed to be suspicious of advertising. At its best, it is alluring, artistic and intelligent, and seduces us in ways we will never fully comprehend. At its worst, it is grating, shrill and insistent, and demands our attention in spite of ourselves. Mediocre advertising is all too common, part of the ceaseless drone of contemporary life. Advertising is the siren call of capitalism. It reduces citizens and people to consumers, children to pests, culture to stereotypes, accomplishment to purchasing power, longing to envy, greed and resentment.

An authority figure from my childhood once announced that advertising was where people went to work in order to lose their values.

Contempt doesn’t much more withering than that.

Having bought the party line for several years, I am now inclined to think a bit differently. Advertisers play on insecurities and emotions, but persuasion is a part of life, and is inherent in any attempt to sway or mold public opinion. In any case, advertising today is less about direct ‘selling’ than about creating imagery that becomes associated with a product or a brand. Some of these images, associations and ideas resonate more powerfully with consumers than others, which is consequently reflected in purchase behavior.

As advertising has become more sophisticated, so have consumers. It’s interesting to see how advertisers and consumers are locked in a kind of responsive ritual where each tries to decode the other, leading to the creation of a vocabulary and symbol system that reflects the zeitgeist in telling ways. Advertising is not anti-cultural. How could it be - where else would advertisers draw their inspiration from? I would go so far as to say that at its best, advertising creates cultural artifacts that are as potent as contemporary design or art – as imbued with some of the larger narrative of social life and social change.

I’m not in a position to comment on values that are acquired or lost in the course of a career in any industry, but it’s interesting to note that advertising consistently attracts creative talent and bright minds – not all driven by the Machiavellian desire to transform the public into puppets on a string.

The anti-advertising pose is easy to assume. More complex, and less convenient, is the idea that that we somehow participate in what advertising makes of us, and that there may be some element of mirroring to the making as well.

Change Be Good

2010 will soon become 2011. Evenings will get colder, briefly, before they get progressively warmer. Cups of coffee, tea and cocoa will be made and people will think about, or talk about, how things turned out – better than, worse than, or much as they expected.

I will remember 2010 as the year in which Things Changed. I abandoned my particular corporate ship, set sail for foreign shores (course uncharted), and was eventually safely swept ashore. I now do something I never thought I’d do, and I think I will like it more than I liked other things I’ve done. I’ve been to places I’ve never been before. The places I have been to before, I experienced anew. Change is a constant, and it helps when it seems to be good.

One of the nicest things about a multicultural inheritance is having multiple opportunities to look back on how one spent one’s time. In that spirit, I wish you a Happy New Year.
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