Written word in our times

This morning, I read a very tender story – of a woman named Lois who fell in love with Kerouac (story via Brain Pickings). Their relationship continued on and off for several years. After several years, when Lois was under depression and grief from losing her mother, Kerouac turns up at her doorstep only to play a song. He had walked five miles, after a long journey.

Lois penned this poem on what she lived that night when Kerouac turned up and played a song for her, spent time with her and perhaps left. The poem is called Universe – One Song

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

For those who value words, this is a moving gesture. I wonder if everyone who receives words as an expression of a moment spent together value it the same. At least, if not value, shouldn’t people not try to trade it away as though something shameful was written which must be known to rest of the world? It is appalling to see books and newspaper articles emerging from letters that were at some point too personal for individuals involved. Yet, either one of them or someone else grabs them and lays bare what was meant for only the two involved – sender and receiver. It is of course a different matter when he sender himself permits the use. So, I haven’t been an admirer of biographical accounts that rest on some ‘rare’ letters as one of them on Lady Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru which was published some years back.

On another front, it is crushing to see how in relationships, during estrangement, some people end up sharing letters (with others or make public) which were meant for them as individuals, only as an act of revealing something detestable. Why were those words not detestable when received? For all that one can do and must do, at least some dignity and respect to words that bring the writer’s truest self to the receiver, must be accorded.

I went on this tangent thinking about how people around me value words. There is this tendency to read what a ‘famous’ author writes and an effort to remember those to be later used in their own arguments. Yet, when someone else, not famous, nowhere near it in fact, writes something, it is not even granted the basic minimum dignity.

In these times, written words matter. They have mattered and perhaps will matter even more with the onslaught of communication technologies which favour a virtual presence and dispenses with real human interactions – the touch, the presence and the shared sense of the moment spent.

 

Grad Life Ends Here

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This week, grad life comes to an end officially. With convocation it draws to a formal close. As I looked at the grade statements which have never been a happy sight for me, I realize that they do not reflect is the quality of time that I spent at the university and subtle transformations that came through along the course.   What they do reflect is a long trail of papers not submitted and assignments not done. Over the last two evenings I have been thinking about the ways grad life impacted my work and personal life.

It has been an enormously enriching two years, as I look back. The diversity of projects, internships and studies that I have packed in these two years would be hard for a work life to deliver even in four years. This has been the single most point of satisfaction for me personally, as I finish this program. A carefully chosen grad program I realize can be a great boost to professional growth as well as personal enrichment. On this point – about promises of a higher education, I am a recent convert! Two years back this would be hard to see.

Barely two months since the program finished, our business pipeline has grown steady and also higher in value. A part of it is a direct consequence of the time spent at the university. I also think that deliverance of higher education in terms of professional value is specific to chosen field. While a management degree may not seem to be a smart investment of money when compared to the experience gained in the same two years when spent at work, in some other fields it can work quite the reverse. For example, in journalism or in development sector. I see that it can improve the quality of work several notches up in development sector. The assessments and evaluation studies that our company now conducts are more comprehensive in the range of factors they consider and are more rooted into ground level action. Works earlier would often be weak on theory-practice-action connect.

My partners at the firm have been able to shape our company’s focus from a pure business orientation to a space which is sensitive to development challenges in countries and then bring in our business into addressing those challenges through our business. Here is an instance – in our scientific instruments business where we sell laboratory instruments for healthcare and lifescience research applications, my partners are looking at the role of these instruments in creating an impact on the healthcare situation (and in some cases science education in colleges) in the geography where we operate. This would have perhaps been hard for us to do if not for the learning in the past two years.

Personally, grad degree’s most significant impact has been on my outlook to life and its purpose. I am more likely to listen to folks who are contributing in their own small or big way to change social situations around them. There was a fair degree of indifference in how I looked at social issues earlier. Why did this change had to wait for the university and why did it happen only now, it fails me. But it did. I considered taking some time from a typical work week to do something self-serving.It was hard for me to imagine because near hundred percent of what I did was all for the self. This is when teaching happened. I considered being a teacher in a high school and teach a few days every week.

A direct consequence of grad program – that I teach two days a week in a high school and get to spend time with children. This is a complete turn around from the way I would do things earlier. Plus, a teacher’s hat I see is quite a responsible one to wear, which can bear heavy on the self-conscious individuals who think several times before committing themselves to tasks as these – which require disciplined and consistent efforts.

Looking back I see that University is a great place to experiment. Experiment with oneself and with ideas. This is what I did. If you also happen to run a small company, then be sure that the company too would reflect the changes that you go through, provided you have been inclusive enough to involve your colleagues in the range of crazy ideas that you tried at the university. In our case, it was the company that went for higher education. Not just one partner!

 

 

 

Aging, Biology and Attitude

National Geographic magazine’s May, 2013 issue runs an interesting story about long life, health and genetics of aging – “On Being 100” . The article takes the usual course of how genetic research is trying to unravel the mysteries of why some people live over 100 years and more. Not so appealingly, I find that the final goal post of this research is ‘learning how these genes work’ which ‘could help extend life for us all’. I mean, seriously? I thought the obsession with extending life was tapering off. And it takes a cover story like this in Nat Geo or Scientific American or Science to bring it back. Truly, sometimes I feel glad to have made a switch from life sciences to arts. It helps me put those test tubes and microscopes in a much larger perspective than its impression as world changing research.

But, the point of this post is the third word – attitude. It would be a fairly long time when biology would be able to account for this in any manner. Of course there is behaviour studies but that doesn’t quite deal with people’s attitudes in the same spirit in which it unfolds in real life. We could be talking psychology, psychoanalysis and some behavioural biology but an individual’s outlook to life, his habits formed over the years, his attitude and handling of situations in life – I think all this amounts to his well-being and longevity. And this is reflected by a ‘young’ lady covered in this Nat Geo piece – Marion Stehura who is 103 years old.

Marion Stehura, 103 (Image: National Geographic, May, 2013)

Marion Stehura, 103 (Image: National Geographic, May, 2013)

The brief describes her as:

Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Stehura wanted to “do the things boys do,” like play ball and “be rough.” Today, in Hemet, California, she gets a kick out of whistling loud and long in big-box stores when she shops with son John; it’s the way she used to call her sons home when they were young. Riding an electric cart provided by the store, she brags. “My whistle could blow this place to pieces.”

It probably can! If not her whistle, her attitude sure blows apart the general notions people carry about their lives. I strongly believe that self-preservation beyond the limits of disease and ailments is a poor channelization of human beings’ creative abilities. Probably, even she wouldn’t know what makes her go past 100 and still live at 103. Nor do I think her genetic constitution can be a reasonable answer.