#19 Postcard – Rewiring the brain, Making the bed

How do you build habits? Is it possible to change the way your brain is wired, is it decided by genetics, or is it malleable? Can behavior drive thoughts, or is it always the other way around?

After my writing workshop, our cohort was inducted into the Clear Writing community, and we each gave a brief introduction of ourselves. A few touched upon their untapped writing potential (and we take their word that its exists, we’re nice that way) – and their being okay with it staying untapped as other priorities took precedence.

Some also wrote about how they led rather mediocre lives (their words, not mine). Of course at no point does anyone define what a spectacular or even a non-mediocre life might look like.

It has been a running theme in my conversations with my mother, on generally unproductive days, that my father’s gene pool has taken over and that my laziness can’t be helped, my brain’s just wired that way. Now we bypass the discussion about genes and slap wiring onto a lot of things, including messiness.

At one point, it bothered me to see my bed empty. I think it might have hit my mother that believing it’s Nature is easier, so she gave up after two decades of asking me to make my bed. When I moved into this apartment the first thing I did was throw some books onto the naked mattress to give it some semblance of occupancy and home.

Then, three months ago I listened to the Make your bed speech and started making my bed the next morning. And now I cannot stand it if it isn’t neat. Last week I listened to this podcast about rewiring the brain, and I think I figured out why or rather how the change in habits happened.

Intention to change is only half the story.

In the episode, Dr. Andrew Huberman talks about neuroplasticity – the ability of brain to change and adapt – and in my tug of war between If you can then why shouldn’t you and But I’m happy this way (I know a few others who struggle with this dilemma), I’m sure you see why I listened to the whole 2 hour podcast. There’s two steps to neuroplasticity – deep focus and deep rest (and sleep, WHY DIDN’T THEY TELL US THE REAL REASONS WHY SLEEP IS IMPORTANT) – which I’ll try to tackle another time.

The one thing he explains about changing habits is how writing or talking or thinking about it is not as effective as just doing it – that behavior can and should be allowed to drive thoughts, it doesn’t have to be the other way around. This is antithetical how I thought I lived my conscious life. I’ve had trouble going with the flow and even in doing things I dislike or didn’t actively choose for myself. But on inspection I realize I have done it too.

I started making my bed the next day after watching that speech, and I sort of took upon it as a goal, because some of what the Navy Admiral said made sense to me. It’s one of the few times I fast-tracked to behavior first instead of brooding over the purpose of the action or getting stuck in thought. And when I wake up and make my bed every morning, I feel good from the minor accomplishment. In Huberman terms, it gives me a dopamine hit because it’s a goal achieved, and that primes me for the rest of the day – almost like working out before you dance.

And if it’s not making the bed, it’s something else that you attach a mental if unconscious goal to – it might be lighting a lamp for somebody, putting on tea for another.

When he said When you do one thing it becomes easier to do another – it really is because of this dopamine hit that Huberman describes. Because once you get your first hit, you then want to get the next one, which makes you proceed to another task because that’s what dopamine does – it makes you crave for more. A lot like social media validation makes you want to share more posts.

I’m glad I took to it, and I’ve kept doing it since it feels good. Because there are days when it’s a physical labor to get out of bed, but folding my blanket does make me feel more ready to start the day. I can’t tell if it’s more physical or mental, it’s probably both. Obviously the bed also looks nice when it’s tidied up, and I say that without shitting on my previous self that thought a messy bed looks just as fine πŸ˜›

So rewiring really is a choice, from the little I’ve understood. I’m sure there might be science behind how choices work as well, but let me wrap my mind around this dopamine thing first.

Thinking about turning into a morning person would never work for me, I’d have to start with behavior/action there as well to rewire. Okay, this has gone too far, that’s enough Huberman talk for the day.

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#17 Postcard – What do you make of a messy room?

Is a messy room indicative of creativity, or is it a personality problem? I care about public perception now, the younger me is frowning at that and the older me is partly helpless.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is madeβ€”that you madeβ€”and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

I used to be very okay with a messy bed, as long as one side was clear to sleep on. Something changed though and I’m trying to get to the bottom of it.

Growing up, I ‘ve seen disappointment on the faces of parents, brothers, aunts on stepping into my messy room. I have had (at least) one friend who was as messy if not messier than I was – she’s a writer – and articles used to pop up in my feed about how messiness is a sign of creativity. These days the search results I get are discourses that messiness might be a sign of a personality problem. Does Google know that I crossed over?

Mess bothers me now to the extent that I take care of it within the hour. I think I can now see what others saw in my messy room, and the cause of their disappointment. But it also bothers me that mess bothers me, and in trying to understand why I realized why it didn’t before.

A mess on my bed was something I was cognizant of. I didn’t find it nagging when people exclaimed What a mess! – I already knew the mess existed. Their comment didn’t spur me into action, I knew no reptiles would emerge from the pile, there was no safety hazard like they suggested (on a different note my notes and work desk have always been organized). But more than awareness, I believed the clutter in the room was under my control, no matter how much it looked like it wasn’t.

(I’m sure somebody is comparing that with how addicts say they can stop smoking whenever they want to.)

What bothered me at one point was how concerned and annoyed the adults and more so my brothers were. It wasn’t mere disappointment – it was often anger that I didn’t take care of my room. You would think I was on my way to self destruction or worse, family destruction, from their manners (the latter makes me laugh but wait.. maybe therein lies the answer).

They probably saw lack of discipline, a disorganized mind that manifested as the mess in my room, when it was just laziness and not being able to see the point when there was clearly an extra bed in the room. Why was what went on in that bed anyone’s business but mine?
I hear my father saying It’s my house, I accept I was in the wrong.

Then, around the age of 23, my mother stopped complaining about the mess. I need to ask her why, maybe she accepted it’s wired in me*. Or maybe she somehow figured I’d change at 26.

The change probably started after I watched the video (where lines at the beginning are quoted from) on the other side of my 20s, kickstarting a Do It mode in me. Nobody’s going to forgive you for a messy room after 25. You may have a roommate or a friend or a spouse who isn’t okay with mess, because they see mess and they see an undisciplined you yada-yada. So you keep it tidy for them, and keeping it tidy for them puts you at ease.

And it did do me good – I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve glanced over to the made-up bed in the room when a meeting wasn’t going well or when I just wanted the workday to end, knowing the bed I made is waiting for me. And it indeed made a difference to know that I made it.

The world has impressed on me that a responsible, perhaps even trustworthy adult probably keeps things tidy.

But I still don’t think a messy kid has a problem, I don’t buy that a messy room is indicative of other issues. The messy kid didn’t care about public (or family) perception. It would be wrong to say that being organized is our natural state – it’s conscious effort that might later turn reflexive.
I care about perception now because it can affect the way people make decisions about you, decisions that may not always be apparent yet are important, the younger me is frowning at that and the older me is partly helpless.
I’ll have to find how much of this keeping-room-tidy is conformist and how much out of choice. I’ll update if I figure it out.

* which is what I’d like to write about next

#16 Postcard – The not-so-retired life of Madam S

A Nevilsville curveball was something the old woman could live with, but it would only be a matter of time before the past caught up with her.

It’s a summer afternoon in Texas. A dull wind blows through empty streets as AC generators whir mad at work. Sun-lit balconies stay deserted while TV sets play Sunday cable within, only lazy church bells ring attendance by the hour.

Madam S is busy trotting about her backyard with a shovel, she had to fixate the patch between the oaks every week or the damned pug would dig his way into the ground. (Soil got loose this time of the year). Otis watched from the patio, drooling.

The hammock Maddy and Madam S put up last evening swung in the breeze. It’s still sweltering, they had to wait till at least 8 when sun went down to enjoy it. If Maddy visited today she had to remember to give him Bob’s contact. A Nevilsville curveball was something the old woman could live with, but it would only be a matter of time before the past caught up with her. And good people are hard to come by.

It was a foggy winter evening when Madam S landed in Texas. The trees in her backyard garden had turned skeletons after shedding. Hell, skeletons lined the way from airport to her new cottage – an ironical welcome to her retirement life.

At her age Madam S didn’t have appetite for the foolery that people indulged in the name of socializing, definitely not of the Welcome to Nevilsville Night sort the neighborhood folks threw her. So much for a reclusive retirement, wasn’t this town supposed to be boring? The two of them would resort to silence in the company of others, and Maddy instantly became her favorite.

Later in the evening when air cooled down, Madam S and Maddy sipped tea in porcelain cups from her cupboard, the soaked marble cake leaving a brown trail after each dip.

“Do you want some to take home? I baked one fresh last night.”

“You should let me hang that in the patio, chandeliers weren’t meant to lie around dirty garage floors…”

“Eat cake kid, I’m old enough to know what they were meant for.”
“I’m hoping to get rid of it, soon.” She added as an afterthought.

It would seem that life was filled with irony. After his father’s death last year, Maddy had been spending more time in her backyard. His mom didn’t want him around, the fourteen year old had too much energy for her to handle. But the kid was a sweetheart.

The chandelier lay there alongside Madam S’ garden sickle, drills and her tool set. That reminded her –

Madam S jotted BOB on a piece of paper followed by ten digits, and handed it to Maddy.

“Call this guy if Molly locks you up in the attic again, he lives by the highway. I can’t always hop to your house when you get into trouble.”

“You worry too much. Mom’s glad I’m away, not been herself since father died.”
“On second thought, can I have another bite of that cake?”

Madam S headed to the kitchen table, Otis tailing after her. She did feel for Molly – life is hard. Couldn’t have been easier with an abusive husband in a town with naked trees for company 9 months of the year.
Well that had been taken care of. Partially.

Madam S turned around at the back door to see Maddy leap onto the hammock, hoisted right above where his father lay, between the oaks. She smiled. Bob was a good man.

#15 Postcard – Switching POV (Barfi! movie)

There’s no way to run when your past corners you like that, at Puja dukaan counter with the Prestige pressure cooker.

“Wo jo ruki si raah baaki hai
Wo jo ruki si chaah baaki hai..”

– Phir Le Aya Dil, Barfi! (2012 )

You’d think things would have changed after 6 years. After Jhilmil, things have. Yet so much hasn’t and you do not know until your past shows up right in front of you.

Barfi saw his past through the stained glassdoor of Puja dukaan, now dressed in a starched cotton saree. The saree was unfamiliar but his pulse rose as he identified the figure through the glass. Shruti – he engraved on the new Prestige cooker, hands shaking.

He swallowed the knot in his throat, combed his hair down, pasted an all-too-easy smile and walked out to the main shop to meet her.

When she finally turned to him she smiled surprised, her eyes vulnerable as their last goodbye, while the scarlet of her sindoor stared down at him.

Barfi smiled back.

He smiled at the lie that you stop loving somebody once they leave your life. That one day, 6 years later when they show up, they will not take you right back to where they left you, a moustache-less heartbroken 20 year-old chasing after her bicycle and running along on her busrides.

He smiled, and this time Barfi knew well enough to not fall.

The ends of her saree were wet from the outpour, Shruti mumbled a goodbye as she stepped onto the road where her husband awaited.

Heartbreaks are hard not because of rejection. Heartbreaks are hard because of the shared future that crashes down before your eyes, because of the pretty-faced kids and grandkids you won’t raise together, bus rides with them that you missed and the what-ifs that haunt for long after.
There’s no way to run when your past corners you like that, at Puja dukaan counter with the Prestige pressure cooker.

On the street, the man switched on the engine to go home. He looked smart. He probably read their kids bedtime stories to sleep, sang to the tunes of the radio and listened to her daily complaints. He probably woke her up from sleep by whispering her name, the name he could only do a botched job at engraving. Barfi watched as Shruti walked into the car, colorful bangles tracing her slender arm.

Jhilmil taught him that one can love again. Life reminded him there’s nothing quite like first love.

PS : I wrote this as part of Switching POV exercise for my writing workshop. I didn’t like it enough then because my narrative voice didn’t feel authentic, but it doesn’t seem too bad now πŸ™‚

#14 Postcard – First day in Office

I joined work remotely in early January. Today was my first day at our office campus. It was a warm day, I probably got as much office work done as I usually get done during WFH. The difference I guess is that at home, I usually get other work done as well.

But of course that’s not what today was about.

Our Fort Worth campus is very green, it also drizzled a bit, and in the evening one of my colleagues gave me a ride to his home (because I don’t have a car and he is too kind), where I met his very warm wife. His home reminded me of my home in Trivandrum after a light evening shower – cozy with a TV playing in the background, and that home feeling – of knowing every nook and corner like the back of your hand cos, you know, you’ve spent years of your life here. I suddenly missed returning home after work. Although in Tvm I always got home tired after sunset and never got to see much of evenings. It’s going to be a new routine πŸ™‚

The client orders’ associate who printed my photo ID told me I have good style – I solemnly swear I did not write this post to brag about this one thing.
My manager was really warm as well. When I got home, I made myself a glass of (oat) milk tea. I usually drink milk tea only in the morning, but I was a lot more exhausted than I usually am after work, and needed it. I am looking forward to being in office more often, it’s just nice to be around folks πŸ™‚

Here is an afternoon drizzle around 3.

#12 Postcard – Choices and the Roads not taken

They say everywhere you go becomes a part of you somehow. But don’t you also leave a bit of your self behind, every place you leave?

They say everywhere you go becomes a part of you somehow. But don’t you also leave a bit of your self behind, every place you leave?

I cannot think of any city I have lived in without feeling that lump in my throat, except Trivandrum. And maybe that comes from the knowledge that Trivandrum is home, it’s where I’ll always go back, and there is no leaving, really.

I’ve lived in Delhi, Georgia, Texas. And there are different, younger versions of myself residing in all these places. I only have to go back to see them.

When I visit Rajiv Chowk, I see the 22 year old me on my way back from visiting Valyamma or Achu Annan, waiting for Dwarka line on the other side of the rail. My backpack is filled with the fish fry Valyamma packed for me, or all the Haldiram’s Achu Annan bought me. In December that kid is preparing to become an IAS officer, in March she’s decided she will do International Relations in JNU, and in 2 years I’d be there for my visa interview at the consulate before I leave for Atlanta.

Years later, when I moved from Atlanta, I was sad. I was leaving behind my grad school friends, a place I had grown to love and that I could see becoming my home, a college that gave me my graduate education, a campus I loved to walk around in, gardens and shops I grew to enjoy visiting. I haven’t gone back, but I know I’ll find that 25 year old kid walking the bridge to Target, smiling mindlessly at dogs and the sunset and the dressed-up women posing at the Memorial gate.

There is comfort in familiarity, and I embrace that fully.

To think that we’re where we are because of choice, chance, and the associated what-if’s I grapple with if I ponder long enough (and I’ve had the privilege of choice for a few years). What if the 22 year old me followed another trail of thought to discover something else, what if I’d stayed in Atlanta and not moved?
But we could spend the rest of our lives playing What If, and then some.

Today I was walking back from the Indian grocery store, and I realized I’m growing comfortable here as well, and I’ll miss stuff whenever it is that I leave. I’ll always miss Delhi because it has some of my happiest memories, and that happy innocent kid that I can never go back to. Atlanta, because it gave me so much. Texas, too.

So maybe what we leave behind is our present selves, because we know there’s no way to hold on that comfort even if we want to, except in the form of memories.

But whenever I visit, I know I’ll find those younger versions. They never ask, How are you? Because they aren’t curious, somehow, they’re happy right there.

That Delhi kid still lives somewhere around Karol Bagh. She looks forward to finding out what’s in her evening tiffin, shuffles her way through the loud crowds of CP and reads her yellow Vision IAS notes on the long metro rides home. In Atlanta, Crash Into Me still plays in my room on a dark, rainy evening while Uma hums a tune in the kitchen, putting the chai on.

And maybe we like to think there was something more there, something we missed out on by leaving, that we can’t get back to. That secret, the answer to the what if, only the version that stayed behind knows. Yet when you visit, they only offer you a naughty smile. It’s a secret that will stay there, stay there with that version of you that you left behind. πŸ™‚

#11 Postcard – MidWeek, MidYear, Back to Office

I cannot believe it’s Wednesday night. That was fast. The week went by quick because we’ve had Nvidia training all week at work and I had a deliverable to be completed today. There were also events that happened in my family and my friends circle, so taking time out to write this post is a breather really.

It’s also almost mid-year, incidentally.

My office opened up fully in-person on June 21st, and I’ll be visiting my campus for the first time on Monday. After 6 months of virtual conversation and catch-up over audio meetings, it’s going to be nice to meet my team mates in person. I hear they might not be in office for regular in-person work, I do prefer working from home myself, considering how there’s time for life-stuff after work-stuff.

I also do not fancy the idea of wearing masks in office, though it is comforting to know everyone has to wear it when there’s no room for social distancing. Looking forward to see how it turns out to be!

#9 Postcard – On Writing

Stephen King says, If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it? Wouldn’t you do it until your fingers bleed or until your eyes fall out of your head?

In On Writing, Stephen King talks about how he arranged saxophone lessons for his son when the seven-year old fell in love with the instrument. He soon knew that it was time to stop, and that the sax was not for him. He knew not because his son stopped practicing, but because his son practiced only during the classes set for him.

He says it’s better to move on to an area where deposits of talent may be richer and the fun quotient higher.

This follows an observation about gifted writers, good writers and bad; more importantly he acknowledges the existence of bad writers. It is satisfying to read things you have thought yourself. One can only wonder, however, which category one belongs to πŸ˜€

At this point, I was glad that managers of the world have not read the book, or they would know how to quickly verify it when candidates tell them My profession is my biggest passion. Okay, let’s not bring day jobs here. Moving on.

He says, If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it? Wouldn’t you do it until your fingers bleed or until your eyes fall out of your head?
Why did Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird stop at one book? Her own answer is – “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again”. Arundhati Roy says “Fiction takes time”.

I haven’t read enough to write about writers’ rules. But I guess people do what works for them, in general. Some find rules that worked for others, some set their own. The most interesting always being gems created by breaking the rules.
But like other fields, it’s important for mere mortals (which is most of us) to know rules of the game before we break them.

#4 Postcard – Convent schools, boarding life

There’s a Catholic school a 5-minute walk away from where I live. They have an adjacent church with a cross atop a spire that’s visible from my window, and church bells ring now and again during the day.

There’s a Catholic school a 5-minute walk away from where I live. They have an adjacent church with a cross atop a spire that’s visible from my window, and church bells ring now and again during the day. When the bells ring, I wonder what the kids in the school are up to – Is it time for a prayer? Are they assembling in a special room for lunch?

Of course these questions pop up because of the many rituals we had in school. We had a Mary behind a glass wall at the entrance landing that kids jostled to touch for morning blessing, and a chapel with clean floor tiles that was always deserted. When Principals changed, we wondered if the new Sister would be stricter or distribute nicer gifts on Children’s day. There were speaker announcements to gather somewhere class-wise to deliver yet another announcement, and a bunch of similar school things.
What I was most curious about, however, was the school’s boarding facility.

From what we’d heard, life there was unappealing – you had to pray at least twice a day, wash your own clothes, go to bed early, other general dull stuff. However, to me, the plus that paled all cons was that you could walk the empty grounds in the evening when nobody was around, the red earth glowing in the brilliant evening sun.

That was a sight you only saw if you happened to be at school for summer classes, or in the evenings after board exams while walking to the main gate entrance. Or if you had to arrive in the early hours for a class trip or an ISC meet – in which case you’d likely be running around to locate a student or to grab hold of your event’s teacher-in-charge. And you would steal glances from afar of the ground stretched out in the twilight, like stealing precious memories. πŸ™‚

In tenth during Youth Festival week , a junior in our dance team was staying at the boarding cos her family was not in town. She was a window into the intriguing world with her tidbits : they had to wake up early in the morning, sit at a common table for meals, show up on time for prayer at the sparkling-clean chapel. One evening before practice, she went to her room to leave her bags and brought back with her the evening snack – it was pudina chutney sandwich, humble, believable. But of course, I thought, you could stroll around the ground any time you want to, alone or with a friend, in non-uniform clothes (slightly crinkled, because you washed them yourself), soaking in the peace.

After our last board exam in twelfth, we were slowly walking from New hall to the front gate. It was our last day in school, in uniform. We were exhausted and hadn’t planned anything special, no clicking pictures either. I think Divya said that out loud, the rest of us nodded and hmmed. As we passed by I realized I never got to stay at the boarding, never got the golden grounds to myself after all.

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