“Abnormality” won second place for the 2017 Boit Manuscript Prize for essays.
- The Last Laugh
- Finding the Sweet Spot
- Works Cited/Photograph Sources
“The writer’s job is to tell the truth” – Ernest Hemingway.
It is crucial for a writer to tell the truth – or to at least try her very best to do so. But the truth changes from writer to writer, story to story. Over the course of my writing career, and most recently in a writing class at MIT, I have gradually discovered the truth for my autobiographical writing: voice and purpose. I have learned to simplify my sentences for clarity and effectiveness, to add some wit and humor even in darker moments, and to write casually but with precision and intent. I have learned how important a purpose is behind my stories: In each of the following pieces, I challenged myself to discover the “heat” behind them: guilt, nostalgia, pity, curiosity, frustration, discomfort, fear. These emotions, along with others, have all been driving factors that subconsciously motivate me – and others – to write in the first place. The challenge lies in making the subconscious conscious: acknowledging that motivation and using it to refine the tone of my pieces.
My truth was not focused on concrete descriptive facts: I did not pause to question my memory of a scene or moment; rather, I wrote what I remembered and trusted that the writing would convey my truth through my emotive voice and purpose. To be clear, I always replicated my memory as accurately as possible; focusing on my truth rather than physical facts was never an excuse to fabricate or distort reality as it was in my memory. But memory isn’t perfect – it is influenced by emotion, time, even sleep. So were there precisely three paramedics in my grandfather’s room? I can’t remember for certain (it was 6:00 am, after all), but it certainly felt like the room was crowded. Did I actually listen to those particular artists in that exact chronology? I can’t be sure, and it would make sense that there may have been some overlap – but my musical taste definitely went through phases that were influenced by the modes in which I listened to and discovered music. Did the Russian police officer say exactly that? Were the booths in the bar actually red? Was that really the first time we had bought alcohol in Russia? No, I doubt those were his exact words, but it was something along those lines; my brain remembers them as red, but maybe they weren’t; and that was the earliest instance I remember buying alcohol, so for my intents and purposes, yes, it was the first time, although the others might have bought some earlier without my knowledge. For me as a writer, the hard, concrete facts are not as important as my truth is in conveying the heat of my stories.
The process of writing these pieces had many steps, just as all deliberate writing does. Although familiar with many of those steps, before writing the pieces in this portfolio I’d never used free-writes and pre-drafts with serious intent. As it turns out, I found great value in these methods of mental and literary exploration. They helped me brainstorm a broad range of ideas, and then investigate some of those ideas a little further to determine whether there was something more to write about, something with heat. The process not only helped generate topic options, but also helped eliminate bad or dead-end choices, narrowing down my options. Looking back through many of these free-writes, some of which I have appended to the end of this portfolio, I can see my thought process laid out on the pages filled with my scratchy red handwriting, exploring different questions and pathways with my heat sensor, until I find a topic worthy of a story.
Just as hard as starting the writing process is finishing it. In trying to write a polished story, I learned that my first-grade teacher’s lesson still applies: show, don’t tell. But how do you make your reader understand that you felt afraid without telling her “I felt afraid,” or without using clichés like “my heart stopped” or “my legs turned to jelly”? It is a difficult thing to do, but crucial, and something I strived to accomplish in these pieces. As writers, we sometimes forget to give our readers the credit they deserve: we forget that they can infer, they can relate, they can piece together the puzzle and understand something without it being spelled out for them word for word. And sometimes that can make the job of a writer all the more complex.
An abnormality is something that deviates from what is normal or expected. In that sense of the word I am very abnormal to many different people in many different ways – some good, some bad, and some neither. But these abnormalities are my defining characteristics, they make me human, and perhaps most importantly, they give me heat.
In the summer of 2014, between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I traveled with eleven other classmates and two of my Russian teachers to the small city of Petrozavodsk, in Karelia, Russia, a five-hour bus ride away from St. Petersburg. We lived there for three weeks, each with our own separate host family (usually just a single mother), taking language classes in the mornings, having the afternoons and evenings to ourselves, and sleeping in the twilight of Russia’s white nights. In our free time, we explored the city, and found some rather strange things. We found kiosks in the mall like the ones that sell phone cases
and emoji pillows in America – only these sold knives, pellet guns, crossbows, hookahs, and vape pens, among other random trinkets. We found a restaurant that served bear meat. We found a theme park and rode a Ferris wheel made of steel bars as thin as my middle finger. We found an American-style diner that looked like it was from the 1930s or ‘40s. We found a coffee shop with strange games and objects to play with. We found a billiards club where you could order food and a hookah to your pool table while you played. We found a tiny zoo, and a doll museum, and lots of shops selling wooden trinkets and nesting dolls.
We also found places to buy alcohol. I didn’t drink then and I don’t now, but some of my friends took advantage of the looser drinking culture and the lack of supervision in a way I never thought to. They found small liquor stores that would sell them Russian beer without asking for ID, pubs that would give them shots without a second thought, even grocery stores that wouldn’t mind that they looked younger than eighteen. I was quite uncomfortable the first time they stopped at a store to try their luck: I kept trying to find reasons we should wait a little longer and not buy the alcohol at that particular store, but they just looked at me funny and asked me if I wanted one. Taken aback, I just shook my head and watched from the street as they went down into the small, below-street-level liquor store and walked out a minute later with three “Охота” beers – the woman behind the counter had even opened the bottles for them. I kept glancing around nervously as they sipped their beer on the walk home, and cringed when they tossed their empty bottles into the grass near the bridge.
But by the fourth or fifth time I had grown used to my role in these affairs: waiting outside the grocery store, trying not to stare at the police officer across the street while my friends inside acted a couple years older than their age; standing guard and acting casual with my friend Ben, who also didn’t drink, while the others poured vodka into water bottles behind the dumpsters; Ben and I were bystanders and sentries and babysitters wrapped into one.
One of my friends, Sara, was a lightweight – invariably she would end up at my hip after a couple drinks, unable to walk straight on her own or laugh without falling over. The other two guys, Ryan and Foster, were usually fine – once, Foster puked all over the floor of a movie theater and I had a very strange encounter with a janitor and a security guard in the bathroom afterwards, and another time we got yelled at and kicked out of a food court for playing cards at a table (which is apparently frowned upon in public). But other than that, we were fine.
Then one evening, Ben and I went to kick around a soccer ball on one of the gravel fields that dotted the city: we were trying out for the Varsity soccer team the coming fall, and didn’t want to lose touch with the game. When we got bored we texted the others on our prepaid “Russia phones”: they were at a small bar down by the water, next to the sketchy amusement park. Ben and I jogged home, quickly changed into clean clothes, and went to join them.
The bar was small, just a counter with no stools and a few red, fraying booths. To buy a drink you would pick it out yourself from a small bank of fridges like they have at the grocery store, and take it to the register at the bar counter to pay. Half the place was dominated by a pellet gun shooting range – like an arcade game, but with a real pellet gun. It wasn’t a clean or necessarily nice place, but based on the cans in my friends’ hands and on the table in front of them, they weren’t there to enjoy the ambiance.
We didn’t stay there very long: I tried my hand with the pellet gun, the others bought a couple more beers for the road, and we left. The bar was located on a street corner very close to the waters of Lake Onega, and we started crossing the street, headed for the boardwalk. Sara was back on my hip, and we were all being rather loud and obnoxious, shattering the peace of the evening, not bothering to hide the alcohol in our hands. As we crossed the street I saw out of the corner of my eye a big armored police truck, with a few policemen standing around it, smoking. My stomach sank and my heartrate doubled as I realized they were silently watching us.
“Guys,” I muttered. “Shut up.”
Ben had already seen the truck and was trying to hurry the group along, but the others hadn’t heard me, and the last thing I wanted was to attract even more attention by acting suspicious. “Guys. Shut up.”
Ryan and Foster finally seemed to catch on. They stopped talking and quickened their step.
Sara was still laughing at something, but I dragged her along a little faster. We had put the truck behind us and were almost to the boardwalk when we heard those two words.
“Стой, пожалуйста!” Stop, please!
An ice-cold fist clamped around my heart and my knees came close to buckling as I turned around to face the three police officers in the bright yellow sunlight of the evening.
Although we had mostly only seen them guiding traffic around the constant roadwork being done around the city, we had seen enough to know that policemen in Russia are not the boys in blue. They don’t wear pressed black slacks and a baby blue collared shirt with a shiny gold badge. Russian police officers wear camouflage fatigues, bullet proof vests, and heavy duty black boots. They carry gleaming AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and lead massive German Shepherd police dogs on leashes. They glide over the ground silently despite their size and bulky equipment, and speak with authority and confidence that is acquired only through the continued respect and fear of the people they deal with.
They reached us eventually. “А что там, мальчик?” What’s over there, boy? the lead officer asked, gesturing to the curb a few feet away, where Ryan had tried to hide his beer a few seconds earlier, and from where he now sheepishly retrieved it.
“А сколько вам лет?” the officer asked. How old are you?
“Uhhh, eighteen,” Ryan responded in a heavy American accent.
“Oh, you’re eighteen, huh? And do you have your passport?” Our Russian teacher, Mr. Svec, had warned us that we were always expected to have our papers on us – he had provided us with photocopies of our passports to keep with us, while he kept the real ones safely with him.
Before Ryan could respond, Foster jumped in. “No, no, sorry. We’re not eighteen, we’re all sixteen.”
The officer said something too quickly for us to understand – the Russian we encountered in Russia was not the well-enunciated, slow, loud, and clear Russian we were used to hearing from Mr. Svec. We looked at each other uncertainly for a moment, and then I requested the officer repeat himself a little slower, explaining that we were students in the city, still learning the language.
The officer sighed and shook his head disapprovingly. “Alright, so which of you knows the best Russian?” He asked slowly so we could understand.
I was probably the best Russian student out of the five of us, but before I could identify myself, Foster stepped forward, shooting me a meaningful glance: Let me handle this.
“Alright. So, you are all sixteen. And do you know the age at which drinking is allowed?” The officer directed his question directly to Foster this time, speaking more slowly and loudly than before.
“Eighteen,” Foster admitted meekly.
“Good. Now open your bag,” the officer demanded.
Foster took off his backpack and unzipped the large pouch. On the side was a closed can of beer, and right on top was a paper pouch colored red, green, and yellow. Despite his confidence, even Foster blanched as he realized the implications of this particular color scheme. “Это табак,” he said desperately, pointing to the pouch. It’s tobacco. “I promise, this is tobacco, it’s tobacco.”
Foster opened the pouch, displaying the dried brown strips of tobacco, a perfectly legal possession in Russia. The officers poked at it, muttering to each other. “What do you think, is this what tobacco looks like?” the lead officer quietly asked his comrades, who shrugged and said they didn’t know.
“Хорошо, закройте,” the officer told Foster. Alright, close it. He looked us over silently, sizing us up as a somewhat relieved Foster zipped his backpack up and left it resting against his legs.
As I swallowed, heart pounding in my ears, I thought of my Russian teacher, my friends and family back home, the life I might have led had I not been locked up in a Russian prison at age sixteen – because undoubtedly, I rationalized, that was the future that awaited me.
And then the officer laughed. He laughed, and his comrades chuckled along with him, and the fist of ice around my heart melted. “Look,” he said, “I know you are just having fun. But you cannot drink in public under eighteen. It is against the law. You must throw away these open cans, but you can keep the other ones so long as you drink them at home. Understand?”
We smiled, nodded, and expressed our understanding, emphasizing our dawning comprehension of the rules. The officer just chuckled again, said something to his friends, who laughed, and turned and strolled away.
My legs didn’t fully solidify until quite some time later – around the same time Sara’s legs started working properly again too. As we walked along the boardwalk, I laughed. “I honestly thought we were going to end up in a Russian Gulag.” Foster admitted he was thinking the same thing in the moment. A somewhat ridiculous fear, we realized, if only because the Russian Gulag camps didn’t exist past the ‘50s. But also because, in hindsight, we decided we didn’t think those officers ever intended on doing us any harm. They just wanted to get a kick out of scaring some American teenagers while still doing their job of enforcing the law. They had nothing against us personally, Americans though we were, and even though they looked as though they were combat- ready, there was no need to use all their power against a few stupid teenagers, not when a few words could do the trick – and make us piss our pants at the same time. At the end of the day, we were all just people trying to go about our daily lives, and find a little fun while we were at it.
“So, what kind of music do you listen to?”
It’s a question we’ve all faced at one point or another. It balances precariously on the line between casual small talk and personal conversation, a light-hearted question whose answer can potentially reveal much information about a person’s character. It’s a question that many can answer instantly and with conviction, but which leaves me baffled.
I struggle to answer this question not because I don’t listen to music much – quite the opposite. Music is the background of my life. I listen while I’m doing homework, riding the subway, exercising, showering, doing laundry…there is a soundtrack to everything I do. And if I’m not listening to music through earphones or a speaker, there’s always a song playing in my head, guiding the tapping of my fingers, the bounce in my step, and my absent-minded whistling.
No, that question is not difficult to answer because I don’t have enough music to choose from; rather, I have too much. My Spotify account consists primarily of one massive playlist – simply called “Good Music” – to which I add any and all songs that catch my ear. “Good Music” is currently 1,062 songs long, combining for a total of 72 hours and 22 minutes, and represents hundreds of artists. How do I describe this to someone who wants to know whether I like Classic Rock or Hip-hop or Jazz? How do I reconcile Bob Marley’s reggae with Sound Remedy’s EDM, or Jon Bellion’s alternative hip hop with Pink Floyd’s classic rock? I listen to everything from rap to classical music – I only actively avoid country and death metal. So, when someone asks me what music I like to listen to, I tell them the truth: I listen to anything that sounds good to me.
An obvious answer perhaps, but intriguing nonetheless. There is something that my brain finds (or found at some point) appealing in every one of those 1,062 songs, something that makes me think “that’s a good song” – but what is it? What is it about one arbitrary sequence of sounds that makes it more appealing than another? Believe it or not, the most valuable source I could find on this topic wasn’t a recent scientific study, but a book written in 1956 by Leonard Meyer. When you consider that Meyer is both a conductor and a psychologist, however, it comes as no surprise that his perspective can provide some very useful insight into this issue. In his book Emotion and Meaning in Music, which has been the springboard for many other scientific and musical studies, Meyer hypothesizes that our response to music has to do with expectation and reward. According to Meyer, as we listen to a piece of music, our brain is constantly working to predict what’s coming next, based on what we’ve already heard. Kind of like a meteorologist’s weather model, our brain calls on our personal database of musical memory and patterns to forecast subsequent rhythms and melodies. These predictions can be as specific as expecting specific notes at specific times, or as general as anticipating the termination of a musical fragment that has been repeated several times. As we continue listening, our brain continues to cycle through states of expectation, suspense, and – hopefully – resolution (Meyer 26). The resolution1 is where we receive our brain’s reward – a little rush of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, associated with intensely pleasurable experiences (Blood and Zatorre 1). We reward ourselves this way because, historically, individuals who could correctly predict the immediate future had a significantly higher chance of avoiding danger than those who couldn’t (Huron 3), and so humans evolved a positive response to being able to correctly predict situational outcomes based on contextual clues. Thus, our brain rewards us for making correct predictions, even when it comes to music.
But music that is too predictable is boring. Every time my sister would play Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” in the car I would groan – besides having an obligatory aversion to Taylor Swift as an adolescent male, I truly did find the music boring. In fact, I find that most country and pop songs, especially the ones played on the radio, sound generic, uninteresting, and repetitive. It appears my brain is almost too prepared to predict these songs, with their common 4/4 time signature and their I-V-vi-IV chord progression (if you need a demonstration of the prevalence of this chord progression, look up the video “4 Chords” by Axis of Awesome)2. So, when faced with a song by Katy Perry or Ariana Grande or Jason Derulo, my brain has no trouble making its musical predictions, and gives me no reward when those predictions are fulfilled. It’s kind of like a bodybuilder bench-pressing twenty pounds – no pain, no gain. Without being put past some threshold state of suspense or doubt, there is no identifiable resolution. That’s why these generic pop songs are the go-to for most radio stations: they’re a safe option, the lowest common denominator. They will never actively turn any listener off, musically speaking – at worst, they will be repetitive and boring. I will admit, pop songs can be catchy at times, but overall, they hold no real interest for me, certainly not for more than a couple days.
At the other end of the spectrum is atonal, dissonant, or experimental music. These styles of music reject conventional music theory to the extent that it is nearly impossible for our brain to make accurate predictions, and our expectations are almost always incorrect. And Meyer tells us “if our expectations are continually mistaken or inhibited, then doubt and uncertainty as to the general significance, function, and outcome of the passage will result” (Meyer 26), meaning that we will not enjoy the music. In fact, it will probably make us uncomfortable, more than anything else.
Given these definitions of doubt and resolution concerning our predictions, it follows that for music to sound good, it must fall in some range between predictable and chaotic – it must find the sweet spot. If music is a real-time guessing game for our brain, the game is only fun when the song is not too easy and not too hard to predict. In their 1971 article entitled “Musical Preference and Taste in Childhood and Adolescence,” Hargreaves et al. cited psychologist Daniel Berlyne, who qualified the musical sweet spot in his arousal-potential model, claiming that there is an “inverted-U” relationship between complexity/familiarity and appeal: either too familiar or too complex, and the music isn’t likable (Hargreaves, North, and Tarrant 7).
It seems the 1,062 songs on “Good Music” have found my personal sweet spot, or at least have come close. But they’re still from all types of genres, artists, even time periods, whereas other people might listen only to country or rap or rock. Something about my musical expectations must be different in a significant way from others. Those expectations, I believe, are directly influenced by two main factors: my innate cognitive pattern recognition skills, and my mental musical “database.”
History has given us ample anecdotal evidence to suggest there is a connection between musical talent and intelligence. Some of the greatest scientific minds in history had a passion and skill for music: Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison played the piano, Albert Einstein played violin, and Isaac Newton the flute. More recently, some scientific studies have correlated musical ability with “better verbal and mathematical skills [and] higher scores on tests of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and IQ” (Dewar 1). To me, this makes sense: being able to play music means being able to multitask not only physically, but mentally: keeping track of the several overlaying patterns of rhythm, melody, and harmony at the same time takes a certain level of cognitive ability that should certainly be applicable to more than just music. Of course, not everyone who is good at math will be good at music – there are certainly mathematical geniuses who are tone deaf and couldn’t even keep a beat with a tambourine. So, while all talented musicians might be pretty smart, not all pretty smart people will be talented musicians.
Ok, fine: there seems to be some sort of correlation between (at least mathematical) intelligence and playing music. But what about a connection between our intelligence and listening to music? Could our innate intelligence or cognitive ability influence the kinds of music we like to listen to? Well…obviously, at least in my opinion. Just like some people have an innate inclination for science or writing or economics or anything, it’s possible to have an innate inclination for certain types of music, or just music in general. After all, music is just a collection of auditory patterns, and if your genetic code determines that your brain is good at recognizing patterns, then your musical taste will shift towards the “complex” side of the complex-familiarity spectrum. Indeed, it’s possible that your musical sweet spot has been encoded in your genes.
But if that were the case, then why don’t siblings like the same music, or even twins? There must be more to the story: the “nurture” aspect of musical preference. When I was four years old, I started taking classical piano lessons, which I continued to do through freshman year of high school. Throughout high school I took guitar lessons and played both instruments recreationally, escaping from my academic and social stress to jam with my guitar teacher for forty-five minutes each week. Although I may have denied it at a younger age, I must admit now that my parents were right: playing an instrument has helped me by teaching me diligence, focus, meditation, and the joy of creating something beautiful. But it also had an unanticipated side effect: playing music also gave me greater appreciation for complexity in the musical components of a song. My instrument-playing background has made me appreciate “clever” combinations more than common sequences – this is probably why I find generic pop songs uninteresting. My interpretation of music has been influenced by my background in playing instruments.
In addition to playing music, I’ve also been listening to it my whole life. Everyone I know has a song or a musical artist associated with them – my mother is ABBA, my father Mark Knopfler, my girlfriend Jon Bellion, my sisters Twenty Øne Piløts and Avicii, my uncle the Beatles…the list goes on. I still remember the “Baby Einstein” DVD my parents would play for me as a toddler, the Raffi songs my sister loved and listened to all the time, and my first iPod (a red 2nd generation iPod Nano). At first I primarily listened to artists introduced to me by my family and my best friends. Gradually I progressed to other artists: Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, U2, Coldplay, and Bob Marley were artists that featured prominently on my iPod playlist. With the advent of the iTunes Store, I soon began to branch away from artists my parents had shown me towards individual songs I found myself. Every couple of weeks I would request my dad to buy and download the latest pop song I had gotten hooked on – “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Somebody I Used to Know,” “Midnight City,” “Boom Boom Pow,” “Dynamite,” “Human,” and “Forget You” are just a few that come to mind of the probably hundred or so singles I downloaded over the years.
And then came streaming services. Spotify changed the way I approached music listening, allowing me to find and listen to not only artists I knew of or a few recent songs I’d liked, but hundreds of new songs at a time. I could “Shazam” songs I liked in restaurants or stores and add them to my playlist without thinking twice about it – I could browse my “Suggested” feed and find songs I liked by artists I didn’t know existed. Even my father, who resents the fact that we don’t ever actually own the songs we pay for through Spotify, admits that the service is great for finding new music. It does this through rigorous algorithms that parse billions of playlists, matching my music taste with others’ and using this information to develop a list of suggested songs and artists that I haven’t heard yet. The result: a Discover Weekly mixtape of new songs, specifically engineered to fit my musical taste.
Using Spotify’s algorithms (and suggestions from friends) over the course of a couple years, I have amassed a wealth of music that fits my taste – a wealth that is diverse in genre, artistry, and time period. I recently went back and sifted through that wealth, looking for what might have piqued my interest in each of the 1,062 songs in “Good Music” – what was the common factor that made me like each of them? It turns out artists use many strategies in their songs to try to interest me: I’ve labeled these strategies “mimicry,” “tonality”, and “abnormality.”
Mimicry is exactly what it sounds like: part of a song sounds deceptively like another familiar one, but is different in some significant way – a bait and switch of sorts. For example, the opening riff in “First” by Cold War Kids starts out deceptively like the intro to “Funeral” by Band of Horses, but deviates almost immediately after the first two measures, and ends up sounding nothing like the soulful ballad it initially echoed. Even just a couple chords or the sound of a particular instrument can evoke memories of another song. Mimicry is why I love remixes, covers, and remakes so much – they’re familiar, but altered in musically unexpected ways.
Tonality refers to specific tones in songs: something in the song just sounds different in a very interesting way. Usually this is an instrument: an interesting sounding synth (like Kygo’s distinctive pluck synth), a guitar distortion that is just the perfect amount of grunge (think Arctic Monkeys), or even vocals (Twenty Øne Piløts has a very distinct vocal sound). Tonality can often make up for a “bland” chord progression like the Pop I-V-vi-IV: MGMT’s “Kids,” Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” and U2’s “With or Without You” are perfect examples. Tonality can also combine with other strategies to create added variation in songs: for example, Jon Bellion, currently my favorite artist, is a master at creating strange yet catchy sounds with both instruments and his voice, but his chord progressions and rhythms aren’t exactly “normal” – in fact, they’re quite Abnormal.
Abnormality is just…everything else. Songs whose chord progressions are not generic at all, whose bass lines are active and unusual, whose rhythms and beat patterns are syncopated or layered, whose key signature changes suddenly mid-track. A lot of alternative or progressive music falls into this category: Jon Bellion, Electric Guest, ODESZA, Pink Floyd, AURORA, Miike Snow…in fact, artists like these make up the bulk of the music I listen to. Abnormal songs are the ones whose “first listens” are true experiences: completely unexpected yet still satisfying resolutions, just one pleasant surprise after another.
Music taste, just like physique, is a matter of both nature and nurture. It’s coded in our genes, determined by our neural pathways and cognitive activity. But, as Hargreaves et al. remind us, it is also dynamic and susceptible to change, especially during childhood (Hargreaves, North, and Tarrant 1), and is greatly affected by musical exposure, social pressures, personal experience, and practical availability through technology. My brain’s musical guessing game is unique in its difficulty, its selectiveness, and its variety because of my unique musical intelligence, which is in turn a product of the synapses in my brain and the music of my past. My music taste is the sum of all my past musical experiences built on the foundation of my neural pathways, much in the way that my whole character is the sum of all my past personal experiences built on the foundation of my personality. My music is an extension of my character – it defines me just as much as I define it.
So now, you tell me: what type of music do I listen to?
There is one sound that’s guaranteed to wake me up no matter how tired I am. I’ve slept through alarm clocks, loud movies, even the occasional fire alarm – but footsteps coming down the hall towards my bedroom door will always pull me out of sleep’s woolly embrace. Maybe because the footsteps are usually followed by the soft creak of my door being opened, and then by my mom’s exasperated voice, “Are you serious, you’re not up yet?” And so my subconscious mind has received vigorous Pavlovian training to wake me at the lightest tapping of footsteps.
Which is why at 6:00 am on March 25, 2016, the pounding of three paramedics’ heavy black boots in the hallway woke me as though a bomb had gone off under my pillow. I don’t remember how I got from my bed to the doorway. I don’t even remember opening the door. But somehow I must have, because I do remember squinting through the bright yellow light of the hallway into my grandparents’ room; seeing the neon orange wheeled stretcher at the foot of their bed; seeing my grandfather lying on his back with the sheets pulled off him, fists clenched, face pale and strained but trying to look calm. No one – not the paramedics circling him like crows, not my grandmother perched on the bed next to him, not my parents hovering in the doorway – gave me a second glance as I watched my grandfather’s chest shudder with short, quick breaths as he tersely answered an EMT’s questions in his Gujarati accent. I had never heard him speak so quietly; even his whisper was usually audible from across the room, a consequence of his deafness.
I couldn’t have been standing there for more than fifteen seconds before I turned around and closed my door. I stumbled through the sudden darkness onto my bed. Falling back asleep just to wake up in another hour to go to school seemed like an impossibility, but my exhaustion got the better of me, and my last conscious thought before sleep overcame me was: I want to go back.
The bright autumn afternoon poured through the windows of our Honda Odyssey onto the dusty gray leather upholstery. I sat tightly buckled into my car seat on my way home from pre- school, swinging my legs and knocking my heels against the cushioned seat below me. We were stopped at the intersection near the Panera and the Super Cuts, and I strained against my harness to look at the traffic light through the windshield. Red lights are so silly, I thought. I watched the light in anticipation, anxious to be home.
Finally, the light changed. “Go, Pappa, go! Green means go, Pappa, go, go!”
“Arē,” my grandfather exclaimed, laughing, “green means go!” as he cautiously eased the minivan forward. Sometimes I’d get frustrated with how slowly my grandfather drove, how he stopped at every stop sign, how he looked back and forth several times before continuing through an intersection. He didn’t drive on highways, and always obeyed the speed limit. Even the time he got pulled over with me in the backseat for accidentally running a red light (the glare from the sun had made it impossible for him to see which light was lit), his caution ensured we made it to the other side of the intersection safely – and the cop let us off with just a warning.
After I entered elementary school, my grandfather continued to drive me everywhere: soccer practice, piano lessons, Kumon…he was my chauffeur. Sometimes if we were running late – which was always my fault – he’d say, “You must get ready sooner, Dadda. Better to be five minutes early than five minutes late.” Then he’d tell me how in the Indian Air Force, if you were late to training, they’d make you run an extra five miles while holding your rifle over your head. “Like this,” he’d say, demonstrating with his hands in the air.
Frustrated, I’d tell him that probably wouldn’t happen if I were a little late to soccer practice, but he’d simply repeat, “Punctuality is very important in life.” I’d agree just to humor him, silently thinking to myself that if he just drove a little faster, maybe I wouldn’t have to get ready ten minutes earlier than necessary.
That was before my grandfather got into the car accident that, while leaving him physically unharmed, became the source of the stress that led to his heart attack – or so my mother says. My mother is usually right.
“…hyat ashai, vahishtai, ashem.” We finished the prayer and looked expectantly at my grandfather for his reaction.
“Very good. Once more.”
We began again, my sister and I in unison, navigating our way through the strange syllables, stumbling over each unfamiliar ancient Avestan word. Every now and then I would glance up at my grandfather, wearing his black topi on his head, his brown-rimmed glasses resting on his nose just above his bristly gray moustache. He held no prayer book in his gnarled hands, crisscrossed with veins – he used to trick me into thinking they were snakes when I was younger – and yet he muttered the prayer words under his breath right along with us. Despite his gradually failing memory, my grandfather knew every single one of these prayers by heart, having uttered them every day for decades of his life. If we butchered a word beyond what was acceptable, he would repeat it out loud slowly until our pronunciation was satisfactory, and only then would he allow us to continue.
Whenever we reached a cycle in the larger prayer that called for multiple repetitions of a smaller invocation, I’d watch my grandfather’s hands keeping track of our repetitions, moving his thumb from one knuckle to the next, working down the length of his pinky, then his ring finger, then his middle finger, and so on – I marveled at this new form of digital record-keeping. We finished the prayer, and before my grandfather could tell us to begin again, my grandmother walked in to say that was more than enough, and dinner was ready now anyway.
Those evening lessons with my grandfather were how my sister and I prepared for our Navjote, the ceremony where we wore our sudreh and kushti for the first time, donning the thin cotton undershirt and tying the woolen thread around our waists, thereby marking our initiation into the Zoroastrian faith. When the day of the ceremony finally came, I had no problem remembering my prayers. My grandfather’s lessons had been so disciplined and organized that I remembered all that he taught me, even the prayers I recited less often.
In my modern life of digital devices, instant gratification, and constant action, it is hard to find time to fully appreciate a religion that was founded more than three thousand years ago – and even harder when the closest fire temple, or agiyari, is a four-hour drive away in upstate New York. I don’t go to church on Sundays, or have a bible study group. I have yet to meet someone by random chance who is also Zoroastrian. And yet, those three words at the center of my faith, Humata, Hukhta, and Hvarshta – Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds – have guided every important decision I can remember making. I still wear my sudreh and kushti every day to remind me that choosing right over wrong is my duty not only as a Zoroastrian, but as a person – or so my grandfather has taught me.
“Oh, my god, there it is!”
I ran toward the towering metal structure, marveling at the gleaming curves of dark green metal, the tall straight supports designed to look like massive birch trees, the fronts of the cars emblazoned with snarling bear heads, the curved wooden sign reading “UNTAMED.” I watched as one of the cars turned completely vertical and climbed high up in the air before dropping into a graceful loop. I could already feel the drop in my stomach – this was a roller coaster to reckon with.
I hurried back to where the rest of my family was sitting on a bench with our wagon full of towels, sunscreen, hats, drinks, and other items we would need for a day at Canobie Lake Park. To my dismay, neither my mother nor my father was willing to accompany me on my maiden ride – my mother “had to watch the stuff and be with the girls” and my father “would get sick, you know that.”
I was in the midst of summoning up the courage to go on my own when my grandfather returned from the bathroom.
“Chalo, Dadda, let’s go! What are you waiting for?”
I broke into a smile and let him lead me to the end of the line.
We stood in silence, watching each car through the track. My grandfather timed one of them on his watch: thirty-three seconds from the bottom of the lift hill to the brake run. But I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, looking up at his blank, stern-looking face, a vestige from his Air Force days. “Are you excited?” I asked him, and his face immediately split into a massive smile, the same one that appears when he sings his tone-deaf rendition of “Happy Birthday,” or when he makes a silly joke at the dinner table that leaves my father and me in stitches and earns him annoyed looks from my grandmother and mother.
When we finally sat in our seats and pulled our safety bars down onto our laps, I asked if he was okay. He simply bobbed his head, eyes twinkling. During those thirty-three seconds, he didn’t scream or throw his hands in the air – just held onto the handles and smiled the entire ride. As we got off and walked down the exit ramp, he looked at me.
“Chalo, shall we go again?”
One time, quite a few years after my Navjote, my sisters and I were praying over a divo, or oil candle, for my sister’s birthday, surrounded by my parents and grandparents. After we finished, my grandfather told me that we had in fact said the prayers out of order, and that Diva no Namaskar is meant to be recited before Din no Kalmo. “It doesn’t matter, Pappa, it’s really not that important,” I said sharply.
“I’m just telling you,” he replied quietly, and slowly walked away, not looking me in the eye.
Watching his back as he ambled into the sunroom – my grandfather always ambled, never in a rush to get anywhere unless it was necessary – I thought of how every day after showering, he would stroll around the house, praying for the family in his white sudreh and his black topi, hands clasped behind his back. I remembered how he had spent hours in front of a divo the week of my exams to ensure I “passed with flying colors.” I recalled what my mother had told me: that when he was diagnosed with the brain tumor that caused his deafness, he had calmly flown back to India to pray at the Iranshah Fire Temple for a few days – and that remarkably the tumor hadn’t grown any larger in fifteen years, despite everything the doctors said.
I thought of the life my grandfather had led: growing up in the tiny village of Saronda, 150 kilometers north of Mumbai, surrounded by family and friends, all Zoroastrian; serving in the Indian Air Force as a mechanical engineer; seeing first his son and then a daughter leave home to study on the other side of the world; moving to America to help that daughter raise her first child, a son, whom he would wrap tightly in blankets and call maru chocolate, “my chocolate”; watching that grandson grow up, driving him to and from preschool, teaching him his prayers, taking him on rollercoasters; learning how to keep busy when that grandson and his sisters began to spend less time at home – reading news, watching cricket, drinking tea, managing bank accounts and pensions, monitoring blood sugar levels, injecting insulin before meals, drinking tea, going for walks down the street, talking to old Air Force friends on the phone, drinking more tea…
What a different world he lived in now, surrounded by unfamiliar people and an unfamiliar culture, with strange rules and customs and expectations. I remembered the time my mother told me that my grandfather had been forced to drive on the highway for a few minutes because of a construction detour – I imagined him, anxious but determined, driving in the slow lane as impatient commuters honked by him. From an Air Force engineer to a 5-year-old’s chauffeur, limited to 30- mile-per-hour suburban streets.
But despite all this, he still had his prayers. The prayers that I’d just told him were not important.
After a few minutes, I followed my grandfather to where he was sitting behind his computer in the sunroom. He loved that computer, and could sit there for hours on end if left alone. Every now and then he’d say to me, “Dadda, I have a job for you when you have just a minute,” and I would know right away that he needed help printing a document or saving an email, two tasks which he never seemed to get the hang of no matter how many times I walked him through it and had him write the steps down.
But that afternoon he was simply browsing the Times of India online.
“Pappa, what was the order you said the prayers come in? I forget what you said, let me write it down.”
“Arē, of course Dadda, come, come, sit down,” he said, pulling up a chair. For a few minutes he proceeded to instruct me enthusiastically, describing the order of the prayers, the words that should be used in which situations, and the points at which we were meant to bow to the divo.
I wrote down his instructions in my small blue prayer book, and promised him I would remember next time. And I did. For him, I remembered.
My grandfather can no longer ride rollercoasters (“Persons with heart conditions are prohibited from riding.”) He doesn’t even drive anymore – his heart doesn’t let him. Though he keeps saying once he recovers he will get behind the wheel once more, I think his driving days are over – that part of his independence is gone for good.
But that doesn’t matter. Now I will be his chauffeur. I will drive him to the grocery store, to physical therapy, to CVS, and the bank. I will stop at stop signs, obey the speed limit, and look twice each way at an intersection. I will listen to him say “Go, Dadda, go, green means go, Dadda, go!” when the traffic light turns green. And no matter where we go, we will never, ever, be late.
The following free-writes are taken directly from my class journal on the dates indicated, and are edited only for spelling and minor grammatical errors. They represent free-flowing responses to prompts presented by my professor as well as thoughts stemming purely from my own reflection.
I remember Andover.
I remember English class in a stuffy room while snow blew in drifts outside, and jackets, scarves, and hats made salty puddles on the floor.
I remember the feeling of long, thick grass under my feet and between my toes. I remember laughing so hard my stomach hurt and the sides of my head ached. I remember my friends. All of them.
I remember long conversations instead of doing work. I remember late nights – some my fault, others not.
I remember crying. Leaving is hard.
I remember waking up to paramedics outside my bedroom door. I remember how strong my grandfather used to be.
The things I learned from my dad:
- Hard work doesn’t always pay off.
- TV or music is an essential complement to folding laundry.
- Always give back.
- Sometimes it’s good not to have something, just to know what it feels like.
- Never be more serious than you need to be.
- Laugh at yourself.
- Big dogs poop. A lot.
- Driving stick is “a judgment thing.”
- Math can be fun (just don’t admit it).
- If you can’t cook, find yourself a wife who can.
- Don’t forget to be kind and appreciative to the ones you most likely take for granted.
Weekend Free-write (Undated)
Why do we miss things? At first it seems we miss the things we love. I miss my family, my friends, my girlfriend, my Ultimate team. But I also miss the smell of dead leaves in the autumn, my physics class that kept me up at night, waiting in line at the dining hall – things I definitely did not “love.”
But these things are familiar. I think back to Physics 550 and I don’t necessarily think of the grades I got or the late nights spent studying; I think of my classmates, the room in Gelb, my teacher with his green and silver cylindrical coffee mug. The smell of autumn and of increasingly earlier nights reminds me of pumpkin carving, of soccer season, of returning to school and seeing old friends. We miss, or at least I miss, what is familiar.
Does this mean we fear change? Or are at least uninclined towards it? I think so. Change means we must change too, adapt and re-learn and reform. That takes effort. It takes motivation. And it takes a willingness to move on, to remember but forget, to let go.
Am I willing to let go?
The world is digital, a streaming consciousness of music, pictures, video, and other media.
YouTube videos are added at a faster rate than they can be watched. The number of photos my family collectively takes on vacations has gone from a few hundred at most to easily close to ten thousand. So why the need for this digital record? Do we not want to forget? Is it our natural desire to share and show off to others?
It depends, I would say. My aunt takes pictures of everything. Her food at each meal, the scene of…well, whatever place we are in – objects and people alike. She needs the largest capacity iPhone just to hold enough of her photos. And as an adolescent who admittedly feels this same need, even I start to say, “what’s the point?” She will never go through them all, post them anywhere, show all of them to friends and family – she claims her memory is failing her, so I doubt she even enjoys taking the pictures, but instead just feels obligated.
Are our phones who we are, who we have become? Do they represent us?
If you look at my phone you will learn a lot about me. My taste in music (impossible to describe), my type of humor (stupid), my interest in recreational photography, my hoarding tendencies (old apps and games that have long since dropped in popularity and use). If you delve further into certain apps, you’ll learn I love to stay in touch with friends constantly (tons of texts and legendary-high snap streaks) – I have become a very social extrovert in recent years. You will know my friendships, my falling-out’s, my fears, and my strengths and weaknesses, if you continue on and read those texts.
My phone is a digital record of me.
What does music mean to me? Yes, I’ve played piano for a relatively long while, okay. I hated it for the majority of that time, even though I internally acknowledged the satisfaction, pride, and even joy it gave me at times. But music – listening to it, particularly – has become my lifestyle. There is always a song going on in my head – right now it’s Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles, don’t ask me why, I don’t know. Certain people remind me of songs (my girlfriend is “Overwhelming,” my uncle “Message in a Bottle” and “Yellow Submarine”).
A story can be told in so many ways, and each of those ways has its own meaning. Similarly, the same words (or picture or movie) can tell a different story based on the audience, time, order, etc. And there are also stories that tell nothing with many words.
Once upon a time…
- I went skiing and the trail turned to mud.
- I saw the stars in the ocean and felt very, very small.
- I kept scaring my best friend and laughed so hard I almost peed myself.
- I thought I would end up in a Russian Gulag
- I went swimming with wild animals.
1 A musical resolution is when harmony shifts from discord to concord ⬏
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