Category Archives: Personal

It Never Goes Away

The fact that I suffer from Depression is a pretty important aspect of my life, personality, and day-to-day existence. It begins in the morning when I take my pills every day, it continues when I have my weekly therapy session and it interrupts every day activities when I’m catching myself in the gap between thought and reaction, to prevent a collapse down a dark and self-damaging road.

Things are not as bad as they were before I started treatment, every day was a mystery, would it involve crushing anxiety, or overwhelming feelings of loneliness and depression? Perhaps a blinding and impotent rage would down the monotony of gray days in a red blur. My life was unpredictable, but along with it came a deep and endless well of inspiration, my emotions were always so raw and exposed, the hurt always sitting on the skin, that I needed to bandage the wounds all the time, and writing was that salve. I poured myself into my stories, and when I read them now, they’re dark, creepy things swimming with all the negativity and self-loathing I could cull from my being and transform them into words.

I know correlation does not imply causation, but it’s pretty difficult not to look at the pills I take every morning as a block, a chemical neutering of my creative instinct. Blaming the round white pills is easier than admitting that maybe I have nothing to say. Blaming the pills is easier than admitting that maybe what came easily before requires more effort now, and what used to be a gift plucked from trees might now need to be dug out of ugly and gnarled roots in dirty, rocky earth.

But what never goes away, is the unpredictable attack of this anxiety, this loneliness, and they come out of nowhere, even surrounded by friends and family in a room, suddenly you’re the only person there and everyone else might as well be a cardboard cutout. Their voices fade away and the room becomes a dull and dim picture where you see nobody and nobody sees you.

Years pass, countless pills pass through your body, endless words pour out of your mouth in therapy, and one day, late at night, the feelings return and nestle back into seats as if they never left.

It never goes away.

Graduate School

I took some time off from work yesterday to attend a graduate seminar at the City University downtown, to kind of see what was going on, what was offered, and talk a bit to the various schools. There are a dozen or so City University schools spread throughout the boroughs, and each of them had something different to offer, the nuances of which are lost in virtual research. It’s one thing to read about schools and their programs and another to hear about it directly from the admissions people working the various desks.

Having reached ripe middle age, and stagnating a bit in my career, I feel the need to further my education in order to further my career, particularly with two kids who will demand a small fortune in gold doubloons to pursue their own education. Well, perhaps there is a selfish streak in me to, I don’t know, pursue my own ambition a bit, but I think I’ll let myself slide on that count, if it’s all the same to you. The question, however, is to study what exactly, and what the end-goal of any study might be.

Of course, the romantic in me wants to throw caution to the wind and enroll into a creative writing MFA program, and daydream away the worries in a wouldn’t-it-be-nice sequence straight from a black-and-white film about how all you need is a spot of derring-do to risk it all for a swing across the planks  of doubt onto the banister of triumph. Alas, the realist in me frowns, taps his sensible ball-point pen onto a chart of budgets, retirement planning, school costs, and the income of writers and I find the billowing swashbuckling costume melting away to reveal an off-white shirt constricting my turgid form.

So, it comes down to career expectations – Computer Science or something called a Masters in Data Analytics. The former is actually of interest to me, and it would let me add on more academic/science based work to my career, even if as an adjunct or something. I don’t hold out too much hope at this point to actually move into hardcore engineering as I’ve missed out on too much work, but who can say. The other path though, is directly related to what I’ve been doing with my work the last 10 years and would be a very big boost into pushing me forward in my current path.

I wish I knew more serious computer science type people in my life, to be able to talk to them and see what exactly they’re doing at a higher level of education and what they’ve been able to get out of this work, as it’s something of a mystery to me. And I don’t really know if I’m actually the kind of person who’d enjoy research for a very long time in some esoteric corner by myself – I’m more of a project person, I like to attack specific problems directly and solve them.

One path leads me to an expanded world and opens up far more possibilities, and the other keeps me in familiar grounds but elevates my view to let me see further. Assuming I can actually get accepted into any of these programs, in the first place. I haven’t seen the inside of a class room in over 10 years.

I imagine quite a bit of hemming and hawing will commence, presently – I’ll spare you the gory details.

91 Years

On the morning of Friday the 14th of March, my mother’s father, my grandfather, Syed Moinuddin, passed away. He was 91 at the time of his death.

In 1923, he was born into an India that was held by an imperial foreign power. King George V of Britain claimed to rule a land he visited but twice, and that was enough to brand my grandfather a British subject. The Mughal dynasty had faded away long ago, and along with it, the last barrier to foreign rule. The last Muslim ruler – Bahadur Shah Zafar – died in 1857, exiled in Burma, denied the right to be buried in his own homeland.

India was very different in 1923, stretching from the Hindukush in the west, buttressed against Afghanistan and to the east against China, in the north against Russia and Mongolia, it stretched to the south all the way to the very tip, standing on one foot on the rock of Sri Lanka. There was no Pakistan, no Bangladesh, just India. But India was not really Indian anymore.

My great-grandfather, it’s said, was a man of wealth and means, and my grandfather received a princely upbringing and a fine education. There is a legend I heard as a child from my grandmother. Whether it’s about my great-grandfather or not, I don’t remember.

Once upon a time, she said, a rich and powerful land lord with great swaths of land and villages to his name had no children. He lived in a manor surrounded by great orchards, where peacocks would preen and show off their feathers and the family gathered on the high veranda surrounding the house to look out over their vast properties. Traveling between villages in his carriage one day, the land lord came across a beggar walking in the road. For whatever reason, he offered the beggar a ride, and gave him the two pomegranate seeds that he had remaining to eat. Reaching the village, the beggar stepped off the carriage and smiled at the land lord, “May Allah grant you as many sons as the seeds you have given me.” Two sons were born then, to the land lord.

My grandfather had one brother who died in the late 80s, I think. It doesn’t matter if the story is true in fact, it’s true in other, more important ways. It was the story I told my son the night he was born, while my wife slept, and I walked him in the dark of the hospital room, trying to shush his crying. He listened attentively once I  began speaking in Urdu, blinking his new-born eyes at me, and then fell asleep. The next day, my grandfather came, and held him.

I visited those ancestral lands once, twenty years ago, and all I remember is a warm clear blue sky, fields of golden corn, orchards hanging low with mangoes and guava, and a thin blue stream bubbling down to the Ganges somewhere to the west. An old, peeling, one-room brick mosque stood among the trees, with small minarets, graves behind the prayer wall, names fading on the tombstone. Who knows if any of that still exists.

And, I know, these aren’t the true ancestral homelands, that would be the water-starved town of Gardez in Afghanistan, or before that, maybe even the deserts of Arabia. Who knows, really, and how greedy can you be with cultural appropriation? Indian, Afghan, Arab…

70 years after he was born, in the mid 90’s, he visits me in my college dorms and tells me of his hazing in college. “They made me stand up on a chair and recite poetry.”

His love for Urdu poetry and writing was, I think, his great personal joy. He wrote in Urdu, and kept his long handwritten notes in a cupboard in the living room, and sometimes I looked through them but never quite understood the twisting, convoluted truth that writhe in Urdu poetry. Words with double purpose, phrases that turn on each other, devouring meaning but illuminating revelation. It was far above my head.

Sometimes I wonder if my own doubt and shyness about my writing isn’t inherited from him, why I write and put away things instead of showing them to other people. A few years ago, my uncle collected my grandfather’s materials and printed a collection of his poetry in India under the name my grandfather assumed for his poetry. My grandfather was so happy to hold the book in his hands, hear the poems read aloud.

His appreciation for English literature was also a deep and passionate thing, one he passed on to me. He frequently read Charles Dickens and Walter Scott; Great Expectations and Ivanhoe being the books he read me the most often when I was little. I think while he appreciated the Victorian novel, he loved the medieval stories best, stories and poems of knights and battles in far away lands he never saw. My son Samir is quite blond and when they met, my grandfather – his great-grandfather – called him Sir Samir. “You look like a knight,” he said. It’s easy to picture the kid’s shaggy blond hair in a suit of armor atop a horse with lance in hand. They shook hands with great solemnity.

Last year, his eyesight was too far gone to make out words on a page and so I read aloud the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson. I don’t think I did it any justice, but he smiled to hear it anyway.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…

In 1947, after the freedom and during the partition of India, he was living in North India. He was married with one son. The country was violently tearing itself apart as Pakistan split off. They lost everything – the lands, the villages, the mansions, the wealth (if it ever really existed), all reclaimed by the Indian socialist government from those they considered to be British collaborators. The family broke in two in a desperate bid for survival, his younger brother went to Pakistan and he moved south to the city of Hyderabad.  In that city, three year later, my mother was born. Three other children followed and 27 years after my mother, I was born.

My brother and I grew up in the modest house my grandparents had built for their children. It was a lovely place, surrounded by walls with doors into neighbors yards and fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in the back. The bougainvillea bushes covered the front wall with purple flowers alongside tall trees that I can see but can’t remember the names of. There, he taught me to read and write in English, Urdu and Arabic, he helped me memorize long Arabic passages for prayer, passages I still remember, though I seldom if ever put those memories to use anymore. The house is gone now, sold to a land developer who knocked it down, and built condos where where… well. So much happened. The house was called Jamey Gulshand.

When my grandfather died a week ago, it was after a long, bitter, cold, and cruel illness that left him a shadow of the active, energetic, passionate person I knew. The man who laughed frequently, and would lie in bed, singing Urdu ghazals to himself in a deep tone, occasionally he would speak in Farsi and my grandmother would laugh, asking me if I knew what he said, a man who would rather walk than take a bus, no matter the distance or the heat.

That man was long gone, and the one left behind was a pale, pale ghost. I was grateful for the end to his suffering. He never had many possessions but in the end, he had very few belongings left to him. Among them was a small ball of dried mud that he would hold sometimes, mud collected from the Ganges delta, the river that gave life to the verdant valley of his youth. I wonder what he remembered when he held that ball of dirt in his hand.

Well.

He was born an English subject in a rural, occupied India and died a celebrated patriarch with 5 children, 13 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren in his son’s home in America. He was buried the next day in a foreign land but alongside his wife of 65 years. He was a man who prayed 5 times every day even when I hated the thought of him bowing to a god who would allow him to be in so much pain. His faith was absolute, while mine dissolved and ran like water colors into the gutter of disbelief. Even so, he never begrudged me anything, never asked me why. I loved him for that.

Now with both my grandparents gone, it feels like the most decent, honest, humble, good people I’ve ever known are now lost and I’ll never know anyone like them again. It feels like the end of something big. Though my parents are both here, I can’t help feeling like an orphan. A piece of history ended last week.

Quada-hafiz, Abba.

The Re-spawning

At the height of our mutual dislike, in the midst of chasing each other, eager for a fight, over some perceived and forgotten slight, my brother and I found ourselves in a neighborhood far from home. Suddenly we were surrounded by kids we did not know who saw two boys separated from their pack of friends and were hungry for a bit of the old ultra-violence.

I had been running after my brother who was on his bike. As the other boys surrounded me, I saw my brother take off, pedaling with furious speed, a feral grin on his face. It made sense, I didn’t begrudge him. I had been chasing him to administer a thrashing, and the fact that I in turn should be surrounded served as poetic justice. I put on a brave front, preparing to take my lumps, while my heart raced and my hands shook in fear of the Cricket equipment they carried, hoping to make it out without broken bones.

Their leader was a big boy, cruel, and he indulged himself, shoving me around, mocking my name, my bone-thin frame, my brother who had just abandoned me while his friends laughed. I retaliated with weak retorts and a quickly fading voice from a drying throat. Five minutes passed, and I had barely suffered a few bruises when I saw a bike come around the corner of the street.

It was my brother, that same feral grin on his face, as he sped up to me. Following after him were a half dozen of my friends.

What does this have to do with anything?

Well. After a perfectly normal 20 week anatomy scan on Monday, my dear wife announced her pregnancy on Facebook.

This unexpected occupation by an unannounced tenant in her body is a source of both relief and worry. We hadn’t planned for this, nor allowed for its eventuality in our long term plans, but the surprise is not unpleasant. Our first child is a human male, and since that worked out quite well for us, our genes decided to play things safe and produced a sequel.

As evidenced above, I grew up with a younger brother myself, and while we were relatively close until I hit puberty, we reversed polar for the next ten years. Much of it had to do with things that are far too complicated to get into here, but sometime in my mid-twenties, we began to reconcile and the last ten years have been significantly improved, the sometimes-cold, sometimes-hot war had been replaced with a peace treaty and bricks from the wall of separation between us have been used to build bridges instead. Problems, of course, remain, but they seem less intractable.

When I tried to think about my son without me and my wife in the picture, it often left me feeling sad and anxious. The idea of being completely alone in the world is the greatest source of agitation and stress for me. As someone with a small but intensely loyal group of friends that is something of a chosen family, I don’t devalue their contribution to my life. Certainly, they have been the reason I was able to get through the difficult steps necessary to become who I am now.

But I like to imagine that there is some value to be had in family as well. Coming from a culture of intense familial closeness in my psychic infancy, I value relations of blood quite highly. The fact that I remain more or less segregated from the vast breadth of my own blood family for whatever reason (lack of faith, or difference in age, or geographical distance, or cultural incompatibility) is a constant source of consternation and regret. I’m grateful now that my partner and I will parent two children, my son will share blood companionship beyond just his elders. And that he will be part of a family beyond his own, in his later life.

Rather coincidentally, I recently played a game called Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – which is probably the finest example of art, emotion and storytelling I’ve ever experienced in a video game. I’ll write about it on its own once I have some perspective, but it left me feeling incredibly grateful for this happy turn of events.

Briefly, the game follows two brothers in search of a cure for their ailing father, and must work together to overcome obstacles. The older brother is stronger, the younger more agile and able to squeeze through openings too small for his elder sibling. This elegant set-up allows for incredible depth of storytelling and emotion, and it very accurately depicts the relationship between two brothers as I experienced it.

It made my heart yearn for the sort of adventures I had with my brother when I was young. And it made me heartsick and grateful to imagine that my sons might have such adventures as well, together. Stories I’ll never hear, but with fallout I’ll see, whether in bruised limbs and torn clothes, angry words or desperate misdirections from truths that might anger or worry. I know there will be arguments, fights, and I’ll see their lives through a veil, obscuring much, whether by design or accident.

But I hope – hope for them to be friends, like my brother and I turned out to be, after our time in the desert, after years when our hatred for each other was so intense that it seemed like we might be pleased to see each other murdered.

I hold on to the fact that in the worst depths of our loathing for each other, my brother raced to fetch me help, when he saw I was surrounded, despite himself and our differences. He came to my rescue.

My son seems quite excited by the possibility of becoming a big brother, and announces it with glee to everyone he meets. I’m grateful for the changes we’ve made to our house recently – and that we made the move to a house from an apartment at all! – making it more permanent, and further adjustments will be essential, but for now, this pregnancy has put to rest an anxiety that I never even bothered to acknowledged, because it had seemed uncontrollable before.

It’s funny how far this is from how I imagined life ten years ago, and how glad I am to experience this bounty of new and unexpected experiences. I’m excited to see my new son in a few months time, and introduce him to his brother.

A Roof Over Your Head

The value of a roof – the literal structure above your head – is something I constantly feel. I grew up in a world where every day I saw countless people without this one basic necessity and it made me appreciate how much a home meant to a family.

A little over a year ago, my partner and I finally made our move and became homeowners for the first time, leaving behind the apartment life. With it has come the stark realization that everything to do with the home falls on our shoulders – the garbage? No, the porter won’t separate and drag it out for you any longer. The furnace sounds funny? You’d better call a heating company because you certainly don’t have any idea what to do with that block of gurgling, churning, fiery metal. The carbon-monoxodie alarm went off and we called 911? That was a fun evening.

Still, it has been a good year, all things considered. The house was well-kept and we’ve managed to keep it going with barely any work, along with a little bit of help from relatives. My nephew has been particularly helpful, building and installing railings, putting up our many wall-hangings, fixing the plumbing, and so forth. Of course, I have paid forward with the only currency I have to exchange – money.

The thing is, I’d love to take value and pleasure in home improvement work, particularly the relatively simple stuff – fixing everyday things here and there, but I don’t enjoy it at all. Everything feels like a chore. But the thing about owning a house – it comes with a sense of pride, and man that pride can push past a lot of things to make you do things.

When you see a gutter askew, you want to climb up two stories and hang from the rafters, an electric drill in one hand, correcting the angle. Walking up to bed at 1am after a night of code and there are a  couple of left-over dishes in the sink? Well, it’ll just take a minute to clean them up, won’t it? The cat spilled a bit of his food over the kitchen floor while eating? Let’s just sweep it up before we head out.

But the big stuff? I have no idea how to deal with it.

And lately, we’ve had the weight of the house on our heads. Quite literally. When we bought the house, we knew we had to fix the roof – it was accounted for in the price of the house and we were prepared, but expected to have some time before it became necessary. What we didn’t anticipate was the amazing winter we’ve had, with weeks of ice and snow packing in layers on the roof, water freezing between shingles, and the constant worry of snapping beams and collapsing wood crashing through the floors to impale my little son while he slept.

So, when the weather paused for a week in New York, we contracted and sneaked in an entire roof repair in a single day. It was quite a thing to watch, a small army of people scrambling up and down ladders, pieces of roof falling all around the house along curtains that veiled the building like a shy bride. It also made me appreciate the physical work these guys did, since it wasn’t exactly a balmy day – barely above the freezing mark, and a low but constant wind that chilled what the sun tried to warm.

At last, the work finished, the cleanup made it seem like nothing had happened, only the different colored tiles above the house hinted at any change at all.

Well, that and the hole in the living room by the skylight, but let’s ignore that for now.

The warranty says thirty years.

Thirty years.

When I got married, I knew it was a long-term commitment. My son was born and that felt pretty damned permanent. After signing up for life-insurance, the weight of years and the consequence of very long-term planning settled on my shoulders like a heavy cloak. But it wasn’t until I got a 30 year warranty for my roof that I really got a sense of what owning a house means, how it feels in one’s bones.

Because until now, everything felt transient, like it could change, I knew it would be hard, but we could still move if really necessary. We were putting down roots for over a year, but it didn’t feel like it. The house still felt like a large apartment, still as easy to move out of as a co-op, but now?

Now, I can feel the grip of stones under my feet, the moisture feeding the branches, the sun on my shoulders, the security of a sound roof for my family. And my roots are clutching back at the bedrock and digging in. Maybe it took a major construction but goddamn if it doesn’t feel like this is my own little plot of the world. It’s our home.

Time to roll up the sleeves.

Sunday Interrupted

A few minute ago, two handsome young men in well-tailored suits knocked on my door, clutching beautiful leather-bound books in manicured fingers. Under the guise of doing volunteer work they asked if I thought religion had any role to play in our world. I shook my head and began closing the door, “I don’t think so. Thank you.”

“Why not?” The young man asked.

An old instinct kept my hand. Politeness – an instinct that compels one to invite a guest in, offer tea, and ask after their family. I paused. “I grew up very religious and didn’t find any value that it brought to my life. Now, I’m quite busy, thank you.” I reached behind me for the doorknob again.

“What turned you off?”

Rehearsed questions. I could picture them in a room somewhere, role-playing these encounters. Talking past the objections with specific questions inspired to keep the person talking long enough that they can get a pitch in, or even a step into the door. It wouldn’t really matter what I might say in reply to the questions, but some ideas came to mind.

I might have mentioned my absolute hatred for the institution of prayer – that cornerstone of the faithful – and my disgust with the belief of any sort of interventionist divinity. On a more material note, I might have gone into the corruption of religious orders, the manipulation of texts to fit trending political ideologies, the institutional racism, sexism, and the hatred of sexuality; not to mention the role religion has played over and over in global conflict. To put a cap on the shit-mountain, I might have mentioned the offensive act of evangelism itself.

For a second, I even considered inviting this person in to actually fight it out, but nothing depresses me more than atheists and theists talk past each other for hours accomplishing nothing, and I didn’t want to include myself among that doomed population. I’ve managed so far in life to be content with my own lack of belief seeking to inspire no-one else and I think that might be the best way to live.

So, I laughed, shook my head at the arrogance of this man who assumed I might discuss such intimate topics with a stranger and told him that I didn’t need to talk about this right now, bid them both a good night, and finally, shut the door.

And then I winced, because I didn’t offer them a cup of tea. If only they had wanted to discuss relief work in Africa, environmental preservation, increase government oversight of corporations, removing outsider funding of political campaigns, or, hell, game theory, the current console war, the slew of Oscar nominated films, the new M83 album, Game of Thrones theories, True Detective, Batman, anything but my personal belief about God, I wouldn’t have hesitated in inviting them in.

Another Week, Another book

About a year ago, my wife (who’s rather well established as a writer these last two years) wanted to put out an anthology to fund a local New York City charity, and sent out a call for stories. She was kind enough to ask me to contribute something, and I did. The anthology, Urban Harvest, was released last weekend, and here it is.

Urban HarvestIt’s odd to go for such a long dry-spell without exposing any writing, and then to suddenly have two stories in the ether is rather jarring. It feels like a splash of cold water in the face, or being dunked into freezing ice after a hot and sweaty day. Jarring, and exhilarating at once. If you’d be so kind as to pick up a copy, you’ll find in it, a few wonderfully warm (and a couple of particularly chilling) stories and you’ll be benefiting a charity – City Harvest – that feeds the homeless at a difficult time of year.

So much work left to do – with Slipstream City Volume 1 already out and about, we need to being work on Volume 2.  We have a theme, we have an idea, and soon, we’ll put out a call for stories to collect with a rather brief reading period, I imagine. And of course, there is my own writing to get to.

There, that’s about all the promotion I can muster for my own material right now.

The autumn is barely begun, and already the season is full of projects eating away at time. Something about the smell of October that makes me want to paint the grayscale world in bloody shades of red. Best get to writing before the fleeting season escapes with all the muses riding on its patchwork cloak of leaves.

Tick-tock!