Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Learning the Art of Telephone Conversation

Image courtesy of Kamnuan at

(I know telephones are like so archaic now, but it sounds appropriate considering how this all began.)

Years ago, upon being asked how many people there are in my life that I can just call up and talk to, completely out of nowhere, I came up with a pathetically tiny number. Subtracting family from that left me almost empty-handed. Over the past three months, I have somehow managed to double the number of people I can have impromptu phone conversations with.

Back in school, I had this friend who called me up every single evening. After spending eight hours together in school, it was astonishing that she still had things left to say that couldn't wait till the next afternoon we'd meet each other in class. Half my evenings went trying to come up with excuses my mother could give her for me not taking the call. But every "She's eating now," "She's out," "She's asleep" invariably met twith "I'll call later!" And she did. And we talked. Apparently I was a good listener, though all I ever took away from our conversations was my unfailing ability to "Hmm!" and "Ohh!" at just the right moments. It took me a whole year to shake her off my trail.

But that was then. Now that I have doubled my phone conversation capacity in under three months, I naturally consider myself something of an expert on the topic. So if there's anyone out there who sucks at it as I used to, and there must be someone at least, here are five steps that would get you from where you are to where I am. An achievable goal; it doesn't help to aim too high.

1. Pick the busiest time to call. The best time to call them is when neither of you are free. That assures you'll never run out of things to say. Make sure, for instance, that you'd have at least three answers to the possible first question, "What's up?" "Nothing much" puts a stop to the conversation. "I'm very busy, but I'm calling you anyway," that's the message you want to send. It's best to sound all hyper-excited.

2. Make sure you have a problem or two. There are few greater pleasures in life than giving advice to helpless souls. Capitalize on that. Ask for help, suggestions, only a moment of their time. Stand in front of a mirror, hell - go so far as to record yourself, and practice sounding sincerely worried. Balancing the excitement and worry in your tone, that's an art in itself.

3. Concoct a secret. Then, share it. Once you've given them the satisfaction of being one of your accomplices, I'm telling you, they'll just keep coming back for more. The key to making this work is to not share the entire secret in one go. Give up titbits of juicy information in every conversation and make it even better by strewing clues along the way. Reading mysteries may help.

4. Keep a pastime at hand. Be it a book, the television or a game. You don't want to seem bored nor let the excitement in your voice fade. A good listener is genuinely interested. That, of course, is an impractical goal. Aim low. Recognizing and feeding your need for a distraction every once in a while will take you a long way towards successfully putting on the guise of a good listener.

5. Remember: no good conversation ends at the first "Goodbye!" Stock up on little nothings to add after the first indication of an end to the conversation. It always helps to begin these with, "Hey, by the way, did you know about / I almost forgot to tell you... never-mind." (Also, never-mind is basically your golden word.)

Once you've mastered these, you can go right ahead and share your phone number with any- and everyone you meet. Don't hesitate to make the first call. Change your "Seeya" into a "Talk to you later." Who doesn't want to be liked, aren't we all just desperate for validation? Well, I have it from trusted sources that calling each other up is a sure-shot way to utter likeability. Worth a try, huh?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Fixing Me # 1 - One crazy incident at a time

(Originally posted on my old blog on November 4, 2014. I didn't want to recycle posts, but I want to continue writing about my attempts at fixing me. So, reposting the first of the previous posts, duly edited to have a rather more elaborate ending.)

This was the reason I decided to shift away from home: I needed to mend the broken pieces. Basically, I really needed to get a life. It's not working out all that well, but it's going better than I'd expected. Dealing with my social ineptitude is going to be one crazy incident after another. I'll start at the beginning, three months ago.

"My father died when I was twelve years old. In a car accident, which is why I am still mortally afraid of roads." Imagine me walking up in front of a class of twenty on the first day and blurting this out, when what I was supposed to do was make a presentation on My Family, a presentation I had spent at least two days rehearsing, a presentation that was not supposed to start that way nor even mention his accident. Ever since we got the topic, as our very first class assignment, I'd been regretting taking up the course. So I'd decided to speak on the topic of family, in general, and what it means to me, carefully avoiding any awkwardness. Who was I kidding?

I love my family. I hate talking about it. The inevitable "What does your father do?" followed by my sad little admission, the pitiful gazes on me and the following "I'm sorry," and "It's okay;" even ten years after, that's a ritual I dread. So of course, as I got up from my chair (the first presenter in class, that's my luck) all I could think of was: Don't ask me about my father, God, please don't bring him up. And so, forgetting my, "Family is more than just the members in it," beginning, I confessed. 

And then I burst into tears. As I tried to wipe them away, one non-sobbing part of my mind registered the fact that it was the first time I had volunteered this piece of information to anybody, let alone a whole twenty people. For a long six years, when someone asked me what my father did, I used to reply, "He's a doctor," because it sounded so much better than the truth, because he had always been this fire and light in my life that was so much more than "no more." Before his accident, I could proudly brag, "A doctor, a writer, a travel agent, a lepidopterist, that's a butterfly-study-er for you lay people." Now all he was and could be was not here. And I wasn't a teenager any longer, I couldn't get away with a little white lie. Now if they asked me, I'd have to tell.

They looked shocked and very uncomfortable, my class. And I don't blame them; there I was, a twenty-one year old crying like a baby. It was weird and unstoppable. I tried saying "I'm sorry, I have never talked about this. Family is a difficult subject for me. So instead of talking about the members of my family, I'll tell you what family means to me..." Only, I didn't. I just kept on wailing, till the professor asked me to excuse myself and just, go. He called out the next name, seemingly disconcerted by my endless sobbing. Back at my seat I felt this sinking realization that it had happened, all over again. Except, I couldn't run away home, to my room, this time. If I had to continue on in the class, in the new life, with none of my self doubts, I'd have to fix the situation. Fix me.

So I did something I'd never done before. Took charge. As soon as the person after me was done speaking, I turned to my professor and surprised myself by volunteering to finish my speech. I still remember the fleeting crack in his famously tough exterior; he asked me if I was sure, and a big part of me wasn't, I admit, but that tiny look of disbelief on his face emboldened me. I faced the class, let my bloated face break into a reluctant smile, stared at the people, pointedly ignored the camera and rushed into my rehearsed speech, "So, like I said, family is a difficult subject for me..." I don't know how it went. I've since often been told I was good, and I almost believe it's not all sympathy-talk.

It embarrasses me that the whole class has a video of me crying, but it's incredibly reassuring that they also have the next one, the fixed one. I mean, it does still bother me that I was moronic enough to cry in class. But the silver lining here is, the next time, I won't cry. It's been ten years, it'll be ten full years on November 9th. It's time I accepted that there is much more to my family than the one admittedly huge tragedy that hit us. The next time someone asks me (after this I doubt anyone will, though) to talk about my family, I will. They're definitely worth it.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Resolution #1

(This is a long, long, long post. I could snip it shorter and conciser, but who cares.)

I have never been much of a New Year's person. My sister was always the one to go out and party with her friends, while I cuddled up at home and partied alone. Or with a book, as had lately been the case. This new year's eve will be no different. I am always more interested in the first of January than the last day of the year. Whatever could have been done in 2014 by me must already have been done, so the last night is a non-night. When a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, don't you wonder what shed debris remains of the larva? For me, New Year's is somewhat like that -- a butterfly of a new reality is taking shape, and me and the rest of my world, on the last of December, are the leftovers, the caterpillars holding on to our final puffs of breath as we are about to morph into something that is us but not quite. New Year's Eve is not being here at all. It's a waiting room, and we all know waiting rooms don't really exist outside our minds. So that's what I do, I wait by myself, a listless cow chewing and chewing on a yearful of memories as we usher in another life chapter.

^ I wrote this on the last morning of December. But I never got around to posting it, because it is so rough and raw and leads on to nothing in particular. I never completed it, because this new year's midnight whizzed past me wonderfully, with no lonely-memory-chewing at all. But it did lead on to one thing. My five secret resolutions that I posted vaguely about. Chewing on my memories the next morning, I stumbled across those that I'd rather suppress, bringing me to my first completed resolution of the new year: 

3. Fix one mistake you've made in the past even if it means making a difficult decision, apologizing to someone, overcoming a fear or losing something or someone you'd rather not part with.

The vague-specific resolutions were vague for specific reasons. I don't think it's wise to share just what the mistake was, nor more importantly, should the mistake matter any more. (It almost doesn't, it's kind of silly in retrospect, which is what I was going for.) But I do want to share some small and big lessons learnt along the way and surprised musings on what fixing a mistake from a long-dead past entailed.

(I may write "you", but what I mean is me. The assumption that one experience gives me the right to preach life lessons to you is a fool's axiom. Oh wait...)

Making a difficult decision - 

Last year, a professor told me that it seems like some aspect of my past weighs down on me, and I nodded a yes (when I should have replied, duh, that happens to everyone.) He told me a simple solution that I decided would be words to live by; it's the past, just forget it. But it wasn't even close to being profound, I realize now. Forgetting past mistakes is only natural. That's how you function, you get up every new morning and manage not to dissect all of yesterday till sundown, and then you wake up to another fine morning, full of possible regrets that you clamp down on, and so it goes on.

It is so much harder to remember the past. To remind yourself of it when you'd rather not. This week I decided to resurrect a monster of the past, face it and kill it. I am tempted here to draw a killing-cockroaches analogy. You know, just because they are hiding in their holes doesn't mean they are not there; spray a pesticide and they will all come out and make you run around a bit and scream and hit and smack at them, before they finally succumb. So even if your cockroach of a past gives you the heebie-jeebies now, wouldn't you rather be rid of it than let it lie hidden, just waiting to pop out unexpectedly in your behaviour and make professors give you unsolicited advice? Yea, I never know when to stop metaphorizing.

Apologizing to someone - 

There are online guides on how to write apologies. For this resolution, I didn't refer to any guides. But later, last night, I made the mistake of reading one I'd rather not link to, because it turns out, I broke every rule on it: like, don't say how your actions affected you, don't give justifications, don't... my point is, I had only one strict rule: be sincere. Sounds simple enough, but give it a go and you will see, it is really not.

Overcoming a fear - 

I started a personal blog intending to get rid of that routine where you meet someone for the first time and they keep learning new things about you and you wait with bated breath till along comes the revelation that brings your friendship a fatal ending. (Am I too critical of relationships? It is experience that has made me so.)

What is your greatest fear? Not the spiders-kind, spiders you can squish (oh my god, I hope you don't). What you can't get rid of is aspects of yourself. I cannot be wholly wrong in assuming that you, like me, live with a more or less constant fear of being ridiculed, of presenting yourself to the world as you are with brutal honesty and most importantly, the fear that goes with a reluctance to welcome scrutiny.

Spoken words are lost in the air. A letter is forever. Writing to someone, writing a blog, an email is essentially opening up to criticism, so that whether or not it reaches your ear, it's out there, happening. Where you have a reader, you have a critic. For a blog, it is an unspecified reader, you don't know whose eyes your words may reach and you can take comfort in your ignorance. That's not true of a letter.

One of my German teachers once taught us the etiquette for apologies in class, because you get to study the silliest, most obvious things when learning a foreign language and its foreign culture. Apologies should always be in person, she'd said, and I get how that is the most polite and fair thing to do. But I do believe a written apology takes guts. Because it's a piece of you stored in something concrete, physical, forever. (Ooh, horcrux... Sorry.)

Losing something or someone you'd rather not part with - 

Fixing the past entails one change bigger than all others, changing your idea of you. Getting forgiven, getting rid of a fear, discovering that relief was right around the corner all this while, lifting a weight off your shoulders that you hadn't even realized was there, it's big and beautiful and scary. Scary, because it brings a drastic shift in perspective and the re-realization that memory is just one opinion, yours, it's not fixed in time and can, and should, be looked at with new eyes and new perspectives. 

Remembering the past is reinventing it, I realized the other day, as something I've spent years mulling over suddenly went from being crucial to my self-image to completely inconsequential in a big twenty-two year long picture. The feeling of losing a fixed idea, parting with a conviction - about you, someone else, or an incident - is just something else. And no matter how unnecessarily profound or pretentious my post reads (I am aware it does, thank you,) don't roll your eyes at the possibility of that feeling. It's worth at least the littlest effort. 

On a somewhat unrelated note,

when I was about to leave home to come to Hyderabad, I was incredibly nervous about the whole thing, and felt totally embarrassed to admit the fact to the world, being old enough already. My bestie gave me a piece of wise advice, that I'd soon build my own "support-system" of people, to turn the tough times into routines, perhaps. So far all I've managed to do is shape myself into a support system for me, but that also is an achievement. Oh, I've talked to people about my problems, I still do whine and blabber. But, these past few months have witnessed me continually telling myself that I would be okay. Reassuring myself that it's all fine. That's new.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A late Happy New Year and some vague-specific-Resolutions

I have been thinking... it gets annoying inside my head, now you've been warned, you are free to leave. No? Gee, thanks, you deserve a cute cat, enjoy your stay.

With 2014 I had to say goodbye to this little guy who for the short
while he spent with us, meant everything to me.
Surely I'm not the only one struggling inside to be two things, three types of people, four kinds of better. It is a price you and I must pay for our self-awareness. There are parts of me that tell me not to be me, little demons that chide and poke fun and analyze and criticize. For ten years, if someone had asked me if I liked being myself, I'd have said no. It's a good thing no one actually asks you such questions. It would have been a default answer, it would also not have been entirely true. 

I like being myself. I know there are ways I could be better. But I actually like being the introverted, kind of weird, somewhat scaredy, cat-magnet, book-nerd-sy, happy know-it-all (-who-actually-knows-not-so-much-about-so-many-things) however hard it may be to believe this. I know the voices telling me I can't do without change are demons. I'm not averse to change, but the part of me that's not a demon wants me to change or grow on my terms. If only that part were left alone long enough to put thoughts to action...

I rarely make resolutions, and even when I do, I generally prefer not to declare them to my small world, because then I'm answerable to people. And that's too much for my lazy self to handle. What I like even less than making to-do lists is making non-concrete promises that are oh so difficult to bring to realization. Like saying, "I'll change!" Whatever does that mean? New's Year Day had me in a bad, bad mood. It only got worse when I read Neil Gaiman's blog entry on new year's wishes. Make glorious mistakes? Dream dangerously? Walk into the darkness without fear? That's all awfully trite, if you ask me. And certainly not doable. I'm sorry, but resolutions just do not have the luxury of being so indefinite. 

I want to list definite resolutions for this glorious year ahead that are not vague and essentially realizable. But this blog has been getting dangerously close to entering the whiny overly-personal territory that I've been expressly trying to keep it away from. I want a blog where I'm me under the Disillusionment charm: sort of camouflaged into the background, so that only my opinions remain, and my voice to express them, and all you know about me is what you glean from the two. It's going only OK so far. Anyway, returning to the point, here's my attempt at a list of very achievable goals that do make me answerable to me or any reader left here by the next year-end, but without any details. I know what each thing on the list is and the list would be considerably more concise if I just named it, but this is oddly more comforting. If and when I do complete any of these things, I'll blog about them with juicy details for likely no one but me to read and revel in.
  1. Consciously develop a liking for and an understanding of something you're convinced you don't understand or won't like.
  2. Pick a skill or ability that you would consider principally useless and master it.
  3. Fix one mistake you've made in the past even if it means making a difficult decision, apologizing to someone, overcoming a fear or losing something or someone you'd rather not part with. 
  4. Adopt what you think is a boring habit that by definition will only help you in the long run.
  5. Give something up that's insignificant; prove that you can do without it.
I have all year to make these happen and to expand the list if I do follow through on all of them before the end of 2015. Here's to concrete change. Happy New Year!