Category Archives: Food for Thought

I’m unique, but I want you to be just like me

Snowflake's identity crisis

We all like to think that we are reasonable, fair and mature, but we still poke fun of that vegetarian at the barbecue or sneer down at that hotdog eater who doesn’t believe in tofu dogs. You tell your friend it’s ok to be whatever shape she is, but proudly inform your spouse later that you coped better with pregnancy pounds than she did with the holidays.

The human ego is wired like that. It constantly wants validation that we are doing the right thing, and are on the right side. We hang out with people who make similar choices as us and we’re quick to judge those who don’t. We ensure that our children learn our values because we think that we stand for the right things. But although we think we are reasonable and unbiased, the verdict in case of a moral conflict is almost always in our favor, because that makes us feel good about our choices. Differences make us feel insecure, unsure and even a little scared sometimes.

So what is right? And since we pride yourself on being rational, how do we define it and back it up with solid proof? Some things are easy—like stealing, doing drugs and being abusive. But other things are not so black and white, and there are many shades in between. Take, for example, food choices or cultural idiosyncrasies. Law, religion and culture further complicate the defining process, and what is considered legal/holy/right by some may be deplorable for others. So each group feels strongly about their choices because they are backed up by so and so law/scripture/philosophy, and scorns the others, forgetting that all facts are relative.

Yes, all facts are relative. Every philosophy—religious or otherwise—has an ideal toward which it aspires, and the directives ensure that its followers can attain it. So everything that’s deemed ‘right’ or ‘holy’ is only so if you’re travelling on that ship and wearing that uniform. The law is driven by socio-economic motives and can quickly do an about-turn in its validations; think about the recent upheaval of state laws on legalizing weed—we all know that keeping minors safe wasn’t the primary motivation for that bill. So just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s always right, and vice versa.

How does all this trickle down to an everyday level? Our self-identity is partly influenced by our family, peers, culture, religion or philosophy of thought and our country, more or less in that order. Since we don’t know what the real definition of right is, it is natural to measure everything around us by matching it up against ourselves and our choices. Some differences are insignificant and we manage to take it in our stride, but some go against our fundamental beliefs and we cannot reason with them. So if someone or something does not conform to this fundamental belief, we assume that they are either wrong, misinformed or inferior. For example, think about someone dear to us dating a much older/younger person, swingers or even something seemingly as minor as women consuming alcohol (modern India is still struggling with this hypocrisy).

Can we change? Maybe in some categories, but definitely not in some. A friend once said that our belief system is built on two things—reason and conviction. The things we can reason with can be rethought, reshaped and expanded but there is no changing conviction. A vegetarian will always see a dead animal on others’ plates and yet flatly disagree with a vegan on how an animal was tortured for that milkshake.

Luckily, for everyday life, we don’t need to reevaluate our entire belief system. A good human being is not one who is fair and empathetic toward everyone; she knows when not to comment, and when to let things be without labeling them. Although we don’t need to agree with everyone else’s choices, we can choose to not judge them as weird, immoral or inferior. We don’t need to be alike somebody, but there is no need to be scared of them, dislike them, or pity them. We won’t be able to follow this all the time, but it might still make us some more friends because we’re not closing them out or hurting them. Of course, reevaluating in the meantime will help us be more rational in the long run and recognize when we react out of reason or strong conviction. It will help us pass on the best of ourselves to the next generation.

You can’t measure the entire world with one yardstick. Nature created us all differently so we could grow, gain depth and learn something new every day. Every snowflake is unique, and yet they all fit in harmony to form a beautiful blanket of snow. So can we.

You want to be unique, so why expect the world to be just like you?

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Frown lines or laugh lines?

I need a wrinkle-free breed!

Can I get some botox, please?

So the drive to conquer my fear of aging continues, and I just found the top priority item on my 30-year plan… SMILE! After all, happiness is a gift, and the best investment in ourselves. So go on, replace “I’ll be happy when…” with “I’m happy because…”

Laugh lines pay in more ways than one.

So who do you want to be, Grumpy or Happy?

There’s more to Valentine’s Day than roses and candles

sdp_0766The world has turned pink, restaurants are overbooked and overpriced, and we are just about done finalizing our outfit for the big date. There are some of us who can’t remember the last time we were single, and for us V-day is just a bigger date-night. But there’s more to it than roses and candles.

Sure, we may be going to our same favorite date-night spot and ordering our same favorite wine with the same partner, but every year is different. We have added beautiful moments, had bitter fights, and changed a little individually and as a couple. A little every year can add up significantly over the years, so it’s important to take stock of the most important changes. Here’s a start.

Did I make any new secrets last year? If it’s embarrassing, you might be able to have a laugh about it together at some point, once you’re able to laugh at yourself first. If it’s something that might change your relationship (usually for the worse), then it’s a good time for introspection. How did I get there? How do I get over it? What do I do about it now? Either bury it or confess when the time is right, but make up your mind, rid any guilt and move on. Life, like food, should be guilt-free.

What’s the best and worst thing about us? I’m amazed at how this answer—mostly the worst part— changes every few years. Cherish your best, and plan to build on it this year. And then try to get started on making the worst a little better. Make a plan so you can achieve the desired results. And recognize that if there’s something fundamental about your partner or relationship that you want to change, it’s mostly a lost cause and your plan should be directed at yourself instead, to learn to accept differences.

What did I learn about him/her that I loved/hated? You may be married for 20 years, but you learn something new about your partner all the time. Tell him/her about the things you loved discovering, it makes for good date night talk. As for the things you didn’t love so much, put them in your plan from the last question and either shrug it off or try and work on it.

What are we talking about, right now? After years of being together, couples progress to becoming each other’s best friends and mentors. And what you talk about shows how you’ve grown as a person. We all know that as we change, we can go either way, and we often take our relationship in the same direction. Observe during your date, do you mostly talk about other people? About your kids? About work? Do you talk too much about your plans for the year? Do you give enough genuine compliments? Couples don’t need to constantly impress, and may become complacent. Your partner is also the one who inspires you the most, so aim to be inspiring and move away from the mundane. And this will prepare you for your biggest question:

Are we better than last year and how? However small it may be, a plus is a plus and deserves to be cherished. Don’t kill yourself over how much better you could have been, you have the rest of your life to get there.

After all, Valentine’s day may be a celebrated day for love, but we all know that love can be celebrated every single day of the year.

Fear of Aging: Not a Brave Old World

A strange thing happened after I turned 30. I became painfully aware of the transient nature of life. Sure, I was at ease with the idea of dying one day, but I finally connected the dots that the way to death was mostly through wrinkly, clumsy and dependent old age. Yep, I’m super smart. The fear that one day, I probably wouldn’t be able to pour milk into my own cereal bowl—let alone being able to buy it from the grocery store or digest it—started passively annoying me, much like a fingerprint on eyeglasses. Ignoring it was like telling myself not to think of the color red, so I decided to confront it head-on.

  • Say Cheese: I meekly admit that vanity got to me first. After all, I’m a woman in a world of anti-aging products where wrinkles are the most dreaded disease. Suddenly, all ads in waiting room magazines have started talking to me. Looks like I’m already five years late in joining the ‘always look 25’ revolution, but I have abundant help in that area in exchange for a chunk of my wallet. But slowly, more serious issues have started to feed my Geranto-phobia.
  • Honey I lost my dentures: I balk at the thought of kissing my man with dentures, and carrying a walking stick. To hell with always looking 25, how about always feeling 30? Sooner or later, our bodies betray us and bring the best to our knees. And not all diseases are our fault… sometimes life is unfair. Looking at the number of things that can go wrong with my body, I feel the urgent need to connect myself to all sorts of tubes and machines that will monitor my health constantly and fix any problems instantly.  Very Catch-22, I know, but I suddenly agree with Capt. Yossarian.
  • Older and wiser? I’ve seen a strange metamorphosis happen to people as they age. Some get lonely after retirement, some recede into a shell, some appreciate the free time and use it to travel or grow spiritually and some join gossip circles but gradually, they change. I watch, mute with shock, as previously benevolent people make scathing remarks about someone else’s sad life. I see how women can be loving wives and inspiring mothers but mean mothers-in-law, playing the victim as they skilfully play emotional blackmail. Some get into the religion fad, scrambling to repent for their sins.  Some get into the ‘healthy living’ aka dieting fad. I listen, amused, as senior citizens (mostly women) compete over who’s the most under-weight, and remorselessly call anyone who is not a size-0 fat. There are prayer groups and cooking groups and book clubs, and they are all closed to outsiders. It’s like high school all over again! All the while I choose characteristics of my future personality, picking the best out of what I see and making notes on who I don’t want to end up like. It’s a good 30-year plan for my character.
  • I’m my only friend: Loneliness haunts so many as they age. I shudder when my paranoid thoughts take me to a world where familiar faces are all gone and the youngsters are busy making their own lives. All the while, remaining friends complain of this ailment or the other, and you wonder when your turn is.

Dark, I know, but when has fear been reasonable? Everybody is afraid of growing old for different reasons—beauty, independence, disease, loneliness… the list is endless, but it has a single tormentor. Our society is pro-youth and we are programmed to feel a sense of loss as we add on years. I sometimes wonder that if life didn’t progress through the ailments of old age into death, would people still be so scared of dying? Maybe it’s the journey to death that scares us more than the end itself.

I lived in fear and anxiety the last year. Then on my 31st birthday, I had a revelation—I’d rather prefer this demon than die early or without having lived a full life. And when I got there, I wanted to be happy with who I am, and how I got there. But the result of this soul-searching was positive. There are some things I can’t control but for the rest, I have a plan:

  • I make a note to reconnect with my dreams and start hitting my bucket list. Life is indeed a journey, but it makes a big difference whether your journey has been a mundane drive on life’s highway or has consisted of pit stops from your wishlist. Sometimes we don’t have a choice, but when we look back after 30 years, we want to be sure some dreams were worth giving up. Some dreams do have an expiration date. Barring personal tragedies, people who managed their limited money and time to lead fulfilling lives are so much more positive and happy in their older years. I want to be them. I’m also convinced that people who didn’t live enough when they could, whether out of circumstances or just plain penny-pinching, have a high probability of turning mean or resentful later.
  • I double-check my diet and lifestyle so that even if I end up being four sizes larger in three decades, I’m still healthy and active.
  • I reevaluate and revalidate my value-system, for it can either be a strong grounding force or run you aground.
  • I even try to be a better person—I try harder to keep in touch with old friends, let old hostilities be water under the bridge, and be more empathetic.
  • I try to see today’s actions from a 20-year rewind perspective. Will writing that stinker to a friend who stood me up on my special day bring me satisfaction or regret in twenty years, when I don’t have her as a friend? It’s an exercise that is fuelled partly by fear but mostly by the desire to be surrounded by a circle of my peeps, always. If life gives me lemons, I want my peeps to add sugar and spice to it and bake me a lemon-meringue pie.

30 is a great place to be. It is the perfect place to look back and see how you got here, to look forward and see where you’re going, and fine tune your current path so you get where you want to be. 31 is even better; you get to start working on your plan for the next 30 years.

I’ve found my 30-30 vision. Have you?

Stress, gift wrapped

holiday_stressMost of us find the gifting season stressful, because it’s a battle of managing budget with expectations. But have you ever stopped to think how many gifts you shopped for the rest of the year? In an average year, we are invited to around 12 home dinners, 2-3 baby showers/baby birthdays, 1-2 weddings and 2-3 adult birthdays where we can’t pick up the tab so we carry a gift. And then there are loved ones’ birthdays, anniversaries and various occasions where we pick up the tab as a grand gesture.

Since we tackle these instances one by one, it is not as stressful as Christmas shopping. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful at all.

Apart from Christmas and family occasions, there is an unspoken budget for casual gifting. The budget is normally $10-15 for a dinner invitation, $25-30 for a casual friend’s baby shower/ housewarming/ similar party, $100 or multiples for weddings, nothing for BYOBs and flowers/wine for pot lucks. But there are other nuances to gifting as well.

The biggest challenge is picking something in your budget that is right for the occasion, looks good AND will be liked by the receiver. Whew! And it becomes harder if you don’t know the person that well. Weddings and baby showers are simpler because gift-cards are more acceptable and the gift-list has been picked out, so you can’t be blamed for a useless gift. Drinkers make gifting easier too. Whether or not the gifter drinks, wine and wine accessories are the cutest and most convenient gifts. Otherwise, what do you find under $15 that is gift-able and not too preposterous? The health conscious don’t eat chocolates, fruits are boring and flowers may be inappropriate if you or the host/ess is single and not your type. Gift cards aren’t always the best option and can’t be less than $25 anyway. I tackle this by gifting a kitchen accessory—a Misto or a cool timer is always appreciated. Wind chimes and bird-feeders are nice ideas too.

Then comes the more complicated issue of meeting expectations—you neither want to appear cheap nor preposterous. It is stressful to remember who brought a wine to your holiday party and who gave a crystal stemware set, so you can return the sentiment at their party. Moreover, lavish gifters—the ones who bring along a $100 wine for a dinner party—are stressful too, because you are compelled to reciprocate on a similar scale, whether or not they expect you to. Gift unto others how they gift unto you. Women are normally great at this so either maintain a file or get a girlfriend. And my rule of thumb is that I’d rather be preposterous than cheap to keep my friendships.

Finally, there is the suspense game of whether the gift was liked. Did they return it or exchange it for something else? Did they push it off to someone else? Did they give it to charity? Do they like me a little less?

There’s stress on the other side of gifting too. After the rush of unwrapping, what do you do with all the gifts? Not all gifts are made equal. Many exchange for a better one and although I frown upon re-gifting, many do that and it’s a win-win. Some re-gifters don’t even bother re-wrapping; I received a re-gifted package at my wedding that was probably just peeked into before resealing the gift-wrap. Too bad the original gifter had left a note inside the box. I do reuse cute gifting covers, but only because that helps the environment. Whatever. After all, reduce, reuse and recycle, right?

I think the key to making gifting less stressful lies at the receiving end. You can’t always put up gift registries, but how about maintaining a public wish list that is subtle yet easily found whenever someone is second-guessing their choice of gift? Also, if you are using their gift, show it to your friends the next time they come home. It wouldn’t hurt to send a quick thank you message or email either (although thanking for wine is normally an overkill). It will help your friends relax, feel happy and it’s also good karma. Maybe someday you will receive a thank you note for spending your precious time to pick a gift, wrap it and add a personal note just to make someone happy.

So, did you thank Santa Claus yet?

Ex-Home Sweet Ex-Home: An nrI in Bangalore

Having lived outside India for more than 8 years now, going home is recharging and stressful at the same time. A list-maniac, I’ve tried to break down the experience into the following stages.

  • Nervous excitement: Before I leave Seattle, I fret a lot. Will they say I’ve become fat? Dark? All relatives happily tell you (repeatedly) if you’ve fattened up or darkened, but never seem to notice the opposite. So one month before my India trip, I hit the gym like a podgy bride-to-be and avoid the sun like a vampire. I also abandon my meticulously prepared gift list and hit all the sales in town, grossly overspending and over-packing.
  • First impressions:  Three things grab my attention when I step out of Bangalore Airport—Girls, Gold and God. Indian Fashion is forever in the Spring mode, and the bright clothes on the local women wake me up pleasantly. Gold dazzles everywhere. Everyone wears at least gold earrings and a chain, and the billboards scream of new gold designs, gold loans and gold shops. And Oh my God! Right from my taxi’s dashboard to tens of temple gopuras/churches/mosques to every home’s gate, I see images, idols and chants of a multitude of gods, in all forms and colors. But who am I mocking? As soon as I get down from the airplane, I wear my gold mangalsutra and touch the Indian soil. Really.
  • Bewilderment: It’s only been six months this time, but life in Bangalore still bewilders me for the next few days. It’s expensive! It’s chaotic! It’s crowded! It’s polluted! It’s even more stressful because I’m trying hard to fit in and not be that NRI. I’m a closet NRI, remember? So I quietly cringe when the cashier coughs into my bill, and quietly cringe when people huddle so close in queues that I can smell their deodorant (or the lack of it). I try to look cool when I ride along in a car, closing my eyes and trying hard not to shriek every time a vehicle does something unexpected and risky. I either fall asleep or end up with jaw tension. I hold dad’s hand, ostensibly with love, when we run across the road, avoiding vehicles like an obstacle-course video game. I wistfully wish for my quiet, sleepy town from years ago. Culture shock hits me too. I blink when relatives brag about their expensive shopping sprees, and surreptitiously move my Old Navy slippers under the sofa. I’m aghast at youngsters like me blowing up their paychecks and their fast dating lives. I feel a generation older than my peers and my unconventional love-story seems as daring as a 1950’s movie.
  • Adapting and swalpa adjust madi-ing: That’s week 1. By week two, I’m again a Bangalorean. I reassure myself that I’m not an N.R.I, but an n.r.I. I talk and cuss like a Bangalorean. I fight with autorickshaw drivers and use three languages in the same sentence. I chumma say chumma. I’ve arrived.
  • Soaking it all in: Then comes the richest part of my experience, the part that keeps me going until the next vacation. I absorb my world like a sponge. I happily play with street dogs and hug cows. I visit temples. I pig out at my favorite eateries. Through it all, I observe. This year’s observations:
    • Money is the mantra now. Although there is an overall increase in wealth, I see tailors, cobblers and vegetable vendors working hard all day for appallingly low incomes while my generation does as little as they can do for appallingly high salaries. The gap is growing, and that explains the crime rate in my previously safe city.
    • Despite their fast-paced lives, I appreciate that a majority still have a dormant grounding force—that anchor for our souls. Be it religion, tradition or blindly following ‘culture’, they have a grounding force that will rescue them in times of crisis. I make a note to reinforce my anchor.
    • I see the hassled senior citizens, trying hard to catch up to the traffic, the inflation and the change in public attitude. I hope my generation, charging on with brash confidence, will notice them too and slow down every once in a while.
    • I see the huge gap between the modern and the conservative, even in my own generation. A part of the society has evolved, a part has retrogressed and the rest straddles both precariously.
    • I curse ‘outsiders’ for coming into my city and ruining it—they use my city for wealth and a good life without even trying to adopt our culture and our language! And then I realize why other countries resent Indians. This is immigration on a smaller scale.
    • I appreciate how societies are self-balancing. We have managed to prosper and grow even in this chaos. But it’s not been easy, and I know I took the easy way out.

It’s a lot of observation and introspection, but in the end it recharges my soul.

  • Withdrawal symptoms: Vacations always end. At the airport, I take a lungful of the damp, earthy air and memorize the scenery with coconut trees (conveniently erasing the omnipresent pollution, mismatched buildings and noisy vehicles from my memory) one last time. I manage not to cry at the airport, but when the airplane takes off, I feel an overwhelming sense of loss. I sigh at the thought of returning to my picture perfect world. For even though my world is clean, pretty and orderly, I will still be on the outside, looking in. I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to move back home to Bangalore; I’ve become such a comfort-bug. The answer leans toward No; I’m not tough enough for this life anymore. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to truly be a barbecue-loving, football-fanatic  American; the answer is unequivocally No. I cringe at the thought of having ABCD kids. I wonder whether I’ll find peace 30 years from now. What use is an anchor when it’s 10,000 miles away? I think I already know what my mid-life crisis will be about.

I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now, there’s living to be done and bags to be unpacked.

Patches- A furry tale with a Super Squirrel and mange treatment

Last fall, we put up a birdfeeder in our backyard that turned our suburban Seattle backyard into a mini-zoo. There were chickadees, nuthatches, jays, robins, thrushes, towhees and many other birds. To keep the squirrels from destroying my birdfeeder, I kept a ground feeding tray for them.

Soon I could recognize the lovable pests. There was the mischievous fat squirrel, Rascal, the competitive brothers (I later realized they were mates) Chip and Dale, and some other regulars. By January, our backyard pets associated me with the F-word… FOOD.

Rascal the birdfeeder destroyer

Rascal the birdfeeder destroyer

Chip and Dale fighting

Chip and Dale fighting

 Most of them were happy co-existing with me, but one little guy decided to go where no squirrels dared. One day, as I watched him finish his food from behind the window, he stood up on his hind legs, clasped his hands, looked straight into my eyes and waited expectantly.

Hungry-puppy pose

Hungry-puppy pose

 I thought I was going nuts, because lately I’d been staying home so much. Then it happened the next day, and the next. I put a finger against the window and he bounded right up to it, pawing at the glass and looking back and forth from me to the table where I kept the food. This little guy really was talking to me!

And so started an extraordinary friendship. Every time I went downstairs for breakfast or lunch, he ran up to the window and assumed his hungry-puppy pose. He was tuning himself to my routine! He bounded around excitedly in a flash of gray fur when I spotted him, and soon stayed put at the tray when I went to refill it.

patches mange stage 1

Initial balding along spine and shoulders

Then he started balding along his spine and shoulders. At first, it was just a little bit, but then he lost hair at an alarming rate. It was still March and quite cold, so I feared he would freeze to death. Frantic, I found a squirrel lovers’ forum, The Squirrel Board, to determine whether this was molting or something else. They were stumped, because it looked like Mange, a common fungal skin disorder, but he didn’t have scaly skin, a major symptom of Mange. Mange was a possibility as Seattle is wet almost all year through. They suggested the antibiotic paste Ivermectin 1.87%, but wrong/over dosage can be lethal, so I refrained from treating him yet.

To make things worse, as his fur thinned I realized my squirrel, Patches, was a she. It was early spring and she was probably a nursing mom, and I wasn’t sure how safe Ivermectin would be for her kits.

I eventually found a blog by a squirrel rehabilitator, which made me quite certain her skin condition was Dermatophytosis, and the best way to treat her was to give her a good diet and virgin coconut oil. So I gave her Kaytee Forti-diet for hamsters and gerbils, half a walnut with quarter teaspoon of coconut oil and some powder from cuttlefish bone (normally found in the pet bird section). It’s the closest I could find to the recommended KayTee Forti-Diet for Rats and Mice.

Patches eating2 JPEG

Patches and I are BFFS

By March end, Patches and I had become inseparable. She scampered up to me as I sat out, held my hand with her little paws, put her little snout in my palms and nibbled away. She liked to show off, too. When other squirrels competed for food, she’d call for me. When I went out and other squirrels backed off a few feet, she’d scamper up to me boldly and hang out, showing her fellow squirrels how close we were. She knew I always gave her second servings and after that, the walnut as a dessert, so she pleaded (read demanded) only twice. Sometimes she’d ask for some other food. No I’m not nuts, people, this squirrel talked.

She was a big bully too. Sometimes this 1.5 pound creature sat near my feet and growled, trying to dominate me like she bullied the other squirrels. A loud clap and an admonishment worked and after a few times, we finally established the alpha in the relationship and she recognized my saying “good girl” as a cue to scuttle away.

But her condition got worse. By April, she was completely bald waist up. Her exposed skin turned gray but not scaly, so I finally guessed it was another form of Mange, called Notoedric Mange. Desperate, I started administering the Ivermectin hidden in her walnut, hoping that her kits were old enough to handle it as well. If she didn’t show up for a few days, I agonized that I’d killed her. But Patches is a super squirrel. In three weeks, she stopped balding. In four, she had fine fur on her upper body. By end of May, Patches had turned into a fur ball. She did develop some fresh bald patches on her lower body, but she managed to grow it back, so maybe that bit was molting.

patches mange stage 3 jpeg

4th week. Her bald upper body has fine fur.

Patches mange stage 4 jpeg

Dosage completed. Upper body furry, lower body molting

I was delighted I could do my bit for my furry friend, although I was terrified I may have killed her kits. But I recently saw her hopping along with a little squirrel, I really hope it was her kit.

As our rental lease expiration approaches, with a heavy heart, we’ve decided to wean our backyard pets so they’ll be self-sufficient by fall. So starting June, we now feed them just once a week, unless someone looks obviously hungry.

I haven’t seen Patches in weeks, but last I saw her, she was happy, healthy and bullying other squirrels as usual. Thanks to her, all the animals in our yard see us as friends, and many other squirrels now eat right next to us as we sit out. But no one has talked to us. The Jays, however, have learned how to ask for food, and the little chickadees stay put, grumbling impatiently, when we go out.

Although I miss her sorely, I know it’s for the good. Patches taught me so many things, and she gave me the greatest gift of all—her trust. Coming from a wild animal, it’s exhilarating and fulfilling like nothing else.

She’ll always occupy a special patch in my heart, for I know she’s a one in a million squirrel.

Patches healed

Healthy, happy and hungry

Endnotes:

Want to see Patches in Action? Watch here

I’m just another squirrel lover who somehow managed to treat a wild squirrel. Please check with an expert or a squirrel lover’s forum if you see a sick squirrel and want to help.

Notoedric Mange was my best guess and Ivermectin did work, but I’d like to know what Patches really had. If you know, please tell me!

The Harper Collins short story contest fiasco

About 240 of us finalists are licking our wounds after the unexpected end to the ‘get published’ contest. For those who don’t know about the contest, the short story contest was organized by Indiblogger, the popular Indian blogging directory, in collaboration with Harper Collins. After putting up with constant changes to the submission guidelines, and waiting long beyond announcement dates for results, the contest finally ended in a fiasco for the finalists. Of the promised 50 winners, Harper Collins selected only 10 to be published in the compilation book, and didn’t bother announcing the changes to the participants.

I entered into two contests this year. The first was the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) for my novel, and the Get Published (GP) contest for my short story. The two experiences were like chalk and cheese.

  • The ABNA had clear rules and announcement deadlines that remained unchanged throughout the contest, unlike the GP whose rules changed every time someone at Harper Collins sneezed. GP folks never cared to meet their own announcement deadlines, either. And we’re talking 10,000 ABNA entries v/s 500 odd GP entries.
  • My book went till the top 500 in my category, but I received 2 pages of feedback when it didn’t qualify for the next round of ABNA. The feedback gave me valuable insights on the real category of my book, its strengths and weaknesses. The judges honestly considered every entry. Do I need to mention again the careless way the GP judges changed the final list from 50 to 10 at the last minute, without any announcements?
  • Contract—the most important thing in the publishing industry, and defined meticulously in ABNA. Where was it in the GP contest? What about royalties, and copyright? A lot of us probably did wonder about it, but then we trusted Harper Collins’ reputation and submitted our stories anyway. Although they didn’t bother disclosing their contract, they would come after us with bloodhounds if we violated the contract, wouldn’t they?

I have one word for the way GP was executed—Unprofessional.

I wonder, would this have happened in another country? If results were bungled like this elsewhere, Harper Collins would be buried under hundreds of lawsuits. Not to mention the hit its reputation would take.

The least the GP coordinators could have done was update the participants, stating the reasons for the drastic changes in the results. After the initial outrage, we’d make peace because this is the first such contest they’re hosting, and teething troubles are to be expected. But instead they decided to take the easy, sneaky way out and quietly changed the rules, quietly announced the results and shut off communication.

This was a great opportunity, and Harper Collins had the opportunity to tap into young, modern and eloquent talent. And what did they end up doing? They probably lost 400 odd entries for their next contest, assuming that 80% of us will think twice before we submit our creation to another contest run by them. A lot of us won’t bother wasting our time and energy again at all.

Indiblogger did a great job. The people who coordinated the contest did a great job. But ultimately, they were all powerless since there was no contract holding Harper Collins to their word, and Harper Collins probably called all the shots. At the end of the day, it was a symphony of apes.

My hearty congratulations to the winners, your entries were awesome and deserved to win. And although I wish I’d made it to the top 10 too, I think I’m still in pretty good standing. Why?

  • The way GP was executed doesn’t inspire my confidence in the next steps hereafter and the contract. But now I am not contractually bound, which means I can enter my story into more contests, self-publish it or add it to my own collection of short stories for publishing. My story is still mine, and now I can get published on my own terms.
  • The final announcement surprised everyone by hinting that the winners will have to make changes to their story. Why weren’t participants informed before? I’d specifically asked that question too. They are hazy on what changes will have to be made. Can you imagine having to expand a 4000 word short story into 20,000 words? What if they ask the authors to rework so-called objectionable content and situations? It’s unfair, and I sincerely hope the winners don’t have to go through that.
  • Finally, I’m glad that I got a validation for my short story skills. I wouldn’t have ever tried my hand at it otherwise. Now that I have, there is a whole world of opportunity in front of me. And through the process I also found an awesome community of bloggers, who make up my intellectual family.

So dear Indi-family, pick up your pieces and charge on. You know you’re good, so don’t let one dreadfully organized contest break you.

Finally, don’t forget to delete your entries as soon as you know there is no way the results are changing. And winners, please check your contract before signing anything.

We all live in a jungle

Think all dogs are out to bite you, all cats will scratch you and all other animals in your city are dangerous in some way too?

If the Freakonomics guys ever did a statistical study on this, they would probably find two things.

  1. The people who’re most scared of getting bitten if they approach animals most probably will get bitten. Most people who are that scared of animals are that way either because of childhood conditioning or a childhood memory of an attack. All the animals they share their world with are either caged in at the zoo, or are their friends’ puppies. So they missed out on the essential do’s and don’ts that other kids naturally picked up. They don’t know how to shut up and listen, watch, feel. They translate body language and expressions from a human perspective. They have preconceived notions and fears that warp their perception. But you know what? By staying away from what they don’t know, they’ll probably be safer than those of us who’ve had limited exposure (think domesticated pets, petting zoos). Which brings me to my second point.
  2. More people are hurt by pets than wild animals. Of course, we take more liberties with our pets than with wild animals.

Here are some myths I’ve heard from people with limited experience with animals, and disagree with.

WP_20130519_038Myth: Animals are cute.

Fact: Animals LOOK cute. It’s the fur, it reminds us of teddy bears. Unless they’re pets with no worries of shelter, safety and food, they don’t have time to be cute. They need to find food or starve, they need to fend off peers and hide from multiple predators constantly. It’s stressful. Some stray/wild animals may learn that acting cute will get them food and safety, but most of them are happy co-existing with you in peace. Even if you become friends, you can’t cuddle up to them like your pets.

Myth: Some animals are dumb, some are smart.P1050500

Fact: Understanding our language and responding to us aren’t the essential qualities of intelligence. No animal is dumb. They learn what they need—they are intelligent enough to make their lives, raise a family and survive. If they ease up just once, they may end up as a predator’s dinner. Trust me, your friend’s ‘intelligent’ retriever is relatively much dumber than the ‘dumbest’ earthworm.

Myth: Animals will warn before attacking.

Fact: They do, but not the way you expect them to. Not all animals growl or wave their tails. Females and mothers are difficult to read. Some go very still when they’re threatened. Some become very silent. So listen, watch, feel. Their eyes and body language are screaming, but silently.

I’m not an expert, but I’ve been around animals since I was a kid. I’ve only had a pet dog for a few years, the rest of my experience has been with stray dogs and cats, wild urban animals like birds, cows, ponies and very recently, squirrels and even a mama raccoon. I’m that girl whose parents didn’t monitor for a minute at a zoo, and then found her with her arm inside a leopard cage, stroking its tail. That little girl got lucky that leopard just watched her lazily, but I haven’t been lucky all the time. I’ve got bitten twice by stray dogs and a few more times by pets. But I keep going back, for they bring me peace and make me happy. A few accidents don’t stop you from driving, and a few falls don’t stop you from cycling, do they? Besides, the human world gets boring after a certain point.

Like many people, I’ve learned a language and etiquette that spans across many species—mostly urban, but maybe more. Here are some things I follow without thinking. Remember, my knowledge is limited to my mostly urban experience, so don’t try this with a wild bear!

  1. Think what you want to tell the animal. Feel it. The animal will catch your vibes from your body language. You can talk if you want. Your language doesn’t matter, your tone does. Be gentle, be soothing.
  2. Never approach an animal. You’ll threaten it and it will either flee or attack. Imagine a giant bear found you cute and came to you, whispering calming words. Trouble is, all you see is a 10-foot bear with sharp claws growling at you. It’s the same for that little furry fella out there when you approach him. Make yourself visible at a healthy distance and stay, open your palm and hold it out. Let the animal choose whether he wants to approach you, and let him come closer.
  3. Stay still, and move slowly.
  4. If you’ve encroached on their territory or their children, back away slowly, your eyes on the parents but not making eye contact. Size matters, you can use it to your advantage. But if an animal is not tiny, viciousness matters (think raccoons).
  5. If you’re trying for a friendship, establish Alpha with your furry friend early on. A little fear is always a good thing.

Most importantly, share the world and show some compassion. A bowl of water in the summer and some food in the winter can go a longer way than adopting all stray animals. You don’t have to be an animal lover to help a few hungry animals out. It’s good karma. Plus, a bird feeder or a food bowl will give you hours of entertainment, and you’ll suddenly start noticing birds and critters everywhere.

Yes, they’re all around you, even in this busy city. Chirping, tweeting, scampering. We’re all ultimately living in a jungle.

I know who you copied last summer

So you’re on your 200th blog post of the year. You need to update your blog every other day because that’s the expectations you’ve set with your readers, but you’re running out of ideas. Or maybe while researching for your latest idea, you came across this interesting article. So you ‘borrow’ a few ideas, reword them, add your own spin and use them in your blog post. After all, it’s all about the storytelling and a different point of view, right?

Wrong. Plagiarism is stealing. Writers reveal themselves to the world through their writings, so plagiarism isn’t like parading around in stolen shoes… it’s like pretending to be someone else. It’s an intellectual identity theft.

In my short blogging experience, I have seen bloggers brazenly lift off entire sections from popular blogs like The grammar girl, use key ideas from a reasonably well-known book and steal original word-coinage without giving credit. Why is plagiarism more prevalent in blogging than other forms of publishing like books and white papers?

  • Bloggers have a smaller and more niche base than mainstream authors.  The internet is a huge smoke-screen; they think the original author will never find their blog. Heck, you can’t even find your own blog!
  • Bloggers self-proof and self-publish, which means that they miss out on the due diligence an author goes through with editors, agents and publishing houses before publishing, who guide them on when to cite and when to redo entire sections of their work.
  • Bloggers have a more volatile reader base, which means that they are under pressure to write more often or be forgotten. So bloggers write more, both in volume and frequency. It’s hard to stay original when you’re blogging three times a week, with or without a niche focus.

What constitutes plagiarism? I’m no expert, so please do your due diligence here. Don’t let the legalities scare you—just like stealing that extra cookie, writing something that’s not yours will give you a guilty conscience. Listen to it, it might just save you from a lawsuit and/or embarrassment many years from now, when an ancient, almost-original work can end your writing days. And if you think lawsuits only happen to bestselling authors and mainstream bloggers, think again. What if you become a popular blogger five years from now? What will happen to your credibility?

So how do you stay current, stay trendy and still stay original? I’m still fairly new to the blogging world, but I also write privately apart from blogging and only post the best ones onto my blog. I stay fresh by following the plan I laid out when I started blogging, addressed to the future myself, for the time when I finally do reach my 200th blog. Here’s the plan, hope it helps someone, and please feel free to share your thoughts on it, as experience always beats the best educated guess!

  • Dear me, the best answer is the simplest. Be yourself. Write what you can talk about intelligently. I believe that the main goal of blogging is to add value to my readers, and value can either be educational or something that makes them smile.
  • If you’re a blogger who’s categorized in the ‘personal’ or ‘creative’ sections, yay for you! You have endless possibilities for the next 42 million blog posts you may write. In fact, your biggest enemy isn’t inspiration, it’s boring your readers to death. Trust me, a blog a day keeps the reader away! So go beyond how your cat’s meow is a symphony and think harder. Don’t just write… create.
  • Sometimes, having a niche can also mean you can write yourself into a dead-end. Some niches are more flexible than others—finance, photography, current events have infinite possibilities. Computer skills and language skills are very informative but what will you do 5 years and 400 blog posts from now? If you’re a niche blogger, you need to get creative. Think ahead. Stay current. Be willing to experiment and diversify. Your blog probably has loyal readers. Don’t let them down.
  • Take the pressure off. Choose quality over quantity. How about writing a kickass post twice a week instead of five hastily written ones?  Blog at the speed of (a good) thought, and allow for the time it takes to shape that thought into something worth remembering. (Note: As a newbie, I now get away with blogging twice a month or less, but if and when my reader base grows, I plan to keep a buffer of at least one or two blogs so I can create without the pressures of missing self-appointed deadlines. In fact, I have a buffer right now, too. It buffers for my laziness.)
  • Lastly, forget everything I said and do what you best—write, and write honestly. There’s always a chance that someone somewhere WILL have written about this before, but it’s unlikely that your views will be exactly the same. But if you write in good faith and do your reasonable bit to stay original, chances are, you’ll be lawsuit-free. And the best part? Your readers will appreciate you for it.

I hope to fine tune the plan as I go along and find my blogging personality, but as of now, I continue to double check with Google every time I coin a new word or use a name for my characters, just in case!

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