An hour, play, and an update

I have an hour. Nothing is planned or needs to be accomplished.

I could…

eat something.

hang the snowflakes I made for Christmas decorations and didn’t get around to doing anything with.

think some things through.


An hour is so little time when you are hungry, tired, wanting to hang your belated Christmas decorations and have a lot on your mind to sort out.

Winnicott studied the development of children in WEIRD societies and then presumed these stages to be universal, rather than the effect on children of specific cultural practices. He thought he was a psychoanalyst, but he would have made a better anthropologist.
Winnicott studied the development of children in WEIRD societies and then presumed these stages to be universal, rather than the effect on children of specific cultural practices. He thought he was a psychoanalyst, but he would have made a better anthropologist.

It reminds me of Winnicott, who was convinced that people developed mental illnesses because they did not play enough. (That’s an oversimplification, but bear with me.)

How can you think about playing when there is so much to do? When you are hungry, tired, and just getting through the day takes everything you have?

I realized that after four days of playing. I don’t play—I haven’t played—because I had so many other pressing priorities. I was so deadly serious. I had to be.

And it gives my life a certain perspective. I am not a boring person, nor am I deadly serious by temperament. My life has been deadly serious.

“Work first. Play later,” I tell my students—who always want to play before working. I worked first. First, the work was staying alive. After that, the work was planning a way out for myself, so that the future would not simply be a continuation of the unbearable present. Finally, the work was addressing the remnants of the trauma so that managing my life could become a bit easier.

The work was done—enough work, anyway. I could play. It wasn’t difficult, although my cult upbringing didn’t help. (Something about always being alert, being ready, never frittering away your time, but keeping your mind on higher things. There’s no room for play in that. I had to deal with the anxiety of that, of wasting time. It wasn’t so bad. It was there, but not unbearable.)

I thought I couldn’t play because of some kind of personal deficit, or because I was too afraid to relax enough to play. And that was part of it. But mainly there was just too much to do. How could I think about playing when I had memory gaps? When I had phobias I couldn’t understand? When I seemed to be several different people?

“Work first.” There was too much work–decades of it. The “later” took a very long time to come. But I think it did come. There is still work. But not so much that I can’t also play.

And play is important. Play is when you can try new things, experiment, open the door to the unexpected and see what walks in. It allows you to discover new information—either about yourself or about the world—and it brings you joy. It is also the only way you can ever create anything worth reading or looking at or listening to. If you can’t play, you can’t create.

I have missed out on that for forty years. No longer.

So maybe you want to know how I played. There’s nothing spectacular to tell you. I did not go bungee jumping. I did not paint any masterpieces. (That would have been work in any case.)

I did not do anything on my “bucket list.” That would have turned my play into work: play is not intended to be on a to-do list.

Photo credit: Nevit
Photo credit: Nevit

I walked the dog. I walked Uncle #2. I made snowflakes out of painted newspapers. I spent the day in pyjamas when I wasn’t sick. I played computer games. I played card games with Nandhini. I disrupted my routine. I left off ironing my clothes. I drank kokum soda (which I liked) and ate mysore masala dosa (which I didn’t like).

Nothing much.

Play is a state of mind. It is not a specific activity or even a specific set of activities, and it is distinct from mere recreation. What characterizes play is not the task itself but an approach to the task: an attitude of openness, of “let’s see what will happen.”

If I take the dog for walks, will I be able to leash-train him? (Yes, I did.) Will I like it? (Yes, I do. So does the dog.)

If I teach Nandhini to play Uno, will she like it? (Yes, she did.) Will it be fun? (It was.)

If I order something new at Vaishali, will I like it better? (Yes and no. But I did learn something.)

You need recreation as well. But recreation need not be play. Recreation can be familiar, predictable, routine. It need not involve the unexpected, an experiment, or anything new. You can keep watching the same TV show, making the same splurges, having a coffee at the same place.

The two are different. I didn’t know that either. I learned that only from playing.


I have lice: meditations

Yes, I think daily about shaving my head. No, I haven't done it yet. I'll keep you posted.
Yes, I think daily about shaving my head. No, I haven’t done it yet. I’ll keep you posted.

I have lice. I’m sharing this with you partly because I regard my faithful readers as also being among my closest, most supportive friends. And lice are indeed a headache.

If you’ll pardon the pun. (Sort of.)

Sympathy is in order here.

There is also something of a point to my sharing this really rather unnecessary detail. Not too long go, I had what I regarded as a paranoid fear about this. As it turns out, I wasn’t mistaken. I wasn’t over-reacting. I wasn’t being paranoid. I indeed had lice.

I hate when I’m right and think I’m wrong. It reeks of missed opportunities and might-have-beens. It’s worse than when I think I’m right and turn out to be wrong. I expect that. Being wrong is inevitable.

My failure to realize I was right had something to do with conflicting bodies of evidence in my own mind.

On the one hand, I knew the extremely low probability of my coming into contact with lice, given that I don’t have small children or even any contact with small children and I don’t spend time rubbing my head indiscriminately against other people just to see what will happen. And it’s difficult to get lice from inanimate objects.

On the other hand, there was my suspiciously itchy head and a vague visual flash of a lice shampoo seen most recently in the drug store where I had waited a long time in an upholstered chair for a prescription, my head tilted back with fatigue. That image, coupled with the thought, “This is where people come to buy lice treatment.”

Did I see someone holding lice shampoo in their hand at the checkout line ahead of me? Is that why the image flashed into my mind? Hard to know where these small details come from, or what they mean sometimes.

I erred on the side of probability. Fair enough. Except that the consequences for not paying attention to that little inner nudge that maybe I had beaten the odds were unpleasantly high. My head has been itching for two months now. I am now in a place with fewer effective treatments for it, and getting rid of them once and for all will take effort and a great deal of patience.

The lice infestation station. Complete with clean laundry.
The lice infestation station. Complete with clean laundry.

Also, it’s damn cold. Combing out lice is a lot easier with wet hair, which tends to make things seem colder. Especially when you’re sitting wet in the “shower” lathering up your hair in between pours of hot water over your body from a bucket. (Yes, there is an actual shower head. No, I don’t use it.)

My life now revolves around combing lice out of my hair before they can breed and multiply. This, I see as a state well worth having avoided.

On the other hand, what would the consequences have been of taking my paranoia more seriously if I hadn’t had lice? An unnecessary trip back to the drug store and a comb through the hair with a lice comb. Yes, I was really busy and didn’t have time for another drug store trip. Yes, I still could have done it. I wish I had.

But what if I had taken this approach? When in doubt, gather more information. (Get the lice comb. See if you actually have lice. Then proceed.)

I have another thought about this, as well. My mistakes have not, so far, been very life-threatening. I have had some near-misses, but to a one, they have not resulted in death. This may be obvious, but given how many times I might have died and didn’t, I think I’m doing pretty well for myself.

And that’s really what counts. I am not always right. In fact, I’m wrong a good lot of the time. But when it comes to life-and-death decisions, I’ve come out on top of things. More than once. So maybe it’s okay to be wrong sometimes.

There’s always something more to learn, isn’t there?

The wisdom of indignation

auntyWhen I’m angry or in a bad mood or just frustrated, I smile more. It cheers me up. I crack jokes. I crib in a way that makes people laugh. I think about something else. I count my blessings. I explain to myself what has happened. I see things from the other person’s point of view. I go for a walk. I buy my favourite chips. I make a fresh pot of tea.

In my emotional backpocket, I have a million and one tricks to cheer myself up. But today I don’t feel like using them. I just want to be angry.

Other people are angry who have fewer things to resent than I do. Why shouldn’t I be?

They're very cute when they'te not peeing on things. And then all of a sudden they start looking like Satan to me.
They’re very cute when they’te not peeing on things. And then all of a sudden they start looking like Satan to me.

Like Angry Aunty, the Neighbor across the Lane is angry about something every day—usually the same thing. The other white dog I mentioned, that’s her obsession. The other white dog relieves herself in front of her house. The other white dog barks. No one is taking care of the other white dog properly. Someone took her in and then dumped her. (Which is true, and which is wrong. However, cribbing about it all on a daily basis doesn’t seem to be helping.)

But I’ve also realized the Neighbor across the Lane sounds angry even when she isn’t. It’s just that she’s angry so much of the time that ranting has become her normal speaking voice.

I want to be angry too, although perhaps not so much. Perhaps not so much that anger becomes a habit. Still, there is a sense of deprivation for me, like the rest of the world has gotten candy or some other nice thing and I didn’t get any.

Anger isn’t so nice really. But my backpocket tricks are work. They take effort. They are difficult. What the rest of the world is getting that I’m not getting is a break from exercising so much self control.

I should probably go back and explain a bit. It was a fine morning. Nothing wrong with it. I slept soundly. Woke up on time. It rained last night, but stopped by morning, so what we were left with was this gloomy, gloomy fall feeling that’s not really natural for this part of the world. All nice.

Then the dog came into my room for a minute. I’m trying to teach it not to do that, but when someone’s talking to me, I’m too distracted to make it mind. And people do that. They come to my room because they want something or other. They’re talking to me about that thing they want—whatever it is–so I’m listening to them and the dog comes rushing in. Actually, both of them, because Priya has been letting the other white dog come inside. I tried to explain to her that wasn’t a good idea, because the dog is not housebroken. She’s been an outside dog her whole life, and she doesn’t understand about not peeing inside. But Priya doesn’t think about the future.

ChintuAnyway, so Priya was talking to me, the dogs rushed in, and her dog immediately went to the window and peed on the drapes. She gave me newspaper to put over it and told me the maid would clean it when she came in a few hours.

So, I was angry. First at the dog, just because. But mostly at her. Because the dog is hers and she has neither taught it any manners nor does she clean up after it. I really should not have to clean up dog urine in my room when I don’t have a dog. Nor should I have to wait a few hours for someone else to clean it.

Indignant might, in fact, be the better word.

There is a wisdom in indignation. Indignation says I know I have rights, I know what they are or at least think I know what they are, and so I also recognize when they have been violated. That wisdom is the reason behind my two tight slaps. And indignation also says, “I can correct that. I can defend my rights against violation.”

Now, some of us get confused about what our rights are. We get it wrong sometimes. The world does not, in fact, owe us convenience, fulfillment, or pleasure. And you probably cannot come to a country over-run by stray dogs, rent a house, and expect to never have to come across dog doo. That’s probably unrealistic. But I may be wrong about that.

Also, indignation is not helpful if you never move forward from it, and by forward I don’t mean “putting it all behind you.” I mean devising a plan.

For example, my indignation was not effective. Although I resented doing it, I cleaned the dog urine up in my room myself. I said nothing when I might have said something. A better plan might have been to tell Priya she could clean up after her own dog for God’s sake, and that I shouldn’t have to wait a few hours for the maid to do it for her. Maybe.

However, this whole indignation business is a bit new to me. I wasn’t sure whether I would like the way I might choose to respond to it. So I did nothing. I just felt it. One thing at a time.

Superstition and Uncertainty

superstitionOne way of reducing anxiety about uncertainty is to make a lot of rules, even if the rules don’t actually work. In that way, you can at least create an illusion of predictability.

“If I do this, bad things will happen. If I do this, good things will happen.” How comforting! How nice! Life continues to unfold in whatever way it unfolds, based partly on chance and probability, but you can pretend that it isn’t.

Life is inherently uncertain, but it is more uncertain under particular conditions: poverty (either temporary or ongoing), severe mood disorders and a range of mental illnesses (including addictions), and in developing countries.

So it never really surprises me that India, for one, has often byzantine systems of bureaucracy. Nor does it surprise me that dysfunctional families tend to be extremely rule-based. What I hadn’t considered in this category of “how to cope with chaos” is superstition.

And India has a million of those too. Sneezing, for example, is bad luck. You shouldn’t rock an empty cradle or the child will get an upset stomach. A hooting owl means that someone has died.

I don’t really know what most of them are. I probably transgress against them about a hundred times a day. But I do know they’re there.

Kind of like this.
Kind of like this.

The light switches crackle in my room every time I turn something on. This scares me. What I have in my head every time I hear that sound are visions of the whole house burning down, with my inevitably sleeping self inside. This could happen. It probably won’t, but it’s much more likely than if I were in the US sleeping in a house with up-to-code wiring.

The crackle is a clear and obvious reminder to me of the faulty wiring that probably exists in every house in India. And that’s only one possible danger.

So, how do you manage the anxiety of living with these kinds of dangers? You can make up rules—either rules that make at least some sense or arbitrary rules. “I won’t leave any of the switches on or plug anything in while I’m sleeping.” Or, “I won’t turn anything on if the dog barks three times.” Both of the might make you feel better so long as you believe them. But then, of course, you also have to live by those rules. And they might be more inconvenient than helpful. (If I don’t use electricity when I’m sleeping, then I can’t plug in the mosquito-repellant machine. And I might get dengue or malaria instead.)

You can attempt to exert more control. So, I can pester the owners of the house to investigate the faulty wiring. And sometime this helps. At least you’re doing something even if it doesn’t actually yield any results. (Which getting the wiring looked at won’t.) But it’s also frustrating–there’s a trade-off.

Denial is an option. (I just won’t think about the faulty switches.)

I can minimize the danger in my own mind. (Yes, it’s faulty, but it’s been like this for a long time. The house hasn’t burned down yet. It probably won’t.)

I can breathe.

I think I’ll just breathe.

Where I’ve been: order, dogs, and family myths

Here, in fact, I’ve been right here.

The room.
The room.

But I have a new room. For now. As usual, things did not go as planned. So, I’ll be returning to old small room any day now. It’s a long story and not a very interesting one, so I’ll spare you the whole thing, but suffice it to say I spent yesterday cleaning in preparation for taking up residence here.

I haven’t been thinking much either, except about the relative merits of Lizol over Rin. (Rin foams so much more satisfyingly, but does it actually clean better? The jury is out on that one.)

Oh, and I’ve been training the dogs. Slightly. It’s just that Bozo, the resident dog, is completely untrained and it’s a hassle. Also, Chintu will grow up to be a much nicer dog if she stops jumping up on people and biting their clothes. And I have this idea that minding begins with sitting. So I give the five minutes of my time a day per dog and they learn how to sit and lie down and stay. That’s not really so much, is it? It doesn’t seem like it to me. If I could teach advanced mathematics in five minutes a day, all of our lives would be much easier. Unfortunately, maths must be harder to teach that sitting and lying down. It’s a shame that. I’m sure my students agree.

The new room. For now.

I feel a little like an ad for Cesar Milan. You don’t need to train dogs so much as you need to train their owners. So it isn’t just Bozo that needs training, it’s Priya and Uncle #2 who need it. The fact that he isn’t trained is a reflection of the whole rest of their chaotic lives. And it’s the chaos as much as anything that makes Bozo so anxious and hard to manage. He doesn’t know who’s in charge and so, like a child, he has taken charge. But this makes for a lot of jumping around and barking. And torn clothes. Since dog school has opened, he’s calmer.

Priya has also been gone, and it was interesting to see what happened when she returned. He wasn’t jumping up on her. He was behaving himself, so she picked up his paws and lifted them and put them up on her shoulders. But later she’ll complain when he tears her clothes. I don’t really understand it, although I know some people are like that.. The future does not exist for them. “I want attention from my dog at this moment. Never mind that I won’t like this kind of attention later,” Priya thinks and so she picks up his paws and puts them on her.

I’m the opposite. I don’t know much about dogs—I’ve had cats my whole life. But I’ve noticed how it often starts with them: it starts in the same way it starts with children. It starts as testing behavior. He puts a paw on your leg a few times, and a few seconds later he’s jumping up on your chest. Dogs are a lot like us. They need rules to follow. They need to know what to expect.

I now have a porch instead of a view.
I now have a view instead of a porch.

And it makes me think about myself. Because, since I’ve come, most things have become a bit more organized. The kitchen is cleaner. There aren’t cockroaches racing for cover every time you pick something up. It’s only partly because of me. Order is also contagious, and everyone else seems to do a bit more because of what I do.

But what it says about me is that I prefer order. That’s not a terrible surprise—I was a librarian for almost a decade, I teach maths, my books at home were always arranged by subject, my spices by cuisine, and my shirts by colour.

My preference for order comes out of both an aesthetic sense (if you don’t have much, it at least looks better if it’s tidy) and a concern for the future (it’s so much faster to find what you want).

Yet, I am still surprised. Surprised because I experience a degree of denial about this. I tend to see this desire for order as both a character flaw and as something someone else does and not me.

The dogs.
The dogs.

I think this has something to do with how my family saw me when I was growing up and with a kind of myth they created out of me. I was the absent-minded genius, the cluttered, creative artist. Perhaps that was their way of making sense of me, or maybe it was the suitable box for reflecting well on the family—because I am bright, I am creative, I do have the occasional unconventional or novel idea. Some of it does fit.

Like everywhere else in my life, I must have felt I needed to be the person they imagined I was. And it went on for so long I became confused about what was real and what wasn’t.

All the ways you can die

crowded bus
I you can’t figure this out, you will never get on a bus.

Last night, the Country X people held a health webinar. It was entitled staying healthy, but it seemed to me a more apt title would have been “All the ways you can die.” So I went to bed rather anxious, visions of altitude sickness and hemorrhagic fevers dancing in my head.

The problem is that, as a sojourner in a developing country, there are so many elements you cannot control. First of all, you usually have fewer choices. Second, you are often not in a position of authority and therefore aren’t the one making decisions about what you do.

So, while road accidents are a significant danger for travelers, you can’t control the other cars. You usually are not the one driving—and it’s unclear whether that would be an advantage if you were. At the same time, while we in the West are usually blessed with a multitude of bus/train/plane options and schedules and routes—at least if you live in a major metropolis—in countries like X, there is frequently only one. That day. Or even that week.

If you get in a car and there is no seatbelt—and there usually isn’t—it’s not like you can just get into another car. If the bus pulls up and the driver looks intoxicated you may not be able to wait until next week to see if he decides to sober up. There may also not be much choice.

That’s just an example. But a lot of things are like that, because one of the primary differences between a developed nation and a developing nation is about how many choices you have.

You will also have to walk across this. When the signal is out. (Which is usually.)
You will also have to walk across this. When the signal is out. (Which is usually.)

A second important difference is that, in a developing nation, a lot of things break, and they often don’t get fixed—either because the money isn’t there, or no one knows how, or it’s been broken for so long that everyone just gets kind of used to it being that way and fixing it stops seeming important. Many things were never made right in the first place.

There is, I think, a misconception that native residents of countries like these just develop immunity to many of the endemic diseases, but this isn’t true. Delhi-ites also get Delhi Belly. They get malaria. And they get dengue. What they have lacked in the past was widespread cultural knowledge about how these diseases are transmitted or how to prevent their spread, as well as a certain degree of capacity to take any action. If you’re well off, you can afford a water filter in your home. If you are somewhat less well off, but not merely scraping by, you can boil your water. But if you are in really dire straits, you will have to drink tap water and hope for the best. And this is what people have done.

I’m not convinced that foreigners get these diseases more so much as they expect them less. And while it’s important to stay healthy and to be safe, part of adjusting is being able to cope with inevitably higher levels of physical risk without just getting stupid about things—because that happens too.

I’m having a hard time with this. Not here. In India, you can find a doctor as easily as a cup of tea. There are few things that can happen to me that can’t be fixed again. But Country X scares me.

And lying awake last night, contemplating all of the terrible things that could happen to me, I began to get a sense of why.

I don’t deserve to live.

Which leaves me wide open.

The other white dog

picture014I stayed home for probably five days—achy, bad stomach, weak. Didn’t feel like going out, not even for lunch. So I haven’t seen the white dog. Even now that all has returned to normal, I still haven’t seen her. Perhaps this is just chance, or maybe she’s shifted her routine. The weather is cooler and even the dogs don’t feel like getting out of bed these days. I don’t either, and sleep until seven. (Although some of that has because of the watchman. He’d gone to his village for two weeks, and the man who took his place didn’t make froggy noises brushing his teeth.)

But there’s another white dog in my life, although this one isn’t all white. She has spots. Her name is Chintu, which means small, and she is small. She’s only about two or three months old.

In the last few days, Chintu has figured out how to get into the yard of the guesthouse where I’m staying. She found one way, and they blocked it off. She found a different way and they blocked that off too. Then she realized she could squeeze through the bars on the gate. And now, until something can be done about that, she comes in whenever she pleases.

So Chintu has chosen to live here. There’s a mat in the garden she sleeps on all day, and in the afternoon she plays with the other dog. But the major appeal (or perhaps one of several) seems to be me. For as long as I’ve been outside—and I spent most of the day under the bougainvillea—she hasn’t strayed more than two meters away.

She slept in the garden on her mat, and she played with the other dog around my feet, and she chewed a stick under my chair. And now that I’ve gone inside to escape the vicious mouths of mosquitoes, she’s come to sleep outside my window.

All this is to say that I think a dog likes me. And I find this a little strange. Not just because I’m really a cat person, but because this means I’ve passed a test: if children like you, and dogs like you, then you’re a person who can be trusted.

I don’t feel like someone who can be trusted. I feel like a dangerous person, a frightening person. But I don’t know where I got that idea about myself. I could speculate it came from the many times I’ve needed to take strong measures to protect myself, or maybe only my mother and her pernicious sense of being threatened are to blame, or it could even be the extreme reactions I used to have to certain triggers (having to separate myself from important others being one of them). Perhaps all three.

But I also know that view of myself is either a distortion or no longer relevant. And all of this just makes me sad.