Sujatha Gidla: Computer Girl & Hindu Conductor

What a journey and unabashed radical idealist. Though I may not understand, and therefore agree with, all of her perspectives, I think they’re all the more important to hear in such a forum. I can’t really pull out the best parts of this interview/conversation, because there are so many (…though I think some of the open Q&A really missed the point.) So I’ll just take one of her more inconsequential commentaries and say it was lovely, too. 🙂
COWEN: Bob Dylan?
GIDLA: No, underrated.
GIDLA: I like Bob Dylan. I like him a lot.
COWEN: Why do you like him?
GIDLA: I don’t know. That’s what I grew up with. We got all the music and movies 10 years after you have them. Even though I wasn’t from the Beatles and Bob Dylan times, that’s what we got when I was growing up. It really fascinated me that someone who’s singing nasally can be a popular singer-writer.
…and now, added to my ever-increasing reading list – all recommended by Gidla:
Oh, and in digression – I also just came across this interactive Kindle map about the top books read in each state in the U.S. in 2017. The Handmaid’s Tale topped the list, of course – but some of the seconds and thirds by state were also quite interesting.

“Another way of telling”

Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.

We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.

The problem may be a literary one: we are given a single story line about what makes a good life, even though not a few who follow that story line have bad lives. We speak as though there is one good plot with one happy outcome, while the myriad forms a life can take flower — and wither — all around us.

Even those who live out the best version of the familiar story line might not find happiness as their reward. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I know a woman who was lovingly married for seventy years. She has had a long, meaningful life that she has lived according to her principles. But I wouldn’t call her happy; her compassion for the vulnerable and concern for the future have given her a despondent worldview. What she has had instead of happiness requires better language to describe. There are entirely different criteria for a good life that might matter more to a person — honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.


Other eras and cultures often asked other questions than the ones we ask now: What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What is your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be.

There is a paradox at th

-Rebecca Solnit, “The Mother of all Questions,” Harpers, October 2015

“The truth of a human being”

The women’s march – the fact that it is happening in so many places – is amazing. I love that there is now a day for this every year.  So grateful for this solidarity.

This post is related, but goes in a bit of another direction. I have been reflecting a lot about anger and activism, identity and fear, facts and something fuller about the experience of humanity and how to speak about it and encourage it in each other. These podcasts have been good food for thought:

How to oppose Trump without becoming more like him – Ezra Klein’s interview of Krista Tippett.

The difference between facts and quantifiable metrics, which are kind of corollaries – numbers and facts, they kind of go together for us – that, and truth. […] We have been building to a truth crisis of equating facts and numbers and truth. So now it’s full-blown. […] The truth of a human being and the truth of a community […] the truth of well-being, or the truth of despair, has always been – facts are relevant and numbers are relevant. But they don’t add up to the truth of a human being or of well-being or of healing or of the fullness of our possibility. That’s what we’re confronting – our measures, our metrics, what we are skilled at speaking about is too small.

Tippett (whose show, On Being, is also wonderful) also talks about the need to have a moral imagination (and this is all particularly interesting given her background before what she does now in working on international policy during the Cold War, as Klein points out). Which I think is lovely, and what I have been trying to build in myself – but feeling very uncomfortable about because it doesn’t include the numbers and measures that I have become so accustomed to needing to back up any thought that I have, the need to present everything as a well-articulated and evidenced stance. And I believe in evidence (I’m pretty sure she does too), but I also believe in the need – not just desire – to develop and work on this moral imagination that she describes.

Dillan Digiovanni on Activism and Identity – The One You Feed

When you’re angry all the time, all you’re doing is constantly looking for the threat. You’re not looking for the opportunity.

Gondolier – Radiolab

I’m adding this old episode, which I had blogged before, but I thought it was an important narrative to illustrate the importance – and the comforts and discomforts of – anything and everything that we call identity. I wanted to rehash it here because so much of what we all keep talking about is identity. Intersectionalities in them, socialization in developing them, anger between them, discrimination because of it. This episode did a beautiful job of delving in deep, exploring the chasms between different people’s understandings and biases of identities…and just illustrating that regardless of your identity, there is something deeper about our shared humanity that we can all relate to.

All of this said – Rebecca Solnit makes the important point about “complicity in humanity’s oldest historical cultural crime” – silence. So how do we engage, but not enrage, be activists, but not angry? It’s a question I continue to grapple with.

And a bonus on the theme of identity:

Long read from The Guardian – The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri

Remembering Kambiz Roustayi, a man who only wanted a visa, his family and his own corner of the world, I want to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that his kind don’t do enough. You don’t know what grateful is, I want to say. You haven’t seen a young man burn up from despair, or an old man faint on a football field from relief and joy, or a nine-year-old boy sing the entire Marseillaise from memory. You don’t know how much life has already been spent settling into the cracks of your walls. Sometimes all that’s left of value in an exile’s life is his identity. Please stop asking people to rub out their face as tribute.

With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, I’ve seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: “Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.” As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.

But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?

[…] a person’s life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now there’s just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.


Madam Prime Minister & mother

A couple of reactions from a couple of days ago:

The PM of New Zealand is having a baby. She found out 6 days before becoming PM-elect. She’s taking 6 weeks of maternity leave. My initial reactions: mind blown/couldn’t compute, realized that the idea of the PM being pregnant had never even entered my consciousness/universe of concepts, annoyed/really angry that my mind is so blown, SUCH AN AWESOME ROLE MODEL. Go kiwis.

…and then…

Benazir Bhutto was actually the first head of state in modern history to give birth while in office (in 1990). The opposition criticized her for “wanting it all.” In fact, she was also pregnant when contesting elections, and the president moved up the election date so it would coincide with her due date and prevent her from campaigning (-Maria Qazi, thanks for educating us!!) “Fearing her opposition would use her time giving birth to replace her, Ms [ahem, I think they mean Prime Minister!!] Bhutto travelled incognito to a hospital and swiftly underwent a Caesarean section. She then returned to her job before she could be overthrown.” ….and they say women can’t handle stress?

Magical realism and technology – Shilo Shiv Suleman; and my talented sister, Kaj

My very talented little sister shared this lovely whimsical TED talk with me:

Her manner of speaking somehow just reminds me to look at things positively, with the eyes of a child discovering new wonders of the world. We could all use a little more of that, no? Apparently, Shilo also has done some pretty cool art in Ahmedabad.

Now, some shameless bragging about my little sister – look at her bright and beautiful recent artwork! I’m l’m on the list to receive some, so quite excited about that.

Screenshot 2018-01-15 13.09.47
This one was made by my sister for our parents. She traced their faces so that the figures would resemble them – and it works! I get the uncanny feeling that they are looking back at me, though nothing about their clothing or features suggests it’s them!


Screenshot 2018-01-15 13.09.29
Kaj’s rendering of Mirabai and Krishna.



My sister is going to visit us in France in May – so we are going to be looking for a drawing class to take together! We would love to learn to draw the human form, and perhaps how to copy sculptures in museums. We are very excited to see each other after what will have been a year, and to spend time together doing something we love. Please send me suggestions for drawing classes if you have any…


Weekend 3: Coast, biking, beer, and fish

On our next-to-last weekend in Beirut, we joined some of Daniel’s colleagues in the coastal city of Batroun. They went early in a car, but we were less willing to wake up early – so we took a bus. One of Daniel’s ex-colleagues, Zeina, is the founder of The Chain Effect (a really cool network of biking enthusiasts which I had blogged about earlier) – so she basically knows about biking that is happening anywhere around Lebanon. Batroun has become a little coastal town (and apparently one of the oldest towns in the world) known for its breweries, wineries, fish, and recently, biking (not that there are any biking lanes anywhere, but it has just become a weekend thing to do for the relatively well-off and/or tourists).

One of Zeina’s friends was renting bikes out of a pop-up shop at Colonel – a cute brewery by the coast. By the time Daniel and I reached, everyone else had already finished biking – so we sat and had some beers with them.

In the summers, you can actually sip some beer behind the brewery, by the coast


The brewery
The brewery

We then walked in the narrow little alleys to a lovely little restaurant and had a lot of fish and hummus and eggplant dip and wine. Someone accidentally ordered the $70 catch-of-the-day (though it was at least shared between six of us) – but it was kind of delicious. It was complemented perfectly with a superb, tangy lemon garlic sauce (I love good sauces). I joined one of Daniel’s American colleagues, who has also become a huge fan of arak, in sipping many little shot glasses of it through the meal. We all sat overlooking the water, talking about biking, and eating and it was another one of those Lebanese meals that left me feeling happy, full, satisfied, and just the right amount of buzzed.







We finally had a couple of hours to bike before sunset, and so we did! We biked, and I missed the Cambridge days of biking around a town that I knew well. We stopped by some rocks by the ocean to watch the sunset, then returned our bikes and caught a bus back to Beirut.




Weekend 2 – indulgence & deep breathing

One of the BEST PLACES EVER (which I have resisted writing about until now) is called Bar Tartine. After living for 2.5 years in India, I cannot tell you the tastebuds that this place awakened in be. Fresh olive bread, walnut and fig bread, pistachio bread, cheese, the finest chocolate and almond croissants, the finest chocolate cake, quiches, brownies made of pure amazingness….I could go on. Now, Daniel has always gone to buy his bread at this wonderful place, but then, guess what we discovered? They have an all-you-can-eat brunch – and I wanted to eat all of it.

Needless to say, we visited more than once. The first time was on my second Sunday in Beirut. We thought we would quickly pop in, before one of Daniel’s friends and colleagues came to pick us up around noon to go up into the mountains near her house….but then we saw this…..


….and proceeded to spend about two hours eating.





IMG_5087 (Edited)


IMG_5091 (Edited)

We had to go home and rest a little bit before we could move again.

In the afternoon, Daniel’s friend picked us up to drive to her really lovely family home somewhere in the mountains around Beirut. First, we stopped by a monastery (which apparently has its own little wine shop, which also sells some fresh veggies and goat’s milk) which has beautiful views. We stopped to breathe in the cool air and revel in the pristine beauty.

Goat’s milk for the whole family
Deep breath in…
….and out….

We then went to her house – where we sat and had some tea and brownies in her  mother’s lovely little garden in the mountains – where her mother filled our bags and hands were filled with fresh raspberries, persimmons, oranges, dried lavender, and (really, really hot, we later discovered after adding one to a cup of daal) little red chillies.

some spoils of the day
IMG_5039 (Edited)
lavender to freshen up our suitcases!

A side note: Daniel’s friend’s mother is  an extremely fit Czech woman who is a runner, her father is Lebanese is a triathlon athlete – and they tend to regularly (like, almost every day) go for 10k runs in the mountains around their house. I felt like her mother looked into my soul with her piercing blue eyes when she so earnestly proclaimed what a lovely thing it is to be so young and healthy, and how much we take for granted, and how exercise cleanses the soul. I immediately proceeded to go for a run the next day (you will see why, at the end of this particular weekend day, all I could do was go for a walk to digest…)

We left to go to a gorgeous restaurant (I have no idea what the name was). It was made to in cozy mountain lodge-style, with a huge fireplace, a lot of wood, white tablecloths, Christmas decorations, large and darkly draped windows looking at the snow-capped mountains – and proceeded to fill our already-filled bellies completely. Daniel and his colleague accidentally had some kind of condensed form of fish’s eggs…but the rest of the food – hummus, eggplant dip, a mix of grilled meats and veggies with that garlic dip I love so much, and a glass of Ixir wine, with a bit of an anise-liquor called arak. Arak is a very high-alcohol percentage liquor, which when mixed with water, turns a cloudy white – and it is generally served already mixed, in little shot glasses with a bucket of ice cubes. All Lebanese people seem to drink it and I sipped it all through the meal. While I found the taste to be strong at first, I started craving it for heavy meals afterward.


With our bellies more full than ever, and in a sort of sleepy-but-extremely-content-food-coma-haze, we  ended the evening by going to a Christmas fair and eating some more little sugary snacks.


Don’t you love it when politicians have large photos of themselves everywhere with their own lights? So many countries.

We finally returned to the city to see a mural painted by a friend of Daniel’s friend, meant to commemorate violence against gay couples, and, well, love. It was painted in a spot where a gay man was beaten, I believe, and it was quite lovely. People had gathered to see the unveiling.


We asked to be dropped off at the corniche, so we could walk for at least 15-20 minutes home to begin digesting everything that we managed to consume.