Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Highlight Reel: Chris & Minny's Favorite Moments

Dear Friends,

The trip has come to an end. I know I sort of petered out on posting that last week, for which I apologize profusely to those who have been avid readers, commenters, and sharers, but I really did need to take an actual holiday and decompress. (I'm finally relaxed -- just in time to go back to work!)

But of course, we couldn't sign off without one last post about our trip, as well as some much-deserved shout-outs and thank-yous to the people who helped make this trip so much fun. So here it is -- our top five list of our favorite moments, many of which you will all probably hear in the coming months since Chris and I both love to repeat our stories.

Chris & Minny's Top 5 Favorite Moments:

1. Adding British and Indian English words to our vocabulary.
Pardon, do you know where my jumper is? Or where I can find a plug point to charge my phone? Forget the Guardian's list of Indian English words to know; Chris and I have our own language now, comprised of words and phrases that made us smile throughout our trip. My favorite expression I saw last year -- Follow Lane Discipline. Only Indians will use the word discipline on a street sign. (And then ignore the sign completely, btw.)

Chris's favorite new words because of their ubiquity are veg and non-veg. And for that matter, Coorg and non-Coorg. "I'm non-Coorg, by the way," he says.

2. The Food!
True to my predictions, Chris didn't lose weight or get dysentery, as many of his American friends told him he would. That's because my family knows how to eat. And feed guests. Which is why we both gained at least 10 pounds in the last two weeks.

There are many people to thank for our weight gain, all of whom are named below, but the biggest thank-you goes to my mother, Amrit Bopaiah. "I know she ran a lot of interference to make sure the food was to my liking," Chris says. "And relatively onion-free." (Chris doesn't like onions. I can't tell you how hard onions are to avoid in Indian cooking.)

3. Chris's love of (and susceptibility to) Indian marketing.
I often joke that Chris is the target market for every advertising campaign in the US. I've never seen someone so enthusiastically fall for a label saying "Try it!" on a scented candle or packet of Oreos.

But it turns out his love and susceptibility for great marketing is global. I knew he'd like Thumbs Up, but didn't think he'd want to bring back seven bars of soap (3 Pears and 4 sandalwood-scented). He also brought back cans of Badam almond drink, and regretted not having space for more carved wooden elephants and riksha magnets. I was able to stave off any additions to his snow globe collection by buying him a snow globe of the Taj Mahal last September. But I suspect this is a temporary solution, and I will soon need to find a separate room for all his kitsch.

For the record, there were some misses. Fizz Jeera Masala soda did not go over well. Neither did sweet lime drink, which surprised me. But I'm pretty sure that the minute someone in India figures out how to bottle and preserve sugar cane juice, Chris will be their biggest customer.

4. Chris's remarkable cultural sensitivity.
It's worth mentioning that Chris read every post before I published them. Which clearly shows that he's a good sport. He rarely did more than correct a typo, and never asked me not to write about something. I am incredibly grateful for this as a writer because it sets me free to be funny and write as I see the world.

The only time he asked for changes was when we wrote about his visit to the Gonikoppa fire station, and that was for good reason. He objected to publishing photos that made it look like he was explaining firefighting to the Gonikoppa firefighters. He knew the story was about the Indian experience of firefighting, not a comparison to subtly demonstrate the West's dominance in civil infrastructure and resources.

I am at a loss for words for how much his humility impresses me.

5. Having you all follow along!
This trip to India has been one of my favorites, and I think a big part of that was having our families and friends follow along on social media and this blog. We both hope that we've been entertaining without being blowhards or braggarts. We'd also like to thank everyone who liked, shared, commented, read or simply smiled over our ridiculous postings.

We also need to thank some people by name:
  • First and foremost, Amrit Bopaiah, for doing the lion's share of trip planning. My mother researched ticket prices, planned our itinerary, used points to get us great hotel deals, and basically catered to our every gastronomical desire. Thanks Mom for making this trip so enjoyable and easy. I'm not sure Chris will be able to travel without expecting three course meals from now on.
  • My dad, Vinod Bopaiah for vaccinating Chris against Hep A and typhoid. JIC. 
  • My cousins, Cary Bopiah and Anishya Kumar (Bopiah), for putting us up in London and starting us off on The Great Eating Tour of 2016. (Really, if you're in the UK, go buy some of Anishya's ready-made meals.) Also, their kids are pure cuddly adorableness.
  • Kutts Bittiananda, his wife Anu Mahajan, Sita Aunty and Hector for a wonderful "Welcome to India" dinner our first night in Bangalore.
  • My uncle, Raghu Uthappa, the Godfather of Coorg, who knew everyone and left no string unpulled to give us a great experience during our one week in Coorg.
  • My other uncle, Vivek Bopiah, and his wife Tina Bopiah, who entertained us in Bangalore with their stories and humorous anecdotes. 
  • Mohan Uncle and Preeth Aunty, as well as their daughter Pooja and her husband Jason, for treating us to a fabulous dinner in Bangalore.
  • My cousins, Berry and Praveen, Aisha and Rohit, for capping off our last day in India with a fabulous lunch and dinner and letting us stay in your beautiful home while your son was in the middle of exams. We can't wait to see you and the kids in the U.S. in May. It might be the next installment of this travel log that Carol Price is already asking for. 
  • My cousin, Tilly Bopiah, for paving the way for me to bring a white guy I'm not married to to Coorg. Thanks for being such a trail blazer, cuz. I promise Chris and I are going to make it to Paris soon to visit.
  • Carol and George Price, for trying hard not to freak out as I dragged their son halfway around the world, and for being incredibly supportive of my writing. I hear that Mrs. Price has shared this blog with numerous friends and families not on social media, and I hope you have all been as entertained as we have.
  • Geoff Olds and Matt Sexauer for submitting great questions for Chris to answer.
  • Oscar Grajales for being the type of guy who can appreciate depth and humor at the same time.
  • Arlene Hardy for being a frequent commenter, even when she wasn't sure she "understood what a blog is." We love you, Mrs. Hardy!!
  • Jen Hardy Steiling, Chris Steiling and Elizabeth Price, for also being frequent commenters and Chris's biggest fans. And for taking me into the fold.
  • Lauren Cross, who took my recording of a Coorg morning and turned it into a one-hour stereo broadcast. (I'll let you all know when I upload it to iTunes.)
  • Karen Drachler for helping steer Chris through the Indian tourist visa process.
  • Justin Brown for lending Chris a backpack that made him look sexy.
  • Gabrielle Zevin and Jenny Colgan, for respectively writing The Storied Life of A.J Fikry and The Little Shop of Happy Ever After, two books that made a long plane ride enjoyable and reminded me of how much I want to own a bookstore one of these days. And while we're on the topic of thanking authors, I should also thank Brene Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert for Daring Greatly and Big Magic, both of which gave me the courage to write on this blog again.
  • Last but definitely not least, Chris Price, who never complained about the hardships on this trip and never acts like I need to seek his permission before doing whatever I want, including turning him into a caricature for the amusement of our friends and family. There are many other nice things I could say, but wouldn't that be boring...

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Chris Price Visits A Fire Station in Coorg!

We did it! We got to visit a fire station in India! And not just any station -- the fire station in Gonikoppa, the town closest to my parent's new home in Coorg.

The visit was impromptu, and the end of a long day. Also, there were some language barriers. None of them spoke English, and my mother's Kodatakka is beginner-level, so she ended up speaking to one in Hindi and then translated back to English.

But, it turns out, firefighters can talk about gear pretty easily across a lot of languages. Chris was totally geeking out on getting a tour of the truck and learning what type of equipment they carry, their tactical approach to fighting fires in such a rural place, and all sorts of other technical data that was beyond me. Therefore, I'm letting him annotate this blog post with his thoughts and observations. Look for his comments in italics.

I'm just happy Minny finally listens to my input on anything.

The men were shy at first, probably taken aback by having a visitor at all, and then on top of it, having it be a white guy. But they eventually warmed up and shared a lot of information about their day and life at the fire station.

The firefighters at this station were extremely gracious to show me around, considering I just showed up at their door unannounced.  Once my translator (Minny's mom) was able to explain that I worked as a firefighter in the U.S., they were more than willing to show me around and answer any questions as best they could.

There are seven people working each shift, and the shifts are 12 hours a day. They don't get to cook at the station -- they each bring a tiffin for lunch or dinner (depending on which shift they work).

Seeing a firehouse without a kitchen was definitely odd.  That's such a big part of the stations I've worked at. Clearly that's not a thing for them as they seemed slightly confused when we asked where theirs was.

The fire department is also a state agency, so it's under the auspices of the Karnataka state government. There are four fire stations in Coorg, so we were very lucky to have one so close to our house.

It seems both police and fire are state agencies. The firefighters at this station seemed to be originally from Coorg. But theoretically they could be assigned anywhere in the state of Karnataka. I was curious as to whether they had any say in where they worked, but the language barrier was too great to find out. 

Chris thoughtfully packed patches from his station, Engine 711 in Montgomery County, to give out to the other firefighters. He was also able to show them some of the equipment at his station on his iPhone.

The company then showed Chris their break room. Not surprisingly, there was a TV and chairs circled around it.

Good to know some things are the same at the firehouse, no matter where in the world you are.

The break room is quite dark as these are temporary quarters for the company; they are building a new station nearby. What I found unusual for a fire station (but typical for India) was that there was an altar to the goddess Durga in the station, right near where the company answers calls.

There's lots more to tell (especially if Chris tells it), but we've been without wi-fi for a while and the questions for Chris are piling up. So here it is:

Questions for Chris

We got a number of questions from Geoff Olds, Chris's co-worker at Engine 711:

1. With the heat in India, do you regret not listening to your shift at work when we told you to shave your body? 

Chris responds: As with most things in life, I regret not listening to Dan and Geoff.

2. What foods are you willing to try while you're there? 

Minny responds: Everything. I've actually been impressed.

3. Are Minal's relatives beside themselves knowing how white you are and the fact they have to really just feed you plain white rice? 

Chris responds: They've learned they can feed me any kind of dessert.

5. When do you get back? You have running routes that need to get done. [Running routes are the directions firefighters use to get to neighborhoods most efficiently.]

Chris responds: I'm extending my stay through the stay. I expect you to knock that out by the time I get back.

6. Are there any recliner chairs in India that you've found?

Chris responds: No. I'm currently homesick for the ones at station 11.

And @TheSexauer asks: Has Chris inadvertently committed any cultural or social faux pas? 

Minny responds: Not really. When meeting my uncle for lunch, he called him by his first name, which you really shouldn't do here -- it's rude to call anyone of your parents' generation by their first name only. I whispered that to Chris during lunch, and when we were leaving, he called my uncle Raghu mama. (Mama is the kodatakka word for uncle.) You could practically see my uncle's heart swell with affection.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

What We Talk About When We Talk About Coorg

Those of you who haven't met me in person have probably never heard of Coorg. Those of you who have are probably still somewhat unclear or what, where and who lives in Coorg.

There's a pretty thorough Wikipedia entry on Coorg that you can read if you're interested in things like square miles and average yearly rainfall. But here's the stuff you really need to know (i.e., an abbreviated version of the debriefing I gave Chris before our trip):

We eat meat, drink and don't have horses at our weddings
Coorg's official name in Kodagu (the British renamed us, as they're apt to do). Coorg is the least populous district of Karnataka, the state most Westerners know of because the capital is Bengaluru, formerly Bangalore (again, the British and their renaming thing), the Silicon Valley of India. The people of Coorg are called Kodavas.

There's a lot of varying accounts as to from where the Kodavas originated. Some say Greek soldiers from Alexander the Great's army set up shop here. Others say that Arabs crossed the sea fleeing Islam and trekked across the land to set up this community in the foothills of the Western Ghats.

Either way, because we're in the mountains, the culture here developed pretty independently of the rest of India. There are few Brahmins; most of us are Kshatriya because of the heavy martial culture. Pork is the traditional dish that is served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- and at weddings. (We also don't have the groom arrive on a horse during weddings, which seems to really disappoint white people.) Women wear their saris with the pleats in the back and the pallu tied across the shoulder -- this supposedly made it easier to pluck rice from the paddies that dot the Coorg countryside.

The differences in Coorg culture from the rest of India make me an outlier among other Indians in the US, which is why I thought it was important to bring Chris here. It also means that when non-Indians try to mansplain Indian culture to me, I reply, "I'm not that type of Indian."

(Question: Is there a better word than mansplaining for when people not of your culture condescendingly explain your culture to you? I need this word! It happens to me all the time!)

Leave your city-folk values at home
Coorg's main economy is coffee production, and the entire district, except for some small towns and city centers, are lush with coffee plants and shady, tall trees. Most Kodavas make a living by owning an estate. Other communities live in Coorg and provide labor, but are not considered part of the Kodava lineage.

There is almost nothing to do in Coorg but watch the coffee grow and socialize with people in their homes. There is no movie theater, no pub, no mall, no bookstore. That makes drinking and gossip the main form of entertainment.

Which is why I couldn't bring Chris to Coorg until my parents' house here was completed. If he and I stayed in a hotel while being unmarried, it would be considered quite scandalous. Chris suggested I just tell people he's a raging atheist (which he's not, really). I said, "What's religion got to do with it?"

"Isnt' that why they would be upset -- it's sinful to share a bed before marriage."

"Oh no, premarital sex isn't really forbidden in Hinduism. We're not organized enough for someone to make rules we should all follow. Premarital sex is just considered immoral. Like, even if you're an atheist, you'd probably still consider it wrong to steal. The same way, it's just considered unethical."

My brother had a Muslim friend once who commented, "Muslim girls don't sleep around because it's against their religion. But Indian girls don't because of morals. It's so weird."

An unrequited love for Coorg
Coorg is undoubtedly beautiful. It's the #2 tourist destination in India, after the back waters of Kerala. So, it's always worth the trip for me, despite the number of socio-cultural hurdles I have to overcome or overlook.

However, my love for Coorg is a bit unrequited. Because my father is a Kodava and my mother is Punjabi, I'm not always considered a full Kodava, And people like to tell me I'm American (in Coorg -- or just in general -- including Chris sometimes), which then makes me feel like Rachel Dolezal, the white president of an NAACP chapter who desperately tried to "self-identify" her way into black culture.

Also, because I'm 38 and unmarried and childfree, I'm a bit unrelatable at best, and a cautionary tale at worst to many people in Coorg (and possibly beyond). Even well-meaning people have trouble making conversation with me. It's hard for them to comprehend the fullness one can feel from a life rooted in social justice, creativity, and travel.

Lastly, while I love Coorg -- and many other people and places in my life -- my love is rarely blind. Unlike Chris, who's Godfather-loyal and would "never take sides against the family," I sometimes do. This does not make me popular. (I'm convinced it makes me a better writer and a wiser person. But if you're going to practice honesty, you better bring gratitude and forgiveness along for the ride, otherwise you're going to be one misanthropic pill. I admit I can fall into the latter category on a bad day.)

It's hard to love something so much that doesn't love you back quite as much. Coorg seems to tolerate my presence -- like a funny uncle or wallflower cousin at a wedding. Which is why, when you find someone who's lay-down-in-traffic loyal and tells you you can stop self-improving, you become willing to look past the fact that he's never left the country and is still unsure how to do online banking. Or that he likes taking photos like this:

Chris gives Coorg a Thumbs Up!

Now, for Your Questions!

@TheSexauer asks: Is it a dry heat or wicked humid?

Chris answers: Wicked humid.

@TheSexauer also asks: You have a lovely guide who knows the language & customs. Could Seneta and I survive there on our own?

Chris answers: Survive as in "not die" -- probably. Survive as in do anything else -- No.

If you have a question, send it via Facebook (look for Minal Bopaiah or Chris Price), or send it via Twitter or Instagram to @mbopaiah. (Chris is not on Twitter or Instagram because his mobile skills stop at Facebook. I still can't get him to sync his email to his phone.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Q&A with Chris Price After 48 Hours in India

Thanks to everyone who's been following this crazy trip on social media (#chrisandminny). Some of you seem more interested in Chris's impressions of India than in my perspective on what it's like traveling with him, so in the words of George Price, know your audience and give them what they want.

We caught up with Chris in a luxurious suite at the J.W. Marriot (thanks Mom!) at 5am when neither he nor I could sleep because of jet lag.

MB: So Chris, what's been your favorite part of this trip so far?

CP: The food.

MB: Anything in particular?


MB: You're making this difficult. Give more full answers.

CP: Well, let me think about it baby.

[Chris fiddles with the Lavazza machine for about 3 minutes, trying to make an espresso.]

I love the fact that when it comes to the food, everything is either really sweet or really spicey.

MB: Is there anything about Indian culture that you'd like to export to America?

CP:  I'm not sure I have enough sample size of that. But...I'd say the nonstop aggressive driving without any real aggression in it.

MB: I know it's nice how you can shout at people without worrying about anyone pulling a gun.

CP: Or even just being that upset by it.

MB: What's been the most difficult thing to adjust to?

CP: It's been truly hot for me, and I know this isn't as hot as it gets.

MB: Who's family is more eccentric, yours or mine?

CP:  Too close to call.

MB:  What stories are you planning to tell Jen and Chris at the Vienna Inn when we get back?

CP: I mean, how can it be anything other than a nonstop narrative. [Waits while I type.]
I don't think this Q&A is working out.

MB: On a scale of 1 to 10, how annoyed are you with me and this process?

CP: This is like every conversation you and I ever have. [Chris mimics my voice.] "Let me ask you about feelings." [Accosts me with cheek kisses as I ignore him and continue typing.]
Actually, my favorite part of India so far is how much being in India brings out your New Yorker side. I've seen several arguments with you and your mother -- not with each other -- and it's NBD. [That's No Big Deal, in Chris-speak.]

[Chris is silent for another minute.]

MB: Well, that's really our Punjabi genes coming out. But since you mention feelings...what are your feeling goals for this trip? [Feeling goals are a new thing a friend told me about where you set goals on what you want to feel, not on external situations since 1) you can't control every outcome and 2) sometimes what you think will make you happy doesn't, so it's better to focus on being happy and adjust your goals accordingly.]

CP: That concept is so fascinating to me. It's like asking, What are your weather goals? How is that relevant? It's a nonsense question.

MB: OK, thanks for your time. I'll let you know when we run the piece. Safe travels to Coorg -- hope you have a great time!

CP: I don't know...give me a little time to think about the answers....[after 5 minutes of silence] When I get home and start driving, the temptation to be non-stop honking my horn is going to be hard to resist.

MB: Anything else you'd like to tell your fans?

CP: I could ride around all day just experiencing the city traffic.

MB: Do you want to share your new life goal with everyone?

CP: Oh yeah, if I could ever successfully drive on these streets, I would know I've made it.

MB: Okay, thanks for your time, baby. Looking forward to spending 5 hours in the car with you today as we drive down to Coorg!

Editor's note: Chris is an introvert. The real-time transcription of this interview is a good example of why interviewers should give introverts the questions in writing ahead of time. Just a professional tip since the occasion presented itself. NBD.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!" Highlights from London

The Most American Man in the World took on London. And conquered it. Or maybe crushed it. Well, to be precise, we had a good time and didn't cause an international incident. So that's something, right?

We took the train from Ascot into central London. Travel in a plane or train always makes me pensive, and looking out of the train's big picture window, I note that the sky is overcast but the grass is a vibrant green from all the rain, quite unlike February in New York. And then there are the trees.

The trees in England are not simply characteristic, but characters in and of themselves. There are Hamletian trees, indecisive about which way they want to grow. In a meadow, a Fastaffian oak is laying on its side, its roots obscenely pointing in the air, and Mother Earth, exhausted from trying to coax it to rise, has covered it in a moss blanket. And then there are the Sherlockain ones -- dark trunks with hundreds of synaptic-like branches that stretch to make tenuous connections with the ether.

I realize these metaphors might be a bit forced, but it's been so long since I had a poetic thought, I'm writing each one down in a small red notebook while the train chugs past quintessentially English towns -- Victoria Water, Egham, Feltham.

The Most American Man leans over to whisper in my ear, "I Feltham, did you?"

*     *     *

When we get to London, Chris is in his element, mainly because he loves monuments, statues and reading boring plaques about dead people. I booked us for a Double Decker tour, which is perfect since it allows us to see most of the main sites and hop off when Chris wants to take a picture or grab a snack (we both accept that there will be no end to snacking on this trip). And the weather gods have cooperated to deliver his ideal climate -- overcast, brisk and misty. (Is this guy not made for England?)
Chris outside Buckingham Palace.
Across Buckingham Palace, the tall, stately, trees with curvy bottoms lining The Green Park remind me of Helen Mirren -- but that may also be because she played The Queen. Meanwhile, Chris notices that the hot chocolate stand in the park sells mini-Belgium waffles drizzled with chocolate syrup, and promptly orders one.

But the highlight of his day is Parliament Square where Chris gets to shout dialogue from National Lampoons European Vacation ("Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!) and take lots of photos of statues to dead men -- a lumpy Churchill, a sparsely dressed Gandhi, a graceful Nelson Mandela, and curiously, a benevolent-looking Abraham Lincoln. (I get why the other statues are there, but Lincoln seems particularly out of place.) I'm generally bored by both Chevy Chase movies and statues, but there is hope for this trip -- Chris mentions on the plane ride to India that he would have liked to have spent a week in London just seeing all the sights.

Ladies and gentlemen, do we have a burgeoning world traveler? Do I dare hope?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Adventures in Traveling with The Most American Man in the World

In 39 years, I've visited nearly 20 countries. My boyfriend, a nubile 37-years-old, has left the U.S. once -- for Bermuda and the Bahamas.

For friends who have known me for more than 24 hours, this is a highly ironic relationship. It's also a goldmine of cultural misunderstandings, sarcastic banter, and many Felix-and-Oscar moments to which I firmly believe I should not be the sole consumer. So let me present for your reading pleasure Adventures in Traveling with The Most American Man in the World.*

First things first. The Most American Man does not like change. I, Felix, do like change. And new ideas.

My constant flow of new ideas -- for life, for work, for art, for travel destinations -- is often met with indifference or outward resistance from The Boyfriend. In fact, here's a graph of the usually trajectory of my happiness when I introduce Chris to a new idea:

See what happens? A new idea is practically infallibly correlated with my happiness. But the minute I share this new idea with Chris, I am met with 0% enthusiasm. Most of the time, this is not because of an obstinate or grumpy-cat nature; he's simply an introvert who mulls over every idea for long periods of time before getting on board.

He's also a civil servant (see footnote below), who knows when to get on board with management's new plan or initiative. This leads to 10% enthusiasm that can seem like progress, but actually it's the worst stage in the Chris Enthusiasm Building process because it is accompanied with Irish-Catholic-level passive-aggressive statemetns (e.g., "Fiiine, I'll go to India, if it's really that important to you.").

I usually pretend to have Asperger's at this point and simply take Chris at his literal word. I pepper him with questions to which he never knows the answer. ("Do you like to see sights or laze around when you travel?" I ask. "I wouldn't know," he responds.) But life is busy, and it's amazing how much a relationship can progress if you just ignore gaping incompatibilities for a few months.

At some point, Chris will realize that things are moving without much effort on his part. At this point, he adopts adrenaline-junkie jargon like, "Sometimes you just have to turn into the skid." The sheer possibility of chaos brings his enthusiasm to 75%. Which is great.

But then things get tricky. Because The Most American Man can't half commit to something. He can't even let it rest at 75%. It's go big or go home. There's no 100%, just 110%. So now, Chris is not only on board with visiting India, I'm pretty sure that if I mention wanting to travel internationally ever again, he's going to want to come back only to India. "It's a tradition," he'll say. "Why mess with a good thing?"

This makes me want to bury my head in despair for all the countries that are out there to be seen. But then I remember what my cousin Cary once told me. "You want a guy who doesn't like change, because that means he won't want to change you." I'm not sure if he meant Chris won't try to exchange me (for someone else) or won't try to change my fundamental personality. But either way, I realize that this trait, this Most American trait, is why I was happy enough to have all those bright ideas in the first place.

And so we continue on our merry-go-round of algorithmic incompatibility. He makes me happy. I have new ideas. I share those ideas, and he mourns the little creature comforts he so desperately wants, opting instead for a life with me. I charge ahead with my idea, and then he gets on board, outstripping any level of interest or enthusiasm I had. And his dedication makes my heart smile with loyal affection. And so we start again...

*For those of you that may dispute that moniker, I should mention that The Boyfriend is a Firefighter/EMT, was born outside of Boston to parents who are Jersey Italian and Irish, loves chain restaurants, and uses the word awesome at least once a day.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Be Who You Love, Don't 'Do What You Love'

This blog post took four years to write.

Not literally, of course. Literally, it's only taken about 45 minutes. Just enough time for my favorite writing prop - a steaming cup of black tea with sugar - to get cold.

But it has taken four years for me to finally be able to sum up in a headline my thoughts on being happy at work.

Fours years ago, at the age of 33, I went through mid-life crisis #1. (It's possible I'm going through mid-life crisis #2 this month, but that's another blog post.) During this time, I struggled heavily with the way I spent most of my twenties and early thirties, distractedly following the newest trends in do-gooder professions. I was a rookie reporter, an international editor, an intern at notable humanitarian organizations, a psychologist-in-training, an "educational content specialist" at a children's educational TV show, and managing editor for a website covering global development.

The problem is that by 33, the sad things of life start to accumulate -- death, sickness, sorrow over things you really can't control. And when these things accumulate, you need a reprieve from the daily grind. Not necessarily a vacation or traveling sabbatical, but creature comforts. A bed that's not a futon. A good meal. An apartment without mice or cockroaches. A pair of boots that keep your toes warm in the winter. Simple things.

But even simple things cost money. And none of the jobs I worked was paying me enough money to afford those things, at least not if I wanted to keep paying my rent. Added to these financial concerns was the problem any honest do-gooder will face when seeing friends and family fall under: What good is saving the world if I don't have the means to help the people I know? It's easy to give money to starving, faceless children in other countries, but that's really very ego-driven. The more honest do-gooder will help the people Fate stitched her heart to -- friends and family -- with equal devotion and convinction.

But it's nearly impossible to be generous towards your loved ones financially when working to "save the world" or "follow your passion." Really, it doesn't always pay off, at least not in the time frame to pay that next medical bill.

And that's the problem people who say "Do What You Love" don't want to admit. It's fundamentally a philosophy of the privileged. Miya Tokumitsu explains this beautifully on, illustrating how Steve Jobs, the biggest straw man in the DWYL debate, was only able to do what he loved by exploiting the livelihoods of others, particularly Chinese factory workers. (Go ahead, read that article. It's really good. I'll wait.)

Moreover, Tokumitsu explains how "Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love—which is, in fact, most labor—is erased." Do you think a cleaning lady is doing what she loves? Probably not. But is it noble because it allows her to put food on her table and raise her kids and get out of an abusive relationship? Damn straight it is.

And that's the problem with Do What You Love -- we all simply don't have the luxury. Even less so as we age and the life initiates us into the Gang of Middle-Aged Survivors with the worst succession of beatings imaginable.

And the flip side is, money really does matter. It can buy happiness. An apartment without mice or roaches is pure heaven for some people. And it costs money.

Now it's true, there's a limit to how much happiness money can buy. It levels off after basic needs and a little comfort are met, as illustrated in a series of lovely post-it note graphs on Brain Pickings. (Go ahead and read that one, too.) But as the article also explains, while money can only buy you so much happiness, there's no end to how many opportunities to flourish it can buy you. More money means more opportunities to flourish. It's a straight line to self-actualization apparently.

So, should we all just work for money?

By no means, NO. Because you spend most of your waking hours at work, it matters very much. I know from personal experience that having a job you hate can suck the life out of you. Money without some fulfillment will leave you depleted and far from flourishing.

So, then, how do we balance the need for money and the need to having enjoyable work?

The answer, I believe, is to BE who we love.

But by being who we love, we chose to work in a way that makes us proud of ourselves. That means working diligently (but not obsessively). It means doing whatever work put in front of you with a sense of gratitude but also with the deep-seated knowledge that your importance is not defined by the importance of your work.

It also means, if you can, pursuing the skills that make you feel like you're flourishing. Don't worry if you want to be the next great American writer but are currently writing VHS manuals (I knew a writer who had. Really. Can you imagine anything worse?). Spend your time honing your skills, shaping your craft, so that when the opportunity comes to write something meaningful, you have the chops to rise to the occasion.

Or to take an example from the non-writing world, don't worry if your job is helping a company sell toilet paper. The world needs salesmen to sell great ideas, and eventually, if that's your goal and intention, you'll get an opportunity to put those toilet paper-selling skills to good use. The one thing I've learned is that excellence is a habit, not a performance. You don't knock it out of the park unless you show up for batting practice every day.

However, on the flip side, do worry if your company does something that goes against your own internal moral compass. This is where passion matters. Perhaps you're passionate about the environment, so selling diapers would be reprehensible. Or you're non-violent, so selling any type of weapon, even guns to cops, would be wrong for you.

Don't follow your passion blindly, but rather, let it inform how you acquire the skills you need to do something great in the world.

Also, be passionate about the skills you develop. If you hate selling, you'll hate your job even if you're selling love to lepers. If you hate writing, you'll hate your job, even if you're writing about do-gooders all day long.

Be Who You Love. Work diligently for pay, knowing the most menial jobs deserve respect. When possible, choose work that teaches you skills you want to know with a company that doesn't violate your moral code. Then look to see if you're happy. My bet is you will be.