Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the most compelling narrative nonfiction I have encountered.  She spent years researching in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, and the results are stirring.  The story is one of real life, not unbridled success.  Some people do well, others die.  Some people are unlawfully detained and beaten, others aren’t.

I plan on volunteering in another year, and I would most like to do so in India.  Since I think of myself as something of a writer, I figured I would write about my experience.  Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the book I hoped to write.  It did exactly what I wanted to do: tell honest stories that help people empathize, not pity.

As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education.

Pity is a complicated sentiment.  Some measure of sympathy might lead to individuals taking action to help alleviate another’s plight.  Too much pity devalues the subject.  They become helpless victims, defined only by what they lack, reliant upon a White Savior to cure their poverty.  I can’t stand that viewpoint.

In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch.  In India, a land of few safe assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted, creative problem-solvers.

Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity, but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating.

I was inspired by what I read.  No one works harder than the impoverished slumdwellers depicted in the text.  India’s poor work as hard as they can to survive.  America’s poor rely on governmental safety nets in their (brief) times of need.  I am not arguing against welfare programs, but this illustrates a profound difference in their personal responsibility.  Most Annawadi residents were entrepreneurs, and effectively, small business owners.  They understood market value, competition, governmental policies, and economics better than some Western business students.  They sold scrap metal, mitigated disagreements, cleaned bathrooms, and hustled hard to provide food and shelter for their families.

It was a great book, I am very glad I finally got a chance to read it.  Katherine Boo’s journalistic experience and tireless research made Behind the Beautiful Forevers a unique story, full of truth and life.

Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

What Should I Do with My Life?

The question isn’t “What do I want to be when I grow up?” it’s What should I do with my life?  Where do I fit?  What am I here to do, specifically?  I have studied several potential vocations, from minister and graphic designer to microfinance and teaching, but I haven’t found my answer yet.

So the relevant question is not what you will do, but who you will become.  What belief system will you adopt, and what will take on heightened importance in your life?…It takes a while to learn who we are, and for our latent talents to emerge.

I have a natural talent and disposition for administrative work.  My current position involves a lot of paperwork processing and number typing in a claustrophobic back-office.  It’s great.  It’s what I’m good at.  After years of struggling through customer service jobs, it feels nice to do something well.

Three guys laying bricks are asked why they’re doing it.  The first guy says, “I’m doing it for the wages.”  The second guy says, “I’m doing it to support my family.”  The third guy says, “I’m helping to build a cathedral.”

While I am suited for administrative work, my interest lies in building.  I have given this some thought, most of my interests have building and improving as common denominators.  I like writing and editing because I can construct a piece and then make it better.  I want to build a project car.  Something about the step-by-step process of bringing a machine back to life and seeing my vision take form appeals to me.  I might get involved in nonprofit management for the same reasons; to use my administrative abilities to build an organization and improve other’s lives.  I even have some interest in construction and renovation, literally building and improving.

Dream -> Lockbox -> Fuck You money -> Lockbox -> Dream

That cold, calculated formula.  Rarer than I ever imagined…Don’t put your dreams in lockboxes, and don’t invest years of your life in a day job for the wad you expect to have at the end.

I can’t adequately pursue all of my interests, there aren’t enough hours in the day or dollars in the bank.  I have to narrow it down.  Seeing that my various desires share some fundamental characteristics helps me focus.  I can’t build a project car right now because I have to get out of debt, buy a house with a garage, and get a job that pays well enough to afford it first.  However, I can write and edit.  Someday I could volunteer and work for a nonprofit.  Because they share some foundational aspects, I can get similar fulfillment from a combination of my interests.  My drive to build and improve outweighs the specifics.

There is no conclusion, I am still trying to answer this question for myself.  I have a long list of things I don’t want to do.  I have a short list of things I want to do more of.  Hopefully I’ll have an answer in another few years.  I want to contribute in a meaningful way, but I am not yet certain how.

The Brilliant Masses are composed of nothing less than the many great people of our generation, the bright, the talented, the intelligent, the resourceful, and the creative–far too many of whom are operating at quarter-speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing far too little to the productive engine of modern civilization, still feeling like observers, all feeling like they haven’t come close to living up to their potential…Being guided by the heart is almost never something an intellectually motivated person chooses to do.  It’s something that happens to them–usually something painful.

(Inspiration and quotes for this post are from What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson.  I highly recommend it.)

What Should I Do with My Life?

Humpty Desktop

I have wanted to build a computer for a long time.  I researched build specifications and determined my minimum acceptable benchmarks.  It’s not going to be a gaming computer, I haven’t played video games in years, so my plan isn’t too demanding.  The build has to be lean, mean, and clean.

Unfortunately, I have no funds for such frivolities.  My five year old MacBook Pro works just fine, so I don’t need another computer.  I’m living in the guest room, so I don’t even have a desk to put it on.  I wanted to build a computer, but I was unable to do so.  Like all deferred dreams, I pushed it from my mind and filed the spreadsheets for future reference.

On Wednesday, I asked the IT department at work if they had any old computers I could take off their hands.  On Friday, I walked out with a Dell Optiplex 330, keyboard, and mouse.  My Dad borrowed a monitor from his job, so I had everything I needed.

Last night, I successfully installed Lubuntu after several failed attempts at making a bootable USB drive.  Everything worked, we were in business.

This morning, I completely disassembled the tower, down to the bare metal.  I popped the side panel off, removed the DVD drive, 80gb hard drive,  processor, heat sink, CPU fan, power supply, RAM, internal speaker, and mother board.  All I needed were two screwdrivers.  It was much easier than I thought it would be and this computer was from 2008, I’m sure current designs are even simpler.


After basking in my victory, I put it all back together.  Getting the board into place was the most tedious step.  I bent some metal, scraped the side of the board, and nearly cracked it.  Eventually, I tried dropping it in the correct way, and it took about ten seconds.  Several screws and SATA connections later, I closed the case.


I threw it back on top of the cedar chest and plugged in all the peripherals.  It started with no problems.  So far as I can tell, everything still works.


I’m not entirely certain what I’ll do with it, since I achieved my goals for that box within 24 hours.  It’s in the basement now, next to my books, ready to stay or go.

Humpty Desktop

At Least No One Died

I may have accidentally committed a crime while driving to work today.  I rounded a blind turn in the rain and saw a school bus with its yellow lights on.  I slowed down, looked around, and carried on.  As I reached the front of the bus, its red lights illuminated.  So I hit the brakes, but by that point, I was already halfway down the side of the bus.

If I had just driven through the yellow lights, I would have cleared the area before the driver switched on the red stop lights, and everything would be fine.  If I had needlessly stopped for the yellow lights, I may have ended up in a crash because of the rain.  If I hadn’t taken the safe and responsible course of action (to slow down for the yellow flashing lights), I wouldn’t have to worry about the camera recording my alleged violation (for passing a stopped school bus).  I really don’t know what I should have done differently.  Just bad timing I guess.

So we’ll find out if I get a $250 fine in the mail.

At Least No One Died

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

I just finished reading this WW2-based novel and the most striking lesson I learned was that my life is unbelievably easy.  The story chronicled the experience of Australian soldiers held by the Japanese and forced to build the Burma Railway.  These men worked long hours under incredibly strenuous conditions until they were liberated, either by the Allied victory or death.

You know why he trusted me?

Professor Ishiyama?

No, the American airman.


Because he thought my white coat meant I would help him.

My most trying workday thus far was a 10 hour retail shift.  I had to wear flip-flops, stand and walk around all day, and smile.  My ankles and knees hurt a bit toward the end, and I was glad to return to my spacious, clean, secure, and comfortable housing once I had finished.

I have never been beaten, starved, or systemically mistreated.  I have never suffered from lice, ticks, and debilitating tropical diseases.  I have never been carried through the jungle to the worksite since I was unable to walk.

In the end all that was left was the heat and the clouds of rain, and insects and birds and animals and vegetation that neither knew nor cared.  Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.

Richard Flanagan’s book changed my perspective and helped me realize that I have nothing to complain about.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

Lamb-Shaped-Cake, not Cake-Shaped-Lamb

The roaring leaf-blower outside is drowning out my tenuous thoughts, yet I shall persevere.  I went to church on Easter, which was interesting because I haven’t steadily attended church services since October.  It was good to reconnect with some people.  Several folks asked how I was doing, a few made jokes, most probably didn’t take note of my presence.  Which was fine, the potluck lunch had tiny brownies and soft cookies which provided all the comfort I needed.

Ten of us met at my aunt’s house for dinner.  My uncle made a bit of a mess of the lamb-cake decorating; the red ribbon around its neck looked more like a slit throat dripping glittery frosting.  He eventually had enough of everyone’s negative comments, so I took over.  I’m no pastry chef, so the result may have been an Easter miracle.  A few bottles of wine, some hurt feelings, and lots of laughter later, we boxed up the lamb’s severed head and went on our way.

Lamb-Shaped-Cake, not Cake-Shaped-Lamb

If At First You Don’t Succeed

I have a policy: Get back on it.  This isn’t just my policy, but it’s a good one, and like all good things and theories, I wish to make it my own.

I pay entirely too many dollars each month for the opportunity to injure myself at the climbing gym.  Today, the left side of my left index finger separated from the nail.  Some of my blood fell out of the gap, so, like any considerate gym member, I rinsed the blood off my hands before getting back on the wall.

A little while later, I was working on a crazy V5.  It involved a lot of physical moves, so it was my kind of climb.  I was trying to make the next move, a right hand grab, and I had some difficulty.  I pulled harder, because the answer to most problems is to apply more force, and it didn’t work out.  I misjudged where my right knee was in relation to the wall, as a result, they collided.  Violently.

The jarring impact hurt more than a little bit, so I fell off and hit the mat.  I laid there, clutching my wounded knee until I could stand.  Blood got all over my special climbing pants, which was the most disappointing result of this debacle.

Once everything seemed close enough to ok, I tried again.  To do otherwise would be to let the problem win.  A few attempts later, I made the move.  I didn’t finish the route, but at least I didn’t let the wall kill me.  Or defeat me.  You only lose when you give up.

If At First You Don’t Succeed