Knives

Another woman,
Another heartbreak,
Another knife,
Through my chest.

Every new knife,
that’s pushed through,
Opens up
All the older wounds.

In these wounds,
I look for answers,
But I only ever find,
Blood, and bile, and venom.

Smarter men,
Luckier, or more fortunate,
Have already found,
The joys of settling,
growing old and fat,
impenetrable blubber skins,
Impervious and puncture-proof.

I wonder why then,
I keep letting women,
Stick their knives into me.

I wonder why
I let them leave me,
Writhing on the ground.

I wonder why
I lie there,
Waiting,
For the blood to clot,
For a scab to form,
Only to leap up,
And stick my chest out,
For another knife,
Hoping it’s the last,
But knowing it’s not.

The truth is:
Between the old scabs,
And new wounds,
Is when I remember
That I am alive.

I Remember

I remember
Sitting outside college lecture halls,
Penning pretentious poems.

I wrote about princesses in towers,
Abstract visions,
Conjured fantasies,
Layers upon layers
Of bullshit

I was afraid to say
What I really felt,
In the way
That I really felt it.

Back then,
Enslaved by emotions,
Impotent Anger,
Fervid Jealousy,
Unrequited Love,
Intense obsessions,
I wanted the whole world,
And I could have none of it.

As the years passed,
I scratched, I clawed,
And I carved out little slivers of life
Wherever I called home.

The intensity mellowed out,
The pretense dissolved,
I cleaned up the bullshit,
Or it was just
Beaten out of me.

But My little slivers of life
Were deemed inadequate
And invalid.

They told me about
All the things I didn’t have,
And all the things I hadn’t done.

So I held my little slivers tightly against my chest,
And went back to the world
Of warped fantasies.
Yet again I was enslaved, impotent, and fervid.

The love,
Yet again unrequited
The obsessions,
Yet more intense.

The world in my dreams
Now desolate and barren,
The landscape scorched,
The ground sowed with salt.

And I sit here,
Halfway across the world,
Poeting my thoughts.
Unpretentious, raw, vulnerable,
Not wanting to care,
Not able to stop

Everything is just
All too real
There’s such a finality,
An invisible deadline,
For an invisible assignment,
That’s woefully incomplete.

No more re-rolls of the dice,
No more mulligans,
And I’m back,
Right where I was,
When I sat outside lecture halls,
Penning pretentious poems.

Rediscovering and Healing my Inner Child

Let me know what you think about this video in the comments!

Video Transcript and Companion Post

When I made my first video three years ago, I started by saying, “I don’t know what I am doing”. Back then, I didn’t know about the visual medium. I remember being taken aback by how much people read into things- what was in the background, my facial expressions (you look tired/sick/frustrated), whether I had a 5 o’clock shadow, and of course, what I was wearing. 

As time went on, I started making tweaks to those things- my backdrop, my expressions, and my appearance. And that last bit, while seemingly the simplest of the changes I made, helped me learn so much about myself. 

You see, for the longest time, I insisted on a very simple, basic, and regimented style of clothing. One or two colors, little to no patterns or ornamentation, clothing that gets out of the way, that never makes any statements. That was just the way I preferred to dress for many years, and I didn’t think about why I was so adamant on sitting on the fence, neither dressing to impress nor to express. 

So, when I decided to wear a Hawaiian shirt on a workday, I expected it to be a little joke, a surprise to my coworkers battling zoom fatigue whilst working from home in the middle of a global pandemic. I thought they’d laugh, think it was silly- maybe they’d think I was a weirdo. 

But, they didn’t laugh at me. At best, I got some smiles, nods, a compliment here and there. That was a pleasant surprise, but it raised an important question- why did I think they would all laugh at me? 

I pondered this answer for a bit. I got to thinking about the several years of my plain, minimal dressing sense, my insistence on not making any statements, and my cringing at bright colors or patterns. I thought about how it felt wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt instead of a plain, single-color polo. I was pleasantly surprised at how good it felt to have a pop of color in an otherwise dull and drab existence that was full of sameness, especially in the times we live in. 

I had a breakthrough when I went back to my past. I looked at pictures of me as a child. Of course, I didn’t buy my own clothes back then, but I saw I wore more colorful livelier clothing. So the question then became: what happened between my childhood and teenage or young adult years, that drastically changed my outlook towards how I presented myself? 

After a lot of digging through memories, I found my answer. When I was a kid, maybe 5 or 6  years old, I decided to wear a blue beanie, or monkey cap, to school. It had tassels hanging off the sides of it. Blue is my favorite color, and I wanted to keep my ears warm in the winter, so I decided to put it on. I was warm, I was cozy, and I was feeling pretty good about myself until I walked to the bus stop. You see, kids can be cruel. The other kids at the bus stop definitely decided to be cruel to me that winter morning, when they all pointed and laughed at me in unison. 

I learned a lot about people and society that day. I was ashamed, I was embarrassed, and most importantly, I learned a lesson- that it was time to grow up: no more being childish and silly. I had to look and act like a grownup now, and that meant I had to change how I presented myself. 

I had relegated this memory to a dark corner of my mind, I’d never thought about it in many years. But I believe this was the event that had so many far-reaching effects. It changed how I saw myself and other people.

This was a huge realization because it helped me see that I was viewing all my experiences through that lens for so long. So many of my behaviors started making sense to me. My aversion to being made fun of. Taking things as a personal attack. Staying under the radar and refusing to get into any conflict or confrontation. My bad habit of putting myself down as a precautionary measure so others couldn’t do it to me first.

What is the name of this lens, the concept that lies at the root of it all? The inner child. The simplest, most commonly known, and yet most neglected of all things. This neglect is almost universal, and it affects our lives even when we’re adults. We ignore this inner child as much as we can, as we inhabit a cold, cruel world run by calculating adult minds, but this inner child has a habit of making itself known, a habit of overpowering the wills of even the most headstrong and stubborn individuals, in some situations.

In my case, it was my seemingly inexplicable defensiveness in the face of questioning and criticism. My desire to stay away from conflicts, arguments, and confrontations. And as I have talked about before, my overly simplistic dressing sense. 

So how do I move forward, how do I deal with this? I started by looking at the lesson that incident taught me. By realizing that I was stifling my desires just to appease some invisible force. By thinking of the things that brought me joy that I abandoned. By realizing that living up to these expectations was an unnecessary weight that I was carrying around. 

And yes, these expectations are a burden. My whole life, the constant feeling of unmet potential. If only I was taller, if only I lost some weight, if only I was an extrovert, if only I was popular and had many friends, if only I was top of my class in school and college, if only I was more successful by now, if only I had enjoyed my 20s more, if only, if only, if only. 

My whole life I’ve been told to measure up to some ideal vision of what a man is supposed to be. Whether it be a rich and successful professional, or a womanizing Casanova. And so far, I’ve fallen short every single time. Not rich enough, not famous enough, didn’t have enough girlfriends… it’s the tremendous weight of unmet expectations, the guilt of this unmet potential hanging over my head. 

I realized my dressing sense was just emblematic of the greater problem of trying to live up to some warped ideals that I thought I had to live up to. Of chasing all that I ought to have wanted, but all the while ignoring that which I really wanted. In this relentless desire to be accepted, to be acknowledged by the outside world, to ideally have praise and admiration, but at least to avoid being made fun of, I ignored this wounded, hurt, helpless part of my psyche, hoping it would just go away, hoping I would find a way to overpower it once and for all. 

So where do I find myself, with all of these revelations? I think back to an entry I made in my journal, many years ago. In it, I wrote, “I keep looking outside of myself because when I look inside, there’s just this absolute child.” 

This whole time I was trying to suppress my inner child, but now, I’ve decided to go the other way. To acknowledge and heal this part of myself. To express myself in ways I had not before, for fear of criticism or ridicule. Changing what I wear is just the start. 

I hope this video helps you all embrace your own inner children instead of trying to escape them. Thanks for watching, and remember: 

Don’t try to kill the part of yourself that you find cringeworthy. Kill the part of yourself that cringes. 

On Rumination and the false dichotomy of Production and Consumption

I came across a graphic online with the caption “Two ways to spend your time- consume or produce. Which one has a higher chase of success? The choice is yours.” 

Credit: @letsketchin on Twitter, letsketch.in

Now I know that simple graphics like this one get great traction on social media- because, well, you can mindlessly consume them, think about it for a moment or two, and then keep on scrolling. 

I feel like this graphic puts things into a false dichotomy. There is the false notion that you can either be producing things or consuming them, with the implication that creating things is a better use of your time. Graphics like these don’t take into account activities where you’re neither producing nor consuming. I can pick out a few examples in this graphic that I don’t think fall into this dichotomy, take meditation for example- but I digress. 

Here’s another graphic that gets so close and yet fails to move past this dichotomy. In this one, steps 3, 4, and 5 talk about recollection, observation, and assimilation, and go from assimilation to creation. While this may be a way of doing things, it over-simplifies the creative process in my opinion. So much of creation is re-doing and starting over. It fails to move beyond the dichotomy, the two-dimensional space, to consider the third dimension.

This graphic comes a little closer to how creativity works in my mind- but over-simplifies it.

The dimension these graphics fail to recognize is that of passivity and rumination. On the weekends, for example, I often find myself in a mental state where I am not producing or consuming anything, where I’m just ruminating on things, letting my mind wander as I do mundane tasks like cleaning my house. In those moments, I’m simply being, simply existing, simply letting my mind amble along imaginary fields. It is my way of rejuvenating and dealing with the stresses of daily life. 

I find that it’s in these moments that creativity tends to strike me. In a way, the creative process is similar to those moments when you try to remember something and it’s at the tip of your tongue but you just can’t remember it. It’s only sometime later at some random instance when you’re not actively thinking about it that you remember. 

It also reminds me of how Indian food tastes often tastes better a day after I’ve cooked it- because the flavors get more time to get to know each other when you just let them rest and give them time. 

This discussion makes me think of the diminishing returns of constantly sacrificing your mind and body at the altar of progress. The constant framing of things as activities, something to actively do or to participate in, while demonizing passivity in all its forms. Not allowing yourself the adequate amount of time to process and work through things both physical and mental, well that just leads to diminishing returns. 

I’ll give you yet another analogy. It’s like making sure your car gets regular oil changes. The oil’s there to lubricate the moving parts of the engine, and over time it accumulates all kinds of particles, that reduce its effectiveness. And if you delay it too long, you might start seeing larger and larger chunks of metal, and by that time you’ve probably already caused irreparable damage to the engine, reducing its overall life expectancy. 

To summarize, there are two aspects at play: 

One is allowing your mind to wander, to think of different things, to wander along all the grasslands and riverbanks and unknown paths to uncover new connections and interesting facets to things that you may not have uncovered if you kept walking along the same well-trodden path. 

The other is that constantly trying to actively produce or even consume without giving your mind and body a rest, can lead to diminishing returns and eventual burnout.  

I think Bill Watterson puts it perfectly:

For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious six-year-old [Calvin] each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazed at how one idea leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander.

– Bill Watterson

Fitness band fitness tracker mi band 5, featured image for blog.

Fitness bands, the quantified self, and being gaslit by technology

After years of rejecting modernity (using fitness trackers) and embracing tradition (being mindful of how my body feels and what it’s telling me) for my fitness journey, I finally caved into the siren call of technology last October and got myself a fitness band. I’d gotten into at-home workouts owing to the pandemic, and I needed something to keep me going, to hold me accountable, and to keep a record of my daily activities automatically.

I chose the Mi Band 5, because it was one of the most affordable options out there, and I wanted to test the waters before I committed to something more advanced. The reviews were pretty great, if not stellar. In terms of features, it offers the usual fare. It can track your steps, your sleep, your heart rate, and even your “stress level” using some sensors and math.

Setting up the device was easy enough. I was able to pair the band with my phone through that companion app. After setting it all up, I could see that it could count my steps, show me my heart rate, give me a “stress level” rating out of 100, and even measure how long I slept. So far so good. But you’ve read the title of this blog, and are probably wondering why I think I am being gaslit by technology.

It all began quite subtly, starting with the step counter. While the band tracks things passively, you can get it to actively monitor you by selecting one of several “workout” options. Selecting a workout allows you to record your progress and view summary stats after the workout ends. I started off by selecting the “walking” workout before going on walks. It works well enough for about 90% of the time, except for a weird quirk: sometimes the workout tracking pauses itself thinking I have stopped walking, while I am still walking. This has happened enough times for it to make me wonder how much of my walks are really recorded.

Now let’s move on to the sleep tracking. The sleep tracking gets a lot right. What it tells me about when I go to sleep, when I wake up, and how long I slept for is in line with my personal observations. It also shows me the different phases of sleep I went through in the night, and some “tips” to improve my sleep quality. One of the recurring tips it keeps showing me is that I should get more “deep sleep”. Now, I have always been a light sleeper, but I always felt like I got a good night’s sleep more often than not. Except now this fitness band comes along and tells me that I don’t get enough “deep” sleep even though I slept for a good 7 to 8 hours. Have I been wrong all along? Have I never truly had proper sleep in my entire life? Is that a problem I didn’t know I had? The gaslighting is taking hold now.

The tone of this messaging comes across as mocking, especially seeing how I do “exercise to keep fit”.

The biggest issue I have with this fitness tracker is how it utterly fails me if I try using it to track a workout that isn’t just walking. I have been working out at home for over a year and a half now. I alternate between HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and Weightlifting. What I find when using the fitness band to track my heart rate during these types of workouts is a huge discrepancy between what the band reads, and what I am actually experiencing. I could be in the middle of a very intense session, and the heart rate monitor either completely freezes up, or says I am in a “relaxed mode”. This reflects in the final workout summary, where it shows a drastically different reading to the one I expect.

So how do I know that it’s the band that is wrong, and I’m not just making up these accusations of gaslighting against it? I wouldn’t have known if it hadn’t been for this YouTube video by the quantified scientist:

This is a YouTube channel run by a postdoctoral scientist in Vienna, Austria. He uses a rigorous methodology and reports on in-depth analyses that he conducts on wearable devices. It’s a unique and immensely valuable perspective on wearable technology in a space dominated by tech YouTubers and media outlets that go over the same talking points; basing their reviews on specifications and light real-world use.

For me, the two key takeaways from this review were:

  1. The band recognizes deep sleep for the most part, but it records too little of it, when compared to a more advanced sleep tracker.
  2. The band quite often misses increases in heart rate, and is not quite suitable for tracking weight lifting exercises, because it uses an optical heart rate sensor.

If I hadn’t seen this review, the discrepancy between what the tracker was telling me and my own personal observations would have kept me in a conflicted state of mind. Now that I do know the limitations of this technology, I have a couple of options before me. I could get better trackers (such as a chest strap to measure heart rate more accurately). Or, I could make do with the fact that “the quantified self” is nothing more than a silhouette, or a chalk outline on the pavement.

I’m sure getting better trackers will add some more details to the silhouette, that adding more things to measure will fill out that chalk outline with some more artistic shading. In the past year, I developed an adversarial relationship with the quantified self, because it didn’t record me well enough, and even if it could, it would always leave something out. Like an asymptote— it can come infinitesimally close to a complete picture, but it will be fully realized.

This gap between reality and the numbers presented to me by the tracker left me with nothing but dissatisfaction. What truly brought me back to being happy with myself is the “qualitative” aspect of things. Being cognizant of how I felt. I feel a lot better now than I used to feel 18 months ago. I feel more limber. I don’t constantly roll my shoulders anymore, nor do I constantly feel like my lower back is in a mildly annoying level of pain. I can lift slightly heavier weights than I could before. I can work out for longer. Muscle soreness doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. I feel more in control of my body, no longer are my body movements labored. My body feels more like a taut, perfectly tuned guitar string, unlike the loose, out of tune mess it was before.

The numbers, the scores, and the records are fine, but looking at them alone left me dissatisfied, because I knew not only how much wasn’t recorded, but also because I knew how much it couldn’t tell me about myself, even if it worked perfectly 100% of the time. This “qualified self” as I like to call it, is what brought me back to being happy with my progress and how far I have come.

[VIDEO] Seven Years Living in the USA: A Few Thoughts

In this video, I talk about validation, vindication, and victory over external pressures in the seven years that I’ve lived in the USA. It took a while to gather my thoughts on this one.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Here are the key points I discuss:

Life after school

My time in the USA can be divided into two distinct phases: the two years I spent in grad school, and the 5 years spent working post graduation. The key question I had to contend with after I graduated was- “What are you if not a student?”. For about two decades of my life, the primary objective had been to get educated and get degrees. My entire routine revolved around it.

Even activities outside of studies were viewed through an academic lens- they were called them “extracurricular activities”. In my opinion, pursuing those activities was still tied into the overarching goal of looking good on a resume.

Trying to find the answer to that question leads me to the next point.

Creating an identity

I got into the habit of journaling my thoughts in a diary, and writing blogs about my experiences when I moved. Over the first few years of my time in the US, I started developing a sense of identity around being someone who writes. I wrote on my blog, I wrote for pocketnow.com, I wrote for grad school… it was the one thing I was confident about being good at.

My sense of identity as “the writer” was challenged when I got some very critical feedback from one of my professors. It took a while to cope with and get through the turmoil that caused me, because it challenged one of my core beliefs that I held on to very strongly. I wrote a few things thinking through that whole ordeal (I even made a video about it), and over time, I started looking to improve other aspects of my life, like working on my public speaking.

I look back at this time fondly, because although it was challenging, it led me to develop other facets of my life and personality. I would even go as far as to say that the impulse to start making videos had its origins in that “critique event”.

Validation of my personality

I’ve always been an introverted and reserved person. Growing up, I always heard from my parents, my teachers, and others around me, that I needed to have “smartness” and that reserved people never get ahead in life. They always implied that being reserved and introverted meant you were a moron or a simpleton, whereas being extroverted meant you would be a “go getter” and that extraversion was the key to success. My personality was always invalidated. It’s a societal issue- you don’t need to look further than to see how many “personality development classes” there are in India. The implication that there were no personality types, just “acceptable personality” and “bad personality” pervaded my mind space throughout my life.

The fact that I went to another country, got a master’s degree, and found a job in the field of my liking all while being true to myself the whole time was the biggest validation of my personality. When you’re not burdened by the yoke of putting on a persona for the world at large, you can really focus on achieving what you want.

Being okay with my life choices

This was the point that took a long time to come to terms with. Everyday in media and on social media I see a vision of the ideal life being marketed to me, and it’s almost impossible to escape its hold. One of my biggest lamentations in life used to be how I didn’t go through the life experiences that a lot of others had. All the fun and frivolity that I was supposed to have, or that I should have had. I came to this country in my early 20s, and my peers kept telling me how I had the best opportunity to “enjoy my life”.

In a sense, the words of my peers simply echoed the arbitrary milestones that society lays out. As if life stops when you turn 30, and all of a sudden you are too old for those frivolities, and that you will never be able to experience that in your life past that age. As if I was to be handed a report card on my 30th birthday showing me how badly I had done in my personal life in my 20s. As the years wore on, that internal deadline approached closer, and that made me more and more despondent. I was a loser. I had failed in achieving those fantasies laid in front of me by others, by social media, by movies, and TV shows. I couldn’t make that happen for myself. I couldn’t manifest it into reality. I had neither the internal drive to seek it out nor the intestinal fortitude to see it through.

It is true- I didn’t take any chances. I didn’t take many risks. I can call that making a sacrifice, or I can call it wasted time- either way, that time is gone now. It can be a lifelong regret, or maybe it’s just a matter of getting old enough to be able to view that time with rose-tinted glasses. But the fact is- if I had fully internalized it and made it my life goal to be that kind of person- a player, a risk-taker, a Casanova, a whatever you want to call it- I would have made the effort towards achieving it. It wasn’t my life goal, though. I just wanted simpler things, like fulfilling the dreams of my childhood. I wanted to experience my surroundings and find a group of friends, a tribe, someone who I can confide in and talk to, an inner circle if you will. I wanted other things, like wanting to establish myself in my career, wanting some certainty on the professional front, things of that nature, very boring, mundane things. I wanted to spruce up the apartments I lived in, with posters and books and other small trinkets. I wanted to spend an entire weekend playing video games. I wanted to go to local breweries and try out their seasonal brews. I wanted to go to local cafes and restaurants and have coffee or meals by myself as I people-watched. I wanted to clean my house slowly and methodically while I listened to music or podcasts. I wanted to take long walks in local parks just to breathe freely and think through things. Things to do by myself, alone, to charge my internal battery up.

I did half-heartedly try enjoying those frivolous things here and there in these seven years. It always felt like I was fumbling around like a blindfolded four-year-old with a baseball bat in hand trying to swing at a hanging piñata. For seven years I have been swinging aimlessly, and for seven years, I’ve hit nothing but air. I have yet to make it rain candy from the piñata’s papier-mache belly.

There are only two paths this train of thought can lead to. On one hand, I could blame myself for not being able to play “the game”, for not being the kind of person that fulfills those societal milestones, or for at least pretending to like what most people seem to like. Or, I can accept that all of this is just a matter of time and a matter of luck. That there’s a fundamental absurdity and meaninglessness to everything, and that nothing is owed to me. The latter is the more relieving of the two, to be honest. It takes the burden of performance away from me and allows me to believe in myself, to stay true to who I am as a person.

In the end, I did what made me happy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

CM Punk’s return- A reminder of the magic of Professional Wrestling

August 13, 2005, I left Professional Wrestling. August 20, 2021… I’m Back

These words reverberated through the United Center in Chicago, as CM Punk made his return to professional wrestling. I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling for about as long as I can remember, but the weeks and days leading up to the reveal of “wrestling’s worst kept secret” had me in anticipation in a way that hardly ever occurs.

It has been a tough year and a half of being mostly locked down and under pressure, and professional wrestling has been an oasis of respite against the unrelenting despair of our times. A silly and magical pantomime with over-the-top characters and choreographed violence. Most people think of it as a childish diversion that you’re supposed to grow out of, but for those who are willing to suspend their disbelief, to believe in the magic – it is home to some of the greatest moments in entertainment. 

Of course, the de-facto standard-bearer in most of the history of televised wrestling has been the WWE, formerly known as the WWF. It’s what almost every layperson thinks of when you say the words “Wrestling” or “Pro Wrestling”. I remember watching WWE growing up- I caught the end of the “Attitude Era”, a defining moment in Wrestling history, in the late 90s and early 2000s. A lot of the subject matter doesn’t translate well into today’s sensitivities, but what people remember the most about that time in wrestling, are the characters, the moments, and how loud and involved the crowds used to be. 

As time went on, wrestling, or at least what the WWE put out, changed, as the world changed as well. In 2021, wrestling occupies a very small slice of the media pie- we have streaming services, movies, videogames…the list goes on. In my personal experience- wrestling has a dual identity- most of the people I interact with don’t watch it at all, but have heard about it, but on the other hand, wrestling parlance and references have permeated every bit of mainstream media. People use “inside” terms like saying “faces and heels” instead of “good guys and bad guys” or “heroes and villains”, for example. As another example, you’ll see a mural of wrestlers from the 80s and 90s in street art. 

Wrestling has seeped into the mainstream culture more than you might think. You might even go as far as to say that it is one of America’s most influential cultural exports of the last few decades. The WWE had a huge part in spreading that influence. Influence, however, waxes and wanes, and the WWE’s brand of wrestling which they prefer to call “Sports entertainment” hasn’t really captured the hearts and minds of diehard wrestling fans in a long, long time. 

This is where we come back to CM Punk. He saw this undercurrent of discontent, and in 2011, used it as a part of a storyline, blending reality and fiction in a way that can only happen in professional wrestling. In his now-prescient “promo” (A speech given by a wrestler to advance a storyline) called the pipebomb, he aired his grievances with the way WWE was run, how he felt mistreated, and so on. He talked about how the company was out of touch with its fans – a sentiment that a lot of disenfranchised fans agreed with at the time. 

In the next few years, CM Punk continued to be in or around top billing on the card. The only thing that eluded him, however, was the top spot. The privilege of being “the top guy” usually comes with more than bragging rights. Creative freedom within the WWE’s structure is one of those privileges. In the “attitude era” I mentioned earlier, the biggest stars were larger-than-life individuals. In the modern era of the WWE, there are no stars bigger than the WWE itself. The company controls its performers to ensure that they don’t become bigger than the WWE brand. Every word and every action of every performer is scripted and controlled to the utmost extent. In a way, they do what’s best for business- they are a publicly-traded company, and their focus is on family-friendly entertainment, and more recently, towards generating content for multiple platforms. The only performers that get a modicum of control over their characters are the ones topmost on the card. 

CM Punk used the undercurrent of discontent among the fans as fuel to propel himself to the top. Despite not fitting the mold of a traditional “WWE superstar” – generally tall and bulky behemoths that could convey a larger-than-life persona. In a way, he helped usher in an era of performers that weren’t as big or as tall as the WWE’s formulae dictated, but captured the imagination of the fans on the basis of their technique and charisma. The WWE had to grudgingly push him to the top of the card, but even then, the incessant pressure and friction between Punk and the WWE seemed to wear on him.

Looking back towards the end of his WWE run, it’s clear that he was neither in the best of health nor was he mentally fulfilled. There was a lot of drama and litigation surrounding his exit from WWE which is well documented- but in the 7 years since he left the company, he tried his best to follow his passions, to find joy in new beginnings. He found himself in the world of MMA- in the UFC, no less. I remember watching his UFC debut, wondering how he got there, and knowing in my heart that he’d end up like Jon Favreau’s character in “FRIENDS”. He ended up with 2 losses in 2 matches before he was let go- something that will live with him for the rest of his life. What I am in awe of though- is that he followed through with that commitment, in his relentless passion to find a new beginning, to go out of his comfort zone. Did he deserve the spot that he got? Maybe, and maybe not. Did he tarnish his reputation forever? Some say so. 

None of that mattered on the night of August 20, 2021. It was not WWE, but a new company called AEW, built on the promise to bring the magic back to professional wrestling. The internet was abuzz with rumors of CM Punk being signed. In the weeks leading up to this day, AEW had leaned very heavily into rumors, putting small references like Easter eggs into their programming. They’d announced a show in Chicago and labeled it “the first dance” – possibly a reference to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. The stage was set, but fans all over the world were cautiously optimistic. Wrestling companies, especially the WWE, had a habit of trying to elicit reactions from the fans by subverting their expectations- I remember seeing how people expected this to be some elaborate ruse to get “heat” from the crowd- a dangerous gamble to play with the goodwill and buzz that AEW had generated. 

Luckily, AEW  handled it as simply and directly as they could. At the beginning of the show, the crowd was already chanting “CM Punk” in anticipation of his arrival. When “Cult of Personality” played through the speakers, the crowd erupted in the loudest reaction I remember hearing. The name “CM Punk” showed up on the large screens, and finally, after seven long years, Phil Brooks walked onto the stage, returning to Professional Wrestling as a hero, to the deafening cheers of the partisan Chicago crowd. He seemed staid, overwhelmed with the adulation of the fans who never forgot about him, as he looked around and then kneeled on the entrance ramp, his eyes on the verge of tears. As he soaked in the chants from the crowd, his expression changed to one of gratitude and joy. As he stood back up and exclaimed back at the crowd, his arms outstretched- it was in that moment that he, the crowd, and everyone watching at home realized, that the best in the world, the voice of the voiceless, the professional wrestler CM Punk, had truly returned. 

The atmosphere in the United Center was emotionally charged- so much so, that we saw one of the spectators crying, overwhelmed by the emotions of that moment. A few folks on the internet were quick to make fun of that guy, to which I say, it’s sad that men aren’t allowed to express their vulnerability in situations like these. Men are not emotional monoliths only capable of anger and rage- they can be emotionally invested in things, and have the right to express their vulnerability publicly. The majority of wrestling fans completely understood what he felt, though, and were supportive of him, which I appreciate. 

Moments like these are what make professional wrestling so much more unique than any other form of entertainment. Sure, movies and TV shows can have plot twists. They can have the most amazing cinematics and the most realistic special effects. What they cannot do, however, is blend the crowd’s reactions into the performance seamlessly. They can’t blur the lines between reality and fiction in the way that professional wrestling storylines can.  

It was this mixture of reality and fantasy that drew audiences to the United Center and to TV Screens around the world that night. They flocked to see the return of both the man and the character that enraptured wrestling fans in a way that hadn’t occurred since the heyday of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Yes, he didn’t leave the WWE on good terms. Yes, he burned a lot of bridges along the way. Yes, he tried his hand at MMA and was handily beat twice. All of those things are true, and yet the crowd welcomed him back.

Why didn’t his failures post WWE matter to this crowd? The answer to that is simple- they believed because they wanted to believe. The suspension of disbelief is one of the key requirements to enjoy professional wrestling. This key principle is what allows people to buy into the David vs Goliath-esque storylines, the supernatural occurrences, and the larger-than-life characters. Some wrestling companies push the envelope by having matches between wrestlers and inanimate objects. One company even held an entire match with two “invisible men” as competitors- go watch “invisible man vs invisible Stan” to get an idea of what I am talking about.

Thus ended CM Punk’s seven-year hiatus from the squared circle. Seven years is a long time- especially in today’s fast-paced age of social media, where people get famous and lose their fame within the span of just a few days. Wrestling fans didn’t forget about him during his hiatus, though- to the extent that his name continued to be chanted by fans as a way to express discontent towards the performances or the storylines being played out in front of them. It just goes to show how much he and what he stood for meant to the fans. 

As he picked up the microphone and spoke to the fans in a wrestling ring for the first time in seven years, he said he had nothing prepared- although I feel like he had a lot of thoughts in his mind that he wanted to speak about. He started by talking up new talent, recognizing his past missteps, and acknowledging how his fans had never forgotten about him. 

What stuck with me was when he said “I was never going to get healthy physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally, staying in the same place that got me sick in the first place”. While he said that in reference to his prior experiences working in “sports entertainment”, what I took from it was that creativity doesn’t need to come from a place of pain and negativity. I first began writing as a creative outlet several years ago thinking that I needed to be in some kind of pain or anguish to truly create something worthy of being seen. As I grew older, I realized that creation can come from a place of happiness and positivity as well. Creating something need not be a catharsis, something to go through to feel better. Feeling happy and optimistic can be a starting point for it too, leading you to share your optimism with others that may share your sentiments and come together to multiply that positivity. 

There is so much more I can say about CM Punk’s debut in AEW- one of the most anticipated and invigorating moments I have seen in professional wrestling. I’ll end by saying this- professional wrestling is one of the most unique forms of live performance art that exists. When done poorly, it can be terrible, but when it’s done well, it’s beyond perfect. I know it’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. The wrestling world is a lot more diverse than it used to be 7-10 years ago. There’s something for everyone- a diverse landscape that can be seen if you look beyond the realm of WWE and “sports entertainment”. In a way, that’s what CM Punk wanted to bring to wrestling- a cultural change. He left professional wrestling in 2005, he left “sports entertainment” in 2014, and now as the wrestling landscape has begun to shift, he finds himself at the epicenter of the earthquake of change, the right man, in the right mindset, at the right moment. 

I don’t know about you, but for me: 

“Wrestling is better than the things you like.”

John Oliver

Bluetooth Earphones, User Experience, and Loving the Mundane

I recently broke my second pair of Bluetooth earphones in the span of one year, and that got me thinking about my experiences using Bluetooth audio devices over the years. 

The Start: Being forced to use Bluetooth Earphones

The first time I started using Bluetooth earphones was back in 2015. I was forced into using them because my phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack stopped working, and I couldn’t be bothered to send my phone over to a repair shop to get it fixed. I was in grad school back then and money was tight- I remember scouring slickdeals dot net and finding a coupon code so I could buy a no-name brand pair of earphones for ten or twelve bucks. 

My first pair of earphones looked something like this

Before then, I was exclusively a wired headphone/earphone user. I didn’t have to think about the experience of connecting headphones to listen to music – just plug and play. That’s where my annoyances started with going wireless. There’s an initial setup process that involves pairing your earphones and your phone. It usually involves pressing and holding a combination of buttons for some amount of seconds until you see some kind of LED indicator and/or hear a particular sound. You then have to find the device on your phone, go through the pairing process and hope it works. 

Over the years, the pairing experience has become more intuitive and convenient due to prior experiences, familiarity, and manufacturers trying to reduce the number of steps needed. 

Thinking back to using those first earphones I owned- I mostly remember them being uncomfortable to wear- they dug into my ears at times, and their shape and hard plastic construction meant that holding onto them, keeping them in your pocket, and even pushing the power button was pretty annoying. The sound quality was hollow and tinny. The battery life was decent. But I overlooked the shortcomings because they were affordable, and I didn’t have a choice. 

Learning to Live with and Love Bluetooth Earphones

As time went on and I switched phones, I ended up continuing to use Bluetooth earphones at least half the time I was listening to music. Being forced to use them had helped me understand the plus sides of going wireless- being able to listen while your phone’s kept away, or being able to use them more comfortably while working out, for example. 

Brainwavs BLU100

Graduating and getting a job also unlocked the capability of buying earphones that weren’t at the bottom of the barrel – that meant better sound quality, longer battery life, better build quality with more “premium” feeling materials, and better comfort. I remember using a pair of Brainwavz earbuds that came with foam eartips instead of the usual silicone ones. Using foam eartips that conform to your ears makes the experience of wearing earphones significantly more comfortable, especially for longer listening sessions. 

Despite becoming more accustomed to using bluetooth earphones, I still had a couple of issues with them. Connecting to a device wasn’t instantaneous, and turning them on required me to press and hold the power button for about 5 seconds. Not huge issues in the grand scheme of things, but when you compare that to the seamlessness of plugging a pair of earbuds into a 3.5mm headphonejack and starting to play audio, having to wait to turn on and connect wirelessly is slightly annoying. 

The unfortunate thing with bluetooth earphones- at least the ones I tried, is that they end up malfunctioning or breaking eventually. When my pair of Brainwavs kicked the bucket, I bought a pair of Aukey EPB40s. Design-wise, they were pretty much the same- except the left and right earbuds were magnetic, and were able to stick to each other- nifty to be sure, but nothing extraordinary. 

The EPB60s

It’s their successor, the EPB60s, that took the magnetic “snapping” feature and used it to switch the earbuds on and off- separating the earbuds to turn them on, and snapping them together to turn them off. What I first considered a clever gimmick turned out to be a great solution to the hangups I had with using wireless earphones. This was the closest that a Bluetooth device had come to seamlessly integrating into my routine. Sometimes the best designs are those that integrate so well into your lives and routines that you don’t even think about them. 

These were the first Bluetooth earphones that became my primary way of listening to music on the go. I still use wired headphones while listening to music on my “audiophile” setup- but that’s a whole different story. The ease of connectivity and the freedom of movement came together for the first time to provide an experience that just made sense. 

My Next Buy in a Changed Tech Landscape

Which brings me back to what I said at the beginning- My second pair of these just broke in the span of one year. Convenience is cool and all, but durability is pretty important to me too, which is why I probably won’t be buying another pair of these. Even if I wanted to, though- they seem to be out of stock or unavailable the last time I checked online. 

Apple’s AirPods probably had a lot to do with the true wireless trend.

Another thing that happened in the past couple of years, is a significant shift in Bluetooth earphone trends. Namely, the rise of “true wireless” earbuds. I’m not sold on the concept personally- knowing how forgetful I can be sometimes, I just don’t know if I can reliably remember to place two separate earbuds into the same box, and not shove them into two different pockets, or keep them in two completely different places. They also tend to be significantly more expensive based on what I’ve seen. Replacing the usual Bluetooth earphones (What do I even call those now- “wired but wireless”? “False wireless”? “Old style”?) doesn’t sting me too much because they’re usually pretty affordable. Having to replace a relatively expensive pair of earbuds will hurt both my feelings and my wallet, and I don’t think I’m ready for that. 

There is one alternative to “true wireless” earphones- like Juan Bagnell suggests in his video, “neckband” style earphones offer a lot more capabilities for a similar price. My issue with them is simple- they’re the bucket hat of earphones. Are bucket hats more comfortable than caps? Sure. Do they tend to offer more sun protection than caps? Yes, for the most part. Are they fashionable, cool, or sleek? For the most part- no. Unless you’re the kind of person that can pull off that look. Neckband earphones always strike me as functional but bulky, while true wireless earbuds stand out because of how sleek and low profile they are. 

In the end, I have a few choices. I could try to find the usual kind of earphones that I get, and replace them every year or two years. I could try the newfangled true wireless earphones and see how that goes for me. I could try using the neckbands and see if they really are as unwieldy as they appear. Whatever I end up choosing, it’s clear that this is a very mundane affair. Why then, did I write over a thousand words about it? 

Changing Preferences and Priorities as you Grow Older

Writing this helped me ruminate about how my tastes changed as I grew up. A younger me would have completely dismissed this discussion as boring and inconsequential. I was a lot more engrossed in the “bleeding edge” of technology back then, and wanted to experience the most enticing prospects in the world of mobile technology. The older I’ve gotten, the more joy I’ve started to experience in how well things integrate into my life. How things make my life more convenient. I get excited about new ways to organize my belongings in the physical and the digital world. Things like finding the perfect set of Tupperware containers, box organizers, shelves… even using an old can of peanuts to store my stationery because it’s just the right shape and size. In the digital realm, it’s more along the lines of password organizers, cloud storage, and faster storage drives for my computer. 

I see now that even something that appears seemingly mundane tends to have a lot of thought put into it- sometimes receding into the background of your life is exactly what the designers intended the thing to do. Sometimes what excites you isn’t how flashy something is, but just how it fits perfectly into your life, how it perfectly harmonizes with your routines and your muscle memory. I’d finally achieved a semblance of that with my bluetooth earphones that just broke. Now the question is not just about what I should buy, but it’s also about how well whatever I buy will fit into my routines, how intuitive it is for me to use, and in what ways will this new thing will allow me to experience that which I experience everyday? 

It’s Time We Re-Examined Aesthetic and Minimal Design

Let me know what you think about this video in the comments!

Here’s what I talk about in this video:

Let’s have a look at one of the most widely accepted and deeply held beliefs in the UX space and turn it on its head. I had this idea while thinking of Nielsen’s heuristics, mainly “Aesthetic and Minimal Design”. Let’s just start with the bundling aesthetic and minimal together. Why does it have to be that way? Clearly, it is possible to have something that’s aesthetically pleasing without it also being minimalist. If you look throughout antiquity you will see so many examples- The Meenakshi Temple, Angkor Wat, the list goes on. 

Of course, the heuristics are written from a usability standpoint. For the design of tools and services that are to be used to accomplish particular tasks. In that sense, it makes perfect sense to let go of excessive ornamentation if it interferes with the goal, which is the successful completion of whatever task is at hand. 

The issue I have with the laser focus on minimalism is when it bleeds into other aspects of life. As UX-ers, we’ve all been there. When we first get into this field, maybe you read the design of everyday things or some of those other staple books and you start looking at everything around you through the lens of design and usability. How many times have you come across something and said “hey, that’s bad design”. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that. Some of us still do that, because we can’t help ourselves. And in many cases, it’s warranted- like when you have to park your car in a very confusing parking structure, for example. 

However, in many cases, it turns into a more tribalistic shaming of certain things. Let me give you an example from my own life. My mother loves having a house full of different stuff. Just collections of books or small trinkets or whatever it may be. She loves collecting stuff and changing the décor with the seasons and the festivals throughout the year. It’s always a very involved process for her- taking things out of boxes, putting them in particular spots around the house, and making sure every corner of the house has something placed in it. When I was younger and I was learning about minimalism, I used to think this was all very excessive and unnecessary- that it was inefficient and a waste of time, and that all this ornamentation was … just too much. That it was, well, not good design. 

Thinking back to it now, I realize that I was looking at it from a very myopic mindset. When my mother decorates the house every so often, she’s not creating unnecessary ornamentation. The whole process that I mentioned earlier is delightful in and of itself. UX-ers are always chasing the holy grail of “the delightful experience” all the time- we discuss it in every forum, in internal conversations at work, and so on. Anyway, the point is that a lot of things that bring joy to people are considered illogical or suboptimal when looked at through that minimalist lens. 

Let’s think instead from the “maximalist” point of view. Where it’s not “less is more” but rather “more is more”. Of wanting ornamentation, wanting every nook and cranny full of intricate details. A lot of cultural traditions are like that. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that the thought of minimalism as the only way for something to be aesthetically pleasing is a very euro-centric way of looking at it. The first things that come to mind are Scandinavian minimalism and to an extent Japanese minimalism as well. There are so many cultures that are not minimal though- I grew up in India and the dominant aesthetic sensibilities in my country are unapologetically maximalist, in my opinion. There’s also the phenomenon of minimalism as a form of cultural erasure- this is a more controversial stance which states that minimalism was used by authoritarianism to erase cultural heritages, from antiquity to modern times. In fact what people call modern design that was developed in the middle of the 20th century has that backdrop of authoritarianism and wanting to detach from the cultures of the past. 

As the field of UX becomes more international day by day, I think we as a community need to rethink the core tenets of our craft. We need to think about the overall contexts in which those rules were codified. I think that at least on the digital side of things, these heuristics that were formed in the 90s and 2000s were created when the internet and digital UX were in a nascent stage- when most of the creators and the end-users were limited to Europe and North America. 

So instead of shaming maximalism, let’s try to see how we can fully understand these different cultural and historical sensibilities and move our field forward. 

Thanks for watching, and remember:

Design IS political.