On Fear

I’ve become obsessed with mortality. I keep thinking, I’m thirty-one and repeating that as if it’s eighty-one and it’s so monumental a number, I can’t imagine how I’ve gotten to this place. What is it about rounding the corner from thirty that’s getting under my skin? Is it the biological clock thing, the idea that even if I’m not dying, something inside me is? Or is it the fact that I haven’t become anything yet? The fact that when I look at my parents now, I can see how they aren’t young anymore. And I worry about what they hoped I would be at this point, for them. Then I think that it’s that “fear of failure” I professed at the beginning of my very first workshop in Squaw Valley that is at the heart of all this crap. And do I think aging is failing, because you aren’t supposed to age if you’ve figured it all out, if you’ve become the person you were meant to become?

And who is that? Mother, wife, author, leader, actualized adult? A better Indian? A better daughter? A writer who’s had actual, tangible, society-approved success? What if I never become that person, does that mean I did actually fail, because I let the years pass by and nothing ever became of them?

Fear of failure, fear of dying, fear of wrinkles, fear of breaking my hip, is it all the same? Fear of being incapacitated against the potential that I could still have? Is this why when I see anyone younger than twenty-five, I lecture them about the opportunities they need to seize, the courage they need to have to conquer the things I was too shy or scared to conquer? Is this why, I’ve started to sound like an old lady, sharing lessons of the past that almost start with the phrase “In my day” but most often come out like, “Go to the party now because later, you won’t be able to and you’ll regret it”?

Regret, the fucking word. Is that the real thing here? If I was capable of living in the moment, without any sense of regret, would I feel fear the same way, or would I just be living, doing my best?

I’m asking a lot of questions, because I don’t know the answers. I just have fear.

Decision-making in Real Time

The other day, I was driving north on the 110 toward a hair appointment in Studio City. All roads were clear for the first ten minutes and I was cruising along. But by the time I got past the 405, the roads began to clog up. This has happened before, of course, (I live in Los Angeles, after all) and most of the time, it happens when I’m in a rush.

Luckily, since moving to San Pedro, a lesser-known part of the city nestled in next to the Los Angeles harbor, my husband and I have enjoyed the perks of having a “fast pass”—which, for east coasters, is akin to the EZ Pass, debiting money off of your account when you drive by electronic sensors. In Los Angeles, the fast pass allows drivers access to pre-designated express lanes for a small or large toll, depending on how high the volume of traffic is at a given time. For example, during rush hour, a given toll might be five dollars (tolls are ultimately calculated based on where you enter and exit the expressway), while in the middle of the night, when traffic is more likely to be light, estimated toll for the same route might equal seventy-five cents. The idea is that at times of greater traffic, only a few will pay to use the expressway, keeping it open and moving.

On this particular Thursday, just after 9 am, the roads were fairly congested. The digital information board hanging above the entrance to the express lanes recorded a toll of nine dollars for the distance from where the expressway started (close to where the 110 and 405 join) to downtown LA. There was also a handy calculation recorded regarding how much time I would save, in this case, a guess of fifteen minutes. Already preoccupied with the task of driving through stop and go traffic, I began to perform the cost/benefit analysis in my mind: how much was I willing to pay to guarantee I would arrive at the salon on time?

Definitely not nine dollars, I decided, but the decision came up again and again as I passed additional entrances to the express lanes further up the freeway. Each point recorded a lower cost (since there was less distance for which I would enjoy the express lanes), but it was still more than I wanted to pay. I begin thinking of other costs in my mind and how I reacted to them. If this was a parking fee, would I pay or drive around the block a few times? Recalling the many arguments my husband and I had had early in our relationships about downtown LA parking garages versus street parking, I knew the answer was drive around.

At one point, I called my husband, because the whole thing was taking over my brain and I needed it back to, you know, focus on not crashing in to the car in front of me. I did not have enough room or time to make this decision, which had become increasingly complicated. Every time I decided not to join the express lanes, thereby passing another entry point, I worried I would regret it. His advice: “See how it goes. You can join later if you need to, but if you have the extra time, just stay on the 110. But don’t make yourself miserable if it’s bad just to save a few bucks.”

As you can imagine, this response only added to my confusion. I rode along in the left lane, tempted at each opening to join the other cars flying right by. A couple times, I resisted, but in the end, I decided I should use the express lanes while they were at my disposal, which they wouldn’t be later, when I merged on to the 101 freeway. My logic: make up the time now that you might not be able to make up later.

Ultimately, I was about fifteen minutes early to my appointment and four dollars poorer. The fact that I’d succumbed to paying for time I didn’t need bothered me, and of course, I proceeded to regret my thought process, realizing that if I had had an opportunity to pull over to the side of the road and consider my options, I would’ve decided I could take a gamble in the free lanes and ride it out.

This is just one example of how decision-making has gotten more complicated in the technology age. As if it wasn’t enough that as adults, we have to decide on all sorts of complicated things like which apartment to rent, which house to buy, what type of health insurance to contract, and if and when to have kids, now we are burdened by a new type of multi-tasking/fast-paced decision-making process. Essentially this: Run the pros and cons of a five or ten dollar purchase based on limited information while also driving your car on a six-lane freeway and trying not to crash. (It’s a wonder no one did, isn’t it?)

Decision-making, no matter which form it is presented in, is proven to be taxing. In fact, so is the regret many of us often have afterwards, when we’ve recovered from the decision fatigue (or just life fatigue) and have a clear mind with which to evaluate it. After the hair appointment, I also bought a seven-dollar chocolate peanut butter milkshake, which I regretted even more than the four or five dollars I spent on tolls. Why did I buy it? I had been sitting in a salon chair for three hours and it was hot outside. Why did I regret it? It was a seven-dollar, billion-calorie dessert that left me feeling sick to my stomach and did a terrible job of replacing the lunch I’d skipped.

 

With the advent of more and better and faster, decision-making has become that much more frequent and exhausting. At every turn, we need to make a choice, and every choice, for some reason, feels significant. Part of this, I think, is because we have access to more research with which to evaluate our choices. But does more information always lead us to better decision-making? I can’t say I’m convinced.

A lot of the time, by the time we are faced with a decision, we are at the end of our ropes and the choices we make are quite different from what a more energetic, thoughtful version of ourselves would’ve committed to.

The easiest solution, it seems, is to slow down. Why do we have to decide so quickly? This might apply to some decisions, of course, but much in the world has become competitive. You cannot sit on a house offer for too long before another buyer swoops in and takes your dream home away. The same applies to a good deal, which often is advertised for a limited time or offered in a limited number. I learned this the hard way when delaying the purchase of my Amtrak tickets by two days resulted in my discount fare being sold out at the 8:30 am time I preferred. The end result: I have to wake up at 5:30 am to catch a 6:30 train at the same discounted price. As far as consequences go, this one is not terrible, of course, but there is some regret that I didn’t act faster and get my top choice.

Ultimately, however, I realized we cannot be a slave to these decisions (or the regret that comes with being too hasty), because there are too many choices we are daily faced with and it simply takes more energy than we have to dwell on what could’ve been. I’ve pledged to try to remember, in the heat of manically shopping a Target designer collaboration in the wee hours of the night or determining whether or not I should act on a Living Social deal, that all decisions are not made alike and every one will not have the same level of impact on my life.

This allows me to give less power to each choice, and to sometimes simply choose what is quickest or easiest, knowing that the effects will be short-term if noticeable at all. Meanwhile, forgiving yourself a few thoughtless (instinctual) moments means you will have more energy and brainpower available to ponder the bigger, more potentially calamitous questions.

A Beautiful Stain published in Wanderlust and Lipstick

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I'm excited to share that my essay, "A Beautiful Stain," was published in Wanderlust and Lipstick

For the full essay, please visit Wanderlust and Lipstick online.

Here's a brief preview:

The first expensive purse I purchased was a Marc by Marc Jacobs cream-colored satchel. It was spacious and practical inside—lots of zippers and compartments to organize my crap into—and gorgeous and luxurious on the outside, made of supple, delicate leather like I’d never before owned. For the first few weeks after I purchased it, I rarely took it out of the garment bag. I’m a hoarder in this way, overly precious about breaking in new items and consequently, stuck with a closet full of things I’ve purchased and have yet to use. Always, I’m waiting for the right time—a special occasion.

Later that year, in December 2005, my family traveled to India. Despite having extended family still living there, I hadn’t been in over ten years. It was this way for many first-generation Indian-American children, who, after high school began, could less easily get away due to more grueling academic demands. After college, it was feasible once again, especially since we were willing to give up celebrating Christmas and New Year’s at home.

My parents left two weeks before my brother and I, as they had much more vacation time to spare. Ahead of our departure, my brother and I spoke to them on the phone. They emphasized how much we were going to love it, how much India had changed since we’d last been.

My memories of India were characterized by reluctant enjoyment and selective acceptance. The best part of each visit was the time I got to spend with family. I had over a dozen cousins, and some of them had kids as well. Unfortunately, it was always awkward, especially during the first few days, when we were just getting to know each other again. The long gap between visits undercut our ability to be close on a consistent basis. My brother was better at remembering everyone’s names and being affable, while I would play favorites. I was especially enamored with three sisters, who were the daughters of my oldest aunt and the most fun and fashionable. They would take me shopping, through the colorful bazaars and into the sari shops, where sales people would lay out dozens of choices, layered upon each other, while serving refreshments like Thumbs Up and Limca and hot chai.

But it was dirty and congested and backwards. Things didn’t run smoothly. Poverty was not only prevalent, but uncomfortably pervasive. I remember one summer, when I was eight. My mom, brother and I stayed on for an extra month while my father went back to work in New Jersey. On the day we were leaving, the monsoons began and I prayed, “Please let our plane take off.” The prospect of lingering for one more day, despite the tears I had shed in saying goodbye, conjured the doom of being quarantined. I wanted to go back to where things were clean and easy. Where I was comfortable.