2017: My Year in Review

Lilla and I return to Bangalore on New Years Eve from a trip to Hungary by way of Vienna, Austria. It was my first time in Vienna since a similar overnight trip that I believe was over 20 years ago (i.e. my first trip to Budapest in 1994-ish, if memory serves–which it seldom does anymore.) Of course, the parts of the city that attract the eye look the same–the classic Viennese architecture. I’d be lying if I said I had any great recollections from the prior trip except that the weather was cold and drizzly and Vienna’s legendary cafes were much in need. (Fun fact: there’s a Cafe Coffee Day in Vienna. That will mean nothing to my non-Indian friends, but may be interesting to my Indian friends.) This time we had beautiful blue skies and a tolerable dry cold.

January was fairly unremarkable except for several trips to the dentist to get a tooth fixed that shattered upon eating a piece of hard but delicious food. Thankfully, the fracture of previously capped tooth was painless–as long as I didn’t drink beverages of extreme temperatures. And Lilla began her busy season that runs through the first few months of each year.

In the later half of February and through early March, I was in Rangsit, Thailand at the Muay Thai Institute to complete the third level of their Fundamentals course. Thailand is always fun and friendly, and I finally picked the right time of year for Thai-boxing training. [I’ve done the rainy season, and that’s no fun –when you sweat as intensely as I– because nothing ever dries, including one’s shoes. I’ve also trained during the hottest time of year, and the suckiness of that will be self-explanatory to anyone who knows how hot and humid Thailand can get.] On Sundays, I got to see a few new sites around Bangkok (e.g. the Zoo and the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall) in addition to watching the fights at the Rangsit Arena, but mostly this trip was training four hours per day, six days a week– leaving little time or energy for touring.

In April, Lilla and I traveled through four states of India’s Northeast (Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Manipur.) This is a fascinating part of the country because it feels like a different country–except for Assam. It’s very tribal, and if one can imagine what Burma would be like if Christian missionaries converted most of the population instead of Buddhists having done so, that’s what Nagaland feels like.  Highlights of the trip included seeing Indian Rhinos from elephant-back and drinking tea with a group of tattoo-faced old men who’d once taken part in internecine killing. (FYI-This was cannibal country once-upon-a-time.)

 Our Northeast excursion continued into the early part of May. May was also notable for our participation in the TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) 10K run. This was the first time I’d run such a race and probably the first time Lilla ran 10 consecutive kilometers without stopping in her life. (This was not Lilla’s first race though, she’d participated in a shorter race (a 7k) earlier in the year.)

We also returned to stay at the Golden Mist Coffee Plantation Homestay near Madikeri. This is a quiet estate where they grow coffee, tea, and various spices, and it makes for a relaxing weekend away from the chaos that reigns in Bangalore. Golden Mist was one of the first excursions we made when we came to India, and the food and experience was true to our memory of it.

In June we returned to Zambia, and made short side trips to Botswana and Kenya. (The latter because the Kenyan Airline allows one to stay over at no additional cost.) This time Lilla and I made it to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls. During our previous trip to Lusaka, there wasn’t time, and so we were glad we got an opportunity to go back. (To put it in context, going to Lusaka and not going see Victoria Falls is like going to Flagstaff and not going to see the Grand Canyon.)

The trip to Botswana was to Chobe National Park which sits just across the border / Zambezi River. There is actually a point in the middle of the Zambezi River where four countries’ boundaries touch (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia [which has a little negotiated neck of land that stretches to the Zambezi for water access]) and which I would have passed quite close to when crossing at the Kazungula border checkpoint.

In Kenya, I made a trip to Amboseli National Park. This park is most famous for: a.) its spectacular view of Mt. Kilimanjaro which many argue is better than the view in Tanzania (the country in which the mountain actually resides) At any rate, the volcanic cone was entirely socked in with clouds, and so I didn’t get this benefit the view at all. b.) the Maasai people, famous both as warriors and cattle-herders. and c.) the wildlife–and most especially a huge group of elephants who’re supported by the vegetation of a marsh created by Kilimanjaro glacial runoff. The wildlife more than made up for the lack of view of the mountain. In fact, the experience of viewing wildlife in Africa was mind-blowing–dare I say, life-changing. Being on the savanna in Kenya and reflecting on the origins of our species put the world in perspective.

July and August were fairly quiet, though we had an intense rainy season in Bangalore this year. In our first few years in India, the most intense rains all came after the rainy season should have been over. Not so this year.

In September I resumed teaching yoga. I’d been on a hiatus because our plans had been up in the air. Previously, we were supposed to be returning home to United States sometime in the summer or early fall of this year. At any rate, we found out that we’d be staying here almost until our five-year anniversary in India– beyond which Indian visa law prohibits residency. In other words, we are now scheduled to leave India in the summer of next year–i.e. July-ish of 2018. Where we will go remains anyone’s guess, but the Indian government–taking a line from Semisonic’s “Closing Time” says, “we don’t have to go home, but we can’t stay here.”  Anyhow, I co-taught a  shatkarma (cleansing practices) workshop for a teacher’s training with Amrutha Bindu Yoga Shala. That was a new experience for me, but mostly I’ve been teaching small classes and private lessons on asana (postural practice), pranayama (breath), and yoganidra (relaxation.)

Also in September, we made our first trip to Gujarat to visit Ahmedabad and some of the nearby historic sites. We saw some awesome temples and step-wells, some of which dated back as far as the eleventh century. Ahmedabad was in festival season splendor, heightened by having recently been chosen as India’s first UNESCO Heritage City.

In November I participated in National Novel Writing Month, and for the first time successfully completed the challenge of drafting a 50,000 word novel (novella) in one calendar month. I’ve started this challenge before, but it never really worked either because of ideas failing me or scheduling, but this year we only had one long weekend trip to Rishikesh and my teaching schedule, and so I was able to keep the required daily writing. This time I had the sense to work on a much less convoluted story than the draft that sits on my hard-drive, mocking me like some hallow-souled demon of the abyss.

Rishikesh was awesome and relaxing. We did some rafting on the Ganges, and saw a number of huge ashrams and temples.

That brings me to December. Lilla and I will be going to the Philippines in the latter half of the month for the holidays, with a day-long layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on the way back. This will be our first time in the Philippines, but our second time to KL. Besides a couple days in Manila, we’ll be in the Visayas, which is the quiet belt of small islands in the middle of the country–as opposed to Luzon (the big island to the North where Manila is located) or Mindanao (the big island to the South in which Muslim rebels are said to be active.)

As with this year, we should be back in Bangalore in time to ring in 2018.

5 Fascinating Nonfiction Books I Read in 2017

NOTE: I already did a post of the books published in 2017 that had the most profound effect on me. That post can be seen here. This one is about books I read in 2017, most of which weren’t published this year. The hyperlinks go to my GoodReads review of the respective book.

 

5.) Narconomics by Tom Wainwright: This is a look at how drug cartels have been drawing from the playbooks of successful multinational corporations to make their operations more efficient and profitable. It contains gripping journalism and–for an economics wonk such as myself–it hits the spot with regards to scholarly curiosity as well.

 

4.) The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: Neuroscience has been converging on a conclusion drawn by Buddhists long ago (though not necessarily sharing identical explanations /mechanisms) that the self is an illusion. Ananthaswamy considers the neuroscience of self by examining how nervous system ailments and injuries have challenged common explanations about what the self is based on what it feels to be a self. (e.g. Out-of-body experiences can be induced with electrodes. Some people deeply feel they are dead, or that they either have limbs that aren’t present or that limbs that are don’t belong to them.)

 

3.) The Way of the Iceman  by Wim Hof and Koen De Jong: Any book that can get one to start taking cold showers has to be pretty persuasive. Wim Hof is known for his cold endurance “stunts,” but his argument in this book is that anyone can do it and that there are health benefits to doing so. The authors report on the science of said benefits as well as offering a program to start one’s way on such a program.

 

2.) Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland: Slingerland brings a fresh look at the ancient Chinese concept of wu-wei (apparently pronounced “ooo-way.”) Wu-wei is variously translated as “actionless action” or “to do without doing,” and–while that may sound like meaningless bumper-sticker wisdom–it reflects a state of effortless action that requires an elusive but powerful state of mind.  Slingerland presents varied Taoist and Confucian approaches to the subject, but also relates the idea to modern ideas such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow.”

 

1.) How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman: A neuroscientist and a positive psychologist team up to explain the common routes to the enlightened states of mind described in both Eastern religious / spiritual traditions and the mystic branches of Western religions (i.e. Jewish Kabbalah, mystic Christian sects, and Sufi Islam,) as well as their scientific underpinnings.

5 Books of 2017 that Influenced Me Greatly

It’s that year-in-review time of year. To clarify: these are the books published in 2017 that most profoundly influenced my thinking. I clarify because I’ll probably do a list of books that I read in 2017 but that were published in previous years.

5.) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: Gaiman’s take on classic tales of Norse Mythology shows that one can bring great value with a fresh look at old art. However, beyond the “steal like an artist” sentiment of not getting locked into building something brand new, these stories show the Norse to be exceptional storytellers. All ancient cultures had a mythology, but not all of them were equal in producing stories that are timeless and work across cultures.

 

4.) The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston: This book taught me two things: First, that there is still much to be discovered right on terra firma. We talk as though the only new vistas of knowledge are to be found in space or places like the Mariana Trench, but the days of terrestrial discovery are not past. Second, there is a lesson of common fates of humanity across time. A lot of this book is about a parasitic disease that infected several of the expeditionary team, as well as speculation about how the same disease might have influenced the civilization that abandoned the titularly referenced city.

 

3.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur: Kaur’s books combine poetry and art. Both are crude but heartfelt and evocative. Both of Kaur’s books have struck a chord with readers, and that resonance seems to be about the candid and bold nature of her art.

 

2.) Behave by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky tells readers that one can’t look at something as complex and bewildering as human behavior through the lens of any one academic discipline and get a complete and satisfying picture. Sapolsky considers the best and worst human behaviors through the lenses of biology, neuroscience, endocrinology, human evolution, and more.

 

1.) Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal: The authors of this book examine the various ways people achieve what they call ecstasis. Ecstasis is a state of mind in which one loses one’s sense of self, and all the muddling factors that go with the self, such as self-criticism, fear of failure, and the feeling of working against everyone and everything else.

5 Books to Improve Mind-Body Performance

It’s the time of year when people think about how to be better, fitter, and smarter; so I thought I’d drop a list of books that I found helpful and thought-provoking.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these books, the hyperlinks take you to my review in GoodReads, and from GoodReads you can get to Amazon page.

 

1.) THE RISE OF SUPERMAN by Steven Kotler: How do extreme athletes achieve Flow when one false move will kill them?

RiseOfSuperman

 

2.) FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER by Mark McClusky: How do elite athletes squeeze the most out of the potential of the human body?

FasterHigherStronger

 

3.) BECOMING BATMAN by E. Paul Zehr: What would it take, physically and mentally, to become the Caped Crusader?

Becomingbatman

 

4.) FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: How does one achieve that state of relaxed and confident concentration in which we perform our best called Flow?

flow

 

5.) Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise: How does one overcome anxiety and fear to perform one’s best?

ExtremeFear