15 years ago, I saw an Asian man dance the ballet. He was my office mate. I had left work for the evening. I had forgotten my cigarette on my lighter, I forget which. And when I came back to the office and opened the door, I found him dancing the ballet. He was embarrassed. More than just embarrassed. He seemed mortified, as though I had walked in on him, not just dancing the ballet, but rather strangling a cat while dancing the ballet.
I could see why. We worked in an ad agency that was full of frat boys. People frequently said things like huge even when there wasn’t an ice hockey game on TV.
I felt bad for making him feel embarrassed. But mostly, I felt terrible about having walked in on a sacred moment. A moment when he was truly alone – not being observed by his family, his colleagues in some open office, God or even Mark Zuckerberg.
These moments where are truly alone are so rare in our modern lives. This is a pity. For we all need these moments when we can be alone. When we can make sense of our inner world because we are not being troubled by our outside world. When we are not scared by hippos or awed by giraffes, and when our mind is calm and has the psychological space to put two disparate elements together and come up with hippogriffs.
The Asian man had his ballet. What about me? What did I like to do when I was truly alone?
I found out soon enough.
My wife took our two kids to visit her mother in Boise. I was truly alone. And here’s what I found myself doing.
When I was alone, here’s what I found myself doing. I found myself driving down the freeway. I found myself driving till I found myself in Redmond. I found myself an Indian store where I purchased two pounds of mutton. I then found myself coming home and cooking the mutton with chili powder, turmeric clothes, cilantro, and grated coconut. I found myself putting all of these ingredients in my instant pot. When it was done, I found myself mixing the mutton with the rice.
I proceeded to eat it with my fingers, just like I had as a child growing up in India. I gasped with satisfaction. It was one thing to taste food accompanied with the cold edge of metal. But it was entirely another to taste it with God given hands.
So, this was what I did when I was truly alone. In a society with forks and knives, I ate food with my fingers. When I was alone, I liked to bring out the Indian side of my personality. A side that I wanted my son to experience.
My wife returned from Boise. One day, over a glass of wine, or maybe two, she told me that I should teach our son to speak Hindi.
“This way, he’ll stay connected to the Indian side of his personality,” she said.
I saw an opening here.
“You know what would really connect him to the Indian side of his personality? I think if he ate food with his hands rather than using a fork and spoon. Gandhi and Buddha all ate food with their hands, but neither of them spoke Hindi as their mother tongue.”
Check and mate, I thought. I had quoted two of the greatest visionaries of our age, who had solved some of the toughest problems of our times. My wife and I, we were mere mortals. We still struggled with the can opener.
“But I want him to develop fork skills,” she said.
She had me. It was a clever move, adding the word skills. Skills are something everyone needed on their LinkedIn profile. Did I want to get in the way of my son’s future job prospects?
I tried again a few days later. This time, she was watching the Great British Baking show.
“We are living in a culture of food porn,” I said.
“That’s true,” she said happily.
“But if it is really food porn, how can you enjoy it without touching the food?
I spoke from experience. I don’t want to brag, but I’ve had sex on a few occasions you know. I’ve also masturbated millions of times. Let me tell you, touching is kind of key to the whole experience.
“I have to unload the dishwasher,” my wife said, signaling the end of the conversation.
I followed her into the kitchen.
“You know when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, he said there was no need for a stylus. Because God has given us fingers. Surely, if it is true for the iPhone, it has to be true for food?”
It was a losing argument. My wife hates technology and apps. She frequently calls Google Maps the C word…Confused…and is one of those people who believe mobile phones should be used for making phone calls.
I thought I was done. This is why I was surprised when she agreed with me. If it’s this important to you, fine, she said. He can eat with his hands.
I began to encourage my son to eat with his hands. Pasta. Shrimp. And god bless the bib, even yogurt. I should have been happy at this transformation. But I wasn’t. I was strangely unmoved by the sight of the little rascal getting mashed potatoes all over his small, sticky fingers.
Why wasn’t I delighted at the sight of my son doing something I so greatly enjoyed?
The answer came to me a few days later.
I’d gone out for drinks with my friend. We were four or five old fashioned down when he said, “I have a confession to make.
“You’re a millionaire,” I said, even as I began to type out an email to Bernie Sanders.
“No,” he said, “I love listening to the Spice Girls. I always have for the last 18 years.”
Now this is a guy who is very hip. He knows all the lyrics to groups like the Decemberists by heart. Lyrics like But oh, the King and the Queen of Spain/With their long unpronounceable names/ Grace the table at the long-lost kingdom of Spain. But here he was telling me in his private time, he liked listening to the Spice Girls. Lyrics like Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are some kind of superstar?
But my friend’s happiness was inspired by more than the lyrics or the music. It was also inspired by guilt. By listening to the Spice Girls, he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. Just as by eating food with my hands in America, I too was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. If you’ve gone to Catholic school, like my friend and I had, you know that there’s’ nothing more pleasurable than doing what is forbidden.
But I had let my wife and son know what I was doing. I had removed the secrecy of my actions. I had taken away the guilt that comes with secrecy. And in doing so, I had taken away he pleasure that comes with guilt.
What’s the lesson in all of this, you ask ten minutes into the podcast?
We all have things we like to do in private. Let’s keep them private. We can dance the ballet in private. We can eat with our hands in private. We can listen to the Spice Girls in Private.
And when talking to a blowhard at a party, we can debate the merits of lyrics like, But oh, the King and the Queen of Spain/With their long unpronounceable names/ Grace the table at the long-lost kingdom of Spain, all the time thinking in our minds, “Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are some kind of fucking superstar?”
This, more than anything, is what will bring us true happiness.