A Change of Plans

Sorry to be slow, I’ve been without wifi since Hurrcane Vardah which struck Chennai on the 12th of December.  Other catastrophes including the impossibility of acquiring cash and the death of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu were also in the mix. I don’t mean to be dramatic but it would not be an exaggeration for me to say that this hurricane and its aftermath was the hardest week of my life. Like many hard things though, I think it paid huge dividends. The full story is pretty complicated and I think the details are important… but that’s just because it’s my own life and I think all the details are important! I attached a full account below if you want to read but I imagine most of you don’t because it’s probably more than you really need to know.


The bottom line is that the practical realities of living in India combined with realizations I’ve had about the music that I’m learning have prompted me to end my stay here at the end of January. The details of where I’m going to go and what I’m going to do are still in progress (first stop: Thailand) but I know for certain that my only course is outside of this country. Some might view this as quitting but I know in my head and my heart that staying in India would be missing out on this opportunity and not vice versa. The only reason for me to be in Chennai is if studying Carnatic is so important to me that I need to be immersed in the culture 24/7. I don’t love this music that much. You’ve probably sensed it in the tone of my entries but I’ve also been trying to disguise it to myself and others because that truth made my former decision to stay here too obviously illogical. I have learned so much here and I am deeply thankful for my Guru and the community here, but I need to pursue my aesthetic as directly as I can and I can't do that in India.


There are several abstract lessons that I got out of my experiences that I think are relevant to all. As cliché as this may be, I believe fervently that my trials of the last month were true coming-of-age experiences and the following are some of the mental shifts that I imagine I will carry for the rest of my life:


You are ready right now. Somewhere in my heart I’ve known for a couple months that this place is not the best one for me to improve but I kept telling myself a story that kept me complacent; “oh, there’s lots of time to practice” or “just give it a couple months and then you’ll have X thing together and then you’ll be ready for a career in music.” But my desire to be the perfect musician when I leave was 1) unattainable and 2) a misunderstanding of what music is and why I play it. Aiming to eventually impress others with my newfound virtuosity was a fantasy and an indulgence of my own ego. That type of motivation leads me to making decisions that won’t make me the happiest (like staying here). What I really love is the pursuit of music and the feeling that I am always applying the skills I have to best serve music (which I am not doing here). Furthermore, there is no perfect musician and there is no single point that we are striving for. Every musician and probably every clear-thinking person on earth wishes to be better at what they do. We have never arrived and never will. I am ready right now. Even though I will learn for the rest of my life I am putting the “student” mindset aside. I am as professional as they come.


Other people’s opinions don’t matter. My complacency was also an expression of my own fear of playing music for a living. I feared that if I was not good enough I wouldn't be able to do it so I was looking for a way to hide. And when I really examine my motivations for coming to India I think that was a significant part of why I applied for the grant in the first place. I wanted the “wow” factor. I wanted to be able to say I had a plan for after graduation that was in pursuit of music but not playing music professionally. I didn’t want to say that I was going to try to go out and gig because I was so afraid of the feeling of saying “I’m going to move to New York and try to play saxophone professionally.” I was so afraid of the raised eyebrows and the tone of “well, good luck.” I was so afraid of people asking, “so what do your parents do?” And me replying, “they’re both doctors” and the interested party writing my off as a lazy rich boy.

When I was clearly distressed everyone wanted to offer me advice about what to do. Everyone’s advice differed: "Stay in India for the rest of the grant! Leave tomorrow! Stay forever!" Not only this but the idea of telling my guru and friends that I was leaving “early” made me feel awful because I felt like I was disappointing them. But we all have to do what is best for us and no one can really tell us what that is except ourselves… which leads me to my last point.


You don’t need help but you want it more than anything. The hardest part of this entire experience was the feeling of being isolated. I don’t really have friends here and the people who I would call friends are so different from me that we basically can’t relate. Without Internet and cell service I lost my last connection to home and to a feeling of being with others. I was stuck in a house of three people who only spoke Tamil during a hurricane with no money and no way of getting out and I couldn’t talk to anybody (see “The Full Story” for details). I was working through incredibly complicated emotions of guilt, regret, independence, identity etc. all by myself with basically no input. I worked through these feelings and I came to some conclusions about what I would do just about entirely within my own head. That is what I need to be able to do because nobody knows my situation except for me. But I learned something even more important than this lesson. My experience taught me that the company of people I love is the most important thing in the whole world to me. I think part of leaving this “student mindset” behind is realizing that there are other things that are important to me besides music. I have made the pursuit of jazz my number one priority since starting college and that’s not who I am. Some people can do that and they may be greater because of it but I love people and I need them around more than I need to shed.


So I hope that’s relevant to you and I hope the lessons aren’t too obvious. A lot of the people reading might roll their eyes because “duh other people’s opinions don’t matter.” That would have been my reaction 6 months ago too.  All I can say is that this experience made me really believe these lessons in a way I didn’t before. Saying it really doesn’t do justice to what feeling it has done for me.




The Full Story


Before I start the story two important pieces of background are that India is going through “demonetization” to combat counterfeiting so there is a severe dearth of cash resulting in zero ATM service and bank withdrawal limits of 2,000 rupees ($15). The lines are usually over two hours long and I have no way of getting cash without a bank account. A few days before the storm the Chief Minister of my state Tamil Nadu died which resulted in a complete shutdown of the city for two days and some minor rioting. Apparently in years past there would have been major destruction with a public death like this. After those two days there was a weekend so none of the ATMs were stocked that day either.


The hurricane struck Monday and I felt fine and secure when it started. I even practiced while the storm raged outside. There are three other people who live in this house and all three of them speak only Tamil. Our communication is very limited but they seemed to be telling me that I should rest and not practice. I ignored them because I felt fine! Around noon the power went off and I knew it was going to be a while before it came back on. I lit a candle and watched it burn all the way down. Around 6 the storm abated and one of my housemates (who I now know is somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum) asked me to take my last 200 rupees to the store with him to buy food for us. I realize now that he did this so that I would see what he was spending the money on. None of the rest of them have cash so they needed to ask me for this. In retrospect going outside was an incredibly dangerous choice. The city was almost completely dark except for the temple in my neighborhood where the Nadaswarnam and Thavil were still playing under bare fluorescent lights. We bought food and watched our last candle burn away. The storm started in earnest again and lasted until the middle of the night. At about 7 I sat and thought for a while in complete darkness and got into bed with the light of my cell phone.


The next day I started to feel anxious because we had run out of food and had no power, wifi, or cell phone service. There was no way to buy food because no one had power and we were all out of cash. This effect of demonetization was felt severely all over the city. Even though one of the teachers came to the rescue after about 6 hours. The fear of hunger was a totally new stressful feeling that I have never experienced.


By the next day I had still not spoken to anyone in English and I was feeling pretty anxious. I couldn’t get more than a few seconds in when I tried calling someone before the call dropped. I had no way of getting a cab to go anywhere because I had spent my last cash. So I left the house determined to get some cash. I went to every ATM in every direction within 20 minutes walking distance of my house.  There were guards outside most of them who just shook their heads when I walked up. One of them said


“come back at 11:30” so I came at 11.


He said “come back at 1” so I came at 1.


He said “Come back at 3”


so I came at 3.


He said “come back at 4”


so I came at 4.


He said


“come back tomorrow”


I said “when?”


…and he just shook his head.


Every one of these walks was through fifteen minutes of honking, shouting and ceaseless noise... both ways.


I went to the US consulate and sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half. I went to the window asked if there was any way to get cash and they told me there wasn’t and that they were just getting by with their credit cards.


It was the first continuous English conversation I had had in three days.


As I walked home I freaked. I mean I really really FREAKED dude. I’ve never freaked that bad in my whole life. I couldn’t practice that day. I looked at the saxophone and just sat and did nothing for more than an hour. Then I spent 3 hours listening to the tapes of my lessons with Gary Bartz. About midway through the day my housemates came in and paid me back 200 rupees so I had enough to take one cab ride somewhere but not back. I called to make a lesson appointment and I just barely understood through the broken reception that I should come the next morning at 11AM.


Then it got dark again with no power. I called my parents (hemorrhaging money in the process) but the stress of the terrible connection and the situation made the 15-minute conversation about equally isolating as helpful.


I barely slept and woke up still totally freaked. I paced around the room like a caged animal and then I ordered a cab to my teacher’s house.  While I was in the car one of the other students called and said that the lesson had been postponed until 4PM. This is just part of guru-shishya culture but in the situation at hand it made me crazy.


So then I went inside the apartment and sat down to talk to a couple of other students who were there. I started to complain about what I had experienced but I found that I didn’t feel any better. One of them said that there was an ATM working a few blocks away and so I tried to go there.


I waited in line for an hour and then everyone (probably about 40 people) was told that there was in fact no cash in the ATM.


Then I went back to the apartment and the same student said there might be another working ATM. So I went with him on an hour long walk to two neighboring machines neither of which had cash.


So now I had no money to go anywhere so I was trapped at my guru’s apartment.


Then I went back to the apartment at it was around 1. I had planned to play a gig in Bangalore the next day but I called (this apartment had some reception on the landline) and said that I couldn’t do it without 6,000 rupees in my hand before I left Chennai. I just didn’t feel safe going anywhere if I didn’t have that. The organizer said he would see what he could do.


Then I sat while the other students practiced trying to work through all that I was feeling. And I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t clear my head. So I went up on the roof to try to practice. I played for maybe three minutes—for the first time in two days—and I felt horrible so I went back downstairs. The three students all looked at me like I had just tortured a cat. They clearly hated every note that I had played.


Then I paced around that apartment for another fifteen minutes trying to clear my mind and I couldn’t. So I asked if any of the other students had any workout clothes. They said they didn’t so I just got up and walked to a gym 20 minutes away.


I stormed into the gym and got on the treadmill in a collared shirt, jeans, and muddy shoes. If anyone had told me that I was not dressed appropriately I probably would have shouted.


I ran a full 10K, or maybe a little more. I put on my headphones but I don’t think I put on any music. By the end of the run I felt better—I always do—but I still didn’t feel quite right. I walked around the gym and one of the people there asked “you are looking for something?” I shook my head and he said “Ah. You are thinking something!” I looked in the mirror for a while and I felt something physically shift in my body. At the time I didn't know quite what it was but I realize now it was the beginning of some real learning.


I walked back to the apartment and it was around 4. I had a lesson and told my Guru that I felt I needed to leave India. A part of me was expecting some deep Guru-type stuff but really he just asked me why and offered some logical solutions. He offered to focus on other subjects. But he had offered to teach some different material before and I just don’t see the content of the lessons changing. He offered to give me money but he didn’t have any at that time. He offered to make the lessons free but he has promised things for free before and then someone else ends up asking me for money. They are great lessons but ultimately they are in a style that is different then what I want to do. The finances aren't the problem it's just that it's nearly impossible to stay organized in this environment. I just wasn’t convinced things would change.


We finished the lesson and I haggled an auto rick driver to take me home with my remaining 40 rupees. I got a call saying that they would give me cash if I came to Bangalore so I decided to go. I took a shower and they paid for a cab for me to get out to the outside of town where I was supposed to meet one other member of the band.


As we drove from the city center the traffic was absolute bedlam. Huge downed trees were laying in the road and people were driving around them on sidewalks and literally standing holding up trunks to get through. As we progressed further things got scary. There were no power and thus no lights on the outskirts of town.


We stopped in a neighborhood that was pitch black. While I was sitting there in the car wondering how I was going to find the other person two people opened the door and offered to take my stuff. By this time I was a total wreck so I just screamed "NO!" and held my saxophone to my chest like a baby. then I heard someone say "Max?!" and the person I had spoken to on the phone came out of the darkness. He took my stuff and led me to the car with his two "associates." He paid the cab driver and beckoned me into his already-packed van. He handed me 6,000 rupees and I felt a little like a gangster. Even though we passed streets of downed power lines and almost complete darkness I was glad to be leaving Chennai.


As we drove I realized that it wasn't going to be that fun. I slept for a while and then they started lighting up a joint with a cop right in front of the car. I was so overwhelmed by everything I didn't even say anything. We stopped at a Dominoes shining out of the darkness like a horrible ship. I realized I hadn't eaten in over a day.


We kept driving and hit several pot holes. the highways in India are not well maintained but I felt safe because I was at least with some locals. I had enough money to get me home no matter what and I was on my way away from the coast.


It was funny how our estimation of the time we would reach Bangalore changed. "We'll reach by 2:30 or 3AM MAXIMUM!" "Oh maybe by 3:30..." We ended up getting there at 5:30 in the morning and everyone was a little on edge.


They stopped at an apartment complex on the far North side of the city. They stopped the car and gestured for me to get out. I said "aren't you coming?" And they said they were staying somewhere else. I asked them to take me in and they agreed. When we got as far as the parking garage they tried to leave again. I demanded that they see me to the door of where I was staying and so my main contact took me up the stairs to an apartment. As soon as the door opened he waved and walked away. I was so tired I didn't protest.


When I got inside I was met by two twenty-somethings watching a censored TV-version of "Pineapple Express." They greeted me and offered that I sit down.


Trying to be nice I said “is there anything I absolutely have to do before I leave Bangalore?” and they said “well it depends on what you like; drugs, women, its all here for you.” I laughed awkwardly and they looked back with a completely inscrutable expression.


Then they offered me a drink and I said “no I just want to crash” to which they replied “no you need a drink” and poured some terrible whiskey into a dirty glass. I pitched it into their fake Christmas tree pot when they weren’t looking and then asked where the bed was.


They just gestured to the couch.


So around 6 I fell into a fitful sleep on the couch while they finished Pineapple Express in the same room and the Christmas lights flashed lurid colors in my eyes.


I woke up at 7:30 in the morning to the sound of one of them snoring and then half screaming each breath. As their (untrained) cat crawled on my stomach, I heard the other man cursing in his sleep in the room opposite. I looked out the window at the field next to the apartment. There was a crew of shirtless laborers tying a rope to cut down the last coconut tree in the field to build another building. The buzz saw started around 8.


And I said to myself “well here we go. You are in hell. You are in a shitty apartment with two drug addicts on the outskirts on Bangalore, India. You can’t call a cab because the only money you have to pay for it is in 2,000 rupee notes and you can’t change those because all the stores in the area are not going to give you change for that much money. And you can’t call anyone because your phone has no reception. And you can’t sleep because there is no bed.”


So then I said to myself “OK. What are you going to do?”


And then I just thought about it. I didn’t have any flashes of realization, I didn’t have any profound understanding (unless you think the stuff I wrote earlier was profound), and I didn’t come to any complete conclusions except this: “I have to leave.”


That was the realization that I had in the gym the day before but couldn’t name. Maybe this all seems stupid after I describe this situation. You’re thinking, “duh, of course you should leave.” But for me it is really hard to quit on something I said I would do and the idea of going back home to Denver and missing out of this opportunity seemed awful, the prospect of planning something else short term-seemed impossible, and the idea of staying in India one more minute seemed unthinkable. So I just spent four hours or so chewing on what my motivations are and how to make the best choice. I was also so sleep deprived and crazy at the time that I knew I shouldn’t make any lasting decisions, but I went a long way in figuring out what I want and what next steps to take and I have to believe that there were also deep and indescribable things shifting in my mind that I still don’t quite know of.


The rest of the story is unremarkable. I demanded a different place to stay. I played the gig. I drove back. A few days later my family came on a previously planned vacation. They were so kind to come and see me. But I really haven’t been on sure footing until a day or two ago. This place can really turn your head around and I think I probably still don’t know the full impact of this experience. But I’m moving towards new goals and I’m excited to make the most of my last month here. Thanks for reading if you got this far. Much love to ya.