The Meyerowitz Stories (Old and Selected)

Note: I have borrowed characters from the movie The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) You don’t have to watch the movie before reading on but you should know this story is set twenty years before the events in the movie. Movie was set in New York City of 2017 and this is set in Bard College, New York of 1997. It’s about 100 miles away from New York City, New York.

 Chapter 1 : Three Beginnings

It was a Friday evening on the campus of Bard College, New York. The grass around the Quad still had the greenness of summer while the leaves were starting to turn yellowish red. The white oak tree stood tall in the middle of Quad with sparrows on its branches chirping freely. A girl with violet-colored blonde hair was playing banjo. The breeze carried her notes around the Quad. Some were stopped in their tracks mesmerized by her music and some smiled while continuing to walk on.

Fiouna Lake would have liked to stay around the oak tree. She usually preferred to walk slowly and soak in the ambiance around Quad. But not today when she was late for her MU211 class. As she approached the Lincoln building, she could see Professor Cook entering the class on the third floor. Instead of taking the smelly old elevator, she ran up the stairs. She was panting and sweating when she reached her class. The class had acoustic pianos lined up along the walls with one piano in the center. Everyone had circled around the central piano. Professor Cook gave her a cold glance as she joined the group.

While sitting on the central piano’s stool, Prof. Cook said, “Last time, we began playing with our left hand which can be difficult for some of you. We played the left C and I am sure you would have practiced it outside class. Today we are going to play Presley’s Love Me Tender. Now everyone can go to one of the pianos and practice in group of two. I hope everyone has got their sheet music. I would come to you in fifteen minutes.”

The group dispersed and started walking towards their favorite pianos. Fiouna decided to walk towards the piano farthest away from the center although she knew that the particular piano wasn’t the best one. She found an annoyed Danny Meyerowitz who was bending down and pushing the pedals with his hand.

“The damper is rusty. Don’t bother fixing it up.”

“Dammit! That explains why my notes are being sustained for too long. Ah, well…I am stuck now with this.”

“Stuck with the piano and me.”

“Haha, I don’t mind your company as long as you have the sheet music. I forgot mine.”

***

The class was filled up with off-tuned music as everyone tried their best to play the song smoothly. Fiouna had started to get a sense of the key strokes. Danny was helping her with the timing of one of her strokes. Prof. Cook came up to them and asked, “Danny, why don’t you show me how are you playing?” Fiouna stood up gladly and moved behind the professor. Danny gingerly took his place on the stool while both of them were looking at him. Danny did his best to pretend nobody was looking but he could feel Prof. Cook’s gaze on him. He looked at sheet music for a second before he started playing. Unlike last week, he didn’t want to give an opportunity to the professor to say anything about his timing. Professor signaled him to stop within ten seconds. He said, “Danny, you need to practice more” and moved on towards the next piano.

Fiouna put her hand on Danny’s shoulder for a moment without saying anything. Danny sighed and started to play again while pressing the damper harder than necessary.

As Prof. Cook was checking on his students going from one piano to another, he was surprised delightfully by someone playing almost perfectly, even Presley would have been proud. He tried to listen harder amidst the imitational music to find out the direction from which the pristine music was coming.  He finally found the really young looking player; he had not seen this student before.

“Is this your first class, son?” Prof. Cook asked as he approached the player.

“Yes, sir.”, he replied keeping his head down respectfully.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Matthew Meyerowitz, sir.”

“Aha…at least someone has inherited his father’s artistic talents.”

***

It had almost got dark. Most bars along Kelly Road were crowded. Kelly Road was a favorite bar destination for the college students; it was just a fifteen minutes walking distance away from the Bard College campus. These bars were filled up with the thrill of meeting someone new, raucous young laugh, and exciting smoke. The Bog Pub was an exception. They were not many people inside but it was still filled up with warmth of meeting someone you knew before, relaxed old laugh and deep smoke of brooding. Its door opened to let in a black jacket wearing man. He dragged his large black umbrella as he walked towards the bartender. He would occasionally use his umbrella to support himself whenever he felt pain in his left knees. The pain was not sharp enough for a doctor’s visit but frequent enough for him to always carry his umbrella. He  looked around the bar and found some of his friends drinking and listening to each other intently. The week had just finished and there were stories to be exchanged.

Tom, the bartender, was wiping dark mahogany bar with his wet white cloth. He had a phoenix tattoo on his left hand and he was wearing a blue shirt over black jeans with Yankees cap on his head.

“Professor, what would you like to have?”

“Just the usual on the rocks.”

“Alright, give me a second, Professor,”  said Tom and turned away towards his booze cupboard.

“Hey, Harold! Long time no see,” greeted John.

“Hey John! Yeah, sorry. Been busy with the admissions,” replied Harold taking off his black jacket, keeping his umbrella on his side and then shaking hand with John. Harold was in his forties and had grey hair; he was wearing his usual white shirt with dark black formal pants.

“So, how have you been, John?,” asked Harold after settling down in his favorite rightmost stool.

“Not too good. My son was sick last week. Now he is doing better. I heard about your father-in-law’s death. Sorry about that. Harold, how’s your wife doing?”

“Ummm…she is doing alright, John. Thank you. She just came back this afternoon from her brother’s home. I wish I could have accompanied her but you know how beginning of the semester is hectic. Admission process doesn’t give you anytime”

“Hmm…I can imagine she would not be happy with it.”

“Well, anyone would be sad when dealing with father’s death. But as I was saying, spending hours reading pages long admission forms and interviewing unenthusiastic students. So boring! However, I did find time for her. I sculpted my version of Rodin’s Thinking Man when she was away. I am sure she would be delighted to see my sculpture. It’s made with jade. It was not easy to get the finishing right. Ah, here is my drink.”

“A sculpture made with jade is one of my favorites! When would you make something for your bartender friend, Professor?”, asked Tom while handing neat Old Scotch to Harold.

“As soon as my knee stops paining, my friend”, replied Harold while taking the sip.

“Tom, it’s going to be a long wait. I don’t think Harold’s knee is going to stop paining anytime soon.”

“I know, John,” replied Tom rolling his eyes and moved away to serve his other customers.

“John, did you hear about Giuliani signing that goddamn law? It’s crazy in New York City!”

“The one about the domestic partnership? The next thing we know would be faggots making out on the streets.  Everyone is saying when your mayor is a faggot, then it’s not a surprise that your city is going to the dogs.”

“I know, right !? That’s why I say one should never live in big cities like New York City or San Francisco. Imagine, Harold, what if Bard College was in NYC, then would you still have liked to be a Professor in Bard College?”

“Never, John! It’s one thing to go to NYC to showcase your work to the world and another thing to …”

“Excuse me, Professor. Your wife is on the phone,” Tom interjected.

“Tom, can you tell her I am going to reach home soon? Thank you”, Harold replied.

He finished his drink, said goodbye to his friends at the bar, buttoned his black jacket and used his umbrella to support himself upright. As he opened the door to exit the pub, the cold breeze hit his face. He could hear the conversation and smell the cigarette’s smoke; there were people standing on the pavement. A tired Harold Meyerowitz took a deep breath in, checked his pocket for the gift-wrapped heavy sculpture and started walking towards his home. He knew the long night had just begun.

***

Philosophy-centric Physics graduate education

As a part of my Physics education, I have had the pleasure to attend a large number of courses. Typical trajectory of a physics course can be summarized as follows: we start off by picking up necessary math skills (for example, vector algebra and calculus for Newton’s laws of motion), then we use these skills to unpack the concise statements of physical laws (for example, what does F=ma mean?) and at the end, we apply these laws to specific problems to improve our understanding of the laws (for example, if an object of 5 kg is subjected to 4 N of force, what’s the acceleration?).

I attended a Machine Learning course recently which was different from traditional courses in more than one ways. It was based on flipped classroom concept; we did simulations in class, we had discussions in class and we read research papers as part of assignments. One can argue that the unusual strategy suited the course because it was on Machine Learning, which is still in infancy unlike Electrodynamics. However, I believe that the same strategy can be applied to graduate courses teaching well-established fields. Although flipped-classroom approach has been applied to undergraduate courses in many universities, it’s hard to find a Physics graduate courses, which has been taught in non-traditional approach.

The two most important skills, which I learnt in that course, was to ask big questions and read research papers critically. I am going to explain below what exactly I mean by the above terms and why I think these skills are crucial for learning how to do research. These two skills have never been taught to me in any other course even though the goal of any graduate course should be to prepare graduate students for their life as a researcher.

Why learning to ask big questions is important for a budding researcher? Asking the big questions helps one to understand what’s the whole point of a certain subject (for example, what is Machine Learning and why it’s hard?). This is the first step that one can take to get a sense of where the community currently stands. Once we know what is the current body of knowledge, we need to ask second question: how can we expand the boundary of current knowledge?

To make it more explicit, let me give examples of big questions that can be asked and explored in graduate courses:

  • In a Quantum Mechanics course, we can start by asking what’s a quantum system – does quantum systems need to be necessarily small and discrete? When does a system stop behaving like a quantum system and starts becoming like a classical system? How do you design experiments that measure the quantum behavior of the world? Stern-Gerlach experiment and Feynman’s double slit thought experiment are good examples to illustrate the subtlety of quantum experiments.
  • In a Statistical Physics course, we can ask what’s the recipe of studying complex physical systems according to Statistical Physics? What is ergodicity and when does it fail? Why Anderson argues More is Different? In other words, why reductionist principle can fail to explain an emergent phenomenon like Bose-Einstein condensation? How Quantum Statistical Physics is different from Classical Statistical Physics?
  • In a Quantum Many-Body Physics course, we can start by asking why many-body systems are hard to simulate on classical computers? If one starts from non-interacting limit, can we use perturbation to understand the effect of interaction in a many-body system? Would we ever discover a general principle that goes beyond mean-field theory? What’s the effect of infinite dimensional phase-space on physics of many-body systems? Anderson Orthogonality Catastrophe is a perfect example illustrating this point.
  • In a Quantum Computing course, we can ask what is a quantum computer? Is a quantum computer necessarily better than a classical computer? Why Feynman argued that a quantum computer can help us simulate a quantum world?
  • In a Machine Learning course, we can ask what is machine learning? What is the recipe of studying complex systems according to machine learning? Why machine learning is hard?
  • In a Biophysics course, we can ask what defines life? What measurements can be done to distinguish between a living and non-living beings? What is Physics of Life – would we ever discover some new fundamental force in living beings?

The whole point of these questions is that we are spending time in class thinking about what are the most important questions for the field, how does the subject traditionally answer them and is there a better way to go about solving them?

When we start asking these questions, it’s natural to ask how scientists before us tried to answer them. This brings me to the second skill: reading research papers critically. Before I go into details, let me list some resources which I found useful in improving my paper reading skills. I recently got to know there is a systematic method called QALMRI to learn how to read papers, which people follow in cognitive science. Also, I have found Terry Hwa’s reading guide useful.

It’s important to note that merely assigning classic papers to read without any proper class discussion would not help. A class discussion would help students to see what they missed in their first reading. Further, reading classic papers can also help students write better papers in future.

I have seen that almost all Professors know classic papers in their field, but curiously they rarely assign these papers as part of course assignments. I don’t know why they don’t. However, they definitely assign a lot of problems.  They seem to be convinced that physicists learn best when solving problems and calculating physical quantities.

Sometimes, calculating something doesn’t necessarily leads to better understanding. You can solve problems by following some algorithm without any deep understanding; you need to stop and ponder why something is working (or not working). Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely helpful to solve textbook-style problems to gain some intuition. But I feel since we physicists are so good at calculating things (using spherical cow approximations), we forget that starting point of any research is asking the right kind of questions. Also, we sometimes ignore the fact that there are other ways of acquiring knowledge – asking big questions, whose answers can’t be necessarily calculated at the current moment and learning from someone else’s calculation/simulation/experiment by reading their papers. Along with problem solving skills, I am arguing here that above mentioned skills should be also taught in classrooms.

Graduate courses that emphasize asking big questions and reading papers critically are needed to train next generation of physicists, who don’t only know how to solve problems but also to recognize which problems are important. This philosophy-centric teaching approach is truer in spirit to the goals of philosophiae doctor (PhD) degree.

Classification of fiction books

Before I begin giving you my classification, let me first answer the question ‘Why a new classification?’  Of course, we already have literary genres, which is simple enough to be used by everyone in classifying fiction books. The problem is that it doesn’t have any systematic criteria on classifying fiction books. Sometimes, it is named based upon how you feel while reading it: if you get scared while reading, it’s called horror; if you are thrilled to read it, then it will be called a thriller. Sometimes, it’s based upon the nature of story: if it is based on a scientific concept, then it’s called sci-fi, if it’s based on a crime, then it’s called a crime novel.  

Alright, once I have established the need for another classification scheme, let me tell you what I hope to achieve by a more systematic one. Using this scheme, I hope readers, both old and new, can have a more enjoyable reading experience by knowing better how to approach the book at hand. And hopefully, it can be used as a guide to pick up a right book.
What’s the classification scheme I have used? We will compare the pace of the characters versus that of the plot in a book.  Based on this, there are three kinds of fiction books in this world:
1. Fast paced: The one in which the  plot moves faster than the character. These books usually focus on the plot. As a reader, you will find yourself engrossed in the twists and turns of the plot. While reading the book (and if it is really good), the only thing you want in your life is to reach the end of it. Most of the suspense thriller/suspense and crime novels fall into this category. For example, Sherlock Holmes series and works of Agatha Christie.
2. Slow paced: The other extreme is the one in which characters move faster than the plot. These books spend a lot of time on sketching characters, and their environment. While reading such stories, you might wonder why should you care about the weather or the clouds or the trees around? The book believes that by knowing about the environment, you will get to understand more about the characters and their moods. You would find that in these books, most of the time the plot is not moving at all, while one character is moving from one place to another. The place might not be a geographical place; it might be moving from one place to another in an abstract space as far as characteristics of the character (like mood or age)  is concerned. While reading such a book, you will notice the mood swings of both the characters and yourself as a reader. And you should never be in a hurry to reach the end of it. For example, Lord of the Rings,  A song of Ice and Fire,  A Suitable Boy,  Atlas Shrugged, and Fountainhead.
3. Medium paced: The third one lies in the vast middle of this spectrum.  The author takes time to carve out both the characters and the plot. The author will try his/her best to strike a balance between giving details about the plot and the characters. For example, Harry Potter series, To kill a mockingbird, Kingkiller chronicles (less popular but highly recommended), Kite Runner.
For someone who is just starting their journey into fiction books, I would suggest depending upon your mood and interest, pick either the first or the third category. I feel from my experience of reading Lord of the Rings that you should leave the second category for the later part of your journey.
P.S:  Thanks goes to my friend Vaibhav Karve for seeding this idea into my head.

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The raindrop falling on his vulnerable bald head found his senses to be numb. He could not listen to rain thumping his Maruti car’s roof or his two-storied house’s pipe regurgitating the muddy water from the roof into the drain.

“Beep! Beep!”

The blaring horn from the car brought him crashing back to his senses. He realized that his throat was parched and he was obstructing the road in front of the house. He turned back and went inside. He slumped into his sofa, and found himself really tired as if he was coming back from a twenty-year long rock-climbing expedition. Pappu, their light brown labrador greeted him with unusual silence. Pappu chose to curl up in a ball next to his right foot, and closed its’ big sad eyes. Both were her equally possessive lovers, and they never got along well for long, but today they were brought together by the overwhelming emptiness.

He found the whole house to be perfectly normal. There were no glasses broken, no chairs upturned, no books thrown. Everything was as neatly kept in its own place as if she were still here spending her afternoons organizing stuff as she used to do while he took his nap.

He felt weird in his mouth as if one of his teeth had left its place, but he could not remember when it happened. Suddenly, he found his tooth in his left hand, and when he looked at it, it crumpled in front of his eyes. In horror, he put his finger on his mouth, and then he felt all of his teeth falling out one by one.

Shrugging the napping dog off his foot, he ran towards kitchen breathing heavily to get some water. Pappu didn’t like being woken up just like she hated being woken up, and he started barking at him as he chased him. When they reached kitchen,  he could not believe his eyes. The dog kept barking louder, and louder. The bloody red water was flowing onto the floor from the open tap in the overfilled wash basin. Her body was there on the floor immersed into water…and then everything came crashing back to his memory. He could not take it anymore. He found himself to be falling into nothingness. His knees gave away, and his body crashed onto the flooded floor…

_________________________________________________________________

“Darling, are you okay?”

He woke up with a start in the dead of night in his warm bed. His wife had switched on the bedside lamp, and was looking at him in concern. She put her hands into his hair, and found his head to be wet with sweat. She grabbed a tissue paper from one of her smart pockets in their bed, and wiped off his face and dried his head. She didn’t understand why he was looking at her in shock and relief as if she just came back from death.

“Thank God, you are still alive!”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No”

She brought him closer and put his head on her chest. He put her arm around her, and dozed off in a few seconds. She kept looking at him, while he breathed heavily, for some time before she put off the lamp.

Mleccha: a historical word

In my family, we all agree that my mother has got the most colorful way of showing her displeasure. While she would unload her angst on us with words in her mother-tongue dialect Bhojpuri, my sister and I would  listen to her words with amazed look on our faces. Armed with whatever knowledge of Hindi and English languages we had, we would be lost in dissecting those foreign words enthusiastically. Of course, seeing the topic of discussion had got changed, my mother would not be happy at all to find her energetic outburst have been of no use!

One of the many imaginative words that I learnt from my mother was “mleccha”. I never understood the meaning of this derogatory term. At best, I could imagine this to be closer to Hindi word “mcchuwara” (fisher). Surrounded by disappointingly uninspiring Hindi books, I never found anybody else using this word until a few days ago, when I found this word at a totally surprising place- a history book. Little did I know this was historically used by people living in what is now the frontier between India and Pakistan to describe others who they didn’t like.

As I was understanding the dynamics between Harappans and Aryans while I was reading John Keay’s India: A History, there was this word sitting quietly waiting for my attention. I was so surprised to know that mleccha is a Sanksrit word. How could a language which people claim to be so elegant have this “uncouth” word! And I was not wrong. It turns out philologists have spent years of research on this word and they insist that its origin can’t be Sanskrit. It might be true that Aryans used this word to describe indigenes, who appeared to them as “dark,  flat-nosed, uncouth and incomprehensible.”

In fact, on googling, I found a Wikipedia article on Mlecccha, and there is a dynasty by the same name.
Next time I am going back to India, I am going to note down every new word my mother throws at me. Who knows I can learn another historical word!

 

 

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