“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

- Thomas Mann

A generalist by nature and training, Sandy Asirvatham has reported on dozens of subjects and has had the privilege to interview all sorts of people, from political activists to landscape architects to Shakespearean actors, best selling novelists to corporate bankers, death row convicts to members of the Kennedy clan. In the late 1980s through early 2000s she wrote for countless publications, including TimeOut New York, US Weekly, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Baltimore CityPaper (where she won awards, kudos, and occasionally nasty reader letters for her biweekly column called “Underwhelmed”). In an extended moment of professional curiosity and whimsy, she also produced seven short nonfiction books (histories and biographies) for the young adult publisher Chelsea House, including a history of jazz and a history of the blues.

“Sheath,” a short story in Berkeley Fiction Review

“Shadow of a Doubt,” feature about Maryland’s death row in Baltimore City Paper

Underwhelmed column (Baltimore CityPaper) for September 11, 2002 "Unforgettable" 

Underwhelmed column (Baltimore CityPaper) for November 13, 2002 "Fakebook"

Universal stress test. (December 2020)

There is a concept in exercise physiology called “forced adaptation.” The term was borrowed from evolutionary biology, where it has a more precise definition, but for committed gym-warriors, it simply means that you can’t improve yourself without applying intentional stress. 

Whether you’re lifting weights or running on a treadmill, if you aren’t challenging yourself to work harder every session, you’re doing nothing much. You’re sliding toward old-age entropy a little more slowly. A safe, boring, repetitive “workout” at the gym is essentially the low-interest CD of the body. It might look like that 1.4 percent return is a gain but it’s only a way of hedging. 

In the rest of our lives, we don’t often choose to be stressed: adaptations are forced upon us. The pandemic has been one massive, heavy, global superset. Some of us (individuals and nations) have grown the muscle mass, endurance, mental fortitude, and creative problem-solving to bear up under its weight. Some of us but not all. 

Artists, entrepreneurs, creative problem-solving types often do better than average in such environments. We’re accustomed to pushing ourselves toward the hard stuff even when easier options are available. We are restless when forced to stay "at ease"; we are dissatisfied when others are content; we are most alive in situations that welcome risk-taking and continual flexibility. Our comfort zone is discomfort. 

This is a privileged view, of course. Even creative types first have to secure food, safety, health, a roof over their heads. And this is where life today in the USA has become so much coarser, meaner, and unforgiving than it was in 1963 when my parents emigrated from India, or even 1981 when, at 15, I feared that the Reagan presidency and the Greed is Good ethos would send us in a bad direction. 

Many of us have operated with a longstanding faith that somehow things will work out, that the bottom will always be slightly cushioned, and that our pluralist, humanist system of laws, regulations, and taxpayer-funded programs would help us in the direst times. At this very moment, it may feel like a truly dumb type of faith, a holdover from the FDR and LBJ days, a specific form of American exceptionalism that made us grow soft and take the proverbial “kindness of strangers” for granted. 

I think 2020's lesson is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. People of other nations--whether relatively poor like the one my parents left, or relatively rich like the ones who survived calamitous 20th-century wars--have known this for a long time. 

But in any case.... 

Here’s to a holiday season where we give ourselves the most important gifts of all: the gift of perspective, the blessing of creative adaptation, the willingness to roll with the punches. 

Speaking of punches, I recently heard an allegedly adult relative complaining about his routine workplace COVID testing (“I felt like they were poking my braaaaaiiiin”). It took enormous self-discipline for me not to deck him through the Zoomscape. Don’t be that guy or gal. Be an artist of your life, and in the lives of those who depend on you. Be brave, responsible, attentive, and willing to adapt as required.


Words fail us. (October 2020)

If a kindly, intelligent extraterrestrial--one who has studied US history up until the mid-1950s or so, when she first went into her hyperspace coma--sat down with you for coffee this Saturday morning after Pilates and asked, “How’s your week been?”...for how many minutes would your jaw hang slack while you tried to figure out where to start? Or is the appropriate unit of measure hours, days, weeks? 

The news is a tsunami. Everyone seems to be choking and gasping, whether we’ve got health problems or not. Meanwhile, I’ve seen people on social media say Did we just forget about Bad Thing X From Last Week? or Are we being deliberately distracted from The Horrible Words or Actions in the headlines two days ago…? 

But who is this “we,” and why have “we” decided that the 24-hour news cycle is the arbiter of our values? Why aren’t we relying on our own prior knowledge, memory, and moral priorities? Or have we let those be eroded by the onslaught? Sometimes it seems the only thing we’re doing is drowning in relentless freeform outrage and fear. 

During and after college in NYC, I sometimes skipped a local vote because I hadn’t paid enough attention to the news. I felt overwhelmed by the contradictory information I’d hear from friends and colleagues. This was well before the Internet, but even back then, the Op-Eds in the Times versus the NY Post versus the Daily News versus the Voice seemed to portray each candidate as four different people who happened to have the same name. Out of my own self-doubt I felt I shouldn’t pull a lever based on imperfect knowledge. I naively believed there was another option. 

Back then it was much easier to keep only one eye open to “current events,” to focus on your job, your friends, and your attempts to be neither a perp or victim of criminal heartbreak. Now with smartphones and social media, it feels like moral irresponsibility to not keep up. 

But is it? What good does it do, being “aware”? If it doesn’t spur you to specific helpful actions or force you to change your life, what good is being hooked on the news? What about the moral imperatives evident from your own small life? No matter how aware we think we are, there is always something shitty going on, everywhere and at every time, maybe right next door to us. There’s something terrible happening at a neighbor’s house, and not only will we never know, we’ll never have standing to say anything about it. 

Or maybe there’s some deep moral or emotional failure in our own lives, and the outward focus helps us stay distracted. At some point, no amount of therapeutic punditry can hide us from ourselves. Maybe it would be better to sit alone in silence. 

Between the barbell and me (September 2020) 

I was a slow, scrawny, easily winded kid, but I discovered my inner athlete in my 40s. I’d spent decades at gyms doing a bit of random “cardio” or taking a fake, scripted, trademarked dance class, and using the shiny circuit machines for something called toning--a bullshit marketing concept catered to women’s irrational fear of building muscle fiber and “bulking up.” (In reality, significant visible muscle growth is a difficult achievement, even for mesomorphs with high testosterone using obsessive…

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Con Man V. Confidence (August 2020) 

I avidly read Mary Trump’s memoir the day it was released. I still crave insider confirmation of the obvious emotional chaos we observe from the outside, hourly and daily, via the news and Twitter. 

(Yes, this is a musician’s newsletter, not a political blog, but if you disagree with me on the basic fact that Trump is a total disaster as a human being, let alone as president, please unsubscribe.) 

I also have a writer's preoccupation with how dysfunctional families operate, especially when money and power…

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