Against the Slippery Slope of Injustice: Amanda Palmer Reads Wendell Berry’s Stunningly Prescient Poem “Questionnaire” – Brain Pickings

“The road to moral hell is paved with gradual self-permission.”  …Maria Popova

via Against the Slippery Slope of Injustice: Amanda Palmer Reads Wendell Berry’s Stunningly Prescient Poem “Questionnaire” – Brain Pickings

I have maintained for a little while now that we will look back at some of the things that we ourselves did as a part of civilization today, things that we take for granted, and wonder how we ever thought that it was the right thing to do.  And sometimes we will even swallow our nagging sense of injustice so that it will not be disruptive to our own sense of well being. It is true that we can learn through history, but there is never an end to this process, it seems. When will true justice be really served?

Easy On The Handlebars

It happened during the bike ride in the Canadian Rockies in 2017.  It was the third day of the ride, and we had left the area of the Columbia Icefield that morning. We were descending Parker Ridge on the Icefields Parkway on our bikes. The road was somewhat steep.  The pavement was in bad shape, and the narrow shoulder of the road that we  were riding on looked like it was falling apart. There were cracks everywhere, and the outside edge of the shoulder was very uneven.

We were coming down the side of the mountain rather fast, and then we were negotiating the curve around the mountainside at a point where there was a lookout point into the valley on the other side of the road.  Some folks in the group tried to stop at the curve. Our radio started squawking.  It was Ben, our tour organizer, telling us that this was not a good place to stop (it was busy with traffic), and that we needed to get to a safer point closer the bottom of the hill to pull off the road.

I was doing my damnedest to try to keep the tires steady going downhill.  There was a lot of bouncing around involved.  When we finally got to a place where we could stop and gather ourselves, Ben asked me how it had felt coming down.  It seemed to him that I had looked wobbly on the bike.  He advised me to not hold on to the handlebars very hard.  He said that I should actually relax my arms a little more to allow a little bit of bounce.  That would make the ride easier.

This advice made a big difference the rest of the way down the mountain. It turns out that letting the bicycle react to the roughness of the roadway and going with the flow, and making fewer and more subtle adjustments, made for a smoother, and actually more controlled, ride.  I did not need to react hard to every bump on the road.  I did not need to fear the feeling of not being completely in control all the time.

I was thinking about this incident a couple of days ago during a more recent bike ride. The thought occurred to me that I have always had this tendency since childhood to try to force things to happen in exactly a certain way, striving for the perfect approach in some situations, when, in certain circumstances, the best thing to do might have been to relax a little.

I learnt a similar lesson about control more recently when I was taking classes to learn how to sing properly.  I was learning to use the body properly to create a consistent and strong musical sound.  But, as it turned out, I ended up also trying too hard to manage the vocal system as a part of this process.  You cannot make a good sound when the muscles are tense.   I had to learn to relax.  I managed to get my head around this fact only later.   Trying very hard for perfection may not necessarily be the best approach in all situations.

While this kind of general attitude towards getting things done right might have made me a better engineer, and even a good solver of logical problems, it may not have been a good lesson to help me deal with life in general.   Just as I was made to realize with the bicycle that a 100% control of the handlebars was not the best approach, the 100% solution is probably not the best approach to life as a whole.  As I have noted before, the world is not digital!  I tried too hard in situations where it did not make sense.  I missed the big picture.  Setting rules does not absolve you from thinking, learning as you go, and adjusting as needed.  You cannot be stuck on making sure everything is done exactly as you want it. And people do matter!

I am sorry to admit that I began to learn this lesson properly only later in life.  It turns out that it is not easy to get away from the foundation that you grew up with.  I would like to believe that I am now learning to take it easy on the handlebars, to let go of some of the control, and to not force matters.   Unfortunately, the impact of my failure to learn this lesson earlier in life has been not just on myself, but also on other people. Hopefully, the impact of the damage has been limited.

We should all be taking it easy on the proverbial handlebars, or, if you prefer, the steering wheel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mad Thoughts on July 4th

I had decided to take the week off from training since it was so close to the start of the longer bike ride that is starting on Sunday.  I did not want to overdo it.  But restlessness took over early in the week.  A couple of days of staying at home when I could have been outside biking in nice weather was more than I could handle mentally.  Although it is easy to become lazy, I also had a sense that there had been opportunities that had been missed.  I finally broke down and went for a long bike ride on Thursday, July 4th – Independence day.

I left early in the morning having decided that I wanted to be back home at a reasonable time after the ride.  The streets were quiet on account the holiday.  It was somewhat jarring on this particular day to come across a pan-handler at a road intersection holding a sign that indicated that he was a veteran.  My first thought that it was quite ironic that my first experience on Independence day was something that made a mockery of the sentiment of independence.  The veterans were the guys who were willing to face danger in the preservation of independence, but we were failing them and not taking care of them.  Yet, we were having a celebration.

Our eyes locked for just an instant.  The moment did not last long. I was just driving past.  I suppose I could have pulled over somewhere to engage with the person.  That may have been the right thing to do, but it seems that the easiest thing to do is to try to put encounters with the less fortunate out of our minds.

There were many cars already parked in the lot at Great Falls by the time I arrived.  That was not normally the case on a regular weekday.  I found a spot for my car further away from where I was used to parking, got my equipment out, and started to ride towards the trail.  I could see that a yoga class was underway next to the river.P7040078.jpgPeople were also already on the trail, many walking towards Olmsted Island to see the actual waterfalls.  I headed south on the towpath towards Washington, DC, on my bicycle.

My goal was to get to Fletcher’s Cove, and then take the Capital Crescent trail to Bethesda.  I estimated that this would give me a moderate distance of about 30 miles for the ride.

As I got closer to Fletcher’s Cove, the urge hit me to head right into Washington, DC, to investigate what was going on with regards to the July 4th celebration there.  The primary concern with following up on this urge was the fear of possible crowds of people on foot on the path on which I was trying to ride my bike.  My strategy was going to be to immediately turn back and retrace my path the moment I hit trouble.

I was able to ride along the C&O canal all the way through Georgetown without interference. I then got on the trail that went past Rock Creek, to get to mile 0 of the towpath.  The city was still very quiet at that time of the morning.  There were fewer people about than I had expected.  So far so good!  I decided to keep on biking further along the river, in the direction of Lincoln Memorial, and to cross over to Virginia on one of the bridges across the Potomac at some point.  I would then head back north through Virginia, and finally cross over back to the other side of the river at the Key bridge.

I did not have to bike far before I encountered a roadblock. It was just before the Kennedy Center.  Both the trail and the road beside it were closed, and a police car and a dump truck were blocking the way.   I could either go back the way I had come, or try to find another way around the blockage.  Remembering that this blockage was in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, and that a big event was being planned at that location in the evening, I saw no point in continuing.  There was no way the authorities were going to let people, even an innocent bicyclist, get closer.

Seeing a sign for Interstate 66 and Virginia at this point, I decided to take the bridge over the Potomac to Virginia instead.  I biked up to the front of Kennedy CenterP7040084.jpgand looked around. There were no people around. The few scattered guards around the building appeared to be in a very relaxed frame of mind.  There was no concern about my standing there all by myself taking pictures.

I found the bicycle trail leading to the bridge.

The bike lane on the Interstate 66 bridge across the Potomac was clearly not part of the original design of the bridge.  It was narrow enough to be dangerous.  I saw a person coming towards me lose his balance while trying to pass some people, and hit the railing on the river side of the bridge in the process.  The railing was not very high – once again not designed with bicyclists in mind.  Luckily, the person did not fall off the bridge.  I proceeded with additional caution.

There were cars at the parking lot for Roosevelt Island on the Virginia side of the bridge. By this time people were beginning to come out to the park in significant numbers.

I made my way over the Key Bridge back into DC,  and then biked back to Fletcher’s Cove on the towpath.

The ride on the Capital Crescent trail was my last opportunity for some uphill biking as part of my training.  It felt good.  I felt strong.  Things seem to be in good shape for the ride.  There were plenty of people on the trail by the time I got there.  The laid-back spirit of the July 4th holiday was in the air.

The towpath was completely crowded with holiday-goers by the time I got back to Great Falls at the end of the ride.  I had to slow down to a crawl and call out to people on the trail regularly to warn them about my approach.  Folks were in good spirits.

I got in about 40 miles of riding.  It was more that I had wanted to do in the beginning. I was a bit tired.

It was a news article that I saw online that I wanted to talk a little more about in this blog. The article indicated that Mad Magazine was soon going to cease publication. Coincidentally, I had been thinking about Mad Magazine during the last few days.  I had been an avid follower of the magazine in the 70s. One of the regular features that I used to enjoy was a comic series (I have not been able to find the author’s name) that attempted to showcase regular Americans going about their everyday lives.  It was a caricature, and it pointed out the ridiculous nature of some of the habits of the regular folks, and the mindless and asinine things people do as a matter of habit without even thinking about it.   Although I did not know it at that time, the drawings were quite accurate and cutting in their depictions.  I found this out only later when I came to the US myself.  The drawn pictures of the people were themselves quite priceless, and also ridiculously accurate in their representation. You could see what a typical American looked like in his or her living environment, and it was sometimes quite ridiculous.

My thoughts then wandered towards how America has changed since the seventies.  Specifically, I was thinking about people like me, Indians who have settled down in the US, people who have grown in our numbers. I was thinking about how we now represent a significant chunk of the local population that is easily recognizable.  We have our own recognizable  place in the American experience in the cities and in suburbia. (This is perhaps less true in the rural areas.)  We have our own quirks.  The interesting thing is how Indians have adopted to the existing American way of life, and also how Indians have impacted the social experience and the culture in places where they exist in large numbers.  We can be as American as they come, but in our own way.

It was in this context that I was thinking about my American experience, and consequently about Mad Magazine.  I was thinking about the opportunity to make fun of people like me, the Indian American, and my manners and looks. I am sure we have our own foibles that would be worthy of laughing about if we became more self-aware.  It could perhaps take an “outsider” to point these out to us.  Yes, we could perhaps be downright ridiculous in our ways if we really thought about it.  And this would also be a unique part of the American experience.  And it would be great to capture this in comic form, just the way Mad Magazine could.  Indeed, they might have done so already without my knowing it.  How would Mad Magazine try to caricature a person like me?  That would be interesting to know.  Would they consider people like me to be full of crap?

I will end with a thought about the July 4th celebration. It is about the fact that for the first time in many years they had a show of military power at the celebrations in Washington, DC.  The show included Air Force One flying overhead as the president spoke.  It is easy to forget that all of this material stuff is temporary.  The picture below symbolic of what eventually happens to all of this over time.   The aircraft below once used to carry the President of the United States.  It has now become a museum piece, somewhat sad looking in its current location and appearance.P6170040.jpg(This picture was taken from the Mt. Vernon trail, from under the Wilson Bridge.)

It is the spirit that really matters in the end.

PS.  If you do not know anything about Mad Magazine, and are interested in getting a better context, you should watch the video in the link that I provided in this blog.

The Incessant Cacophony

Imagine for a minute that you are an alien being, an intelligent species from somewhere out there in the universe, somewhere far, far, away, from a very distant galaxy.

Imagine that you are the alien being searching for signs of life in the universe, listening to patterns in the radio waves that whiz past all around you. You are capable of recognizing not just emissions from point sources, but also all the kinds of signaling that exist in the universe, both simple and sophisticated. You can certainly recognize all the simple forms of signaling invented on Planet Earth.

Imagine that one day you hear something from a very, very, distant source that seems to make sense to you. Somebody is trying to send some “information” to you about itself. And you are curious….

You focus more of your resources on tracking this new source of “information”, and you are able to pick the fainter signals emitted from this source. You begin to separate the many signals and the patterns in them. And you recognize that there are many, many, different kinds of signals, at widely varying signal strengths, being emitted. And embedded in these various signals are many different kinds of information coded in many different ways.  This information seems to be more sophisticated than what you first detected from this source.  Since you have zoomed in, you realize that information sources are clustered around a central location which seems to be generating most of what is being sent out into space. But there are also emissions from the space surrounding this central location, and the intensity of the emissions is  reducing gradually with distance from the central source.  Indeed, there seems to be some form of “communications” going on between the central source and the surrounding space.

And, you, the alien being, get even more curious. You find a way to focus even more of your resources on this source to find out what is going on. All of sudden, you are hearing a cacophony of signals that are getting more and more difficult to make sense of. The signals are in all kinds of frequencies and at varying signal levels, and the ones you can extract from this cacophony are of many different kinds. A lot of it is difficult to make sense of even when decoded.  There could be a lot of communications going on within the source, but it all seems so random.  It seems like chaos.  It seems like a mess. And, the intelligent creature that you are, you wonder what is going on. This source is generating a whole lot of what seems to be noise. Is it some form of pollution?  How is this being generated?  Is there a purpose? How much of the energy of the source is being used generating all of this noise?

And, perhaps, intelligent being that you are, you are concerned. This seems to be pointless, and maybe even self-destructive. Is the planet radioactive? Where is all the energy coming from, all to be expended into nothingness?  All of this cannot be sustained for too long a long time. What is going on?  What is the point?  Is there a purpose?

Onward to the Land of the Incas

We are preparing for a visit to Peru next month.  During this trip we will be traveling to the interior and visiting the heartland of the old Inca civilization, including the ancient city of Cusco.  We are looking forward to this visit.

I have been doing some reading in anticipation of this trip.  The first book that I read was ‘Turn Right at Machu Pichu”, by Mark Adams.  This book, first published in 2011, weaves two different story lines.  The first is Mark’s experience of traveling the region, following in the paths of earlier explorers, including trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Mark interweaves this narrative with an account of the history of the region, some of it very brutal, mostly centered around the time of the Spanish conquests of the area.  He talks about the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a somewhat self-serving American explorer in search of fame, in 1911.  But Machu Picchu was never really “lost”, especially to the people who are from the region!  In any case, the stories are interesting, even if the details of the book are difficult to remember just a few weeks after reading it.  My memory is not what it used to be.

The other book I read more recently was “The Old Patagonian Express”, by Paul Theroux.  This book was first published in 1979.  It is an account of Paul’s travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Esquel in Patagonia, mostly by train.  The travels took the author through Peru, and specifically Cusco and Machu Picchu.  I have a copy of the book that I had bought in June of 1985, when I was about to graduate with my doctorate degree.  It was time to open the book once again.

The spirit of the somewhat arduous trip taken by Paul Theroux (it took a few months to complete) is something that I can appreciate.  It is an undertaking that seems to have been driven mainly by the author’s sense of curiosity and adventure, and his need to leave his zone of comfort in the process.  It is about the thrill and the romance of travel.  You do it because you want to see, experience, and learn about new things, new places, new people, etc..  You are not looking for the familiar place or face.  You do not have a complete plan in place to handle the situations that you will encounter.  And it is more significant than that – you willingly open yourself to the unexpected and let yourself become more vulnerable. And in all of this, you manage to learn something more about yourself.

One has to remember that Paul Theroux’s book was written in the 1970s.  I now find that his attitude towards the kind of people that he encountered, especially the locals, seems to be somewhat condescending, or maybe it is just a general sense of superiority.  I wonder if it is actually a sign of the times that Paul Theroux lived and traveled in, or if it is a somewhat generic attitude taken by folks who are out on voyages of discovery, including most of the explorers of times past – especially those from Europe and North America.  They always thought that they were better off than the others, and that they knew what was good for others. Perhaps they were really better off from a materialistic point of view, but did they necessarily know what was good for others?

Paul talks a lot about the poverty he encountered in Peru, especially among the natives.  The power structures in place in government in those days did not seem to be geared towards improving the lives of the common man.  Perhaps it is all true.  My problem, reading Paul’s work at this time in my life, is the feeling I have that he does not seem to have gone beyond the superficial in trying to understand the lives of people.  He does not seem to have had the conversations that someone who is undertaking this kind of effort should be having.   Maybe he did not have enough time.  Maybe he did not think his book was meant to be read by somebody of Inca ancestry.  In my mind, he comes off as being quite opinionated in this regard.  He might have thought that he was be brutally honest, but I think the problem is that he did not make the attempt to have a more complete perspective. He really did not complete his homework.  Perhaps, this is a general problem with the attitudes of too many explorers.

Anyway, here we are, more than 40 years after the time of Paul Theroux’s travels to South America, and we are on our way to South America once again (we went to Ecuador two years ago).  I wonder how the country of Peru has changed since the 1970s.  We are not adventurers like Paul Theroux.  We are going in an organized tour group, and everything is going to be taken care of for us.   We will probably be shielded in some way from the locals.  Paul Theroux had also traveled through Ecuador, and he talks about the poverty in that country, but our exposure to those circumstances a couple of years ago in the tour group in Ecuador was minimal.  It could be that the situation has changed since the 1970s, but it could also be that we were just shown what would be tolerated by “tourists” like us – things that were unlikely to cause us distress, or show the country in a poor light.

It seems like the town of Cusco was geared somewhat towards tourism even in the 1970s.  It is in all likelihood even more so today.  You only have to see all the information on the Internet in this regard to sense that this is the case.  You would also be led to believe that people are generally much better off in Cusco today than 40 years ago, but how can one be sure without having the complete experience?

As I said before, since we will be arriving in Peru as tourists in a tour group, almost everything that we do will be according to a plan and a schedule.  But the explorer in me feels that perhaps some of the more remarkable and memorable moments of the trip could happen outside of the script.  One just has to be open to the possibilities.

One final note about the trains that Paul Theroux took many years ago.  Even in those days, there was no way to do the entire trip from Massachusetts to Patagonia solely by train.  Looking at the available train services today, this situation has gotten even worse.  Passenger train services are available in much fewer places today.  Common folk have to depend more on the buses than they used to do in times past.  In a few places, the trains have been saved by running services over short distances just for the tourists.  But this is not the real thing!  The romance of the railroad is not what it used to be.

 

 

 

The Paper Shredder

My first encounter with a paper shredder was at my first place of work.  It did not take too long for me,  a person who had just become a full-time working stiff, to figure out that the device could also fit nicely into my, then still nascent, ideas for managing paperwork at home.

Consumer models for paper shredders have been around for many years.  Since it is a mechanical device that suffers constant wear and tear, I have run through and destroyed many of them over the years. And then, recently, I encountered an industrial strength paper shredder at my brother’s place, a shredder that was capable of shredding over 20 pages at a time! And I felt a little “shredder envy!”   Further contemplation on the topic of paper shredders continued at home later as I was getting rid of a whole lot of papers using my relatively itsy-bitsy paper shredder.  I considered how my structured use of this device over the years had ended up being a reflection on my general approach to the organization of things in life in general.

These days I use a paper shredder mostly to get rid of old paper documentation that I feel is not needed anymore.  I have a tendency to keep documents for a certain amount of time and then discard them as more recent versions of those documents make it into my paper filing system.  The nature of these documents in itself would say a lot about my personality.  I know a lot of people  would not even think about saving the kinds of information I do on paper, and even if they did save such information, doing so in a process similar to mine.

You may ask, why not just throw away this stuff.  Why shred?  In fact, I would have discarded things of this nature directly in the recycling bin in the past, but I prefer to use the shredder first these days to make sure that some of the more sensitive documents do not fall into the wrong hands by mistake. It has become a habit to shred almost everything.

What are the kinds of things I tend to save?  Some of them are historical in the context of personal and family life. These could perhaps have some kind of sentimental and nostalgic value going forward.  I have stuff in the basement from when I went to graduate school. I have kept both notebooks and textbooks. I don’t know how much longer I will keep them.  I have many other books, both works for fiction and non-fiction, that I will probably not read again, but which I hesitate to get rid of at this point.  One still saves letters and notes of different kinds from the past if they were special.  This kind of material, in general, tends not to be discarded.  Then I have the financial stuff which stays with me because of my tendency to try to be organized, sometimes excessively so.  I try to do as much as I can to minimize uncertainty.  Then there are the other important documents related to the official business of managing life here in the US in general – information about all kinds of accounts, benefits, taxes, insurance, etc…

I do tend to balance this tendency of mine to accumulate stuff that may or may not be useful in the future with the realization at some point or the other along the line that I may never look at this some of this stuff.   The first thing that got discarded on a mass scale in my life were the hundreds of journals and  technical papers from the early years of my career.  In retrospect, I think I had the good sense to realize the uselessness of storing this stuff even early in my career.  I had moved on.

As I mentioned before, many official documents end up going through my shredder after being saved for a certain period of time in a filing system that may be difficult for others to figure out.  Different kinds of documents also survive in this filing system for different periods of time that I decide, many times somewhat arbitrarily, and then they get shredded.

While the purpose of saving most of my documents in paper form is to make sure I have the information contained in them if and when needed, the reality is that I seldom look at these documents.  There is some other mental process going on, perhaps a sense of  security that may or may not be justified, that causes me to put things away for possible use in the future.   Besides, these days, one can also archive most of this information on the computer, perhaps “forever”, with relatively less concern about use of storage space.  But I have reached a certain comfort zone at this point in life with what I am doing. One falls back to the processes that have kept you going.  I continue with my system of organization and the use of the paper shredder.

The process of shredding can actually give you a good feeling of completion, and of moving on, when you are done with it.  If you can physically complete a task to the satisfying sounds of the shredder, then it is truly over!  A physical action has been taken from which there is no retreat.   The sound of the machine when it is in action is also a satisfying one.  In the end, you feel you are rid of the old (even if it is not really true), and you move on to the next item on your list.  There is some sense of satisfaction.  It has become a comforting habit.

The kicker in all of this is that I am also pretty good at saving most of the above information on my computer.  And there are other places to go to grab some of this information even I do not have it on myself all the time.  So, perhaps, the utility of most of what I am doing and achieving is questionable.  But this kind of a feeling is also true of a lot of other things we do in life.  Que sera sera..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

The Unexpected Experiences

We had arrived in Florence, AL, the previous evening for a weekend event, and had spent the night in a hotel room beside the highway.  We woke up early (considering the local time) because of the difference in longitude between the place we were visiting and our home (which we had departed the previous morning).  We had traveled in a south westerly direction the previous day.   I raised the shades covering the window pane just to take a look outside. This is what I saw. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sky was an optimal mix of purple and orange and shades in-between, with the clouds at different locations in the sky passing through different frequencies of the color spectrum.   I quickly pulled up a pair of pants, grabbed my camera, and dashed out of the front door of the hotel to get another view that would hopefully not be blocked by something in front of me.  By the time I got to a clear location, the moment was gone.  This was what I saw.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConsider the different elements that came together for me to have this experience.  First of all, I had to open up the shades of the window at the proper moment in time when the sun was at the position that it was in relative to that location on the planet.  Secondly, the window to the room that we were staying in had to be facing east so that I would indeed see the event. (Being on the third floor of the hotel also helped.)  Thirdly, the cloud formation had to be right for me to get a glimpse of all those colors.  I would probably have not enjoyed this experience if any one of the three elements had been out of place.

Some may be tempted to invoke divine intervention as the cause for the circumstances of this experience. But if this had indeed  been a set up, I would consider it a partial screw-up – at the moment when the sunrise was at its best, I could only view it through the branches of a tree, and by the time I got to a location where I could get a better view,  that moment was over.  But perhaps the screw-up was also purposeful, eh?!  We can go on and on…

Best to take it as it comes and try to be prepared for the unexpected experiences, both good and bad.