They’ve All Come To Look For America

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,
They’ve all come to look for America
Simon and Garfunkel……………….America

This song was playing in my head as we drove back to Maryland from Massachusetts last weekend – as we headed down the New Jersey Turnpike. Traffic on the roads was normal, not as bad as it can get on a crowded day, but enough to slow you down when you least expected it. You would think that this was a typical day in the USofA at the end of summer. Labor day is over and you get the feeling that autumn is around the corner.People like us are out and about, going about our lives, as if everything were normal.

But these are not really normal times here in the USA. Within a few short days, over 200,000 people would have perished in our country because of COVID-19. Who knows what the numbers will be by election time. About 20% of the global deaths due to the virus are in our country at this time. It is not a record to be proud of. The raw numbers are already much higher than the number of US soldiers killed in the Vietnam war, a war that left its painful mark on the American psyche. How will we remember this particular crisis?

And yet there are those who still believe that this is all a big hoax. No real effort is being made by the authorities, the people in power who know what is actually going on, to correct this mistaken belief. In fact, the misinformed are being encouraged by some to carry on living in their imaginary world. And we all carry on.

Back on the New Jersey Turnpike, at one of the rest stops, there are plenty of cars in the parking lots – but the lots are also not full. Thankfully, the indoor area, where the food court and the restrooms are located, is not completely packed with people – but there are enough of us that we have to keep our eyes peeled in order to maintain physical distancing. Some of us seem to have become somewhat used to performing this particular kind of dance by now. There are also only a few tables and chairs left in the open area of the building for people to dine at. The tables are clean, leading me to believe that they are being more careful in cleaning up after customers. The lines at the eateries for ordering food are long. Our food takes a long time to arrive.

Thankfully, most people are masked. Perhaps it is because New Jersey has already been through the worst of it during the first wave of the coronavirus earlier on, and they know how bad it can get if they are not careful. But the urge also exists to try to carry on as if everything is normal – that there is nothing that is wrong. Yet the virus remains in the air – unseen. We do not know who is carrying it. It could be anywhere.

But, you know, things could have been worse. The virus could have been more virulent. What if it had been able to survive in the open without a host for longer periods of time? What if it actually survived on certain surfaces and under certain conditions for a longer amount of time? What if a higher percentage of the people that caught the virus die? From a very different perspective, what if something like this had happened before we had a robust online system to keep at least some of the systems that maintain our infrastructure still operational, i.e., what if this had happened before we had a well-developed Internet?

These are strange and unique times. And they are not going to end any time soon.

Where Have All the Hippies Gone

The motivation to write this particular blog arose after I saw a particular episode of the PBS series American Experience. This one was titled Woodstock – Three Days That Defined A Generation. (The show is now also available on Netflix.) The movie was remarkable!

For some reason or the other, even though I did not live in the United States at that time, I have been drawn to the US of the 60s and the 70s. Part of it was the music. I do not know if others of my generation who lived in India at that time remember this, but we used to be easily able to get comic books from the US in India during those days. I used to read any that I could get my hands on. Many of these comic books would include pages where they advertised certain music clubs in the US that you could join to get the few albums for almost no cost. Even though we were not able to join these clubs, I used to read about the music. I could even listen to some of this music on shortwave radio.

Anyway, it was not until the 1980s that I was able listen to more of this music, and to even obtain the complete official live recording of the music of Woodstock. We still have the VHS tape of this recording in our basement. I will be honest in admitting I did not really completely understand the spirit of those times since I did not live in the country, but, as I said before, I was still drawn to it. Maybe it reflected something that I felt in my inner self.

Which brings me to today. The movie from PBS which I saw last week tells the entire story of the Woodstock concert. It is not a music video. It is a remarkable documentary. First of all, the event itself would be considered a complete disaster from the point of view of the staging of any kind of event. Almost everything that could go wrong in the organization of the event went wrong. Our sense of organizational structure these days would not allow a concert like this to happen in the United States today. The organizers of Woodstock completely miscalculated. They did not have enough time to set up for the concert, and the crowds that came were many more than they anticipated. They did not set up enough resources for the concert-goers, including food and sanitation. The place was a disaster zone by the end of the four-day event.

But a remarkable thing also happened during those days of Woodstock. Hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in an open field, under very, very, crowded, and appalling and dangerous conditions, to listen to music, to get high, and to basically have a good time. During the almost four days, they slept where ever they could. They managed in spite of the lack of toilets. They took to skinny dipping in the local pond to clean themselves and have some fun in the process. When a dangerous thunderstorm passed through they sheltered in place, and then they started playing in the mud like little kids. And they managed to have their fun in spite of the chaos and the terrible conditions around them. They did not riot. They behaved as a giant human family – taking care of each other, and managing with whatever they had. The kids were completely peaceful in spite of the worst that others were expecting of them.

There are too many things worth noting about the concert. (If you are interested, it is worth watching the movie to get a better insight.) The organizers had to make it a free concert because people arrived well before the fences around the field had been set up. An activist commune from California called the Hog Farm provided “security”, and whatever organization and community service that was needed – even feeding the people after the concessions ran out of food, and also taking care of the people who had overdosed on drugs. The members of the Hog Farm were hippies who did all of this for the benefit of the community just because they wanted to, and not because of any monetary incentive. The community of Bethel, NY, where the concert took place, was a deeply conservative one. They were generally Republican folks who supported the war in Vietnam, something that the young people were against. They did not want the concert in their backyard, and opposed Max Yasgur, the farmer who provided his land for the purpose. In spite of their opposition, the locals banded together to provide food for the kids when the situation grew desperate on the concert grounds. The military even flew in doctors and medical supplies to take care of the kids. (The Huey choppers that flew in for this purpose were similar to those being used in the Vietnam war at that time.) The musicians had to be flown in to the concert grounds in helicopters because the roads were all blocked. Each group that was performing had their own unique story line and attitude that they brought with them to the stage. It was a remarkable set of circumstances.

And I should probably say something about the music itself. The organizers tried to keep the music going all 24 hours of the day, hoping to keep the kids entertained and in a good mood. They did not want trouble to break out. The music was of the times – starting with folk music on the first day, and moving on to more mainstream pop music and rock and roll. There was a general anti-establishment theme to a lot of the music. The kids were rebelling against the voice of authority, they were against the Vietnam war. Richie Havens was the first performer. He improvised the song Freedom on the spot at the end of his set. The organizers had him performing well beyond his initially allotted time because the next band was not ready. Santana apparently took the excitement in the crowd to a higher level on the second day with Soul Sacrifice (listen to the mother of all drum solos in this rendition!). Sly and Family Stone took the crowd higher with their final rendition of I want to take you Higher in what was apparently one of the most energizing sets of the concert. Who would have thought that Funk would work well in the middle of a series of rock and roll music sets? On the last morning, after many of the concertgoers had already left for home, Jimi Hendrix woke up the remaining crowd with the now classic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. The sounds and the violence of the Vietnam war (“The bombs bursting in air!”) come alive in the song through his guitar. It was electrifying! If you do a search on the “Best Performances at Woodstock”, you will find a few articles that tell you a little more about some of the songs that were performed at the concert. Here is one such article. There were apparently a few duds at the concert, including the Grateful Dead. They were too stoned for their own good.

After seeing the movie, I decided that I wanted to find out more about Max Yasgur, the farmer who had provided his land for the concert. I found a great video – a talk given by Max’s son Sam Yasgur to a legal group. The video is supposed to be about the First Amendment and free speech. I found the entire video interesting, but you can skip directly to the 40th minute of the video to go directly to the part where Sam starts talking more about the circumstances of Woodstock, and about Max himself. Sam Yasgur is an amazing speaker, and quite entertaining. And Max Yasgur was a remarkable human being. (I hope that this video does not get removed by Youtube!)

I did a little more of searching on the Internet regarding Woodstock. This is a video of an interview given to the The Guardian more recently by one of the organizers of the original concert. You can find interviews with a few people who were at Woodstock, including this video. There were attempts to have concerts at the original location (or close to it) for the 40th and 50 anniversaries. I do not think they were very successful. I am sure there were a few people who went back for these concerts to try to relive some of the days of their youth. There is apparently an art center near the original site of the concert.

Although, I was not here in the US during the time of Woodstock, I somewhat identify with the sense of idealism of the kids. They were the hippies, the flower children. They were questioning the ways of their society. They were not into materialism. They were looking a simpler way to live. They wanted a peaceful way of life. They were against the war that was going on. I get the impression that at least a few of the young people of the 1960s and 70s remained true to their original spirit as they went on through life. I am guessing that there must be others who went on to become conservative Republicans. I wish we could feel and see more of a positive impact of these youth of the 60s and 70s in the culture of the current times, but it is difficult to influence the world in the major way when your life is based simply on peace, love, and understanding.

The world has changed a lot since the days of Woodstock. It seems to have become tougher, and life has become more regulated and seemingly more systematized. Society is less inclined to allow you to take risks. But, I would like to believe that the young people today are still idealistic, although it must be more difficult than ever to confront The Man in today’s world. Life ought to be about looking out for your brothers and sisters. I wonder how many people think that way today. For heaven’s sake, we cannot even come together in our country to confront the corona virus!

An event like Woodstock would not be allowed to happen today – even if there were enough interest. There would be too many rules. There are new causes for the day, but it is a different crowd – a less mellow one than before, I think.

Trying To Focus

Outdoor activity seems to bring out the ability in me to focus, especially when it comes to putting my thoughts together, and also when expressing these thoughts in letters or blogs. Considering that factor, this particular blog might be heading right down the toilet (sorry, I have had the toilet on my mind for a few days!). A stubborn stomach ailment of some kind (I am still assuming that it was not related to the coronavirus) had me grounded for the last several days. I usually recover from such ailments quickly, and I usually have a good sense about the state of the recovery of my digestive system, but this time I was off. Every time I thought I was out of the woods, I had a relapse. But there was a slow and gradual progress through it all. There was a learning process into what worked and what did not in the recovery process. Different kinds of household remedies that were suggested by concerned citizens were also tried. I think I am finally done with all of this. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I feel stronger and hope to resume my outdoor activities within the next day or two.

The disruption of the digestive system only added to the chaos and turmoil caused by all of the other disruptions going on around us. The earliest possible date by which some of these other disturbances could begin to dissipate is probably the time of the elections in November. The only hope is that enough people see and understand the man-made destruction and chaos going on in our country and vote appropriately. Until then we just have to wait and endure – as we descend further and further into the national crapper – the country getting sicker by the day – while the unqualified conman twiddles his thumbs and declares that all is well. Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Did he add fuel to the flames? Was there a Senate in ancient Rome that joined in the orchestra? I know that this is all myth, but it does fit into my theme nicely.

I am slowly reaching a conclusion that we may have reached a possible inflection point in the political and structural health of the country. The person in power has actively challenged all norms, and has destroyed a lot of the governmental structures created for the benefit of our country and society. The question is whether we have let the genie out of the bottle, or if there is a possibility of returning to the way things were earlier. Truth of the matter is that we are what we are as a country largely because of the well defined structures and the norms of our society, including both the good and the bad, and including the bureaucracy and government. Structures work if they are fair, if the people involved are doing their jobs, and if people are not abusing their power. They support a way of life. Unfortunately, the foundations of our infrastructure are now being eroded and chipped at actively and deliberately. Sticks of dynamite have already been lit at the base of the structure. Anything can happen. Damn the consequences!

The Red Leaf

The leaf dropped out of the sky as we were walking through the green woods. It floated lazily about in the air, carried by the air currents, while steadily making its way down to the floor of the forest. It drifted past my eyes. It was a red leaf, completely out of place in the green woods. I am not sure if this fact even registered in my mind at that moment.

The presence of the dry leaves in the middle of the normally ultra-green summer is not a real surprise. I have seen such leaves in the past. In spite of the humidity in the air, some trees are beginning to lose their leaves. The heat, and the lack of water in the ground, take their toll. If you saw the cherry tree in our backyard at this time, you might even suspect that it was sick.

Instinctively, I reached out for the leaf that was floating past me. It was a whimsical thing that I was doing, without thinking. It was an act of the subconsciousness. I was surprised to find that I had actually made contact with the leaf.

And the leaf had actually also landed in my hand! Some may say that it was meant to be. I was astonished by how red the leaf appeared – redder than I am used to seeing in summer. It was a unique sample. For some reason or the other, I did not feel like letting go of the leaf. It began to occupy my thoughts as we kept walking. The red leaf in the hand actually led to some contemplation. Was it going to come home with me as a reminder of sorts of some obscure encounter with nature – an encounter that was somehow profound in my mind in that moment?

Towards the end of the walk, we decided to take a detour on to a narrow path that led to the river. It seemed a little ridiculous for me to be carrying the leaf over the detour. I was going to be coming back that way. I left the leaf on a bush at the entrance to the detour thinking that I would pick it up on the way back.

That was the last I saw of the leaf. That was the last time I thought about the leaf – until I looked at the pictures I had taken that day on the computer at home late in the evening. I had forgotten the red leaf by then. The red leaf was no longer significant. All that remains in a picture in a blog.

Days of Introspection and Reckoning

It is a time of introspection for me, a time for me to once again confront the possible limitations of my own humanity. This time, my internal conversation is about my latent biases.

I think that those of us who happen to be privileged in some way or the other cannot help but have our own biases. Regardless of whether our parents tried to inculcate the right set of values in us, regardless of whether we were taught that all human beings are the same regardless of our race or background, or creed, people can end up feeling not just different, but maybe even superior. I am probably guilty of that even if my first reaction is to try to deny it.

At this time, my thinking is mainly focused on racism against blacks in America. I want to spend some time thinking about my learning process in this regard. As a young person growing up in India, I was not very knowledgeable about the experience of the African American people. I knew about slavery, and I had read Roots by Alex Haley as a youngster before I came to the United States. I also knew about the civil war and events associated with it. That was probably the extent of my exposure. I remember seeing movies from the USIS that talked about America, but the plight of the former slaves was not one of the topics that was touched upon. Lets admit it, the USIS was mainly peddling in propaganda that only presented the country in a positive light.

Before I came to the United States, I did not know much about the Civil Rights movement. I did not know anything about Jim Crow, or the events of the South in those days, in places like Birmingham, Durham, Selma, etc… I had not heard of the Freedom Riders. My real education on this topic started when I came here in 1980 for my higher studies. I would like to believe that I did not have any inherent biases against people of other races that I interacted with when I arrived as a graduate student. I encountered people from all over the world in the university, and we were all going through the same experiences in the same set of circumstances. But I am not sure now if I am remembering things correctly.

My regular trips from the university where I studied to New York City opened up my eyes a little bit to the black inner-city experience of that time. It was not a very happy introduction. You have to first remember that those times were, in general, especially bad for NYC as a whole. The city was still recovering from near-bankruptcy in the 1970s, and the infrastructure was in real bad shape. Times Square was still a red-light district. There were a lot of homeless people in the city, and they seemed to be mainly black. There were people hanging out in street corners who seemed to be looking for trouble. You had to be careful wherever you went because the city could be a dangerous place. There was graffiti and rubbish everywhere. The place was dirty. I remember being attacked by a bunch of kids one evening on a street near Columbia University. I remember the smelly and graffiti-covered subway cars that I traveled on. Often, there were homeless people sleeping on the cars. But I was young, and I found NYC to be a fascinating place. I used to love to travel on the subway system. I tried to experience every subway line there was, and every destination. I even bought a book about the subway (I think I still have it), and also resolved to cover all of the many lines of the subway system within a 24 hour period. Thank goodness I never attempted that in real life. On a different occasion, I remember being stopped by a plainclothes agent of the law (I was not sure he was an official policeman) for inspection at the Pelham Bay Park station, a terminus, because there had been some incident at some previous station on the line. The person wanted to make sure I was not involved in a crime. He let me go after a few minutes. I loved to wander around Central Park. New York City was my backyard, and I really experienced a lot of what it had to offer to a young person living on a shoestring budget.

One of the things you noticed about New York City was that there are a lot of people who were not well off who actually lived there. This was in spite of the fact that the place was very expensive. In my mind, the white man would commute every weekday morning to the downtown area from his suburban home – for his high paying job some big financial company, in one of the massive skyscrapers that dominated downtown. He would arrive in the morning for his work, and then disappear back to his comfortable suburb as soon as he was done in the evening. Such people were actually scared of the real city, and did not seem to want to have anything to do with it. The downtown areas used to become empty shells in the evening, abandoned by the better-off. The other rich who could afford it would live in the expensive apartment buildings around Central Park. The rest of the people who lived in the city were spread out over the five boroughs, depending on the levels of income, and depending on whether they were able to find a rent-stabilized apartment in a reasonably good neighborhood. Many people lived in high-rise apartment complexes in NYC. The poorer you were, the further away you were from downtown. Some of the apartment complexes in the outer boroughs of NYC looked like remains from a battle-zone. Many seemed to have been abandoned. In some cases, all that was left was what looked like a shell. Some of the buildings had fences around them to prevent them from being using for nefarious activities, like drug dealing. Most of the people who seemed to hang around these spaces seemed to be black. And you could ask yourself why things turned out that way for the blacks who occupied these spaces, and you could reach different conclusions based on your biases, and based on how much real studying you bothered to do about the history of the black people in the USA. That was the way it was in the 1980s for me.

We now live in Montgomery County in Maryland. It is a diverse community overall, and we would like to believe that we are enlightened, but I wonder. In spite of all its affluence, there are pockets of poverty, and places where people need help. People who are well off do not generally wander to these places. I have tried to tell myself that I am one of the enlightened people who understands where people come from, but how can I be so sure. I try to keep up with all aspects of American History these days, not just from the perspective of the White Man, so that I know what I am talking about. I have educated myself about the time of Jim Crow. I have educated myself about the Civil Rights Movement. I learned about the experiences of people of those times who spoke up, people like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. I have listened to the speeches of MLK. We have watched shows like 13th, and When They See Us by younger film makers like Ava DuVernay. I learned about the workings of police forces all over the country. I learned about the Southern Democrats, and about the Freedom Riders, Birmingham, Selma. I learned about Rosa Parks, and discrimination, and lynching. I learned about the biases and the racism in the system. The white people actually thought they were superior human beings in those days, and, even though they may not admit it, many probably still have a few subconscious biases about this even to today.

And we now arrive at this moment in the history of this country, and the horrible incidents of today. I tell others that in order to understand the situation properly and achieve empathy, you have to study the history that brought us to this point. But now I am not convinced that even this is sufficient. Something more basic has to change. So I continue to try to educate myself about myself even more. Teresa and I watched the videos of Jane Elliot. We realize that there are insidious ways in which we can develop our biases, and it is not just about color. It is not simply a matter of empathy. It is not just a matter of knowing the true story. There is something more basic within oneself that is not good that is just waiting to come out. I realize that I have developed my own biases without really thinking about it. I really need to act with more thought and purpose in each and every moment going forward.

Today, we listen to the many, many, voices, some of them young, providing perspectives on the lives of the black people, especially in the inner cities. Social and news media are, thankfully, providing the outlets for people to speak. And I have hope. There is a significant push back from the black community every time some kind of police-on-black atrocity takes place, and it has become more and more effective. The voices are being heard, and they are voices that speak with a clarity of vision. They speak with reason. And I become a little hopeful that the push back will trigger some real change.

The first major backlash I remember from police on black violence in recent times was after the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The only reason why people knew about the incident was because somebody had made a video recording of it. Similar backlash, and accompanying violence, happened big time most recently in Ferguson, MO, when Michael Brown was murdered by a cop. Many other incidents have happened in the time between Rodney King and Michael Brown. The police officer got off without any punishment in Ferguson, just as has happened countless times in the past every time blacks have been killed by cops. Unfortunately, the focus of the press and others in these situations in the past seemed to be on the violent aftermaths. So, it is a legitimate question to wonder if things could go in a different direction this time.

I do think it is possible! One of the differences is that the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis was so blatant that it is not just the blacks in the community who are outraged and are actively responding. And the response to the murder is happening not just in Minneapolis. It is happening not just in the USA. It is happening everywhere! The press has picked up on the important narrative of racism, injustice, and police violence. The white people in the country are actually joining the marches in large numbers. And the youth of all backgrounds are involved. And it is also multi-generational. And the police have responded in many places with their entire arsenal of military-grade hardware and shown their true colors by using these against the citizens. And every single thing that happens out there is being video-recorded. Every mindless violent act of an out-of-control police officer gets shown to the whole world. I think every reasonable person who sees the official violence has to be angry. And , for a change, social and television media has been very good at amplifying the positive messages coming from the protestors. I hope for something concrete to happen before the momentum fades away.

But a reactive response to the moment is not sufficient. We need fundamental change in our mindset as a society. A band-aid simply will not cut it. It is going to take much more hard work by every single one of us to get a better understanding of our our biases and our racism, and to effect real change. It is not easy.

I want to conclude with a few links that caught my attention.

This is a interview on CNN.
https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2020/06/10/cornel-west-george-floyd-cooper-ac360-vpx.cnn

Here is a blog about the murals that are coming up in Minneapolis in the aftermath of the shooting.
The George Floyd Murals of Minneapolis: A Demand for Justice, Hope and a Better Humanity

There are moments of humanity in the middle of the violence. Here is a nice story.
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/06/breonna-taylor-protesters-protected-lone-lmpd-officer/3166914001/

We shall overcome.

Dear World, We Are So Sorry

Dear World,

We are so sorry we cannot cooperate and work with the rest of you in this time of the COVID-19 crisis.  This is because, unfortunately, our government has broken down and become completely dysfunctional.  In the past, in times of disasters, we were happy to take on a leadership role – to help with the direction and coordination, to provide support and assistance to the rest of the world as needed.   With our outstanding capabilities in science, medicine, and technology, with our robust government structures, and with our access to plentiful resources, we used to be well positioned to respond when needed.

But times have changed.  We have a big mess on our hands over here right now.  It looks like we cannot even take care of ourselves properly.  Our leaders have no idea what leading means, even within the context of our own country.  The president is missing in action.  We have set out on a destructive path that will lead to people dying in large numbers.

We are incapable of coming up with any kind of real plan to tackle the coronavirus.  Instead of doing the hard work that is needed on so many different fronts to fight the fight, the career conman who is in charge is engaged in preening and self-aggrandizement, and in trying to find ways to get a leg up in the coming elections. There is not a concern for the fact that too many people are dying.   They are collateral damage.  Bluster and bombast and outright lies rule the day.  Inputs from scientists and doctors are being ignored in policy decisions.  The apparatus of the government bureaucracy that has been so effective in the past has been damaged in a bad way.  Politically appointed hacks and yes-men, many unqualified, rule the roost, and they run amok playing their games for the benefit of our master of the con game. There is also nepotism going on at the highest level. It would be comical if it were not so sad.  There is no going back for the next few months.  It is a complete disaster.

Dear World, I hope you now better understand why we are unable to work with you.  In fact, our leader has made it clear that he is not interested in cooperation with any of you in any real sense.  Also, quite clearly, many of you are doing a much, much, better job than us in handling the pandemic.  I know that all of you are getting restless with the current situation – just like those of us here in the USA.  How much of social distancing can one take?  You want to break out of isolation, engage with other human beings person-to-person, and get on with life like it used to be. Please keep the faith and do what is right for humanity.  Know that many of us in the US are being quite reckless in our behaviors in this regard, unfortunately often at the prompting of our supreme leader and his minions. It is definitely resulting in a death toll that is unprecedented in recent times.

I would guess that even after all of you have managed to get this contagion under some kind of control, we will still be scrambling – flailing in various directions, wasting our time and energies, fighting. Many will probably still be dying.  There is no common strategy or set of rules in our country to handle the situation.  At some point in time, I expect that neighboring states that have different approaches to handling the pandemic could even end up tussling with each other in order to make sure that their own borders are protected from contagion.  Fissures have even developed within state boundaries. These are, in fact, encouraged by our great leader, the “stable genius”. In fact, even after you guys open up your economies and your borders, you are going to have to watch out for us.  We are not likely to be as prepared as you are.  We may be in a position to cause further worldwide damage.

Do not worry about us.  I will admit that the situation is scary, and somehow seems unreal, but we will manage. The mortality rate with this virus being what it is, many of us will still survive in spite of the astounding overall stupidity. People who believe in the science are themselves trying to be careful. We also have some sensible governors.  And the percentages are still relatively low.

We are OK.  One does not have to dwell on the absurdity of the situation all the time.  We can compartmentalize things in the mind.  Other aspects of life still go on.   For example, there is interesting news on the space exploration front.  Did you know that SpaceX and NASA are scheduled to jointly launch the first manned US space flight since 2011 this month?  The two-member crew entered pre-flight quarantine (standard operation procedure as I understand it) yesterday. 

On a personal note, it was warm enough for me to go running outside the house yesterday.  Did so for the first time this year.  I had been using the treadmill thus far.  Covered 6 miles, and I felt great. It was certainly an endorphin high!  There was also less traffic on the road. I think I must have also been breathing cleaner air.

Before I end, I would be remiss not to mention, once again,  the major positive that has come out of all of this, which is the response of the many citizens on the front lines who are doing their jobs and protecting the rest of us, all of this while the national leadership flounders. People are stepping up to help others.  Citizenship includes working for the common good.

Dear World, some day, after a vaccine is developed, we can join you guys in closer fellowship.  Or perhaps the elections will allow us to bring some sense to the conversation more quickly.  This too shall pass.  In the meantime, we would not blame you, the rest of the world, if you felt it essential for your own safety to maintain a travel ban to and from the USA for a longer period of time than expected.  That would be sad for those of us who have very close connections all over the world, but some of us would understand.

Once again, sorry for our mess, and sorry that we cannot work with the rest of you. We have our own battles to fight.  We wish you all the best.

With you in solidarity during these troubled times.

Passages of Time – Let the Music Play on (8/1/2014)

This is a letter I sent to my former high school classmates in 2014.  I studied at a school called Central School, or Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV), in Chennai (formerly Madras) in India.

*********************************
“On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are

It feels like life in recent times has been particularly eventful for me, especially in the context of deaths of people that I have known one way or the other. Starting with my sister’s father-in-law’s death towards the end of last year, and continuing with my own father-in-law’s death while we were in India, including a good friend’s mother’s death around the time of my FIL’s passing away , and continuing with the recent news of the passing of PN Sreeniwas, and the latest – the death of a parishioner in our church a few days ago.  (She had been very a very active person in social outreach programs and was actually younger than me – a tragic loss.)  We did also lose a member of our acapella chorus to cancer earlier this year.  He was also younger than me.  There have been others.  I will mention Suma’s dad in particular even though I did not know him.  Ramu also lost his dad not too long ago.  We have lost a few other former teachers from KV recently.  We are at that age where our elders who are still in this world are in the end-game of their lives, and we ourselves happen to be vulnerable to the ravages of middle-age.  Cancer appears to be a common scourge.  While we mourn all the good people that we have lost, we perhaps also cannot help wondering how vulnerable we ourselves are, perhaps even feeling that we have become more vulnerable with the passage of time.

But we also know that death is simply an unavoidable component of the pattern of life. It is the nature of life that there is death at the end of it. One does not make sense without the other. The body does deteriorate with time even if the spirit may not.  We might find ways to extend our lives, but the end is inevitable.  Is there a reason to get depressed about all of this? Can we afford to be afraid of our destinies?  If it is inevitable, what is the point in worrying?  Should we not simply focus on taking care of things today?  Should we not straighten out our relationships with the world today?  We should not postpone things – because the tomorrow that you are waiting for may never come.  We could celebrate each day as if it might be our last, and find a way to ignore what is irrelevant in this regard.  For me to try to keep this kind of a perspective is difficult, but I must try.

Other than the cycle of life and death, I have found other ways of marking the passage of time in my life.   In my own case, I am very aware of how quickly the world is changing around me. Because of my overall background, it is the rapid development and use of new technologies for communication and entertainment that I particularly think about.  The rate of change is amazing even to me.  But the experiences in life that I identify with most, as far as marking the passage of time is concerned, have to do with the popular music of the times.   When a piece of music plays, my brain automatically tends to identify it with a period of time in my life.  Getting back to childhood, I have some very faint memory of my mom noting some music from the Beatles even when I was very very young (we must have just returned from our stay in the US).  During the period of life that includes my teenage years, I usually listened to contemporary music.  It was the music of Hindi movies that my mom played and sang to on the radio. And it was the English music that was locally broadcast, and which also came from far off countries and continents over the shortwave frequencies.  I was a child of the music of the 60s and 70s, and it will always remain that way.

My dad bought us a stereo system at home at some point, and I ended up buying music on vinyl from a store on Mount Road regularly.  (Anyone remember The Bay City Rollers?  In hindsight, their music was not very good. (sample)) The 80s came by, and I was a graduate student at Stony Brook before I started working in New Jersey. I ended up collecting older music in the CD format that was becoming popular at that time, while still continuing to listen to contemporary 80s music, both pop and rock, mostly on the radio. In general, there is less music from this era that brings that feeling of warmth, but there is still good music to be found and even bought (sample).  The 90’s rolled by, and by this time, I begin to feel like I was becoming dated.  There was less music that I could identify with, but, as a part of a continuing process that had started earlier on, I was getting more into the older music of a time before I was born.  I was getting more exposure to the original music of America – mostly jazz and the blues. Our kids are born during this period of time, and they spend their life listening to daddy’s music.

While I do get to listen to the music of the 21st century on occasion these days (when the kids turn on the radio and I am not in control), I do not go looking for it, and I do not quite identify with it.

But I am getting older, and nostalgia is only a matter of time.  The music that was once rejected has now become more familiar, and is capable of putting me in that unique frame of mind that comes with listening to some of my other older pieces of music.   I am not prepared yet to admit that the pop music of the 80s was anything more than atrocious, but I am enjoying it (perhaps in the same manner that I enjoy some of the atrocious music of the 70s).  It certainly makes me happy when I am exercising on the treadmill or cooking in the kitchen, and it also reminds me of a period of time in my life.  Time has passed, and I have changed.

I don’t know if I will live long enough to enjoy the music of the 90s. If and when that happens, it will be another milestone, another marker, for the passage of time in my life.  But it does not matter whether that happens or not.  I have to enjoy the music today.  Let the music play on.

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Making a Bad Situation Worse

It was a depressing morning.  The news is not that good these days.  And it was raining.  And it is still raining steadily outside as I edit this blog in the afternoon.  It feels damp and nasty.  You feel like nothing good can happen on a day like today.

I went out early in the morning to the grocery store, just after it had opened. I thought that I had the crowd beaten, especially since the store was supposed to be open only for people above a certain age.  Instead, I found a line of customers already waiting to enter. The inside of the store was also more crowded than I had expected.  Folks, in masks, were gamely trying practice physical distancing as they did their shopping.  It was so crowded that I even managed to crash my cart into another person’s at a busy intersection!

I feel depressed because of the way things are going in our country related to the pandemic.  I feel we are headed towards a medical disaster.  We are already setting records in terms of the numbers of people infected by the coronavirus, and also the dying.  We are Number 1 in a bad sense.   We don’t seem to recognize the irony of one of the most advanced nations on earth faring the worst when dealing with the pandemic.  Politics leads rather than science, and we are totally inept when it comes to acting in a united way as a nation.  And the pandemic is revealing all our flaws rather than high-lighting the positive attributes. One of the great positives is the way some of our citizens have come out to do the front-line work in dealing with this pandemic.  People are traveling across the state lines to be of assistance to others.  Surely our leaders owe them much more than their current efforts, helping them rather than making their work, and their lives, more difficult.

We are still in the middle of the battle.  Even as the numbers of the victims of the contagion increase, and even as we continue to break records (in a very bad way), some of our leaders, some even in charge of places with high risk factors, are ready to declare victory and open up places to business as usual. Some are even willing to call our response to the pandemic so far a great success story.  (Statements like these are almost Orwellian in nature.)  In reality, our chaotic and confusing approach to confronting the pandemic is only going to increase the time we have with this disease, and also increase the numbers of the dead.  It does not seem to matter to the reckless leaders.  If you are fortunate, you live in a state with a sensible leader.  Other leaders play with the lives of the people.  You can also forget about national leadership in the present situation.

I expect that it will take a while for the world to recover from the pandemic.  Life will not be the same for many people after the worst of the disease is over, even if some leaders promote the idea of a quick and complete recovery.  It is a high stakes con game that is going on.

All Aboard The Ship of Fools

The gospel reading last Sunday was about how St. Thomas came to believe in the resurrection of Christ.  He had to see the wounds in the hands of Jesus with his own eyes in order to believe.  It occurred to me that there is a similar dynamic in play in a story of today. The context is the response of some of us in the USA to the coronavirus.  (I know the analogy will not be perfect, and please do not take offense.)  In my modern version of the story, it is a tale of not listening to, or maybe just not accepting, what the scientists and doctors are telling us about the coronavirus.  It appears that some people will accept the facts about the virus only if they personally experience it.  They may have heard about what is happening in other places because of the virus, but since it has not not touched them, or anybody close to them, it is a matter of belief, and they do not appear to believe.   I say this in the context of some of the protests that are going on today against the lock downs.  Some people seem to be taking risks with their lives, and the lives of others, during these protests (or political rallies, depending on your point of view) that no sane person should.  The least that people could do is conduct their protests in a safe and sober manner, and acknowledge that the physical danger is real.  Reasonable people would probably take folks more seriously if they behaved more sensibly.  The protagonist in this whole story is the captain of the ship of fools.  The captain is incompetent and arrogant, to say the least. He is happy to stir up discord, and he does not seem to discourage or condone dangerous behavior.  He has pointed the ship towards the rocks, and I fear for the ship and the lives of the people on it.

In other news, food was prepared at the food bank last Tuesday for over 400 families. It is the highest number I have seen so far during this time of the coronavirus.  It was a tiring but very fulfilling morning doing the work of filling the boxes with food.  There was no time for a lunch break.  But I felt good.  There was plenty of food to give out.  The food bank had to purchase a lot of this food instead of depending on donations.  That may be a sign of the times.  Please support your local food bank!

Here is a picture of some of the boxes of food that were in the process being filled for customers.IMG_20200421_122736416

Another Spring Week in the Time of COVID-19

It was Easter, and we wanted to get back home from our Sunday morning walk along the canal before the live Easter service taking place on the Internet at noon.  I felt a little rushed because of the time constraint.   We ended up walking a little less than what we would have done normally.  The weather was also not ideal, but this was compensated for by the fact that there were a few more, even different, signs of Spring from the previous weekend.  Here are a few pictures.

We see squirrels in the park frequently, and we have sometimes even mistaken the noise that they make to be that of birds.   This particular one was observed just after we left Riley’s Lock.  I don’t think I have ever seen a squirrel carrying a bunch of leaves in its mouth like this.  Perhaps somebody reading this blog has a better idea of what is going on.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe dogwood flowers were out by the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese flowers of Spring in the picture below are called Trillium.  There are other varieties of Trillium, with other colors, but this particular variety dominates the towpath.  I could not remember the name of this flower for the longest time after I first saw it.   I fear that my mind is becoming like a sieve. I have had the hardest time recollecting names of the flowers that I saw last Spring.  I am too dependent on the Internet!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe could hear beautiful music in the air as we approached the Horsepen Branch campsite.  The culprit was this wren sitting on a dead tree stump.  This was as close as I could get to it before it flew away.  What a wonderful bird – entertaining us in the morning!  Puts Pavarotti to shame!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you look carefully at the picture below, you will notice that the ducks’ heads are actually pointed towards the camera.  They are turned around 180° from where they would normally be pointing.  Maybe somebody knows why ducks behave this way.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf course, Spring would not be complete without the dandelions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Meanwhile, our world continues its adjustment to the presence of the coronavirus.  Many of us are getting more and more getting restless with the need to stay home bound. Many, many, people are also unable to make a living in the current environment.   Bills need to be paid.  Food needs to be placed on the table.  It becomes harder and harder with time to continue to accept that what we are putting ourselves through makes sense, especially in the context of the common good, but like it or not, that is a fact.  The first responders, health care professionals, and those ensuring our safety, continue to put their lives, and even the lives of their families, at risk.  Politicians are still being politicians, and are using all of this as an excuse to fulfill their own agenda.  People in power are also quite happy to deflect responsibility and play the blame game instead of solving problems.  Chaos, and a lack of will to take charge and do something concrete on a national scale, seems to reign at the highest levels of our government – even as the individual states  struggle without adequate support from above.  In a time of trouble, when you think we would come together, we are falling apart, not just in the country, but as a global community. I fear that this is all going to continue for a while.

Some of us that are more fortunate like to complain about how the coronavirus has impacted our lives. We are actually the lucky ones.  There are others who are really suffering, and are going to continue to suffer for a long time – much more than us.  I might worry about when I will be able to get a haircut, getting my car serviced, being able to meet my friends, or something else, but others have more basic needs that are not being fulfilled today.

I have to note that the last time I went to the food bank, there was not enough food for all the people who needed it that day.  We had to reduce the amount of food for each family from what they would normally have gotten.  I felt a little dispirited when I returned home that day.  I hope that this was a one-time event.  It would be hard to sit by without action if this continues.