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?

When God Spilled His Coffee

It a was a windy morning in Destin, Florida, and God was quite cranky.  The citizens had been partying too much last night, and it had taken all his efforts to keep things in order.  Besides, this was one of those nights he felt like it would have been nice to take a nap.  Even God needed a break!

But there were things that needed to get done.  Those humans were incapable of taking care of themselves.  Where is my coffee, he roared! (You know, God always roars when he is in a bad mood!)

The angels were afraid to respond, but there was one who was concerned about the bad things the would happen if God did not have his coffee.  Angel Norah knew that if she did not do something there would be a storm that would destroy everything in the town of Destin, even its wonderful white beaches.  There would be thunder and rain, and a wind that would shake the very ground that the trees and buildings stood on.  The citizens of Destin could be in for a boatload of trouble.

The Angel Norah rose to the occasion.  She knew that decaf would not be good enough this morning.  (And God also loved his cream and sugar!)  And the coffee had to be fresh.   The decoction coffee from the previous evening would not do.  She found the percolator, and some fair-trade coffee from the Congo, the best coffee there was!  An extra spoon of coffee powder went into the machine and, also, a special filter that was supposed to have magical qualities.

The coffee brewed while God tried to shake the cobwebs away, grumbling to himself all the while. Those crazy humans.  He wished he had never created them.  They had been nothing but trouble so far!

The coffee was ready, finally!  Angel Norah looked for a cup to pour it into.  It had to be big enough for God.  She felt that he needed a lot of caffeine that morning.   The coffee cup with the picture of the tasmanian devil was the biggest one around, but Angel Norah did not wish to get God even angrier.  After all, he hated the devil in all its forms.  So, she settled for the cup that said “Have a nice day”, hoping that it would put God in a better mood.

The coffee was poured.  Some skim milk was added.  (Whole milk was out of the question. God had to watch his weight!)  Angel Norah looked for the brown sugar.  She could not find it.  She would have to settle for the regular refined kind.  But even that was hard to find. Darn, she said!  (Angels have to be careful about using swear words, you see.)  There was only Splenda around.  That would have to do.

God was still mumbling to himself when Angel Norah brought his coffee to him.  Her hands shaking, she handed a full cup.  God took a sip from the steaming cup.  He had been looking forward to this.  A strange look came upon his face.   It began to turn to purple.  Sparks began to fly from his beard.  Lightning shot into the sky from his hair.  I fear the Splenda was not to his liking.

He turned his head and spit the coffee into the Gulf.  He threw the rest of the coffee into the water.  The pelicans flew out of the way of the falling coffee.  The waters of the Gulf of Mexico turned to brown.  The waves rose angrily and raced towards the shore, and washed the brown water on to the beaches of Destin.  And the white sand turned to brown! And people who were walking on the beach (those that had not partied the previous night and caused all these problems) wondered what was going on on.

But, you and I know that this is what happens when you make God angry and  he spills his coffee!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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

 

 

Riding with Dan Q (1/30/3005)

It is not that I have run out of ideas, but I find myself recently unable to find some quiet time for the mind.  I have become quite distracted in recent days.   So, I am resorting to posting an old email that I had sent to family and friends a long time ago when I used to volunteer in the furniture program at our church.  We used to pick up furniture that people wanted to give away and deliver it to the homes of needy people.  I wrote the following.
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I am sorry folks, but I have gotten the bug! I cannot stop writing, even if there is not much to say. I wake up on the weekends with the neurons clicking in my brain, with phrases forming in the head that I want to put down. What is one supposed to do? The good thing is that you can always trash my e-mails, electronically speaking that is, if they are full of junk.

Woke up today, Sunday morning, to the white of winter and the sight of snow gently falling all around the house. Truth be told, my first instinct was that this whole winter business was getting old, it was getting to be a big pain in the rear rend – this was getting me down, making me sick (middle of last week), and also getting in the way of things that one wanted to do. I have not been able to run for three weekends already (but then again, what is three weekends in a year, or a year in a lifetime). Although one is missing the quietening and balancing effects of the outdoors, one will definitely survive, although in a crabbier mood than usual, with the crabbiness factor increasing exponentially as time passes. I was also supposed to go out to perform at a music show this afternoon – that’s right, innocent people were going to pay to hear me sing, and I was thinking of the pain of driving in these conditions. (That show has since been cancelled because of the weather.)

What then has changed my mood? I was looking out into the backyard through the patio doors, just watching the white stuff come down – it was a steady fall, not the big thick flakes that float around and make people go “Ooooh” and “Aaaah”! The snow was heavy and wet – it made the work of shoveling the driveway later more difficult. A white layer had formed on the branches of the trees and the nets that I have around the plants, and you could see that some of the smaller branches were bending over with the weight of the water. I caught sight of a squirrel scurrying across the snow – a black figure bouncing about on a pure white background. It was hopping along, occasionally stopping to look around, and then heading off in a new direction. Soon after, I saw another squirrel. It did not seem to mind the snow either. Then, there was the red breasted bird sitting on one of the leafless trees behind our property. Even though it was small, the bright red on the grey and white background could not be missed. As I became more aware, I noticed that there was another small bird with a head of black (black capped Chickadee???) on the tree just next to the house. Looking up into the sky I could sight a couple of birds headed southwest, gliding through the sky and through the falling snow (how does that feel, I wonder?). Life is still going on as usual all around us….

The next part of this e-mail is not meant for the faint of heart, or for the children who may be misled by the misdeeds of supposedly mature adults. Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. This was one of these occasions!

I helped with the furniture program yesterday. Pat Byrnes sent me out with Dan Q., in Dan’s pickup truck. The mission was to pick up a sofa and a love seat. This was the first time I was meeting Dan Q. – a young white man, clean shaven and thin lipped, hair on the head completely shaved off, wearing wraparound sunglasses, and speaking with a strange accent that I could not place – looked tough! We arrive at this home and pick up a really nice sofa and love-seat set. These are loaded into the back of the open pickup truck, and we pull ropes over from one side to the other over the furniture to make sure everything is securely in place. The cushions are stuffed into crevices to make sure that they do not fly off, and the throws (smaller cushions that you throw over the sofa) have been secured in garbage bags which have been shoved under the ropes. Dan says that he will drive carefully. I did not realize then that “carefully” was a relative term. About half a mile into the trip back to the storage area, Dan informs me that one of the garbage bags has fallen off. Luckily there is no traffic since we have not hit the main road yet. I pop out of the passenger seat, run back, grab the bag, and stuff it back more securely into the back (or so I thought). Off we go once again. We are now on a busier road, Route 118, and Dan is driving “carefully” once again. As we pull up to the traffic light just after the Interstate 270 overpass, we hear desperate honking behind us. A van pulls up beside us – you lost one of your bags, we are informed by the driver. So Dan makes a U-turn (carefully!) at the light and we head back. There, in the middle of the busy road, on one of the lanes carrying traffic in the opposite direction, is our garbage bag. As we prepare to make the next U-turn to pick up the bag, I notice that our second bag is also on the road, further along the way. We have lost all our throws! It was just amazing that nobody had yet driven over the garbage bags. Further defensive (or perhaps, in the opinion of some people, offensive) moves are made. Dan pulls up in the middle of the road, and Mr. Joseph has to get out of the truck to pick up the bags. Timing was critical in these maneuvers, and Mr. Joseph performed admirably. The passenger door of the truck had to be pulled open with perfect timing to make sure that it was not taken apart by traffic in the next lane. Mr. Joseph proceeded quickly, and with surprising dexterity, to carry out his mission and make sure that both he and the garbage bags returned to the truck in one piece. The throws made it back to the storage center in the cab of the truck and on my lap – I would not have needed an air bag if Dan Q. had gotten us into a pickle (which would not have been surprising considering the way he was driving). That was my adventure for the day – risking life and limb for a noble cause!! Actually, I have spiced this write up a bit – the traffic was rather light and it was not really that dangerous. Do not worry…..

It turns out that Dan Q is an armed security guard. It is a job he was forced to take after he lost his original job with Verizon many years ago. He is trying to get top secret clearance so that he can get a better job in the government. He intends to complete his master’s degree along the way. He has ambitions. Meanwhile he is also investing in real estate and selling mortgages. He has formed a Limited Liability Company with his wife (now, where have I heard a similar story?). His father was a Chemical Engineer who worked for the government. Dan is from Eastern Maryland – hence his accent. He thinks that the war in Iraq is a big mistake. (There is still hope for America!) That is one more memorable person/character I have met through the furniture program. I do not know if I will get to ride with him again.

I should stop here. This has gotten longer than I wished it to be.

later
kuria

The Sun Sets Upside Down In The Morning

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I woke up early today.  I had been planning to drive to Forest Park for an early morning run. I peered out between the blinds of the 7th floor apartment and noticed that the sun was beginning to rise on the other side of the Mississippi.  I reached for my camera.  Little did I realize that I would be looking at the sun temporarily setting upside down between the clouds!

A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth – Scientific American

Consider this thought.  If life on earth as we know it is going to be destroyed by some extraterrestrial event some time in the future, it is possible that such an event has already happened.

via A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth – Scientific American