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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

The Grim Reaper

It happened a few nights ago.  It was shortly after midnight.  There was a phone call coming through on her mobile phone.  It must be the governor with some urgent message, I muttered groggily, as I stirred from my deep sleep.  It was actually a  phone call from her place of work.  Her colleague had called to pass on the information that one of the other workers at the facility had caught the coronavirus and was in the ICU with COVID-19.

The part of my mind that was awake actually froze.  I had this picture in my mind of the grim reaper paying his visits to the neighborhoods in our county.   Maybe he (always a male!) had found a way to our specific neighborhood, and was hovering around our street (or sitting on the curbside), waiting patiently.  This was the closest we have been to somebody who had actually been diagnosed with COVID-19.  The mind turned somewhat irrational.  There was fear.  I was resigned to not being able to sleep the rest of the night.  Azrael was waiting!  Thankfully, sleep came a few hours later.

I became more rational about the situation in the light of the morning.  I could accept the situation for what it was without feeling fear.  Whatever sequence of events had already been put into play would take place.  We would just have to be more careful.  Whatever will be, will be.  No point worrying about it.  And we are OK so far.

It was last week that the musician John Prine died from COVID-19.  I did not know who John Prine was, but I was curious to learn more about the kind of music that he created.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  It was the kind of music that I would have liked.  I was actually surprised that I had not heard of him before.  He was a folk musician who sang about the life stories of ordinary people.  He sang about the human experience – of love and hate, of suffering, of relationships, of joy, of war, of religion, of addiction, of what he had learnt of the human condition in America.  He had a remarkable gift for words and for poetry.  Each line was effective.  It just flowed out of his very soul. He was a natural.  He served in Vietnam, and worked as a mailman for some time after that, before he started singing.  He was also extremely funny.  You just have to watch some of his live performances on Youtube to know that.  So, I will end this blog with his songs.  It was somewhat difficult to pick a particular one from among the collection of songs I have been listening to the last few days.  So I picked two.  These are performances from more recent times.

In good news, the person with COVID-19 whom I had mentioned at the beginning of this blog is getting better. But the full story of the impact on the facility is still being written.

A Happy and Holy Easter to all of you of the Faith.

At the Food Bank in the Time of COVID-19

I have been volunteering at the food bank once a week after returning, and recovering, from the trip to India.  I have been there on three successive Tuesdays packing food boxes for customers.  There have been changes in the procedures that are being followed every single time I have gone, in order to try to keep people working in the warehouse safe. They have been getting stricter with time.  We have had to be very flexible about working out the kinks in the new processes as they are being created.  The number of boxes that are being delivered to families has also been increasing with each week that passes by.

Guests and volunteers do not have free access to the Manna warehouse anymore.  They are very careful about who is allowed in.  They clean the place out regularly.  I noticed that something had been sprayed over the lockers the last time I was there.  Most likely, it was disinfectant.

The tables on which we pack the boxes of  perishable food for customers have been separated from each other by greater and greater distances each week that I have been there.  This is to try to separate people who are doing their jobs from each other.  They would ideally like to have only one person at each table at any time.  In practice, that is a goal that is very difficult to achieve.  We have also been using disposable gloves to do our work.  We change them as often as needed.  They have guidelines in this regard, but the guidelines are only as good as how well they are followed by the employees and volunteers.  (I put on my regular cloth gloves under the disposable latex gloves yesterday because the latex gloves have a tendency to tear.)  Tables are disinfected each time a batch of boxes is packed and put away.  And finally, this week, we started to wear masks.  That takes some getting used to.  I am still learning. I felt that I could have used my mask in a more effective way yesterday.

I have been gladdened to see the same few employees and volunteers at the food bank again and again during the last three weeks.  The illness is amongst us, and I am always concerned that someone that I have been working with has caught something.  It is easily conceivable that somebody could be carrying the contagion without their knowledge.  That person could even be me.  And, with the ever increasing number of infections that are being reported in our part of the world these days, the probability of the presence of the virus in our midst is not insignificant.  We have to be vigilant.

Be safe.

Flying Back to China During The COVID-19 Crisis – SamChui.com

The most interesting part of the travelogue for me was the description of the steps being taken in China to combat COVID-19.  What they are doing must be having an impact based on the numbers we are seeing.  We look like relative fools here in the USA.  Our leadership is failing.  Soon we will be number one, and it will not be a positive thing.  Shame on us.

via Flying Back to China During The COVID-19 Crisis – SamChui.com

Living with Contagion

Most of us have never experienced anything like this during our lifetimes.  But one should also understand that smaller outbreaks of similar nature have been taking place all over the world even in recent times. Fortunately, those were contained. It was only a matter of time.

It has been just a few weeks since the spread of this contagion started.

Already, almost everything that we took for granted in our societal interactions and in our consumer behaviors outside of the house has had to be rethought.

Lifestyles have already changed.

National economies have already been altered.

Some people’s lives have already been shattered – even if they have not fallen ill.  People need to eat even when the economy shuts down.  It is a matter of survival for the weakest of our lot.

Some of the changes that have happened may be here for the longer term.

And the worst is yet to come…

The people who had a responsibility to anticipate and do something about the spread of this contagion early enough in the process, to try to limit the damage, failed us miserably.  They are still failing us.

I have often wondered what would happen in the world if some of the things that we took for granted go away.  How would we survive?  (What we are experiencing now is not the worst case of something like this happening.)  Ironically, being better off as a society does not necessarily mean that we are better prepared to tackle something like this.  Events like this might bring out the best in some people, but, as a group, stupidity seems to reign to a greater extent in places where people are more comfortable and well off.  When your mind becomes far removed from the basics of surviving, and the less you are interested in understanding how things really work, the more stupid one seems to behave.  Perhaps the brain hurts from the effort. A special mention needs to to be made of the President of the richest country in the world, and the behavior of some of the youth of the country.  They have no idea what a pandemic means, and how to behave responsibly in these circumstances.  And what about the people who do not seem to care for the truth, to the extent that deliberate lies and misinformation spreads, stuff that can make things worse.  And then there are the stories of complete incompetence. (I am not really that surprised about this particular case.  I have experienced similar frustration with the system in the past.)

Meanwhile, one is overwhelmed with information, information being forwarded from all over the Internet. A lot of it is from well-meaning people.  Every vendor that has my e-mail address has also sent me a message on how the contagion has impacted their business and interactions with their customers.  A lot of what one is hearing is repetitive.  How much of this can you take?  How much of it can you absorb?   Better to watch some late night comedy shows once in a while.

In the middle of all this, we cannot forget the people who are fighting this disease on the front lines.  These are the doctors, the nurses, and the other hospital staff who are taking care of the sick.  They are taking a lot of risk,  and they are putting in a lot of time already.  They are being stretched.  And their job is about to get more difficult.

It is going to get worse before things get better.   A few us may not be here at the end of it all.   All we can do is take care and try to be prepared.  And perhaps it is good to remind oneself once in a while that one does not live forever.

 

An Indian Uber Story

It was later in the evening by traditional Chennai standards.  I had just finished meeting up with some close high school friends whom I try to reconnect with whenever I visit.  I always make the effort to do so these days when I come to Chennai.  Much water has flowed under the bridge since the days of our youth, and these are the remaining opportunities to reminisce, and to also catch up on the stories of our own lives.

The place where we met that evening was a somewhat upscale hotel in town, a place where one would tend to see people who are generally better off than the people on the street.  For me, it really did not matter where we met.  I would have gone with whatever place the others were comfortable with.  We spent a nice evening catching up.IMG-20200221-WA0000 Soon it was time for me to return to Madipakkam.  I could not delay too long.  Madipakkam is located on the outskirts of town, and it is a place that could be considered somewhat remote from the city itself.  Finding a ride could become more and more difficult later in the night.  Because of this, I had been keeping an eye on the time through our get-together.

I have become very familiar with using the Uber car service to get around town when I am in Chennai.  The request went out on the Internet for a ride to Madipakkam. I was quickly assigned a ride to get me there.  My friends and I walked down to the street and waited for a driver with the name Joseph to show up with his vehicle.

It did not take too long for Joseph to arrive.  I said my last goodbye and hopped into the car.  I was on my way to Madipakkam.  Joseph started talking to me soon after the ride began.  It could have been something to do with the fact that we shared a common name that loosened the tongue.   Also, unlike most of the drivers that I encounter during these rides, he spoke English, which made it easy for me to follow him.  It was a sad tale that emerged.

He first asked me if I was paying by cash or by credit card.  He seemed quite relieved when I told him that I was paying cash.  (I had heard from another driver that Uber reimbursed the drivers for credit card payments only once a week.)

He asked me if I knew of any job opportunities.  I told him I was just visiting.

The rest of his story emerged.  Joseph informed me that he had hit rock bottom in his life.  He was a college educated professional who had, at that point, been out of a job for a couple of years. He had just started driving for Uber.  He had no money, and was desperate.  He was driving his friend’s vehicle for a living, and had made some sort of an arrangement with him that involved his actually handing over some of the money he was making as a Uber driver back to his friend.

Joseph was originally from a place outside of Chennai.  He had done his college studies in Chennai, receiving a professional degree at its conclusion. He had worked in the industry on non-IT backend systems.  He had worked for a few firms.  And then he had lost his job.  He had been looking for jobs for a while, but the companies were only interested in hiring new graduates and paying them less than they would have to pay a person of his experience.  His friends had also not be able to help him find a job.

As we drove through Adayar, and then on through the now almost empty streets of Taramani, further details of his life emerged without my prompting.   He was looking for a person to pour out all his troubles to.  All I could do was lend a sympathetic ear.  There was no concrete advice or suggestions that I thought I could offer.

He was married, but his wife had left him to go back to her father’s place.  His mother had actually left him a house, but his father-in-law had needed some money, and he had taken a loan out on the house to help out the father-in-law. Since his lost his job, the father-in-law was now insisting that he pay off the loan before his wife returned to him.  When he had been working, and had money, he had not saved much of it, using whatever he earned to buy his wife whatever she desired. He made the dramatic statement that he had found out the hard way that money is everything, and that love meant nothing.

I had no reason to disbelieve what he was telling me.  He certainly sounded very  sincere.  He sounded downbeat.  But, at the same time, I felt that he had been a little naive to be taken for a ride in the manner he was describing.

He said that his mother had passed away a year back.  He had no other family, and he was all alone.

There was more silence in the car towards the end of the ride.  I did not know how to respond to the story, and changing the topic to something else in light of everything I had heard seemed a little trite and insensitive.  I was no good in this situation.  At the end of the ride, on an empty Madipakkam street, all I could offer was some encouragement.  I told him not to let people push him around, and to take what was his.  As I closed the gate to the compound of our home behind me, I saw that he was still seated in the car – under a streetlight, looking at something in front of him.  Perhaps, he was counting his take for the day.

There were two very different reactions when I related this story to two of my friends the next day.

One of them asked me if the person had asked for some money at the end.   He mentioned that it was not uncommon for people who, when they met up with others who they thought were better off than them, hit them up for some cash, even if they were strangers.  People called it a request for a loan, but most had no intention of making any repayment.

My other friend was more sympathetic.  He said that the situations that I had heard about were not that unusual.  This kind of stuff happens to many people.  I said that some of this sounded like it was straight out of a soap opera.  He responded that the difference between this story and a soap opera was that you could turn off the soap opera any time you wanted.  My friend’s conclusion was that there was really no fairness in the world.  Some of us just happen to be better off because we are more fortunate in life.  Now, ain’t that the truth!