The image of a paintbox flashed through my mind one morning last week. I am not sure what triggered a memory of something from my childhood. I suddenly had a vivid remembrance/recollection of my leaning over a piece of paper with a wet paintbrush in hand, bringing my brush to a particular color in the tray that lay in front of me, moving the brush back and forth on the cake of color to allow the material to dissolve and be absorbed on to the brush, and then applying the brush to paper. For some reason the name Camel is associated in my mind with the brand of the paintbox that I would have used. I do not know if this was only in my imagination working overtime, but I do note that there still is a brand of watercolor called Camlin from a company based in India.
I used to really like painting as a kid. I think I even graduated to using tubes of paint at some point, but never beyond painting with water colors. I even got to the point of using brushes in different sizes to help fill in different spaces of the picture being painted more efficiently, and to try to achieve some degree of finesse.
I remember that we had to take drawing classes while in middle school. There was a separate classroom dedicated just to drawing. The person in charge of drawing (called the drawing master) was really good at painting. He also used to play volleyball well. But he was also a terror to the kids. He had a habit of breaking the rulers that he hit the kids on the hands with. I somehow managed to escape his wrath, and went on to appreciate what I got to indulge in while in his class. It is impossible to judge whether I had talent or not, but I did enjoy the process.
It was in 1969, the year when man landed on the moon for the first time, that the school decided to have a painting competition in commemoration of the event. I remember painting an astronaut on the surface of the moon. I remember that all the colors I used were dark. It makes sense, does it not? The other occasion I remember was when I took part in a competition organized by the college students in one of the hostels on campus. I do not know what the theme of the competition was, but I decided that I was going to paint an image of the Virgin Mary in what I pictured stained glass to look like. You see, I imagined this stained glass to consist simply of pieces of glass of different colors, stuck together to form a pattern. It was a brilliant move on my part. All I had to do was create random blocks in different shapes to fill in the space, and simply paint each block with a single color. Finesse did not matter in this regard. What mattered was how close the final result could be taken to represent the person I was trying to paint. It could be considered some form of abstract art. Best of all, I could fake out the details when drawing the face. Faces were my biggest challenge when it came to painting, especially the eyes and nose. (I had even avoided having to draw a face for the picture of the astronaut on the earlier occasion!) In any case, they decided to give me a prize in the category and age group that I was participating in. I do not remember any more details.
It is now years later, far removed from my days of middle school. I have not used a paintbrush since then other than for perhaps helping to paint the walls of a house. More recently, I have considered going to the local arts store to buy a the basic stuff needed to try out watercolor painting once again. But something is also stopping me. Basically, I think that I have become a wimp. I am cautious of even the process of getting started. I am concerned about consequences even if there probably aren’t any. I do not even want to buy something that I may not use after a period of experimentation. It could turn out to be a wasteful endeavor. I am concerned that this is only a temporary and foolish fancy that will eventually go away. (I have much experience with such things.) I am concerned that there are too many other things that I do that will distract me from putting in the effort that I feel is needed. I am lazy enough to not want to take classes. Essentially, I can no longer think like the innocent and carefree 10 year old I once was.
I had been ambivalent about the whole project. When she had first brought up the idea of delivering food to my parents in Chennai from a restaurant in town that her sister and her husband had ownership in (a first-class restaurant, may I add!), I had told her it probably was not a good idea. There were the logistical issues to consider. First of all, the restaurant was quite far from where my parents lived. Secondly, I had experienced issues when dealing with deliveries to the home while in Chennai. The problems started with something as basic as specifying the address for delivery. (The online maps that the vendors used with their GPS systems did not use the postal address as their basis for locating the house. We had to figure out an addressing scheme that worked with GPS. (My first attempt at placing an order in Chennai with an Amazon ended up with a cancellation – because the delivery person never arrived. That was when I recognized the issue with the “address”. All subsequent orders for delivery that I made involved my standing at the gate of the house and keeping my eyes peeled for the delivery person, sometimes keeping track of his progress on my smartphone.)) I should add that Dad and mom have no idea how to use any of the technology involved in managing a delivery to the home. There was nobody else in town to depend upon to help with this. Any delivery of the food had to be coordinated remotely.
Anyway, she was determined. She decided, on her own, to have a delivery of food made to our home for Christmas. It being a special occasion, I did not object completely in spite of my concerns, and I tried to help. She was going to rope in her sister to help make it happen. The process was going to be managed remotely from Bangalore. I noted my concerns, not the least of which was that I did not want to do anything that would stress out my parents in this whole process. I was told not to worry. I provided as much information as I could so that the house could be identified. I consulted with my brother who had faced similar issues during his own trips to Chennai. I even provided a link to a picture I had taken of the shops in front of our house to help with locating the home. I thought I had covered all the bases. The order was placed. Delivery was going to happen around noontime on Christmas day. I was not involved in any of the organization. I must have continued to express my reservations. I was told not to worry.
The next step was for me to inform my parents that the food was going to be delivered at a particular time, and for them to expect phone calls related to the delivery at around that time, the last phone call being made by the delivery person at the gate to the house. Alas, this is where the plan in its original form began to go awry. I attempted to make a phone call to Chennai the day before Christmas. The phone at home was not working.
My siblings and I were independently in touch with somebody who was planning to visit my parents for Christmas. When I asked, Venkat informed me that he was going to be at our home in Chennai about an hour or so before the food delivery. I asked him to please inform my parents about what was going to happen just in case I could not call home before that. The stage was set.
I continued to try to call Chennai but could not get through.
When we woke up on Christmas day, we retieved a message that had arrived overnight from Bangalore. It said that the person delivering the food in Chennai had not been able to get in touch with my parents after his arrival at the house. Of course, the phone was not working. Nobody was responding to him when he called out from the compound gate(s?). Strangely, he reported that one of the gates was locked from the outside. Suman was on the phone with the delivery person when all of this was happening. She gave him instructions to leave the food at the gate. That was the last thing we heard about the delivery. We had no idea what might have happened to the food. Nobody could get in touch with my parents. My worst fears had been confirmed. This had been Mission Impossible! Again, I was told not to worry. We had tried.
Christmas day went by. I could not get my mind completely off what I was now convinced was a complete disaster. I should have done more to prevent this kind of a situation from happening. So many people had put in so much effort to make this happen, and it had fallen apart. Food had also been wasted.
But, the good thing was that we also had the distractions of Christmas to keep us occupied. We were getting the treat of a dinner cooked by Angela. She had suggested the menu for Christmas dinner, and had offered to cook everything. It was going to be an Indian meal. She had no previous experience with the dishes she was planning to cook. She was going to make them for the first time using recipes from books. She was going to be adventurous. Others assisted in her efforts as needed, but she was in charge. She organized things very precisely leaving very little to chance. She even transcribed the detailed instructions from the recipe books to a notebook that she kept in front of her while cooking in order to make sure that things were done right. The result was amazing!
We also spoke to my siblings and their families in the afternoon on Christmas day. The topic of the attempted food delivery in Chennai came up. We were joking among ourselves that the food had probably ended up feeding some stray dogs, or the rats that hung around the place. I did not want to talk about it any more!
Teresa and I realized much later that evening that we had not passed along one critical piece of information about where the food was supposed to have been delivered in Chennai. There was a second house, newly built and unoccupied, next to the the house where the food was supposed to have been delivered, and we had not even thought about making a mention of this house when giving directions. Perhaps the person had attempted to deliver the food there. Anyway, it was too late to do anything about it. The dogs must have had a good time.
When I woke up the next day, I found a texted message awaiting me from my brother. He had finally gotten through to our parents on the phone. He mentioned that the food package had actually not been lost! The message I had passed on to Venkat had gotten through to my parents. Mom had gone over to the new house to see if there was anything that had been left there. She had done this in spite of the fact that they had not talked to anybody on the phone. The plan had actually worked out somehow!
It was already too late to call and wish my parents a Merry Christmas, but at least they received the Christmas gift on time. All’s well that ends well.
PS. FYI, from our personal experience, the food from Kappa Chakka Kandhari is exceptional and highly recommended!
I had told myself that I did not want to do the long drive to Massachusetts once again, so soon after the previous trip. But we ended up heading north for Thanksgiving anyway. The drive turned out OK since I had help with the driving in both directions this time.
Of course, coronavirus was on the mind. Ventilation, masks, physical distancing, etc.. were on the mind. The infection rate has skyrocketed in our country in recent weeks. We had to be careful. Our family group was small enough, and every person had to take responsibility for their own actions.
Conversations, games, daytime naps, walks in the park, including Lucy, cooking,bird watching, etc.., were all part of the informal routine during this vacation, with people free to participate as they desired. No pressure!
We did gather at the table for the significant meals. What you are seeing in the picture below are mostly the remains of the Thanksgiving meal the day after. I neglected to take pictures of the Thanksgiving meal itself, which included an Irish Soda Bread that was demolished in a single sitting.Even Lucy seemed to feel free to do whatever she felt like.
There have been a couple of very specific occasions during the last few weeks when I have strongly felt the spirit of community and sharing in a way that felt somewhat different and unique, yet familiar. When sharing of effort is done with a complete sense of openness, without holding back, without a feeling of being imposed upon, without any expectation of any kind of reward other than the generation of a somewhat vaguely defined feeling of happiness and satisfaction that cannot be quantified, then you are mentally and spiritually in a special place. One could ask, what more does one need other than to experience such a feeling, a feeling that immediately warms the cockles of your heart. The goal of the sharing in some instances is not perfection, but the outcome feels that way.
The first time I felt that way was when I assisted with the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. I provided only a couple of the many hands that helped in the efforts to prepare the roasted chicken, and to cook the beans.Different people participated in the effort in barely organized fashion. It felt like nobody was specifically in charge of worrying about the outcomes. The sense of responsibility was shared and we stepped into roles organically. But the outcomes were good nevertheless. Somehow things all came together.
I had the same feeling back in Maryland when working at the food bank the week after Thanksgiving. I had an intense sense of commonality of purpose. We, the volunteers, just stepped in to do what was needed to prepare closed boxes of food for distribution – including piling the boxes on pallets for shipping, moving stuff, including the loaded pallets, around, recycling cardboard packaging, cleaning up waste, etc.., instinctively stepping in to help each other as needed. In the end, there was great satisfaction in the outcome, and the sense of a successful team effort. We all felt happy about what had been accomplished. We actually lost count of the number of pallets that we had piled up with boxes. It sounds repetitive, but perfection was not necessarily the goal of our effort, although it felt like this was the result that had been achieved. I have been volunteering for years at this point, and I have felt this way in the past when I am working with the regulars (now my friends) who come in on Tuesday. Perhaps I have even articulated this same thought already in the past, but I was so surprised at how similar it felt to the Thanksgiving experience.
As I might have indicated in earlier blogs, my personality lends itself to trying to plan things in detail in advance, sometimes with a degree of obsessiveness, trying to make sure that all the angles are covered, so that one can anticipate anything that can go amiss. That approach can lend itself well to the professional engineering environment where 100% solutions might be important, where you want to do everything you can to ensure that very little can go wrong. This thought process may not be that relevant in many situations in real life. When you are working with others with a genuine sense of community and commonality of purpose, your approach and goals can tend to be different, and the results can be much more fulfilling, and relevant to the human condition.
Inroduction – I have ended up digging deep into my past while creating this blog. It was supposed to be a simple re-post of an email I sent many years ago. Much water has flowed under the bridge since 2008. Life was very different at that time. This blog even takes me back to the early days of my career, before the email you are about to read was written. Here goes.
******************* There are two separate topics in this e-mail, and the second topic is more of a reflection on longer-term happenings in my life. It would be perfectly understandable if you skipped this second part.
So here I was walking through the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in the Convention Center in Las Vegas, when I heard a shout “Hello, Malayalee anoo”? (Hello, are you a Malayalee?) I turned to see this guy walking up to me. He started talking to me in Malayalam with a heavy accent. I was totally taken aback at being accosted in this manner in the middle of a convention center in Las Vegas. The gentleman mentioned that he had seen my badge and recognized that the name must belong to a person from Kerala. Very quickly, before I could even recover, he asked me where I was from, whom I worked for, how long I was going to be in Las Vegas, etc.. I had no clue who this person was, and did not understand why he was talking to me with such familiarity and asking all these questions. He must have noticed a bewildered look on my face because he paused for a moment. “Am I asking too many questions?”, he enquired. I did not know what to say. He then noted that the way he was asking me questions was the manner in which people broke the ice and started conversations in Kerala. He said that he was from Toronto, and in my confused state of mind I heard the word Trivandrum instead. I looked at his badge and it said jimmy john (just the way I have written it!). Anyway, jimmy soon realized that I was not too much of a Malayalee (even though my parents are from Kerala), but that did not deter him from continuing the conversation. We continued to talk in English for a while about our backgrounds and I became more comfortable with the conversation. I suppose he was a simble (inside Malayalee joke!) person, and perhaps we could continue talking because I am also simble (hmm, maybe not that humble). Turns out that he produces a show in Toronto called Malayala Shabtham and his production company is called CKTV, Canadian Kerala TV Productions. He seems to know people and politicians in Canada, and he sounds like an enterprising fellow. For all I know, he is a well-known person in certain circles. Perhaps one or more of you may have heard his name. Anyway, we exchanged cards and then parted ways.
Now, changing topics: Later the same evening I went out for a dinner organized by a gentleman from DIRECTV named Bob Plummer. Bob had been at the David Sarnoff Research Center while I was there and had moved directly to DIRECTV after that. (He is one of the folks who encouraged me to move to DIRECTV.) He is a very senior person, has a lot of friends in the industry, and will be retiring this year. He apparently has been organizing this dinner during the NAB for several years for his friends in the industry. This time he invited me to the dinner so that I could get to know some of the folks, and I also met an old friend from Sarnoff, Joel Zdepski, who has now gone on become a Senior VP in a company called OpenTV. In any case, the food was very good (and very expensive) and there was plenty of wine to drink. At a particular moment during this whole affair, Bob walked into a conversation that I was having with somebody else and turned to the person and said something along the lines of – Kuria is one of those people who can actually get things to work. My goodness, what a complement! It is quite possible that the number of drinks that had been consumed at that point inspired the comment. But it got me thinking after I got back to my hotel room later in the night (and this is where the humble part goes out the window!). In the early years of my career I had worked on some really unique and challenging problems that were cutting edge, without really realizing the magnitude of what I was doing. At Sarnoff, we were trying to design the first digital high-definition broadcast TV system in the world, and were implementing certain concepts for the first time. Without really thinking too much about it, I came up with a unique solution to a particular system problem that we had, and, although I did not have any hardware experience, I got into the thick of things and actually helped in implementing the concept and making the darned thing work. I was working on something that I had minimum expertise in, and something far removed from the topic of my graduate studies. I depended a lot on intuition. I was also quite naive and did not even realize the complex nature of the problem I was taking on and solving. But others did notice and remember! And it is staggering to realize that the things that we worked on at Sarnoff have now become the foundation of a gigantic worldwide digital TV industry. Wow!
I had a few other such “Eureka” moments during the early part of my career, some of them at Hughes Network Systems, but I think none matched the magnitude of the work at Sarnoff. I think I had a real problem-solving mentality that is typical of an Engineer, and this ability compensated for a lot of my other personality issues. But the years have gone by since then and the reality of life has caught up. It is now more about shouldering responsibilities and trying to make sure that one does not screw things up. I do not have to solve difficult technical problems. I am more careful. Everything is more mundane. And I have to find other less risky roads to follow to push myself and experience the excitement of learning new things and challenging myself. And, although one accepts where one is in life without any regrets, one wonders once in a while about what might have been if other routes in life had been followed and if more time had been spent earlier in life on developing other talents. It is probably true that one can waste a lifetime simply asking questions and not doing anything else. But at least on that one magical evening in Las Vegas (under the influence of alcohol, of course) I felt like I had done something unique and special, something that not just anybody could have done. Is it all about feeding the ego?
There used to be an advertising line having to do with the Las Vegas tourism scene that stated – Whatever happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. You can see that this is certainly not true with what has happened to me in Las Vegas during my last two trips.
Such is life. *********************
Today’s postscript – While looking for pictures of people who I worked with while at Sarnoff, I came upon this website with details about the project I was involved in at that time. You can even find pictures of me from my youth (at least four of them in the section about the “AD-HDTV System Integration at Sarnoff Field Lab”). My signature is on a document that we signed at the end of the project. I directly contributed to the specification document for this project. I was responsible for something called the priority processor.
“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.
I listened to a very interesting podcast episode recently. It was from a series called The Seen and The Unseen with Amit Varma. The particular episode was called Caste, Gender, Karnatik Music. The subject matter of the particular episode was actually broader than the title makes it sound. The whole episode made me think about various things, some even unrelated to the subject of the interview. The person being interviewed was a remarkable person – a thinker who was self-aware to an extreme. He was able to express this self-awareness in very clear manner.
One of the things I ended up thinking about is how most of us tend to get stuck in our own bubbles in various ways, and even in multiple contexts. This is nearly always counterproductive to our own growth, our true understanding of the world, and our own broad-mindedness. One aspect of the bubble is our inability to properly understand things from beyond our own circumstances, background, and perspectives, and to understand where other people are coming from. I am not sure if this is only about empathy. It is about smugness of those of us who are fortunate in our circumstances, and this can be true even when we think we are doing the right thing for other people who we may think of as less fortunate than us. It is about complacency. It is about a determination of fairness in society. It is about the ability for societies to exist and thrive from everybody’s perspective.
I am not sure that it is easy for us to break out of our bubbles, but I am sure that I would better off if I could break out of mine more effectively. Once you become complacent, you are lost.
Days, weeks, and months go by in the time of COVID-19. We have our daily routines, including work and volunteering, and the occasional trip to the grocery store. We have to be careful with all of this. There have been no summer trips, no official vacations so far this summer, a big change from our usual annual routines.
It has been cool the last few days. There has been no need to use the air-conditioner. We have kept the windows open – to listen to the birds outside, and watch the deer relax in our backyard.
I have been sitting on the deck the last few evenings. I ask myself why I did not start doing this earlier, in all the years we have lived in this house. The plants, growing in pots on the deck, are yielding produce these days. They are a nice sight to see. These are grape tomatoes.These are bell peppers.The trees that I planted as saplings in the backyard many years ago have survived the deer, and have grown to tower over the backyard, and also provide shade on the deck in the late evenings. One evening, as I sat on the deck, my entertainment was provided by a flock of bluejays on the branches of the cherry tree, with a chickadeeand what appeared to be a juvenile tufted titmouse (I could be wrong)making their appearance once in a while. The bluejays were creating a cacophony as they called out to each other across the backyard.
There were no birds on the trees the next evening. I waited and waited with my camera! I think I might go out to the deck today too, maybe with a beverage in hand in addition to the camera!
The “books” that were on hold for me at the county library finally became available after a couple of weeks of waiting. This is the year I discovered digital books. I read books on my smartphone these days because of necessity. The physical libraries had been closed for a while. Reading a book on the smartphone takes getting used to. Reading actually feels a little different from when reading a physical book. I am still figuring out how to bookmark pages reliably on the different digital readers, or even flipping between pages in a flexible way when I want to refer to something that I read earlier on in the book. I still tend to lose my place in a “book”.
I have been watching a lot of episodes of American Experience recently. It is actually a little depressing to see the various ways in which discrimination and injustice have taken place, and continue to take place, in American society. Many of us are not aware of some of these unsavory sides of the history of the country. We live in the little bubbles that we find ourselves in today and are happy to stay there. Here in the US, the people in power (typically the white man) find it hard give up some of that power. There is the sense of superiority. People in power find it hard to treat people fairly. Systems are rigged against the weak, sometimes even when that reality is recognized. Many times the system can be cruel. This is truer than ever today. But the struggle continues. Politics is in the news with the upcoming elections. The choice is very clear this time.
Thanks to my friend Joe, I have been doing a lot of math puzzles these days. I really enjoy them. This is the last one we tackled.Perhaps you will also find it interesting!
I cannot seem to keep up a good routine when it comes to exercising regularly. Rainy days and laziness mess up the attempts to create a rhythm. And it is so difficult to get back to something that you have even been away from, even for a few weeks. Each time I start running after a break, I have to take it easy with the pace, and wait for my body to adjust. It takes at least a couple of runs. Nothing is routine in that sense. Morning walks still continue. Sunrises begin later and later as summer progresses, and there is now the chill in the morning air. Feels nice.
Here is the song that inspired the title of this blog. One of the things I still regret not having done when I was young was going for this concert in New York City. I was a graduate student at Stonybrook, not too far away, when it happened.
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.
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.