The Summer Slip Sliding Away

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

There’s A Train Coming

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture I took was not what I wanted, in fact it was not a good picture. I had clicked on the camera without getting the subject matter into focus.

But there was something about the picture that ended up generating certain feelings that seemed to come from my gut.   There was a certain sense of mystery.  There was the train appearing out of the dark, headed down the track back into the dark unknown, not knowing exactly what lies beyond, lighting up the tracks and the night ahead of it, trying to find its way through the darkness of the night.

 

Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how bout you?

Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd

Muscle Shoals is not a major tourist destination.  It lies on the southern shore of the Tennessee river in the northwestern part of Alabama, on the other side of the river from the town of Florence, AL.  These days, the name seems to refer to the area covering the towns of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals itself.

While many people who consider themselves rock-and-roll aficionados may know nothing about this place, other than it being a reference in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song,  people who are really in the know understand that this was the place where a lot of rock-and-roll music of the 1960s and 70s got created.  Musicians from all over the country, and the world, came to the studios of Muscle Shoals to record their albums.   Musicians like Rod Stewart, Paul Simon,  Jimmy Buffet, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Percy Sledge, Etta James, The Commodores, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, and many others, worked here.

Wandering around the area of Muscle Shoals you will not have a clue as to the role this place had in the creation of the contemporary music of that time.  Some of the place, especially around Sheffield and Tuscumbia, looks run down and dilapidated.  The town of Muscle Shoals is lightly populated, with low rise and spread out shopping centers and commercial buildings dominating the skyline, and it is clear that the history of the place has not had a very significant impact on its prosperity.

The original recording studio that started it all is called Fame Studios. It is still in use, and is owned by a family that has been in the business for over fifty years.  The building that hosts the facility is small and nondescript, and you may even miss it if you were not paying attention, in spite of the fact that is is right beside the main road.  The inside of the building shows its age.  It is simple, and the decor is from a time that has long passed.  The walls are covered with pictures and mementos of the musicians who have worked in that space since the 1960s.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was a spinoff from the Fame studio and it was started by the Swampers.  It operated in the location indicated in the picture below from 1969 to 1979.  The building is now a museum, and it sits all by itself  in an open space beside Jackson Highway.  There is nothing else of note there beside this unremarkable building.  One would even miss the small building had the name of the place had not been painted on it.  The parking lot is small and unpaved, and an unmarked entrance from a side street (rather than the main road) leads you to the facility.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe came by another place of note called the Cypress Moon studio unexpectedly, next to a park beside the river.    Apparently this facility used to house the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio after 1979, but this lasted only a few years. Cypress Moon Studios are a film and music production company today. Concerts are held periodically in the historic studios.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADriving along Jackson Avenue, you pass buildings that are falling apart that have names on them indicating that they were recording studios some time in the past.  It is hard to say if the place ever thrived due to the presence of the music business, but today most of it looks rundown.

Unfortunately, we had no time to spend wandering within any of these facilities.  The museum would have been interesting.

There is something interesting about how life goes on in Muscle Shoals even though its best days have probably passed it by.  While the place is open to tourism, it is also very low key at this time, and there seems to have been no attempt yet to try to exploit the situation with a lot of advertising and promotion on a large scale.  Expectations seem to be moderate.  Life goes on,  and the pilgrimage goes on!

Da St. Louis Blues

I am headed home.  What can I say?  All good things must come to an end, and I got the St. Louis Blues.  But what better way to end the trip than with music and dinner at BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soup, where we rocked yesterday evening away to a blues set by Big Rich McDonough & Rhythm Renegades.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, it was raining heavily outside the 7th floor apartment.  Sheets of water were pouring down from the dark sky in bursts.  Luckily, there is not much planned for the day.  The National Blues Museum is located downstairs in the apartment building and I was going to spend the day there (with an interruption in the middle for a trip to the dentist to look at an ulcer that had formed in the mouth (now healing!) after the surgery).

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The lady at the counter told me that I could spend 45 minutes to an hour there, but I ended up spending a few hours trying to soak in all the details, very little of which I can remember a few days later.  It is interesting to recognize and understand how this music of the downtrodden black people not that far back in time became the foundation of the present music form over the years.  And the music is still relevant today.

Angela was going back to work on Wednesday and so I accompanied her to the free Boeing museum (which is called Prologue) located at her work place.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am addicted to technology related to flying, and, once again, I spent more time in a museum than predicted by other people, immersed in the information.  When I was young I used to look for and read anything I could find about flying.  (I even found a way to get to the local airport to see the Boeing 747 when it came into town for the first time.  I would also have studied aeronautics had it not been considered a less desirable engineering pursuit at that time.)  The details of what I read and learnt as a youth get lost in the backrooms of my memory over time, and today was the time to try to remember stuff – about commercial and military aircraft history and development over the years,  about space travel, about other “stuff” related to moving through the air through unnatural means.  They had great information for the curious.  They even had full size capsules from the Mercury and Gemini programs (that helped launch man into space). These were set up in the then McDonnell (now Boeing) facilities for training and testing purposes.  These were fully functional even though they did not go into space.

I found it easier to follow the developments in commercial flight than those in the military realm.  People will spend more money and effort to experiment in the military realm so that there ends up being much more variety in the end-products that result.  Nothing much has changed in this regard over the years.

Since I had more time to kill that day (since Angela had a few more hours to work),  I drove to St. Charles, a little town on the other side of the Missouri river.  Lewis and Clark spent some time here in the past on their way west.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese days, the main street has been developed for the tourists.  It seemed lively at lunch on a week day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is an Art Center at the end of town which supports local artists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe art center is set in a location where there is also a big factory that runs along the river called the American Car and Foundry Company . The company is still operational, but the sections that one can see from the trail that runs along its side look run down and abandoned.

And then there is the Katy trail that runs past St. Charles closer to the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI found out that the Katy trail considers itself the longest rail-trail in the country.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe name comes from MKT, the initials of the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad, whose right-of-way has been transformed into a comfortable biking trail of crushed limestone.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABiking this trail may be something to consider in the future, but days like the one I spent in St. Charles would be too hot for an endeavor like this.  A plus for the trail is that it seems to include support services and B&B’s for overnight stays along the way.

And then it was time for the entertainment.  We ended up going to an establishment that all of us in the family (except for Angela) had gone to on a previous trip through the city. It was the only place having live entertainment that day at a reasonable time. It was within walking distance, and we convinced ourselves that it would be a safe walk from our apartment later in the evening even though it was located a short distance from downtown in an open area that was full of empty parking lots.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had a great time.  Both the food and the music were great.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe band mostly seemed to be a bunch of local artists who had come together to play that evening.  The drummer was a college kid – could not figure out if he was a graduate or undergraduate student.  What a thrill for a young man to be able to play music for the public in this environment with people who are so skilled in the art!  Much of live jazz and blues is improvisation, with the band following its leader as he plays what he is feeling at that moment.   It looked and sounded like the band was having fun.  It was Angela’s first visit to a blues bar, and I hope it will not be here last.

And then it is time to head home today.  All good things must come to an end. I got the St. Louis blues…

 

Harmony College East 2018

I attended Harmony College East last weekend.  This was my first time attending  technical classes related to barbershop music.

This event was conducted by the Mid-Atlantic district of the Barbershop Harmony Society.  There were classes on various topics that were conducted by experts in the field; there was individual coaching if one desired; the entertainment in the evening was provided by the choruses and quartets that were being coached, and from award winning groups, and finally from an awesome youth ensemble; and finally there were various opportunities to sing.  It turned out to be an awesome experience.

I was definitely putting myself outside my usual comfort zone with this experience, and for many reasons.

The event took place is a college campus in northern Maryland.  I stayed in a dorm room and ate my meals in a cafeteria, sharing a suite and a common bathroom with folks that I did not know.  (Also pay attention to the paragraph below in this context.)  It has been several years since I did something like that.

The barbershop scene is not very diverse.  A significant number of the people attending the event were white and old. Even the people who were not old were mostly white.  Being an introvert, I had to make an extra effort to engage with folks. Fortunately, they all turned out to be nice people, even if many of them were unlikely to share my interests and viewpoints.  Having said all of that, the young kids who were there for the youth camp seemed to be a more diverse lot.  Perhaps there is hope!

With no background in music, I did not know what I was getting myself into.  I ended up learning a lot about performing for an audience in general, and barbershop in particular.  I learnt that the unique craft of barbershop music is based on a singing technique that encompasses four parts that come together to emphasize different harmonics of a fundamental frequency in order to create “barbershop chords” that have a unique and pleasing sound.  (And it is not always the melody that constitutes the fundamental frequency.)   I also learnt that pianos are tuned in a way that is called “equal temperament”, which allows music to be played in various keys, but which essentially makes them out of tune – in that they do not play the harmonics of a note properly.  In order to play harmonics properly the piano has to be of “just intonation”, but then you lose the flexibility of the musical instrument, be it a piano or a guitar.  You cannot create barbershop harmonics with today’s piano because the notes are off.  Wow!

I stumbled into barbershop music several years ago by chance.  It is only now that I am gaining a proper appreciation for the technical aspects of the craft that I have taken up.   I understand why it is most important in barbershop for the vowel sounds created by the four different parts to match perfectly to create the perfect sounds.  I understand why it is important for the four different parts in barbershop to be sung at different volume levels corresponding to their place in the chord being created (something that can even change from note to note) to create a good sound.  This is more difficult than I originally thought.  But it is also awesome to be always learning!

I will end with a video that was shown at one of the classes illustrating what a good performance may look like.   This was a song sung in competition.  (For anybody interested, the order in which the quartet is on stage is – tenor, lead, bass, baritone.)

Incidentally, the group had points taken off for the break in the performance.