A Break From The Fair

Our chorus has been singing at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair for many years. We stroll around the fairgrounds singing to people in different locations and settings. This year we committed as a group to being at the fair every day. I am singing on six of the nine days of the fair. I resume today after a one-day break yesterday.

It has been a mixed experience so far, but mostly fun. Summer evenings in the Washington, DC, area are quite hot and humid, and the instability in the air often leads to heavy thunderstorms that can prevent us from strolling around outside. We could end up in some indoor location or the other where one has to wear a mask all the time. Also, it can be quite noisy all around you when you are trying to sing outdoors. All in all, we do not have the best conditions for practicing the craft. But when the four sections of the chorus happen to sync up perfectly in song, it can be musical magic regardless of where you happen to be.

Our activities at the fair take place at a time of the evening when one is forced to consider having one’s dinner at the fair itself. It is mostly carnival food that is available. It is probably not very good for my system, but it can also be quite tasty. The going fare is stuff like funnel cake, cotton candy, popcorn, deep-fried Oreos, hot dogs, ice-cream, etc… For more filling food, one can find places with hamburgers, pulled pork and chicken sandwiches, sausages, etc… And you can get a bonus with a large serving of cheese and/or bacon on something that is already not good for your heart. (The Texas-style hamburger was recommended to us!) Or perhaps you like cheese sandwiches by themselves from the The Big Cheese! The crepe food truck seems to be an exception to the usual fair food. I will visit it today. I did have a Gyro on Tuesday. Yum! You can forget about vegetables at the fair. I have not yet come across a place where you can get a salad.

One cannot forget that this is ultimately an agricultural fair. Farmers come from all across the region, even neighboring states, to show and tell – and to buy and sell. There are all kind of animals, including cows, goats, sheep, pigs, etc.., in the different buildings. You cannot avoid the smell if you are wandering in this section of the fair. And watch where you step! There are events held in small arenas where the animals are the stars of the show. You can probably buy a cow if you were so inclined!

The carnival section of the fair, with its loud noise and bright lights, and its rides and shows, is probably the part of the fair that draws in many of the young people to the fair. We mostly stay away from this section!

There is even a blacksmith in action near one of the entrances. A glass blowing company does demonstrations with their full setup in another location. Local vineyards, and distillers of other spirits, also make a showing, as do political and religious organizations.

In the end, this is also a community gathering. There are competitions for arts and crafts, and for even different kinds of foods – mainly baked goods. There is an old-timers building where you can even see contraptions from the local farms from times past.

Unfortunately, this year’s fair has been less crowded than usual – so far. This is probably due to the coronavirus, and perhaps also due to the weather. This is not a good situation for the vendors. One hopes that the last few days of the fair brings an improvement to the situation.

This year I noticed that more people than usual at the fair seem to remember us from our presence in past years. And some people actually do look forward to hearing us sing for them. That is cool!

Singing In The Time Of Covid

Everybody in our chorus is vaccinated. We try to be more careful than usual when performing, and especially if we are forced to be indoors.

We are singing at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair all week. We stroll around the fair grounds and sing to people. Conditions for singing are not ideal, but it is a lot of fun in its own way!

We are Harmony Express, a barbershop style mixed a cappela chorus.

Note that it is impossible to blow a pitch pipe with your mask on!😀

The Man Who Sold The World

This is an album I used to listen to when growing up in Chennai.

It must have been in high school, or during my early days of college, that Dad bought a stereo system for the house. Installed in a central area of the house for all to enjoy, it included a record player, a combined AM/FM receiver and amplifier, and a couple of good sized speakers that were attached to the wall at ear level. I remember the delivery of the system to the house, and one of the people accompanying the equipment telling me about how The Beatles were experimenting with the use of stereo sounds in those days. Soon enough, I was keeping an ear open to try to discern the differing sounds coming from the two speakers for albums like Abbey Road and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There was a HMV record store on Mount Road that I used to go to regularly to check out the new music albums coming in from the west. Good quality recorded music for the home was only available on vinyl at that time. Consumer cassette decks were just coming into vogue, and they did not deliver the same musical quality as a vinyl record. They had a music room within the music store where you could listen to music, to help you decide whether or not to buy a particular album. A lot of the music I bought from the store was unfamiliar to me. I was listening to it for the first time. I really loved spending time looking at the record jackets. I would buy different genres of music. I think I even bought an album of country music once. I think the cost of a LP record was less than Rs. 50 at that time. I was given a certain amount of money that could be spent on music.

While Dad had indulged us (and especially me) by getting us the stereo system, it seemed like he was not particularly fond of its impact. He especially did not like come home from work to the sound of loud music playing on the speakers. You could see it on his face. We did not need to hear a verbal complaint. The volume of the stereo system would be reduced right away. It was not a time for rebellion.

I remember the fact that vinyl records and the temperatures of Chennai did not go well together. Some of the records would warp because of the heat, and you could easily see what was going on while the records were playing. The needle on the record player is supposed to stay in its place while the record is moving, but this would not be the case with a warped record. I devised a means to try to flatten the records. It involved the use of a big and supposedly flat drawing board from one of my Engineering Drawing courses and a pile of heavy books. I would go to the terrace where the sun could beat directly on the surface of the board, and place the vinyl record on the drawing board under the pile of books. The whole apparatus stayed on the terrace through the heat of the day, exposed directly to the sun. The hope was that the vinyl would become more pliant and straighten out in the heat.

I am not sure that this technique actually worked, but I did detect a certain sense of skepticism in my Dad’s response to my efforts, and a mention that perhaps I did not understand the value of money. Anyway, its all good..

I did not know anything about David Bowie before this time. I do not think his music even made it to the mainstream in the common rooms of the hostels that I visited in college. I am not sure what provoked me to buy this particular album. It seemed to have all the musicality of a mainstream album, but it also had an edge to it that one was not used to hearing. There was a sense that the artist was exploring his craft, and trying different things in his music. The songs were all very different from each other. There was no single overall groove to them. If you were listening to the album for the first time, you could be taken by surprise when you moved from one song to another. Even the musical shifts in the middle of a song could catch you by surprise. It felt unconventional for someone like me whose exposure to contemporary western music was limited to what was broadcast on the radio waves in that part of the world. That stuff tended to be “smoother”. Anyway, the music drew me in and stuck in my head (like spiders from Mars😉). Once I got the album, I must have listened to the music endlessly, and I know that even my younger brother was drawn to some of the songs. Later in his career, David Bowie went on to make music that was more in the mainstream, and therefore more “popular”, but this is the album that I will always remember him for.

For some reason or the other, the song The Man Who Sold the World has been playing in my head very recently. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to indulge myself and listen to the album in its entirety on YouTube. Boy, it really took me back! Hope the album can grow on you too! (Hope the album does not get moved from its current Internet location any time soon.)

The Man Who Sold The World

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.