“Thanks to their work, there was a moment in history when neuroscience, psychiatry, computer science, mathematical logic, and artificial intelligence were all one thing, following an idea first glimpsed by Leibniz—that man, machine, number, and mind all use information as a universal currency.”
It was on the treadmill a few days ago that I found the quiet time to ponder the Christmas vacation that had just passed. It was a song by Paul McCartney that was playing in the background that seemed to help build up my mood. My siblings and I seem to have a good thing going, and it was was a silly love song that brought emphasis to the way I was feeling.
The three of us arrived in the US in the 1980s as graduate students.Over time, we began to develop our roots in the country. We started having families. We have been meeting each other during Christmas time ever since we got here, starting to do this more regularly in the 1990s. At first, it was not something that was considered particularly important, but it did become a part of our lives, and by the turn of the century, it was already a ongoing tradition. It takes something very significant, some event with higher priority, for us to miss such a gathering these days. And even if one of us cannot be there, the others make it a point to get together. And along the way, over the years, the group that started out as the basic unit of three has grown in its size, with families, extensions of the family, and children – many, many children! And the bond between us has grown stronger as we keep the tradition going.
Those of us who were young at one time have now progressed into middle age, and a smaller subset of us are already well into the process of passing the ownership of the charge into the future on to others – those who have grown into their own. Youngsters have grown up and developed their own personalities, and their sense of being, all the time feeling the love from the extended family. And then there are the younger ones who are still in the process of coming into their own, showing the promise, and that sense of caring. They are following in the track of their older cousins. The future is in their hands.We, the siblings, for some reason or the other, remain an essential element in this slowly expanding group. It is a place we occupy joyfully. And I celebrate every moment of it because I am not sure how long this will continue.
We are not very good at coming to a decision about where we will meet any particular year. Very often, things happen hurriedly at the last minute, but it does happen. People are able to come to a consensus quickly once the process gets going, and further plans for these trips are in the works pretty soon after that. There is really no agenda that any particular person wishes to push hard. So things have been going smoothly thus far. And love is in the air as people once again reconnect, spend time with each other, and renew their bonds. Other than a couple of birthdays, and the Christmas celebration, there is nothing significant planned during these trips these days. But even those few events we celebrate together take on additional significance every year.
Very often, we tend to gather on the seashore. We can go to the beach, or chill out by the pool, or read a book, or play cards, or listen to music, or go for a walk or a run, or take pictures of the sunrise or sunset. We can have time to ourselves, or organically congregate into little groups that wander off for walks and catch-up time. Any time of day is good for some of these activities. It is all mellow! Someone or the other seems to step up to take care of the needs. Cooking dinners is what seems to require the most planning these days, but there may already be a new tradition underway in this regard.
At this time in my life, I am content to push back and watch the action, and the love and fellowship that is shared when we gather in our little corner of the world at the end of the year, where ever that may be. I do not have to worry, and I just am.
It would take a lot for me to miss this one of these events these days.
There is something about the nature of the hills and the mountains that has drawn me to them over the years. I am not sure how this happened. My first remembrance of such feelings was when I would visit my aunt and her family in the hills of the Western Ghats in Kerala. From the front porch of their house, in what was then the little village of Dhoni, one could see a hilltop that was untouched by development. We, the children that we were, made one or two explorations into the hills, trying to follow the informal trails that other like-minded people had created over time.
Years later, I still feel like reliving that feeling, and that moment in time, but the world has probably changed in the meantime for the people of Dhoni and Palakkad. Also near my aunt’s house was another forested hilltop which was a part of the forest reserve lands of the State of Kerala. I never made it there, but it has always been a part of my imagination. I am not sure exactly what lay there, and what remains now.
It was only as a graduate student that I was finally able to actually respond to the call of the hills. We were able to drive from the university to the Bear Mountain area in New York State for day hikes. About four or five miles of hiking and we would be completely exhausted because we were completely out of shape. But it felt really great, especially relaxing with a bottle or two of beer after the whole effort.
And then there was the downhill skiing that I discovered when in graduate school. When you are standing on top of the mountain – with the wide open snow-covered slopes lined with evergreens in front of you, with a panoramic view of the landscape all around, with the little chalet that is your destination way, way, down below you, you are in a kind of heaven on earth. As you prepare to launch yourself off the flat top and on to the slope, you take a measure of the nature of the challenge, and the slope that you are about the conquer. As you start your way down the hill, the exhilaration increases to the next level. You have a smile on your face and you are whooping with happiness as you speed downhill (carefully!) – even as the icy cold wind blows across your face and freezes the tears that flow from your eyes.
I ski very rarely these years – there is a chance that the joints will not take the pounding. But I am absolutely certain that if I were to get to the top of that hill on my skis the feeling of happiness will be renewed instantly, even if it is for a short while. It would be as if I was experiencing all of the thrill of skiing, and of the mountaintop, once again for the first time.
I was diagnosed with CAD many years ago, and at that time I had to undergo a couple of procedures to address the problem. A good friend from childhood called me then to chat and cheer me up. We were talking about possible restrictions on my lifestyle in the future, and he mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that perhaps I would not be able to climb mountains like the Himalayas in the future. My response was – why not?! My response was not based on reality, but even if I do not make it to the Himalayas themselves, there are plenty of other doable challenges all over the world.
Meanwhile, the mountains continue to call. Every time I see a picture of a mountain, I wonder if there is a way to get to the top. (And I mean get to the top on foot! Driving a car to the top of a mountain, however high the mountain may be, is not as much fun!) And every single time I go to a national park, I get the urge to see and experience that trail in the park that can lead to the top of its highest peak. Of course, that does not happen most of the time these days due to many reasons. And even I know the risks of trying to tackle a trail like the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park. (I do have a natural fear (perhaps healthy) of narrow open spaces at great heights. My knees get weak even looking at the pictures!)
But the good thing is that I am still able to hike today. And I can walk a trail, and climb the hills, for miles and miles – to get to the highest destination, that mountain top where my expansive view of the world awaits.
I have to continue to answer the call of the mountaintop until I am physically unable.
It a was a windy morning in Destin, Florida, and God was quite cranky. The citizens had been partying too much last night, and it had taken all his efforts to keep things in order. Besides, this was one of those nights he felt like it would have been nice to take a nap. Even God needed a break!
But there were things that needed to get done. Those humans were incapable of taking care of themselves. Where is my coffee, he roared! (You know, God always roars when he is in a bad mood!)
The angels were afraid to respond, but there was one who was concerned about the bad things the would happen if God did not have his coffee. Angel Norah knew that if she did not do something there would be a storm that would destroy everything in the town of Destin, even its wonderful white beaches. There would be thunder and rain, and a wind that would shake the very ground that the trees and buildings stood on. The citizens of Destin could be in for a boatload of trouble.
The Angel Norah rose to the occasion. She knew that decaf would not be good enough this morning. (And God also loved his cream and sugar!) And the coffee had to be fresh. The decoction coffee from the previous evening would not do. She found the percolator, and some fair-trade coffee from the Congo, the best coffee there was! An extra spoon of coffee powder went into the machine and, also, a special filter that was supposed to have magical qualities.
The coffee brewed while God tried to shake the cobwebs away, grumbling to himself all the while. Those crazy humans. He wished he had never created them. They had been nothing but trouble so far!
The coffee was ready, finally! Angel Norah looked for a cup to pour it into. It had to be big enough for God. She felt that he needed a lot of caffeine that morning. The coffee cup with the picture of the tasmanian devil was the biggest one around, but Angel Norah did not wish to get God even angrier. After all, he hated the devil in all its forms. So, she settled for the cup that said “Have a nice day”, hoping that it would put God in a better mood.
The coffee was poured. Some skim milk was added. (Whole milk was out of the question. God had to watch his weight!) Angel Norah looked for the brown sugar. She could not find it. She would have to settle for the regular refined kind. But even that was hard to find. Darn, she said! (Angels have to be careful about using swear words, you see.) There was only Splenda around. That would have to do.
God was still mumbling to himself when Angel Norah brought his coffee to him. Her hands shaking, she handed a full cup. God took a sip from the steaming cup. He had been looking forward to this. A strange look came upon his face. It began to turn to purple. Sparks began to fly from his beard. Lightning shot into the sky from his hair. I fear the Splenda was not to his liking.
He turned his head and spit the coffee into the Gulf. He threw the rest of the coffee into the water. The pelicans flew out of the way of the falling coffee. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico turned to brown. The waves rose angrily and raced towards the shore, and washed the brown water on to the beaches of Destin. And the white sand turned to brown! And people who were walking on the beach (those that had not partied the previous night and caused all these problems) wondered what was going on on.
But, you and I know that this is what happens when you make God angry and he spills his coffee!
My first encounter with a paper shredder was at my first place of work. It did not take too long for me, a person who had just become a full-time working stiff, to figure out that the device could also fit nicely into my, then still nascent, ideas for managing paperwork at home.
Consumer models for paper shredders have been around for many years. Since it is a mechanical device that suffers constant wear and tear, I have run through and destroyed many of them over the years. And then, recently, I encountered an industrial strength paper shredder at my brother’s place, a shredder that was capable of shredding over 20 pages at a time! And I felt a little “shredder envy!” Further contemplation on the topic of paper shredders continued at home later as I was getting rid of a whole lot of papers using my relatively itsy-bitsy paper shredder. I considered how my structured use of this device over the years had ended up being a reflection on my general approach to the organization of things in life in general.
These days I use a paper shredder mostly to get rid of old paper documentation that I feel is not needed anymore. I have a tendency to keep documents for a certain amount of time and then discard them as more recent versions of those documents make it into my paper filing system. The nature of these documents in itself would say a lot about my personality. I know a lot of people would not even think about saving the kinds of information I do on paper, and even if they did save such information, doing so in a process similar to mine.
You may ask, why not just throw away this stuff. Why shred? In fact, I would have discarded things of this nature directly in the recycling bin in the past, but I prefer to use the shredder first these days to make sure that some of the more sensitive documents do not fall into the wrong hands by mistake. It has become a habit to shred almost everything.
What are the kinds of things I tend to save? Some of them are historical in the context of personal and family life. These could perhaps have some kind of sentimental and nostalgic value going forward. I have stuff in the basement from when I went to graduate school. I have kept both notebooks and textbooks. I don’t know how much longer I will keep them. I have many other books, both works for fiction and non-fiction, that I will probably not read again, but which I hesitate to get rid of at this point. One still saves letters and notes of different kinds from the past if they were special. This kind of material, in general, tends not to be discarded. Then I have the financial stuff which stays with me because of my tendency to try to be organized, sometimes excessively so. I try to do as much as I can to minimize uncertainty. Then there are the other important documents related to the official business of managing life here in the US in general – information about all kinds of accounts, benefits, taxes, insurance, etc…
I do tend to balance this tendency of mine to accumulate stuff that may or may not be useful in the future with the realization at some point or the other along the line that I may never look at this some of this stuff. The first thing that got discarded on a mass scale in my life were the hundreds of journals and technical papers from the early years of my career. In retrospect, I think I had the good sense to realize the uselessness of storing this stuff even early in my career. I had moved on.
As I mentioned before, many official documents end up going through my shredder after being saved for a certain period of time in a filing system that may be difficult for others to figure out. Different kinds of documents also survive in this filing system for different periods of time that I decide, many times somewhat arbitrarily, and then they get shredded.
While the purpose of saving most of my documents in paper form is to make sure I have the information contained in them if and when needed, the reality is that I seldom look at these documents. There is some other mental process going on, perhaps a sense of security that may or may not be justified, that causes me to put things away for possible use in the future. Besides, these days, one can also archive most of this information on the computer, perhaps “forever”, with relatively less concern about use of storage space. But I have reached a certain comfort zone at this point in life with what I am doing. One falls back to the processes that have kept you going. I continue with my system of organization and the use of the paper shredder.
The process of shredding can actually give you a good feeling of completion, and of moving on, when you are done with it. If you can physically complete a task to the satisfying sounds of the shredder, then it is truly over! A physical action has been taken from which there is no retreat. The sound of the machine when it is in action is also a satisfying one. In the end, you feel you are rid of the old (even if it is not really true), and you move on to the next item on your list. There is some sense of satisfaction. It has become a comforting habit.
The kicker in all of this is that I am also pretty good at saving most of the above information on my computer. And there are other places to go to grab some of this information even I do not have it on myself all the time. So, perhaps, the utility of most of what I am doing and achieving is questionable. But this kind of a feeling is also true of a lot of other things we do in life. Que sera sera..
It is not that I have run out of ideas, but I find myself recently unable to find some quiet time for the mind. I have become quite distracted in recent days. So, I am resorting to posting an old email that I had sent to family and friends a long time ago when I used to volunteer in the furniture program at our church. We used to pick up furniture that people wanted to give away and deliver it to the homes of needy people. I wrote the following.
I am sorry folks, but I have gotten the bug! I cannot stop writing, even if there is not much to say. I wake up on the weekends with the neurons clicking in my brain, with phrases forming in the head that I want to put down. What is one supposed to do? The good thing is that you can always trash my e-mails, electronically speaking that is, if they are full of junk.
Woke up today, Sunday morning, to the white of winter and the sight of snow gently falling all around the house. Truth be told, my first instinct was that this whole winter business was getting old, it was getting to be a big pain in the rear rend – this was getting me down, making me sick (middle of last week), and also getting in the way of things that one wanted to do. I have not been able to run for three weekends already (but then again, what is three weekends in a year, or a year in a lifetime). Although one is missing the quietening and balancing effects of the outdoors, one will definitely survive, although in a crabbier mood than usual, with the crabbiness factor increasing exponentially as time passes. I was also supposed to go out to perform at a music show this afternoon – that’s right, innocent people were going to pay to hear me sing, and I was thinking of the pain of driving in these conditions. (That show has since been cancelled because of the weather.)
What then has changed my mood? I was looking out into the backyard through the patio doors, just watching the white stuff come down – it was a steady fall, not the big thick flakes that float around and make people go “Ooooh” and “Aaaah”! The snow was heavy and wet – it made the work of shoveling the driveway later more difficult. A white layer had formed on the branches of the trees and the nets that I have around the plants, and you could see that some of the smaller branches were bending over with the weight of the water. I caught sight of a squirrel scurrying across the snow – a black figure bouncing about on a pure white background. It was hopping along, occasionally stopping to look around, and then heading off in a new direction. Soon after, I saw another squirrel. It did not seem to mind the snow either. Then, there was the red breasted bird sitting on one of the leafless trees behind our property. Even though it was small, the bright red on the grey and white background could not be missed. As I became more aware, I noticed that there was another small bird with a head of black (black capped Chickadee???) on the tree just next to the house. Looking up into the sky I could sight a couple of birds headed southwest, gliding through the sky and through the falling snow (how does that feel, I wonder?). Life is still going on as usual all around us….
The next part of this e-mail is not meant for the faint of heart, or for the children who may be misled by the misdeeds of supposedly mature adults. Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. This was one of these occasions!
I helped with the furniture program yesterday. Pat Byrnes sent me out with Dan Q., in Dan’s pickup truck. The mission was to pick up a sofa and a love seat. This was the first time I was meeting Dan Q. – a young white man, clean shaven and thin lipped, hair on the head completely shaved off, wearing wraparound sunglasses, and speaking with a strange accent that I could not place – looked tough! We arrive at this home and pick up a really nice sofa and love-seat set. These are loaded into the back of the open pickup truck, and we pull ropes over from one side to the other over the furniture to make sure everything is securely in place. The cushions are stuffed into crevices to make sure that they do not fly off, and the throws (smaller cushions that you throw over the sofa) have been secured in garbage bags which have been shoved under the ropes. Dan says that he will drive carefully. I did not realize then that “carefully” was a relative term. About half a mile into the trip back to the storage area, Dan informs me that one of the garbage bags has fallen off. Luckily there is no traffic since we have not hit the main road yet. I pop out of the passenger seat, run back, grab the bag, and stuff it back more securely into the back (or so I thought). Off we go once again. We are now on a busier road, Route 118, and Dan is driving “carefully” once again. As we pull up to the traffic light just after the Interstate 270 overpass, we hear desperate honking behind us. A van pulls up beside us – you lost one of your bags, we are informed by the driver. So Dan makes a U-turn (carefully!) at the light and we head back. There, in the middle of the busy road, on one of the lanes carrying traffic in the opposite direction, is our garbage bag. As we prepare to make the next U-turn to pick up the bag, I notice that our second bag is also on the road, further along the way. We have lost all our throws! It was just amazing that nobody had yet driven over the garbage bags. Further defensive (or perhaps, in the opinion of some people, offensive) moves are made. Dan pulls up in the middle of the road, and Mr. Joseph has to get out of the truck to pick up the bags. Timing was critical in these maneuvers, and Mr. Joseph performed admirably. The passenger door of the truck had to be pulled open with perfect timing to make sure that it was not taken apart by traffic in the next lane. Mr. Joseph proceeded quickly, and with surprising dexterity, to carry out his mission and make sure that both he and the garbage bags returned to the truck in one piece. The throws made it back to the storage center in the cab of the truck and on my lap – I would not have needed an air bag if Dan Q. had gotten us into a pickle (which would not have been surprising considering the way he was driving). That was my adventure for the day – risking life and limb for a noble cause!! Actually, I have spiced this write up a bit – the traffic was rather light and it was not really that dangerous. Do not worry…..
It turns out that Dan Q is an armed security guard. It is a job he was forced to take after he lost his original job with Verizon many years ago. He is trying to get top secret clearance so that he can get a better job in the government. He intends to complete his master’s degree along the way. He has ambitions. Meanwhile he is also investing in real estate and selling mortgages. He has formed a Limited Liability Company with his wife (now, where have I heard a similar story?). His father was a Chemical Engineer who worked for the government. Dan is from Eastern Maryland – hence his accent. He thinks that the war in Iraq is a big mistake. (There is still hope for America!) That is one more memorable person/character I have met through the furniture program. I do not know if I will get to ride with him again.
I should stop here. This has gotten longer than I wished it to be.
A must for the young ones, and for the ones who are young at heart! Make some quiet time for yourself, find a place to lay back and relax, and give it a listen.