Incomprehensible

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For some reason, as I get older, the logic of the human condition appears to me to be more and more absurd. It seems to me that we exist in a system of our own making that makes less and less sense. As might be expected, we tend to fall into the rhythm of an existence which is primarily defined by the environment around us. Such an existence is most often being followed by people around us, and so we are comfortable with it. In existing in this state some of what we do is based on habit, some of it is just following what others do, and some is based on what other people impress on us as being an essential element in our way of life and the way we are supposed to behave as humans. But, while all of this could give us some sense of direction and comfort, and also create an environment where each one can experience his or her own state of being, and a way of living, most of this framework is created completely by the hands of humans, by history, by the vision of a few folks, by technology, and in many cases, just by circumstances. It tends to create a situation where one can go with the flow and you do not have to make an effort to think.

Most people think they know “the truth” and apply that “truth” universally. It takes too much effort to get out of such a mindset. In most cases it is because we are completely immersed in their situation of today, accepting the culture and the social wisdom of the day in our experiences of the world without even thinking. But this has to be a false sense of being. While we might believe in some basic truths while living here in the US, the basic truths could actually look very different for a person living in another culture and in another country. Put another way, we live in the circumstances that we are placed in today and accept it as a “fundamental” truth, not even stopping to think that our fundamental truth is actually different from some other person’s fundamental truth, and not even stopping to consider whether a fundamental truth is really that fundamental.   We get trapped in the ego of our own experiences and think that we know everything, and we strongly believe that we are in the right. Propaganda works very well under such circumstances because we are unable to recognize a different kind of reality.

Then there is the concept of the society, an attempt for people to live together as little pieces of a larger social organism. As it becomes bigger, the organism becomes more complex. This complexity is partly possible because of technology, one of the products of “human intelligence”. But, as was mentioned to me recently by somebody wise, technology perhaps has the ability to be helpful, but does not provide the solutions to the problems of the world unless used properly. It is true that more and more humans are able to live together and become more “efficient” and “capable” because of the tools that technology provides, but at what cost.   We always find more ways to compete and be destructive using any new technology. We almost always find ways to exploit the systems in place for ourselves. Inequalities always seem to increase, and people are still hungry and lack in basic needs.  This effect is multiplied many times as you expand your vision from the limits of your own small community to the expanse of the whole world. In spite of belonging to a social organism, with many connections, people seem to be primarily on the lookout for themselves, while at the same time our ability to contemplate the bigger picture of the world we live in seems to fade further and further away and even become non-existent. We are on a course of positive feedback that seems to create more real problems even as it tries to address issues and advance humanity. This process will eventually result in destruction, even if the uncontrollable forces of the universe do not get us to that point first. We are stuck on a road to some unknown place.

I am not convinced that what we humans are about on this earth is actually a good thing. We are managing to increase our footprint on the planet in many ways, but there is no real objective for the whole exercise.  Should the extension of knowledge and the use of technology always have an objective of trying to extend what we are able to do, and also trying to control more and more of our surroundings? We can tend to be blatantly destructive in many of our actions even when we think we are doing what is right for the big picture, and we can also blind ourselves to certain aspects of this big picture. What is our ultimate goal? Are we trying to leave the world a better place than when we arrived? Are we trying to better the lives of people of the world? Are we trying to better the lives of people just around us? Or are we only thinking about ourselves?

Under the circumstances it seems that the best most of us can do is to just try to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in and follow the crowd for the most part. That is understandable. But it would be a shame if we do not also think for ourselves and act accordingly. And it would be a mistake to think that we have all the answers for things other than our own, immediate, condition. And I think it would also be a mistake for us to think that we are not ourselves contributing to the problems of the world in our own way by following the crowd.

The Young Einstein

Sometimes it is not a good thing if you are referred to by the above name.

The year was 1985. I was a young lad who had just completed his graduate studies. I had survived for five years living as a graduate student assistant on a pittance, and was now being let loose with a PhD into the real world. I had no clue what I was in for, but I went with the flow.   I owned almost nothing at that point in my life.

Arriving at my new digs in in a new state I pondered the empty apartment and my new existence. I needed to buy stuff! I was also in need of an automobile to drive to work. Looking at the car pages in the newspapers I got it into my head that I needed to get myself a certain type of car. The research I did in this regard was minimal. These were the days before the Internet. It was all based on instinct. The car had to have a manual gear shifting capability because that was the “real” way to drive cars. Those were the days.

I needed to wait a few months before I had enough money to put down for a down payment for a car. While looking around, I ended up at a dealership in the upper part of the state. The black Cordia in the dealership’s showroom seemed to be a good deal, a good balance between sportiness and price. Then it was time to talk to one of the salesman about buying the car. Boy, was I clueless!

Salesmen at car dealerships make their money on commissions. The objective is to sell as many cars as possible for as high a price as possible. The first guy I talked to was somewhat new to the job. When I started talking prices with him, it got to the point where he decided to go to his superior. I don’t know if this was because the numbers I was using were ridiculous, or whether he thought I was a tough customer. The guy who he handed me off to was a veteran.

I started bargaining with the guy without any idea about what I was getting myself into. I got completely confused by the fact that car dealerships actually advertised monthly cost for leasing a vehicle in the newspapers, whereas I was looking for a monthly cost for repayment of loans for purchasing the vehicle.  I had started off on the wrong foot. At some point we started talking about interest rates for loans. This gentleman (using the term loosely) showed me some numbers for the expected monthly payment based on different down payments and terms for the loan. Because of my deep sense of suspicion I convinced myself that these guys were pulling wool over my eyes and coming up with numbers to bamboozle me. After all, this conversation had digressed from the cost of the car, into one that involved many other parameters.

As I mentioned before, these were the days before the Internet. There was no website at which I could plug in the different numbers and come up with a monthly payment for a loan. I went back to my apartment and proceeded to write down the equations that one would use to calculate the monthly payment for a loan. I plugged in the inputs, used my calculator, and came up with the outputs.

I went back to the car dealership to show them that they were actually selling me the car for a higher price by focusing on the monthly payments and playing with numbers related to the loan itself. I showed them how the calculations worked. The guys looked flabbergasted! I am pretty sure none of them had the intellectual capacity to understand the math involved. The response I remember clearly was being called an “Einstein”.  I guess it is to their credit that they knew about Einstein, but they clearly did not mean this in a complementary way. They shuffled off to a back room to talk it over.

I did end up buying the car without feeling too bad about the price I was paying for it, and I enjoyed driving my black Cordia (with a stick shift!) for many years. But the circumstances of that transaction have not vanished from memory. I might have had a PhD at that time but I was totally clueless about the ways of the world. Anyone with any sense should have known that showing how I had arrived at my conclusions did not matter one whit. What really mattered was that you had the numbers to work with, and, more importantly, the ability to make a convincing argument. I had little ability to negotiate, and perhaps I could have made my point without being a young Einstein.

Many years have passed and my hair has now turned to grey.   This memory reminds me of how green I was those days.

The Butterfly that came to Lunch

It was the second day of our visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. We had just completed a hike that turned out to be more strenuous than expected. The hike had started at the old and abandoned town of Elkmont, and we had followed The Little River trail upstream to its intersection with the Huskey Gap Trail. On our way back we decided to take the detour via The Cucumber Gap Trail to make our walk a “loop”. This trail turned out to have some unexpected challenges. There was a steady climb during the first part of the trail that did not seem to end, and we had to also deal with a somewhat challenging crossing of the Husky Branch stream along the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn any case, we arrived back at Elkmont a little later than expected experiencing some hunger pangs, both due to the nature of the workout that we had gotten that morning, and because we had completed the hike somewhat later than originally expected. It was well past lunch time. In spite of the urge to gobble up some food immediately, we decided to find a place on the road to Cades Cove, beside the river, for lunch.  It was a beautiful day and the crowds had yet to arrive in large volumes in this part of the park. We easily found a place beside the road to park our car, and then step down to the river side to have our lunch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe orange Eastern Comma butterfly caught my eye immediately as I navigated the slope from the road to the river.  Butterflies had been rare up to this point during the trip and this one was also colorful. (It made sense that butterflies were scarce since it was still early in Spring.) As the others climbed down to the rocks to a spot beside the river to enjoy their lunch, I paused. I got some pictures as the butterfly flitted around and paused for an instant or two to rest on some surface or other. I followed its flight carefully.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEventually the butterfly got attracted by the track suit I was wearing. Perhaps it was the color and sheen of the fabric. It parked itself on my blue pants while I attempted, unsuccessfully, to try to take its picture. I even changed lenses, but I was having difficulty focusing on the butterfly at this short distance while zooming in on it.  The butterfly hung around on my track suit through all my attempts at picture-taking. It would take flight every once in a while, but then it would return to me.

I finally gave up and climbed down the rocks to join the others who were enjoying their lunch and grabbed a sandwich for myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe butterfly followed me to lunch.

As I savored my tuna salad sandwich (that tasted quite delicious especially after the extensive activities of the morning), the butterfly settled on one of the backpacks that we were carrying.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt kept us company through lunch, and may have even returned to my track suit once or twice to take a look at something or the other.

We enjoyed our lunch on the banks of the Little River in peace, to the unending, calming, roar of the waters slamming on to the rocks, surrounded by the beauty of nature, and with the little butterfly hanging out with us.  I wished the moment could go on forever…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we were relaxing and enjoying ourselves, I observed a little bird flying from tree to tree on the other side of the river, stopping occasionally to take a look at the people beside the river.  Wonder what was going on in its little brain?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI explored the area where we were relaxing for a little while looking for other things to photograph.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then it was time to leave the beautiful spot and the butterfly that came to lunch.

The Hair Stylist (12.11.2004)

Saturday morning dawns cold and wet.  The work week is over and it is time to kick back for a couple of days.  No furniture program today since Pat did not call me yesterday.  I am on my way to Shoppers Food Store at 8:00am to do the weekly grocery shopping.  A cold light drizzle falls as I speed along Great Seneca Highway.  Determined runners brave the wet weather and the sting of the rain drops as they jog on the sidewalks beside the highway.     The black lady who is jogging is wearing a brilliant yellow jacket – it catches the eye.  Jazz of the bluesy and gospel kind plays on the radio from the local college PBS station….

The day is just beginning and it promises to be a busy one.  The kids have choir practice and Angela sings at the 5:00 pm mass.  Christmas cards need to be worked on, and the house needs to be cleaned.

At the Hair Cuttery, the oriental woman cutting my hair keeps up a chatter as I stare blindly into the mirror – I cannot see without my glasses.  It seems that she likes coffee very much.   The rather one-sided conversation turns to the days of the week that she works.  She takes Tuesdays and Wednesday’s off and works the weekends.  Her work (and that of the other stylists with Hair Cuttery) is on a contractual basis.  That probably means that they do not get any benefits.  She used to work on “Electronics”.  It seems she worked at HNS assembling DIRECTV settop boxes for a short stretch.   Her bosses were slave-drivers and the place was a sweat shop, she informs me.  I am not surprised.  I now empathize with the woman.  Here is another life story unfolding.

I drive to Michaels to pick up some picture frames.  At the check-out counter, the woman in front of me drops everything from her bag on the floor by mistake and goes “s–t”.  She quickly realizes where she is, and apologizes.  I am smiling…

At Lowes, where I stopped to pick up some picture hangers, the small dog (looks like a Pomeranian) is in the car parked next to mine and is barking excitedly as it vigorously wags its tail.  I am smiling, and so is the Indian couple who just exited their car….

The radio station has now shifted to funk and disco.  “Let’s get on the train and ride..” says the DJ as he takes calls from listeners.

Don’t know where all this smiling is coming from.  This is the moment, this is the now, this is the here!  Lets get this show on the road.  Party on dude!!

kuria

Postscript – I wrote this in 2004 when I was helping out on Saturdays with the furniture program at the church.  We would pick up furniture from the houses of people who were giving it away, and deliver furniture to the houses of people in need.  There was some heavy lifting involved.  I was told that the truck used for this purpose is still with he church, but that it is  in very bad shape.  This was also well before I discovered my CAD.

The fisherman

The Man Who Ticked off the Indians

This person has PO’ed just about everybody around him. He is young and he goes about his job with a sense of zeal that does not seem to recognize boundaries that an older, more experienced, person would pay heed to. He reminds me of some people I know.  Love him or hate him, he is a character who leaves an impression. Follow this link for the complete story.

In The Mood

Many of you know that we visited The Great Smoky National Park in Tennessee during the week of March 15th. It was a great all-around experience for the family.   It was the time for us to get away to spend some “quality” time all together in a quiet place. The girls came home from college for this trip. The only real activity planned was to hike the trails of the park together, keeping to ourselves in general.

We walked the pathways in three different parts of the park over a period of three days. The weather stayed good for all of these hikes, and it rained only on the day we were returning. The three hikes were in three different kinds of settings, with three somewhat different types of terrain encountered, and natural surroundings experienced.  All of the hikes were challenging, with an approximately 2300 foot climb straight up a mountainside to a waterfall called Ramsey Cascades capping our efforts on the last day. Awesome! Pictures of the hikes will appear online at Pbase more slowly, and I may even write more about our outdoor experiences on this blog site, but this posting is primarily about what I was able to see from the place that we stayed at for four nights in the town of Gatlinburg.

Here is an excerpt from the review I wrote for the benefit of the owners of the place we stayed at:

This condo, located on top of a hill, and facing downtown Gatlinburg and the ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance, was a great find for us. It is a quiet location from which you can sit by the window, or lounge on the balcony, and meditate over nature and its different moods from the comfort of your home. You have an unobstructed view of an expansive scenery laid out in front of you. Imagine yourself sitting beside the window quietly reading a book. Having some interest in photography, I got some wonderful shots under wildly varying conditions – day and night, morning and evening, cloudy and sunny. Just a note that in order to enjoy this wonderful experience, you will have to drive up and down some winding mountain roads with plenty of hairpin bends and steep slopes. It will not bother you if you have a sense of adventure. It could be a little nerve-racking the first time, but you do get used to it. (Plenty of people live in these hills!)

All I am going to do in this post is show you some of the pictures I took from the place that we stayed at. (Click through the pictures to view them in their full size.)  I will be posting more pictures at Pbase.

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When Inspiration Strikes

I have found that moments of inspiration do not happen too often for me. And when such moments strike, I need to make an effort to do something about it quickly. If not the moment is lost. The worst that can happen is that you forget about the subject that got you excited originally.   The other possibility is that you end up thinking more and more about the subject and decide that it was not so inspiring after all. You end up making a judgement about something without even trying. You could end up fooling yourself. I say this from experience.

So it is with the way I write. There is that eureka moment when I think to myself that I have something to say, and if the moment lasts, I can get it on paper. But if I do not do anything about it, it could be a moment lost. You have to give it a shot even if you sometimes end up with something uninteresting, uninspiring, and off the wall.

I had such a moment last week where I did not get a chance to act on my instinct. But this time the thought, that spark in my imagination, persisted at the back of my mind. I do not know what will be lost in the delayed translation, but I am about to put the thoughts down on the virtual page.

It happened one Thursday, the day after an impressive snowstorm hit town. It had snowed the whole day on Wednesday. People had stayed home from work since no attempts were being made during the storm to clear the local roads.   I decided the next morning that I should drive the Subaru to Great Falls on the Potomac River to see how things looked after the storm. It was bitterly cold that day, and the roads were not in the best of shape, but that was not about to stop me. I dropped Teresa off at her place of work before heading out.

On the way to the park, at a gas station (petrol bunk?) where I had stopped to fill up on petrol, I ran into the building rubbing my frozen fingers (through which I could not feel anything) and enquired about using the restroom. The woman looked at me somewhat blankly, and wordlessly pointed me to a door with no sign on it. I tried the door a little warily since there were a bunch of cops standing around for some reason or another. The door did not open. I turned around and headed quickly back to the car before I could get into trouble with the law. But I still needed to pee. (As some can attest, the cold does that to me often!)

So it was that I ended up at the Burger King on Shady Grove Road looking around desperately for a restroom.   Once in the facilities, I proceeded to take care of business. But it was after that moment of relief that the moment of inspiration took place. My zipper got stuck!   No amount of effort would make the darned thing move. Things were made worse by the fact that I had not yet completely recovered sensation in my fingers. Since I had encountered the situation of the stuck zipper once before and had managed to resolve it, I knew that there was a solution. But it appeared that the solution was not going to present itself immediately. The long jacket that I was wearing provided a perfect cover as I slunk out of the facility with my front unzipped.

But the moment of inspiration was not specific to a stuck zipper, something that in itself is quite amusing. The inspiration was to write about my experiences with buying clothes, more specifically pants that fit me, while I have lived in the US.   It is this ongoing adventure that had brought me to this particular moment in the restroom at Burger King.

I came to the United States in 1980 as one skinny kid. I was most certainly underweight by American standards. Back in India there was no issue with getting clothes that fit you because the normal practice in those days was to get them stitched to your size. This was certainly not the case in the US. However, that having been said, I did not really have an issue with pant sizes during those early days.   The natives of this land may have been bigger than me in general, but not big enough that they did not make pants in my size. A statistician might say that my waist size was just a few standard deviations off the mean waist size, and this justified the vendors actually creating pants in my size. And perhaps vendors were more willing to cater to people who did not meet the “average”.

But things slowly started to change. I began to have more difficulty finding pants that fit me. I think there were two factors in play. One was that the manufacturers were tightening up their production to try to cater more to the customers who had waist sizes closer to the average. The other factor was that Americans were becoming bigger around the waist in general. I could find something that fit me, but it took a lot of searching.   It did help (in a sense) that I began to put on weight during those days. (This phenomenon of putting on weight was something that used to happen to a lot of people who moved from India to the US.)   But I would also guess that my rate of increase of girth did not quite match some impressive achievements by some other people from the Indian subcontinent in this regard. While others kept up and could get pants in their size, I was always on the threshold.

And then something else changed. I began to lose weight once again. This time it was because I was forced to try to do so because of my health. This turns out to be a mixed blessing when it comes to matters of clothing. While my waist size continues to drop, the general population is trending in the other direction. Getting proper fitting clothes has become an issue with both shirts and pants. During the last few years, on more than a few occasions, I have bought pants that I knew were too loose. I did this because I had no other choice. I have become dependent on the use of a belt. My hope was that the loose shirts I was wearing would hide the fact that the pants were scrunched up and tightened around the waist to a size less than what they were designed for.

As a last resort, I have started looking for pants in the “young men” sections of stores. I have started looking online knowing that warehouses are most likely to stock fringe sizes. (Buying clothes online is risky endeavor for other reasons.)   After a long search I recently managed to find something that seemed to work in the kids section of a department store. The problem is that the cut of the pants in this section is different from what I am used to since the product is targeted towards a different demographic. It seems that kids wear their pants quite low and tight these days, perhaps to emphasize certain aspects of their physique. The crotch area is snug to say the least, and it takes quite an effort to attend to nature’s call quickly. When you are in a semi-public place and when your fingers are frozen from the cold, it gets more interesting. Somehow the design of the front-end is optimized for looks rather than purpose. And if the zipper has a tendency to catch, the situation becomes all the more interesting, leading to moments of inspiration!

I can tell you of another amusing incident with regards to pants that do not fit. I was wearing this pair of jeans than had fit me reasonably well in the past but had become quite loose around the waist. Since it was quite old, I had decided to wear it in the working environment at Manna where it was likely to get dirty and/or ripped up. But fortune (or misfortune, depending on the way you look at things) had another adventure in store for me. My belt broke while I was working. The pants were loose enough that they could have slipped completely off my waist. It was an emergency situation!   I looked around for something I could use as a replacement for the belt. Luckily I was able to find a plastic strap that had been cut off one of the boxes. I did not want to walk through the warehouse holding my pants up with one hand, and holding a strap in the other. I found a quiet corner of the facility close to where I was working where I could do the required re-engineering, managed to tie the strap around my waist with a bow in front. I got through the day without losing my pants!

And so the search for a solution to the problem of oversized pants continues. I was lucky very recently to find a department store where they had a pair of pants in the adult section in an abnormally small size, smaller than anything I had seen anywhere else. Hopefully the store will not go out of business, the store will continue to sell that particular product, and specifications for that product will also not change. I will find out the next time I need new pants whether there is still hope for me in the future.

And so I have come to the end of my delayed effort to recreate the moment of inspiration. I do not know if this has been a successful effort, but I have to admit that I did enjoy writing this little piece.

Catch you later….

Here is a picture taken during my trip out that day.

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