Monday, June 30, 2014

Parting is such sweet sorrow ... the fascinating real life

"You can write or read during the nearly five-hour train ride" the business thinker said as he graciously drove me to the train station.

Sounds logical. But, I don't read or write when on the train.  Rarely ever on the plane either.  Definitely nothing serious.  Perhaps I read a newspaper (no, not that newspaper.)

"I simply watch the landscape and the people.  Real life is fascinating" I told him.

This train ride was no exception.

A young woman stood on the platform wiping with her handkerchief the tears from her eyes.  When her hand was freed from the eyes, she blew kisses to the young man who was seated across from me, a row in between us.

We men do not have the luxury that females have when it comes to displaying emotions.  Women cry at airports and train stations and the world is ok with it.  If we men showed that kind of emotions, then even most women won't give us a second look!  We act tough only to attract the female kind!

It seemed that the young man was trying his best to keep the emotions under check.  He kept miming her to get going.  She continued with the air kisses.  He then texted her something--I think it was to her that he texted.  She looked down, which I assume was at her phone, and then looked up and smiled at him and blew kisses his way.

The train started moving.
Tears flowed down her cheeks as she waved.
She walked with the train.
And then she jogged along.

That was the last I saw her.

The older I get, the more I feel troubled by the sight of a young woman in tears.  Perhaps I see my daughter in every young woman.  I am willing to bet that no normal father can watch even a minute of his daughter's cries.

The young man sat transfixed for a while.  I was tempted to go up to him and tell him it is all ok.  But then we are men.  I sat where I sat, and he sat where he sat.  If I had a son, would my reactions be different, I wonder.

Had I been reading, I would have missed out on all these.  I will any day bear witness to the Juliets blowing kisses to their Romeos.

But then there are moments when I am convinced that reading is a much better option.

Had I been reading, I would not have known about a middle-aged man who was digging boogers out of his nostril.  In the "executive class."  I suppose that too is real life.  A disgusting part of real life.  But then such disgusting acts make those partings all the sweeter.
Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

The train staff were worse than my aunts!

One of the most charming aspects of the train rides in India: the rhythmic "tadak, tadak" punctuated by lengthy whistle sounds from the engine.  A lifetime of memories associated with those sounds.  But, sitting inside the air-conditioned "executive class" I could hear very little of the "tadak, tadak" and not even a faint whistle sound.

Which is why I walked over to stand by the door for a few minutes and take in those sounds.  The happiness from listening to that was simply priceless.

"Tadak, tadak."

Perhaps I stood there with a big grin on my face.  The on-board railway catering staff--two guys in their late twenties--smiled back at me.  And this time I consciously smiled at them.

"Coffee, tea, sir?" asked one.  I nodded a negative.

"Tadak, tadak."

They continued to go about their business.  Noticing that I was kind of squished in by the door, thanks to the food crates stacked up there, one of the staff cleared up everything from near the other door and motioned me to take up that better real estate.

I liked those two guys.  They were systematically taking care of things and with pleasant demeanors.  I wanted to take photographs of those two, but was not sure how much it would be an imposition, and an exercise of economic privilege, if I were to ask them.  I wimped out.

"What if I took photographs of the coach, and in that process included them in the shot?" I thought to myself.  After all, the coach is a public space.

"Tadak, tadak."

I worry that I overthink things.  Maybe life is far too simpler than what I make it out to be.  But then such thinking is the only way I can exist.

I took out my camera and framed a shot of the coach through the glass door.  And clicked when one of them appeared in the view.  A little more of "tadak, tadak" and soon, I was back in my seat.  A couple of hours later, the train rolled into the station platform and my task was to locate the argumentative Indian.

Forty-eight hours later, I was on the train, to get back to Chennai.  It was the same catering staff.  "Oh hey, thanks" I said to one of them when he handed me a water bottle and a wide grin.

A little while later he came to serve hot water and instant coffee.  I was dying for coffee, even if the horrible instant version.  "A double, sir" he said with a smile and a wink, as if he read my mind that I was drooling for coffee.  I noticed that he had handed the rest only one packet each.  Boy did I need that double pack!

Soon, I was by the door to listen to "tadak, tadak."  I returned to my seat.

The catering staff set about serving soup.  I was hungry enough that I could have eaten anything.  I finished the soup and the breadstick.

The other smiling guy asked me whether I would like more soup.  I moved my hands to indicate a no.  He asked me again, and I again smiled and vocalized a no.  As I moved my hand away from the bowl, he poured more soup into my bowl.  He smiled and said something in Hindi.

His hospitality reminded of how my aunts back in the day treated our "no."  When they asked whether we wanted more food, it was not a question but an expression of their intention to serve us some more.  There was no point saying no to them--if we covered the plate, they even served on top of our fingers!  I am glad that some old traditions have not died out.

"Tadak, tadak."

(An old one, as the train gained speed out of Sengottai, where grandmother lived)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Shit, shit, shit, shit ...

I knew for certain that I had to gear up for the revenge of the cosmos.  I had outsmarted it with the train seat, and held on to my own during the stormy ride for a tie.  I just didn't know what the next challenge might be.

After a dinner of wonderfully tasty bananas--yes, that is all this healthnut had for dinner in order to compensate for a tad unhealthy lunch with old college-mates--I decided to unwind by playing a couple of rounds of bridge online.  Awful tables I was at and I quit soon after.

I turned the television on, hoping that something might be there to amuse and involve me.  It is amazing how there can be a gazillion channels and, yet, nothing to watch.

Even as I kept changing channels hoping against hope that I will land on an interesting show, everything went dark. The TV and the lights.  Even the diffused light from outside through the window curtains.  The AC was dead.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit ..." is all I think kept uttering.

Ever since old age crept up on me, which was about a decade ago (!) I always carry with me a small flashlight or a camping-style head-lamp when I travel outside the US.  This time too, the head-lamp was one of the first things I tossed into the suitcase when getting ready for the India trip.  But, the "shit, shit, shit, shit ..." was because I forgot to take that with me to Bangalore, and it was back in Chennai.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit ..."

It was pitch dark.  I didn't have my cellphone near me either.  That would have helped, not merely to place a phone call, but because it is one of those old, old cellphones that has a tiny flashlight built into it.  It is my father's, and he simply refuses to use any newer phone.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit ..."

I groped my way to the door.  Even when I had checked in, I had made a mental note of the emergency exit down from the fifth floor. I reached the door and was about to turn the handle when a thought struck me.  What if in anticipation a thug or two was waiting outside the door to thump me on the head?

I paused for a second.  But, the slight panic from the claustrophobia was worse than any potential thumping on the head.

I decided I would not slowly open the door, but surprise the heck out of whoever it was outside by quickly opening it.  That is what I did.

A minimal light was in the corridor.  Phew!  I suppose the emergency lighting system had kicked in.

And just as I relaxed at the door and took a couple of deep breaths, the lights and the TV came back on.

"Is it the real thing, or the generator?" I asked myself.

And everything went dark again.

I didn't even have time to panic.  The lights came back yet again.  I assumed that this was the real thing.

I double-locked the door.  Shut the TV off. Shut the lights off.  Felt at ease with the diffused light from the outside through the curtains.

Sriram 2: Cosmos 0.  One was a draw.

I won!

That which does not kill me makes me stronger, indeed.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

It was a dark and stormy night

"No problems, I will go back in a taxi" could easily have been my last words!

I offered to take a cab because I felt sorry for my friend who had driven: an hour-plus to pick me up, after which he drove for slightly less than half-an-hour to the restaurant; then an hour-and-a half to show me his home and for me to meet with his family.  I figured another three hours of a round-trip driving to drop me back at the hotel is the worst punishment that I could inflict on a friend, whom I was meeting after 29 years.

As I got into the taxi, a couple of raindrops fell.  I know for sure they were raindrops.  The sky had quickly darkened like during the last days of Pompeii.  I sat in, said bye, and as the car started moving, the clouds burst open sending down gallons and gallons of water.

The driver, who was probably in his late twenties, drove like any taxi driver in his late twenties.  Sudden lurches to the right or to the left whenever he thought he saw an opening to go forward amidst the chaotic traffic that was getting insanely chaotic with the rain that was not letting up.

Lightning and thunder and gusty winds.  A couple of miles in, the roads were already flooded.

The driver couldn't care about all these conditions. He picked up his cellphone and chatted with whoever it was in Kannada, which was beyond my comprehension.  Meanwhile, he shifted gears, adjusted the air-conditioning, increased/decreased the wiper speeds, and occasionally remarked something to me, which I could not understand anyway.

I am always ready to die.  But, not a painful and torturous death, which I feared awaited me that evening.

Meanwhile, pedestrians were jumping on to the road seemingly out of nowhere--after all, there were very few streetlights--and on every occasion I was convinced that the taxi would knock them down dead.  As if that weren't enough, motorcycles and scooters zoomed in from the left and the right, and sometimes continued along on the sidewalk.

It was as if I had been inserted into a videogame.  And I am not good at videogames.  The last time I played I had a little bit of youth left in me and even then I didn't care for those games.  Here I was in a videogame reality show.

I kept scanning the landscape for any bit of "I remember seeing this when going to the friend's place" but always drew a blank.  Were we going in the correct direction?  Did the cabdriver figure out I was an easy prey?

"How much more?" I asked him at one point.  He didn't know what I was asking him.  "Innum evvalo dhoorum?" I asked him in Tamil hoping that he knew at least a little bit of that language.  He did.  "10 minutes" he said.  I know India enough to know that when people say it is only ten minutes more to go, well, it is anything but ten minutes.

More urban flooding. More honking. More swerving. More road rage.

Suddenly he swung left to turn into a main road.  "Ring Road.  Kyaa hotel sir?" he asked me now in Hindi.

I, of course, had no freaking clue.  "Park Plaza" is all I replied.

A minute later, I told him, "ask somebody."  I forgot the Hindi word for "ask" else I could have said that in Hindi

He crawled, while honking at the pedestrians and autos.  I spotted the signage and pointed out to him.  The hotel was on the other side of the road, with a median in between.  "U-turn kahaan hai, sir?" he complained.  I suspect he wanted me to get down right there, and then cross the street dodging the insane traffic.  No way was I going to play that videogame.

"Go main road. Then u-turn" I used simple English.

He was not thrilled.  But he agreed.  The turn was more than a mile later.  Another mile in the other direction and we entered the hotel driveway.

Neither the cosmos nor I won this round ...
... to be continued ;)

The travails of a solo traveler

I had forgotten how busy a train station can be in India even in the early hours of the day, in the darkness of the clock barely past five.  The heat, the humidity, the crowds, the noise, and stray dogs seeming to bear witness to everything that happens, is a world away from my daily existence by the Willamette River.

"I travel to get out of my comfort zone" is one of the many responses I give students if ever they ask me about my peripatetic preferences.  Especially when the older I get, the more I seem to want to stay with the familiar and the comfortable.

Getting into the coach--the compartment, in the vernacular--was, thus, a wonderful entrance into a world of cool and quiet comfort.  An aisle seat in the direction of travel.  Phew!

I stepped out to confirm my name and seat number 51 on the chart by the door.  It was the correct train and coach.  Phew!

I settled into my spacious seat.

If everything is so well, then the cosmos might have other plans, I worried.  Experiences I have had in plenty, right from my formative years in the old country, when I have been subject to the disadvantage-of-the-young-single-male-traveler.  Almost always, I have ended up losing my seat that I would have carefully selected.

A gent about fifteen to twenty years older than me took up the seat across the aisle from me.  He asked his seatmate by the window whether he would mind trading seats with his wife.  "Number 1 is also a window seat" he said.  The guy couldn't because the rest of his travel party was in the row ahead.

I knew it was only a matter of seconds before I would be ... when I felt my left hand being tapped.

"Would you mind switching seats with my wife who is in "1"--a window seat?"

"Am sorry I can't.  I hate window seats and choose the aisle because I am a tad claustrophobic."

"Oh, that's ok."

"But, tell you what ... we can do a double switch if you want.  You can ask my seatmate when he or she comes, and then I can trade seats with you." Following baseball for a few years means that the game's "double switch" jargon comes easily.

Which is what happened.  Phew!

Sriram 1, Cosmos 0.

I now worried that the cosmos would want to get its sweet revenge ...
... to be continued ;)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A park. An elderly Muslim. Hindu religious music. Bad mix!

I typically reach the park well before dawn breaks.  It is warm even at that hour, with an occasional breeze.

But, I am rarely ever the only person that early at the park.  I am even more amazed at the sight of women, walking alone by themselves, that early.  At least this part of the old country is far away from the rape news geography.

Slowly they come.  In ones and twos, and by the tens as the sunlight begins to stream in.  One of those I have seen every morning is an older gentleman who walks slowly with his right hand holding a cane.  Always clad in the same outfit--a white lungi, a white shirt, and a white Islamic skullcap.

When I see that older Muslim gent, I become all the more ticked off at the public address system.  Why?  Let me explain.

This is a public park.  A government owned and maintained park.  Yet, throughout the more than an hour that I am there, they blast--very loudly--Hindu religious music.  Only Hindu religious music.  Nothing but Hindu religious music.  As if it is not a park but the grounds at a Hindu temple.

The older Muslim's outfit made his religion obvious.  There could be, among the walkers, people of faiths other than Hinduism.  Perhaps even an atheist or two.  (I do not count for I am a citizen no more of this old country.)  Why should the government bombard Hindu religious music on people who do not care about Hinduism?

Of course, this is not the first time that I am blogging about this atrocious deluge of religion in a public space.  But, it is even more of a sore point given that the sociopolitical environment is now charged/changed with the election of the Hindu nationalist party to power at the federal level.

The attempt to make the public space secular was perhaps a non-winnable fight from the very beginning of an independent India.  As India started the process of becoming a republic, Jawaharlal Nehru strongly advocated for Rajaji to transition from the office of Governor General and become the country's first president.  Nehru opposed the rival candidate, Rajendra Prasad, who was backed by Vallabhai Patel:
Mr. Patel’s choice for president was Mr. Prasad, a teacher and lawyer who had just presided over the assembly that drafted India’s constitution. This frustrated Mr. Nehru, who tended to be annoyed by Mr. Prasad’s public religiosity – by, for instance, his stated dedication to renovating the Somnath temple in Gujarat.
It was not that Somnath was a Hindu temple, but the temple had a long history of tension between Hindus and Muslims.  After the bitter partition along Hindu/Muslim lines, after the tragedy of lives lost and displaced, and property destroyed, Nehru did not want to trigger more communal tension with a Hindu president inaugurating the renovated temple.  Nehru lost that fight.  I suspect that the fight to keep religion off the public space was also lost; I cannot imagine Rajaji, despite the religious scholar that he was, accepting the invitation to inaugurate the temple.

I suppose I am stuck with the loud Hindu religious music every morning at the park.  At least it is temporary for me, and I will soon return to my sanctuary--the public space by the river where no government, or private group, blasts any religious music.  But, that old Muslim gent has no choice, I guess.

This, too, is India for you.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It is like a sauna in here

Another hot day.

One of Johnny Carson's routines was for him to exclaim in his monologue that it was a hot day in Burbank, when his sidekick, Ed McMahon would serve up a volley with "how hot was it?" for Carson to then deliver the punchline.

So, how hot was it here in Chennai?  The punchline was anything but funny--the tiles in the kitchen spontaneously exploded!

If not for mother's cooking, and the parents' delight at having me here, I would have fled town ;)

In a Polyannaish way, I can state that thanks to the free WiFi at home (free for me when parents pay!) I can all the more indulge in reading, tweeting, and blogging.  A hot thinking machine I have become.  And when overheated, I cool myself down with freshly made mango juice.  Father buys mangoes, mother makes the juice, and I drink it.  Not bad, eh!

With thoughts of the high temperature always on my mind, it should be no surprise that I tweeted about the global hot streak:

Apparently that tweet ticked somebody off:
A ranting for sure!

That tweeting "Conservative" perhaps does not know that there are Conservatives, and influential ones at that, who know better.  Like former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs chief Henry Paulson, who teamed up with others in order to get climate change the attention it deserves, though his worry is merely from an economic standpoint:
Mr. Paulson said the goal is to depoliticize the climate-change debate and instead focus on how it poses an economic risk to U.S. businesses.
"Risky Business" is the title of the report.  Among the business folks who have immediately appreciated this:
The Risky Business effort was applauded by the president of the Reinsurance Association of America, Frank Nutter, who said: "It is crucial that industry factor into account the science of climate change, and changes to national and global weather patterns in risk assessment and pricing."
The insurance folks who are in the business of betting apparently know better than to argue that there is no climate change to worry about.  I wonder what the likes of the Ranting Conservative will have to say about the insurance folks who have to put their money where their mouth is.

Apparently "Risky Business" is more than mere economics; the friend sent a link to this news item:
"As temperatures rise, toward the end of the century, less than an hour of activity outdoors in the shade could cause a moderately fit individual to suffer heat stroke," said climatologist Robert Kopp of Rutgers University, lead scientific author of the report. "That's something that doesn't exist anywhere in the world today."
Again, being Polyannaish, I guess I should be glad I am not dead, yet, and that I won't be alive to experience the terrible conditions.

But, seriously, there can be conditions worse than what I am experiencing now?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The world needs taxi drivers too

Decades ago, Robert invited us over to his place for dinner when his mother was visiting.  A hyper-energetic college professor he was, who liked to cook too.  Thankfully, he spared us from eating matzos and instead made dishes like molé, which was awesome especially when that was the first time ever for me!

After the initial introductions, it was time for friendly banter.  I asked Robert's mother whether as per the stereotype she was disappointed that her son did not go into a career in law or medicine.  We laughed.

Mike was yet another deviation from the stereotypical Jewish lawyer or doctor.  The well-read and well-informed Mike hadn't formally educated himself after high school and, instead, pursued his passion in machines and was a highly successful at it.  Mike once took us to the synagogue to which he and his wife belonged.  He introduced us to some of the people there--professionals and tradespeople across the economic spectrum, and not the lawyer/doctor caricatures.

In the rut that we often walk, we tend to believe that the paths to prosperity are not many.  In my old days in the old country, the dominant belief was that a life of struggles awaited those who did not go into engineering or medicine.  My fellow argumentative Indian at this blog is a wonderful example to prove otherwise.  But, habits die hard, I suppose:
As many as 38 students — six girls and 32 boys — of the Neyveli Jawahar Higher Secondary School, successfully cleared the Joint Entrance Examination (Advanced)-2014. They would be admitted to the Indian Institutes of Technology for the current academic year.
Chairman-cum-Managing Director of the Neyveli Lignite Corporation B. Surender Mohan felicitated the IIT aspirants at a brief function held at the Telugu Kala Samithi here on Saturday.
It is quite an achievement, yes, that so many from the same school gained admission to the prestigious engineering schools in the country.  Note, however, that the celebratory event was not held at the school but at "the Telugu Kala Samithi."  What's the connection?  This cultural organization had arranged for "coaching classes" for students.  I can easily imagine that the life of those students would have been nothing but hours in school, hours preparing for tests and exams, and then more hours at the coaching classes.  As long as it all works out for them; but, I worry that there is seemingly nothing done at all to encourage the growth and development of more than a one-dimensional human.

What do the rest of the students from that school do anyway?  After all, with or without coaching classes, not everyone will attend an engineering or a medical college.  
Turns out that the cosmos is always providing us with answers to questions.  It is just that often we are either asking the wrong questions, or are oblivious to the answers, or both.  Yesterday, I happened to catch one of those answers.

The taxi driver, a young man in his early twenties, seemed to be a tad hesitant about the roads and the routes.  "Shall I go via West Mambalam, sir?" he asked me.  I was sitting in the front passenger seat for the obvious reason--to get the blast from the AC vents ;)

"I have no idea" I replied and relayed the question to father, who greenlighted the suggestion. 

At the end of the round trip, when we were two minutes away from home, father asked him if he was new to town.  

"Yes, sir.  Only five months now."

"Where did you come from?"

"Neyveli, sir. Neyveli Township."

We all got excited that the young driver was from the place that has a special place in our hearts.  

"For more than twenty years we lived there" father said.  "All my children went to Jawahar School."

"You say children.  He looks at me and all he sees is an old man" I joked.  I had to.  Else, it is a boring one-dimensional life!

We wished him well as we got off the taxi. 

A Neyveli-born and raised taxi driver.  A couple of years ago, an artist from Neyveli.  How about that!

Fatal attraction

No, not those brightly painted toes that distract me when the summer heat reveals those female feet ... but blogging about student debt and higher education
[What] do you tell perspective parents and students about the options they should be looking for, whether they should consider, you know, not going?
What would any responsible person tell them?
[We] really emphasize that metrics such as completion rates at schools, average amounts of student debt and employability at a particular institution once someone graduates should be the priority in choosing a school, and not, again, which university has the more popular football team or the more lush student center.
We should use such metrics because ...?
[If] we can reorient to those metrics, many people might be able to avoid going into an amount of debt that is crushing.
That is from the PBS News Hour interview with Andrew Rossi, the director of the documentary, "Ivory Tower," which is about "the growing worries and criticism over college costs and student debt."

(BTW, looks like the transcriber got mixed up with the prospective versus perspective.  Or, wait, did the News Hour's interviewer get it mixed up?  If the latter, well ...)

To me, and to readers of this blog this is nothing but the proverbial preaching to the choir.  It really does not take a rocket scientist, or even a first grade student, to figure out that reason why college has become expensive is rather simple--higher education has strayed far, far away from the mission of education.  It is now an enormous mostly "non-profit" arm of the entertainment industry, while occasionally holding classes for students.

David Leonhardt explains, very well as he always does, that it is not the debt that students at the prestigious schools have that is of real worry.  Those students will always succeed.  But, the scary story, which is also what I have often argued--like here--is with the college dropouts, a group that is also highly correlated with low and low-middle income households.
Many colleges graduate fewer than half of the students they enroll — and resist policy makers’ attempts to hold them accountable for their results.
Meanwhile, yesterday, this blipped in my Feedly:
Students may be graduating $30,000 in debt, but at least they live in relative opulence for four, five, or six years.
Why that sarcasm, you ask?  Here is an example for you:
At Wichita State, a new $65 million residence hall and dining facility at the center of campus has a waiting list while openings are plentiful at the university's older, lower-priced halls. It'll cost between $10,000 and $12,000 a year (including meals) to live in the new facility, compared to $6,800 a year for older residence halls.
Yes, students and parents care more about country-club living, fancy gyms with climbing walls, and, of course, football and basketball teams, and conveniently forget that the metric ought to be about "completion rates at schools, average amounts of student debt and employability at a particular institution once someone graduates."  And then the same students and their parents complain about the debt?

Why not talk about something pleasant when I am trying my best to maintain my sanity in this hot oven!


Monday, June 23, 2014

That was no cat on a hot tin roof

I was halfway through a sentence talking with folks at my favorite aunt's home when I ran for it.  No, not to the bathroom.  And, no, I did not see a cockroach.

I ran because a light rain started falling, the sound of which was amplified by the tin roof awning.

Not until one has experienced the intense Indian summers will one be able to understand and appreciate the emotive capacity that rains have in the old country.  And then the glorious scent of the water on the parched land--a scent that is an intoxicant to the parched soul.  It is no wonder that the first raindrops in movies tend to be dramatic because they really are in real life too.

I ran down the stairs and onto the open space.  The raindrops were heavenly.  While the bicyclists on the road were hurrying to find shelter under the nearest tree, I, with the luxury of not working for a few days, rushed from the shelter to the rain.

But, this was no summer rain. No lightning. No thunder.  It was but a passing cloud.  The drizzle ended.  It was a momentary rush of adrenaline like when we chance upon brightly painted nails on female feet that catch our attention.

I went back inside to continue the conversation.

"I cannot believe that my feet swelled up by the time I landed in Chennai" I said.  "My body knows that I am getting older."

I suppose there is a first for everything.  If there can be a memory of a first kiss, then why not a memory of the first foot-swelling too.  After all, life is not always about kisses and roses, but is about the aches and ailments too.  

My aunt, who has known me from the moment I was born, surely must be having a tough time reconciling the infant and toddler versions of me with the balding and greying--and now feet-swelling--me.  In turn, I find it difficult to deal with the aging of people who have loved me all these years.

If we are lucky enough to survive the obstacles along the way, we progress to an old age.  But, while immersed in our navel-gazing, we often forget that the old and cranky 90-year old was also once an infant, a toddler, a school-boy, a young lover, a zealous worker, a doting parent.  Swollen feet comes with this package, right Bill?
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
I hope I

Sunday, June 22, 2014

This world was not made for you or for me. But for cockroaches!

"Damn cockroaches" father cursed in the morning.  "I killed one in the bathroom.  A second one ran towards the front door and out the door and I made sure it kept going.  The problem with tropical countries" he added.

"Oh, they are in colder countries too" I eased his mind.  "Various species have come and have become extinct, but the cockroach survives everything."

I was reminded of this discussion on where everything came from, and on the issue of whether or not a creator made this entire universe for humans to exist on this pale blue dot.  The discussion is between Tim Maudlin, a professor of philosophy at New York University, and Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.  Professor Gutting asks:
So is your view that we don’t currently know enough to decide whether or not fine-tuning for human life supports theism?
Which is when the cockroach relevance kicks in; Professor Maudlin responds:
First, note how “humans” got put into that question! If there were any argument like this to be made, it would go through equally well for cockroaches. They, too, can only exist in certain physical conditions. The attempt to put homo sapiens at the center of this discussion is a reflection of our egocentrism, and has no basis at all in the actual structure of the universe.
Egocentrism. Anthropocentrism. We have barely been around for a few thousands of years when the roach has been on this planet for much, much longer:
Fossil evidence indicates that cockroaches have been on earth for over 300 million years. They are considered one of the most successful groups of animals.
Where did the roach come from?  Did a creator create a roach too?  A male roach and a female roach so that they can reproduce and inherit the earth?  Professor Gutting asks whether we can bypass such messy issues by postulating a minimal theistic view:
that the universe was created by an intelligent being (regardless of its purpose). Does scientific cosmology support the atheistic position that there is no such creator or does it leave us with the agnostic judgment that there isn’t sufficient evidence to say?
Sounds tempting, right?  Removes the complications of figuring out how and when a creator set about creating each and everything that ever existed.  But, wait a second for Professor Maudlin's response:
Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry, just as a-quarkism or a-neutrinoism was. That is, any entity has to earn its admission into a scientific account either via direct evidence for its existence or because it plays some fundamental explanatory role. Before the theoretical need for neutrinos was appreciated (to preserve the conservation of energy) and then later experimental detection was made, they were not part of the accepted physical account of the world. To say physicists in 1900 were “agnostic” about neutrinos sounds wrong: they just did not believe there were such things.
As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act. If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon. The problem with the “minimal view” is that in trying to be as vague as possible about the nature and motivation of the deity, the hypothesis loses any explanatory force, and so cannot be admitted on scientific grounds.
Why do people continue to cling on to fancy narratives of how we came about?  Why this anthropocentrism?

Of course, I dared not to engage father along these lines.  There are some topics that a father and son should not discuss--it is stated so in the holy book according to cockroaches ;)

Friday, June 20, 2014

An old car for an old man visiting his old country!

"You have not filled out the correct immigration form" the female officer told me with an expression that suggested a combination of irritation and disgust.

I don't blame her; after all, if I am being asked to work at midnight, I too will be cranky as hell.  Or, perhaps she was just being a Ramamritham!

"Do you have the form here?"

"No, it is there" she said pointing her fingers to a far away fixture on the wall.

I walked up to that one.  Two holders for forms and neither seemed to have any papers.

I walked back to her and reported that there were no forms.

She was even more irritated and disgusted.  "It is there in the wooden one."

I went there and fished around inside.  Dammit she was right.  There was one form.  One f*ing form was all that was there in those two bins together.  Couldn't these folks at least restock that damn thing?

Having filled it out, I waited for her to finish processing the person at her counter.

Meanwhile, a younger man waiting in line was getting visibly upset that I was making a dash for the counter. "Sir, the line is here" he advised me in a very Indian manner of spoken and body language.  I couldn't be bothered.  "She asked me to make a correction to the form" I said as I walked up to the counter.

The utterly smile-less officer stamped the passport and I moved on.

Welcome to India, I told myself.

I am sure the Indian visitors get a lot more hassled by the process when they visit the US.  But, hey, I can only blog about my own experiences ;)

I paid upfront for a taxi and walked up to the parking lot.  A driver led me to his cab.  An old black Ambassador with a yellow top.  It looked so old and beaten up that I worried it might not be air-conditioned.  "Does this have AC?" I asked him.  He nodded an affirmative.

It was stifling inside the cab.  I removed my shirt and stuffed it into the backpack.  Welcome to India, I told myself.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mile high with a French attendant

"I can't believe they operate such prehistoric planes on transatlantic flights" I remarked to my seatmate as I settled into my aisle seat.  All because there was no monitor for every seat.  And worse, no individual choice on what to watch and when to watch.

The seventy-yearish woman smiled.

"Complaints aside, travel is really way more comfortable now.  I can still remember the bad old days when the rear of the plane was the smoking section" I added.

When a flight attendant, about my age, came by to check on something, I said something to similar to her about the monitors.

"Oui, Oui, we are hoping the plane will crash and then there will be enough insurance money to buy new planes" she said with a mischievous smile.  I was thankful it was a French attendant, and not a stereotypically stern German who might have ejected me from the plane!

"If you want, I can sing and entertain you with some French songs .... oooolalala" she grinned widely before moving on.

I turned to my seatmate, who had by then opened up a guidebook on Germany.  "You going to spend a few days there?"

"Gerrmany, and then Austria, Italy, Switzerland ... for two weeks."

"Boy, quite a few countries in a few days.  Soon it will be 'if it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium' kind of feeling maybe."

I noticed her puzzled expression.  "Oh, it is one of those old, silly, awful, summer movies.  Don't bother to watch it."

"Some silly movies are real fun" she said.

"I know what you mean.  Like Airplane."

She chuckled.

"I hope they will show that movie today" I said.  As if she watched a couple of scenes in her mind, she laughed.

She talked about the tour group and their plan.  And about a dinner and an opera.  And Salzburg.

I remembered all those places and activities from sixteen years ago almost to the very month.  I also remembered an awful groaner a music student once told me.

"When you and your group are in Salzburg, here is a terrible, terrible groaner you can tell them" I told her.

She seemed a groaner kind.  After all, she liked Airplane.

A tour group was walking about in the cemetery and were looking for Beethoven's site.  When they got to it, they noticed him sitting on top of his grave busily erasing music scores from papers that were all around him.  "Aren't you dead?" they asked in utter disbelief.  "Oh, I am de-composing" he replied.

She laughed and she laughed.  And she laughed.  She was a groaner kind alright!

As the plane stabilized after the ascent, I decided to access the internet.  Last December, I was thrilled with the web access from up in the clouds.

This time, sadly, the access was for a fee.  Not free anymore.

Later that flight attendant returned with drinks.  I told her that the movie stank and that the wifi was not free.  She, therefore, owed me a couple of Edith Piaf renditions.

She opened her mouth as if to sing. She then seemed stumped at not being able to recall any song when she knew Piaf's songs.  She tried those same motions again. Launch failure.

When the French attendant walked the aisle to collect the trash, she stopped at my seat.  "At least for you it is only this time and you are done.  For me, it is my job. The airline told me a couple of years ago that I had to move from Paris to Frankfurt or lose my job.  I now spend 600 Euros a month because of it.  Better this, otherwise I won't have a job."

It was a dull flight after that.

It goes with the territory

The summer after the first year of graduate school, I went to Venezuela with a group of fellow graduate students for three weeks on a research project.  After the first two days in Caracas, we proceeded to Maracaibo, which was the project site.

It didn't take long for many students to grumble about the heat. Our professor casually remarked, "it goes with the territory."

I remember that I didn't complain much about Maracaibo's heat and humidity even as the Anglos in the group whined.  They had good reasons; the temperature in late-May and early-June when we were there was awful.  Maybe the reason I didn't complain then was rather simple--I hadn't known anything better, having been out of the hot Tamil Nadu conditions for only a few months.

Lake Maracaibo (Venezuela) ... 1988

Since then, I have come to love that phrase, "it goes with the territory."  The older I get, the more I appreciate it.
Snow in January in Boston?
Rain in Oregon?
Well, "it goes with the territory." 

Thus, as much as I would love to complain about the heat and humidity in Chennai, which is almost exactly what I experienced in Maracaibo twenty-six years ago, I know better--"it goes with the territory."

But, seriously, this hot?  This humid?  Have I become this wimpy after twenty-seven years away from this place?  It also means that I won't ever go back to Juanita in Maracaibo? ;)

Over the years, I have come to understand how "it goes with the territory" is applicable to non-meteorological contexts too.

No electricity in rural Tanzania?
Mosquitoes in the Alaskan summer?
Atrociously small hotel rooms and bathrooms in Venice?
Dysfunctional Congress?
"it goes with the territory."

But, seriously, this hot? This humd? This blinding sunlight?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On clocking in and clocking out ... at 3:45 in the morning!

"My parents died more than a decade ago.  Spend time with them when you can.  I am happy you are doing this."

That string of sentences did not come from a member of my extended family.  Nor from my narrow circle of friends.  But, from the taxi driver who dropped me off at the airport.

Perhaps it is the wannabe journalist in me that, consistent with the stereotypical writer, I almost always end up talking with the drivers.  They usually have had interesting and offbeat lives, have seen a broad variety of us humans than most of us do, and have fascinating takes on existence.  I am yet to meet a taxi driver who was boring--a contrast to the many in other walks of life from whom I have tried to run as fast as I can, especially when they are pompously boring or arrogantly boring.

He was punctual to the minute.  At 3:45 in the morning! He already earned his tips.

A guy who has a decade on me.  "Only for four years" he replied when I asked him about his taxi driving career.

Naturally, I was curious about what else he did before this.  Insurance salesman, for the most part.  "Sitting behind a desk, making phone calls.  Insurance is just insurance. Claims are just claims. Selling is just selling" he said.  It was clear that he was only a few steps away from being driven insane by the monotony of it all.

It is unfortunate that the modern life has removed from our work--for most of us--any sense of meaning in what we do.  Hunter-gatherers had purposeful lives, brief as they were, when they spent their days hunting and gathering and storytelling.  As Charlie Chaplin so wonderfully captured in Modern Times, our work now is, for the most part, variations of the monotony that the taxi driver experienced in the insurance business.

I know I am one of the lucky few who knows that I simply cannot do anything other than the teaching and writing and thinking that my work is, which is also what my life is about.  When people ask me what I do, I am increasingly tempted to say "I am a thinker."  But, I am afraid that such a response will further alienate me from people! ;)  The enormous pleasure that comes from such an existence of meaningful days is simply immeasurable.  I should know--from my past experiences as an electrical engineer and as a transportation planner, when everyday work was worse than what I might have experienced with Torquemada.

The taxi driver seemed happy with what he is doing now.  "I have a drift boat and I go fishing with my son" he said when I asked him about his downtime passions.  A younger version of him was a very different guy who went biking across the country.  "I met my wife in Florida when I biked all the way to Daytona.  Going to Daytona is like a pilgrimage for us bikers" he noted with a smile.

"How does your wife like Oregon, coming all the way from Florida?"

"She loves it here. We are now divorced, but are good friends.  She loves it because unlike in Florida, she can truly be whatever she wants to be here in Eugene.  You can always find like-minded people and create your community here."

I know.  Which is why I love living in Eugene.  And great it feels to get that affirmation from a taxi driver.

And now I am off to spend time with my parents when I can.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

Thus spake the students

The term has ended.

Another academic year is over.

When grading the papers, as always, the first thing I did was to quickly scan through the last pages.  I am not being weird--students have trained me to behave this way.  It all started with a poem a long time ago.  Little did I know that the poem was one of a kind--nothing since then.

But, every once in a while, students do include a postscript, which is equally exciting for this old professor.

Like this one that was literally a postscript:
P.S. I really enjoyed your class. You kept it entertaining yet serious all at the same time.  It has shown me there is more to geography than just the location of something, it can involve economics as well.  Thank you for a good term
"entertaining yet serious all at the same time" is how I like 'em.  After all, isn't life itself one mix of entertaining and serious all at the same time?

And, hey, the student has figured out there is immensely more to geography that he would have ever imagined.  Evidence of value-added right there.

In a different class, a student included an "After Note":
I learned a lot on my own and this assignment challenged me to discover ideas for myself. ... I enjoyed doing the research on my own and felt like I learned a lot because of it.  I could keep going on about this topic and enjoyed writing about it a lot.

The season ends, but not the work. The summer break is nothing but the equivalent of baseball's spring training.  I have got to be in shape for the many, many more seasons that I hope to play.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Recalling my love for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is a Father's Day tribute?

It is one of my favorite movies ever.  It is not only because of the fantastic movie it is, or for how uniquely the movie depicted humans and aliens communicating with each other, for Dreyfuss' crazed and possessed looks ... But also because it is a reminder of a glorious time in my childhood.

I was a little more than 15 years old then, and after the written part of the National Talent Search exams, I was one of the few students invited to interview at the Madras campus of the Indian Institute of Technology.  Two other students from my class, Vijay and Krishna, had also gotten to this stage.  The prospect of the interview itself did not excite me as much as the thought that I would be at the fabled IIT campus for some serious, official, business.

Father took me to Madras--yes, that's how the city was called then.  We stayed at the home of my favorite uncle, whose sons were always a delight to hang out with ...

The following day was the big moment at IIT.  But, I didn't care about the interview, and was immensely excited playing cards and cricket with the boys.

The morning came.  We reached the campus and the interview site.

I knew I screwed up my chances because I messed up the first question big time.  If only I had the ability to forget the bad experiences! ;)

The first question was rather simple, compared to the later ones and even though I did well in the ones that followed, I am sure that the "golden duck" was how I lost the honor of the scholarship ... and that simple question was, "what is the maximum value of the tangent of an angle?"

Throughout my school life, my math teachers--right from the earliest days that I can recall--tried their best to help me understand that I needed to pause and think about the questions before I answered them, even when confident of the answer, only because of the remarkably silly mistakes I did while being in a hurry as if I were in a race against the devil.  But, stupid is as stupid does, as I would learn much later from Forrest Gump.  Thus, consistent with that track record of buzzing in the answer almost as a reflex action, I said "one."

That answer bothered me.  If only they had asked me "is that your final answer?"

But, they continued to toss more questions my way, including one where I was required to solve a problem on the chalkboard.  A green board it was, in contrast to the black boards I had been used to.

After I was done, and while exiting the campus, I realized the enormity of erring in that first question itself, which was the simplest of them all.

Perhaps father realized that I was kicking myself for my haste.  He did two things.  First, he took me to the beach.  We then walked over to a restaurant across from the road, where I ordered a cucumber/tomato sandwich.  And then he said we could go to any movie of my choice.  Which is how we went to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I think this was at the Satyam complex.

After the movie ended, and as we were exiting, father said, "I didn't understand anything there."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Do you know how to forget?

When recalling old stories with people, with many of the narratives resulting from others' less-than preferable action and words, father used a line from an old Tamizh film song, authored by the prolific poet, Kannadasan, which wonders why the mind that can think can't figure out how to forget.

But, he was barking up the wrong tree.  The more unpleasant an experience, the more I seem to clearly remember that.  

Further, I am in the memory business, so to say--education is about understanding and remembering the important things.  Not "remembering" as in cramming for exams and forgetting everything the day after, but remembering out of a deep understanding.  Not to forget is, therefore, a professional hazard, and here was my father wondering why he can't seem to forget and expecting me to say anything other than chiming in resonance!    

Thus, neither the father nor the son easily forget--not the lessons in school and not the lessons at hard-knock-university.  And we both find that old film song line to be poignant.

Emily Dickinson poetically says it for all of us:

Knows how to forget!
By Emily Dickinson

Knows how to forget!
But could It teach it?
Easiest of Arts, they say
When one learn how

Dull Hearts have died
In the Acquisition
Sacrificed for Science
Is common, though, now —

I went to School
But was not wiser
Globe did not teach it
Nor Logarithm Show

“How to forget”!
Say — some — Philosopher!
Ah, to be erudite
Enough to know!

Is it in a Book?
So, I could buy it —
Is it like a Planet?
Telescopes would know —

If it be invention
It must have a Patent.
Rabbi of the Wise Book
Don’t you know?

But, by the same token, we also know really well that there is more sorrow than we cannot even begin to imagine if to forget it all becomes real.  A more recent poet wrote about this, which I have blogged before:

Forgetfulness - Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

So, hey, I would rather not forget! ;)

Friday, June 13, 2014

What is worse than horseshit?

"Did you watch the horse race?" asked my neighbor a couple of days ago.

He was referring to the madness over the triple crown in horse-racing, fully knowing that I don't care about such races.  Yet, he asked me that because he knows I am a news junkie.  Of course, I was aware that the triple-crown didn't happen.

"One of the owners is from Bakersfield" he added.  We are both neighbors here in Oregon after his initial three decades there and my much fewer years in that part of California.

"Did you know that despite the horse not winning the Triple Crown, there are people ready to pay ten million dollars for it?"

I hadn't known that.  As in it will be as high as $10 million.

"That much for breeding?" I was genuinely shocked at the amount.  "The world is really screwed up.  They spend gazillions on things like this, and you ask the same people to spare ten dollars to feed the homeless and they yell at you!"

"You got that right" he chimed in agreement.

We differ on a whole range of topics, profound and silly.  But, we agree, always, on the highly misplaced priorities that we humans seem to have.  Our favorite of all is the screwed up priority on college sports.

The highly messed up priorities show up everywhere, especially when hysteresis is the word.  When the working class anywhere and everywhere seems to be getting screwed.

For Peter Singer, the case of millions being spent to acquire a work of art is the context of messed up priorities, in which he writes:
In a more ethical world, to spend tens of millions of dollars on works of art would be status-lowering, not status-enhancing. Such behavior would lead people to ask: “In a world in which more than six million children die each year because they lack safe drinking water or mosquito nets, or because they have not been immunized against measles, couldn’t you find something better to do with your money?”
The rich are all too eager to spend 41 million dollars for a "small image of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol," or $10 million dollars on a horse for its sperm.  The madness is that we hoi polloi are all the more excited and in awe about such wasteful expenditures when, instead, those big spenders should be considered for what they are: worse than horseshit!  Shame on us pathetic beings who worship the rich and the famous and serve those gods of horseshit.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The "student athlete" and the American university

After "five years and thousands of pages of filings":
The class-action lawsuit filed by lead plaintiff Ed O'Bannon -- a former UCLA star basketball player -- calls into question the long-held NCAA notion of amateurism and seeks an injunction that would effectively allow top men's basketball and football players to profit from their names, images and likenesses that are used in live broadcasts, rebroadcasts, video games, DVDs and more.
Of course, I am cheering the plaintiffs.  I would love to see the complete annihilation of the NCAA as we know it.  The whole college sports industry is an abomination, and an uniquely American one at that!

First, this excerpt:
Another course that I didn't like, but somehow managed to pass, was economics. I went to that class straight from the botany class, which didn't help me any in understanding either subject. I used to get them mixed up. But not as mixed up as another student in my economics class who came there direct from a physics laboratory. He was a tackle on the football ball team, named Bolenciecwz. At that time Ohio State University had one of the best football teams in the country, and Bolenciecwz was one of its outstanding stars. In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for him to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter. Most of his professors were lenient and helped him along.
You will be surprised that the excerpt was not from this NCAA antitrust lawsuit.  It is from James Thurber's hilarious tales from his university days, almost a hundred years ago!

Sounds absolutely contemporaneous, right?

We read this Thurber piece back in high school in India.
Yes, back in India!
The India where we students, perhaps with the exception of that one guy, had absolutely no idea that the football in America was not the same football that we played.

But, I bet many of us could relate to Thurber's experience in the botany lab!  I was (and continue to be) awful with hand-drawing and, well, I "outsourced" to my good friend the drawings we were required to do for the biology lab work.  Somehow I didn't think it was unethical at that time, and now as a faculty I worry about my students outsourcing their work :)

The fact that I loved that humor even without the faintest idea of the nuances of American higher education system and the role that football has in it means that, well, it is no surprise that I am now a huge fan of the New Yorker magazine--the Thurber's kind of intelligent humor and cartoons continue on, even decades after Thurber exited the magazine and this world. 

I wonder how Thurber would have made fun of the NCAA! Well, there is always that other finest source to tickle my funny bone;)
Saying the student-athletes would have definitely become an enormous thorn in their side, officials from the NFL front office expressed their profound relief Tuesday that Northwestern University’s pro-labor activist football players will never make it to the pros. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

I am not bored. Look, I wrote this!

"The children were excited and curious about the gum and injection bottle temple" father said.

The children from the extended family are no four-year old kids, but are high school students and older.  But, I suppose to an eighty-four year old, there is not much of a difference!

The "temple" that father referred to is one of the products of mother's arts and crafts works.  This "temple" is more than forty years old.  Mother collected a bunch of the small bottles in which the local hospital and dispensaries got their liquid medicines for injections--this was well before the ampule days.  With those, and a few gum and honey bottles, she artfully glued them to create a glass temple.  Despite all their attempts to keep it clean, the temple shows the accumulation of dirt and grime over the years.

During all these years, I have noticed that it is always something that father loves showing off to people.  He makes sure that visitors get to know how mother created that.  In the cultural and traditional settings that father is used to, perhaps that is the closest that he would comfortably get to in order to express his tender feelings for his wife?

It is not that mother had an army of servants at home and she could then pursue her hobby.  Far from that--there was one old maid who helped with minimal cleaning and washing the clothes.  A maid who took her own sweet little time for even the smallest thing.

Cooking was laborious--even I can clearly remember those days before mother had the time-saving godsend that a grinder/mixer was (the Sumeet) or cooking gas.  Food preparation itself--from purchasing the groceries to cooking to cleaning up--took up a chunk of her time.  Of course, no refrigerator either.  And, yet, mother found time for her art hobby.

There were mother's paintwork on the curtains that hung on the doorways.  Not creative art, but painting over images that she traced out on the cloth. She took classes with a couple of our neighbors who were her age and learnt how to weave bags and baskets.  In our early childhood years, mother tailored our underwear at home on her hand-cranked sewing machine.  A machine that she retains even now, and uses once in a while.

A couple of years ago, I asked mother how she had the time and energy to do all those, and how she did all that without ever complaining.  Without ever a holiday and working seven days a week.

Father was also creative, in his own ways.  Of course, I never got to watching him at work unlike my mother's work which was always right in front of me.  But, father's activities at home revealed plenty about his creative side, despite the engineer that he was.  For the annual "golu" during Navaratri, it was father who got excited about putting together something new, something different.  Once, he drew a map of India on a wobbly carrom board--from memory, without even consulting an atlas.  And then a whole bunch of art related to that map.

Perhaps I lucked out with parents who worked long hours without grumbling, and did creative things joyfully, and yet cared not that the kids simply lazed around.  It blows my mind even now that they simply went about doing things while we kids sat and complained about being bored!

My grandmother often commented that only we children growing up in a city and attending an "English" school complained about being bored.  To her, when she was a kid, well, kids invented their own games and went about doing something and were not bored.  And, there were enough chores to keep them occupied.  "எப்ப பாத்தாலும் என்ன இது போர், போர்?" (What's the matter with this talk all the time about being bored?)

Maybe I can show that I am not lazy by calling dibs on that injection-bottle temple!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Yes, Virginia, earthquakes happen in California, too

Oh boy, for a news junkie like me, what a day!  I mean, what a day!

From the West Coast, which is known for literal and metaphorical earthshaking:
A shallow magnitude 3.0 earthquake was reported Tuesday evening eight miles from Ridgemark, Calif., according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Ok, that is not the one, but this:
Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled, in effect, that it was too easy for teachers to gain strong job protections and too difficult to dismiss those who performed poorly in the classroom. If the ruling stands, California will have to craft new rules for hiring and firing teachers.
Gee, I am shocked, shocked that (awful) teachers with tenure are a major part of the education mess.  I had no idea!  (Yes, I am being gleefully sarcastic!)

Could this ruling get us out of the Jurassic Age of the education system?
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of nine schoolchildren, concentrated on three areas: teacher tenure, dismissal procedures and the seniority rules. The plaintiffs had argued that the rules resulted in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and these teachers were disproportionately in schools serving low-income and minority students. The judge said this violated fundamental rights to equal education. "There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms," he said, adding that “the evidence is compelling. Indeed it shocks the conscience.” 
Indeed.  Remember that lengthy New Yorker piece on the awful teachers who cannot be fired?  The Rubber Room?

Meanwhile, on the other coast, a huge political earthquake:
 In one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history, the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, was soundly defeated on Tuesday by a Tea Party-backed economics professor who had hammered him for being insufficiently conservative.
I can't decide which earth-shattering news excites me more; damn, couldn't they have happened on two separate days so that I could have enjoyed them, savored them, both!

Compared with Cantor, Speaker Boehner was a "moderate."  And how does Cantor compare with the guy who beat him in the primary?  And what does it mean for the next two years of Obama's lamest of lame duck presidency?
“How do you get that or anything done now? Eric is too liberal? This was the guy holding Boehner back.”
Muahahaha.  Eric Cantor is a liberal as far as the Tea Party is concerned.  On that scale, Nancy Pelosi is more of a communist than all the communists of the world put together.

The good ol' US of A, where the political theatre can be even more exciting than the one in the old country!

Yes, I am sufficiently entertained! ;)

Dreams Are for Losers. A hashtag does not make you Dr King

I love honest and blunt conversations, which are increasingly rare these days.  I care not for those euphemisms and artificial sweetness.  And then I wonder why colleagues shun me and why students do not want me as their instructor! ;)

You can then imagine my sheer delight when my RSS feed (ht) linked to an Ivy League commencement speech, in which the speaker bluntly tells the graduates, "Dreams Are for Losers."
Be a doer, not a dreamer…it’s hard work that makes things happen.
What an awesome line!  If only we can have more such people giving it straight, instead of the the cliched "shoot for the stars" sappy lines.

It is hard work that makes things happen. MK Gandhi was a big time doer--even his walking was not any dreamy, slow pace, but was always at quite a clip that forced a few to nearly sprint and pant while keeping up with him.  MLK did not merely orate about his dreams but worked, and worked hard on the nitty gritty details.  Hard, hard work.  Not daydreams.

The speaker is Shonda Rhimes, who delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth.  I had no idea about Rhimes and, of course, I googled her name.  Darn good credentials.  How could a degree from USC be not good, right? ;)
When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until your dream comes true.
I think that’s crap.
I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, powerful, engaged people? Are busy doing.
The dreamers. They stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they think and they talk about it endlessly. And they start a lot of sentences with “I want to be…” or “I wish”
I, too, get tired of people--young or old--who sit on their butts all day and merely talk about how they wish for whatever.  When the highfalutin wish is from a young person who is clueless about the world, I am all the more ready to slap them to their senses.  Fortunately, the wish to slap them remains just a wish!
Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral. Pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.
With that alone, the speech is one awesome and timely speech, as far as I am concerned.  But, Rhimes doesn't stop there.  She does more frank talk:
A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething
Hashtags are very pretty on twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge watching your favorite show.

What a contrast this speech is, especially in a season of cancellations and withdrawals of commencement speakers who were deemed politically incorrect, despite their fantastic achievements as professionals and people.   

I #Wish all #Commencement addresses were this honest!

Monday, June 09, 2014

Arrived. Arrived, it has. The monsoon

"The monsoon has set in Kerala" father said with a great deal of excitement in his voice.

Talking about rain and water is very much a part of life among my people in the old country.  I suspect that I, too, was "drenched" in that culture and, thus, with genuine interest I participate in that conversation.

"Even the falls in Courtallam have begun" he added.

Ah, the wonderful waterfalls by grandmother's place.

No wonder I feel so much at home in this part of Oregon, with all the rains and waterfalls.  And, of course, even when I travel, whether it was Costa Rica or Ecuador.

The monsoon drives India's life.  And culture.  An old story is that Vasco da Gama, who charted the maritime route from the Iberian Peninsula to the land of (black) pepper, requested the local king's permission to take a couple of pepper plants with him.  The king apparently replied that he can take all the plants he wanted but would not be able to take the monsoon to Europe.

The Hindi (Sanskrit? Arabic?) word, mausam, became monsoon to Europeans, who decided to colonize the lands of spices, from India to Indonesia.  Can't blame them; if you eat bland food day after day after day, pretty soon you too will want to go beat the crap out of somebody who has some really tasty food! As long as everybody has tasty food and plenty of it, well, peace shall prevail.

The monsoon arrives, editorializes The Hindu:
For Keralites, it is Edavapathi, the rains that come in the middle of the Malayalam month of Edavam. The arrival of the southwest monsoon over this southern State is an event greeted with unalloyed joy and relief right across the country. The rain-bearing clouds will, in due course, make their way north, bringing to an end the unremitting heat of summer. There is hope too that the rains will lead to a bountiful harvest, thus lending an extra bounce to the economy.
The intense heat and dust with which the British had a love-hate relationship will yield to the invading monsoon wind and rain.  But not in all of India--the eastern side where father was talking from, which is leeward, will, for the most part, continue to be one hot and humid place.

"Even we had thunder and lightning and the summer rains here" father noted.  The rains from the near-equatorial conditions.  Not to be confused with the monsoon, for which it will be a long wait.

May it rain--not too much, not too little, and just right. I wish the old country a Goldilocks monsoon.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Ladies' fingers twirl mustaches of men from Madras

Perhaps it was the six years of graduate schooling that has made me pay attention to the paranthetical comments even in the regular publications.  Like in The Economist the other night; there I was in bed reading through the lengthy special on Asian businesses when I laughed out aloud, and re-read the following more than twice and laughed every single time:
Hyundai Motors is becoming as globally minded as Samsung. Near Chennai, a southern Indian city with perhaps the world’s highest incidence of moustaches, it has invested $2 billion over a decade and a half in a factory that builds a car every 68 seconds.
A dull and boring editor would have deleted "a southern Indian city with perhaps the world’s highest incidence of moustaches."  I am so thankful it was retained.

Not that "the world’s highest incidence of moustaches" is among women--that will be one for the record books!  Men, especially the younger ones, in that part of the world sport mustaches.  (And older ones too, like this guy!)  I, too, was no different, as this photo ID of the FOB me shows ;)

Damn, that is one impressive mustache! ;)

Those aside comments, the footnotes, the words within parentheses, are, sometimes, worth more than the lengthy essays themselves.

It was a similar experience today when I read that:
(Cotton and okra, by the way, come from the same plant family.)
Who woulda thunk that!

It was in an essay on, get this, Indian cuisine in America's deep south!
Talking about the cultural linkages between the American South and India is not much of a stretch. At the very least it’s agriculturally defensible. Both were once colonial economies built, in part, on cotton farming. That enterprise expanded rapidly in India during the Civil War, when the Confederate States of America attempted a trade embargo. The C.S.A. believed that Great Britain, dependent on Southern cotton for textile manufacturing, would—when faced with a restricted flow of raw cotton imports—knuckle under economic pressure and support their war effort. The ploy didn’t work. Instead, Great Britain began importing more cotton from India. Decades would pass before country club Southerners began wearing madras fabrics, imported from the Bay of Bengal port city of that name.
Also analogous is a devotion to okra. (Cotton and okra, by the way, come from the same plant family.) Now that I have found my footing in Indian restaurants, I order okra fried, roasted, and stewed, and when I eat it I’m as likely to think of my small-town Georgia upbringing as I am to conjure the last Bollywood extravaganza I saw on the flat screens at Taste of India.
The essay ends with a link to this video on two cooks--"Atlanta-based chefs Asha Gomez and Steven Satterfield discuss their "two Souths" - Kerala, India, and the Southeastern United States."

An end-note: I wonder why I suddenly feel hungry now!

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