learning to unplug

Are you “plugged in” to technology–iPads, iPods, iPhones, laptops, PCs and Macs–for the majority of your day? Think about it before you answer. I became concerned about my own “plug-in” problems a couple of weekends back. It was the Sunday I decided to pull the plug on my computer. The decision started with a concern for my physical health. I was experiencing a lot of neck stress, headaches, and my fingers were feeling stiff. It had been only a little more than two months since my last RA infusion; I’d hoped to make it at least six months, the average length of time between symptoms, before needing another, but each patient reacts his own way so the rheumatologist asked me to call him if I felt a flare before six months. Since chemotherapy last year that left my veins uncooperative (or what the nurses called “shot to hell”) we were hoping for at least six months reprieve between needle stabs. The only way to know if my pain was the beginning of flareup, or simply too much time in front of the computer, as I’d begun to suspect, I decided to pull the plug for 24 hours.

The next day there was a slight difference, but still a lot of neck strain. Then Hubby noticed I was squinting and looking upward, straining to see the computer screen through my bifocal. I decided to pull out some old computer glasses I’d had made a few years ago to use with the computer. Voila, after only a day or two I felt the difference. Experiment successful. I was really happy that it wasn’t an arthritic flare after all. But after that Sunday unplug, I had become aware of another, potentially much more serious mental problem that might require more effort to fix.

It was a lot more complicated than just the time spent keeping up with this blog. There was all that time I spent reading and commenting on other blogs. Much of that part is good, I’ve decided, as it leaves me with a sense of connection with the world. All day long on unplug day, I kept thinking of things I wanted to do that required my PC. Answers. To all kinds of things! I’ve gotten in the habit of running to my PC for every little nonsensical thought or question that occurs to me. I click Google or Bing, insert a few keywords and bingo, I have access to everything I want or think I need to know. Medical symptoms. Recipes. Movie reviews. You name it. It’s all there and then some.

Remember in the old days you’d wake up in the middle of the night with this burning question–really serious stuff. The answer would come to you, you knew that, so after you worried with the question for awhile you’d eventually fall asleep again. If you were lucky, the answer floated into your consciousness the very next day, or maybe several days later. But I don’t remember a time when the answer didn’t come eventually. Alternately, you’d run into a friend or co-worker who might know. They either would or not. But it wasn’t that important anyway. In my class on the neurophysiology of the brain the following week, I asked the professor if google could be injurious to our brains and our ability to remember. She admitted she didn’t know, and that she worried a little about that herself. There just wasn’t enough research yet to know. Another student suggested that the harm may be offset somewhat by the work our brains have to do to come up with the right set of tag words to get answers, suggesting we were still assisting the plasticity of our brains to keep them working better as we age. That’s a little of why I blog. To keep reaching for the right word to convey to meaning in my communications, I reasoned, would be a good exercise for my bain.

Back to the Sunday experiment. It hit me at some point that day that I could use my lazy Sunday afternoon to scan recipes from a library loaned cookbook so I could try them at will and go ahead and return the book. But no! That would require plugging back in–to two machines, my scanner/printer setup AND the PC to store them in an electronic file. Couldn’t do that until tomorrow. When I actually started preparations for dinner, at some point I needed to be close to the kitchen to monitor things, but make that time go faster at the same time. My office is right across from the kitchen, so I’ve gotten into the habit of sitting at my computer with an ear to the kitchen and play online cards. Long story short, throughout the day I was drawn like a magnet over and over again to my computer. But Monday morning I felt triumphant! I’d managed to go a full 24 hours without plugging in, not even to check email.

Which brings me to the video below. Last night, Hubby and I attended a lecture/movie at a local college. The movie by a San Francisco filmmaker, Tiffany Schlain, was entitled CONNECTED. It premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Using animation, archival film footage and much of her father’s writings, the movie explores the idea of how and why people are connected through technology. As in all of life, however, there’s always a balance to be achieved between the GOOD and NOT SO GOOD elements of every new discovery that impacts humanity.

Should you be interested in seeing CONNECTED, it’s available on video (to members) on Netflix. In the meantime, this 16 minute video interview with the filmmaker will give you many things to think about. Maybe you’ll have a clearer understanding, as I do, why we’re hearing “where does the time go” over and over again, even by young people. I understand that the majority of these YouTube sharings are rarely seen, but if you’ve ever wondered “where did my day go” or “is all this focus on technology good for me,” I think you’ll indulge me the nudge to watch. Maybe, like me, you’ll decide technology is good overall (perhaps, though the jury’s still out) but, maybe it’s good to unplug now and then.

sleeper class from delhi to madras

From first hand experience, I think it’s safe to say that the best way to see India is not on a plane at 35,000 feet, but at ground level on the Indian railway system.  In fact, no visit to India is complete without experiencing the bustle of Indian railway stations. After Independence in 1947, India inherited a total of 55,000 kilometers of British Indian railways, much of that in bad state having endured WWII and passing through Pakistan. New construction was thus necessary in order to reroute through Indian territory. The 42 separate railway systems left behind by the British, including 32 owned by former Indian princely states, were joined together into and referred to as the Indian Railways. By 1985, electric and diesel locomotives took over the steam locomotives, and the entire railway reservation network was computerized in 1995. It’ll be interesting to see the changes in this, the largest railway network in Asia and second largest in the world, but remember, this narrative is written about first impressions of a first visit in 1980, more than 30 years ago.

Trying to sleep on a sleeper train from New Delhi to Madras became another study of the extremes of India. The entire journey–way back then in 1980–took two nights and a full day of train travel. We left Delhi around 7:30 in the evening on what was booked as a first class, air-conditioned, sleeper car.

When arrangements for the first class sleeper were made, I immediately worried that our berths wouldn’t be private, that we would be forced to be a little more up close and personal than I liked with strangers. I’d seen and been exposed to many modes of travel, from the man-powered bicycle rickshaws, motorcycle rickshaws, tourist buses, local buses and trains, taxis, private autos with professional drivers, so I was already familiar with the differences in travel standards between India and the U.S. After all, America was created by space-loving space-hoarding “give me land, lotsa land, don’t fence-me-in kinds of people”–the kind I’d grown up around–who don’t cotton well to strangers invading their personal space. That’s why so many of them own cars and drive themselves places. That’s why public transport has such a hard time getting the financial and social support it needs to catch on in this country–except of course in New York and other large cities with high populations.

With kids in tow, we’d boarded local buses that were already loaded to capacity by American standards and had somehow managed to miraculously shove ourselves into tiny openings, only to look up and see another group pushing through with suitcases and parcels hoisted over their heads. How they got through, or where they disappeared to wasn’t clear, but somehow they seemed to manage. We did as well, but I hated, and eventually requested, we not use local bus commutes if possible. I found I preferred the noisy phut-phut of auto rickshaws instead. While a family of four were crowded in one, the space was open and it was easy to see everything going on around you, and no one else was able to tag along.

I was told, if I remember correctly, that there could possibly be other passengers in our car during the daytime, but at night the four berths in our car would be ours exclusively. Vaguely I remember a nicely dressed young man, most likely a student, riding with us in the beginning, but by the time the girls and I were ready to sleep we were alone, and whether the student reached his destination or chose to invade another car, I do not know. Hubby may have a different memory and will clarify it if so.

The girls, probably exhausted with all the excitement, seemed to sleep throughout the night, or if they stirred it was only for a moment. They had their books and games and, most importantly, their favorite stuffed animals along to comfort them. Hubby, if he can sleep through my snoring–as he had for 11 years by that time–seemed to sleep too. As for myself, two words: cacophony and symphony. All night long it seemed I was witness to one or the other as we pulled through and sometimes stopped at other stations along the way it was an ongoing cacophonous clank of metal scraping other metal, train horns honking, shrill whistles and bells, and wheels on the track and engine noises.

The motion must have lulled me into unconsciousness eventually, however, for I remember being lulled awake very early in the morning before the light of day to a symphony of vendors voices. We were stopped on a train platform and it felt strange to be motionless yet still moving inside my head. Outside the train from one end of the platform came a cadence of  Chai, chai, chai (tea). Immediately from the other end came the response, koppee, koppee, koppee (coffee).

Chai, garam chai . . . koppee, koppee, koppee. Over and over and over, and floating over all opposing sounds was the mesmerizing odors of food cooking. As had been the pattern of India almost from the beginning, India tossed out mighty heaps of confusion mixed in with tiny little triumphs like the single flower that I noticed blooming all alone on the bare clay soil on the way in to the Taj Mahal complex that made up for the deprivation.

The night before, a porter had stopped by and taken orders for breakfast to be delivered to our sleeper car at the appropriate time. Of course this was preceded by cups of steaming koppee and milk and juice for the girls. Hubby knew his three girls were starved for the taste of more Western type food, so he’d ordered omelets for all of us. The first eggs we’d seen since leaving London. They were delicious even if they weren’t the light fluffy omelets we were used to at home. And they came with the most delicious tomato sauce I’d ever tasted, which was a simple Indian-style Ketchup. I don’t yet know the secret of its success, probably a lot of sugar, but I’ve never been able to duplicate it nor have a better one. I remember it was not the rich red color of a Heinz, but more orange. I think it’s safe to say that breakfast on a train was a big hit for all of us. Even Hubby seemed to enjoy it.

Later in the day, Hubby’s sister and her family would meet us at the train depot for a short visit during a short stopover period in Nagpur. We’d traveled by that time a little over 1000 kilometers or somewhere around 600 miles. We wouldn’t arrive in Madras to visit my mother-in-law until sometime the next morning.


Coming up next:  onward to Mother-in-law’s bungalow in Madras, scenes and glimpses of Indian life along the way.

a late christmas story

Not many weeks ago on a windy evening as we were hurrying to the entrance of the Broadway–to see  MORNING GLORY I believe–I saw the familiar face of a skinny man with shaggy beard and knitted stocking cap standing outside the theater holding a beat-up cello he sometimes plays if enough people are about for an audience. I’ve seen him many times before and wondered about him but was always in too much of a hurry and a little bit afraid to get involved.

Most people usually are in a hurry–trying to get to the theater on time, trying to get out of the rain or cold, and many pay him very little mind. Then there’s also that bad experience I had a few years ago when a mentally-unbalanced or drug-crazed homeless man in a wheelchair seemed to be chasing me down the street, haranguing me about the government’s bad treatment as I hurried to get away from him. I’m often reluctant to look directly at street people sometimes, I think, because there’s the thought that in different circumstances that might have been me. Had I not had the family I had, the advantages I’ve enjoyed, known the people I’ve known.

So there was that little man again, and how I was going to act this time? I hurried to catch up with Hubby–I was a good 8 or 10 steps behind him as he walked briskly ahead of me to secure a place in the line inside the entry door where the line was already snaking up the stairs. For some inexplicable reason though, instead of hurrying by, that night I paused and looked straight at this strange little man standing there alone with his cello, and without even thinking  about it I said something, can’t remember exactly what–probably some pleasantry about the weather–but it didn’t really matter because I smiled as I hurried on this time.

“You are a very kind lady,” he called after me.

Taken somewhat aback by his response, I remember shaking my head and saying “No, not really,” admittedly more to myself more than him.

Later, thinking back on it, I could still feel the warm feeling that always creeps in unbidden when you let your guard down just a little during those what I call serendipitous moments just being yourself.

When I opened the paper a day or two before Christmas I was gratified to finally have part of the mystery of that little encounter solved.

My street musician had a name after all. Eli Potash. He says he’s not that “good a musician” but “you know what I am? Good with my hands” and for 15 years he’s been playing his cello downtown, mostly for moviegoers outside the Broadway Cinemas. Sometimes he rests and warms up from the cold at a nearby bar where a local trio plays. That’s where he met the Daniel Day Trio, who sometimes play in the Red Door martini bar. From the Tribune feature story I read that the group had struck up a friendship with Potash and occasionally play with him, collecting donations from listeners. Day noticed the beat-up cello and remembered an old one of his that had been collecting dust a few years. One thing led to another–someone else donated labor to refurbish it, then the trio purchased a new instrument case for it from the donations because, as Day said, “He’s (Eli) somebody who could use some love and some care and some thought.”

And so it was that on another windy night not long passed, during the holiday festivities, they all played a rendition of Silent Night together in front of the Broadway. After they finished, they presented Potash with the new cello, all wrapped up in giftwrap. All this was caught on video by Sidewinder Media’s Rusty Sessions, and it’s been posted on YouTube. It’s not polished and slick, and it does lag in places, but it is a perfect example of the real spirit of Christmas, and it’s the Christmas story I was hoping to write. Here it is if you’d like to see it yourself. (At 11:21, it’s a bit long, but Eli’s Silent Night begins about 4 minutes in if your time is limited.)