Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Portland's Japanese Garden

The term "Pacific Northwest" is used with reference to the geographical region between the Pacific Ocean in the west and Rocky mountains on the east.  Oregon and Washington states of the United States of America and British Columbia province of Canada form the core geographical areas of the region.  Sometimes even Alaska and the northern mountainous regions of California are also included in this term.  The area has bountiful natural beauty with the Pacific ocean on the one side and the coastal mountains, Cascade range, Olympic mountains, Columbia mountains and the Rocky mountain range on the other.  The Mount Rainier National Park with the 14,410 feet high Mount Rainier in the Washington Cascades is one among the many tourist attractions in the area.  Columbia river that runs through the region and joins the Pacific ocean has cut a deep and wide gorge around the rim of the Columbia plateau and created many beautiful tourist spots.  It is said that after Mississippi, more water flows through this river in the entire country. Vancouver BC, Seattle and Portland are the major cities in the Pacific Northwest. Water bodies, hills and rich vegetation have made the area attractive to visitors. Many man made monuments and attractions have enhanced the places of tourist interest.

"Japanese Garden" in the city of Portland, Oregon is one such man made attraction for the tourists. Pacific Northwest has a large Japanese population and Portland is one of the centers that attracted Japanese in big numbers since the last decades of 19th century. Sapporo city in the Japanese island of Hokkaido is the sister city of Portland, Oregon. The Japanese Garden in Portland is made and supervised by the Japanese Garden Society of Oregon on a Not-for-Profit basis.  Proclaimed as the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan, the garden is formed in the west hills of the city of Portland. Spread over an area of 5.5 acres, the natural hilly slopes provide the setting for the garden.  The five distinct garden styles that constitute a typical Japanese Garden are blended here to give the desired effect of realizing a sense of peace, harmony and tranquility. The garden generates a feeling in the visitor of being a part of nature.  The garden aims to provide a living reflection of the history and traditional culture of Japan.

The layout of the garden is influenced by the Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. The visual compositions of stones, water and plants provide a higher blend of aesthetic sense than meets the eye. The three essential elements of a Japanese garden are harmonized to provide the composite experience to the visitor.  Stones form the bones of the landscape with water acting as the life giving force.  The third element, plants, provide the tapestry on which the multiple colors of the seasonal flowers provide the final dimension.  Stones are used to give shape to the layout with well laid pathways and Pagodas, stone lanterns, water basins completing the visual effect.  Size of these visual aids is maintained in relation to human scale to give a feeling of being one with the nature.  Native trees that were existing at the time of creation of the garden are retained to enable blending with the natural view around the garden.  Carefully placed stone stepping along the pathway in wooden settings gives comfort while moving around in the garden.

The garden is basically divided into five parts; Flat Garden, Standing Pond Garden, The Tea House Garden, Natural Garden and Stand & Stone Garden.  The visual effect on the visitor varies with the seasons as each season brings with it its own flowers and colors.  The best time to visit is said to be when the riot of colors is displayed with the roses in full bloom.  Our visit was in winter and yet the garden gave its edition of wintery pleasure.  Each tree and plant in the garden was cut and trimmed appropriately and gave a view of perfection and aesthetic delight. The birds, fish and other small animals enhanced the natural beauty of the garden.

A wooden hall created within the garden provides place for exhibition of paintings, talk shows and lectures. Workshops for Bamboo Fence Building, Stone Pavement Making, Maple Pruning demonstrations and Pine Pruning are conducted here. A Kadomatsu workshop for preparing Japanese New Year decorations is also held for interested members of the society and general public.

Our visit to the garden last Sunday was on a rainy day.  Moving around in the garden appeared to be impossible when we started our journey towards the garden. Fortunately for us, the rain took rest for two hours just as we reached the garden and resumed as soon we finished our visit and returned to the parking lot.  Visit to the Japanese Garden in Portland will always remain a memorable experience.                        

Friday, January 10, 2014

Gifting problems and Gift Registry

"Man (that includes woman) is a social animal" was the first sentence in the Social Studies text book several decades ago.  It probably remains the same even now.  Being a social animal results in celebrating events in one's life with family members and friends.  Functions like marriage, house warming, baby shower, birthdays and anniversaries are very common and arranged regularly.  Hosts of such functions have to make elaborate arrangements to ensure that these functions are conducted smoothly and are remembered for a long time for the right reasons.  They have a long list of requirements and preparatory plans to ensure the success of the events. Selecting a suitable form of invitation and sending them to the guests is an integral and important part of the process.  Decision making on all these components is an enjoyable as well as a painful process for the hosts.

Once an invitation is received by the guest, the process starts at the other end.  The guest has to first decide whether he or she wants to attend the function.  If the decision is to attend, bachelors have no problem.  For those with a family, the next question is whether to attend alone or with family members.  Those with multiple families have multiple problems.  They have to decide which family to take to the event.  Once this is decided the next issue to be resolved is whether a gift should be presented.  Giving a gift is often an emotional action and involves a lot of feeling and planning.  Gift should be attractive, liked by the receiver and ultimately useful to them.  Fitting the item within one's budget is also a relevant issue.  Some carry gifts with them to ensure that others present at the event carry a good impression about them.  For them, the packet must be big though it contains a useless or cheap item. Even if the decision is not to honor the invitation by personal appearance at the occasion, a decision has to be taken to send a gift or not.  Then to send with whom or how?  The guest has to grapple with all these problems.

Hosts or receivers of the gifts have their own set of problems.  There was an ugly practice of noting down the amounts or items given with the name of the donors, several years ago.  Fortunately, it not seen nowadays. Problems of the hosts start with the transporting of the gift items received at the event place to their residence or place of stay.  Opening of the gift packets is itself an entertaining activity and attracts much attention.  Sifting and sorting the gift items leads to many interesting situations.  Receiving multiple numbers of the same item is one of them. Such items are often disposed off by gifting them to some other host when this host receives an invitation for the next event! There have been some funny instances where a gift given as a guest sometime ago is received back as a host sometime later! Then there are other items which the receiver does not know what to do with.  If the host is lucky, there can be many items which are welcome and indeed needed by them.

The problems enumerated above have been addressed and resolved to different extents by many different ways and means.  In our younger days, there would be an informal meeting of like minded relatives to dwell on the gifting issue.  Either funds were pooled and items were bought or a consolidated cash purse presented to enable the receivers to use it as they deemed fit.  Sometimes gifts were purchased from the pooled funds in consultation with the receiver, wherever possible.  Such items could be given privately to avoid the problems of carrying bulky items to the venue of the function.  Different  practices are used in other parts of the world.  In some countries of Europe, a bowl or box is kept to enable the guests to drop envelopes with cash. Those desiring to remain anonymous can drop an envelope without the giver's name. Present day solutions are handing over an envelope containing cash or giving gift cards.  Gift cards are becoming more popular.  Carrying them is easy and they can be sent by mail as well.  Receivers can buy the items of their choice and at their convenience.

"Gift Registry" is a modern solution to all the problems of giving and receiving of gifts or presents.  Companies like Amazon, Target, Macy's etc. have a system of providing solution to the problem as well as enhancing their own sales. The system works as under:

  • The host (a bride or an expecting mother) prepares a list of all the items required and suitable for receiving as gifts.  The list of items is then placed on the website of the company which is appropriately called as "Wedding Registry" or "Baby Registry" etc
  • The items may be for any amount, say from one dollar onwards and there is no limit for the maximum amount.
  • Items in the registry can be deleted, modified or additions can be made. There is also provision for managing the registry jointly, say both parents or bride and the groom.
  • Companies like Macy's also provide for visiting their stores, selecting the items, getting them scanned and getting a registry prepared as per the scanned bar codes of the items.
  • Once the registry is in place, its availability is advised to the relatives, friends and colleagues by word of mouth, mail or phone.
  • The word spreads and those willing to gift the items view the list on the website of the company.
  • The giver chooses an item from the list, makes payment to the company over internet, through credit or debit card or other acceptable payment method, from the comfort of their homes or offices or even while flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet in a plane.  Company delivers the item at the doorstep of the receiver.
  • Both the sender and receiver can track the movement and delivery of the item.
  • Once a item in the list is taken by someone, the item gets blocked and thus duplication of gifts is avoided.
  • If the item is available at an alternate source at lower rates, the sender can purchase there and get it delivered directly.  When such arrangement is made and advised to the company, the item is blocked in the registry.
  • When the period for registry is about to expire or the event nears, the person creating the registry can buy the other items to complete the requirements.  Companies offer attractive discounts on the final purchases so made.  Otherwise the remaining items can also be allowed to lapse.
  • Registry allows universal donors (from anywhere in the world!) and anything from anywhere as available on the websites.
  • If the item is not satisfactory to the receiver, it can be returned free within the stipulated period.
  • A "Thank You" list is available to the receiver to thank all the contributors to the registry purchases.
  • Companies also have advising teams, available on line, to assist those who require help to use the registry system. 
Registry system thus provides solution to problems of giving or receiving gifts and prevents gifting problems.              

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Headwinds and Tailwinds

The line before security clearance at Philadelphia International Airport was quite long on Monday morning and growing by the minute.  As it was the first working day after a long weekend and New Years day celebrations, all morning flights were fully booked and everyone was in a hurry to get cleared through the security gates.  It appeared that my flight may be missed due to delay in clearance as there were dozens of others ahead of me.  A good samaritan helped clearance of passengers for flights taking off in the next few minutes on urgent basis and I was the last passenger to board our flight.  As I squeezed into my seat between two other passengers, take-off was announced.  "Even the darkest cloud has a silver lining", they say.  That was true here as I was spared the usual long wait at the boarding gate.

The pilot announced that the flight to Seattle on the Pacific coast would take five hours and four minutes.  As the aircraft took-off and started gaining altitude, the person sitting on my side asked me what the time was.  When I replied that it was 7.50 AM,  he said "See, the flight is already 20 minutes late.  Time table says the flight takes six hours.  Pilot says it takes five hours and four minutes.  How it is possible?  I do not understand".  He appeared frustrated and I felt it was better to leave the issue at that instead of explaining the situation to him.  I was actually happy that the flight was 20 minutes late or else I may have missed it.

What my fellow passenger did not realise was that we were the luckier lot as our flight was not cancelled, unlike thousands of flights from cities like Chicago and St. Louis.  North America is reeling under the effect of a phenomena called by meteorologists as "Polar Vortex" and described as "Polar Pig" by the media.  Polar Vortex has brought down the temperatures to as low as minus 50 degrees celsius in some areas.  Airport operations are hit as aviation fuel froze in the sources and the crew were unable to fill aircraft tanks.  Many inches of snow has rendered venturing outdoors a high risk idea. Schools are closed and people have been advised to stay indoors.  In many cities driving has been banned except in emergency situations. Icy roads and sidewalks have made journey on the roads treacherous.  We were at least airborne and on our way though the pilot warned us of a bumpy ride, in his own very polite language.  Despite this, journey by air was far more safer than on the icy and windy roads in life threatening temperatures.

How does the actual flight time happen to be much lower than the time displayed on time tables?   Timetables refer to terminal-to-terminal time while pilots refer to actual flight time between take-off and landing.  Transport operators, whether by road, rail or air, usually provide a cushion for the unexpected delays that may take place during the actual travel.  On time arrival at destinations is one key performance parameter for transport and airline companies.  A slightly extended journey time provides buffer to absorb unexpected delays in starting time and delays on the way.  Hence the arrival of the destination would be as per schedule despite slight delays at the starting point.  The on time performance figures are thus protected and make for good reading and publicity.  In the case of airlines, there are also likely delays due to clogging of runways and weather related issues.  If the take-off is on schedule and everything else also goes fine, arrival at the destination may even be before scheduled time.  Besides this, scheduling flights this way make further utilization of the aircraft more scientific and practical.

In the case of air travel, wind factor is a key influence in the actual journey time.  "Head wind" and "Tail wind" are two components that affect the duration of the flight.  A headwind is a wind blowing against the direction of the travel and a tail wind is a wind blowing in the direction of the travel.  In the case of aircrafts, headwind has the effect of decreasing the speed of the plane whereas the tailwind adds to its speed.  Journey in the air with tail wind is, therefore, faster than journey with a headwind.  For this reason, actual time of journey between two places in the same direction may vary on different days and even at different times on the same day.  Proverbs in different languages to take advantage of the direction of the wind blowing have been in use for a long long time.  Of course, our politicians have mastered this art perfectly.

Air traffic controls and pilots use the concept of headwind, tailwind as well as cross-wind to advantage in their operations.  Take-offs and landings of aircrafts are scheduled on different runways (in airports with multiple runways) providing headwinds as a headwind is favorable for both take-off and landing.  Tailwinds are favorable when the aircraft is in flight.  When we are engrossed in our own world while traveling, experts at ATC and pilots are busy with all these details.  Thanks to their continuous efforts, air travel is far more safer than travel on the land.  Many may not agree with this but that is what the truth is.  An aircraft tragedy attracts all the more attention and the fear associated with air travel is more in minds than in reality.  Modern aircrafts take every contingency into account and safety standards are upgraded from time to time.  Any accident that happens is like any other mechanical failure and despite all these safety efforts.

While I was contemplating all these issues, the pilot announced landing at Seattle-Tacoma airport five minutes before the expected arrival time.  Despite warnings of the bumpy ride made by him at the time of take-off, the flight was very smooth except for the initial half hour.  The aircraft had left all the cold weather behind and moved to the much warmer western coast.  My co-passenger who expressed his annoyance on the twenty minute delay in take-off was unaware of all these and lost in his wonderful sleep along the entire flight.  He did not get any sweet dreams, I am sure of that for he did not smile even once in his sleep.  I had to nudge him to wake him up as I had to pass him before getting off the plane.

Many thanks to the weathermen who are now able to predict changes in the weather so accurately and the ATC staff and airline crew.  They make air travel a lot safer though it often goes unnoticed.