Good Food Mood

Some of my articles, especially ones that involve the night sky have me pondering on the nature of our existence and how minuscule we are in the scheme of things. The precise sequence of things that led to this particular form of life on this planet and so on. Generally, the night sky is simply a becalming experience that inspires humility, and some vague musings.

The scale of the universe is one that is awe inspiring. We are minuscule compared to the universe, but we also contain millions of minuscule particles compared to our own size. As far as the microbes are concerned, we, each of us: deer, goose, humans are a universe unto ourselves. There is something deeply spiritual in that : we contain multitudes and we enable multitudes. The diversity and beauty of the microbial world is immense, and one that is still emerging in our understanding of it. With the sound of rain pattering outside, I was sitting snugly inside reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, stopping every now and then to read out an interesting piece to the children.

Ayar padi maligaiyil thaai madiyalil kanrinnai pol
ஆயர்பாடி மாளிகையில் தாய் மடியில் கன்றினைப்போல்
maya kana thoongugindran thaalaelo
மாயக்கண்ணன் தூங்குகின்றான் தாலேலோ
Avan vaai niraiya mannai undu mandalathai kaatiya pin
அவன் வாய் நிறைய மண்ணை உண்டு மண்டலத்தை காட்டிய பின்

Roughly translates to: Here is little Krishna, sleeping like a little calf after eating a handful of mud and showing us the universe within it.

The son played the video for the nth time on the television, and the daughter said, “Oh no – not that again. How many times will you see that video?”

“See…see here – when baby Krishna opens his mouth, his mom can see the whole universe inside it. The whole universe!” he says his eyes widening, quite unable to comprehend why this fact is not as astounding to his elder sister.

“Yes – but you said that already.”

“I always watch what you are seeing!” said the fellow stung at this accusation of hogging the television. His sister scowled, the toddler tensed and I sensed it was time for dinner before the situation escalated, and rivers of tears joined the gurgling rivers of rainwater outside.

Inside the house, we sat down around the dinner table with hot food and slurped at it. We kept getting interrupted by alerts giving us flash flood warnings, and it increased the gratitude for being inside, relishing warm food and enjoying one another’s company. Minutes into the meal, the situation had considerably lightened and the children were rolling off their chair giggling at something inane. I watched them bemused.

Countless writers have written about the effects of good food. Jerome K Jerome from Three Men in a Boat goes on to describe the effects in great detail:

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep”. After a cup of tea(two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand for more than 3 minutes), it says to the brain, “Now rise and show your strength. Be eloquent and deep and tender; see with a clear eye, into Nature, and into life: spread your white wings of quivering thought and soar, a god like spirit over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”

What is it with food and mood? Is there a direct connection between the gut and the brain?

It turns out that there is. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, Ed Yong goes on to write that there are now studies directly linking gut bacteria with mental well-being. We have a long way to go in understanding the role of gut bacteria.  Some studies indicate reduced symptoms of depression in people with irritable bowel syndromes after consuming certain types of probiotics.

If research advances enough to diagnose certain types of borderline psychiatric patients and is able to treat them with specific types of probiotics to enable well-being, would that not be great?

An excellent article on the topic by Maria Popova here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/10/i-contain-multitudes-ed-yong/

The future could hold in store for us enough advances in microbiology & genetics, to enable personalized treatment options that aims at holistic healing. That is a promising, if distant, future to strive towards.

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It is estimated that every human contains 100 trillion microbes, most of which live in our guts. By comparison the Milky Way contains between 100 million and 400 million stars.

Maybe the mud that baby Krishna swallowed contained bio luminescent bacteria that made the universe inside of him light up when he opened his mouth.

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Whatever it is, like Jerome K Jerome says: “We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach, Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach and diet it with care and judgement. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart.”

Blame The Toxos

Every once in a while a book comes along that changes the way you fundamentally view things. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong is one such. In the book, the author covers various types of microbes, bacteria and pathogens that we carry within ourselves or encounter in the world. A fascinating adventure awaits the reader on this microscopic journey.

The book shows us how each being is a complex symbiosis unto itself. A concept we know vaguely but appreciate deeply when we read the book.

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We have heard of parasitic infections that control the minds of hosts like rabies. Rabies makes its carriers aggressive and the only way for it to spread is by biting and scratching another being. ( Rabies is probably the basis for the myth of the werewolf.)

There is one particular type of parasite that is chilling in its tale. Toxoplasma Gondii or Toxo is a single celled organism that latches itself onto brains. It is also referred to in the TED talk linked below for further information.

Quote : Toxoplasma Gondii is a brain parasite otherwise known as Toxo. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodents natural fear of cats and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards the cats with fatal results, and T.gondii gets to complete its life cycle.

Toxo has been known to manipulate mammals. It makes rats run towards cats and offer themselves as prey just so toxo can reproduce. Classic tale of self destructive behavior, wouldn’t you agree? It is also proven that many humans play host to Toxo.

TED Talk by Ed Yong

The book led to many happy, wild conjectures such as:
(a) Could that be the reason Cat videos are so popular on You-tube? I mean, I have always wondered: Why Cat Videos? Why not hippo videos?

(b) Humans affected with Toxo also fare differently on personality tests, showing different trajectories when it comes to risk taking and pleasure seeking behaviors. Could a combination of Toxo and Dopamine releasing behaviors such as increased reliance on social media have engineered the elections?

It sounds like a weird sci-fi scenario: Toxo encourages self-destruction, dopamine clamors for fake news, and the world falls prey to single celled organisms manipulating mammals (us), while we run around like zombies thinking we have free will.

The understanding of human biology has fascinated mankind for centuries. But advances in microbiology itself is less than 200 hundred years old. Even then, our narrative surrounding the understanding has been harsh: Bacterial infections, germs, plagues, survival of the fittest. While there are numerous examples of these, the truth is that we also play host to a large number of helpful microbes and bacteria.

Theodore Rosebury, a microbiologist, wrote in 1928, during his research that:

“The knowledge that micro organisms can be helpful to man has never had much popular appeal, for men as a rule are more preoccupied with the danger that threatens their life than in the biological forces on which they depend. The history of warfare always proves more glamorous than accounts of co-operation.”

A fact so timeless that we ought to have it framed in halls of learning if it isn’t already.

P.S: Please watch the TED Talk by Ed Yong – it is only 13 minutes long.

Stop and Look at the Snails

After enduring a particularly long spell of drought, we are relishing the rains lashing down on us this year. The clean, fresh air after the rain is one we relish. As the toddler son and I make our way to school every morning, our heart lifts at the marvelous rainbows, the cherry blossoms starting to bloom and the beautiful snails out on the roads.

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Sometimes, we come up with silly names for the little creatures we find on our path. Turbo the Snail is always a welcome sight. Earthy Worm invokes the same curiosity if not adoration. Toby Turtle is remembered with affection, and we wonder aloud how we can find ways to hobnob more freely with turtles.

Watching the snails leave a shiny trail behind them one rainy day, we squatted there wondering whether that trail left behind by snails is poisonous. That innocent minute squatting on the sidewalk looking at snails criss-cross our path raised so many questions. It looked to us like a snail could not get very far if it had to flee a predator.

Where do they live when it is not raining and can’t move?
What if we had slippery slopes for snails? said the toddler always keen to help.
Do only snails walk the slippery slope? (completely lost on the toddler of course) and so on.

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“Amma, we will be late! Hurry up.” said the conscientious fellow and we galloped past the snails wondering how much there was to do in the world, and how little we manage to do.

The thought that there is so much more to be done can sneak up at you in the most unexpected moments. Like the time I was reading a love story written by Alexander McCall Smith in the book Chance Developments. The story imagined the life of a young man in Scotland using a vintage photograph of a young man helping to change a car tire in the presence of a beautiful young lady in a cream colored coat.

 

In the book, the young man is taking a stroll around a loch and is fascinated by some plants that many ignored because they were believed to be poisonous, but he nibbles at them lovingly almost, since his father had tried and demonstrated to him that these particular plants were not poisonous at all. He had studied the properties of the plant, and traced the origins of the myth to a Celtic folktale, and though most tales started off with a kernel of truth, this one probably did not.

How is a story as innocuous as that supposed to make one feel like there is so much to be done? Because they are so many ways in which we can remain curious, to question the this-is-how-it-is-done-s of the world. The fact that we can bust one myth just by questioning it is good. And it proves that we pave the path for one more myth to be broken and then one more.

It has been a few years since I read ’Surely, You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’ By Richard Feynman. I remember one passage in which the celebrated scientist talks of watching ants as they made their way around his backyard. Marveling at how they navigated obstacles placed in their path, and admiring the innate steadfastness of the species.

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The quest for knowledge can be a curious, interesting journey, if only we take the time to stop and look at the snails.

Richard Feynman on the Meaning of Life – Brain Pickings

Toby Turtle’s Lessons on Life

Toby the Turtle came home for a week. He was a much loved member of the family, and soon after helping to cook a meal would join hands with heroic forces to battle evil in Spiderman Vs Sinister Six wars. Toby the Turtle is the kindergarten classroom stuffed toy who comes home for a week to the proud Star of the Week. It is a great honor for the children, and I saw the kindergartener in our home puff out his chest and look important, as he carried Toby around. He loved having someone to take care of, and I must say Toby lightened the atmosphere in the house.

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We all seemed to like having the stuffed toy around, not least because of the change in pace, but also because Toby brought the class journal with him. Every child who had Toby had written a page or two about what they did with Toby, and how much they loved him.

“Toby is my friend.”, ” I wish I could keep Toby with me forever.” seemed to be common sentiments across all the pages in the journal, and I must say had I been Toby, I would have loved it.

In other news, I recently read a book on aging, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande is a surgeon, and the book is a must read for all of us who must contemplate mortal life. The business of living with dignity, pride, compassion and meaning. In the book, Dr Gawande explores the process of aging using multiple examples, interspersed with his experience with his own father, who was also a surgeon. His father gradually loses his health, and despite his deterioration, was determined to lead life on his own terms.

Modern medicine has made phenomenal advances. Life expectancy has increased, and for the first time in the history of mankind, we have as many people under the age of 5 as above 80.

When something happens and people make it into hospitals, the attending surgeons and doctors will do everything in their power to ensure that they can save lives, and often let the near and dear know what the problem is, and what the medical options are, but not much more.

Dr. Gawande explains that it is up to us, as patients, family members or friends to ask and be equipped with the critical questions of living. Questions such as:

1. What is your understanding of your illness and how far along has the condition progressed?

2. Your fears or worries for the future

3. Your goals and priorities

4. What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not?

And later,

5. What would a good day look like?

Though it examines a serious subject, it is not a morbid book, and pragmatically looks at the problem of aging in the current medical system. There are lively portions that explore the elements of a happy life as much as it opens our eyes to mortality. Take for example: Bill Thomas’s effect on Geriatric care.

Dr Gawande talks about one scenario where Dr Bill Thomas, a director of a medical facility in upstate New York, was upset about the well-being of those in the geriatric ward. He being a quirky, brilliant gentleman, and felt that it was the lack of vibrant life around hospitals that is the cause for long term residents to suffer from boredom, loneliness and depression.

Having grown up on a farm himself, he petitions the management that the missing link was teeming life. After some work, he manages to convince the management that having some plants, birds etc would help people get better sooner. As soon as the nod came, he got busy, and before people knew what was happening, truck loads of living beings descended on the premises: Not a dog here and a cat there, but hundreds of parakeets, dogs, cats, rabbits, hens – a whole menagerie.

aging

The next few days were mayhem as nurses and doctors worked hand in hand trying to get the birds into cages and making sure there was someone to feed the birds and so on. The hospital was furious, nurses complained about having more to do as if caring for the old people were not enough. Administrators complained about infections, they complained about cleanliness.

But something phenomenal came about from the experiment: Patients who were uninterested and mute took notice. They would watch the birds, and weeks later would talk, and in some cases, patients cared for the birds, and whenever they could, took up feeding the birds. In time, it resulted in fewer health interventions. People were happier and general health improved. Every body liked having some being to care for.

(You can read the section of his interview here, though the book has the whole story)

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/10/atul-gawande-on-being-mortal.html

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And it didn’t boil down to how the animals saved them. It boiled down the idea that people need to have purposes in their lives, and that you could offer ways that they could connect to them. That they could live for something larger than just being alive.

That is the essence of humanity. We need to care, we need to feel needed and wanted, and we need to feel empathy: whether we are 5, 40 or 80.

Toby the Turtle taught us that. Kindergarten teaches us about life in lovely ways.

Beauty in Diversity & Unity in Adversity

I am one of the thousands of people who ride BART regularly. One particularly cold morning, as two train loads of people tried to stuff ourselves into 1 train, I took to my favorite pastime on the train when not being able to read or write: people-watching. It was packed and constricted given the crowd. I mused on the different experiences that Bart has given me.

I look around me to see that people from different backgrounds, different religions, different ideologies, different skin tones, different economic levels are all there rubbing shoulders together. We all say our sorry’s and our don’t worry’s good-humoredly when the train pulls an unexpected stop and we all bump into each other.

Over time, the trains have provided opportunities for conversations with people traveling elsewhere. As they clamber on with suitcases and strollers, it is hard to not share their enthusiasm. When they get off, you give them a quiet smile and wish them a happy vacation, and they all smile back happily and go on their way. The experience of travel had already started as far as they are concerned. They already got to smile at strangers, already got to ask directions from people very different than themselves.

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If you truly want to experience life, the public transit is a good place for it. Take for example, the con-man who asks for precise and exact amounts of money every few weeks. “Good morning all. I need 89$ and 27 cents to save my son – I would appreciate anything you can help with. Thank you, thank you, God bless you.”

“Didn’t you ask for $137 and 25 cents last time”, asks an exasperated regular, and the con-man does a bunk, trying his luck in the next compartment.

Then, there is the prattler who takes care of his business on the phone, the I-am-right-ler ensconced in his seat comfortably in the middle issuing moral dictums, the scornful-lookers who think the train is beneath them, the relentless hair combers who brush the shines away from their hair, the make-up doers, the readers, the coders, the writers all shake down together in a tiny space for that aspect of the day.

https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/the-trees-spiritual-path/

On these trains and platforms, I have been transported to small villages in Africa, felt sorry for people living in war-torn regions, listened to the lilting tones of foreign languages, seen and heard people share stories about Egyptian mummies, been wary of con-men, talked to erudite people who have shared a drop of their wisdom on the way.  I have also edged away discreetly from people who are stone drunk at 8 o’clock in the morning rearing for a fight, and seen people injecting themselves with drugs. I have seen policemen and policewomen go about their grim duties of ensuring a safe transit with a smile on their faces.

https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/yogic-alcoholics/

I have talked to people who are wondering whether they will be able to afford health care , laughed with pregnant mothers, and then congratulated them months later and be shown the baby’s pictures.

As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world: Virginia Woolf

I have listened to loud music that I otherwise might not have listened to because some quirky character decided that what the world wanted that day was some music. I like the street musicians on the underground stations singing to a seemingly uninterested audience. But I have noticed a little spring in peoples’ steps as they near the musicians, and a slight smile even as they move away.

Anyone who doubts the advantages of diversity should get on public transit and immerse themselves in the experience. There is beauty in diversity.  

I may not know people’s names, I definitely do not remember every interaction, but as I started writing, I realize that there is so much that I have absorbed about life just by riding the public transit. Therefore, I was doubly pleased to see Bart tweet out in response to Donald Trump’s ban on immigration that everyone is welcome on Bart.

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Beauty in Diversity & Unity in Adversity, seems like a good slogan in these times.

Thank you Bart.

Nothing For Something

We were listening to the audio books of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy over the numerous trips we took during the holidays. There is a section where the Earthlings manage to meet the creative team that designed Earth. The designer walks out very proud of his latest fjords in a section resembling current-day Africa, and I remember being awed. How marvelous would it be to think up new concepts, new colors and new landscapes. What shades to give the acacia tree bark? How about the Palm tree bark? Rustic brown or brown acacia sparkle? How about hay? Should hay’s shade be different from the dried grass bundles?

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I suppose it will be a salutary task for everyone to create something beautiful from scratch just to see the myriad choices and decisions one is faced with. There is beauty in creationism. Much more than in consumerism.

Henry David Thoreau would have been pleased indeed that his words about the world being a canvas to the imagination, was taken to heart.

The activity we had chalked out for New Year was painting the daughter’s room, and talk of shades of colors was ripe. I never knew that this many shades of light blue existed with such exotic sounding names.

If somebody had given me the list of colors from the paint section of the hardware store, I could have stumped my audience in Crocodile-Crocodile. Those of you who have not had the pleasure of playing Crocodile-Crocodile should do so at least once to experience the joy of looking up new colors. “Crocodile Crocodile, may we cross the golden river?” is a stellar game in which the crocodile has to catch a person who is attempting to run across the river (strip of land) if they don’t have the color on their persons.

Crocodile, crocodile, may we cross the golden river?

Yes you may. If you have Turquoise Blue.

What is Turquoise Blue? Is it the color of a turquoise? Is a turquoise a turtle or a tortoise or a porpoise or just a turquoise who is blue?

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Anyway, once the paints were in, the smell of fresh paint along with the envisioned end product of a beautiful, clean wall was enough to get us going. There we were, looking ebullient and hanging off the walls at various angles and heights with rollers in our hand. Music played in the background and talk turned to various topics, including the dumb painter, Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture, Tom Brown’s School Days, the Asian Paints advertisement featuring a boy who looked remarkably like a cross between Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and R.K.Narayan’s Swami which of course led to Mark Twain’s short story of Tom Sawyer and his friends painting a fence.

After a few hours, I noticed that the toddler son had taken a break from painting. I asked him what he was doing. ‘Nothing.’, he said. ‘Just sitting and seeing you paint,’ . There he was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on the floor with his cheeks cupped in his hands looking enamored with the soothing aura of activity around him and content to absorb.

It is an answer I love to get from children. In their world, it is okay to say they were sitting, and doing nothing. It is those of us who have bought into this idea of being busy who loathe the term.  Sometimes, nothing is good. Maybe we all need to carve out worthwhile moments of doing nothing, so we can do something worthwhile.

“I soon realized that what I really wanted was time to ruminate, time to observe, and often time to be alone.”

Miss Read, Early Days

It reminds me of this drawing that occurs often in Brain Pickings articles : Everybody should sit quietly near a stream and listen.

Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen
Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen

In fact, I think it would be phenomenally better for our current President to do nothing at all. That will be something, and something is better than nothing.

The Dumb Painter

A version of this post, The Colour Blue, appeared in The Hindu dated 30th January.

I had written in an earlier post about how the daughters room looked like the Flying Zoos of Babylon. It was time for a radical change.

Multiple trips to the hardware store had yielded one decision: the room was to be painted in shades of blue. It is funny how an unassuming dumb painter influenced our choices three decades on, on the opposite side of the world.

Years ago, when I was about the daughter’s current age, we were having our house painted. Regular readers know that I lived in a small mountain village nestled in the Nilgiri Hills. One of the advantages of a small place like that was that everybody knew everybody else. The local barber came home to cut hair, the tailor stopped by our place on his way home from work. The maid knew the milkman’s wife. The train driver waved to my mother and waited while she skated down the slopes to catch the train. When the postman’s daughter wanted to marry the station master’s son, the mediating talks for the cross religious marriage were willingly handled by all of the above people.

Therefore a matter such as painting the house was just handed over to a genial pair of fellows who everyone knew did a good job. One of whom was dumb – not being able to speak hardly deterred him however, and he used guttural sounds, shakes of his head and hand gestures to communicate. And when we finally got the import of what he was trying to say, he gave us one of his beaming, innocent smiles that made you want to smile too.

My father, always had a soft spot for those less abled, partly because he was hard of hearing himself, and used a hearing aid. Consequently, all of us have developed somewhat loud voices in the house: When we ask for the cereal to be passed across the table, cereals are passed across tables in all houses in the neighborhood.

When the  painter and his assistant showed up to paint the house, they asked us the colors to use to paint the house.

Cream was boring, and it showed dirt. Maybe the living room could have cream, but all other rooms could use a different color, the father said in his stentorian tones. The  painter nodded indicating that it was sound logic and that he approved of it.

Yellow for one bedroom (nod from painter.)

Light brown (beige) for another room (nod from painter)

Light pink for girl’s room (vigorous head shaking and bah-bah sounds with his hands gesturing NO)

Clearly, he did not approve of pink for my room.

‘Why?’, said the father and I in unison.

Gesturing and loud interpretations followed. Anyone who did not want to listen to what the other man had to say could simply have wrung his hands and given up. The easiest route would have been for the father to say ‘Pink it is!’ since the choice had been mine in the first place, and for the painter to just shrug and paint it since that is the way we wanted it. But all of us wanted to hear the other’s viewpoint, and even though it was difficult and somewhat hilarious to a casual observer, it was well worth it.

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The father was wearing his favorite Navy blue striped suit. The painter used that for starters. Bah – bah, he said pointing to the dress.

‘Navy blue? Too dark pa. We want the child’s room to be bright.’ , shouted the father.

More frustrated nods greeted us at this, and the painter went and brought in a tin of white paint which he carried with him at all times by the looks of it.

He took the paint and indicated painting white over my father’s navy blue suit. I can’t say that pleased my father very much, but he managed to leap back from the paintbrush and crack a joke.

He tried several other things to make us see reason. It took a while but the painter finally huffed out towards the door, and we quizzically followed him. It was not like the good-natured fellow to huff off like that. He opened the door, braving the pouring rain outside, and he pointed up at the grey, cloudy sky and the wall and then me.

‘Sky blue?’,  I asked.

He stopped, look at me and gave me one of his beaming smiles that blessed my intelligence when it should have been doing just the opposite.

Sky blue it was. Ever since, almost every house we moved to within the campus had at least one room in light blue.

I noticed that as we were looking out color choices for the daughter’s room, I was gravitating towards the light blue, and maybe I managed to convince the daughter too, for she too was leaning towards that. In today’s world, the painter would whip out an app and show us the room in light blue, and we would have nodded our assent, the whole thing from start to finish taking less than a minute.  But, I am glad we didn’t have an app. That smile he bestowed on us would not have been half as wide had we not tried that hard to understand each other, nor would the sight of a light blue wall have any meaning.

Sometimes, hard is good. Life is after all a string of memories held together by strands of time, and the strength of the emotions in our interpretations and recollections.

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I do not know whether the painter remembers this, but I remembered him in the room that day as I regaled the tale to the family. We dabbed on the first stroke of sky blue paint to test the color, and smiled at each other, as wholeheartedly as if the silent speech-impaired painter had convinced us.