Space Racers – Together The Fun Begins!

It gives me great pleasure that this article was published in The Hindu’s Open Page dated 27th September 2016. The illustration is beautifully done by Mr Deepak Harichandran

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/open-page-rise-and-shine-on-astronomy-day/article9150779.ece

There is something deeply calming and beautiful about gazing up at the stars at the end of a long day. It feels reassuring to know that we are but a small part of the cosmos, and it helps us puts our worries, anxieties and fears in perspective.

If there is nothing for the children to enjoy in terms of nature,  divert their attention to the ever changing panorama of the skies and let them experience wonder said Reverend James Woodforde in The Diary of a Country Parson when asked about children growing up in urban surroundings, who do not have the luxury of waddling through nature.

Reverend Woodforde (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Woodforde) would be pleased indeed if he went on a walk with the toddler son. Once the stars are visible, the son makes it a point to look up, his eyes filling up with wonder and questions bubbling up.  His ardent sister fans him along by pointing to the constellations and asking him to identify some of them. The young astronomer accepts this great responsibility with grace. He then proceeds to point at Ursa Major and calls it Orion, Ursa Minor is christened Sirius, Jupiter is labelled Venus and the Moon remains the Moon. All of this is done with confidence and joy, and the walk takes on a gentle humor of its own.

It is hard to identify constellations for us and even less need to do so now that we have access to excellent apps such as Skymaps and Google Sky. The skies are, however, fascinating and it will be nice to be able to identify the constellations even if we don’t need them to navigate from Spot A to Spot B at the moment.

star_gazing

One night as we stepped out for a stroll after a particularly satisfying meal and dessert, we diverted our gaze skywards as is our wont.

“If I become a space traveler, will you come with me?” he asked me a little line of worry creasing his face.

The background to this question was, of course, another conversation in which we had to let him know that when he grew old enough to become an astronaut, we would be past the age that is currently acceptable for astronauts. Maybe his sister could join him, but we may be past it. He looked forlorn when he heard that, and I made a mental note to remind him about how keen he was to have our company on a space vehicle, when he attempts to learn driving as a teenager.

I looked at his face and said, “You know? A century earlier, nobody could have thought your grandparents could fly across the world to meet you, so we don’t really know how things will change. Maybe if things progress along space travels, we could. Who knows?” I said. He seemed happy with the answer, and said,”Where would you like to go first? Which planet?”

I thought for a moment and said I would like to go to Neptune. “How about you? Where would you like to go?” I asked him.

“I want to go to Jupiter – maybe the great big spot in the storm.” The daughter asked him why, and he said, that he would like to see the moon have some company. On Jupiter, you can see 64 moons right?

“Did they teach you that in School?” I asked pleasantly impressed and surprised.

“No…..on Space Racers, Eagle and Robin get stuck in the storm on Jupiter remember?” said the couch-astronaut. (Space Racers is a TV program created with input from NASA)

“Space Racers – Together the Fun Begins…Rockatocka mission, we’re on our way….Space Racers…..” He then sang the whole title song for my benefit,laughing to fit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZPOAEGhTl8)

Whether through Television, movies, smart phone apps that map the sky for us or through Science lessons, it is wonderful to glory in the expanse of the Universe and humbly accept our position within it. Like Carl Sagan, the noted physicist, said, “Astronomy is a humble and character building experience.”

Happy Astronomers Day!

A Jane Austen Education

 I like to draw relaxation from the joy in little things. The ability to stop and look at a flower or amble along with friends and family discussing the little matters of life that make up the notes of music as we hum along in our lives.

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The ability to feel like it is okay to not be driven by this high sense of purpose, but living a useful life all the same.

There is no power on Earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple and useful life. - Booker. T. Washington
There is no power on Earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple and useful life. – Booker. T. Washington

When people talk about good stories, they are usually pumped up about plot, drama and suspense. I am all for plot, drama, suspense, mystery, hot-cold love and so on. But our lives don’t always turn out that way, nor should it. That is why I recharge myself with writings of Miss Read, Jane Austen and P.G.Wodehouse. When I read these authors, I can assure myself that it is perfectly okay to lead lives that will not get a dramatist to reach for his recording device, but one that is joyful enough in its pursuits and activities to make it an interesting one.

Every time, I unwind with a Jane Austen movie, the nourish-n-cherish family rolls its eyes and flees the television area. Now that I think about it, it seems to be the only way for me to get some air time with the television. Hmmm (Evil laugh with gleam in eyes). But I hope one day to be able to get them to enjoy the movies with me.

I am reading ‘A Jane Austen Education’ by William Deresiewicz, that is essentially all the life lessons that her writings have for us to imbibe. Such a delightful book! There are some things that are clearly just the author’s perspective of applying her writing to his life. Not to mention that this book was written by a man, so it is only natural that his and my perspectives vary. 

The books starts with my favorite book of hers: Emma.

Little nuggets of writing like this spot the whole book and make me want to open it up at random and read again.

Jane Austen was about a year old when another English Author wrote a statement that could serve as a motto for all her books. “Life is a comedy for those who think”, said Horace Walpole,  “and a tragedy for those who feel.”. Everyone thinks and feels, but Jane Austen’s question was, which one you are going to put first? Comedies are stories with happy endings. I could grow up and find happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important. Not my feelings, but my belief in my feelings, the conviction that they were always right.

Another one:

Being happy and feeling good about yourself are not the same thing.

A dictum that Mansfield Park reveals, that is as good today or even more apt today than any other day in the past.

Perpetual amusement leads only to the perpetual threat of boredom.

 I can tell you that it was truly a shocking revelation to me, that a recent study said we reach for our phone 221 times a day. (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/02/25/we-are-hopelessly-hooked/)

Imagine that. More than 200 moments in time when we could be observing (anything at all really) spent checking a digital device. Are we not just as guilty as the Crawfords in Mansfield Park for needing that kind of continuous stimulation? It is no wonder that Digital Addiction is a real thing  requiring treatment.

http://www.gq.com/story/video-game-rehab?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

It reminds me of this article:

Anyone with any degree of mental toughness,” artist Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in contemplating life and the art of setting priorities, “ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.

A sobering thought indeed.

The Dream Conveyor Belt

The understanding of time, the night sky and dreams are common themes of hilarity with the toddler son. His proud sister breaks into giggles every time he spouts a dubious theory to his great annoyance. He is a serious fellow and likes to think that his theories have merit. It was even harder for us when all he said after a bout of serious thinking was the word, “CAR” and shoved a toy Lightning McQueen car in your face. Though Lightning McQueen still reigns in the fellow’s world, we get a lot more of narrative content to aid our understanding these days – thank heavens for that.

One evening, he bounded into the kitchen full of energy from his afternoon nap: “Hi Amma. You know I had a dream. A bad dream. It was so scary: I cried and everything.”

“Oh! What was it?” I asked him injecting a note of concern while sipping blissfully at my tea. He looked fine to me. In fact, he looked radiant and energetic, not at all like a child scarred by nightmares in other words.

“You already know. You was in my dream remember?”

There are times for deep breaths and times for deep gulps of fortifying tea. I did both and then broke it to him gently that though I may have appeared in his dream, it did not mean that I knew his dream. He looked confused at that, and said, “But you hugged me and then we went for a hike, remember?”

“Maybe we did that in your dream, but I don’t know that because I can’t see your dream.”

“But yesterday you said you had a dream too.” Technically, I hadn’t said this the previous day, I had said it the previous week. But I explained to him, again that I may have had a dream and he could not know what it was even if there was a chance he starred in the dream.

“So what was the dream bone-head?” said his sister giggling to split, and thoroughly intrigued with this whole business of streaming dreams like television channels that one could tune into on demand.

dreamer

“Oh! I am hungry. Ask Amma – she knows.” said the maddening fellow and set to his evening snack with relish.

I wonder what Sigmund Freud would make of that theory, and whether our dreams could overlap in an alternate universe even if they were a week apart. Maybe in that world, there is no concept of time and so we all see different parts of the dream theatrically produced and fragmented by the stars of the night. Like stepping on and off a dream conveyor belt. Who knows? I think I’d like to retain the mystery of the dream. Even if they are confusing at times.

Love on Mars?

I am reading a book that is futuristic in outlook. Trees on Mars By Hal Niedzviecki. Sitting on our commuter train, I look around to see that there is only one other person in the whole packed compartment reading a book. The book itself is a somewhat distressing outlook on our obsession with the future and futuristic trends. How Artificial Intelligence will and is taking on more and more of how the Internet World functions. How the waves of the future are affecting the educational system. How it could affect our entertainment choices, art and the study of humanities. We all know that is happening and is inevitable and all the rest of it, but I put the bleak thing away to ponder on some things that cannot be done away with.

As I stepped out of the train station that evening, I saw a vendor hawking red roses with a lopsided grin on his face. As though mocking and daring folks to stop and buy his roses. I have seen these vendors every year, during the week leading up to Valentines Day. On Valentine’s Day, you see a bunch of folks you would never have chalked down as the romantic type when observing them on the train, doling the cash out for a few roses for their beloved. The AI systems could take a while figuring out which ones have that streak of romanticism in them, I thought victoriously, but of course I might be wrong.

With Valentines Day approaching, the son’s preschool environs are a-quiver with excitement. Pink and red hearts plaster the walls. The daughter drew a card with a large heart and a bunch of surrounding hearts for our Anniversary. The son asked if he can take the card the daughter made for our anniversary to his school to put it up on the notice-board. “No!” I squealed. Before any egos could be bruised, I assured the children that the card was beautiful but it was meant for Appa and Amma alone. I am not sure I am quite ready for that to be bandied about on a school notice board. Not to mention the questions surrounding marriages, weddings or society’s inevitable curiosity around arranged marriages.

I am also reading The Wild Swan a book by Michael Cunningham, a clever take on fairy tales with a dose of the worldly adult interpretations. Each tale is short with a slightly different view to the tale. But, I cannot deny that I like the children’s versions better. The children’s versions are common tales but manage to spin magic about them.

Pretty much how the children manage to spin magic around Valentines Day.

I miss the years of Elementary school valentine’s day preparations with the daughter. She would arduously draw hearts and flowers on every card for every child and teacher in the class. I knew those cards were to join the recycle pile in their own homes by the end of the day just as the pile she came home with did, but it was a wonderful concept and kept her happily occupied for a few hours.

Love on Mars

I really like how the younger children get to see love in its more wholesome form. They love their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, friends, siblings, caregivers and pets. It all gets a bit wearying when they want to make cards for them all, but I prefer that to the more narrow interpretation leading to conjugal harmony( or not) one day.

As long as we know how to retain this curious ability to love and be loved, the future can march on to the beat of generated bytes and streaming bits.

Happy Valentine’s Day !

The Empress of Palates Examines The Upma Conundrum

This post is heavy on Indian foods: Upma, Chapathi, Koottu. Here is an image that will help: (Just a snapshot from Google Images when you look up South Indian Tiffins – idli, dosa, pongal, upma, sambhar, chutney, koottu.)

I am glad to say that this post was featured in the Open Page in the Hindu dated 19th July 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/not-cool-enough-yet-the-upma-conundrum/article8866694.ece – illustrated in the article by cartoonist Keshav, whose work I have admired ever since I knew how to appreciate humor in the written form.

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“Folks are coming home for dinner tonight, what do you say we finish up all the leftovers in the fridge, so we can start afresh tonight? ” I said peering into the fridge. One box of chinese take-out (kung pao vegetables) was stacked atop a glass container with homemade vegetable biriyani. Beside it lay some south indian koottu and a few chappathis. One sweep to conquer Genghis Khan, Akbar and Raja Raja Cholan.

“Sure!” said the husband. I must tell you that of the many virtues I love about the husband, one is the fact that he is not a snooty gourmet. He is one of those lovable fellows who will have an omelet with dosa and soup, and gush on to say that it was a good meal. So much so that, I have gotten used to being quite the Empress of Palates around the house. If I think we could have masala vadas and I am in the mood to make them, I set to it with gusto.

“I told the guys we shall make it a South Indian dinner potluck.” said the h. as I peeked into the phone telling me about one friend’s contribution. I nodded. One friend said she would make a side dish that would go well with upma. So,  I said I will make ‘Upma’. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upma) It is that beautiful dish that is garnished with beans, carrot, peas all cut up into tiny pieces like stars, planets and comets speckling a clear night sky, and to complete the panorama of the flitting clouds added,”I’ll also make a mean groundnut chutney. ” Van Gogh’s Painting would beg if I made this beautiful one swirl.

upma

I had that smile that tints my face when I look up at the night sky, while the husband looked mortified. . “How could you? Why would you make upma when you can make so many other things? Upma is not the right dish for .. it just isn’t the right dish pairing for dinner alright?” said the man hovering his chappathi between the kung pao vegetable and the koottu, on his plate, as though deciding which was the worse choice to make.

“But you don’t mind eating upma. Even though you say you don’t particularly like it, you do justice to the dish don’t you?”

“Well yes. But upma is not a dinner worthy dish.”

The brain was fumbling with the light switch somewhere. “We had it for dinner last week with tomato chutney remember?”

“Yes! For us it is okay, but it isn’t exactly a dinner dish for Guests.” he said with a flourish. Like one who has just scored a particularly tricky point at the Local Debating Competition. The way he said ‘Guests’, one would think President Obama was stopping by with Elon Musk to discuss the Space Program over a plate of upma that evening.

“I thought you said that the only folks who visit our home are those you can open the kitchen to.” (This, he said in another discussion surrounding the use of a formal dining table in the home, but I am entitled to use the argument here: I checked with the daughter.)

“Yes but upma is easy to make. “

“Really? Last month do you remember me peeling some pasty stuff off the pan when you attempted to make it? You said that I made it look easy to make upma, but it actually is an art by itself.”

“Yes…I did. But that was to appease you.” I drew myself up. The husband raced on before I tacked on to the subject of appeasing and said, “NO. Not upma. Anything else.”

“I don’t understand this – what is wrong with upma?”

“I don’t know. It is considered a poor man’s dish.” said the husband, his arguments thinning. The cashews and ghee swam before my eyes and wondered which poor man would cook like that.

I gazed at the poor fish, and let it go. A few minutes later, the phone piped up with friends telling one another what they proposed to bring. One of them said she would bring Upma and then went on to add: My husband thinks I should not say Upma though, so I shall bring Vermicelli – Sooji Khichadi. A few minutes later, the phone buzzed again with her husband chiming into the conversation saying he had convinced his wife to switch their entry to Pongal instead of upma.

What is the mystery that plagues Upma’s status in South Indian Society? The Empress of Palates demands an examination. An Upma Festival maybe?