The Happiness Machine

In one story track of the Dandelion Wine, one of the characters, Leo Auffman, sets out to create a Happiness Machine after listening to low-spirited conversations among the old. Grandpa Spaulding, does let us know early in the process not to wait for the thing with bated breath, but we do.

Leo sets out to make his happiness machine imagining all the things that will make us happy. One quiet evening when he asks his wife what she thinks of it, she is stiff in her response, but Leo is too excited to notice that she doesn’t approve of the project. He spends more and more time creating the machine much against the wishes of his wife. He grows increasingly fond of what he is creating and neglects his family, too busy to notice the discordant strings starting to play out among the children. His wife tries to get him to see reason, and tells him that he is better off with his children, and spending time with them, but the excited Leo can barely wait to unveil the beautiful Happiness Machine to the world so there will never be discontent among the populace again.

It is only when he discovers his son weeping uncontrollably after taking a spin in the Happiness Machine that he fumbles. He is confused and cannot see where he went wrong. He pleads with his wife, Lena, and she too tries it out. At first, he hears her laughing, but slowly a deep wracking crying emerges from within the machine. Poor Leo – all he wanted to do was make people happy.

Lena comes out, and tells Leo that at first it was beautiful and she thoroughly enjoyed it. There was Paris, and all the wonderful places to see, right there in her backyard, but slowly a discontent set in. Hitherto, Paris and Greece were wondrous places, but not ones she ever dreamed of going to, and she was happy with her chores and the family. But now, the happiness machine had shown her everything that was possible.

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What’s more, she goes on to say that she truly started crying only when the Happiness Machine took her dancing with Leo again. They hadn’t been to a dance in twenty years. Leo says he could take her dancing that very evening, but she says that is not the point, since all the Happiness Machine did was remind her of those golden times and foolishly wish for it again instead of treasure the memory. The children have to be fed, chores need doing around the house. Who wants a sunset to last forever? The sunset is only beautiful because it does not last forever. The whole time I am thinking I have my real life to get back to. My children to feed, my home to clean, my work that awaits me. Oh Leo, how could you forget that real life can never match up to what a Happiness Machine says my life should be like?

The story finishes with Leo realizing that a Happiness Machine was there with him all along – he was just too absorbed to notice it. One that doesn’t always work, but will do – his family.

A book written in 1957. Brilliant.

Dandelion Wine

I used to eat wild berries. This is the kind of statement that gets folks today squeezy. Were you really okay after eating wild berries? Yes. You sample one and then another if the first felt okay. Leave it at that and then a few days later, if you haven’t spent the preceding few days heaving up your insides, go for it again. Yet, every time I try to eat one, the husband grabs my arm and looks at me accusingly. The daughter twirls her eyes at the rebellious mother and berry eating becomes another adventure that is reflective of my wild youth.

In other news, I read an excellent book, Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine is essentially a book of a boy’s summer in a small sized town. The first time he realizes that he is alive. Alive in a way he can observe the smells of summer, relate to the activities the hot sun brings with it, deduce what relationships mean, deal with the pain of seeing a childhood friend move, and how we need a sense of community. In this short book of related short stories, there emerges a brilliant, simple narrative of a 12 year old boy, Douglas Spaulding.

In one story, Grandpa Spaulding realizes that Bill Forrester, their young gardener, who is training up to be a journalist one day, buys a particular variety of grass that only grows to a certain height and then stops, thereby making a lawn mower redundant. (Luckily, no such grass exists to this day.) It is just a pretty lawn requiring very low maintenance. Grandpa is shocked at Bill for considering buying something that inches out the clovers and dandelions which means there will be no bees or butterflies in the garden. He goes on a tirade saying that this is the problem with the younger generation.

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He tells a stunned Bill that he wants nothing to do with the grass till he dies, for he likes mowing the grass. He likes the joy in small things. The problem with the younger generation, he says, is that they hop from one big thing to another and find methods to get rid of all the small things that fill the day. He tries to explain to him that one day he would go crazy trying to find little things to fill his day.

“Lilacs on a bush are better than orchids. And dandelions and devil grass are better! Why? Because they bend you over and turn you away from all the people and the town for a little while and sweat you and get you down where you remember you got a nose again. And when you’re all to yourself that way, you’re really yourself for a little while; you get to thinking things through, alone. Gardening is the best excuse for being a philosopher. Nobody guesses, nobody accuses, nobody knows, but there you are. Plato in the peonies, Socrates force-growing his own hemlock. A man toting a sack of blood manure across his lawn is akin to Atlas letting the world spin easy on his shoulder. As Samuel Spaulding, Esquire, once said, ‘Dig in the earth, delve in the soul’. Spin those mower blades, Bill, and walk in the spray of the Fountain of Youth. End of lecture. Besides, a mess of dandelion greens is good eating once in a while.”

I haven’t eaten Dandelion stems though – time to try some freshly washed ones from the backyard. I like the way Grandpa Spaulding thinks.

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I just need to remind myself of Grandpa Spaulding’s wise words when I am moaning in the kitchen doing the after dinner cleanup.

Published in 1957, this story’s theme resonates on multiple levels. Today, we find other distractions to fill our day. We graze on Facebook, we try the pulse of Twitter, we farm with the flick of a finger on Farmville. Which brings me to the next lovely topic on The Happiness Machine in Dandelion Wine.

The Grandparents Party

I wonder whether you would garner any praise if you walked into your next important meeting, say a board of governors meeting, and showed everyone your perfectly tied shoelace. Unless your product pitch requires a nifty lace to be tied. I don’t see the b.o.g-s typing themselves up in knots because you put on your own shoes.

Even better, I wonder what they would think if you walked up to them and showed them how you put your right shoe on your left foot and your left shoe in your right foot. Depending on how well liked you are, I suspect some sympathetic mumbling and secret plans to find the next person to succeed you.

Anyway, I digress.

Every day for a month, the son would get up, wish us a brisk good morning, run and pick up a pen and then circle the day off in the calendar. When I noticed this sense of urgency and purpose I chalked it down to one of the many useless things the daughter makes him do. And it was. There is a look of reverence associated with any task entrusted to him by his older sister. She told him to circle off every day in the calendar, telling him to count down to the number of days left for his grandparents to arrive.

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The result of all this hard work is that the days passed and the grandparents arrived. Between the excited grandchildren and the excited grandparents, the roof is developing cracks in the plaster and all is well.

The son has never been one of those children who mumble and fumble causing you to stop mid-stride and ask, “What did you say? Speak up boy!” He addresses you with a voice meant to carry a school assembly without a mike even if you are only a few feet away. A fact that gives his like-throated maternal grandfather no end of joy. The old father has in fact carried school assemblies without a mike.

Anyway, what struck me observing grandparents and grandchildren is that we would all have excellent grades and reviews if our grandparents were our professors, managers and board of governors. I mean study the facts:

I caught them the other day absolutely beaming with pride and throwing loving glances at their grandson because he put on his shoes and socks by himself.

Then another day, they chuckled fondly at the fact that the son puts his left shoe on his right foot and vice-versa.

Not what the b-o-g-s in Paragraph 2 would do in other words.

I read somewhere that if we lived the other way around, i.e. started out as jaded old folk, then grew into the adult working life, and wound up as children, life would be happier and I cannot but agree. I would like to be congratulated for wearing the right pair of shoes on the wrong feet.

For Poignant Reading

I finished reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanidhi a few days ago.

Peppered throughout the slim volume are references to literary works that appealed to the author during his life. Dr Paul Kalanidhi was a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. He  double majored in Biology and Literature from Stanford University. His love for literature and the underlying angst to understand the question of ‘where morality, biology and philosophy intersect’ are evident throughout the book. His experiences with living and dying as a surgeon only deepened his yearning to understand the truth and he eventually seemed to learned to view his illness as a method of finding out what that very question meant in the face of death.

At one point in time, his oncologist, wanted to start keeping tabs on his mental acuity as tumors spread to his brain. His wife started recording him reading something everyday. One evening, he started reading with his infant daughter seated on his lap. A few seconds into the reading, he put down the book and recited the whole passage from memory. His wife and mother exchange smiles that clearly say, “How typical of him!”. Little glimpses like that made the human being who comes through the pages a very like-able person. A good son, friend, husband, brother, friend, father and doctor.

The book finishes abruptly as time accelerated and Dr Paul Kalanidhi died before he could finish the book.

You can easily skip the prologue. It adds little value to the book or to the personality of the author. But the epilogue written by his wife, Dr Lucy Kalanidhi, was incredible and wrapped up Paul’s story. I read it twice back to back. I loved how beautifully she wrote about the place they chose for his final resting place. A serene place in the Santa Cruz mountains overlooking the coast, and where deer eat the flowers, and gentle rains make the grass grow. It is also the place where the natural elements rage. Much like his life.

There is one particularly moving passage where Dr Paul Kalanidhi writes to his baby daughter, Cady, that there will come a time when she lists her accomplishments and weighs her contributions to the world. At that moment, he tells her never to forget that she made a dying man very happy. I teared up every time I read that.

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I felt the same when I read Dr Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. Both these people may have written their books when they knew they were dying, but both books are incredible pieces on how to live.

Nose in Books & Feet in Socks

As an immigrant to the United States, there are things I will always cherish. Lovable quirks such as “Water no ice please” or “Aww..”. Things like different reading fare is marvelous. Growing up in the misty mountain valleys of South India, we had access to good children’s books, and I relished every moment spent with my nose in books and my feet in socks.

Enid Blyton lifted all of us children into clouds above The Magic Faraway Tree or whisked us away on the Wishing Chair. Tinkle comics & Champak took us for a spin (I am trying to remember some of the characters without the aid of the Internet – a cheap thrill in the current times – Kalia, Chamataka, Doob-Doob, Tantri the Mantri, Suppandi, Naseeruddin Hodja, Vikram & Betal and of course, that vague huntsman who should be the mascot for gun control laws, Shikari Shambu).

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Later, Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, R.K.Narayan, and Alexander Pushkin were the in-things to read.

As more serious fare gradually replaced this wonderful array, I never expected to be revisit that wondrous feeling of picking up a children’s book where you know not what magical world opens up to you, and when. But that is exactly what happened when I had children here, and we journeyed into these marvelous worlds together. I had never read the Thomas Train series or the Curious George series or the Beranstein Bear series or any of the books by Dr. Seuss as a child and I got to experience all of this with them for the first time. Oh! The simple pleasures of reading a book like any of these for the first time is gift enough, but to be blessed to be able to read it for the first time as an adult is surreal. It was like growing up all over again. To that, I am eternally grateful.

Walking into the children’s section of books is such a treat. Dr Seuss’s birthday gave rise to a number of excellent articles and I relished them almost as much as the books.

What Pet Should I Get?

Seuss-isms

Just as Dr Seuss promised, the nonsense woke up the brain cells that were sluggish due to lack of use and life became an adventure again.

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It even makes me think nothing of making a fool of myself publicly and putting out things like:

Do you want to be a Sailor?
Or do you want to be a Tailor?
Maybe we need to be a Failor
Before we become a Winnor.