Frog & Toad’s Wisdom

Dinner was done, the kitchen was clean enough, and the children were smelling delightful after a hot bath (They looked and smelled like mops after playing all evening just an hour ago). The kindergartner and I had read a children’s book. After a few minutes, I thought I heard the rhythmic breathing that meant he fell asleep and, I started fiddling about with the phone. I had started with the intention of checking my email, and had gone all over the place, finally grazing my Facebook feed.

Every now and then, an article pops up in my feed exhorting me to rise to greater heights and tell me in 10 easy ways how to become a Better Person. Over the past decade, the nature of these articles has changed. At first, it said great things like Manage Priorities in your list and how best to Stick to Plan and all that.

Now, things have been taken down a couple of notches. We will get you effective to the point of Making Lists. Then, you are on your own. Go back to your phone if you like. If you want to stick to the lists, you must already be efficient enough, the articles say and throw up their hands.

This one told me how to Be Productive in the age of notifications.

‘It has been a long time since we read Frog & Toad’, said a sleepy child’s voice by my side. I looked up and the pair of us started laughing.
‘You didn’t sleep yet!’
‘No!’ he chuckled.
I gladly set aside my phone – pesky little thing telling me how to be Effective and Efficient. Like I wanted that. Pssk Tssk and Zsssk.

’Let’s read it then!’, I said. ‘Yeah!’, he said, and we settled down together. I love those books. I am drawn to the simple problems, the bonds of friendship that endures between them and the humor in them.

frog_toad

Frog & Toad Eat Cookies

Frog & Toad sat at the tables eating cookies out of a jar. Frog had made the cookies and the friends could not stop eating them.

Hmmm….the brain said, and I glanced at the phone buzzing and blinking with a notification.

frog_toad1.jpg

Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another. “You know, Toad,” said Frog, with his mouth full, “I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.”

The friends try closing the jar each time after taking a cookie.
But they find they can open the jar every time.

frog_toad2

They then try closing the jar, and putting it on a high shelf where you have to mount a ladder.
They find that they can climb a ladder, open the jar, and eat the cookies.

FrogAndToad-ladder

My mind could not help drawing parallels to the article I had just been reading. The article told me that the way to stop the habit of grazing your favorite apps was to move the oft-used icons to a different, hard to find area in the phone. I had done that, but found myself, swiping a few screens, opening a folder with the apps, and going after them anyway.

I was Frog getting on a ladder and opening the jar of cookies.

Frog & Toad now figure they are going to get a stomach ache soon, and are desperate to stop eating the cookies. So, they decide that as long as they know the cookies are there, they cannot stop. The best path forward would be to share the cookies with the birds and the cookies are done, they agree, and take the cookie tin out into the Spring evening to share with the birds.

Like the wise friends above, it might be a better thing to do, to just ‘share the cookies with the birds’ and be done with it. I pushed the phone away from me resolutely, and we took to discussing cookies. ‘Yummy- I love cookies. Let’s bake them one day.’, said the little fellow. I agreed, and content with that promise, he settled down and fell asleep almost instantaneously.

I lay musing. It is a good reminder for us to read how our brains respond to the demands of technology (we know the effects of Dopamine, we know how companies gain by making us spend more time, but yet…)

Tristan Harris is a Design Ethicist who has taken it upon himself to make us aware of the challenges we face:

Quote from article

“Never before in history have a handful of technology designers working at three tech companies … influenced how a billion people spend their attention.”

https://ww2.kqed.org/futureofyou/2017/05/25/tristan-harris-brain-hacking/

Well….

Not all wisdom is new, nor is all folly out of date. – Bertrand Russell

 

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When The Baahubalis Met Betsy

The husband was back from watching the movie Baahubali 2.  Indian cinema had outdone itself, and he was regaling us with the story line and the amazing fight sequences. This enthusiastic performance was greeted differently by the household:

(a) Avid interest in the toddler son, who was wondering whether to raise Baahubali to the echelons of Hanuman, or Spiderman,

(b) An eye-roll from the daughter who was doing something with her slime (coming up soon), and

(c) An almost soporific nod from me wondering when would be a good time to get a cup of tea.

“There is one scene where the bulls are all charging at Baahubali and he catches them by the horns like this and flings them – booyang!” , he said reaching for a water bottle, with a loose lid, to demonstrate. I held the water bottle on the other side, and he looked piqued that his bull showed resistance. Baahubali’s cows did not resist, they flew.

I had smartly declined the movie invitation and enjoyed a quiet afternoon in the park with the children.

The next day, the husband, friend and I were up early for a hike in the rolling hills nearby. The early morning clouds were scuttling about in a desultory fashion, the grass was swaying to the breezes. Only the birds seemed to be bright and energetic. I was plodding along not yet completely awake, and the husband and friend were talking about the Baahubali movie again. The friend had seen a late night show and was bleary eyed after the movie. But mere mention of that great and able Baahubali seemed to infuse him with energy. I watched the pair of them make animated conversation and smiled to myself as I imagined the daughter shaking her head and saying, “Boys! Amma – they can’t help themselves!”

There was a touch of the English countryside about us that morning. There were cows grazing calmly, and an occasional deer or two were visible far away. I was throwing my mind pleasantly to a book I had read recently, A Road To Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. There were lovely passages in the book that seemed to match my surroundings at the time. The rolling hills, the slight chill in the air.  In the book, Bill Bryson writes about how he took up a road trip across Great Britain without the use of a car, and mostly on foot.

“What a joy walking is. All the cares of life, all the hopeless, inept *wits that God has strewn along the Bill Bryson Highway of Life, suddenly seem far away and harmless, and the world becomes tranquil and welcoming and good.”

Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling

hills

As we were ambling along, we noticed several cow-shaped obstructions in our path. Three cows stood in front of us blocking us quite effectively. One of the cows locked eyes with me.

I looked at her, she looked at me.

I looked, she looked.

I blinked, she didn’t.

I looked away, she didn’t.

“I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around. That’s what I mean when I say Britain is cozy.”

Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 9.49.14 AM.png

The cow showed no inclination of looking away, or moving.  I am in for the long haul, she seemed to say.

I can wait, I told her.

Ha! she said. It is you humans who are always in a hurry. I have no problems. I could stand here all day. Want to see? she said and stood there chewing the cud in what I thought was an unnecessarily exaggerated manner. If I had chewing gum, I could have played the game too, but I didn’t have any on me at the moment.

I then actually tried talking to her. “Please – we won’t do anything. We just want to pass you by.” I said.

To this she responded. She stared at me even more intensely, and then donned a positively bored look and looked away. It was like I was giving a teenage kid advice.

The husband and friend were standing nearby in a thoroughly helpless fashion.  I looked at the pair of them shuffling their feet and asked them to summon their inner Baahubali and scare the cows away.

The duo guffawed loudly at this, and said the best performance they could come up with was to flex their muscles till it plopped and then fly like Baahubali’s cows in the opposite direction.

bahubali

I looked back at the cows to appeal to them once again, and started laughing. It reminded me of one of the passages in Road to Little Dribbling where Bill Bryson had gone walking through a field. The field was on a hill, and he huffed and puffed up the hill, only to be confronted by an angry bull or cow(he couldn’t stop to see). One cow-or-bull-snort later, he came charging down the 2 mile hill to the nearest village. He entered a pub sorely in need of restoration to body and spirit. There, in the pub, was an old farmer who listened to his tale of woe, and said calmly, “Oh, That is only Betsy. She won’t do anything!”

The Betsy in our path seemed to derive inspiration from the story, and moved enough to let us pass.

The Baahubalis scampered across, while Betsy got her entertainment fix for the day.

The Mystery Of the Blue Hot Box

Weekly once is Trash Night. It is that night of the week when I marvel at humanity’s ability to generate trash. It is that night when I look efficient and bustle, while the children scramble to save their Works Of Art. The husband throws a protective arm around wherever he is sitting and says. “Please! Not now – I will sort it out later. “

“When?” I demand. He treats it as a rhetorical question and wisely refrains from answering.

As I gather the copious amounts of trash we generate from the various dustbins, I ponder: If one household had this much trash, what would happen to the Earth as the population grew? What are the lessons we are learning? I didn’t realize then that the trash was to give me a valuable lesson soon.

Fifteen years ago when I first set foot in a mall in the United States, I was awed that this rich country had such vast, sprawling areas set aside for the activity of shopping alone.

This initial awe soon gave way to disappointment. I missed the chaos of bazaars, I missed the joy of finding a treasure in the pile, I missed the call of the vendors beckoning me to take just one look before deciding. I distinctly yearned for the abundance of prints, styles, and fabrics that shopping in the tiny shops in India had accustomed me to.

The last time I visited my family in India therefore, I plumped for a bazaar – no fancy malls for me please. What I wanted was beauty in the seemingly chaotic.

The little bazaar had tiny shops that had the dimensions of a large dining table, but enough merchandise crammed inside them to fit a garage. We were like kids in a china shop. When I paid what was asked for, I was lovingly chided that I had forgotten the crucial step of bargaining. But I was happy. I was not going to haggle with a small business owner, I said. The head shake that greeted us from family and store-owners alike said, ‘These NRIs!’.

bazaar

Among the merchandize that day was a cricket bat, and some lunch boxes. You know those ones that profess to retain the heat? Those ones. They are imaginatively called hot-boxes.

Back home, we displayed all the things we had picked up. We held up the pink and blue hot boxes with pride.

“Why didn’t you tell us that this is what you wanted?” asked the parents-in-law in rare unison. “We are always re-gifting these hot boxes!” they cried.

“In fact, if you buy sarees worth Rs 5,000 in one store, they give you two hot boxes for free!”, cried the mother-in-law stung at being deprived the joy of getting free lunch boxes for the children.“These NRIs!” they said to each other and shook their heads.

Back in the US, after the school year started, I lovingly used the hot-boxes. The daughter is a fussy eater, as has been well documented in these chronicles. What that means is that all things food related completely misses her sonar and radar. If the lunch boxes she has lost, held lids and stood in a line, it would snake around Lake Tahoe. So, every time I put the hot boxes in their lunch bags, I reminded the children to bring back the boxes.

For the first few weeks, things went charmingly well. Slowly, the novelty of the hot box wore off, and soon, the lunch boxes went missing. I put on my investigator’s hat and tried narrowing down possibilities.

Could it be your locker? Or maybe you just forgot it somewhere in your school bag? Did you eat what was in there? I asked. The daughter rammed her foot up and down, like she was practicing how to pump water and pedal a cycle at the same time, and said in response to my accusatory glances that it was not she who had lost them. “I don’t know, but I didn’t lose them, okay?” she said as though she had enough with lunch boxes to last her a decade. The husband, who tries hard not to lose an opportunity to support the daughter,  said I was getting a bit tiresome with the lunch boxes, and told me to cheese it.

lunch_box

So I did.  Till that day when I was doing the little trash musing. I picked up the trash in the kitchen and I felt something heavy in there. Something round and heavy and light blue and moldy. I suppose Sherlock Holmes felt the same way when a breakthrough came in his investigations. I felt a tingling in my nerves. Whether Sherlock Holmes ever solved a case by sticking his hand in the kitchen trash, I do not know, but I confess I gingerly used a straw to poke around. And there it was: The light blue hot-box covered in potato peels, and tea leaves.

I ah-ha-ed! Give me a chance to gloat like this, and I can show you how it is done. I started off with the subtle angle first, “Anyone realize how we pick up skills that we don’t even know we have?”

“NO!”, said the family trooping in to the kitchen for dinner. I avoided gazing at the sink holding the evidence of the moldy blue hot box. It lay there in hot water, soaking, and looking like a little love would not be a bad thing.

I then proceeded to give the closing arguments for the case and summarized how life has taught me various things over decades, sometimes overtly, sometimes subconsciously. Never did I know that I had the ability to wonder why a kitchen trash bag was heavy.

The husband burst out laughing as I explained the mystery, while the daughter looked discomfited. “If you are so proud of yourself because you know how much the kitchen trash weighs amma, that doesn’t sound like a high and promising life does it?” she said.

She had me there.

“Remember, your grandmother sacrificed buying sarees for this lunch box.”, I said, and smartly went out with the trash before she would work that one out.

Do You See The Problem Now?

I am all for progress and am generally highly appreciative of the advances made in medical science, but when it comes to determining one’s eye power, I can be heard sharply drawing the breath. One need not be a sensory expert to know that I am being censorious. Stay with me while I explain the case.

One time, there I was, strapped in at the optometrists chair, by those offensive looking goggle-like contraptions across the bridge of my nose. The ophthalmologist, a brisk, happy old man, asked me to relax. He put in a lens and asked me to read something
I D 1 0 T
P I G

He then put in another one and asked me to do the same thing.
I D 1 0 T
P I C

By now, I had the Idiot Pie in apple order and could read them with my eyes closed, but they make doctors Diligent & Determined, and he would not let go of me. Can you see better with this? Or with this? Or this? Or the one before that? he said swapping the lens out and in like a conjurer pulling a rabbit trick in front of his admiring audience. He smiled with every swap of the lens and reminded me of an old avuncular dentist of my childhood days, who had the same courteous friendly bedside (chair-side) manner though he knew fully well that getting up and running was not an option for the patient and could have danced a doodah-dance with sticks.

I was tested this way and that and that way and this way again, making the poor doctor a very confused man. I could not understand this. Was he not happy that I could read? Was I doing something wrong?

I quizzed him and he said in a very concerned voice, ‘Are you sure you can read this?’
Well, if I try hard and squint a bit, I can read it, I said. I got the distinct feeling that had professionalism not stopped him, he would have thought nothing of giving me a quick one across the head with a fly swatter.
‘No, no – don’t strain your eyesight! What’s the point of straining your eyes when we are trying to get you glasses so you don’t have to strain your eyes? Just relax and tell me whether you can see.” he said.

I said okay, but I have to come square and confess: I had no idea how to relax and see. When people tell me to see, I try hard to see. Try, try and when you cannot, try harder was something I was told almost perpetually and yet, now at this crucial juncture of forgoing dinner at the optometrists chair, I was being told not to try hard. Curious.

He did a few more impressive lens swaps, and his round face crinkled with worry again, and I asked him what the problem was. He said that for my age, the power should be increasing or staying the same, but I was saying that it was reducing, and he wanted to make sure that I was getting the right pair. So, I buzzed with a light bulb over my head and told him to start off with my current power and take it up from there. It was the end of a long day, and he wanted to go home, and so did I. I emerged after a few minutes, bleary eyed, looking like a rhinoceros sentenced to rimless spectacles on my horn, while he headed home mopping his brow, filled to his brim with tales of how he is forced to earn his living getting idiots to see.

rhino_glasses.jpg

A few days later, there was some sort of medical fair in the old work spot, and I was told that I needed to swab my cheeks with a earbud. Apparently, that was enough to do gene sequencing or some such thing. I took the information hard, and looked up with a jerk running the risk of losing my precious spectacles. With a cheek swab, if we can find possible donors for bone marrows and what-not, why can we not have a simple procedure to find one’s eye power?

Lens making has been around for at least three hundred years now: Telescopes and microscopes we nailed, yet we seem to need a conjurer to do the magic of rabbit swaps to find our eye power today. Tut Tut. Most baffling.

Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

The thing about travel is it lets you indulge in conversations that you otherwise may not have: With car drivers (White Tiger, Driver Shiva or Murugan and Driver KillerMan ) for instance.

We were returning from a trip to Chichen Itza by van. The drive is a good three hours, and the husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. I settled down with ‘The Gene’, By Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book is one that requires concentration, especially for one who made stout Biology teachers quail. The book is held tight by a web weaving historical context, scientific detail and personal insights. It is a fascinating read, if somewhat heavy going in places.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 10.30.25 AM

Genetics as a discipline had a number of misdirections and key researches almost lost to mankind, like Mendel’s experiment with pea plants, but for a lucky discovery of his article over 50 years after his death. The book touches upon many such instances. It talks about the supposed brilliance of scientists, how scientists are after all human and how their personalities can sometimes thwart and stifle growth. I particularly enjoyed the little quotations at the beginning of every chapter.

Every now and then, I stopped to take in the rustic scenery outside in the Yucatan province. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if in a somewhat one-sided fashion. The van driver liked his audience and his theories grew wilder, and his tales more grandiose.

The man said he was originally from Canada, then moved to US before settling in Mexico. His tales, at any rate, portrayed a colorful life – a trucker, a pop-star, construction, sound recording. We had niggling doubts as to why his life had followed the pattern it had, but did not dig too closely. (He had the power of the van remember?)

‘How is Gene?’ asked the husband turning his head wife-ward. I had gotten past the horrifying section on Eugenics thankfully and said a thing or two about what all mankind is answerable for. Evolution, I said, better have a good reason for cruelty.

’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver, perking up since he hadn’t spoken for all of three minutes. He bore the look of a man doing a grand flick off some sad sop’s tale from the internet, ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

Aliens_theory

‘I mean, look at the size of those computers earlier on, and look at them now.’ He stopped here for dramatic effect, like one coming with the argument that clinches all.’ The aliens then got a much better model with humans and current life forms and decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Earth to get rid of the dinosaurs.They were just too big for them.’

The husband and I exchanged significant glances in our minds without once looking at each other. “I will take it that you just consider it a theory.”, said the husband, a man who would have obviously done well in the diplomatic services.

“Well…evolution is a theory no doubt,” said the driver, as though conceding a poorly paid chess move by dim witted opponents. “But aliens is a better concept. You know the supposed asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs fell right here? Yes – right here in the Yucatan desert.” , he said opening his arms wide, and the van jerked alarmingly. I implored him to hold the steering wheel, to which he laughed, ‘Of course, it was a nuclear bomb sent by aliens, and it is funny that centuries later, we are talking about it, and trying to fit in theories like evolution.”

crater
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

I set out to explain the experiments with pea plants, how the evidence set up the basis for genetics etc, but the man was bored, and said I must open my mind a little and consider the aliens theory. I bridled. I love a tall tale as much as the next one, but… The husband seem to sense my state, and shot me a warning look.

I had to concede that here was a fellow who had obviously educated himself on the Internet, and was proud of it. The Science teachers in his school days had done their best, and I too must learn to accept that he liked his erudition because he understood complex theories like aliens implanting life on earth.

By the end of the trip I needed some time to reflect, and when I did, I realized that travel had once again made sure I met a person so different in ideologies than myself. I hope he thought a little bit about things that could be proven vs things that could not be, when he reflected later on.

I, for my part, was able to understand why it is easy to believe compulsively written theories on the Internet.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

Science lessons seem so far off tucked away in the recesses of the childhood brain. What time is left after earning one’s livelihood can easily be spent in the entertainment industry’s efforts to keep us glued: An industry that thrives on blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

As Lisa Randall says in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/28/dark-matter-and-the-dinosaurs-lisa-randall/

What we need is to be able to travel more, so we get to see another’s view point every now and then, even if we do not agree. Especially if we do not agree.

After all, we are nothing but star dust.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/02/01/we-are-all-stardust-steven-weinberg-interview/

Do Jaguars Cry Like Birds?

We went on a short vacation to Cancun. The husband is in charge of booking trips. He is the planner. I am the slacker. Give the husband a task like planning a vacation, and he bustles about most impressively (on the couch of course). In true form, he booked a lovely place to stay, surprised his daughter with a day with dolphins, and booked a van to spend the day  with the  ancient Mayans at the pyramid at Chichen Itza. All in all it turned out to be a marvelous vacation with novel experiences.

The drive to Chichen Itza is a good three hours from Cancun, and we settled down with books, games, snacks, and water to keep us occupied on the journey.

The husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if somewhat one-sided. The van driver liked his audience, and his theories grew wilder, and his stories more grandiose.

The scenery outside was rustic. We were passing village after village tucked away in the Yucatan province. Outside the opulence of the tourist city of Cancun was where we got a peek into the real Mexico. Small brick buildings, children in slippers and shorts, palm trees, livestock, dogs. The rising heat was already setting the tone for the rest of the day. The talk inside the van turned to regional flora and fauna. I asked about tropical birds, and he assured me that they were plenty and marvelous.

‘Have you heard the cry of the Jaguar?’, he said.

‘No! Indeed!’, we cried.

The van driver then went on to explain. ‘Well….what is most impressive about those ancient Mayans is that if you clap your hands at the foot of the pyramid, you will hear the Jaguar cry from within the pyramid. Jaguars are sacred animals to the Mayans. You’ll hear all from the guide no doubt’.

The toddler was impressed. ‘Could I really clap like this, and jaguars will come?’ he asked clapping his hands and blinking his eyes at the same time.

The guide at Chichen Itza, told us about the ancient agrarian economy, and how the ruling class were probably mathematicians and scholars, and not wizards like the peasant class believed at the time. There was an impressive sort of buildup to the clap-echo section: the children even scoured the bushes for hidden jaguars.

When it came to the clapping section, the guide’s CLAP reverberated through the pyramid. It just goes to prove that practice makes a world of difference – our claps were like birds rustling leaves compared to the thunder-shots that rang through when he clapped. That guide clapped for a living and it showed.

It was lovely to stand there in the heat under a perfectly blue sky with lazy clouds flitting here and there, and listen to the chirruping sound that emanates. For some reason, I thought the Jaguar ’s cry would sound like a roar or even a grumble – piteous, scary or ominous, but I was not prepared for it sound like a bird call.

chichen_itza
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/12/1206_021206_TVMayanTemple.html

The call we heard, the guide told us, was the sound of the elusive Quetzal bird.

The toddler was disappointed: maybe he expected a Jaguar to come out from the pyramid’s top. A bird flying out was not half as impressive as a Jaguar leaping out, but finally neither came out. We showed him an iguana sunning himself nearby, to which he gave us a look that made his teen sister proud and drooped away to the shade.

Moments later, he philosophically resigned himself to treating life’s disappointments with ice-cream. Jaguars and quetzals could cry or fly, but they didn’t get ice-cream and he did. That was all that mattered.

Coming up next: The Van Driver’s Theory Blasting Evolution to Pieces.