Are We To Become Lab Rats?

‘Let’s watch something together Amma.’ , said the children one Friday evening. It is officially our movie night. Watching something that suits all of us is a true test of Democracy (An Email From Mars) The littlest fellow is the easiest to appease, and also the fellow you want to most watch out for. He sits there like a sponge absorbing everything: tilting his head to one side, looking through the corner of his eyes, this child seems like the ideal companion. But, his inappropriate quips at opportune moments have chastened us and we no longer welcome him saying, “Oh – he is too little to know.” He knows!

So, the debate raged – which show can we watch that everyone will enjoy?

Everybody Loves Raymond, Cosmos, Big Bang Theory? How about Lab Rats? 

A resounding cheer went up for Lab Rats.

‘Isn’t that show for Teens?’

‘Well…yes but this little dobukins watches it all the time with me.’ said the daughter tousling her little brother’s hair lovingly.

‘Really?’, I said turning around towards the fellow with my hands on my hips.

‘Yes….but Lab Rats is fine….not teenagie stuff.’ he said chuckling merrily.

Like he knows what teenagie stuff is.  Maybe he does and should that worry me? The daughter now tells me things are inappropriate for us to watch. I wonder what rules she uses.

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Lab Rats is a show about a family where the children have Bionic superpowers – Bree the girl can run free, Adam the hulk can lift a truck, and Chase the fellow whose name sounds like he must run after Bree, instead is the one with superior intellect. They live with their non-bionic stepbrother, Leo.

Like most Television shows these days, they had aced the humor, characterization and it was an enjoyable show. All the same, it left a niggling after-taste in me.

This show captured human desires in a nutshell. We all want to be better. Better than the rest, better than we ever were, better, faster, stronger, smarter. Better to do what?  And where does this betterment stop? We know how any concept can be twisted by thwarted minds to suit themselves as was evident in the sad state of Eugenics.

I am reading Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, and the same vein popped up again.

The modern economy needs constant and indefinite growth in order to survive. An economy built on everlasting growth needs endless projects – just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity.

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Human kind, when we set ourselves on the path to development, most probably do so with good intentions. The problem is once we fix the problems, it seems we can use these very technologies to make things better for those who do not need it. Like  plastic surgery for instance:

Modern plastic surgery was born in the First World War, when Harold Gillies began treating facial injuries in the Aldershot military hospital. When the war was over, surgeons discovered that the same techniques could also turn perfectly healthy but ugly noses into more beautiful specimens. Nowadays, plastic surgeons make millions in private clinics whose explicit and sole aim is to upgrade the healthy and beautify the wealthy.

In Homo Deus, the author goes on to point out this trend in bionic legs, Viagra and memory treatments:

When you develop bionic legs that enable paraplegics to walk again, you can also use the same technology to upgrade healthy people. When you discover how to stop memory loss among older people, the same treatments might enhance the memory of the young. 

No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm. but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm. Viagra began life as a treatment for blood pressure problems. To the surprise and delight of Pfizer, it transpired that Viagra can also overcome impotence. It enabled millions of men to regain normal sexual abilities; but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.

(Bolding my own)

Growth is a wonderful thing. For the first time in the history of mankind, we are able to self regulate our belligerence, spend our resources towards ending disease and poverty, and feed our growing numbers. Science and Capitalism have enabled this wonderful state. But what next? This relentless growth has led to an inordinate strain on the one planet we have. Previously, we could look forward to discovering new lands, but now we have mapped every ounce of the Earth, and we know no Middle Earth or Earthsea is hidden anymore. We have tapped them all. Our only hope is to find a parking garage planet close by so we can continue to expand at the rate we are now.

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We need to change course for a sustainable future of our planet, and Capitalism with its growth needs seems to be ill-suited to call for such changes.

The recently deceased author, Ursula K Le Guin, said in a speech once:

“We live in capitalism,” said Le Guin, “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I am sure our intense need to survive will push us towards self-regulation and conservation.

With immortality, bliss and divinity projects, are we not Gods capable of solving anything? But, we are also a species who can make the Butter Battle Book by Dr Seuss a sad reality.

Are we to become our own Lab Rats? What would our super-powers be? More importantly, will our shortcomings be even more apparent with our strengths magnified, or will our shortcomings be magnified too?

The Green Belt Movement

It was a beautiful day, and the children had been very good on a hike together. We had chuckled our way through the muddy paths still damp with the recent rains, attempted to climb a tree, looked out for robins, thrushes and hawks.  Cows on these hillsides were minding their own business and grazing. Calves of all sizes made a welcome sight. A couple of pups were frolicking on the trail, and made for great hilarity. There is something alluring about the fresh outlook of the young and we enjoyed the hike taking in these heartening glimpses of life thriving around us.  The children, puppies and calves on the trail that day were bursting with the fount of youth.

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From up above, we could see the tiny houses lined up like toys on glimmering silver ribbons. The Earth around us was clothed in marvelous hues of Green, and peace seemed to hail. ‘Did you know? All those areas down there were fruit orchards with thousands of trees.  Apparently, these hills too were more like forests about 50-60 years ago. Then they cut down the trees so the cattle could graze, but now the ranchers have gone, and we don’t really need all these hills for pasture, but the trees are gone too.’, I said sadly.

The children looked appalled at this, and we set about discussing how important and beautiful trees are. “I wish we could replant all those trees!” said my little environmentalists wistfully, and I heartily agreed.

The Green Belt Movement

A few days later, I was grazing in the library, when my eyes fell upon the beautiful book,  Planting the Trees of Kenya, by Claire A Nivola, The Story of Wangari Maathai. I picked it up intrigued, for I love to read about that beautiful continent.

Planting the trees of Kenya - Wangari Maathai
Planting the trees of Kenya – Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the first woman to win the Nobel prize from the continent of Africa. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for making the connection between natural environments and the well-being of the people.

Wangari Maathai – Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2004. First woman from Africa.

The book started off with the beautiful page depicting the Kenyan countryside when Maathai was a little girl. Kenya was clothed in its ‘dress of green’ when she was a little girl.  Fig trees, olive trees, cornets and flame trees covered the land, and fish filled the pure waters of the streams.

The Fig tree was considered sacred, and it was one of her favorite trees.

Planting the trees of Kenya - Wangari Maathai
Planting the trees of Kenya – Wangari Maathai

Maathai then went to the US to study with the Benedictine nuns where she imbibed the lessons of doing more than you receive and to make a larger impact on Earth.

Planting the trees of Kenya - Wangari Maathai
Planting the trees of Kenya – Wangari Maathai

She returned to Kenya, full of hope, only to see the landscape completely transformed. Even the fig tree was gone, the streams had run dry and large-scale farming had take over the individual farmers needs. Food was more expensive and she was shocked to see that ‘economic progress’ had left behind a sickly, weak, and much poorer populace.

She was the first person to make the link between people and nature living together in harmony. 

Why not plant trees?

As can be expected, she was faced with opposition and setbacks at every turn. Her nursery did not thrive, the governments did not embrace the program, but none of that deterred her. She encouraged the women to take up tree planting. She visited schools and gave the children saplings to plant and nurture trees and even taught them how to make their own nurseries.

 

She, and this is my favorite, appealed to the gun-bearing soldiers with the slogan : Gun in your righthand and a tree seedling in your left. She said to them that if their goal was to save Kenya, both aspects are equally important.

Ever since Wangari began her Green Belt Movement in 1977, tree by tree, person by person, 30 million trees have been planted in Kenya, and the planting has not stopped.

Planting the trees of Kenya - Wangari Maathai
Planting the trees of Kenya – Wangari Maathai

http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai

What can we do?

When I look at the hills near where I live clothed in its rich shade of green in the rainy season, my heart sings. But I know this is a short-lived season before we have signs saying ‘Brown is the new green’, and the summers dry out the landscape bringing with it the threat of wildfires.

Last year, the very places that were most damaged by the wildfires were also affected by devastating flooding in California. These are nature’s wake-up calls.

SoCal – same areas affected by fires now devastated by storms

Every year roughly the size of the country of Costa Rica is being lost to deforestation.

UN Deforestation Statistics

Wangari Maathai died in 2011, but her lessons for us need not.  What will it take for a similar program to take root all over the world, so we can save ourselves and our beautiful planet?

Ode to the Headphones

I surveyed the Christmas gifts piled under the tree and felt we had gone overboard again – did I really need those noise canceling headphones? The husband and children vociferously insisted in 18 Mhz frequencies that I did.

“But I like listening to the natural sounds when I walk. I don’t want to shut it out and listen to something else! The chickadees song, the squirrel’s titters and the wind rustling through the trees, these are all sources of joy. I feel alive when all my senses are in sharp focus! It IS music for me.” I said looking desperate.

Pic from Google search
Pic from Google search

It was perfectly true. Who can stop themselves from thinking of William Wordsworth’s Daffodils while on a brisk walk enjoying full communion with Nature?

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

The daughter rolled her eyes with typical teenage scorn, “ We know you like to listen to the wind rustling through the trees, and the rain pattering and all that. But you got to admit – the train clacking noisily, with you in it, is not exactly a natural sound, and therefore there is nothing wrong with shutting it out!”

It was a fair point. I could also tell that this was one of those things that the husband was high-fiving himself for. The strangest things excite the dear fellow. Like the time his face lit up when he did something brilliant to free up one HDMI port in the spaghetti system of connections near the television area.

“Didn’t you notice the change in sound output? “ he said looking remarkably proud of himself.

The truth was I hadn’t noticed. But when a puppy fetches a piece of wool from under the couch, tangling it all the way through every spot in the hall, and looking mighty pleased with his efforts, that is not the time to be telling the puppy that one was really not looking for the wool. When he rolls on his back lifting his legs to be tickled in his tummy, you coo and tickle the furry creature, and put the wool back somewhere out of reach. So, I did the square thing and tickled his tummy, uh-huh-ing at regular intervals as he related all the things he had to do to change the connections so that the sound system was rigged through the thing-a-ma-jig while retaining the mick-a-mumma-tone through the mimble-tum-milkatonia.

puppy-with-wool

The noise canceling headphones seem to make him just as happy, and I accepted the gift after he gave the pitch that put poets to shame. The Ode To The Headphone was spirited, bordered on romantic, and clearly reverent. Wordsworth may have pitched it strong with daffodils, but when it came to wireless headphones, the husband won.

I tucked it into my bag wondering if I ever shall use it, and went for a bath using the scented soap the daughter had gifted me (now that is the sort of gift I appreciate.)

A few days later, the husband asked me how I was getting along with the noise-c headphones. I think my shifty look gave the game away. “You are not using them! Give them to me here – I will set it up for you.” he said looking incredulous, yet wondering why he should’ve expected anything better from me.

Hell hath no fury like the headphones damned. I handed over the set carefully preserved.

“Here ..just try this now.” he said with the forcefulness of the wronged, and I accepted with an equally becoming meekness. The symphony of marriage I tell you.

The next day on the train, I looked forward to reading The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux. Maybe reading the book along with the noise canceling headphones would help me see how my world transformed.

It certainly was transformed. But something strange happened.

No sooner had I quietened my hearing, when I noticed the olfactory seemed to be doing double duty. Did noses grow sharper when the hearing dulls? I touched the prominent beak thoughtfully – any sharper and I might as well take up wood-carving. I felt nauseated with unsavory smells. They flooded my nostrils making me want to gag. I looked around alarmed. I had not been warned of this particular side-effect.

woody

Then, I saw the reason: I had not quite noticed that I was only two feet away from a fellow who had spent the night on the turf, hitting one good shot after another, and had gone to bed on the morning train, after vomiting and soiling himself spectacularly.

Wondering whether a pair of cloth clips for my nose could have been a better gift, I resorted to breathing like a rhino chasing a pack of lions out of its territory – huge snorts followed by short, quick gasps. Mozart was playing something, but all my nose could think of doing was sending signals to the brain with the smells of the samaritan.

I peeked out the window in disgust, and a signboard helpfully told me,

After you die, you will meet God!

Will I still be able to smell when I die? I thought waspishly.

That evening, the family asked me how the headphones were. I said truthfully that they were marvelous for the sound, but went on to relate the smells, and how we shall all meet God, to general hilarity.

The daughter said, “Well….you must savor anything natural Amma. Enjoy your senses, and feel alive!”. She pirouetted around the kitchen deeply inhaling and mocking me in what I thought was a brilliant fashion. I stood there laughing and relishing every bit of my humble pie.

The Tao of Travel gleamed at me with its wisdom, and I said to them. Did you know that Wordsworth – that staunch lover of flowers and fresh air, had no sense of smell?

T’is The Season To Be Grateful

Every year end, by the time Christmas rolls around, the husband and I look like the crumpled and frazzled dolls hanging off the hastily put together Christmas tree ourselves. This year too, we had fallen to our usual folly of not co-ordinating the Christmas gifts between us for the children. I stealthily went off and hastily piled up a bunch of things, so that come Christmas morning, there is something under the tree. As I gift-wrapped the presents, late one night with the children safely tucked in bed, I was reminded of one of Miss Read’s sensible sentiments on Christmas – she is one of my favorite authors for a reason:
The thing to do, is to get absolutely everything in the summer and lock it in a cupboard. Then order every scrap of food from a shop the week before Christmas and sit back and enjoy watching everyone else go mad. I’ve been meaning to do it for years.

The day before Christmas, the husband waved a suave hand in my direction with the loving parting words, “So, you’ve got the kids for the day right? Right! I am off. “ His eyes gave me a look deep with meaning that said, “I got to go and get the gifts”, to which I gave him an equally meaningful look that said, “Don’t worry! I got them all gifts. Just buy the milk.”
We’ve been married for 15 years and understand each other perfectly, and so obviously he thought I was admiring the cow-lick on his newly combed hair (blog post waiting to be done), and tootled off bringing gifts for one and all, and no milk.

The result being that we were all feeling thoroughly spoiled for Christmas. After surveying the pile under the tree, I felt that we had gone overboard again. Did I really need those noise-canceling headphones? (The resounding answers did seem to warrant them, I’ll grant you that. ) Maybe, the motto around Christmas should be: if we were bindle stiffs, what would we need? Bindle stiffs, I was curious to learn the term, are those who carried their clothing around in a bundle.

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I started on my Children-in-Africa lecture, when the children must’ve realized that it is better to take pre-emptive action before this lecture turns into a vegetable-praising healthy-eating fest that cuts into their hot-cocoa-under-the-tree dream. They pronounced mid-way that they were donating half the gifts (piled neatly on the left of the table ) to the poor. I noticed the particularly angelic and noble expressions on their faces as they made this solemn announcement, and stifled an urge to laugh.

I was glad of the opportunity to relax around friends once Christmas had come around, in the warm regions of Southern California. Days spent laughing, chatting, reading, playing and goofing off are like balm to the soul, and we reveled in the warmth of good companionship, and not being ruled by the clock.

 

As the year wound down, I realized that politically, speaking, it may have been a tough year, but we have much to be grateful for.
Bill & Melinda Gates foundation’s newsletter was uplifting and I was glad to end 2017, on a grateful and hopeful note.

I wonder if you have read the book where the hungry caterpillar expresses its thanks to every living being it comes across. If not, it is a marvelous children’s book, with Eric Carle’s signature illustrations and wonderful message: Thanks From The Very Hungry Caterpillar. 

As we head into 2018, it already promises to be a year in which we shall be called upon to remember such simple things as being kind to every living being and to care for our environment.

The Artistic Touch

I waltzed in to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art thinking my usual self should do. It didn’t do. It pursed already thin lips and drew in breaths that should have been released.

So, here is a tip: Before you head into a museum, prepare to put on a face that reminds you of a serious matter: something like a puppy being pulled back home from a glorious spring saunter that yielded an unexpected bone, a couple of birds to chase and beautiful water hydrants to raise their hind legs against. An occasional smile commiserating with the owner (or the puppy) is okay, but grim seriousness is admired.

Remember: Life is Stern, Art is Earnest & Its Depiction Torturous. Good.

pets

What tripped me up was this: I walked into a largish room and found a men’s piddle seat in the middle. You know one of those umbrella-handle shaped urinals? In the middle. I know I have expressed the opinion that I wished the blasted things in bathrooms were less in the corner when you were trying to tighten a screw, but by gosh, I had not quite meant this! I am afraid I did the wrong thing here – I pointed and let loose a guffawing squeal and giggled at the exhibit. Modern Art patrons are a tolerant lot. Tolerant towards Art I mean – they scowled at my flippant attitude, while the urinal drew admiring noises.

urinal
Random pic of some urinal from the internet – I did not take a picture of the thing!

When I finally tottered away from this marvel, there was a painting around the corner, that reminded me of one of P.G.Wodehouse’s short stories. Reggie Pepper (who gave PGW the idea for Jeeves) says of his Artist friend’s work:

I’ve seen his pictures, and they are like nothing on earth. So far as I can make out what he says, they aren’t supposed to be. There’s one in particular, called “The Coming of Summer,” which I sometimes dream about when I’ve been hitting it up a shade too vigorously. It’s all dots and splashes, with a great eye staring out of the middle of the mess. It looks as if summer, just as it was on the way, had stubbed its toe on a bomb. He tells me it’s his masterpiece, and that he will never do anything like it again. I should like to have that in writing.

Art certainly conflicts: I stood astonished I suppose that one would take up a whole wall for a work like that when I looked around, and was told by a Patron, “Don’t you just admire how a true artist comes out?”
I eh-ah-ed weakly. When he says, artist comes out: Did artists lay their intestines out on canvas? It certainly did look like it. I recoiled a bit, but luckily the fellow was well launched on his story to notice. He then proceeded to tell me the most extraordinary thing.
Apparently, this artist was hailed as a genius after his death. His paintings regularly sold for $150 million dollars. I gasped at this. I should like to see these patrons! Apparently, one of his works made it to the local Goodwill shop where a lady paid 3 bucks for it. I suppose it must have shocked the $150 million dollar fellows, but life is tough. Anyway, a friend of the $3 buyer said there were enough squiggles to make the fellow a big artist, and had her check it out. Apparently, she got $25 million bucks for it but was not happy, since the other paintings of the fellow sold for over 100 million bucks. People I tell you. Never really happy! Tush.

There were beautiful paintings that managed to depict the 4 seasons, something that looked like a desert sunset, geometric shapes and so much more.

 

All of these marvels jostled with what I thought were the trial canvasses of the artist – you know those sheets against which you imagine them testing their strokes, and shaking out the extra spots on the brush and so on. (They weren’t – they were the real pieces of Art. I checked.)

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What really got me thinking about this whole Art business is the Sensuous blue painting.

There was one painting that looked like this.

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Oh, sorry, that is a picture of my daughter’s wall.

This is the painting.

 

Next to this was written a most poignant note. If I had not read the notice, I could not have imagined such a beautiful set of phrases can be applied for the color blue.

The final straw was the one where the artist forgot to paint and occupied a wall.

 

“Does this white square hold a mystery?”

I shoo-hoo-ey-ed my way up the floors, all the while admiring the many works, stopping to muse at a fair few, and thoroughly enjoying myself. When they say Art is mind-blowing, I could agree. I may not be able to appreciate the finer details of each piece the way the sturdier patrons do, but I was quite sure, it awakened some dormant senses.

 

Finally, I washed up in front a pool of floating dishes. Not a dishwasher, more like an indoor pool with clean china chinking and tinkling against each other producing a haunting musical memory to go with the visual. It seemed like a marvelous touch depicting the day at the museum.

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All in all, the museum should have made me feel like this character from one of P.G.Wodehouse’s story on being in the presence of an Artist:

She was perfectly pleasant, and drew me out about golf and all that sort of thing; but all the time I felt that she considered me an earthy worm whose loftier soul-essence had been carelessly left out of his composition at birth.

But it didn’t. There was matter enough to engage simple minds like mine, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.