The Degree of Shoshin

I wonder sometimes how the brain works. I mean, some references make us link to something else across the bridges of time and space where no ostensible link exists. Was astronomy the link? But that seems weak given that I ogle at the stars every opportunity I get. Could the 12 degree landing of Insight be the link? But the slopes that my mind linked to were at a 11 degree incline. And we were very proud that our little corner of the world could provide just the right 11 degree slope too – that is why I remember the incline so clearly.

Ignorant men raise questions that wise men answered a thousand years ago. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maybe it was something to do with the specific angle at which the Insight can land on Mars that brought back memories of a trip to the Radio astronomy center in Mutthorai in Nilgiris – who knows?  The radio astronomy telescope on the slopes of the Nilgiris was magnificent and awe-inspiring. It still is. I remember hearing that the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) had scoured plenty of slopes in India and this humble village was deemed just the right one to capture radio waves. It had the right level of incline(11 degrees), minimum light pollution at nights, and we were proud of our unassuming Nilgiri hills for providing such a marvelous slope.

By Own work – Ooty Radio Telescope, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7463023

 

I remember going to visit the center with the father one rainy afternoon during the monsoon season. We often piled onto his scooter that the kids had lovingly nick-named Street Hawk given it tore through the streets with a ear shattering noise, even if we could run beside it. (I often wonder how it must feel for someone who goes to India for the first time from a country like the US or Canada, and sees a family precariously making their hazardous way through the haphazard traffic – obviously uncomfortable, but looking joyous and confident. Even cars here seem so cranky – “departing lane, departing lane” it goes on like a parrot on caffeine. Fine – relax! Talk about sticking to the straight and narrow path – sheesh kababs.)

Anyway that is how we toured the Nilgiris during our school holidays. We would start out on a supposedly clear day, the brother standing in front, his feet making sure not to come under the brakes foot pedal, the sister on the pillion seat, and self squashed between the driver’s seat and the pillion seat, my face turning a ninety degree angle to make sure I could breathe, and off we would go on our adventures. Sometimes, our Street Hawk could not quite pull up the intense slopes of the Nilgiris such as the Katteri falls, and we would all good-naturedly pile off, let the pater go up the slope on 1st gear, trudge up there, and pile on again. What was life without these little pleasures?

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Invariably midway through our trips somewhere, the skies would attempt a volte-face: the sun would dip behind the clouds, a brisk wind would start around us, and the first raindrops would start. Sometimes, if the downpour got heavy, we would shelter at a random farm or village and nibble into the ample snacks packed for the trip, and head out again after the fierce downpour stopped. The dubious weather reports then were listened to with the amusing attitude of one indulging a child, and if it all went towards building the weather reporters’ confidence, it was time well spent was the general attitude. Ours was a forgotten corner of the world, and we loved it just the way it was. 

Off I went meandering around the countryside when I should have been sticking to the Radio astronomy tower as usual. The point is, I remember thinking as a child standing on that steep incline with the monsoon winds buffeting us from all directions, struggling to stay upright, and thinking for the first time how we must be standing at all. We are spinning on a very fast ball after all, gravity is all very well, but what would happen if Earth decided to just let us go for one instant? It was a terrifying thought, I clung a little harder to the pater’s solid hands and redoubled my wonder at how we exist at all. 

That is the beauty of space exploration isn’t it? It rekindles wonder. If retaining wonder in our day to day living is the mark of a meaningful existence to paraphrase the German philosopher, it is no wonder that we marvel childhood with its fresh perspectives, and its great capacity for wonder. The beauty of #Shoshin

“The highest goal that man can achieve is amazement.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

To All Astrophiles

“Did you know, the Voyager Insight is going to land on Mars tomorrow?” said an excited son. T’was the night before school reopened after a joyous 10 day Thanksgiving break, and the night before the much anticipated Insight landing on Mars. I looked at his shining face when it should have been a sleepy one.  The sparkle in his eyes did not smack of eyes wanting to make the journey into the Land of Nod any time soon. So, I sat down next to him and said, “Really? How do you know?”

That’s better, his posture seemed to indicate, and said, “Yes…Appa told me. It has to land at an 12 degrees angle it seems.”

“Why 12 degrees?” I asked intrigued. 

Space.com article : Mars Insight Landing

Quote from article:

“InSight hit the thin Martian atmosphere at about 12,300 mph (19,800 km/h), nailing its entry angle of exactly 12 degrees. If the lander had come in any steeper than that, it would have burned up; any shallower, and it would have skipped off the atmosphere like a flat stone across a pond.”

After chatting a little more on the impressive Mars voyage, I asked the little fellow if we should read a book on Space exploration. He nodded. Anything to keep from falling asleep.

So, we picked up the sweet little children’s book, “Also an Octopus” or “A Little Bit of Nothing” 

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Also an octopus : or, A little bit of nothing / Maggie Tokuda-Hall ; illustrated by Benji Davies

Also an octopus : or, A little bit of nothing / Maggie Tokuda-Hall ; illustrated by Benji Davies

The book is about an octopus who plays the ukulele, and wants to get on a purple spaceship. Who can help it build one though? Why a rabbit scientist of course!

 

We laughed as we read the book. As different as it was from Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, it stretched one’s imagination in a thoroughly whimsical manner that made us giggle at the very thought of the Octopus on the spaceship. If ever we need to convince ourselves of the diversity of life that we seem to be threatening, we need look no further than the impressive marine life we host on Earth. 

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Counting on Katherine – by Helaine Becker, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

All space lovers should definitely read the beautifully illustrated children’s book, Counting on Katherine. Based on the scientists featured in Hidden Figures, Counting on Katherine illustrates the love for Mathematics and its application to space travels in the most endearing fashion. A child who has the inclination towards numbers cannot help deepen their fascination with them, and hopefully, those who do not share that fascination, will develop a curiosity towards them. I have always loved the look of a blackboard with neatly written mathematical formulae and calculations: this book captures the aesthetic beauty of the blackboard beautifully.

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Counting on Katherine – by Helaine Becker, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Anyway back to Voyager Insight I said, “Do you think we can watch it land?” 

“Yes….it will be on You-tube.”, said the little fellow, positive that the image transmission from the Insight landing on another planet can make it to the nebulous internet without any trouble at all.

Here is a video link prepared by LockHeed Martin in collaboration with NASA’s JPL:

Automatically, my mind harked back to the old times when an image was work, precious work, with days in between clicking the pictures and getting them developed. When they came out, you saw the lighting could have been better the framing better, the shake a little less, and solemnly swore that you were up to no good, and waited it out till the next film roll proved it. 

I still marvel at any photographs we receive from Space. 

Human minds can adjust to improvements so easily – if only, we had the sagacity to adjust just as quickly to hardship.

Unicorn or Werewolf, I am Grateful

The day leading up to Thanksgiving has been a beautiful, beautiful day indeed. I cannot say I was calm and collected when I got up to see the earth scented with the first rains of the season. Even with the weather channels setting our expectations and all that, it was simply marvelous. I am a pluviophile and when we have gone this long without so much as a drizzle, I really cannot be blamed for a little overzealousness, can I? 

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The air quality over the past few days has been pegged down to ‘very poor air quality’. As a result of which, schools have closed early. The daughter has been rattling off statistics that the Air Quality Index indicated that it is the equivalent of inhaling 6 cigarettes a day or 8 cigarettes a day, leading to the most intriguing discussions between her and her elementary school going brother about smoking, second hand smoking, smog, and lung cancer. When I saw their faces one evening refusing to come out, I decided enough was enough and told them about how some children in highly polluted cities in China and India think the blue skies are some sort of poetic license, since they have never seen a clear blue sky. A smog-ridden world is not a beautiful one, I told them, but that doesn’t stop people from living, and finding joy; but only means we have to work towards finding a way to fix the problems.

Today, however, all of that was gone. We took deep breaths of the moisture filled air, looked afresh at the fall-colors – everything seems to be enhanced in its beauty. The earth seems cleaner, we can finally smell the pines and eucalyptus trees. I took the son out to play in the drizzle, inhale deeply and take a walk around the neighborhood.  The husband shot me indulgent looks, while the daughter gave me commiserating ones even as she patted my head, and said, “I know you love the rains Amma. Fine! I’ll come for a walk with you.” Sometimes, I really wonder who the child is.

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We spent the late afternoon in a golden daze (actually more of a silvery haze). As we headed home, the moon peeping through the scudding clouds made us all sigh once again, and I said I felt like a unicorn with all the magic in the air. The son, looked up at the skies, and said, “Don’t you mean a werewolf? It is a full moon remember?”

Werewolf or Unicorn, as long as we can enjoy the magic and feel grateful for all we are blessed with, I am happy. There is a reason Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays (the history of it aside), Gratitude is such a wonderful sentiment to celebrate. 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Time For Scrunch Parties

I wonder when we stop skipping on our way, when we stop reading children’s books: tales of magic and myth and splendor, when we start looking weird for having crunch parties in the scrunchy leaves of fall, but it is a time we must take a knuckle and give ourselves a good knock on the head, and cut it out!

“Please! Just come with me for a walk! “ I said to the children.  November is the month of Scrunch Parties, and the month I can be seen begging the children to come on walks with me, even if they look and act like Hawks and Pandas. I still remember the day I came tottering into the home, my confidence in the true tra-la-la  of the world shaken. 

I had stepped out without the children after they had both called me ‘Nuts’ for wanting to go for a walk when the time could be spent inside the house on the couch instead. I gave them a withering look, and told them that I shall ascend to higher levels with my stint in the fresh air, where nature shall nurture my spirit and enhance my being, and they were going to miss all that. I threw in a quotation or two, gave them a sprinkling of philosophy, and a hint of lavender from my coat pocket to entice them into coming. I straightened my shoulders, and delivered the pep talk that Generals could take notes from. 

general_pep_talk

I don’t know how these Generals must have felt when they spread themselves liberally on the pep-talk, so they can leave pronto to acquire the next kingdom, only to have the troops say, “Nay, it is better if we camp here for a month. The Biriyani is particularly aromatic and spicy here!” But that is how my pep-t was received. They lolled on the couch, gamboled lazily in the warm, fuzzy throws like lambs in springtime, and continued watching whatever-it-is that amuses them so much. 

I told them they shall soon see a reformed person and made my way out, my back registering disapproval at this lack of enthusiasm for nature-walks, but my front eagerly galloping towards the joys awaiting me outside.  

A few minutes later as I stood looking up at the sunlight filter through the trees, a stiffish breeze started up. The mesmerizing sound of the the wind rustling through the trees caught my attention (There is a fascinating word for this – Psithurism). The wind rustled a special tune sending beautiful waves of ripples through the leaves. Standing there with the sunlight illuminating the waves was magical, the wind was also sending hundreds of leaves dancing their way down to the Earth. My face lit up with happiness, and I charged left and then right trying to catch one of these beautiful leaves on their way down.

My arms felt like the wings of a butterfly spread wide, my leaping from one side to another left me feeling catlike. I clasped at thin air as the leaves fluttered past me. I don’t think my performance would have landed me a spot on the International Cricket team for fielding, but no one could fault my enthusiasm. My face was happy, and it was then that I caught the eye of a gentleman out on a walk too. 

scrunch_party

He looked at me like I needed to have my head examined. A small twitch of his bulbous nose indicated disapproval of this entirely whimsical and childish act of catching falling leaves, his round head shook like he could not believe I was let loose on the streets and he made his way again with an exaggerated dignity. His figure exuded the unmistakable message: I was an adult in a world where we do not show happiness by ourselves, was I not? We do not skip, we certainly do not run like lumbering sea-whales going after fish, we are prim, and we must be proper, and we must never forget that we live in a world where there are many problems waiting to be solved.

I tried to shake the wet geezer off, but the scrunch had gone out of the scrunch party. I went back home, an altered soul. Seeing my less-than-exuberant spirits slink back into the house, the children wanted the low-down. I usually come back from my November walks bearing gifts of colorful leaves, or tales of butterflies and chirps of birds; not the slumping shoulder and the lack-luster shrug. I poured my heart out, and revived under the sympathetic brow swiftly giving way to gushing laughter. 

“You must’ve looked such a goofus Amma, running after leaves and scrunching leaves by yourself.” They cackled, and I smiled. 

Some inelegant demonstrations of my chasing the leaves were given to much mirth, and I felt happy at being able to spread joy in this stern world, even if it was at my expense. I mean I did not really think this little wet sop episode deserved rolling on the floor and laughing so hard, it was hard to stop.

I wonder when we stop skipping on our way, when we stop laughing out loud at Dr Seuss books, when we stop reading children’s books: tales of magic and myth and splendor, when we start looking weird for having crunch parties in the scrunchy leaves of fall, but it is a time we must take a knuckle and give ourselves a good knock on the head. 

When Seuss-isms Save Your Spirit

“Oh my gosh! You have to write about this!”, said the daughter laughing, and the son looked pleased with himself. He had uttered a Seuss-ism that just made the whole lot of us laugh out loud. I dilly-dally-ed on writing up the little anecdote and the incident has now slipped my mind. It had something to do with a packet of chips, some fellows playing on the street, some elephants and a circus. Something that reminded me of these two books by Dr Seuss:

If I Ran The Circus &

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street

 

I tell you a writer in the nourishncherish household has a full plate, and as a chronicler of sorts in the household, I tend to miss out on a lot of things, such as the tale of the water hose and the tulip bulbs, or the cartwheel aspirer whose tales of the leaping t-shirt kept us all enthralled, or the time the husband walked in to find a boy and his tiger entertaining the rest of us in the bedroom to chuckles and guffaws.

So, I hurried and wrote this down now before it too joins the nebulous places where thoughts and memories go: the duper pin lot of thunderbolt crate.

UUUUGGGGHHHH! This day sucks! GAAAAAHHHHHH!” I said exasperated. My family’s dinner, carelessly prepared, but tastefully done with the freshest of vegetables and the spiciest of spices lay in an orange goo splattered all over the kitchen. Like someone exploded a sunset on the ocean reef floor, only not as pretty.

It had been one of those days when I had dropped the daughter at Drombasollu, and picked the son at Pickabolou, then shopped for groceries at the Packed Aisles of Drabaloo, only to run an errand to the wasted lands of Grimes via the packed streets of Trafficity, before heading back to Drombasollu – all of this after a long working day on the grimiest streets of the city of the Somaridden, and back after a ride on the silver caterpillars of Mushart, not to mention 10 phone calls to co-ordinate who did what-s, where-s and when-s – with curt replies when the conversations veered to the how-s and why-s. I had run low on energy, even lower on patience and the ability to see the fun side of things was off hiding till I ventured to find it again.

The son came over, gingerly stepped around the splattered muck that I had intended to call dinner, and said, “Oh thank goodness you are not one of the engineers who work on the bridge of Bunglebung Bridge across Boober Bay – they have things falling from everywhere!”

This was from the book, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are – By Dr Seuss

lucky

He then gave me a hug from the back, and in a minute my tensions splattered too. I laughed at the genius of it, and hugged the little fellow. “Always read Dr Seuss my dear. Always! When you are ten, don’t forget them, when you are twenty, remind yourself to read them, and then go on reading them when you are thirty, forty and with tea, it will always be …. gah I can’t rhyme this anymore now!” I said, but the smile was back on my face.

“But it was pretty good!” said the little fellow encouragingly.

Within minutes, we had laughed and cleaned up the kitchen floor and were rummaging the shelves for another slap-a-dash dinner. When the husband and daughter came back from wherever their drombasolu, pickabolou route had taken them, we had a semblance of dinner ready again. Our spirits much revived by a Seuss-ism were smiling and happy again.

I doubly appreciate Dr Seuss, because I had never read his books as a child. But I get to enjoy them now, as I read them with the children – one of the many joys of immigration. It makes me a whimsical child again, and grateful for reading them at time when it is lovely to remind ourselves of the sunny days of youth again.

Like Graham Greene said of his famous work, The Wind in the Willows, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading every now and then:

“A book of youth, and so perhaps chiefly for youth and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them; of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides, free of problems, clear of the clash of the sex, of life as it might fairly be supposed to be regarded by some of the wise, small things that ‘glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck’.”

 

The Cranes of Hope

Late one night, I read Sadako’s Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. The book is based on the true story of a little girl called Sadako who contracts Leukemia ten years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My heart attached itself to the lively, petite, friendly, active Sadako. Her energy is infectious and it leaps out of the pages and wants to make you skip too as you navigate the stairs and walk to school.

Sadako was two years old when the atom bomb was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ten years later, her body is wracked with the unmistakable signs of Leukemia, a disease her family knows as the ‘Atom-Bomb’ disease. Her friend gives her hope and says when she makes a thousand paper cranes, she will become better. Sadako’s older brother offers to hand the paper cranes for her and pretty soon, the soaring cranes of every hue and size adorn her hospital room.

Wiki Link: Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

According to the book, she is on her 644th crane when she dies, but her brother says she really made 1400 paper cranes and some of her paper cranes are still available for viewing as a message for Peace. It is a poignant story, and just writing the summary brought back the details of a lively spirit forever taken from the world, and I was shaken.

sadako

The nuclear threat is ever there. Read: Butter Battle Book by Dr Seuss. Mindless tweets on the subject by dictators leave me in an uneasy state of mind: We have on Earth right now the power to annihilate all lifeforms and spread widespread suffering. How many Sadako’s does humanity have to lose before we embrace all encompassing peace? Isn’t One Sadako too many?

Compellingly told, it is a light book with a heavy message. Oh! How heartless is warfare and why oh why did humanity have to develop nuclear weapons? I said aloud – a loud lament with silence as an answer.

In a mutinous mood, I stormed into the concluding essay on the Value of Science in Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Others Think? book. What possible excuse had he for his work on the Nuclear bomb. (The essay doesn’t directly allude to his work on the atom bomb, but on the general value of Science.)

Much as I wanted to storm and rage, I found myself reading the whole essay. He started the essay with something he had heard from a monk in a Buddhist monastery once:

To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.

It is a valuable essay and well worth reading. It reminded me of the beautiful saying by Ursula Le Guin in the Earthsea books,

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow…”

 

The value of science is similar – while it is hugely important for understanding our universe, solving medical problems etc, there is also the troubling underbelly of Science using the same understanding with mal-intent or certainly unintended intent. (Problem with the Like button?)

Troubling? Yes.

But did you know, said a small voice in my brain, paper cranes are a symbol of hope and peace in Japan? We can hope and have faith in our uncommon knack to find solutions even as we create more problems. (The Wizard & The Prophet)

Mermish Dreamish

“Ohhhwwwnn! What do you want us to get you from the labally?”, the son’s voice wafts upstairs to his teenage sister. She cannot make it to the library and her little brother feels bad for her, like she has been denied candy on Halloween. 

“Anything on Mermaids dobucles! From the Teen section.” 

The son and I exchange knowing smiles. 

“Okay!” 

I watch amusedly as the half teen swells with self importance: Oh! The glory of being given the esteemed task of picking out books for his teenaged sister from the teen section. 

“Mermaids! Really? Again? Still?” I ask, and I get a “Yessss!” accompanied by an eye roll, that I cannot see but can imagine, in response as we head off. 

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A random doodle by the daughter when she was knee-high

The oceans and seas enthrall her, they exert an influence on her like no other. And it started young. Thousands of viewings of Finding Nemo, hundreds of The Little Mermaid later, her first choice for drawing anything is still marine. 

Keena_drawing

I can hardly blame her, I find the oceans fascinating myself.
Gerald Durrell’s Enchanted World Essay
Carl Sagan’s Essay on his interactions with Elvar The Dolphin
Epic of Whalayana – Carl Sagan

I have been seeped in books on Whales of late. Ever since I read Carl Sagan’s beautiful notes on these gigantic, intelligent and curious creatures, I have become half mermaid myself. I see the allure that sets the daughter’s heart beating. Regular readers know that I have often described that child as one who should have been born a mermaid.

Nick Pyenson : Spying on Whales:

Astronomy and Paleontology are sibling fields really: they take human imagination to places where no person has ever been.

Some writers have the knack of saying the most profound things in passing. 

It is true isn’t it? The reason we gaze longingly at the night skies, charting out the constellations, having myths that surround them is the same reason we have stories of oceanic splendor. The reason we listen in awe about Noah’s Ark, Mastya avatar, Kurma avatar and myths of a milk churning ocean coughing up ambrosia for things that seemed nigh impossible like immortality is the same reason we imagine The Great Big Hunter going after the seven sisters. It is magnificent and unimaginable.  

“This must be something to do with the Sea. It has the word Tempest on it and there is a mermaid like thingy on the front. “, said the little fellow handing me the book he had picked out for his sister. 

“Should we get one or two more just in case?” 

We agreed and off we went looking for mermaid like ones, oceanic tales. I fell back upon Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne in case all else failed. That was the choice that earned me a loving “MOM!” look.

We needn’t have worried, the little fellow was given glowing tributes for selecting the best mermaid book, and we all settled down to read that evening. 

Taking a deep breath we dived deep into the rich oceans. 

I was trying my best to keep up with Nick Pyenson and his colleagues as they tried to find and relocate some of the largest whale fossils on record. More than 2 million whales had been lost to Whaling in the beginning of the 20th century, and only about 200,000 remained. What have we done? Another silent lament in my mind that will not have an answer. 

The son had a thoughtful crease after reading his book, A Symphony of Whales by Steve Schuch. I could well imagine his feeling. It is one of those books that in ten flips of the page leaves you wondering and marveling at so many things – the climatic conditions because of the geography of the story, the sounds of nature surrounding the little village, and the sounds of the living in the churning waters calling out to little Glashka who is a little girl blessed with the ability of hearing different frequency voices like the song of the whales stranded in the bay and iced in. Accompanied by illustrations that take you to the little Arctic village, this book was the perfect marine choice for the little fellow.

 

 

Little yawns appeared on our faces and we smiled sleepily. When we resurfaced from the waters, feeling refreshed after a cool dip in the oceans, we slept dreaming the dreams of the unimaginable. It was marvelous.

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson