Once in a Blue Orange Moon

Halloween is one of my favorite times of year. In sunny California it is the time fall weather finally starts to settle in. I pick out pumpkins to set by the door. Most years, my carving takes a back seat, and I settle for painting or sticking outsize eyes and a mouth on it instead.

But we decorate the house – bats and owls stickers fly around avoiding the fake spider webs. Hasty orange construction paper is stuck around the outside light, and all things orange are ready to be displayed for one whole evening.

I remember a few years ago on an evening walk after a vigorous trick-or-treating, I felt a thrill and stood there mesmerized for a moment as an owl flew against the moonlight. I know Zen and Buddhist teachers tell us to enjoy the significance of every moment. I am not sure about every moment but a few moments do  lodge themselves in a magical spot. The owl flying across the moon was one such. I remember standing there bathed in the magic of it all. The owl of course is a visceral being, and was after its prey – nothing more nothing less. Halloween was an affair that was of no consequence to it. 

The blue moon will shine its benign light on us on Halloween. The trick-or-treaters will be thin on the ground, of course, because of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and I should think bats will not be getting that warm a reception with humanity this year! 

The son got himself a costume that has a mask with an air filter on it keeping with the grim theme the world is cloaked in. “Hint!” I said holding up my hand in a V with two fingers on either side to those who tried to guess what it was on the video camera. The son shook his head disappointed and said, “Your hint is from Star Trek! My costume is from Star Wars!” Ahh well.

The son wore his Halloween costume to class today. This would have to be the poor substitute for the marvelous parade they usually get to attend on Halloween, but he dressed up with gusto . I was excited to see his classmates dressed up too: their tiny passport sized icons on the screen showing me the heads of princesses and pirates would have to do.  Their teacher was kind enough to let me read my book, Halloween in the Jungle, to them. Reading the books to the children is by far one of the best experiences I have had. Their reception to the story, their thoughtful questions thereafter, and their wholehearted enjoyment of the simple story is more than enough for me. Why? Oh why do we lose that marvelous feeling of youth as we grow older?

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Tango Tiger, Janny Rat, Boy Elephant, Biso Bison, Spotty Rat and all their delightful pals are heading into their 7th year celebrating Halloween in the Jungle. The Halloween in the Jungle book has since given me immense joy. 

But this time, I feel a special bond to the little tykes as they revel in the clearing by Luda Lake, eating pumpkin pies, drinking orange and persimmon juice, and dancing to the lovely sounds of the musical orchestra with Nighty Nightingale, Owl, Bat and Frog. You see this time, just like the illustrations show, there will be a marvelous full moon night to light up Halloween. 

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Blue moons are not as rare as we think, for they come around every 2-3 years. But apparently, this is the first time since World War II that a full moon visible from everywhere in the US coincided with Halloween. I am not one to set much store by signs, but if after the 1944 Halloween full moon, we were able to set the world to rights, surely a Halloween full moon and a blue moon at that should work miracles.

Happy Halloween!

The Fabled Life of Aesop

When we think of literary bodies of work that have endured over Millenia, we think of epics such as the Mahabharatha, Ramayana, Iliad and Odyssey, or the Bible. But there are so many endearing little tales that have endured just as long, and have passed down morals, lessons and fun along the way.  I am referring to stories such as Aesop’s Fables & Panchatantra tales.

The library had a wonderful picture book on The Fabled Life of Aesop: the book was not just a collection of his most fables, but the life of the slave we think was Aesop. 

 

Written by Ian Lendler, and illustrated by Caldecott winner, Pamela Zagarenski, it is a book with marvelous reading material, and highly imaginative pictures.

2500 years ago, a baby boy named Aesop was born to slave parents in Greece. Aesop, as a child born to slaves, was taken from his parents and sent to work in the hot grape fields of Samos. As a slave, Aesop learnt to speak carefully. One of his friends who talked about their master’s smelly feet was taken away and was never seen or heard of again. So, the slaves learnt to speak in code.

 “Did you hear about the lion? He stepped on a thorn and his paw got infected.”

“Oh!” said Aesop. “So that’s why his paw smells!”

Aesop learned to speak in code.

I could not help remembering this snippet from a poem by Margarita Engle in the book, Enchanted Air :

Tyrants always

try to control communication.

They always

fail.

The human spirit is not meant to be caged, and tyranny somehow tries to do just that every time. 

Aesop’s talent in spinning stories with morals using the animals around him was soon noticed by his master Xanthus, and he was tasked with more challenging tasks in helping his master’s life. One time when his master had a falling out with his friend, Aesop was called to mediate. Aesop was but a young boy and he was scared. If either his master or his friend felt offended, they had the power to put him to death. So, he came up with a story about the lion and a boar who fought over who should drink first at the watering hole. It was only when they noticed vultures circling overhead that they realized it was better to share the water rather than have the vultures eat the loser.

The master, Xanthus, and his friend, Jadon, were so impressed with Aesop, they sought an amicable resolution. As a peace offering, Aesop was sold to Jadon who continued to seek Aesop’s help in his business and personal affairs.

Aesop’s stories helped his masters live their lives with honesty, humility, and kindness. His stories warned against greed and deceit. 

Many of them taught another hidden lesson as well. It was something no master would pick up, but every slave or powerless person would understand. “

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Eventually, Aesop was set free, and his stories have been handed down from generation to generation helping millions of us glean the wisdom and morality handed down by these endearing tales.

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Freedom

I have often wondered about what it means to be human. Is it opposable thumbs, or imagination, or tool use, or brain to body ratio, or empathy? Maybe the complex combination of all these things, and the collective will to make things better in spite of all our failures is what sets us apart.

We have heard of scalded cats staying away from milk. Maybe our power is in ensuring that we do not  make the same mistake again and again,but learn from it.  

The world around us always has lessons for us: Octopii, whales, monkeys, dogs, crows, geese, herons, squirrels, rabbits, trees, and to that I am grateful.

 

Imaginating on unbirthdays

There’s a little something that we have been treasuring in our home. It isn’t so much a secret as a quirk really. But it is something that our hearts have grown fond over, an idea that we share with close friends with a stab of joy, pride and a laugh that acknowledges the un-normal-ness of it all. But by doing so, we have invited you into our little circle of joy and keeping our spirits up. 

So, why do I share this now, here on the blog. My answer to it is, “I feel it will help us all cope in these times of uncertainty. ” Practiced over small doses, it can be comfortable or not depending on how much you have used this part of your personality before. But it is possible. I know it. For on the sternest of days, when life seems to be boxed into a little screen, and the slings and arrows of fortune come by taking straight swings at us, and the mind struggles for an outlet, this tiny act of will works its way into a part of the brain that senses wonder and magic. It seeps in.

I will need to take you back into our world for a bit. So, please come on over.

I was trying not to fall asleep one afternoon.  The leaves were rustling outside in the soft afternoon breeze, our stomachs were full with a week-end meal, and I had retired for a space to read a book. I had only just managed to let the book slide out of my hands as a wave of sleep crashed over me, when I heard  sounds of battle from within the home.

Bwoooshhh! Swoosh…aahh…guhgh, brwooosh!

This sizzling sound effect was followed by dull thumps, and a moan. A moan not of defeat, but of acknowledging a hard task that needs to be  done. If ever a moan was cloaked in determination and strategy, this was it.

“What are you doing?” I hollered. 

“Just imaginating!”, the reply came from the young son, and the samurai, dragon, ninja, or jedi warrior went about his business of setting his world to rights. Sometimes, electrons and quarks swoop in to change the nature of the opponent.

I smiled sleepily trying to figure out the latest battle he was fighting.

The dragons were slowly gaining ground and judging from the throaty cries, and the swift roll-ups being performed by the other side, lightsabers were running out of energy and quickly needed recharging, if anything were to be done about the dragon menace. They were taking over the mountainsides , gaining speed and traction even worse than the  wildfires that raged in the area just a few days ago. Weather monsters are only one kind of monster.

Imaginating

In our home, the act of pure imagination has been given a verb-form all on its own. Imaginating, we call it, and go about our business of imagination without batting an eyelid. 

When the son came up with the word as a toddler, I was amused. Here is a word that documents insist on underlining in squiggly red as unrecognized, and yet, this word feels right. It feels like a word that belongs. 

Imaginating evokes the act of imagination sure, but it is an imagination with power and force. Imaginating in the face of tyranny, imaginating in the throes of uncertainty, and imaginating in the relentless negativity of news cycles, seems to be just the panacea to set our world to rights. It is an act of our will, and to quote L M Montgomery from Anne of Green Gables,

“Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.” 

Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Our song could be:
We shall imaginate.
When tyranny comes my way, I shall imaginate.
When hopelessness clouds my day, I shall imaginate,
Just like the tree that imaginates itself to be a bird. I shall imaginate!
 

Lewis Carroll, a man known for inventing words, would love to hear the word from the son, were he alive. So, here is the secret of imaginating and I am sure it is a necessary one in a world in which we are all mad.( To quote the Cheshire Cat in Alice by way of explaining Wonderland to her, “We are all mad here.”)

So why not have fun imaginating with it, and reserve them for special occasions such as our unbirthdays. (Lewis Carroll’s word for every special day that isn’t a birthday, which means we all get to have 364 of them every year).

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P.S: The story has been put to rights by the hero of the imaginating sequence. That afternoon, it was pirates he was fighting off, and not dragons. So, they weren’t gaining ground, but they were gaining water.  What else did I think those squishes and swooshes were? It was obviously the sounds of water splashing against the stern of the ships as he bravely fought off them pirates. Moreover, he wasn’t on an intergalactic space adventure to use his lightsaber, he was simply using his dark matter sword. Duh! 

 

Our Attention, Our Imagination, Our Opinion

Poetry has seeped into our lives yet again. At times I wonder whether poetry, music and art are all luxuries that only dare to raise their heads when the busyness of our pointless existence relinquish their clutch, or whether poetry, music and art enable us to go about our busyness with joy and acceptance.

Either way, I am simply grateful to experience the effect of these soothers to our lives.

The news can be a whirlpool, not just pulling those who happen to float nearby into its swirl, but also sending a whirlwind to attract those on land. Of late, every week seems to be packed with a year’s worth of news. All of this of course results in an enervating tug of emotions. 

We do not know whether the farm worker in the 17th century had this many opinions he needed to have, or whether the soldier in the Dark Ages had a semblance of control in his fates. All we have experience of, is this time, and this age, when we are being called upon to not just have an opinion, but also to voice them and defend them almost relentlessly. 

How the world clamors for opinions and stands? Having a world leader who takes pride in swirling the world around for his endless rollercoaster is exhausting. This is Gaslighting we are told, that is Egotism. Here we are, endlessly naming, categorizing, instead of just appealing to an inner sense – Yes? Or No? Which is it?

It is also deeply instructive for us as individuals. A lesson on ourselves. How much do we want to dragged into the endless show put on for us; how much do we want to rectify things, solve problems with creativity and resilience; and how much do we want to be pulled here and there, like specks in a whirlwind?

The other day, I saw a heron standing patiently in the shallow waters of a river, waiting patiently. I was out for my evening walk, and I had to stop and admire the heron. The heron was going about its business of living, observing quietly, waiting patiently, and if in the process of being, a wandering soul got a lesson or two out of it, that was good, but that wasn’t its purpose.

I chuckled to myself thinking of what the heron would say to me if I asked it about any of the world’s problems. Would it laugh at me or with me at the problems humans have created for ourselves?

The heron in that moment taught me the simple act of keeping still and untangling the strains of thought. That this isn’t a luxury, but a necessity.

Sometimes, sitting and reading a piece of poetry evokes the same feeling. Take the poem, Yes! No! By Mary Oliver for instance. 

How necessary it is to have opinions!

I think the spotted trout lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I think serenity is not something you just find in the world, like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes! No!

The swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppyrocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

How often I have stopped to look at the heron taking a short flight from the river nearby and wondered whether its opinions were sought, and whether it mattered. They should, for our opinions and actions have definitely resulted in less than ideal living conditions for them. 

Mary Oliver in one short sweep of her pen was able to capture all this and more in the poem, Yes! No!

P.S: I love how the swan in her poem wants to live in a nameless pond. Our planet is just that isn’t it? A nameless, priceless habitat that we have bestowed a name upon.

Heron flying

Enchanted Air

I read Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle, expecting to read a good memoir about two cultures and two wings one grows as a result of hailing from mixed origins. What instead happened is difficult to describe in words for it was not a reading, it was a feeling. A transformative one. 

It is a children’s book. Each chapter is a small poem that stands in and of itself, but also ties into the whole narrative. There were so many places in the book when I found myself stopping to savor a poem, reading it again, and swirling the feelings it evoked in my mind. Later, I found myself passionately explaining it in far less elegant terms to the husband and children, scurrying to get the book, and fumbling through the pages to find the right poem.

For instance when she writes of ‘The Dancing Plants of Cuba’, she captures the essence of an island: 

In California, all the trees and shrubs

standstill, but on the island, coconut palms

and angel’s trumpet flowers,

love to move around,

dancing.

..

Maybe I will be a scientist someday

studying the dancing plants of Cuba.

Dancing Plants

How can one not love the child then who is later to task by her teacher for inventing dancing plants, as plants are supposed to stay still aren’t they?

Her father’s family escaped from Ukraine, from a communist regime, not knowing whether those left behind survived or not. Her mother immigrated from Cuba.

Two countries

Two families

Two sets of words.

Her paternal grandparents’ recollections are therefore muted, brief and vague. How starkly, concisely, she sums up the human condition for survival? When she asks her Ukrainian-Jewish-American grandma about her childhood, she gets nothing more than ice-skating on a frozen pond. 

Her maternal grandmother, on the other hand, regales her with richly detailed family stories, of many island ancestors, living their lives out on tropical farms.

In the poem, Kinship, she sums it up:

Apparently, the length 

of a grown-up’s

growing up story

is determined

by the difference

between immigration 

and escape.

This memoir is rich with details of her family, and her own dreamy self. 

She takes us along with her on her journey of growing up, and how her personality rows with ‘The Geography of Libraries’.

Spoken stories are no longer enough

To fill my hunger

I crave a constant supply 

Of written ones too.

As she grows, the mistrust between USA and Cuba, grows too. Their family is suspect simply for holding a Cuban passport, a part of her heritage cut off by souring diplomatic relations and the Bay of Pigs invasion. She first writes about the state of reality in the poem, Communications.

Abuelita writes letters in code,

inventing poetic metaphors,

to prevent the island’s censors

from understanding her words.

When she says Tio Dario 

is working hard in the garden,

Mom somehow knows that it means 

he’s been arrested and sent to a prison or forced labor camp.

In Secret Languages we learn

Right wing or left wing tyrants always

try to control communication

They always

fail.

The books ends with the poem, Hope.

It is no wonder that the book has won a string of awards. Looking at the history of the world, its themes are timeless too.

The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

I feel like a separate dedicated post to Baloney Detection Kits are useful right about now. It has been a disturbing 6 – 7 years – ever since the presidential election started heating up for the 2016 cycle, we have been living in a state of dubiety (The state or quality of being doubtful; uncertainty).

We have grown used to being lied to, we are more divided than ever before, and the versions of the truth fluctuate wildly depending on which network or newspaper reports it, it is increasingly hard to determine what the truth is. 

Just a simple search for ‘Media Bias Charts 2020’ is enough to drive home the point:

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These problems have always been there. 2000 years ago, the world’s greatest democracy of the times, modern day Italy, then the Roman Empire, witnessed turmoil and breaking of the largest democracy. But with accelerated advances in technology linking us faster than ever to ‘breaking news’ and social media amplifiers for everyone, the waters have become noisier and murkier.

The book, Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, has an essay on the Fine Art of Baloney Detection.

Read also: Candles in the Dark

The essay starts off empathising with the human condition. Why are we, as humans, willing to believe in things whether or not ‘there is any sober evidence for it.’? 

It isn’t unheard of to believe in things supernatural, or falling for false advertising campaigns with exaggerated claims, or believing models wearing Doctor’s coats, or blindly believing religious zealots who spout hypotheses with confidence. As human beings we have been doing this for centuries, and in most probability will continue to fall for some sort of questionable practices. 

As long as there are those who are willing to take advantage of the vulnerable with little or no consequence, these will persist.

For those who wish to read the whole essay, it is here. Or it can be found in the book, Science as a Candle in the Dark – By Carl Sagan

While we enjoy the occasional myth or fib, it is important to know the difference. For an adult to attack Harry Potter for instilling witchcraft is worrisome for this very reason. As part of growing up, we want children to outgrow the myth of Santa Claus. Knowing to distinguish fantasies from reality is a necessary tool for survival. 

Which brings us to why we must have a version of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for us to use. 

The complete essay can be found here:

It has been a saddening realization to find that Science has not been embraced when it is needed the most. I was reading a book on the Greatest inventions of mankind in the past 2000 years. It is a book collating the answers from philosophers, researchers, and professors from various fields. One of the answers given was the framework of Science. I could not agree more. The ability to think, weigh, design experiments with control and test groups, and sift empirical evidence has resulted in the very least at :

  • Saving millions of lives, that in previous generations, succumbed to disease
  • Figuring out how to feed a planet that grew from 1 billion to over 7 billion within a generation

For those who would prefer a straight jump to the Baloney Detection Kit, here it is:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight—“authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.*
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise)—not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable, are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle—an electron, say—in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Books for the King

The son’s brisk questions were being met with sluggish answers and were wrong to boot. He looked at me with concern and said, “Ma! Are you okay?” 

“I feel like I need to read 3 fiction books back-to-back to start feeling myself again!” I moaned. The cuppa coffee wasn’t doing its job. I knew I had a long day of meetings, planning, production issues, and more news trickles along the way before that happy dream could be realized. 

What happened next should not have surprised me in the least, for that child has a knack for soothing frayed souls. He ran away at top speed and I went about lapping my coffee like a cat licking its milk out of the saucer on a cloudy morning.

After a few moments he tumbled into the room carrying three Dr Seuss books. “Don’t worry, I can read it to you for 2 minutes.” he said and proceeded to read from Yertle The Turtle and Other Stories.

He could not have selected a more apt book for the times  if he had thought about current world trends towards dictatorship and decline of large democracies, cross-referenced  it with philosophies on power and ambition etc. 

Yertle the Turtle was the king of the Sala-ma-Sond pond, but as often happens with power, he wanted more, and then some more. Maybe a really high throne would help him thought Yertle. So, he summoned some turtles on which he could perch himself . Yertle thought that the higher his throne, the greater he was. Everything in his eyesight could be his, couldn’t it?

Soon, a cow, a farmhouse and a blueberry bush wasn’t enough for the great Yertle the Turtle. More and more turtles scrambled, while Mack – the poor turtle at the bottom of the pile struggled. Mack’s complaints meant nothing. Yertle could see butterflies and birds, but what he really wanted was to get up there with the moon. 

In a fitting end to the story, the dictatorial Yertle meets his nemesis with Mack’s inadvertent burping. The pile of turtles totter and collapse sending Yertle crashing into the muddy swamps below. Yertle the Turtle learns his lesson. 

I know we ask of no formal training for politicians: there are no politician licenses, no courses one has to complete to take up public office, but I really think there should be a set of children’s books that they all have to read and re-read as refreshers every year in order to stay in office. We could call it the Butter Battle Course.

I’d definitely add these three titles to the course.

  • Yertle the Turtle and other stories – By Dr Seuss. (It even has a story about unbearable braggarts meeting their match in a humble worm who is trying to just till the soil underneath without the incessant brag-fests disrupting him)
  • Louis XIV – the King of Sheep – By Oliver Tallec ( A beautiful tale illustrating how Louis I the sheep became a king – the wind rolled a crown to him, and the same wind blew the crown away from his head)
  • The Fate of Fausto – By Oliver Jeffers ( This tale takes a megalomaniac’s obsession with ruling everything he sees including mountains, rivers, and sheep until he meets his match in the great ocean.