How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel

When the Covid lockdowns started, many folks went on a buying spree (we all know the toilet paper jokes). Ever the dutiful one, off I went too. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when I got an extra bag of rice, and headed onto the library (to get books to tide us over during the lockdown).  When the husband called to ask where I’d gone, I sheepishly said that I was at the library just in case we were unable to get books during lockdown. I could hear a sound like a paper bag bursting – his version of a cross between a snort, and the urge to laugh. I bragged about the extra bag of rice, and I could see his face wondering why he had to be landed with someone, who in P G Wodehouse’s language, ‘must’ve been bumped on the head as a baby’. 

Well, I must say that when we staggered home with books for the children and self, I felt better. The local library has been one of my favorite spots to visit of course, but over the Covid period, I felt like Rapunzel in the book: How the Library Saved Rapunzel (Not the Prince). The library allowed us to schedule an appointment and arrange to pickup books on hold. What was more, they were kind enough to include a few picture books of their choice if you requested them to do so. I am eternally grateful to have access to libraries.

I felt almost an irresistible urge to increase my Science based reading this year (maybe this is a tiny rebellion for the disturbing anti-Science strain emerging with the 45th POTUS office). Starting the year off by re-reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos set the stage for the year ahead. The following books gave me no end of pleasure and learning over the year. (My Science writing class for children)

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2020 was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day

  • Unbowed – Wangari Maathai (in progress)
  • On Looking  – Alexandra  Horowitz
  • Losing  Earth  A Recent History – Nathaniel Rich
  • This is the Earth – Diane Z Shore & Jessica Alexander, Paintings by Wendell Minor

Bill Anders said: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

What a lovely statement that is, and together with his Earth Rising image, contributed to the concerns around Planet Earth that led to founding of Earth Day in 1970.

1200px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise

It was also a wonderful year to take in poetry. Mary Oliver & Margarita Engle were always welcome in a year when poets alone seemed to know the right turn of phrase for the bizarre. Dr Seuss & Jackl Prelutsky always know to turn one’s frown into a smile. 

  • Blue Iris – Mary Oliver
  • Enchanted Air – By Margarita Engle
  • Dog Songs – Mary Oliver
  • Owls and other fantasies – Mary Oliver (Yes! no!)
  • Be Glad your nose is in your face – Jack Prelutsky
  • Dr Seuss books (always worth reads and re-reads). I found a few gems that truly tickled the mind and got out some belly laughs.
    • Horton hears a Who
    • Horton Hatches an Egg
    • Sleep book
    • Oh the Thinks you can Think
    • How Lucky You Are
    • Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose

summer-collage

With the Black Lives Matter movement, the year was ripe for educating oneself on the inequities of society and civil disobedience. The local library, news media, and friends all helped with an excellent array of reading material. Notable among the works read then were:

  • Becoming – By Michelle Obama
  • Black Panther – by Ta Nehisi Coates
  • Sneetches and other stories – Dr Seuss
  • A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela‘s children’s book version
  • My Many Colored Days – Dr Seuss

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With uplifting books and humour, life can be truly marvelous. My all-time favorites kept me company, and I am eternally grateful to their influence of course but a few others were added to the list this year.

The world isn’t such a good place either, and reading books such as these helps to remind us about the many problems that still beset society

The lure of power, and how we are seeing it all play out in real life

  • The Fate of Fausto – Oliver Jeffers
  • Louis I – The King of Sheep – Oliver Tallec
  • Yertle the Turtle and other Stories – Dr Seuss
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (pieces relating to the Minister of Magic refusing to acknowledge Voldemort’s return so he could stay in power)

Of course the true magic of life is never complete without children’s books. There are so many of them in this genre, that I did not even note half of them. But a few of them lit up my life

  • My Grandma is a Ninja – By Todd Tarpley, Illustrated by Danny Chatzikonstantinou (When I become a grandma – though it is a few decades off, that is how I wish to be 🙂 )
  • Gondra’s Treasure – By Linda Sue Park
  • Enchanted Wood – by Enid Blyton (old Saucepan Man, Silky and Moonface with the lands above the enchanted tree – though it doesn’t hold the same level of magic it did as a child, it still has its charm)
  • The Red Pyramid – By Rick Riordan (this was the son’s recommendation, and thoroughly enjoyable it turned out to be romping down the Egyptian myths!)
  • The Quiet Book – by Deborah Underwood
  • A Fun Day with Lewis Carroll – Kathleen Krull & Julia Sarda
  • Peter Rabbit’s Tales – Beatrix Potter
  • Why is my Hair Curly – By Lakshmi Iyer
  • A History of Magic – Based on Harry Potter Universe
  • Tintin Comics (a fair few)
  • Calvin & Hobbes
  • The Velocity of Being – Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick

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On that magical high note, here is wishing everyone a healthy, happy new year in 2021. Things are already turning around, and looking hopeful. Keep reading, and sharing 🙂

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2020 Genre Unknown – Tops Bestseller List

I started this post out to write about all the books that have made life so enriching and beautiful in 2020. It has become a lovely annual ritual – a look-back on the kinds of things that interested and sustained me throughout the year.  But as I started writing, I felt a commentary was in order, as my reading changed with the events of the year. One felt like an eager student trying to cram everything relevant into one year, and then still feeling there is so much left to learn, so much to change, and so many things left to be done.

However, this overwhelm helps no one unless one reflects on the year past. So here goes. (The book list follows in another post.)

2020 is like one of those template books that somehow make it to the best seller lists. It started off as usual I suppose, maybe even showed a little promise, then the story takes you on a rollercoaster.  Deftly crashing you here, and bashing you there, the flow of events sometimes called for rolling one’s eyes.  Yet it took us to places one only imagined in thought experiments. There, inside a dystopian world, the story plunges on from one bizarre happening to another. True Schadenfreudian style if ever there was one. 

Then having rattled your innards, somehow in the end, it manages to end on a hopeful note.

Were it a novel, we would write up a review that said ‘Unbelievable at times’.

2020 had it all. 

🚀 It showed us Time Travel was possible. How? you ask.

  • Consider this: a leader of the free world denied science, and actually made impassioned calls for medieval forms of thinking (sigh!). If that wasn’t traveling back by a few centuries, I don’t know what is.
  • The past few years have also shown us how truths can be twisted, our realities distorted to suit the loudest people with the loudest voices in our online echo chambers. 

🌏 You want an inconvenient truth? 2020 gave us several.

  • From unprecedented bush fires and forest fires to hurricanes and snow storms, the year showed us all the true extent of what we have done to the one planet we call home.
  • Wall-E is becoming a reality. Our man-made things weigh more than the biomass of the planet put together. That’s more diapers, concrete, nylon, cars, and plastic than all the whales, sharks, seals and fish in the oceans; trees, shrubs, flowers and vines in the forests; elephants, rhinoceroses, bisons, zebras in the world.

If only we had mastered biomimicry before mass production!

⚖️ In my close to two decades of life in the United States, never had we had to face a curfew owing to civil unrest, but 2020 saw plenty of these too. The Black Lives Matter movement reminded us yet again about how equity and justice are terms that not everyone can use with a level of trust. 

🌌 It was also a year of cosmic splendor:

🏳️‍🌈 It was a political thriller (Will the elections happen? Will the votes be counted? Will the results hold? Will the winner be able to take up power?)

😩 It was one of the most tragic years in recent history. More lives were lost this year in the United States to Covid-19 than all the major American wars in recent history

2020_year

🥳 But it also has a hopeful end. Who would have thought that a virus that surfaced out of the blue (well bats really) killing thousands of people around the world, would have a vaccine found, and mass produced for consumption before the year was out? It feels like a Science Fiction movie in real-time. #CovidVaccine

What’s your 2021 WotY (Word of the Year) Choice?

2020 escapes adjectives and mere words cannot quite capture the irony of the year. Ironically, last year when we selecting a word for the year in the nourish-n-cherish household, the teenager vehemently voted for the word, ‘Ironic’ (after I shot down ‘Sarcastic’ as an entry of course). I had been inspired by a colleague who regularly answered ‘How are you?” with the word “Terrific!” (In meetings through the year).

One time, I asked him whether he always said that, since it was a shot of positivity in the middle of the humdrum, and he said that it was a family tradition for them. Their family sat together and decided on a word to use through the upcoming year to answer the question ‘How are you?’. The logophile in me sat up and took notice. I got the gleam that the children have identified, and scram when they detect it. It is what gets them into walking miles in the wilderness, or fun read-a-thons.

Where was I? Yes – the word thing. When I came home with this heart warming suggestion, I expected in my naïveté, to be taken up on the word-building, and lists filling up with words such as : Fantastic, Fun, Awesome, or even a word that is only used in our home, Imaginate. But of course that is not what happened.

The words put forth by the teenager were not going to be my words of the year by any stretch. So, given chaotic, neurotic (Really! This child expects me to answer ‘How are you?’ with ‘Neurotic’!) , dystopian, terrible, quixotic, and another few like this, we decided on Ironic. Luckily, we did not use this word to answer every ‘How do you do?” question during the year. Last night when I mentioned the word-of-the-year-greeting-exercise again, the children said, “Come to think of it, our word choice was not bad huh?! Ironic how that worked out! Get it? Get it?”

It was my turn to moan, but also think. Maybe there is something to the whole thought->actions->universe themes that we hear about all the time.

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” – Lao Tzu

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It was a year in which ‘Ironic’ could be used with ease. Ironic how people react to pandemics, ironic how markets and stock market indices react to global pandemics, ironic how we are able to find pockets of quiet in the hectic world thanks to the very pandemic that is causing so much pain and suffering. Ironic how we determine leadership responses or lack thereof in our electoral choices, ironic that the very science naysayers will be benefited by a vaccine developed within a year of the genome mapping thanks to Science. Ironic how humans the social beings reacted to social distancing, and ironic too, how the themes of nationalism, chauvinism, racism, sexism were all rendered meaningless by a virus (too tiny to be rendered in colors by electron microscopes, but large enough to unite us all in the act of being human). If you are human, you are susceptible to the virus. 

  • 2020 word of the year turned out to be (no surprise here): Pandemic. 

Quote from BBC article:

This year has seen so many seismic events that Oxford Dictionaries has expanded its word of the year to encompass several "Words of an Unprecedented Year".

Its words are chosen to reflect 2020's "ethos, mood, or preoccupations".

They include bushfires, Covid-19, WFH, lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubbles, keyworkers, furlough, Black Lives Matter and moonshot.

Use of the word pandemic has increased by more than 57,000% this year.

"It's both unprecedented and a little ironic - in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other."
  • 2019 was the inclusive gender neutral pronoun, They
  • 2018 went for Justice
  • 2017 for Feminism
  • 2016 was Surreal (truly!)

I wonder what 2021 holds in store for us. 

2020 also embodied a lot of good words such as Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing) Komerabi (the beautiful word denoting sun rays piercing through the leaves).

I’d like to hear some of the words you can think of for the coming year. I am thinking of ones that made the children say ‘Meh!”. Whatever else 2020 taught us, it is that we can make it through together if we can retain our sense of humor (the floods of WhatsApp forwards come to mind), and to delight in the ordinary. So I pump for the more humdrum ones: Life, Hope, Joy, Peace, Happiness.

What about you? I wonder what frabjous words Dr Seuss or Lewis Carroll would pick.

2-d Meditations in our 3-d world

T’was a week-end that I was looking forward to. Which meant I looked forward to sleeping in. The son, however, has an internal alarm that seems to work contrary to social expectations.

yawn

Anyway, the point is, the son came up bright and shining. I lifted my tub from the covers and moaned from under the covers at his exuberant greeting. Hmmm….Hmmm…..AAAyyynnsnjsjfhsjfh!

He bustled into the room carrying a suspicious looking questionnaire. Just as I thought, the blasted thing turned out to be a Physics quiz that started with the question:

“What holds the quarks together in the nucleus of an atom?”

Luckily I knew the answer to that one (gluons), but it went downhill from there.

By the time we had arrived at the last question, my weak force was battling with the gravitational forces holding me down on the bed, and I sprang out in one gravity defying leap showing a strong force I did not think I was capable of, and hustled the little fellow and the husband out on a hike. If I was going to survive any more Physics quizzes on quarks, I needed to get my spark. 

The discussion on his favorite topics led us to the fascinating topics of dimensionality, and I told him about a particularly fetching piece on Flatland geometry in the book, How The Universe Got Its Spots – By Janna Levin.

Flatland is a fascinating piece of work written by Edwin Abbott Abbott in 1884. He imagines a two-dimensional world in which all occupants are lines, flat shapes or circles, and also examines a social construct with this premise.  (People with more number of sides occupy a higher social position, with priests being circles. In Victorian times, women had no ways and means to careers, and therefore were represented as lines in that universe.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wv0vxVRGMY (Carl Sagan explains flatland)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland

That day on the hike, we went up and down the hills in the beautiful three dimensional world we live in, discussing what it would be like in Flatland.

In our everyday lives, rarely do we stop to think of flatland fantasies, and when we do, it is all the more magical. I mean how would a sunset look in Flatland? What would a sunset look like if we were in 4 dimensional worlds? Is our entire existence just us passing through this 3 dimensional world?

The gluon quiz master was, in the meanwhile, practicing his martial arts as he spurred himself through the hills, chipping in here and there, while listening fascinated to the Flatland theories. “Umm…Wonder whether that happened to Ant-man when he went into the quantum world.”

Wandering along by the waterside, watching the wind rippling the waters, and rustling the leaves in the trees nearby, it was beautiful indeed to occupy oneself with thoughts of how a wind would be in Flatland: maybe it would be like an earthquake to 3-dimensional creatures such as us. Maybe our cosmic upheavals are the breezes of the 4th and 5th dimensions. Who knows?

“Imagine, if you were an orange, trying to pass through the two-dimensional world.”

You could only see a dot as it touches the surface, and then a circle as it passes through flatland, a circle that gets bigger and bigger, and then recedes in size. Smaller and smaller till it becomes a point again and then disappears altogether.

Just as an orange cannot ‘get up’ from the 2-d world,   we cannot flit in and out of our 3-d worlds. But imagine if we could. If we could give ourselves the gift of perspective (that is another perspective –nature and our vast cosmos give us a fair sense of perspective already, if only we care to look and reflect of course)

Flatland

I am sure scientists who are spending their entire careers contemplating questions such as these are far more qualified to answer, but the very act of thinking seems to be a marvelously magical act. We admired our fellow creatures on our 3-dimensional walk in the hills: The geese, pelicans, seagulls and hawks.

Does a laugh in Flatland cause ripples? Do our laughs cause the butterflies to flit?

“Here is a joke for you”, I said on  the topic of laughs in inter-dimensional space. “What do you call a seagull that flies over a bay?”

“A Bagel – get it?” (a colleague’s joke!)

The joke was met with moans and laughs alike.

By that same extension, are all our lives just us passing through this 3-dimensional world? Where does Kung Fu Panda meet  interdimensional Physics and the Tao of Being?

I shrugged my 3-d shoulders. How quickly the contemplation of the physical world morphs into the philosophy of being? How easily our thoughts can become magical?  

Walking in to Utopia

I had been ruminating about all the problems that had beset the world – pre and post elections in the USA for sure, but also the interconnected economies of the world, the problems that a once-in-a-century virus mutation showed us all too clearly.

A spectre is haunting our world!

The perfect cure seemed to call for a long walk. I could not help admiring the physician who prescribed the slightly hypochondriacally inclined Jerome K Jerome in Three Men in a Boat the following that could not be filled at the pharmacy.

“1 lb. beefsteak, with 1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours.”

I had substituted the steak with (white rice, avial, and rasam), and the bitter beer with (tea – Earl Grey & Lipton with milk and sugar ), and was now ready for the middle portion of the prescription.

“1 ten-mile walk every morning.

1 bed at 11 sharp every night.”

So, I set off. The beanie cap lopsided on my head, hands tied behind my back, pace at about 5 duck waddles per quack, and at spots of true inspiration speeding up to 15 duck waddles per quack. There is something so invigorating about an evening walk in solitude: admiring the setting sun, and the birds lending their musical accompaniment to the dazzling show put out by the sun and the clouds is truly magical.

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By the time the sun had set and Jupiter and Saturn had come peeking in the early evening skies (so close that only those in Galileo Galilei’s time had seen it this close before), I had formulated sections of all-that-is-wrong and how-to-fix-it. I don’t know whether Karl Marx took any long walks when he was writing his little manifesto. All I can say is, I am sure it would have been a lot better if he had.

You see? By the time I had hit the ‘Walk’ button with my elbow at the signal near the house, I was happy, fueled on by my own thoughts in my little utopian world. All that was needed was to document this in a letter to President Obama. President O, on seeing the letter dripping with wisdom, and great ideas then clasps the letter, and says, “Bring forth the author!”. He even  goes on to offer the daughter a leadership position in his institute.

You see? I had solved several sections

  • Job pipeline
    • By skill and
    • Education levels
  • A new model of Capitalism
    • This model rewards not growth but sustainability
    • Stock markets pander for reusability, energy conservation, and factories pride themselves on N-I-W models (Never in Waste duh!)
  • Manufacturing pipelines by sector
    • Ensuring there is know-how and skills within the country
    • Capacity to sustain internally in case a despot ruins relations with the rest of the world (Case in point Corona virus medications)
  • Changes required to the US constitution
    • Electoral College done away with, and the popular vote to count instead
    • Having more than 2 parties to be major players in the elections
  • Environmental Responsibility
    • Clean Fuels
    • Energy Consumption
    • World leaders promoting sustainability as a model
    • Expanding protected lands and waters
    • Climate Change
  • Research & Funding
    • Funding for scientists is skewed and too reliant on industry
    • Bold bets – personalized medicine, geo thermal cooling, space explorations
  • Military Spending & Gun Control
  • Healthcare
    • Women’s health care
    • Geriatric care

I walked into the home looking flushed and happy. I regaled the children about how accomplished I felt. The daughter happily chimed in. “Doesn’t it feel awesome? Mostly by the time I come back, I have given some very powerful messages to the antagonists on my story! My speech to the world has changed the lives of folks everywhere, and all is well. I love it when that happens Amma!”

“Yeah! My villains are destroyed by the awesomeness of the imaginating sequence!” said the son kicking his feet into the air and swirling in the middle of the room closely missing a jar of cereal precariously perched nearby, and the pair of them burst out giggling once again.

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The next day, the husband joined me on my walk, and I told him all about it. He looked thoughtful after every section, and said, “Yes..hmm. But didn’t India already try that in the 1970s? I don’t think that was a success.”

“Hmm…you are right. Burma does try that, but can a happiness index be as effective as a stock market index for world economies?”

“That is a socialistic thought right there … so it may not work out so well here.”

I gave out a big sigh – maybe there was no point after all. It is better to muddle along just as we are, and let one politician after the other try things out, so long as it is not badly botched.

“And what did Obama invite our kids for?” said the husband, looking amused. The idea squasher! I gave him a peeved look and said, “Don’t ask me why? Inconvenient Questions – pish tosh bigosh!”, and haughtily pressed the walk signal to head on home.

As a Secret Santa Christmas present, I received ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama. I plan to read it, and see if he still needs my letters and thoughts.

I suppose it is time for me to get to the last line of the prescription:

 “And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.”

The End

“We have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite.”

The Covid Vaccine!

One blissful afternoon a few months ago, when the summer heat was beating down upon us, I was curled up on the couch overlooking the Umpqua river. The river was flowing gently in the valley below.  A deer and her fawn were grazing nearby, music was playing on the laptop, a book on the History of Medicine lay open in front of me, and every now and then, I read a piece out from the book to the family nestled nearby in various forms of ease. The unease surrounding Covid was there everywhere. (Grapes of Wrath).

History of Medicine is a somewhat misleading title for the book. Jane Goodall documented apes healing themselves by going to a cave miles away when they had stomach upsets, to find a herb to cure themselves.  So, I am pretty sure healing ourselves has an evolutionary angle.

We must’ve all seen the viral quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who supposedly said that the first evidence of civilization was a healed femur bone, since usually breaking this bone in the animal kingdom means death by starvation or predators. 

(I am not sure of the veracity of the quotation itself, but here it is)

In any case, I think the book addresses the last 200 years of practiced medicine.  

“What are you reading about now?”, was a frequent query as I made my way through the ailments listed in the book.

I told the children the hilarious tale of Jerome K Jerome, the author of Three Men in a Boat feeling off and searching up his ailments much like many of us first do with WebMD.

“I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.”

“I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.”

― Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

The history of medicine is a fascinating one. The book contained some black and white pictures too. There was a few pages dedicated to the sad tale of James Garfield’s assassination. Apparently, hand-washing was not a prevalent practice in 1881. Though the shooting itself was not immediately fatal to Garfield, infection set in to the wound in the days following the shooting essentially killing him. His shooter infamously said, “I didn’t kill the President! I only shot at him. The doctors took care of the rest.”

Given how often we wash our hands during these Covid-times, it seems like something elementary, but was such a problem even 100 years ago. 

“I am so glad that human understanding of the microbial world has come such a long way in the past century!” I said after reading this piece out to the children. “Just think of this, within days of the genetic sequence of the coronavirus being shared, scientists had finalized the sequence of the antibody required to combat the virus. mRNA-1273

The author wrote about the time his mentor told him to document the symptoms of polio for posterity: this, at a time when the polio vaccine was not yet available. To quizzical glances, he apparently said with confidence that Polio will be cured within a few years. This was the sort of conviction and hope that is at once admirable and remarkable about the human race.

News of the corona virus vaccine is a welcome one indeed, and a true testament to Science. The first vaccines were distributed to 50 states in USA from Pfizer’s facility in Michigan today.

3D_medical_animation_coronavirus_structure

What is mRNA, and how do they work? Link from CDC

Like Bill Gates said in his 2015 TED talk, it isn’t missiles that we need to fear (since we now are invested in peace, knowing how we can annihilate ourselves many times over), but epidemics such as the Spanish flu. The coronavirus really did take the world by surprise, and showed us how we are all more interconnected than we realize – we are just a small pale blue dot floating in the cosmos – united in our destinies and apparently as weak as our vilest virus.  

Good Morning Bilbo-Style

Why I was unable to sleep early last night, and got up like an excited cat this morning is beyond me. Usually, I sleep like a sloth that had an extra helping of eucalyptus for dessert: just leap into bed at the end of the day, read for a bit, and pop off. That extra helping of eucalyptus probably contributes to the birds having to tweet very loudly to rouse the sleeper from sweet slumber (The birds have since taken to partnering with poetic alarms).

Poetic alarms and the secret to blooming like a flower.

I can’t say I leapt out of bed, that would be too much, but I did get up smiling. The promise of holiday cheer is definitely a factor.  I smiled sleepily to myself with the lovely realization that child-like enthusiasm only takes the promise of fun to be up and about. 

Also, it has to be a good thing if the first thing I thought of was Gandalf and his good-morning sequence with old Bilbo Baggins. There has to be a word for that sort of magic. 

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain.

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I stepped out for a little garden stroll Shire-style, thinking and noticing the fine things nature had to offer that beautiful morning. I nodded appreciatively at  the brave show the snow peas were making again. Not for the first time did I admire these hardy low maintenance plants that give out so much joy. I have planted ferns, potatoes and lord knows what else, but they elude me. The fruit trees in my little strip of garden all require some expert care seeing that they bear no fruit. The occasional gardener who comes along to help has little to offer by way of advice, and I feel for the sorry trees in my care. 

I read books that said we have the knowledge of natural things in our very being, and nobody has yet planted a sapling wrong and all that sort of thing. Yet the plants in my care don’t seem to know that. Maybe I should read out some of these books to them. Like Frog & Toad reading to their little seeds to make them grow fast.

Everything in its Place – By Oliver Sacks

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I noticed the perfect structure of the budding chyrsanthemums, the beautiful symmetry of pinecones, and wondered why we humans have moved away from the beautiful aesthetics that nature has created for us. It is time we embraced Biomimicry in our design patterns.

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This modern tendency to create monstrous piles of rubble and call them buildings is tedious. Modern plumbing and electric lighting aside, what was the problem with medieval castles? And a little variety of structure?

I was trying to get a good picture of these beautiful little things when I noticed a neighbor who had come walking their dog give me a quizzical look as if to say “Do I not have better things to do?”

I felt this was the perfect time for the final “Good Morning!” Bilbo-style.

“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

References:

  • The Hobbit – By J R R Tolkien
  • Everything in its place – By Oliver Sacks
  • Frog & Toad – By Arnold Lobel
  • Biomimicry – By Janine Benyus

Is Earthly Music Universal?

“What is this? Australian music? I thought we were in Africa! “, said the little fellow peering into the dashboard up by the driver’s seat.

“Yes- my young man! We have moved on from the plains of the Masai Mara to the deserts of Australia. Traveling the world during lockdown. Feel adventure in your veins!”

He rolled his eyes. His teenage sister has taught him well. 

“Remarkable isn’t it? How we are able to traverse the world in an instant these days? In the years of Ibn Batuta or Marco Polo, I suppose you had to wait to shimmy your way into the audiences of the explorers to get a glimpse of a world other than your own. “

marcopolo

We had taken a drive to catch the fall colors in the nearby mountains, and I was seated in the front-seat clasping the task of deejay dearly. I am usually entrusted with this important task only after several rules have been put in place.

🎼 You are allowed one Carnatic music not more than 7 minutes long (I do have a bone to pick with Carnatic musicians who take up my allotted 7 minute slot with one line)

🎵 Instrumental – cannot be slow, slow music. (Drivers got to stay awake.)

🥁 Everyone’s got to get a chance at their music

🎻 No weird music

“Yet…just look at us swiping away and traveling the world 🌍 with YouTube music? Lockdown or no lockdown. How remarkable music is no? Transports you straight out of this world into another world altogether!” I said. The husband and children gave me looks of amused tolerance that they seem to reserve for holidays and trips. Indulgence, sure, but also a joy in seeing my whimsy rise to the surface. 

The brilliant Youtube recommendations engine stood on the side panting and scratching its head trying to figure out what to recommend next based on my list of songs. Ahh! That happy feeling you get when you stump an AI algorithm is truly priceless. Scottish bagpipers marched down the dales of Scottish highlands with their music; middle eastern belly dancers flexed their tummies with grace and agility; shepherds tended to their livestock with Bulgarian folk dance music; and royal court musicians of Turkish sultans from the past bravely set forth their music to the unwittingly pulled in audience in the car. 

“Ummm – what music is this?”, said the son when I played the Bulgarian folk song, Izlel e delyo haydutin, By Valya Balkanska.

This, my dear, is what the universe would hear if ever anyone intercepts Voyager on its space voyages, and finds a way to extract the music within. It is part of the Golden Record. It is now hurtling through space making  our earthly music universal. ”

Laniakea

“Please! Appa – what is this? I am happy to see Amma this happy I suppose, but this is too much. Can we have some, like, normal, music? “ asked the teenaged daughter. 

“What?! If I may remind everyone in this car, this coming from one who is constantly the one asking me to try new types of music. Who is forever berating me for listening to toiyan-toiyan music (instrumental music)? Amma jazz it up a bit! Shall I create a playlist for you with my favorites so you can listen to it? – huh?! “

She gave into a high pitched laugh, and said, “Yes I meant different genres as in rock, jazz, country, pop, not bagpipes, bongo drums, and what is this now?! Doesn’t sound like an instrument at all!”

“That’s because it isn’t”, I said happily. “We are listening to whale songs now.”

“Okay…that’s it! All deejay rights revoked for some time now. Whale songs! Pass me that phone!”

“Nope!”

And to this musical, lyrical bickering, was added the sounds of harmony, resulting in an orchestra of noises. The trees, that night, as they passed their messages to one another, rustled in excitement. How long since they had heard natural sounds of whales?

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Eudaimonia – Human Flourishing

Somewhere in the forest of my rough notes nestled this little piece. I had evidently written it with a view to tying the pursuit of happiness to the happiness of pursuit and all that. 

A couple of the son’s friends had come over and without wasting a moment, they started a vigorous game of I-honestly-don’t-know-what. I could hear loud giggling by the couch as they jumped from the sofa to somewhere else and back on. After an hour of this, I asked them the point of the game. They exchanged quizzical shrugs. 

* Was there a point in the jumping game? 

* Was there a point in jumping? 

* Was there a point in a sofa or the cushions below? 

I laughed at their loss of words, and let them go back to their game. They were kind enough to ask if I wanted to join. Detecting a distinct take-pity-on-me vibe from the frazzled, frayed sofa, I gallantly told the children to proceed without me. They looked relieved and continued happily.

I looked at their flushed faces and saw that the point of the whole thing was that they were happy. Happiness as a concept has the philosophers stumped. Philosophers who deal with heavy themes such as meaning of life and so on, spend a considerable amount of time pondering the meaning of happiness, the importance of the pursuit of it all, among other things. 

I am listening to a lecture series on the Meaning of Life.  Professor Drone (lookup the name later) talks about pursuit of happiness among other things when he is explaining Aristotelian Ethics. Honor, Wealth, Excellence are all worthy pursuits in our lives, but it can all be towards something else: Happiness. Underlying our quest for Honor, W & E is a desire to be happy, he says. 

Unfortunately, as we grow, the little drops of sunshine that so easily caused mirth and joy tend to fade.

But as I read the little note above, I also felt a little pang – for it showed me what the children were missing now. The camaraderie of classroom replaced with the tiny tiles of an online meeting, the wholehearted enjoyment of jumping replaced by online games.  I had spent the whole day in one meeting after another. Meeting fatigued days such as this one tended to blend into one another, especially when the daylight faded out so quickly that only darkness remained, with a cold wind to keep one company. Wondering what my son was upto, I rose – my joints creaking like the wooden floor below to see if he needed company. 

Just as I was feeling dangerously sentimental about social distancing, its long term effects on the young minds, and all that sort of thing, I heard peals of laughter and the familiar sounds of jumping up and down. There was a FaceTime call in session, and the little fellows were re-enacting a scene from an online game they were playing together. The brawlers, as they called themselves, were making themselves real-life Brawl Stars. The video call was propped up on the globe in the middle of the table, and the swinging adventurers flew in and out of view of the camera. Judging by the sounds of it, the children had adapted with their customary cheer. 

the_world_playground

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Albert Einstein

“Hi ma! Want to join us? We are just ummm just umm brawling!”  

I looked at the little fellows’ pals squealing and leaping off the sofas in their screens, and I declined the kind offer much to their relief.  I headed into the kitchen with a smile on my lips, a tune in my heart, and hope in my being.

Eudaimonia, also spelled eudaemonia, in Aristotelian ethics, is the condition of human flourishing or of living well. Ask Professor Drone to play with children and learn a lesson or two. Happiness lectures indeed!