Swimming With Dolphins

The daughter and I were lazing around one night a few months ago: she, reading me snippets from her Harry Potter book and gushing about Patronus charms, and self, reading out snippets from mine, The Cosmic Connection By Carl Sagan.

I was reading the fascinating piece on Elvar the Dolphin. The daughter’s favorite animal is a Dolphin. She has drawings of mermaids with Dolphins everywhere. The sea fascinates her in ways that amuse us. Dolphins, mermaids and narwhals enchant her mind, and her endeavor is to become one if possible.

So, obviously, I read the whole piece out to her.

wind-in-the-reef.jpgElvar had the brilliant scientist stumped after a brief interaction. Elvar-the-dolphin and Sagan-the-human, on being introduced, started playing a game initiated by Elvar wherein he swam to Sagan, and thumped his tail completely drenching Sagan. When after the fourth splashing, Sagan refused, the dolphin swam up to him and said ‘More’. Completely flustered with this turn of events, Carl Sagan ran to his fellow neuroscientist friend and said he might have heard the Dolphin say the word, ‘More’. To which the neuroscientist said that Elvar the Dolphin knew upto 50 words in English, and could use them in context.

It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese. – Carl Sagan

A marvelous essay that only serves to remind us about the virtues of humility. We can barely understand other languages that fellow humans speak, and are quick to erect barriers between ourselves, but here was a dolphin willing to pick up English in order to engage with human-beings.

“You know Amma? Dolphins are so lovely right?”

I nodded. I did love the little flubberty gibbets.

“I think I know what my patronus is – My patronus must be a dolphin. I love them amma. They are so magical and real too.”, she said her eyes gaining that dreamy quality that often accompanies magic.

So, imagine how we felt when on our recent vacation to Mexico, the husband had booked a ride with Dolphins.

We were first introduced to a pair of dolphins – a charming male and female, called Manta and Sole. We hugged, patted and kissed them. I have never in my life touched something that soft, warm, and plush pulsing with the robust health of life. I coo-ed with that tone of voice I use around babies, and the daughter tried her best to distance herself from me in embarrassment, unlike the dolphins, who seemed to enjoy the attention.

‘Would you like to ride with them?’, asked the instructor, and I got to tell you that I was apprehensive. I mean – weigh the facts. Dolphins can swim at the stupendous rate of 20 miles per hour. I swim, if you can call it that, at the rate of 2 strokes a minute, stopping to gulp water in between, spluttering a bit, gasping, coughing and rasping, then regaining my breath before taking another deep gulp to sustain myself for 2 strokes.

Would a Dolphin for the first time experience condescension? I had to find out.

It took me what felt like 20 minutes to swim a couple of hundred meters out to where the dolphins could meet me. I huffed and puffed, and flawlessly executed the gulped-water, sputter and choke routine before I felt able to say I was ready. The moment I nodded, she gave them the signal.

In under a second, I felt the dolphins streak toward me under water, and they were there wiggling their fins under my arm and assuring me in their playful way that all was well. Their faces looked like they were smiling which I suppose is a gift they are born with. Their demeanor indicated none of that condescension or judgment that I was dreading, but simply an amused curiosity.

In another second or two, they had deposited me on the shallow end. The pictures reveal an ecstatic look on our faces as we were carried gently ashore by the dear creatures. My heart was bursting with joy. Maybe my patronus changed to a Dolphin too.

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If we truly were smarter than Dolphins, we would be totally giving you the works in Dolphinese. What I can do is to dance like they did for us.

I only hope their interaction with us was a happy one too. Boink – Thank-You in Dolphinese.

Another World

We are back from what can only be termed an exotic vacation by the seaside, and the old brain nudged me to look for something written on marine life a while ago, and I did. I had written this post a few months ago, and forgot to publish it.

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So, here is the old post while I marshal my thoughts from the vacation.

One evening over dinner, the husband asked in what he thought was a nonchalant tone whether we should go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium that week-end.

“Hmm…Did they send you the renewal plea for the annual pass?” I asked shrewdly.

He laughed and said that they had indeed.

We are as gullible as galloping oysters in fish sauce when it comes to the annual pass gab. We look and analyze the thing from all angles and figure that if we go just once more in the next year, it all makes sense and buy the annual passes. The year ahead seems to be sprawling with empty week-ends. Week-after-week, month-after-month: having nothing to do, we say why not set aside one week-end a month for the Science museum, one for the zoo, one for the natural history museum and another for ecological preservation?

Then, of course life unfolds, which in the nourish-n-cherish household has been established to be somewhat erratic, and hectic, and we are left wondering whether the weekdays with all its attendant worries is calmer than week-ends with all its hectic activity. Before we know it, the renewal plea arrives and we try our best to scramble in another visit before the annual pass expires.

“If we go straight to the Diwali party from the museum, we can work in that week-end.”, we say and scramble in a trip to the Aquarium.

Anyway, what I meant is that we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few months ago. The salty, tangy, eucalyptus-scented air ruffles your hair as you make your way towards the museum. The cawing of the seagulls and the faint smells of seals and seaweed greet you long before the wonders inside.

Observing marine life is as mesmerizing as it is mystical. Standing there in front of the large glass tanks and looking at sharks, turtles, fish of every color and variety, is magical.

There is one section where we can see jellyfish boink around. Jellyfish that are colored brilliantly, transparent jellyfish, and jellyfish that contain bioluminescent bacteria. As I was standing there marveling at the brilliance of nature, I noticed that there were patterns in the glowing bacteria. Some had patterns that if one squinted one’s eyes resembled constellations in the night sky. I don’t know whether the patterns in the jellyfish are unique to each one much like the Zebra’s stripes are, but it would definitely not surprise me if that were the case. Nature’s patterns are as varied as they are diverse.

We came home that night, reluctantly pulling ourselves away from the enthralling environs of teeming marine life, and sat around for a hastily thrown together dinner. The conversation drifted towards marine life, a topic that is dear to the daughter’s heart. The love started young as we know to our chagrin – we might have watched Finding Nemo five hundred times when she was growing up. Every little fish and piece of coral was much loved in the home. The conversation flitted dangerously close to the ‘I wish I could live in the sea’ theme. The husband watched us for a moment and said in a strangely ruminative tone: “It is a scary world out there isn’t it? A-fish-eats-fish world.”

I was reminded of a quote that floats up in my mind every so often when I am observing the world around us. A quote that is prominently placed in the Monterey Bay Aquarium too:

The sea is as near as we come to another world: Anne Stevenson

Yes, it is a fish-eats-fish world, but it is also the world of beauty, survival, co-existence, and a symbiosis of life.

A Fairy Tale Ending

When the daylight savings time change happens, regardless of how tiring the day and the commute has been, I will pep up in the evenings. Just listening to the twittering birds on the trees outside, the sight of young trees in bloom, and the new leaves are like a soothing balm to the soul.  The children who come out to play have all invariably shot up during the winter months and it is heartening to see them revel in the evenings on their bicycles or tricycles. The hues the setting sun throws against the sky never fails to lift my heart.

It is as the poets say, only I cannot say it half as well or correctly as they do. Isn’t it something like: February goeth like a lamb and March springs in like a lion or is it March goeth like a lamb? Or something about March springing like lions or going like lions. Anyway, the point is that March goeth just like February goeth and January goeth.

I stepped into the home one evening to find the evening chaos was worse than usual. Everywhere I looked, it seemed to me a bit of spring cleaning was in order. Piles of paper were on tables, coats and backpacks were strewn on sofas and floors, shoes with socks spilling out of them lay everywhere. My heart sank. I cradled my head in agony at the sight.

“There is so much junk in this house!” I said and started clearing up frenetically. The do-er is the worst, for it makes the non-doers squirm with guilt. The daughter squirmed, and the son looked discomfited.

“Oh you are cleaning up. Why, is anyone coming?”, quipped the teenaged daughter, and I moaned. I like to dispel this notion that we must clean up only when someone is visiting the old home, and I said so, loudly.

“Okay…okay…no need to get all learn-a-life-lesson-y, just asking.” The look she gave me suggested I was one screw short.

I donned my efficient look and got on with my cleaning spree keeping a running commentary up on the junk collection.

I picked up some plasticine (why do we spoil the environment with this trash?), a rubber ball (anyone plays with this still?), a torn glove(how did this beautiful glove tear and where is the other one?), a fruit bowl with what looked suspiciously like glue caked and dried(what is this? ), and a book of fairy tales that had come apart at its bindings. The pages were not held together by glue anymore, but they were still there inside the cover. (I had nothing to say but I smiled).

Heavens – how dearly I remembered the old book! The torn and tattered pages that I held gingerly in my hands seemed to take me back to those lovely spring evenings years ago when the daughter, then a toddler, would come to me clutching the large book in her hands asking to be read a story from it. The book was as large as her torso, and she tottered under the weight, but she loved the book. I knew she liked those stories so much. She listened intently, and sometimes, she would re-tell her grandfather the stories much to his delight.

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We had learnt morals, taken leaps of faith, and realized that external appearances do not matter all that much.

I looked at the torn book in my hands, and smiled again. Now more than ever, we must obsessively read our fairy tales and children’s books. Beautiful princesses can control their destiny, frogs can be princes, beasts can be gentlemen, elephants can hatch eggs and good always triumphs over evil.

Albert Einstein on Fairy Tales:

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/14/einstein-fairy-tales/

An Elephant is Faithful 100%

“Ughhh! Amma, why is this boy so bright in the morning?” moaned the daughter. The daughter and I are slow to rise and shine. The eye first creeps open, the bath helps a little but not much. By the time, we muster the energy to throw our weight around, it is mid-morning. We are like sunbeams trying to break through a misty, foggy, cold morning. The husband and son, on the other hand, are like light bulbs. When they are up, the switch is on and they beam brightly with all the wattage available. The duo look indecently chirpy in the morning and bustle around with breakfast, cracking jokes and what-not. The daughter and I exchange dark looks and shudder a bit at this exuberance.

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One morning, the son looked at me, shook his head with pity and said, “I know what will wake you up! Let’s listen to Horton Hatches An Egg”, and we did. The toddler son was cracking up with hilarious laughter in the car and I don’t care what you say about speed of light being a constant and all that, I must confess that the sun beams broke through the misty morning fog a little faster. It is a marvelous book, and takes one through the most hilarious plot of an elephant hatching an egg.

I recently read Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel, by Judith & Neil Morgan, a biography of the beloved author, Dr Seuss. Ted Geisel confessed that he saw the world through the ‘wrong end of the telescope’ and  he seemed to have stayed in touch with his childlike curiosity and joy through life.

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Ted’s family was well-off. His father, after running the successful family business for several years, later worked for the public parks system with access to a zoo. He puts many of his influences down to the natural loafing around in the countryside with access to animals as a child. His mother, had a knack of reading things in verse to him in a way that stuck in his brain. Over his brilliant career, he would combine both these influences in a charming manner to enable an entire generation to love reading.

Reading about his foibles and his educational escapades gives a glimpse into the kind of endearing personality he must have been. Especially in the early part of the book, you see the boy and young man Geisel was not exactly a Grade-A student. From an early age, he exhibited a wonderful personality with humor, zest and curiosity.

His college sweetheart, and later, wife, Helen Palmer, was the first person to suggest to Ted that he may be better off drawing and writing than pursuing an academic career at Cambridge. He says this was around the time he realized that writing and drawing were like the Yin and Yang to his work.

One day she watched Ted undertake to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost; he drew the angel Uriel sliding down a sunbeam, oiling the beam as he went from a can that resembled a tuba.

“You’re crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw.” she blurted out. She glanced at a cow he had drawn and said, “That is a beautiful cow!

Praise from one you love is truly lovely, and it set him on the course of his career.

Ted was used to taking brisk walks during frequent breaks from his studio in La Jolla, California. One time, he accidentally left a window near his desk open. When he came back, he saw that one transparent sketch had flown over the other, resulting in a strange juxtaposition of an elephant sitting on a tree. This set off a magnificent thought process in his head. What was the elephant doing on the tree, why, hatching an egg of course. Why is he there – what happened to the mother bird and so on. What resulted after months of mulling this train of thought and multiple revisions is the brilliant book, Horton Hatches The Egg.

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent!”

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Image Source: Wikipedia 

If you haven’t read it, please do so. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient to living: Dr Seuss.

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Coming up next:

Ted was a school going child when the First World War started. The Geisels were first generation German-Americans and though they were naturalized citizens at the time of war, it turns out the world around them did not treat them kindly.

Essential or Eternal Communication?

I recently read a book called The Hidden Life of Trees written by a forester, Peter Wohlleben.

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Trees have always fascinated me. I have tried becoming one with little success.

Their calm, stoic essence of being is reassuring. Trees are social beings, and they are capable of immense internal processes that not only sustain their lives, but also those of others around them.

Reading the book is like dipping into a life that we as a race can barely contemplate for as the author reminds us in the book, trees live life in the slow lane, and that is what made the reading experience refreshing. It is largely based on observations and of the forester’s study on the forests he helps to manage. Throughout the book, he cites relevant research studies that have been carried by botanists.

Trees are social beings and know that they can thrive if they look out for one another. Many interesting anecdotes dot the book such as the one with the giraffes chomping down the leaves of the acacia trees in the Savannah.

The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores.

The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind.

How beautifully nature equipped the trees and giraffes for survival.

After reading about how effectively and essentially Trees communicate, I could not help comparing and contrasting our lives with those of our stoic friends. This frenzied communication lifestyle we have adapted as our own, often leads to amusing outcomes, but sometimes to questionable ones.

One morning, I set out to enjoy a leisurely week-end breakfast with the children. When the menu card says ‘Noodles’, the beaming sous chef in the home is more active than is called for. I doubt restaurant kitchens have sous chefs standing on chairs next to the chef gabbling instructions for all to hear, but our kitchen does.

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Minutes later, we clattered down with our bowls of steaming instant noodles – there is something deeply satisfying about slurping the long noodle strings noisily, and reveling in the liberating feeling of not being governed by the ticking minutes of the clock for a change.

I was doing my best to ignore the incessant modes of communication that is our bane today, but I was still interrupted with the International Phone Call.  On the call, I was given the shocking news that Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp had been vying to give me, and told to check it all immediately. Apparently, the noodles I was eating that very day had 17% lead content. 17% lead. Funny because I did not feel like I had a metal tube lodged in my intestines after eating it, nor did I feel like an old ceiling waiting to be torn down. What it meant to say of course is that there were supposedly 17 parts per million of lead in the offending food item, a claim that in itself proved to be baseless later on.

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Quote from link: http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20170310/leaky-gut-reaction/

The wrongness of the initial stories is the result of a perfect storm of three factors: Technical subject matter, a master of disinformation, and always on race to publish stories quickly. It’s yet another reminder of the Internet’s five least common words: Let me think about that.

Should we learn the art of essential communication, and develop the ability to chaff it from the demands of eternal communication? Maybe learn a lesson or two from our stoic friends.

For a quick read: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/09/26/the-hidden-life-of-trees-peter-wohlleben/

Of Hailstones & Laundry Baskets

“I have a great idea! “, said the kindergartener. His face was shining with excitement. I braced myself and nodded for him to go on. I had between my teeth, a clip that threatened to tie my tongue together, my hands were yanking a large unruly mess of hair into a pony-tail for the daughter, and the stove was hissing ominously.

“Why don’t I wear the red laundry basket to school?” said the kindergartener. That tied my tongue, the daughter yelped because I pulled on the hair making her pony tail look like a sausage through a tree, and the stove boiled over.

The past week has been a whimsical one. It was ‘Read Across America’ week to honor Theodore Seuss Geisel’s birthday and the little world around us lit up. In Elementary schools, everyday of the week, it seemed, was a special one, and fliers exhorted all of us to jump in. I love the Elementary school age-group when the human mind is at its most creative, supple and fertile and is bursting at its seams with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Wear As Many Colors As You Can Day
Crazy Hat Day (the red laundry basket is always being worn as a hat by the toddler at home, and he thought it was a marvelous idea to go like that to school)
Favorite Story Book Character Day
What Do You Want To Become Day (What do you want to be?)
Mismatched Fox in Socks Day

Somewhere along the line, we lose that element of fun, and I admire how children can help us tap into it at times. The past week was a hectic one, but I must say that I enjoyed wearing mismatched socks on purpose just as much as the children did. There were times during the stern day when I smiled to myself thinking of my striped sock and my polka dotted mismatched socks that had resulted in so such mirth in the morning rush.

I had with all good intentions gotten a biography of Dr Seuss to read before his birthday, but in my typical feather brained inefficiency had not so much as moved past the Prelude to the Introduction (why do books do that?) So, the Dr Seuss post would just have to wait.

Dr Seuss was very much on our minds as we stepped out for a walk by a river to wrap up the week. There we were, ambling along a roaring river with the backdrop of the mountains in the distance. It was also a deceptively cold day(I am too cold), for there were patches of sun(I am too hot), patches of dark grey clouds scudded past the cumulonimbus clouds and the wind whooshing at times knocked off our hats (not laundry baskets.)

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Minutes into the walk, we were stringing together nonsense Seuss-ian style and cackling:
I am too cold
I am too hot
Why are you always too something?
I thought you were five
No I am not five cold
I am not five hot
I am too cold
I am not two but too
I thought you were five

And so it went….

You know how they tell you in these be-calm lessons not to do anything suddenly? Ignore it. For suddenly, the rain pelted down, and not just that, it pelted down with hail stones. Silly or not, being pelted with hailstones is amusing and annoying especially when the good intentioned mother did not bring an umbrella on a walk. But the toddler tackled the problem with a whining grace. He ducked under his jacket and we raced to a tree, and stood under the tree sticking our tongues and hands out to catch the hailstones.

“Eat it”, I said as I popped a hailstone into my mouth.
“What? No! Amma! You cannot do that. “
“Yes you can – you may like it. Try it Try it if you may.”
“Say! I like Green Eggs and Ham”, finished the toddler and popped in the hailstone looking amused.

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It is perfectly normal to be mistaken for normal if you wear laundry baskets and eat hailstones, thanks to Dr Seuss.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/29/what-pet-should-i-get-dr-seuss/

Blame The Toxos

Every once in a while a book comes along that changes the way you fundamentally view things. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong is one such. In the book, the author covers various types of microbes, bacteria and pathogens that we carry within ourselves or encounter in the world. A fascinating adventure awaits the reader on this microscopic journey.

The book shows us how each being is a complex symbiosis unto itself. A concept we know vaguely but appreciate deeply when we read the book.

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We have heard of parasitic infections that control the minds of hosts like rabies. Rabies makes its carriers aggressive and the only way for it to spread is by biting and scratching another being. ( Rabies is probably the basis for the myth of the werewolf.)

There is one particular type of parasite that is chilling in its tale. Toxoplasma Gondii or Toxo is a single celled organism that latches itself onto brains. It is also referred to in the TED talk linked below for further information.

Quote : Toxoplasma Gondii is a brain parasite otherwise known as Toxo. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodents natural fear of cats and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards the cats with fatal results, and T.gondii gets to complete its life cycle.

Toxo has been known to manipulate mammals. It makes rats run towards cats and offer themselves as prey just so toxo can reproduce. Classic tale of self destructive behavior, wouldn’t you agree? It is also proven that many humans play host to Toxo.

TED Talk by Ed Yong

The book led to many happy, wild conjectures such as:
(a) Could that be the reason Cat videos are so popular on You-tube? I mean, I have always wondered: Why Cat Videos? Why not hippo videos?

(b) Humans affected with Toxo also fare differently on personality tests, showing different trajectories when it comes to risk taking and pleasure seeking behaviors. Could a combination of Toxo and Dopamine releasing behaviors such as increased reliance on social media have engineered the elections?

It sounds like a weird sci-fi scenario: Toxo encourages self-destruction, dopamine clamors for fake news, and the world falls prey to single celled organisms manipulating mammals (us), while we run around like zombies thinking we have free will.

The understanding of human biology has fascinated mankind for centuries. But advances in microbiology itself is less than 200 hundred years old. Even then, our narrative surrounding the understanding has been harsh: Bacterial infections, germs, plagues, survival of the fittest. While there are numerous examples of these, the truth is that we also play host to a large number of helpful microbes and bacteria.

Theodore Rosebury, a microbiologist, wrote in 1928, during his research that:

“The knowledge that micro organisms can be helpful to man has never had much popular appeal, for men as a rule are more preoccupied with the danger that threatens their life than in the biological forces on which they depend. The history of warfare always proves more glamorous than accounts of co-operation.”

A fact so timeless that we ought to have it framed in halls of learning if it isn’t already.

P.S: Please watch the TED Talk by Ed Yong – it is only 13 minutes long.