Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

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Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

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The Nest

Summer had spread its warmth and happiness in myriad ways. It had browned the state of California, made children cherish a vacation spent in the warm company of cousins, friends and grandparents. It had also led us to discussing a pair of swallows or robins who had raised their family over a friend’s garage recently. The excitement over this last item was palpable, if second-hand. I have told the children lots of tales before of growing up amidst nature, and their favorites are the ones featuring fauna of various shapes and sizes. The time we ran from a mouse, the time the panther came, and so on.

Amma – have you really seen a nest before?”

“Yes. Of course.” I replied.

They had the look of expectancy about them, and I did not disappoint.

I told them that not only had I seen a bird’s nest before, but was so shocked at having seen it, that I almost toppled off the tree in fright. They guffawed at this, as though nothing amused them more than mothers falling off trees, and I mock-pursed my lips at this misplaced joy. But I had to admit, if I imagined my mother falling off a tree at their age, I would’ve guffawed too, and genetics cannot be helped and all that.

I cleared my throat and continued with the thrilling tale of the nest. They listened with rapture.

We were playing what loosely passes for badminton out in the rushing wind just to see how to play when the gusts of wind took the shuttle askew. One time, the shuttle caught in a tree, and we tried retrieving the thing with hockey sticks,  shouting (our sound waves generate sonic boom to dislodge shuttle – duh), and a myriad other techniques before placing a stool on a chair and hoisting me up to the nearest branch. It was then, I saw the dear home. It looked just like I liked it: haphazardly thrown together, a comfortable haven from a stormy world. Cozy, if a little messy. I stood there for a few seconds delighted at my find, and prudently did not holler the finding to my playmates below.

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I have always had a soft spot for babies, and there must have been some being raised there. I almost clambered down without the shuttle-cock in shock.  I kept the information quiet from some of the more cruel children, and expertly diverted our game elsewhere.

The children gave a wistful sigh, “Hmmm…..Wish we could see a nest!”

Every time we go to a wooded area, we look for a nest, but so far we have been unsuccessful in our quest.

A few days later, I was meandering around the lanes, when I spotted something on the floor. The pine trees in the lane had shed plenty of its pines, and the brown pine needles and the pine cones make an interesting scene partly because we are always on the lookout for lovely looking pinecones. It was then I spotted what was unmistakably a nest. There it was – perfectly shaped to house little birds (an ornithologist could probably look at the nest and tell you which birds planned to raise a family in them, but I could not) I picked it up and saw the nest must have fallen a good 10-15 feet even if it were on the lowest branch. Luckily, no eggs were in the vicinity, and I gingerly picked up the nest to show it to the children.

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After the initial excitement, I was told that I had been heartless in bringing the nest home. Why could I have not put back on the tree? While I admired the sentiment behind this, I felt that expecting me to scramble up that large a tree to put a nest back was a bit much. So, the nest was housed in an adjoining tree whose branch was accessible to my height, and we hoped some bird who had procrastinated nest building would be able to find and use it.

“How will any bird know to look for a nest?”, the children asked. I was doubtful too.

A few days later, I picked up the children’s book, A Nest Is Noisy. The dear book assured me that there were plenty of birds that look for built nests, and the nest I had picked up could one day become a home again.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. John Burroughs

Ma With Fahrenheit 451

As I took a walk one morning, I tried to identify the flowers and trees in the neighborhood, and found myself humbled by my meagre botanical knowledge. A bird or two chirped nearby, and I tried my best to enjoy the quiet by zoning out the drone of the constant hum of traffic from the main road. I looked up at a tree that I loved, a Gingko tree, and sat myself down nearby watching the suns life giving rays upon a garden just watered. The tiny water droplets refracted the suns rays, and the world around me felt magical.

As if to complete this picture of serenity, two butterflies danced into view. Their dance around the flowers on that sunlit morning with the rays of the sun coming in through the Gingko trees leaves was enough to mesmerize anyone, and I found myself smiling and lapsing into a contented silence. It is not often that I get to slow life down enough to sit and watch butterflies in the garden. In those few blissful moments, I experienced the beautiful concept of Ma. Ma is the Japanese concept signifying the space between moments, and is a practice in the Zen art of being present in the moment. Ma is the pause between sounds.

Ma is beautifully explained in the children’s book written by Katrina Goldsaito and Illustrated by Julia Kao titled, The Sound of Silence.

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In the book, Little Yoshio looks for the sound of silence after he hears an old koto player on the street tell him that her favorite sound is the sound of ma, of silence. Intrigued, Yoshio looks for the sound of silence in the streets of the city around him, he looks for it in the bamboo garden, but finds other noises are constantly present, and is wondering whether he can ever find Ma.

Then one morning, he enters his school earlier than usual and immerses himself in a book, he experiences it for the first time. “Suddenly in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed.

The butterflies cavorted higher and higher and then swooped down with joy to the lavender patch. I let my mind flitter about like the creatures I was watching. Reflecting upon life is increasingly becoming a luxury, I thought to myself. I had just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, and could not help thinking of some of the things in the book that Ray Bradbury had the foresight of seeing 50-60 years ago, long before we were addicted to technology and lured by the concept of busyness. Fahrenheit 451 talks about a future in which all books are burned by firemen. (451 F is the temperature at which book paper burns. )

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People live in homes where the Televisor is on all 4 walls, signifying constant stimulation. One fireman is curious to see what is there in the books that those who love it so much are even willing to die to keep them. He steals a random book here and a book there with every burning, and he tries his best to make sense of it, but is unable to grasp the beauty of random poetry. He tracks down one person whose books he had burned and asks him to explain. Excerpt from the book below:

“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we may forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched patches of the universe together into one garment for us. 3 things are missing

Number one: Quality, texture of information. They show the pores in the face of life

Number Two: Leisure”

“Oh, but we have plenty of off hours.”

“Off hours yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a 100 miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting i some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor. Why? The televisor is real. It in immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense?’

Summing up, he says the books give you three things:

Number one: quality of information.

Number two: leisure to digest it.

And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.

Complement with Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

From Botany to Ma and Fahrenheit 451, I was flitting about like a butterfly myself, and could not have asked for a more pleasurable show in my head had I planned the thing.

A Whiff of Youth & A Hint of Innocence

As summer closes its curtains, I look forward to the beautiful season of Fall. I yearn to see the colors of the leaves changing, resplendent in their glory for a few weeks, and the inevitable flutter they produce in my heart as they come to terms with letting go of their branches.

The children and I had our first scrunch-party this morning: We saw a small bunch of dried leaves near our feet, and we jumped and heard the delightful scrunch that was then followed by giggles that caused a squirrel to pause on its scamper and chitter at us looking amused from the roof above, reminding me of one of the poems in the book, A Whiff of Pine and a Hint of Skunk ( A Forest of poems by Deborah Ruddell & Joan Rankin)

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  • Above my head a robin sings
  • a shy hello and flaps her wings.
  • She whistles to a waiting squirrel
  • who gives his fuzzy tail a twirl
  • and bounces on a flimsy branch
  • which starts a leafy avalanche
  • of red and gold from every tree
  • as if they’ve planned it all for me.
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A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk

Afterward, we made our way to the son’s school. I waved goodbye to the fellow, and then dilly-dallied for a minute after he had gone into his own classroom. I love the atmosphere of the fresh energy and exuberance of children on a Friday morning. I was soaking in the scene when I saw a child crying. Great big tears coursed down her cheeks, and her face was so troubled, I stopped to ask her what the matter was. I cannot bear to see children cry (Tantrums annoy, but these genuine feelings of sorrow wrack my heart).

It was then I saw three girls her own age come and stand around her in a knot. They comforted her in their own way, asked her what the matter was, and then took her along to walk to the classroom with them. Her slumped shoulder straightened just a wee bit after a few steps, and her hands that were held by one of the girls was given more willingly. I watched them walk away together, and a warm glow suffused me.

In that glimpse of school, I saw the heartening stirrings of a friendship, the kind heartedness of fellow classmates, the easy grace with which relationships start – an art that adults seem to have forgotten along the way.

I walk around the neighborhood seeing the early stirrings of fall. The precocious among leaves are turning color. Fall raises the question of mortality, and I admire the example the fall leaves set for us, when the time has come for them, by letting go and fluttering down. with the promise of renewal in the air.

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It reminds me of a conversation I was having with my parents, as many people of the older generation grapple with the problem of aging. For the first time in the history of mankind, we will soon have the same number of people over the age of 80 as below the age of 5. Depression and anxiety among the aged is common. (My article here on Aging: Toby Turtle’s Lesson on Life)

If old age were indeed the second childhood, what would it take to keep forging relationships without expectation, and reaping its unexpected rewards, like the little girls that morning? How to infuse our minds with a hint of innocence and a whiff of youth?

Freedom Is Sweet

Driving through lush green hills, past wide rivers and huge boulders, the route was marvelous. We had been a-visiting India for a short trip. The roads were smooth, and the rain clouds brought on a blast of monsoon rains. The little car burst forth joyfully on the empty roads swerving like a little child to splash puddles along the way.

The driver may be a grown man who sports whiskers on his face, but the heart the body houses is a child’s when it rains.
“You know? Two years ago, I took this road and it was agonizing to drive. The road was full of potholes, and our backs were sore for days.” he said smiling before splashing a big puddle again. The brother was driving and we were on the way to the city where my parents lived.
“What changed then?” I asked puzzled, for the gray ribbon in front of us was smooth and clean.
“Politics happened. The interim chief minister’s constituency is somewhere on this road, so we got our lovely scenic route done up – no charge.”

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We reached home and affectionate greetings exchanged between parents, grandparents and children alike. A little while later, I was sprawled on the couch listening to the pater rile himself up with the news. Blithering-idiots-the-lot-of-them-are, seemed to about the gist of it, and I watched him amused.

The next day was Indian Independence Day, and the politicians were scrambling to see whose speeches would get maximum coverage on television, while ensuring that important topics of daily living were tabled for later. One incensed statement from the host of the News network forced the father to mute the television, and launch into a full scale explanation of politics that is best explained with a bedtime story. If you would snuggle in and close your eyes. Good then..:

There was a diamond ring, and everyone wanted it. But one strong, majestic troll had it, and did not let anybody else touch it. One day, the troll died, and all the remaining trolls fought each other for the ring. The troll children were hungry and thirsty, but that bothered no one. They are still fighting for the ring.

The End.

I know what you are thinking. As far as bedtime stories go, that was pretty rotten! I agree, but the state in which the parents live had recently lost their chief minister, and the squabble around the position was enough to make reality show hosts blanch. The populace has learned to look at the ensuing drama as such, and take a philosophical view of enjoying the good roads while they lasted.

We chewed the fat about the latest situ. in the United States, and how divisive strains were making themselves heard, and how we must do all we can to fight it.

Like Mark Twain said, The truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities whereas the Truth isn’t.

The next day was August 15th – Indian Independence Day, and we chirped with the birds, looked smart and went down for the flag hoisting in the community. I had with me my son and nephew – both five year olds who were eager for any activity involving the outdoors. As they stepped out, the boys were warned that they were not to take more than 1 sweet when offered the plate after the flag hoisting. If they were pups, I could have seen their ears drooping, but they bore the blow stoically enough and charged downstairs.

I stood there marveling at the fact that a month earlier we had celebrated Independence Day in the US. I looked around at the knot of people with whom I was celebrating Indian Independence Day. The stupendous privilege of celebrating Independence Day in the world’s largest democracies was not lost on me. To every one of us who looked at the flower petals fluttering down from the flag, freedom meant a different thing. To some of us, it meant living peaceful lives, to some, it meant having the right to dream, to some others, the ability to dissent. But we all agreed that it deserves celebration.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about the oppressive regime in Iran, was still in my mind, and as I was in the habit of reading particularly affecting passages to those near me ( a malady I inherited from the pater), I was doubly grateful to Democracy in spite of all its pitfalls. Fighting for diamond rings or no, taking a stand against divisive policies or not, we have something worth fighting for.

Afterward, we walked towards a small store. The path was an exciting one – past barking dogs, and motorcycles weaving their way through the streets. I smiled and asked for some chocolates for the lads. Their faces lit up with joy: Freedom is sweet.

 

Oscar Nominations for Dumb-Charades

There are many games that appeal to people of all age groups, but our favorite by far is Dumb-Charades.  This stellar game asks for nothing other than enacting the title out. The grandparents are given movie names in Tamil to enact, the children are given children’s books and movies, and a good time is had by all.

Usually, one of us gives the movie name to mime, and that person refrains from guessing the title.

We started off with Disney Pixar titles for the elementary school aged son. I have noticed how boys in that age group generally play the game.  Never mind if the movie was called ‘Slumbering Sloths’. If in the movie, there was a 5 second scene showing the sloths thundering against each other and charging, that is what they would mime. Most trying on the audience the whole thing is.

We all suffered in the same keen way when the son started miming. To make matters worse,  he said he would select a movie on his own (I will think of a movie in my mind by myself). This meant that there was not a single other person in the room who knew what the movie title was.

I would have liked to capture the whole thing on video, but we were so mystified and desperate to find the real name, that it hardly occurred to any of us to tape the thing. He ran around the living room that had a clunky tea table in the center and tumbled out of sight.

We looked at each other quizzically. Spiderman?
He shook his head, smiled and ran fast around the table again before tumbling out of sight.

Superman!
No! He looked crestfallen that his superb miming was getting him nowhere. He pointed at his chest and ran fast and tumbled again. If not for the carpet, the child might’ve hurt himself. Usually, his sister comes to our rescue for the pair of them flit between each other’s imaginary worlds quite easily, but this time she too looked perplexed.

“Try something different this time.”, she told him. He perked up at this suggestion and ran around the table once again and tumbled thrice before sitting up beaming.

The psyche of the group by this time was worth noting. The actor was fatigued and wondering whether the audience, much as he loved them, had any dramatic sense at all. Might a few broad hints help to prod the dim group along?

The spot under the table looked spotless now, and we were no closer to guessing the movie name. The audience was insistent on not letting Superheroes rest. Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, Batman, Transformers, Flash (from Incredibles) had all come and gone.

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“No Superheroes!”, he said finally speaking up, and thus leaving us completely clueless. With superheroes, there was a chance we could find the right fellow eventually, but this was like being told there are no oases in the desert. None.

We looked imploringly at the daughter, and she finally asked him to confide the title in her, so she could help him out. Clearly, we weren’t quite up to par in the brain department. He agreed, pulled her out of the room in exaggerated gestures, and told her the title. She came back laughing to split, and said she was going to have some more fun watching us figure this one out, now that she knew how easy it was.

Now Really!

You think you’d get a break given all that we do for these children. I gave her a disappointed look, and she said, ‘Believe me, you will like my sense of humor once you find out the name of the movie.”

After 2 more attempts, she relented seeing the looks of dumb anguish on our faces, and told him, “Bobbicles, do what we talked about inside.”
The little fellow looked stung. “But, I told you! They don’t do that in the movies.”
“I know, I know. But they may guess the actual word at least even if they do not do that in the movies.”
“Fine! “, said the artiste making it plain that he usually did not dilute his high standards for the sake of the audience, but was doing so this time. .

He put on a face that showed so much disappointment that we felt quite cowed. Finally, he used his hands to mime a steering wheel of a car.

Cars!” we yelled.
“No!” he said.

The daughter was clutching her sides and cackling with laughter and said, “Stop! Stop! It is Cars….but what Cars?”

Cars 2?
No
Cars 3?
YES! said the little fellow wiping his brow.

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We asked him why he simply did not show the steering wheel to start with, to which he said, “But in the Cars movies, they don’t use the steering wheels to drive!  They just drive. I was showing you how Lightning McQueen races around the track, and then has an akiscent (accident) and tumbles! Amma – you should know that. Remember you said, Oh! Poor Lightning! when we were watching the movie?”

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—-
He showed us his Mappy face, which is a sort of grimace containing both mad and happy expressions rolled into one. I took my reprimand with grace, high-fived the fellow and instituted a new rule: One cannot think of their own titles to mime. At least one other person in the room should be able to help if need be.

Madagascar”, I whispered to the daughter when it was her turn. Laughing at us for Cars 3 are we? That should fix her.

“Oh come on! I expected Appa to give me something like that. Not you!” she said pulling an emotional toss with ease.

She tried waddling like Penguins and everyone shouted ‘Emperor Penguins!” to which she glared and showed, “1 word!”
Finally, she split the word into 3 portions:
For the 3rd part, she pointed to her brother, ran around the table and tried tumbling out of sight.
Cars! The triumphant audience yelled.
Mimed a fart for gas (really sometimes I wish these children would be a tad bit more classy)
Gas!
Her brother’s mappy (mad+happy) face
Mad?
Madagascar?

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Car & Gas indeed!
“No more Oscar nominations tonight!” we said. I don’t think we could have handled anymore.

 

Mum At Mafia

As the sun set, and the frogs came leaping out in the wilderness, a cabin in Mt Shasta was feeling the throb of excitement. Frogs leapt outside, people leapt inside. Frogs croaked outside, people sang inside. The grandfather, Thaatha, and grandmother, Paati, were told that they do not get to watch their Tamil television that night, and to set aside the time for games. All drama tonight was to be live.

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The family was sitting around the dinner table and feverishly discussing the evening game session. No trip is complete without game nights, and a sense of thrill rent the air. Ice-cream had been bought and stowed away for a mid-game snack, post-dinner cleaning activities were looked upon as if it was normal for everyone to pitch in, so we could all start playing. (Maybe I should introduce game nights on a regular basis to get such willing help.)

The topic under discussion was the best game to lead with.
Monopoly? (Groan from me)
Uno? (Groan from the girls)
Chess? (Only 2 players)
Puzzle? (Groan from everyone)

“Keep eating and talking so that we can get a move on.”, I said, and everyone sincerely spooned some food into their mouths.

The father-in-law, meanwhile, was communicating with the love of his life (not the iPad, his wife). He looked like he was attempting the mamba dance without music or footwork, and we looked on curiously knowing fully well what was going to happen.

He pointed vigorously at the rice and then at his plate. The rice and the plate. The love of his life burst forth and said, “Why don’t you use your god-given tongue? Why point at the rice?! What if I don’t see? Next time, I am going to take my plate and sit outside on the porch, let’s see what you will do then!”
The son said, “There are frogs outside now Paati.”
The whole table burst out laughing, and the little fellow did not understand why his technically correct statement was this funny. His loving older sister patted his head and said, “Oh! Bobbicles! Bobbicles!”
The father-in-law was still pointing at the r, and the p.
To my mind, what was more telling was the fact that he was pointing at the rice, and then at his plate, as if the rice has been deposited elsewhere before, but we do not delve into their romantic demons, and I passed him the rice.

“Why not start the game session with Dumb-charades?”, I said. “It is a game your grandfather will excel at because he talks so little, and we can all have a good time.”

There was a lot of enthusiastic nodding for Dumb-C when the daughter and husband said together, “Or how about Mafia?”

A thumping approval met with this suggestion, and the rules of the game were being explained to the grandparents in a flow of fluent Tamil & English. (“Tell panna koodathu. Find pannanum. Save pannanum. Who is the mafia find pannanum.”) The Tamglish Grammar rules is a blog post that is simply waiting to be done in the Indian-American context.

We sat around with cards explaining the role of the Investigator, the Civilians, the Mafia & the Angel. In larger groups, this gets harder to do, but in our group size, there was only 1 designated Mafia.
The rules we used were simple:

  • The Mafia chooses one person to kill.
  • The Angel is given a chance to save one person.
  • The Investigator tries to find who the Mafia is.
  • The rest are Civilians.
  • If the Mafia is caught or if the Angel saved the killed person, the person identified by the Mafia continues to live.

No words are spoken, people open their eyes when called upon and point fingers to identify who is who.

“Thaatha is going to ace the game! Finally a game where he doesn’t have to speak, and be happy about it!” said the grandchildren, and their grandfather gave them one of his coy smiles and settled down in his armchair.

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With me so far? Good. No speaking.

I got to tell you, just when you tell folks not to do something, they find the overwhelming need to do exactly that.

The daughter was the Narrator, and she started the proceedings with Tamil sErial style background music.

Investigator, open your eyes.” The Investigator did.
Mafia, open your eyes.” The father-in-law was the Mafia.
Who would you like to kill?
“I will kill your Paati. “ he said using the voice that should’ve helped him get the rice without any tension if he had simply used it then.
“Everyone open your eyes! Thaatha! You want to kill your wife, this is your chance to do it quietly. Not tell everyone!” said the granddaughter giving him marital advice with glee.

The laughter ricocheted around the room, and a few frogs outside leapt away from the window. From them on, every time you expected Thaatha to keep mum during Mafia, he was listening to his wife’s advice on using his tongue, and it provided for great hilarity.

Coming up next: Dumb-Charades.