Worries & Worm Moons

The evening was a gentle spring one. My friends and I walked on into the evening, as the full moon rose in splendor on one side, while the sun set with elegance on the opposite side. The Worm Moon, as the full moon in March is called, was exceedingly beautiful against the spring evening as we walked on.

Though this time of year seems to signal that all is well with the world, there are spots in the trying world as we make our way through it. Life is full and with a full life comes a good helping of worries. We walked on swapping tales and confiding the worries of life that seem ubiquitous.

Somehow, the worries seem to reduce in size in the shared experience of it all. Just in the acknowledgement of it. It reminded me of the marvelous children’s book, Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival.

In the book, Ruby is a happy child who loved to explore and be herself. 

Until one day when she finds a worry. 

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The book talks beautifully about the concept. How the worry stays with her, and seems to grow in presence and size though no one was able to see it. It was there with her in the classroom, on the swing, and even occupied half the school bus. 

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It is a beautifully pictured concept with the worry inching in everywhere till poor Ruby is unable to be happy at all.

Then, one evening at the park, she finds a boy sitting alone and a worry looming over him. She goes over and they share their worries and talk about it.

“As the words tumbled out, Ruby’s Worry began to shrink until it was barely there at all.

Soon, both of their Worries were gone!”

It is a simple tale of friendship and worries shared, and yet the book captures it all in so beautiful a manner. You wonder and marvel yet again at the profundity of childrens’ books. 

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That evening as the worm moon rose and sprinkled its silvery little sparkles over the lakeside, the same thing seemed to be happening to us in real life too. To nature, peace and friendship whispered the evening.

P.S: March Moon is also known by various names: Eagle Moon, Sugar Moon, Wind Strong Moon or even the Lenten Moon.

Article here: Full Moon in March

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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.

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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

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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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The Fabled Life of Aesop

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Aesop learned to speak in code.

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

Tyrants always

try to control communication.

They always

fail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Freedom

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

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

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

 

Fox 🦊  & Pan 🐐 ⛰

“You know? Most of my morality comes from Percy Jackson and Harry Potter?” said the teenage daughter one day. 

“Gee! Thanks for that speech on wonderful parenting my dear, No clasping mother and father to heart and tears of joys on helping you navigate a messy world and all that?!”

She had the grace to laugh. 

She had been holed up in her room all morning, and I had hollered to her to come and help me with the chores. She stumped downstairs, unable as a teenager, to let on that she was probably enjoying the interlude of putting away the dishes with music in the background. 

As the dishes clattered, the kitchen was enveloped yet again in a mythological whirl. The daughter was always fond of Rick Riordan’s Greek and Roman mythological tales. The son, who has now started to read the series with gusto is thrilled at being included in the club of discussing these important works of literature with his sister. The warring factions of the Gods Vs the Titans has been analyzed from teenage, pre-teenage and elementary child angles. Myths have an alluring charm and when you find the similarity between Cerberus and Fluffy the three-headed dogs in Percy Jackson and Harry Potter series, it is always worth doing a little dance jig, and discussing with the teenaged sister. 

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The husband and I have been made to read the books too, and I must say they make for entertaining reading. I still prefer the Harry Potter series, but I see the lure of Rick Riordan’s work. He has perfected the rhythm of adventure with the right mix of modernity set against Greek gods in our world. 

“Which God would you be if you had an option?” the daughter asked, and the answers flowed forth. When it came to me, I paused for a moment and said, “Probably a nature god. Who was she? Hera?”

“Nah…You are thinking of Persephone. She is the Goddess of spring – you’ll like her too”, looking like a doctor arriving at a tricky diagnosis, “but I think Pan is more suited to you,” said she.

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“Fine then. I will be Pan. Pan is the strongest God if he is the Nature God right?” I said knowing fully well that my answer would be met with an uproar: 

Zeus is the most powerful. 

The top three are Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. 

“Well you know what happened to Pan?”, and then the pair stopped mid-sentence and exchanged meaningful glances. 

“We must not spoil the suspense for you, Amma, but it is very sad what happened to Pan.” said she.

“What happened?”

“NO! Don’t – let Amma read it!” said the most recent reader of the books.

“Just tell me!”, I said, deftly catching a cup from cracking as I caught it from the dishwasher.

A dramatic sigh followed, and the sad prognosis was delivered.  “Pan is fading Amma. He is no longer a force that he was on Gaia now. It is up to us now to save Earth!”

I looked at their faces and felt a surge of pride, alongside a wave of gratitude to writers like Rick Riordan who so beautifully captured the essence of conservation in a manner that so many young children can relate to. Where would we be without the gifts of imagination and creativity?

I read another short story, Fox 8 , by George Saunders, who captured my attention, in a similar manner. Written from the viewpoint of a fox, Fox 8, it outlines the sad outcome of a mall being developed in Fox View Commons ( an area that was home to many animals, forests and trees). Fox 8 learns how to “speek yuman”, at the window of children being read to by their parents at bedtime. Fox 8 loves the stories, their morals and their imagination. Even though, the stories get things wrong about animals all the time, he is fascinated. Fox 8 is a huge fan of yumans and their ingenuity even when the mall development essentially drives their pack to hunger and death. The story ends on a sad note, with Fox 8 wondering how yumans can be cruel and unfeeling towards fellow beings with life, when their stories promise to teach differently.

I have said this once and I say it again – if only we could learn to live like the stories we weave for our children – with wonder, empathy, bravery and curiosity, wouldn’t our lives be more whole-hearted and content? Maybe our greed could be in check and Pan would not have to fade away so much.

Swimming Across The Media River

One week-end evening, the devices in the house were barking mad. Twing, twang, tring. Video calls, phone calls, instant messaging systems were all driving themselves to a tizzy. Far away, far, far away, 5000 miles away a temple bell was clanging.

I yearned for some quiet and asked if anyone cared on joining me for a walk in the cool Spring evening. Everyone sprang out of my sight like a cat let loose in a party of rats. The husband was trying to yelp his way out of a walk when the first free WhatsApp call came. He ran to pick up the phone with a sense of urgency, and secret relief that he did not have to go a-walking with me, but narrowly missed the call. I made for the open skies while he dialed back. 

The walk was a beautiful one. I admired squirrels chittering, birds twittering, even the raucous cackle of the geese seemed musical. I have, in my chronicles expressed an interest in finding out about animal communication. Misguided. It is better if we don’t know. This way, I could let the noise wash over me, and assume best intentions on their part. The breeze gently tousled my hair, and the setting sun threw brilliant hues across the scattered clouds.

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I stepped in to the home after some time, and saw the husband looking drawn and crumpled, like wet cloth tumbled about in a dryer.

Is everything alright? I asked him a little worried.

Yes! Yes! he said, and proceeded to tell me the thrilling tale of the past 1/2 hour. The saga clanged its way across temple towers, cell phone towers, underground cable networks, and busy human ones. Leaping from a small rural temple town in South India, a couple of metropolitan cities, and continents, with data bits coursing through half the earth, it read like the glossy blurb of these bestselling novels steeped in drama and suspense. 

I was intrigued, and gave the sympathetic ear at once.

The first phone call had been from his mother in India. She lives in Madras. WhatsApp calls are free, and people are free, so I will just give the gist. 

Mother in Madras: Can you call your cousin in New Jersey, and ask him for his sister’s number in India?

Husband in California: Why? 

M in M: His sister is here in India visiting no? 

Wait! I see even gists could take a while, alright let’s try this then:

Premise: Husband’s cousin visiting India for a few weeks.

Plot: Said cousin and her mother, viz, husband’s aunt, went to a small temple town in South India.  There, they planned to meet up with husband’s uncle, and go into the temple together.  

Plot Twist: Uncle tried to call Aunt, but she had put the phone in her handbag and did not hear it ring because someone was twanging the infernal temple bell with great righteousness.

Cliff hanger: Will they ever meet? The temple town had all of 3 streets culminating at the temple after all.

That is it. The entire plot. 

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How does that leap across metrops, continents and coasts, you ask? Fair question. 

As I see it, the itch to go temples stems from mankind’s search for spirituality. Learn to calm the inner anxieties and voices and so on. On this spiritual quest, when one does not meet the intended person in the first 32.5 seconds, the mind flutters and they place an immediate call to their sister in Madras. She then calms her brother saying there is no need to worry, and immediately places a phone call to the husband in California. 

Why husband in California? 

Repeat after me: Aunt visiting temple with d. Plot thickens when Aunt does not pick her phone. But the visiting cousin has a phone for use in India. Stroke of brilliance indicates that her brother preparing for bed in New Jersey will have his sister’s number. Call husband in CA *Tring* to call girl’s brother *Tring* to find out temp cell phone number in India. 

Husband misses call narrowly *Tring*. 

Husband calls mother again *Tring* as soon as possible, but mother’s phone is busy for she has called *Tring* her second son in New Delhi to call his cousin *Tring* in New Jersey and get the phone number. 

After several nerve wracking minutes, both folks call the poor fellow in New Jersey *Tring Tring*. The fellow moans sleepily that he has already fielded five free calls from various parts of the globe asking the same thing and there is no need for any of this, since they seem to have found each other. 

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Then a next set of phone calls were completed for the express purpose of letting everyone know that the concerned parties had met each other, and all was well. In all, I guess about 23 different calls were made. If one party had stood still for 5 minutes, the other party would have simply fluttered into them in the breeze. 

Though tactless, I laughed heartily. The husband looked like a spent force after dealing with this hurricane of calls. He eyed me, and said somewhat icily, “Let’s talk about something else, shan’t we?”

“Do you know how trees, and wild boars communicate to each other?” I asked the husband grinning. 

“Tell me”, he said, and we spent the rest of the walk discussing acacia trees, giraffes, wild boars and hunting laws in Geneva. (Inner Life of Animals, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben)

“Did you know the wild boars are so smart, they have figured out that the Geneva side of the river has a hunting ban, and the France side doesn’t? So when the first gunshot rings out in France, all the boars scramble, splash into the river and swim to the other side of the river. I suppose they poke their tongues out at the hunters on the other side!” I said.

“Is there someplace that has a free-calling ban, so we can swim across the media river when the first phone calls start?” moaned the fellow, and I patted his hand in commiseration, wisely refraining from telling him that all of this could have been avoided if he had just come out on the walk with me leaving all modes of communication behind. 

Godly Superheroes or Super-Heroic Gods?

The clocks had been changed, and the evenings suddenly signaled the arrival of Winter. The stars shone, the moon beamed, and the crickets clicked much sooner than usual. I was pottering about the kitchen when I overheard an interesting conversation between brother and sister.

“What is the difference between a Super-Hero and a God? “

The question was obviously the son’s. The young fellow had a curious look on his face, and he wanted to learn the truth, and nothing but the truth from his older, wiser, newly minted teenage sister. His sister looked discomfited, and said, “Dude! Seriously?”

I tried my best to keep the stuffed frog look about me, and acted non-committal. A vitally important step if you want to see how the discussion proceeds.

The son is a great lover of mythological tales. Hanuman, the monkey god, who could jump across seas, carry mountains with one hand, and fly with the mountains is a positive hero. This is such a change in pace for us for the daughter was never one to ask for super-heroes or Indian mythological tales.

Her philosophy matches the Roman poet, Ovid’s, thoughts on God:

It is convenient that there be gods, and, as it is convenient, let us believe that there are.

“Hanuman is my favorite super-hero.” said the son. “Was Hanuman a super-hero?”

“Yes …. and … no. Well…Hanuman is a super hero, but he is also a God. Most Gods are also super-heroes, you know?”

This must’ve felt like a tantalizing puzzle to the fellow, for he continued with the quizzing.

“But not all super-heroes are Gods right? Superman is not a God. “

“Yes…he is not. Definitely not. Nor is Spider man, and Captain America and all the rest of the fellows you watch.”

The son gave a raucous peal of laughter at this. It amuses him that the super-heroes who mean so much to him, mean so little to his sister. He looked at her with that look artists paint on disciples waiting to hear some Saint giving life-advice.

“Well… Gods don’t die, but super heroes do.” She sounded tentative, quite unlike her usual self.

“But Rama died, and he is a God right?”

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The daughter looked at me with pleading eyes, and I threw up my hands. This child asks the kind of questions that spiritual speaking the Dalai Lama could answer. Me? I sputter and stutter and look like a duck stuck with duct tape in her throat.

His world has super-heroes, and if in the olden days, they were Gods, they must have been the super-heroes of the day.

To ruminate consciously is a privilege: Who are our super-heroes today? Which ones will be the Gods and which ones the Demons?

P.S: I recently read a book titled The Delight of Being Ordinary by Roland Merullo. It is a book chronicling an unlikely trip taken by the Pope and the Dalai Lama together. It is an opportunity for them to escape the fanfare that is constantly around them, and delve into what their sub-conscious has been telling them. I don’t usually read forewords, but after reading this book, I felt happy enough to go back and read the foreword. The author said that the concept of having the two world’s most prominent religious leaders, who also have a wonderful sense of humor appealed to him, as so many leaders today are so devoid of this important ability to laugh and delight in little things.

Part 2: Incorporating Physics Into Myth

Squirrels, Berries & Fringe Myths

We had been on a trip to Crater Lake over the summer. Among other things, we hiked a little bit around the lake, taking in the marvelous view. The lake is a mesmerizing sight sparkling in its deep, pristine blue. We indulged ourselves in small hikes that afforded us beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding Cascade mountains merging into the Sierra Nevadas in the South. It was one of those places where nature cures, nature soothes and all that. The son is my ardent nature companion, and the pair of us went looking for pinecones and acorns.  It was steep going.

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We stopped at one place to take a few breaths at a spectacular rock placed there for the purpose and we saw a little squirrel. We may have been nervous during the hike, but it did little to wrack the squirrel. Up close the son noticed that unlike the squirrels near where we live, these fellas were smaller and had stripes across their back. He said in his excited voice that these were the ones that had helped Rama build his bridge and nearly gave the poor squirrel heart failure with his excitement.

I peered closely, and so it was. Here were little squirrels that looked like the squirrels mentioned in the ancient myth of Ramayana. According to the story, the little squirrels were helping Lord Rama’s army build a bridge from India to Lanka so that he could save his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the clutches of the evil demon-king Ravana, in their own small way, with little rocks and acorns.  Lord Rama was so impressed with them, that he picked one of them up and stroked its back lovingly. The legend goes on to say that is why squirrels have stripes. The son had heard the story before, and  was understandably excited when he saw the stripes the squirrel’s back. I suppose the story must have sounded silly to him when it said, “That is why squirrels have stripes on their backs.” Because the ones he sees do not have stripes on their backs, and that is the sort of discrepancy that will keep the fellow puzzled and curious for days.

<Squirrels with stripes on their backs>

Chipmunks or Squirrels
Pic obtained via google search

I was reminded of that little story when I read the news items that Remains of the Day had won the Nobel Prize. Remains of the Day examines the concept of work, and why it is an important factor in man’s life. Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 10.08.53 AMHow often have we been asked our names, followed by a what-do-you-do? How does one attach a sense of importance to one’s work, and feel purposeful about it? Sometimes, it is by means of attaching ourselves to the goal of the entity you work for like the squirrels did. But maybe, it is to the concept of work that we need to attach our purpose to like the bees do.

This year Deepavali – the festival of lights came like the coat-tails of a comet after a string of tragic events – fires, shootings, floods: catastrophes both man-made and natural shook the populace. But now is a good time to throw our mind back to these oft forgotten little mythological tales, the fringe stories that provide food for thought. I must remember to tell them the hilarious tale of the old lady, Sabari, tasting the berries before giving them to Lord Rama.

I looked forward to the chat with the children while drawing up a rangoli outside the house using colored chalk. It is a beautiful feeling of light. The triumph of good over evil, a call to nurture our inner light and so much more.

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Mythology, fairy tales, and magic are all so beautifully interwoven in our magic of story-telling. Heroism and quests for the inner self are never jaded. Starting from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Avatars of Vishnu,  Ramayana & Mahabharatha,  Odyssey & Iliad, the Bible and right down to Harry Potter, it is a story line that always enthralls, and is ever relevant.

I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear. George Lucas

In all these millennia, it seems little has changed, and so much has.

Please share some of your favorite fringe tales – I would love to hear them.

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

The Mystery Of the Blue Hot Box

Weekly once is Trash Night. It is that night of the week when I marvel at humanity’s ability to generate trash. It is that night when I look efficient and bustle, while the children scramble to save their Works Of Art. The husband throws a protective arm around wherever he is sitting and says. “Please! Not now – I will sort it out later. “

“When?” I demand. He treats it as a rhetorical question and wisely refrains from answering.

As I gather the copious amounts of trash we generate from the various dustbins, I ponder: If one household had this much trash, what would happen to the Earth as the population grew? What are the lessons we are learning? I didn’t realize then that the trash was to give me a valuable lesson soon.

Fifteen years ago when I first set foot in a mall in the United States, I was awed that this rich country had such vast, sprawling areas set aside for the activity of shopping alone.

This initial awe soon gave way to disappointment. I missed the chaos of bazaars, I missed the joy of finding a treasure in the pile, I missed the call of the vendors beckoning me to take just one look before deciding. I distinctly yearned for the abundance of prints, styles, and fabrics that shopping in the tiny shops in India had accustomed me to.

The last time I visited my family in India therefore, I plumped for a bazaar – no fancy malls for me please. What I wanted was beauty in the seemingly chaotic.

The little bazaar had tiny shops that had the dimensions of a large dining table, but enough merchandise crammed inside them to fit a garage. We were like kids in a china shop. When I paid what was asked for, I was lovingly chided that I had forgotten the crucial step of bargaining. But I was happy. I was not going to haggle with a small business owner, I said. The head shake that greeted us from family and store-owners alike said, ‘These NRIs!’.

bazaar

Among the merchandize that day was a cricket bat, and some lunch boxes. You know those ones that profess to retain the heat? Those ones. They are imaginatively called hot-boxes.

Back home, we displayed all the things we had picked up. We held up the pink and blue hot boxes with pride.

“Why didn’t you tell us that this is what you wanted?” asked the parents-in-law in rare unison. “We are always re-gifting these hot boxes!” they cried.

“In fact, if you buy sarees worth Rs 5,000 in one store, they give you two hot boxes for free!”, cried the mother-in-law stung at being deprived the joy of getting free lunch boxes for the children.“These NRIs!” they said to each other and shook their heads.

Back in the US, after the school year started, I lovingly used the hot-boxes. The daughter is a fussy eater, as has been well documented in these chronicles. What that means is that all things food related completely misses her sonar and radar. If the lunch boxes she has lost, held lids and stood in a line, it would snake around Lake Tahoe. So, every time I put the hot boxes in their lunch bags, I reminded the children to bring back the boxes.

For the first few weeks, things went charmingly well. Slowly, the novelty of the hot box wore off, and soon, the lunch boxes went missing. I put on my investigator’s hat and tried narrowing down possibilities.

Could it be your locker? Or maybe you just forgot it somewhere in your school bag? Did you eat what was in there? I asked. The daughter rammed her foot up and down, like she was practicing how to pump water and pedal a cycle at the same time, and said in response to my accusatory glances that it was not she who had lost them. “I don’t know, but I didn’t lose them, okay?” she said as though she had enough with lunch boxes to last her a decade. The husband, who tries hard not to lose an opportunity to support the daughter,  said I was getting a bit tiresome with the lunch boxes, and told me to cheese it.

lunch_box

So I did.  Till that day when I was doing the little trash musing. I picked up the trash in the kitchen and I felt something heavy in there. Something round and heavy and light blue and moldy. I suppose Sherlock Holmes felt the same way when a breakthrough came in his investigations. I felt a tingling in my nerves. Whether Sherlock Holmes ever solved a case by sticking his hand in the kitchen trash, I do not know, but I confess I gingerly used a straw to poke around. And there it was: The light blue hot-box covered in potato peels, and tea leaves.

I ah-ha-ed! Give me a chance to gloat like this, and I can show you how it is done. I started off with the subtle angle first, “Anyone realize how we pick up skills that we don’t even know we have?”

“NO!”, said the family trooping in to the kitchen for dinner. I avoided gazing at the sink holding the evidence of the moldy blue hot box. It lay there in hot water, soaking, and looking like a little love would not be a bad thing.

I then proceeded to give the closing arguments for the case and summarized how life has taught me various things over decades, sometimes overtly, sometimes subconsciously. Never did I know that I had the ability to wonder why a kitchen trash bag was heavy.

The husband burst out laughing as I explained the mystery, while the daughter looked discomfited. “If you are so proud of yourself because you know how much the kitchen trash weighs amma, that doesn’t sound like a high and promising life does it?” she said.

She had me there.

“Remember, your grandmother sacrificed buying sarees for this lunch box.”, I said, and smartly went out with the trash before she would work that one out.

Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

The thing about travel is it lets you indulge in conversations that you otherwise may not have: With car drivers (White Tiger, Driver Shiva or Murugan and Driver KillerMan ) for instance.

We were returning from a trip to Chichen Itza by van. The drive is a good three hours, and the husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. I settled down with ‘The Gene’, By Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book is one that requires concentration, especially for one who made stout Biology teachers quail. The book is held tight by a web weaving historical context, scientific detail and personal insights. It is a fascinating read, if somewhat heavy going in places.

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Genetics as a discipline had a number of misdirections and key researches almost lost to mankind, like Mendel’s experiment with pea plants, but for a lucky discovery of his article over 50 years after his death. The book touches upon many such instances. It talks about the supposed brilliance of scientists, how scientists are after all human and how their personalities can sometimes thwart and stifle growth. I particularly enjoyed the little quotations at the beginning of every chapter.

Every now and then, I stopped to take in the rustic scenery outside in the Yucatan province. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if in a somewhat one-sided fashion. The van driver liked his audience and his theories grew wilder, and his tales more grandiose.

The man said he was originally from Canada, then moved to US before settling in Mexico. His tales, at any rate, portrayed a colorful life – a trucker, a pop-star, construction, sound recording. We had niggling doubts as to why his life had followed the pattern it had, but did not dig too closely. (He had the power of the van remember?)

‘How is Gene?’ asked the husband turning his head wife-ward. I had gotten past the horrifying section on Eugenics thankfully and said a thing or two about what all mankind is answerable for. Evolution, I said, better have a good reason for cruelty.

’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver, perking up since he hadn’t spoken for all of three minutes. He bore the look of a man doing a grand flick off some sad sop’s tale from the internet, ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

Aliens_theory

‘I mean, look at the size of those computers earlier on, and look at them now.’ He stopped here for dramatic effect, like one coming with the argument that clinches all.’ The aliens then got a much better model with humans and current life forms and decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Earth to get rid of the dinosaurs.They were just too big for them.’

The husband and I exchanged significant glances in our minds without once looking at each other. “I will take it that you just consider it a theory.”, said the husband, a man who would have obviously done well in the diplomatic services.

“Well…evolution is a theory no doubt,” said the driver, as though conceding a poorly paid chess move by dim witted opponents. “But aliens is a better concept. You know the supposed asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs fell right here? Yes – right here in the Yucatan desert.” , he said opening his arms wide, and the van jerked alarmingly. I implored him to hold the steering wheel, to which he laughed, ‘Of course, it was a nuclear bomb sent by aliens, and it is funny that centuries later, we are talking about it, and trying to fit in theories like evolution.”

crater
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

I set out to explain the experiments with pea plants, how the evidence set up the basis for genetics etc, but the man was bored, and said I must open my mind a little and consider the aliens theory. I bridled. I love a tall tale as much as the next one, but… The husband seem to sense my state, and shot me a warning look.

I had to concede that here was a fellow who had obviously educated himself on the Internet, and was proud of it. The Science teachers in his school days had done their best, and I too must learn to accept that he liked his erudition because he understood complex theories like aliens implanting life on earth.

By the end of the trip I needed some time to reflect, and when I did, I realized that travel had once again made sure I met a person so different in ideologies than myself. I hope he thought a little bit about things that could be proven vs things that could not be, when he reflected later on.

I, for my part, was able to understand why it is easy to believe compulsively written theories on the Internet.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

Science lessons seem so far off tucked away in the recesses of the childhood brain. What time is left after earning one’s livelihood can easily be spent in the entertainment industry’s efforts to keep us glued: An industry that thrives on blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

As Lisa Randall says in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/28/dark-matter-and-the-dinosaurs-lisa-randall/

What we need is to be able to travel more, so we get to see another’s view point every now and then, even if we do not agree. Especially if we do not agree.

After all, we are nothing but star dust.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/02/01/we-are-all-stardust-steven-weinberg-interview/