An Orchestra of Avocets

A few black and white birds, most probably avocets, if I remember correctly were flying calmly around me in great circles. They seem to have their beaks open, and relishing whatever they were eating as they flew. They were completely at peace around me, and a great sense of serenity swept through me watching them. My vantage point was perfect. I was on a hill overlooking a lake and the avocets darted in and out at times, but glided seamlessly at others. I had just decided to not reach out my hands and touch the beautiful birds  so I could have them comfortably flit above me for a while longer, when the alarm went off. 

It was one of those nights that melt into morns – seamlessly, and far too quickly. It is a blessing indeed to be able to get up when in the midst of a beautiful dream, so surreal, calm, peaceful and oh so vivid, and I felt a great sense of possibility and serendipity as I bustled through the morning and hustled the children to school. 

The son & I hummed and listened to our favorite Disney songs on the way to school. Before starting what promised to be a full day I wondered what a group of avocets are called. Then, my meetings called and I forgot all about them.

Before piling into bed sixteen hours later, I said to the daughter, that I wished to be a hedgehog. You know just curl up under a cosy tree and forget about everything and sleep. I don’t know if hedgehogs really do so, but they definitely look like it.

I have often wondered while standing and admiring birds and other fauna in suburbia whether they ever feel the same way. Do we give them peace the way they give us peace? Do they decide to stop and look at us so they can feel peaceful as they go about their days? I think not. But what a lofty goal that would be. I suppose we are curious creatures to many of our fauna friends.

That night, I opened the book, Sweet Dreamers – by Isabelle Simler, and was I in for a surprise?

This is a children’s book that shows the many denizens of the planet settling into sleep. A bat hangs upside down, while whales float with one eye closed amidst jellyfish floats, and koalas hug eucalyptus trees. There is a page for hedgehogs curling up to sleep.

The hedgehog in the book, Sweet Dreamers

It is a sweet lyrical book, but the illustrations are what seals the book. On every page are stunning revelations. Scratch that – they are beyond stunning. Every page looks like the artist got up after seeing themselves in this joyous avatar in their dreams and just captured the sensations. 

Children’s book illustrations are always a joy to behold – this one tugs ones attention. 

Before flitting to sleep, I checked what a group of avocets is called. They are referred to as an orchestra of avocets. What a fitting collective noun for the birds of joy?

A Special Post to Celebrate Syzygy

“You’d better make it a special post!”, said the son. He is the one who is ardently fanning me in on, and keeping tabs on whether I am writing enough these days. His natural state of calculating kicks in, and he says “So, if you write another post in the next 36 hours then…”, and I have to remind him that it is not like that. One does not have to follow a punishing rigorous schedule for a hobby. That I will write and when I do, it feels joyous and good. Not laborious and like finishing up an arduous task for the sake of doing so.

There must have been a natural syzygy (aligning of the stars) when I started my blog seventeen years ago. The time it takes for a wizard to come of age in the magical world. I must say, the blog has given me an excellent magical education. I may not have graduated from Hogwarts in this time, but I certainly have learnt a thing or two on the magic of persistence, the seer of light in a dark universe, or any number of things.

Herbology: My specimens may still not be thriving, but as a chronicler of the natural world, I think Professor Sprout would gladly have me in her graduating class.

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more,” 

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

Read: A Celebration of 🌎

The Joy of the Natural World

Astronomy: Professors Carl Sagan and his many many friends have been amazing companions in the starship of the night. Comets, moon cycles and changing constellations not withstanding, there have also been the amazing journeys through space on light ships designed and envisioned by Johannes Kepler.

Ancient Runes: Professor Vector has opened thine eyes to many wonders of the Mathematical world and how they help us find a structure to our days. A way to find the incontrovertible truth if you will.

Changing Mathematics from a computational discipline into a beautiful, abstract philosophy.

Pythagoras of Samos (580-500 BCE) who continued the philosophy of: 

Transfiguration: How else does a serious minded member of the software engineering firms of the world transform into a magic seeking writer who will arduously work out a sentence structure sometimes tens of times to get that laugh?

Potions: Professor Snape, Dr Oliver Sacks, Paul Nurse, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Ed Yong, and so many more professors have taken me under their wing and spent many enjoyable hours explaining the joy behind reactions.

Care of Magical Creatures: Hagrid, Gerald Durrell, Sy Montgomery and numerous other writers of the natural world have introduced and opened my experiences to the world of creatures around us. Snail tales, pelican and duck friends, and so many instances of the world around us.

Writing & reading have sustained and enthralled me every step of the way, and it has proved to me how remarkable life’s moments are – even in a seemingly unremarkable life such as mine.

Like Sy Montgomery says in her book, How to be a good creature: 

Thurber taught me this: “You never know even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next. It could be something wonderful is right around the corner.”

Sy Montgomery – How to be a good creature

It usually is in the form of a new book, or a new idea that magically transforms an ordinary day into an extraordinary one. The power of fleeting thoughts that can take flame, grow and sustain in a wholly positive way, weaving magical moments and learnings. What can be better than that?

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R R Martin in A Dance with Dragons

Here is to more years of fruitful occupation, magical meanderings and posts that entertain and hopefully enlighten. This is my 1000th post.

Thank you, my readers, for being with me on this magical journey. Of course, the blog owes its very existence To My Family & Other Animals – who are frequent and oft quoted celebrities on this blog.

What is Life?

Even as stock markets plunged, and corporate kingdoms were made and unmade, it was heartening to read about the grander scale of Life. When I read Paul Nurse’s essays, after a day in which we spent our days more than usually examining choices, news, reactions etc, I must say it makes all the difference in perspective.

For instance, when one lives in the pulsating center of changing corporate fortunes, one cannot but help muse over the seemingly innocuous line by Paul Nurse:

“Over the long term, the most successful species will be those that can maintain the right balance between constancy and change.”

Paul Nurse – What is Life?

There is a certain philosophical musing to it all.

When one is fighting a cold in the head, it does help to think of Louis Pasteur looking at all the different chemical reactions in the microorganisms he was studying and saying:

Chemical reactions are an expression of the life of the cell.’

Louis Pasteur

It would be better if the expression happened without the head cold. But there it was – the cold was proving the expression of life. 

Or reading about Vitalism – the one thing that has fascinated philosophers for ages. For Vitalism comes down to one thing: What is Life? 

“Living organisms stand out because they are things of action; they behave with purpose, reacting to their surroundings and reproducing themselves.”

Paul Nurse

In 5 essays, Paul Nurse’s book on Life is a light read. It is just the sort of book that is easy for a non biologist to understand. It was also a good book to accompany the rather heavy going The Emperor of all Maladies – by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

A week-end spent reading till mid-day in bed can’t be a bad one can it? It would have been nicer to read about lighter subjects but such as it was, I was determined to finish reading a book that had been with me for weeks now. And if it took falling ill to tide one over a book like that, so be it.

 Starting with the times of the earliest recorded instance of Cancer, the book walks through humanity’s struggle and Science’s understanding of the disease.

I am clamoring for a light read after this one though.

The Human Experience

“You could be listening to anything at all, and this is what you choose to listen to?” , said the daughter.

I chuckled. We were driving through the Great Plains of the Mid-West between Wisconsin and Illinois. Snow flakes were flurrying lazily across the windshield, which was amusing to watch, since I could feel the car shuddering with the winds sweeping the plains. The great windmills on either side of the freeway were moving and converting the wind energy, while the snowflakes seemed to be dancing lazily and flitting across the plains. To see the flakes against the depth of the vast plain fields was mesmerizing enough, but to have Dr Indre Viskontas’s lecture accompany the scenes outside made for a new appreciation. 

I was listening to the excellent Great Courses lectures by Dr Indre Viskontas. In her energetic voice as she talks about how we hear and see, the world becomes magical again. 

Listening to Dr Indre Viskontas speak about the faculties of seeing and hearing, makes those of us given these two abilities more appreciative of all that goes on beneath the skin to make these happen. 

12 Essential Scientific Concepts

How we perceive light, hear the frequencies of sound that are audible to us, make for our human experience. The frequencies heard and seen by each creature on Earth itself is different. From the magical birds who sense the Earth’s magnetic field for their migration journeys to the fish who are able to navigate by the position of the stars from deep under the ocean, we each have our own unique way of living. Of Life. 

In Dr Oliver Sack’s book, Musicophilia, he says:

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

Dr Indre Viskontas is also an Opera performer, and her joyous voice brings out the polymathic abilities she possesses. Truly, as she regales cognitive neuroscience and how our brains understand better, I am reminded of some wonderful musings with our dance teacher at school. In between rigorous bouts of dance practice, she insisted that her students were all bright, athletic, and doing so much better than we would have without dance. And, in the energy of youth urging us towards our better selves, we wanted to believe her. Could that have been a belief that spurred us on? We would not know – for good teachers, coaches and mentors all excel in that subtle balance of belief, discipline, and inspiration.

But maybe the musicality and the dance do make for better neurological experiences. As Dr Viskontas says in the lecture above, 

Art and science are after the same thing. The goal is to understand the human experience. Science does it by extracting general principles about the world, and art uses individual experience to highlight what is universal.”

Dr Indre Viskontas

Why is it that we are moved by a piece of music to visualize a god vs demon war on stage, or the haunting love-lorn calls to one another? Because music, like whales can attest, can evoke worlds in our imagination. 

“Music can also evoke worlds very different from the personal, remembered worlds of events, people, places we have known.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

And so, I wanted to say to the daughter, “When I could be listening to anything at all, I chose to listen to the lectures trying to understand the human experience in a vast, barren landscape, made unbearably beautiful by the beauty of the symmetrical snowflakes, and the gushing of the winds against the car. “

What I did instead was laugh, and let her call me weird. ‘Weird’ I am beginning to understand is one of the best compliments that a teenaged child can give you.

We Should Dance!

Today is International Dance Day. To those of you who did not know: my nieces danced their way into our hearts last week with their marvelous Arangetram (Dance performance signaling they are ready for the stage). The pair of them have been dancing for about a decade, and enthralling those around with their nimble movements, naughty smiles and joyous outpouring of dance.

They freely share their gifts of the garb and their dance with those around them: The younger one who even now occasionally cartwheels as she is talking to you, & the older one who lovingly gave us a painting of a dancer for our new home.

Their Arangetram on you-tube has nourished me and fulfilled me in so many ways throughout the week. It has been an interesting week in the corporate world for yours truly, and watching pieces of their performance on you-tube in the morning or in the evening before bed has made all the difference. To the chagrin of the daughter, I have taken to leaping across kitchens with even more energy and dancing at odd hours of the night. 

True art transcends time and space. Their performance this week took me back to my school days all those decades ago. Thinking back on our school days, I remember dance being woven into our very  being.  Our dance teacher remains the sort of creative person who can take up a stage and transform it into the warring fields of the Gods Vs Demons, or the romping gardens through which Lord Krishna traipsed or the love-lorn gardens of any maiden pining for her Lord. 

I remember all the rehearsals, watching as a young girl, and then being excited to be part of the dance dramas as I grew older. It was beautiful to watch her choreograph, adjust according to our abilities, but pulling us along, and pushing us to excel with every dance. 

I remember thinking even as a child who had the immense pleasure of learning from her that being inside her brain must be marvelous: forever creating, forever forging higher connections and all with that wonderful laugh and personality.

I was itching one evening on a linear walk to dance – the rain had stopped, the sun was breaking through the clouds and a brilliant rainbow was in the making, and a moment like that makes your very Being yearn to dance. Why could we not transform into peacocks at will? Then, no one would scurry away looking worried when one breaks out into a spontaneous dance on the trail. Children prance when they feel like it, adults do not. Children cartwheel as they talk to you on the video call, we do not. This growing up business is all most confusing.

Why do we not dance more as a species? Together – all of us regardless of ability, age, sex. Dance and music are the yearnings of the universe in us after all.

Reminds me of this beautiful book on dancing I found a few weeks ago at the library: I Will Dance. Written by Nancy Bo Flood and illustrated by Julianna Swaney, this book is a beautiful reminder of why we all need dance in our lives.

Quote from the Book’s About page:

Like many young girls, Eva longs to dance. But unlike many would-be dancers, Eva has cerebral palsy. She doesn’t know what dance looks like for someone who uses a wheelchair. Then Eva learns of a place that has created a class for dancers of all abilities. 

I Will Dance – By Nancy Bo Flood, Illustrated by Julianna Swaney

I Will Dance – By Nancy Bo Flood, Illustrated by Julianna Swaney

Dance enables the soaring of the spirit, to unleash the inner peacock in us whether we are peacocks or not. 

Strengthening the Soul?

Reading A Blizzard of Polar Bears in the cold Chicago trip was probably poetic justice. For it made me appreciate that every creature is different. Obviously, the polar bears found anywhere south of Manitoba too hot, and we found anywhere north of California too cold. It was strengthening for the soul to think of the polar bears when it was too cold. 

A Blizzard of Polar Bears – By Alice Henderson

This strengthening-of-the-self theme seemed to grate on the daughter when she casually mentioned something in the middle of a snowing day walking up a steep hill. “Well, uphills and stiff winds against our progress are character building things.” I huffed. “If in life, we only rolled downhill, how would we appreciate the ease of that?”

She stopped midway and said, “I do wish you were a polar bear now you know?”

She had a point:  I don’t think polar bear mothers give character building speeches when they are freezing across a cold stream of air. But I had a set of speeches to get through, and was determined to get through them. I mean, how else can one cover syllabus? 

I must say the more I read about naturalists and biologists doing the work required to keep biodiversity alive on our beautiful planets, the more I am in awe of them. 

In the book, Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, Emma Marris notes:

“These are species we cannot simply leave alone if we want them to persist. They are species that require intervention-at least for now. A 2010 analysis of the 1,136 species with recovery plans under the Endangered Species Act in the United States found that 84 percent require ongoing management.”

Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, Emma Marris

Chicago streets, we were told, need watching. There are areas that are good, and areas that are notorious for mob activity. I must say, the movies play it up a bit, but even the cab drivers and hoteliers there acknowledged it. Keep out of these streets, those streets, south of those streets and north of these streets and you should be fine, said one helpful fellow. Oh, and try not to be out too late. You know? Just to be safe. 

So, as evening fell, we decided to go bookstore browsing instead. Once inside, the familiar tug of books waiting to be read was enough to warm up the innards (the doors keeping out the gasps of cold air was useful too). Our discussion turned towards pricing of books and fiction vs non-fiction, etc. While I can see the point that fiction generally requires less research than their non-fiction counterparts, I couldn’t help thinking that I had actually learnt as much about polar bear research from the fiction book, A Blizzard of Polar Bears – By Alice Walker as from the non-fiction book,  Ice Walker – A Polar Bear’s Journey Through the Fragile Arctic – James Raffan

To see the kind of measurements taken by polar bear researchers to determine the health of the population and the steps necessary to save them in a changing ice-cap is enlightening whether set in the context of a thriller novel or a non-fiction book following the path of the polar bears. For instance: nuggets such as these spotted the book liberally. 

“According to the database, the bear had been collared four years ago. Because that was the upper limit of how long a collar could last, Alex removed it. They had less invasive technology now. 3M had developed the Burr of Fur, a small GPS tracking device that adhered to a bear’s coat. She recorded the device Id’s numbers on the spreadsheet and then worked it into the bear’s hair.”

“First she ran a test for persistent organic pollutants containing chlorine, fluorine, and bromine. Then she examined the sampled of the presence of industrial compounds like PCBs. These could compromise a body’s ability to produce antibodies, making humans and wildlife more susceptible to infection.”

A Blizzard of Polar Bears

In general, we do learn from fiction and non-fiction in different ways. Our emotional quotient benefits from a good spot of fiction, and we turn out more empathetic than we were before. With non-fiction, we are able to read the research, compare the measures, and get a good spot of analytical outlook-ing. “They are both strengthening for the soul huh?” I said, and the daughter rolled her eyes. 

“You know what is really strengthening for the soul? Starbucks! Come on – let’s go!” Said she, and the compliant polar bear followed her cub as it nosed out the coffee den.

Polar Bears

The 4 Seasons

We have been traveling in the Chicago area for the past few days, and I must say folks spotted us Californians miles away. They chuckled, they were amused and they had no idea why we scuttled and huddled like penguins in winter when it was clearly spring – ask the daffodils who were springing up to say hello to Lincoln statues everywhere.

Illinois does not let you forget that Lincoln hailed from there. The roadways, streets, statues and even a bust in a university that had a funny story of a Lincoln statue whose nose folks rubbed for good luck. I tried rubbing the daughter’s nose for luck, but it didn’t seem to amuse her much. A shame really – for the very child as a toddler was famed for joyously peeling off a gargling laugh like a tinkling stream every time we made her nose ‘disappear’ in what seems like just a few years ago. Oh well. Time.

I saw some folks out with light jackets, a spring in their step, and not so much as a cap. We? Well, once you wear the cap, mask, gloves, extra thick jacket, thermals, boots, you’d think there isn’t much place left to freeze. But there is. And we froze with every gust of wind by Lake Michigan and Lake Mendota. After a lovely stroll through the park by the lake, I mumbled through the layers to the daughter, “Nothing makes you feel so alive as catching that gasp of crisp air right?!” 

Her muffled retort made it past all the layers, and she said, “Oh – is that what we are calling this chilling cold now? Crisp! Ma!”

I must say driving from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin and then from there to Urbana Champaign back to Chicago made for a marvelous time. It was good for the soul to contemplate the nothingness and vast expanse of space in the world. The Greek myths of Hades and Persephone’s plight came alive in those days starker than anywhere else I’ve seen. The Earth was barren for miles and miles around us. Spring planting had not yet begun, and what would have been green fields on either side in the summer and fall were empty, preparing for another season. The cold winds and a slightly snowy day made for exciting drives on the interstates reminding us of Lincoln’s Illinois. Windmills flailed their arms long and wide, while the little car shuddered along with the whipping winds and the large vehicles on the road.

Other days made for marvelous blue skies with scudding clouds. The characteristic blue skies and white clouds of Planet Earth are especially welcome when one is traveling and out and about.

We were told by indulgent folks that they experienced 4 seasons – a dig at Californian winters, no doubt. But after the cold days of Illinois springs, I am quite ready to take on the winters of California, and headed out on a rainy day walk almost as soon as I could find my bearing s again, only to be rewarded by a marvelous rainbow for Earth Day!

What’s more I didn’t have to pull my freezing fingers out of their gloves to take these pictures.

April

April is Poetry Month

April is also the month we celebrate Earth Day

April also happens to be the month the days are lengthening enough for us to moon about the countryside, and life is full of promise

Nature sat up and decided to revel in glorious life, and the hills are bursting with greenery and wildflowers

The buds are waiting to burst into bloom

Trees have been working extra hard to sprout new leaves. My alarm gleefully extols rapturous spring, and despite the strong motivation to get in a few snoozes more, the allure of the outside world is hard to resist.

Imagine my complete delight when I stepped out on a walk today and saw the goslings had hatched just in time for Earth Day?

Could this be why Easter festivities involve egg searches?

I walked into the house soaked one morning after walking in the rain, and announced to the chagrin of all in the household, “Only fools would step out on a walk on a day like this, but it was totally worth it!”

Maybe that is why April also hosts April Fools Day.

Nevertheless, please do enjoy and revel in the joys of April while you can.

Shark Splashers & Bear Growlers Creativity Index

“Why would I punch a shark in the nose?” I said swiping the phone with my hand as it rang on our evening walk.

The husband who had probably called with a view to getting a sane opinion mopped his brow on the other side. Was this really a good idea? He seemed to ask himself. After a second of stunned silence he said, “What did the poor shark do to deserve being punched in the nose by you two jobless folks out on a walk?” 

The son & I laughed. We were on our evening walk and the fellow was telling me a little story he had imagined the whole afternoon when I had droned on in one meeting after another. The thrilling tale involved Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, the Boston Tea Party, and somehow as I nodded along, the tale had an inexplicable presence of trained sharks by the British Army going after the American Revolutionaries. The revolutionaries, on their part, weren’t quiet either. They had trained bears. How the bears fought the sharks with the humans aboard made for a loud, raucous tale with lots of noise and action. I was a confused, if slightly inattentive audience. For one, the day’s meetings were not yet pounded of the system, and for another, a marvelous spring sunset was in progress. The egrets, ducks and geese were making a fumble of noises, and the son’s story did not quite hold my attention till the sharks and bears fighting sequence made an appearance.

I double tracked and asked questions not letting on that I had let my mind wander over the past mile. He gave me a swift look, and said, “I know you haven’t been listening. Fine! I’ll explain again.” And off he went from the beginning again. This time, the story was even wilder than I imagined while half listening. 

I shuddered a bit at the high moments of battle between creatures.

That night I did chuckle to myself on the sharks vs bear theme to the American Revolution.

It also led me to think of the Torrance Studies for Creativity (in the book, In Praise of Wasting Time – By Alan Lightman) where they studied the different aspects of imaginative story telling in children and had an independent body of panelists rank the ingenuity, creative elements, and nuances to the story telling in primary school going children. The study apparently shows a drastic reduction of the creative elements somewhere around 1990. The correlation is plain. It is around the same time that the usage of the Internet and screen time soared.

The study is here:

The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking – By Kyung Hee Kim, School of Education, The College of William and Mary

It does make me wonder how many marvelous tales we will be missing with the advent of more advanced technologies. Even brilliant ideas such as code generators, image generators can either be used actively by us to better ourselves or passively used to distract and stop us from doing the hard work of utilizing our talents. Which way will we choose? 

I do hope the shark splashers and bear growlers continue to use their imagination to better this world.

A Whale of a Time

“Just read some book that is interesting, but not too interesting. Shouldn’t make me laugh too much, or make me say.”Oooh! That is interesting right?”, but make me sleepy in 10 minutes.”, said the son.

I said I would try. 

The strange specific request was because it was well past bedtime. The lights were off, but the young fellow was having trouble falling asleep. I could hear him chuckling at the conversation in his sister’s room, and getting up every few minutes to dart across and contribute. The rambunctious older sister and father were given a sober talking to so bedtime rituals could commence and I looked at the stash of books by the bedside trying to find one that would fill this vaguely specific request. The written world did not disappoint, and pretty soon, I had in my hands several books that could help.

However, the book on Whales seem to fit the description perfectly. It was interesting enough, the illustrations beautiful and the content remarkable yet not thrilling enough to keep one awake at night. It was like listening to Whale Song.

There is something remarkably therapeutic about the color blue.

Whales – by Kelsey Oseid

Seeing the pages in various hues of blue, with the lovely pictures of the most beautiful and interesting creatures on Earth made for a magical few minutes. It is no wonder that the daughter loves doodling with blues, and drew numerous pictures of whales.

The daughter’s drawing of Whales

The light blue on the pages lulled one to sleep and before long, the fellow drifted, and I tiptoed out with the book. 

Reading about whales on a weekday night is strangely relaxing. I kept going. Spreadsheets, documents, planning, working, cleaning – everything seemed irrelevant in the face of these creatures. The feeding, bubbling and the many aspects of the whales is beautifully shown. The illustrations in the book make it a relaxing artistic phenomenon – I have spent many nights since looking at the pictures in the book. 

Sample page to show the beauty of the illustrations in the Whales book by Kelsey Oseid

Whales also gently reminded me of my recent folly: It has been sometime since I went on a children’s book reading spree. So, I went about rectifying this immediately. It is no wonder the old spirit has been feeling jaded lately. Nothing like a dose of magic, art, laughter and childlike stories to rejuvenate the spirit. Sometimes, when we make a Whale of a Mistake like that, all it takes is a trip to the library to invite the guardian of the spirit to visit again.

I look forward to reading this lot, and having a whale of a time.

Children’s Books
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