2020 Genre Unknown – Tops Bestseller List

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

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

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

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

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

2020 had it all. 

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

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

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

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

If only we had mastered biomimicry before mass production!

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

🌌 It was also a year of cosmic splendor:

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

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

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

Star 🌟 Stuff?!

I don’t know if you have tried comet chasing every night for a week. A week in which photographers from the world over posted photographs that suggested a flaming, brilliant torch tearing past our heavens with an urgency that made you realize life was short, our journeys spectacular, and a whole lot of poetic asides.

The husband, the bright matter energy source in the household, if anything, shored up even more bright matter to counteract all the dark matter in the universe. His resolve only wiggled a bit when he saw these brilliant flaming pictures of the comet as though it was an olympic torch blazing through the heavens, when in reality, the comet looked like a Pluto after a good cry. (After the astronomer’s good cry, not Pluto’s!)

The son, kept his running commentary on photons, light years, superclusters, cosmic addresses, and the pair of us dreamt on.

The daughter, pragmatic as ever, squashed The Poetic Outlook like a bug under a hippo’s knee. Some teenagers may find it cool to tag along with their parents on adventures chasing 💫 comets: ours rolled her eyes, and the drag of the eye roll did resemble a comet’s tail.

I’d like to think that I was the calm influence that steered the boat into the cosmic oceans. The husband turned to give me an amused look, the son’s laughing rattled the comet to go back into hiding, and the daughter pulled her coolest teenage look of scorn and said the all-encompassing word, “kook!”.

“You know? I don’t see why people are wasting so much  time with the skies. I mean, if you  do see  the comet, I suppose it is nice and all, but  what’s the point of sitting there for hours on end and trying to find something hurtling through space. Huh-hmm!” she said, her lips thinning just the way her grandmother’s would.  I love it when the mannerisms of her grandmothers slip into her speech in unguarded moments like these, and couldn’t help smiling.

“I  mean – what sort of career is that? And what use is it?!” she cried, clearly asking for it.

The son & I, inferior debate  companions as we are to her sharp tongue, rose up to the occasion.

“Hey  hey hey! Going at the rate we are, scanning the skies may give us an opportunity to find another habitable planet to expand into. The same can be said of all kinds of research – the actual research does not immediately yield results, but every little bit of understanding advances us  a little bit further.”

“Yeah – also we need to know where we are in the universe! Are we in Milky  Way, Virgo Supercluster, Observable Universe:  what is our address?” said the son.

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Andrew Z. Colvin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The daughter’s tongue could have  sliced an apple in an instant as she rattled off our home address and said, “Why do we need to know huh? I mean, here we are. This is it. Live here, what is all this knowing where-we-are stuff? Waste of time. What is it going to do for us?”

The son & I blanched. You see: the pair of us are dreamers, standing beneath the stars, and endlessly wondering whether we belong to the Lainakea supercluster (is it the same as the Virgo supercluster?)  After the observable universe, then what? What if all the observable universe in inside a massive black hole, and time is only  something in this space? 

“But we are made of star stuff – isn’t that magical? Star stuff!” said the son wistfully.

“Yeah – duck poop is is also star stuff – deal with it!” said the daughter. The son wilted under this argument. The daughter caught sight of my eye looking like an angry comet, and mollified the little poetic fellow. “But duck poop is good star stuff! Heh??!!”

I cannot say the debate went anywhere. It was a disappointing bunch of evenings after all, and the teenager felt it keenly. I mean, when one has posted  to one’s friends that they are going comet gazing, and then come back after hours, having  grazed on half a luna-bar, there is bound to be a dearth of the poetic. 

“You know young lady, I have just the book to cure you of this disappointment.” I said and gave her the book, The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

The illustrations in this book make it an absolute treasure. In the past few days, after a clearly disappointing  comet gazing experience, I found myself gazing at the marvelous pictures in the book instead. 

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The 💫 Comet 💫 Life

The past few days have been a flurry of activity with tiny little bursts of stardust and magic spun into the day.

We traipsed home tired, sleepy but triumphant. This was a Sunday morning well spent: we had finally sighted the elusive comet, 💫  Neowise. The previous morning, we had run outside at a similar time, and stood pinching our eyes, squinting at a resplendent Venus and thinking that if you cocked your head to one angle, and yawned loudly enough to get tears in your eyes, you could spot the tail. This technique made for some hilarious moments, but comets don’t seem to care much for sentient beings on some transient planet trying to catch sight of them in the wee hours of their morning, and we had to accept defeat and head home.

The next morning, however, we had managed a grainy sighting of the comet and we were jubilant. When the chocolate drink was gulped, and the little fellow was tucked into bed again, I lay in bed thinking of the comet 💫 . I could not shake the beautiful image from my mind’s eye.

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To the naked eye, it looked nothing like the images taken by setting one’s camera to a long exposure, but it was there alright. The burning star with a yearning, a lone star shining its torch as it scorched its way by numerous stars treading a path it had set for itself. An unconventional celestial object. Compared to the systemic order of the rest of the universe, there was a object that was definitely unconventional , a trail blazer (get it, get it?) Why an elliptical shape, and why 6800 years?

I went about the days after the comet sighting with a faint gasp in my demeanor. Imagine, as we are holding all these important meetings, combating pandemics, and trying to protest against all things unjust, here was an icy blob just spinning away on its own elliptical. 6800 years before it can peek at us again. Often as I went about my day, I wondered whether there was a possibility of sentient life evolving on comets. Comets and asteroids have been known to be microbe transporters, seeding the possibilities of life as they hurtle through the vast dark emptiness.

Do extremophiles have what it takes to feel?

I mean, if we were to have evolved on a comet rather than a planet, would we have had such success in determining the nature of physics and the laws that holds the cosmos and the universe within which we thrive? How would time be measured on a comet? If rhythms helped us discern music, what would music have been in a comet-ic life? Our own days on Earth are neatly sliced into hours, minutes, and these days blend into weeks, months and years. Before we know it, we have made one full circle around the sun, and the seasons have changed along the way in predictable ways.

But none of that would be true if sentient life such as ours had evolved on a comet instead. There would be no days, no seasons, no predictable cyclical rhythm to our days. The sense of adventure as we drew near other stars and planets would probably fill the time. But time itself may have no more meaning, or much more meaning depending on how one perceived it.

These musings were sources of mild amusement, while life itself marched on with a comforting rhythm down here on Earth – dawns, days, dusks, nights, weeks.

Did the seagulls, deer and ducks think of such things?

Ahh! Comet life!

Comet Chasing * Chocolate Charms

The children have a shared liking for Calvin  & Hobbes. The adorable pair have been the source of many hysterical giggles between the siblings in our home. In the son’s room, there is a cartoon clip of Calvin & Hobbes that seems to tickle both his whimsy and his innate rapture and curiosity of the universe we live in.

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If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they would live a lot differently  ✨- Calvin & Hobbes

A few weeks ago, I was typing out an email with the ounces of concentration I could muster at the end of a 12 meeting day, and I wasn’t exactly thinking  about 💫 comets, stars, pulsars, neutron stars, black holes, and parallel universes, when the little fellow shot into the room bursting about comets. I turned around , and my face probably looked like some of the spreadsheets I was looking at, for the son gave me a pitying look that seemed to indicate, “What good is a day when you haven’t thought of these important things?”

I laughed at the incredulity on his face: Stars, superclusters, muons traveling the speed of light, quirky  quarks are all thriving right beside his world of super-powers for super-heroes, who are incidentally gifted with important sounding superpowers such as gamma-rays and electromagneto-muon-transporters and what-not. 

“Did you  know Halley’s comet is going to come again in 40 years?” said the son still bouncing and glowing from the stash of chocolate chips he has been chipping into while reading his little books on Physics.

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“Yep! Sounds about right. I was around your age when I saw Halley’s Comet. So once in 76 years means …” and I trailed off.

“What?! You’ve seen Halley’s comet? Aww…..so lucky!” said he, and I had to laugh at his yearning. I did remember the cold nights awaiting the turn at the telescope to catch a grainy sight of the Halley’s comet. I must say that the whole experience felt worth a lot more given the rapture with which he listened to the comet sighting. I seem to remember the hot chocolate provided to the young astronomers more than the telescope and the grainy image itself.

Maybe the universe really did hear his yearnings that day, for within a few weeks, another comet came our way: the Neowise 360 comet sighting was supposedly possible from where we lived. I was so happy for the little fellow. He could barely contain the excitement in his system when his father said at the lunch table that the comet would be visible at 4:30 a.m. He got up and ran upstairs to his room. We were exchanging quizzical glances at this when he tumbled downstairs and said, “Yes! I set the alarm for 4:30 – I cannot wait to see it!”

I had to admit; the young astronomer’s enthusiasm put us to shame. So, for the next few nights, we bundled up and comedically traipsed from location to location in the wee hours of the morning looking for a comet sighting. The clouds were there in one place, some low mountains in another, and then, finally, we managed to find a plain spot in which we caught a grainy sighting.

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Knowing that we caught a fleeting glimpse of something that is not going to come by to see us for another 6800 years is strangely moving. I have to tell you though, that similar to the Halley’s comet sighting, the hot chocolate after coming back, and the the long tail of wishes accompanying the comet sighting, definitely made the hustle worthwhile. 

That morning, the rest of the comet chasers had no problem falling back to sleep, but I did – the comet had kindled dreams of long ago: dreams born of comet chasing and chocolate charms; dreams woven with the magic of stardust 💫 and comet trails – bright, shiny, sparkling, path-breaking and aspirational.

Bill Watterson was absolutely right: People who spend time looking up at the night sky do live life differently!