Umm – A Belly Rub?!

The most touching gift I received for Mother’s Day this year was the pair of them thrusting their favorite books into my hands with shining, expectant eyes. The son’s book was Shiloh – by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

“Read this one – we loved the book in our class. I really think you will like this one, even though we don’t have a dog.” said the son.

The book is a poignant read about a dog being possibly abused by its owner, and finding a safe haven with the little boy. The book beautifully addresses the shades of grey in personality, the degrees of right and wrong, poverty, property, and so much more.

I loved the book, and thought about how un-intrusively the dog seemed to be accepted into the family.

I’d seen it first-hand. A friend of mine had no time for dogs. Yet, when a dog entered her life, I saw a volte-face in her attitude. There was no doubting the symptoms. She had became a dog-lover. She recognized breeds, she spoke of how some dogs shed more hair than others – but most of all, the love in her voice was unmistakable, and I teased her for it. 

Anyway, the week-end reads were done and it was time for the week to begin. The children were all woken up for their school, and in their respective screens when I popped in to say hello before my day began. 

“Uhhhnnn! Go Away! Too early!” 

“Shh! Amma. I am in a class, and our teacher is yelling at us for not doing our work on time. “

“Can you give me a second please?” Continues sounding important and says, “Am in a meeting – can I talk to you later?”

No points for guessing who said what in the statements above. 

“Sheesh! You can’t be in bed for class! Sit up child and change into some nice clothes before class please!”

“I just want to check if you put cream. Fine!”

“Sure!”

Everyone was busy staring into their respective screens – a tiny rectangular tile in a meeting screen registering your presence. We do live in strange times and life isn’t always comprehensible. I muddled on along these lines, and stepped out into the street, to find our neighbor’s dog out for a stroll. Now, I don’t know how you feel when someone looks at you like you are the best thing that has ever happened to them. That’s how this little pup makes you feel.

The light in his eyes reflect, “How honored I am to know this person! If only they could give me a belly rub. Oh heavens above, please let me get a belly rub, and my life’s purpose shall be done!”

I turned around to see if there was someone else this poor pup was looking for, but no. It was me alright. Here was this marvelous soul, out for a belly rub with a neighbor, and all I did was – well, nothing really. I imagined meeting new people like this – nobody lies down on the porch looking for a belly rub – thank goodness, but here was this little pup thinking this is how life’s introductions have to be made.

So, I gave the little thing a belly rub and felt a lovely laugh build up in my being and let it out. Both of us laughed on that beautiful morning with the blue, blue skies above and a few clouds on the horizon, and all seemed right with the world. 

“If Jesus ever comes back to earth again, I’m thinking, he’ll come as a dog, because there isn’t anything as humble or patient or loving or loyal as the dog I have in my arms right now.” 

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Shiloh

I remember seeing a sign somewhere “Be the person your dog thinks you to be!”  And it seemed just right.

How To Be a Good Companion

Simba who was introduced me around a decade ago passed away last week. This post was there in my drafts for over a year since I read My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Simba’s passing made me acutely aware for the gratitude I feel for these furry friends.

Ask Sanku, Simba, Bogie, Luna, Timothy, Sanku, Tinky and Bolu, and they will all unanimously tell you that I may be a good sort in general, but the best past-time they have is to see me when in their midst. Sanku, Simba, Bogie and Luna have been introduced to me later in life, and though they may not believe it possible when Timothy tells them, they are seeing a mellowed person of years.

Timmy, named after Timothy, the dog in the Famous Five Adventure Series by Enid Blyton. (Timothy (The Famous 5 one) was a raucous, energetic dog who would have done anything for his 4 human companions. ) Having such an illustrious name to live upto, you would think Timmy would have been a better companion to me. Instead, he was a vicious little yip who forever found me atop bushes or gates, where I had scrambled in my haste, squeaking like a rat waiting for help. Timothy has seen the hot stuff. ‘Hot dogs!’, he used to say to himself and go ‘bow-wow-wow’, lackadaisically, sometimes not even bothering to stir from his kennel (which I helped build lovingly with wood panels and nails by the way), and I would find myself scrambling through hedges with spiders in my hair, looking demented and scrappy.

timothy_me_on_fence

One flip of a puppy, Bolu (I remember thinking that self respecting mice would scoff at the name), had me charging up 67 steps at such a scorching pace that the physical education teacher leaning on a tree nearby chatting with his friends, promptly placed me on the relay team, where my performance was nowhere close to what it was with Bolu on my case.

The daughter yearns for a dog, and would gladly give Bolu & Timmy a sharp kick for giving their mother this unreasonable fear of dogs. But my recent canine companions have done much to help me overcome the fear.

Simba, Sanku, Bogie and later Luna, have been marvelous in their quest to make me become less eccentric around them.

 

I have often wondered how I would react to people who made it clear that they were uncomfortable in my presence. Would I leave them alone, and feel bad at such a seemingly irrational reaction? I must say the deportment of my canine friends in later years have put me to shame. If anything, they have taken the discomfort with sagacity and a grace that we will do well to learn from. They taught me with patience, and took me under their wing with the understanding of having to deal with a dim-witted student.

Patiently, they initiate me into the art of relaxing in their presence. First a small wag to indicate they think I am a good-ish sort, and then a little curiosity followed by an affectionate brush up against my leg was their method. They instinctively seem to know how to be a good companion.

How can one be a good, even perfect, companion? This excerpt from My Family and Other Animals comes close to addressing the question.

My Family & Other Animals is a wonderful read for anyone looking to experience the wondrous world around us with humor and candor. I admire the work of naturalists as regular readers know. The author wrote of his life in Corfu near Greece, and his adventures on the island were magically transformed by his deep affection for his dog, later dogs. He writes:

pets

 

(Pic my own)

In those early days of exploration Roger was my constant companion. Together we ventured farther and farther afield, discovering quiet, remote olive groves which had to be investigated and remembered. He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good humored tolerance for my eccentricities.

family_other_animals

He goes on to say about Roger – who sounds like the ideal companion anyone could wish for, that:
If I slipped when climbing a dew shiny bank, Roger appeared suddenly, gave a snort that sounded like suppressed laughter, a quick look over, a rapid lick of commiseration, shook herself, sneezed and gave me his lopsided grin. If I found something that interested me – an ant’s nest, a caterpillar on a leaf, a spider wrapping up a fly in swaddling clothes of silk – Roger sat down and waited until I had finished examining it.

Reading about Roger almost makes me wistful for a companion like him during my nature saunters in my youth. But in later years, Simba, Bogie and occasionally Sanku have come with me on hikes, and I have never felt more alive in the natural world than around them. No sniff was too blasé for them to consider, no dog they met on the trail deserved the ignominy of no-greeting. The trails came alive with them around. The flowers, grass, insects and squirrels were granted the same courtesy of curiosity and unflagging acknowledgement. When their human companions flagged in energy, they made their intentions known – “You can do it. I am with you.”

 

How to be a good creature by Sy Montgomery is a children’s book in which the Author writes of what different creatures taught her. The essays on her Dogs and her Pig are particularly good reading.

good_creature

Simba passed away last week, and his passing has made me consider the fundamental question: How to be a good companion?

Ode to the Headphones

I surveyed the Christmas gifts piled under the tree and felt we had gone overboard again – did I really need those noise canceling headphones? The husband and children vociferously insisted in 18 Mhz frequencies that I did.

“But I like listening to the natural sounds when I walk. I don’t want to shut it out and listen to something else! The chickadees song, the squirrel’s titters and the wind rustling through the trees, these are all sources of joy. I feel alive when all my senses are in sharp focus! It IS music for me.” I said looking desperate.

Pic from Google search
Pic from Google search

It was perfectly true. Who can stop themselves from thinking of William Wordsworth’s Daffodils while on a brisk walk enjoying full communion with Nature?

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

The daughter rolled her eyes with typical teenage scorn, “ We know you like to listen to the wind rustling through the trees, and the rain pattering and all that. But you got to admit – the train clacking noisily, with you in it, is not exactly a natural sound, and therefore there is nothing wrong with shutting it out!”

It was a fair point. I could also tell that this was one of those things that the husband was high-fiving himself for. The strangest things excite the dear fellow. Like the time his face lit up when he did something brilliant to free up one HDMI port in the spaghetti system of connections near the television area.

“Didn’t you notice the change in sound output? “ he said looking remarkably proud of himself.

The truth was I hadn’t noticed. But when a puppy fetches a piece of wool from under the couch, tangling it all the way through every spot in the hall, and looking mighty pleased with his efforts, that is not the time to be telling the puppy that one was really not looking for the wool. When he rolls on his back lifting his legs to be tickled in his tummy, you coo and tickle the furry creature, and put the wool back somewhere out of reach. So, I did the square thing and tickled his tummy, uh-huh-ing at regular intervals as he related all the things he had to do to change the connections so that the sound system was rigged through the thing-a-ma-jig while retaining the mick-a-mumma-tone through the mimble-tum-milkatonia.

puppy-with-wool

The noise canceling headphones seem to make him just as happy, and I accepted the gift after he gave the pitch that put poets to shame. The Ode To The Headphone was spirited, bordered on romantic, and clearly reverent. Wordsworth may have pitched it strong with daffodils, but when it came to wireless headphones, the husband won.

I tucked it into my bag wondering if I ever shall use it, and went for a bath using the scented soap the daughter had gifted me (now that is the sort of gift I appreciate.)

A few days later, the husband asked me how I was getting along with the noise-c headphones. I think my shifty look gave the game away. “You are not using them! Give them to me here – I will set it up for you.” he said looking incredulous, yet wondering why he should’ve expected anything better from me.

Hell hath no fury like the headphones damned. I handed over the set carefully preserved.

“Here ..just try this now.” he said with the forcefulness of the wronged, and I accepted with an equally becoming meekness. The symphony of marriage I tell you.

The next day on the train, I looked forward to reading The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux. Maybe reading the book along with the noise canceling headphones would help me see how my world transformed.

It certainly was transformed. But something strange happened.

No sooner had I quietened my hearing, when I noticed the olfactory seemed to be doing double duty. Did noses grow sharper when the hearing dulls? I touched the prominent beak thoughtfully – any sharper and I might as well take up wood-carving. I felt nauseated with unsavory smells. They flooded my nostrils making me want to gag. I looked around alarmed. I had not been warned of this particular side-effect.

woody

Then, I saw the reason: I had not quite noticed that I was only two feet away from a fellow who had spent the night on the turf, hitting one good shot after another, and had gone to bed on the morning train, after vomiting and soiling himself spectacularly.

Wondering whether a pair of cloth clips for my nose could have been a better gift, I resorted to breathing like a rhino chasing a pack of lions out of its territory – huge snorts followed by short, quick gasps. Mozart was playing something, but all my nose could think of doing was sending signals to the brain with the smells of the samaritan.

I peeked out the window in disgust, and a signboard helpfully told me,

After you die, you will meet God!

Will I still be able to smell when I die? I thought waspishly.

That evening, the family asked me how the headphones were. I said truthfully that they were marvelous for the sound, but went on to relate the smells, and how we shall all meet God, to general hilarity.

The daughter said, “Well….you must savor anything natural Amma. Enjoy your senses, and feel alive!”. She pirouetted around the kitchen deeply inhaling and mocking me in what I thought was a brilliant fashion. I stood there laughing and relishing every bit of my humble pie.

The Tao of Travel gleamed at me with its wisdom, and I said to them. Did you know that Wordsworth – that staunch lover of flowers and fresh air, had no sense of smell?

Toby Turtle’s Lessons on Life

Toby the Turtle came home for a week. He was a much loved member of the family, and soon after helping to cook a meal would join hands with heroic forces to battle evil in Spiderman Vs Sinister Six wars. Toby the Turtle is the kindergarten classroom stuffed toy who comes home for a week to the proud Star of the Week. It is a great honor for the children, and I saw the kindergartener in our home puff out his chest and look important, as he carried Toby around. He loved having someone to take care of, and I must say Toby lightened the atmosphere in the house.

img_4965

We all seemed to like having the stuffed toy around, not least because of the change in pace, but also because Toby brought the class journal with him. Every child who had Toby had written a page or two about what they did with Toby, and how much they loved him.

“Toby is my friend.”, ” I wish I could keep Toby with me forever.” seemed to be common sentiments across all the pages in the journal, and I must say had I been Toby, I would have loved it.

In other news, I recently read a book on aging, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande is a surgeon, and the book is a must read for all of us who must contemplate mortal life. The business of living with dignity, pride, compassion and meaning. In the book, Dr Gawande explores the process of aging using multiple examples, interspersed with his experience with his own father, who was also a surgeon. His father gradually loses his health, and despite his deterioration, was determined to lead life on his own terms.

Modern medicine has made phenomenal advances. Life expectancy has increased, and for the first time in the history of mankind, we have as many people under the age of 5 as above 80.

When something happens and people make it into hospitals, the attending surgeons and doctors will do everything in their power to ensure that they can save lives, and often let the near and dear know what the problem is, and what the medical options are, but not much more.

Dr. Gawande explains that it is up to us, as patients, family members or friends to ask and be equipped with the critical questions of living. Questions such as:

1. What is your understanding of your illness and how far along has the condition progressed?

2. Your fears or worries for the future

3. Your goals and priorities

4. What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not?

And later,

5. What would a good day look like?

Though it examines a serious subject, it is not a morbid book, and pragmatically looks at the problem of aging in the current medical system. There are lively portions that explore the elements of a happy life as much as it opens our eyes to mortality. Take for example: Bill Thomas’s effect on Geriatric care.

Dr Gawande talks about one scenario where Dr Bill Thomas, a director of a medical facility in upstate New York, was upset about the well-being of those in the geriatric ward. He being a quirky, brilliant gentleman, and felt that it was the lack of vibrant life around hospitals that is the cause for long term residents to suffer from boredom, loneliness and depression.

Having grown up on a farm himself, he petitions the management that the missing link was teeming life. After some work, he manages to convince the management that having some plants, birds etc would help people get better sooner. As soon as the nod came, he got busy, and before people knew what was happening, truck loads of living beings descended on the premises: Not a dog here and a cat there, but hundreds of parakeets, dogs, cats, rabbits, hens – a whole menagerie.

aging

The next few days were mayhem as nurses and doctors worked hand in hand trying to get the birds into cages and making sure there was someone to feed the birds and so on. The hospital was furious, nurses complained about having more to do as if caring for the old people were not enough. Administrators complained about infections, they complained about cleanliness.

But something phenomenal came about from the experiment: Patients who were uninterested and mute took notice. They would watch the birds, and weeks later would talk, and in some cases, patients cared for the birds, and whenever they could, took up feeding the birds. In time, it resulted in fewer health interventions. People were happier and general health improved. Every body liked having some being to care for.

(You can read the section of his interview here, though the book has the whole story)

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/10/atul-gawande-on-being-mortal.html

Quote:

And it didn’t boil down to how the animals saved them. It boiled down the idea that people need to have purposes in their lives, and that you could offer ways that they could connect to them. That they could live for something larger than just being alive.

That is the essence of humanity. We need to care, we need to feel needed and wanted, and we need to feel empathy: whether we are 5, 40 or 80.

Toby the Turtle taught us that. Kindergarten teaches us about life in lovely ways.

Weaving The Sequins Of Time

This article was published in The India Currents magazine dated 17th Feb 2018: The Magic We Miss Every Night

Taking a drive up the mountains is always a nostalgic experience for me. Regular readers know I grew up in a small village nestled in the mountainside and every time I spot a pine cone or take in a whiff of Eucalyptus scented air, I get a gleamy look in my eyes that prompts the daughter to ask me for a story about my childhood. I comply almost gleefully and she sits back and imagines her mother as a little girl, a person who is vastly more interesting than the adult version. One loopy enough to jump across streams, build mud tree houses and make a wish against a shooting star.

I was thoroughly pleased to do that again during our recent visit to the Inyo Canyons. Not build a mud tree house, but to make a wish against a shooting star. One of the best things about going out to the vast expanses of nature that we urban dwellers completely forget is how the dark the sky is at night (duh!) and how many stars we can see against this backdrop.

We were blessed with remarkably clear skies during our time there, and we headed out bundled up like Eskimoes in Winter to see the night skies. We made our way up a winding mountain road that overlooked a vast plain thereby giving us a wonderful vantage point for seeing the skies. Maybe it was the enormity of what was in front of us, but it subdued our normally stentorian voices temporarily. We stood there in companionable silence for a while just gazing at the outer arms of the Milky Way (at this time of year, apparently, we do not get to see the whole Milky Way).

My, it is so dark – it can be lonely here, we whispered to each other after some time.

The stars tousled our hair gently teasing us : of course it is dark, what did you expect, and look up at us. You are not lonely unless you wish to be. You have a universe unto yourself. ( I have an idea brewing here: it may be laughably inadequate, but that has not stopped me from publishing before)

The sun groaned from the other side : Duh, everyday I give you the gift of night, you know?

For the first time, I saw Ursa Major or Big Dipper drawn large against the night sky, with nothing to impede its view. It is amazing how many different civilizations managed to study the skies in varying yet similar ways.

There is the North Star, that was known as the Dhruva Nakshatram  in the early days when the Indian civilization named it (Story here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhruva).

Can you see Arundathi? Did you know the story about Arundathi being a twin star to Vashishta and rotating around each other? That is why it is a wedding ritual.  Alcor & Mizar known as Vashishta and Arundhati. Really?

So it went.

The daughter rattled stories from Greek Mythology that we tried to find Indian equivalents for. The magic of story-telling under the stars came alive for us that night. Sirius barked and Taurus ran. The hunters belt was bright and gleaming, the Plaeidis cluster was there, the Seven sisters were being relentlessly chased by the Big Hunter, while the same Krittikai sisters raised Karthikeya in the plains of Indus Valley millenia ago.

sequins_of_time

Lest you run off thinking that the daughter has sat down with the classics and pondered the deep recesses of ancient cosmology, let me assure you that Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson books formed the basis for the bulk of her knowledge.

The white cloud that we never really see in urban areas was visible – consisting of millions of stars, the cosmos probably is home to millions of Earths fostering life and intelligent lifeforms. I was reminded yet again of Carl Sagan’s words  about the pale blue dot.

pale_blue_dot.png

It is true, every tyrant, every usurper of power, every chaser of money, every person with cares in this world, should stand beneath the blanket of stars everyday, and look at our souls in a detached manner. See ourselves as specks in a dark world where the only place for us to find light is by looking inwards and capture the feeling of light in our hearts like Earth captures sunlight and warmth in its atmosphere.

As we stood there with the children bundled up in the cold on a mountainside overlooking a vast plain with the stars shining down, we saw in the distant horizon seven or eight shooting stars.

Magical moments come in various ways, sometimes it comes in the form of shooting stars, sometimes it comes in the form of a fluttering leaf falling upon you and other times it comes in the warmth of a lazy winter morning when all the world outside seems bleak, but you feel warm inside. Even these cold winters can be translated to a warm feeling that the Danish have a wonderful word for: Hygge. ( pronounced – Hoo-ghey)

Embracing Hygge – The Danish Secret to staying happy in the winter

It is the feeling of warmth and coziness even when the world outside is harsh and cold.

As Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well says, “It leads to a sense of a rich inner life that radiates out through bleak days.”

What better way to weave the little sequins of magical moments into the fabric of life?

A Nefelibata’s Santa Claus Myth

I rarely save the works of art that my children produce. For one, there are so many, and for another, while some of them are hilarious, they are no masterpieces (yet! – I read somewhere that good parents don’t say things like this and always leave the doors open for whatever the future might bring. If the future springs the brilliant artist, I don’t want to be the lousy mother thwarting the Sotheby’s auction, do I?)  So, I have no way of comparing the drawings of the six year old daughter to see what hidden psychological messages were in there. According to this news article, deciphering a six year old’s drawings can give us remarkable insight into their minds.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/12/08/368693069/kids-drawings-speak-volumes-about-home

I tried analyzing the work of the 3 year old son, and I could make out nothing. He asked me to guess what the picture he was holding up was, and I told him it looked like a very shiny pig or a jellyfish. He cackled loudly and said that he tried to make a pink christmas tree. I don’t mind tapping Freud from his grave and asking him to interpret that, but I am pretty sure, he’d choose to remain dead.

Jellyfish or Pig or Pink Christmas Tree?
This is my drawing of course, because I did not save the original one – but you get the gist.

Anyway, this brought an interesting question to mind. What if I interpreted my own drawings? I had in a recent drawing placed a house on a dog’s tail (which was kindly brought to my attention by a reader later on)

See house on dog's tail?
See house on dog’s tail?

What would that mean in the light of the latest letter to Santa? The daughter had asked for a dog. She very well knows there is no Santa for the past few years at least, but just plays along to see what she can get.

Regular readers of the blog know that the request for a dog in the household rears its head every now and then. It is usually silenced by me (a trifle vehemently at times) or in a more wishy-washy sort of manner by the husband, who then looks sorry when confronted by me on what he meant by saying, “Maybe we will think about one in a few month’s time.”

“How many months?” asks the daughter expectantly

“What do you mean by months?” I say pushing a couple of daggers out of my eye sockets, and the husband scurries for safety.

Hitherto while asking for a dog, she had relied on techniques such as “You don’t have to do anything. We will look after the dog.”  (By saying ‘we’, she includes the toddler brother who stands around nodding enthusiastically without having the least idea as to what it takes to have a dog in the household. The few occasions he has been in the presence of one has been spent like a monkey on a tree with a lion prowling down below) The matter gained traction again a few months ago and I wondered where the renewed vigor was coming from. Now, I was getting the old oil, “Oh! Don’t you miss not having someone to cuddle up with, now that we are all grown-up? Hey! You know what might help? A dog!”

It was only when I went to talk to her teacher a few weeks ago that the mystery was unraveled. Her teacher had told them how to form a convincing case, say, on how to get a dog, and she assures us that she had never held a class in such rapturous attention. Apparently, she had told them to come up with points that will help their cause, for example: come up with what the other party will gain out of the proposition. The daughter, having racked her brains, could easily see how I would poke holes in the We-will-look-after-dog theory, and went in for the psychological wringing.

Well, I was not buying it (yet). Let me explain why. There are some images that cannot be easily wiped from one’s brain. Two vicious specimens come to mind. Both of them were not more than 5 inches in height, long and had tempers like vipers about to be curdled in whatever-vipers-are-curdled-in and bites like adders. To their considerable repertoire of talents was the fact that they could smell like hounds ( which they were), and ornamental nose though I had, it was completely useless in detecting dogs hidden behind bushes. The results had been extremely disturbing. A physical education teacher of mine, once saw me leg it up 67 stairs at one go in the pouring rain and opined that the best way to train me for the forthcoming Athletics Championships was to set a couple of dogs after me. Not pleasant I tell you. Not pleasant.

Now, I know that dogs in the United States are extremely docile beings and rarely bite. But I am not sure I can move past the canine horrors of my past and embrace a dog in the household.

More than any of that,  I am not sure I need another living being to look after, I have 4 large fir trees, 3 fishes, 2 children, 1 husband, 1 apricot tree , 1 cherry tree, many plants to nurture and often have visiting parents. Maybe the Myth of Santa has to be officially busted this year, I thought to myself and peered at the letter below the tree and saw amendments.

There, in brackets it said: (I know my mom will not like a dog, so can I have some king doh if not a dog?)

I like this pragmatism even though she is lost in the clouds of her imagination, an imagination liberally spotted with unicorns and dogs sometimes. (I found an interesting word that means just that by the way – Nefelibata)