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!’.

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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.

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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.

Do You See The Problem Now?

I am all for progress and am generally highly appreciative of the advances made in medical science, but when it comes to determining one’s eye power, I can be heard sharply drawing the breath. One need not be a sensory expert to know that I am being censorious. Stay with me while I explain the case.

One time, there I was, strapped in at the optometrists chair, by those offensive looking goggle-like contraptions across the bridge of my nose. The ophthalmologist, a brisk, happy old man, asked me to relax. He put in a lens and asked me to read something
I D 1 0 T
P I G

He then put in another one and asked me to do the same thing.
I D 1 0 T
P I C

By now, I had the Idiot Pie in apple order and could read them with my eyes closed, but they make doctors Diligent & Determined, and he would not let go of me. Can you see better with this? Or with this? Or this? Or the one before that? he said swapping the lens out and in like a conjurer pulling a rabbit trick in front of his admiring audience. He smiled with every swap of the lens and reminded me of an old avuncular dentist of my childhood days, who had the same courteous friendly bedside (chair-side) manner though he knew fully well that getting up and running was not an option for the patient and could have danced a doodah-dance with sticks.

I was tested this way and that and that way and this way again, making the poor doctor a very confused man. I could not understand this. Was he not happy that I could read? Was I doing something wrong?

I quizzed him and he said in a very concerned voice, ‘Are you sure you can read this?’
Well, if I try hard and squint a bit, I can read it, I said. I got the distinct feeling that had professionalism not stopped him, he would have thought nothing of giving me a quick one across the head with a fly swatter.
‘No, no – don’t strain your eyesight! What’s the point of straining your eyes when we are trying to get you glasses so you don’t have to strain your eyes? Just relax and tell me whether you can see.” he said.

I said okay, but I have to come square and confess: I had no idea how to relax and see. When people tell me to see, I try hard to see. Try, try and when you cannot, try harder was something I was told almost perpetually and yet, now at this crucial juncture of forgoing dinner at the optometrists chair, I was being told not to try hard. Curious.

He did a few more impressive lens swaps, and his round face crinkled with worry again, and I asked him what the problem was. He said that for my age, the power should be increasing or staying the same, but I was saying that it was reducing, and he wanted to make sure that I was getting the right pair. So, I buzzed with a light bulb over my head and told him to start off with my current power and take it up from there. It was the end of a long day, and he wanted to go home, and so did I. I emerged after a few minutes, bleary eyed, looking like a rhinoceros sentenced to rimless spectacles on my horn, while he headed home mopping his brow, filled to his brim with tales of how he is forced to earn his living getting idiots to see.

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A few days later, there was some sort of medical fair in the old work spot, and I was told that I needed to swab my cheeks with a earbud. Apparently, that was enough to do gene sequencing or some such thing. I took the information hard, and looked up with a jerk running the risk of losing my precious spectacles. With a cheek swab, if we can find possible donors for bone marrows and what-not, why can we not have a simple procedure to find one’s eye power?

Lens making has been around for at least three hundred years now: Telescopes and microscopes we nailed, yet we seem to need a conjurer to do the magic of rabbit swaps to find our eye power today. Tut Tut. Most baffling.

Another World

We are back from what can only be termed an exotic vacation by the seaside, and the old brain nudged me to look for something written on marine life a while ago, and I did. I had written this post a few months ago, and forgot to publish it.

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So, here is the old post while I marshal my thoughts from the vacation.

One evening over dinner, the husband asked in what he thought was a nonchalant tone whether we should go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium that week-end.

“Hmm…Did they send you the renewal plea for the annual pass?” I asked shrewdly.

He laughed and said that they had indeed.

We are as gullible as galloping oysters in fish sauce when it comes to the annual pass gab. We look and analyze the thing from all angles and figure that if we go just once more in the next year, it all makes sense and buy the annual passes. The year ahead seems to be sprawling with empty week-ends. Week-after-week, month-after-month: having nothing to do, we say why not set aside one week-end a month for the Science museum, one for the zoo, one for the natural history museum and another for ecological preservation?

Then, of course life unfolds, which in the nourish-n-cherish household has been established to be somewhat erratic, and hectic, and we are left wondering whether the weekdays with all its attendant worries is calmer than week-ends with all its hectic activity. Before we know it, the renewal plea arrives and we try our best to scramble in another visit before the annual pass expires.

“If we go straight to the Diwali party from the museum, we can work in that week-end.”, we say and scramble in a trip to the Aquarium.

Anyway, what I meant is that we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few months ago. The salty, tangy, eucalyptus-scented air ruffles your hair as you make your way towards the museum. The cawing of the seagulls and the faint smells of seals and seaweed greet you long before the wonders inside.

Observing marine life is as mesmerizing as it is mystical. Standing there in front of the large glass tanks and looking at sharks, turtles, fish of every color and variety, is magical.

There is one section where we can see jellyfish boink around. Jellyfish that are colored brilliantly, transparent jellyfish, and jellyfish that contain bioluminescent bacteria. As I was standing there marveling at the brilliance of nature, I noticed that there were patterns in the glowing bacteria. Some had patterns that if one squinted one’s eyes resembled constellations in the night sky. I don’t know whether the patterns in the jellyfish are unique to each one much like the Zebra’s stripes are, but it would definitely not surprise me if that were the case. Nature’s patterns are as varied as they are diverse.

We came home that night, reluctantly pulling ourselves away from the enthralling environs of teeming marine life, and sat around for a hastily thrown together dinner. The conversation drifted towards marine life, a topic that is dear to the daughter’s heart. The love started young as we know to our chagrin – we might have watched Finding Nemo five hundred times when she was growing up. Every little fish and piece of coral was much loved in the home. The conversation flitted dangerously close to the ‘I wish I could live in the sea’ theme. The husband watched us for a moment and said in a strangely ruminative tone: “It is a scary world out there isn’t it? A-fish-eats-fish world.”

I was reminded of a quote that floats up in my mind every so often when I am observing the world around us. A quote that is prominently placed in the Monterey Bay Aquarium too:

The sea is as near as we come to another world: Anne Stevenson

Yes, it is a fish-eats-fish world, but it is also the world of beauty, survival, co-existence, and a symbiosis of life.

Good Food Mood

This article was published in The Hindu 

Some of my articles, especially ones that involve the night sky have me pondering on the nature of our existence and how minuscule we are in the scheme of things. The precise sequence of things that led to this particular form of life on this planet and so on. Generally, the night sky is simply a becalming experience that inspires humility, and some vague musings.

The scale of the universe is one that is awe inspiring. We are minuscule compared to the universe, but we also contain millions of minuscule particles compared to our own size. As far as the microbes are concerned, we, each of us: deer, goose, humans are a universe unto ourselves. There is something deeply spiritual in that : we contain multitudes and we enable multitudes. The diversity and beauty of the microbial world is immense, and one that is still emerging in our understanding of it. With the sound of rain pattering outside, I was sitting snugly inside reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, stopping every now and then to read out an interesting piece to the children.

Ayar padi maligaiyil thaai madiyalil kanrinnai pol
ஆயர்பாடி மாளிகையில் தாய் மடியில் கன்றினைப்போல்
maya kana thoongugindran thaalaelo
மாயக்கண்ணன் தூங்குகின்றான் தாலேலோ
Avan vaai niraiya mannai undu mandalathai kaatiya pin
அவன் வாய் நிறைய மண்ணை உண்டு மண்டலத்தை காட்டிய பின்

Roughly translates to: Here is little Krishna, sleeping like a little calf after eating a handful of mud and showing us the universe within it.

The son played the video for the nth time on the television, and the daughter said, “Oh no – not that again. How many times will you see that video?”

“See…see here – when baby Krishna opens his mouth, his mom can see the whole universe inside it. The whole universe!” he says his eyes widening, quite unable to comprehend why this fact is not as astounding to his elder sister.

“Yes – but you said that already.”

“I always watch what you are seeing!” said the fellow stung at this accusation of hogging the television. His sister scowled, the toddler tensed and I sensed it was time for dinner before the situation escalated, and rivers of tears joined the gurgling rivers of rainwater outside.

Inside the house, we sat down around the dinner table with hot food and slurped at it. We kept getting interrupted by alerts giving us flash flood warnings, and it increased the gratitude for being inside, relishing warm food and enjoying one another’s company. Minutes into the meal, the situation had considerably lightened and the children were rolling off their chair giggling at something inane. I watched them bemused.

Countless writers have written about the effects of good food. Jerome K Jerome from Three Men in a Boat goes on to describe the effects in great detail:

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep”. After a cup of tea(two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand for more than 3 minutes), it says to the brain, “Now rise and show your strength. Be eloquent and deep and tender; see with a clear eye, into Nature, and into life: spread your white wings of quivering thought and soar, a god like spirit over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”

What is it with food and mood? Is there a direct connection between the gut and the brain?

It turns out that there is. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, Ed Yong goes on to write that there are now studies directly linking gut bacteria with mental well-being. We have a long way to go in understanding the role of gut bacteria.  Some studies indicate reduced symptoms of depression in people with irritable bowel syndromes after consuming certain types of probiotics.

If research advances enough to diagnose certain types of borderline psychiatric patients and is able to treat them with specific types of probiotics to enable well-being, would that not be great?

An excellent article on the topic by Maria Popova here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/10/i-contain-multitudes-ed-yong/

The future could hold in store for us enough advances in microbiology & genetics, to enable personalized treatment options that aims at holistic healing. That is a promising, if distant, future to strive towards.

Quote:
It is estimated that every human contains 100 trillion microbes, most of which live in our guts. By comparison the Milky Way contains between 100 million and 400 million stars.

Maybe the mud that baby Krishna swallowed contained bio luminescent bacteria that made the universe inside of him light up when he opened his mouth.

krishna_universe

Whatever it is, like Jerome K Jerome says: “We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach, Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach and diet it with care and judgement. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart.”

Stop and Look at the Snails

After enduring a particularly long spell of drought, we are relishing the rains lashing down on us this year. The clean, fresh air after the rain is one we relish. As the toddler son and I make our way to school every morning, our heart lifts at the marvelous rainbows, the cherry blossoms starting to bloom and the beautiful snails out on the roads.

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Sometimes, we come up with silly names for the little creatures we find on our path. Turbo the Snail is always a welcome sight. Earthy Worm invokes the same curiosity if not adoration. Toby Turtle is remembered with affection, and we wonder aloud how we can find ways to hobnob more freely with turtles.

Watching the snails leave a shiny trail behind them one rainy day, we squatted there wondering whether that trail left behind by snails is poisonous. That innocent minute squatting on the sidewalk looking at snails criss-cross our path raised so many questions. It looked to us like a snail could not get very far if it had to flee a predator.

Where do they live when it is not raining and can’t move?
What if we had slippery slopes for snails? said the toddler always keen to help.
Do only snails walk the slippery slope? (completely lost on the toddler of course) and so on.

pets

 

“Amma, we will be late! Hurry up.” said the conscientious fellow and we galloped past the snails wondering how much there was to do in the world, and how little we manage to do.

The thought that there is so much more to be done can sneak up at you in the most unexpected moments. Like the time I was reading a love story written by Alexander McCall Smith in the book Chance Developments. The story imagined the life of a young man in Scotland using a vintage photograph of a young man helping to change a car tire in the presence of a beautiful young lady in a cream colored coat.

 

In the book, the young man is taking a stroll around a loch and is fascinated by some plants that many ignored because they were believed to be poisonous, but he nibbles at them lovingly almost, since his father had tried and demonstrated to him that these particular plants were not poisonous at all. He had studied the properties of the plant, and traced the origins of the myth to a Celtic folktale, and though most tales started off with a kernel of truth, this one probably did not.

How is a story as innocuous as that supposed to make one feel like there is so much to be done? Because they are so many ways in which we can remain curious, to question the this-is-how-it-is-done-s of the world. The fact that we can bust one myth just by questioning it is good. And it proves that we pave the path for one more myth to be broken and then one more.

It has been a few years since I read ’Surely, You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’ By Richard Feynman. I remember one passage in which the celebrated scientist talks of watching ants as they made their way around his backyard. Marveling at how they navigated obstacles placed in their path, and admiring the innate steadfastness of the species.

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The quest for knowledge can be a curious, interesting journey, if only we take the time to stop and look at the snails.

Richard Feynman on the Meaning of Life – Brain Pickings

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

The Yin & Yang of Diwali & Halloween

This post was also published in India Currents magazine dated 3rd Nov 2016

Wrinkled brows, scorching cuts and decisive strokes greeted me as I went upstairs a few days before Diwali. We have to get started on our Halloween decorations, said the daughter cutting out a spider. The toddler son was lying on his stomach on the floor, helping his sister by coloring the ghost she had cut out from white paper, white. A cozy, merry scene with the sunlight streaming in from the windows.

When bees create their colonies, I am sure they don’t care about a little mess. Neither did my bee-lings. I navigated the crayons strewn on the floor and walked past the strands of paper littering my path to peek at the objects of art.

A morose sort of skeleton was being drawn and I shuddered at the image. I hated to take a pail of cold water and swamp their enthusiasm with it, but then I did. Sorry guys. That weekend is Diwali and I won’t have skeletons and cobwebs hanging off the front door on Diwali. (This year, Diwali fell on a week-end and Halloween the day after, on a Monday.)

A mutinous roar went up. Amma – Diwali is the opposite of Halloween. It is the festival of lights. You’ll put up those little diyas everywhere and light everything up and then you’ll make everyone dress up beautifully – it is the complete opposite of Halloween.

I disagreed. They may be celebrated differently, but they are both meant to fight evil. Ward off evil – whatever. The concept is to banish your demons. Even the inner demons. So, Diwali and Halloween are like that Yin-Yang thing. Black and white together. Both are there in us and in the world around us.

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I felt like a teapot spouting philosophy from my long snout to a couple of trouts in the stream. I sometimes think children must feel we played tag with Confucius and hide-and-seek with Buddha. I tried desperately to gain ground again.

You can always find light in the darkest of places if only you remember to turn on the lights. Remember who said that?

Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban

Albus Dumbledore! sighed the daughter. Dementors – yes! Maybe we will do dementors also this time.

Also Voldemort – we can draw Voldemort and hang him outside, piped the toddler son. He has no fear of He-who-must-not-be-named, and his sister beamed with pride at her little Gryffindor brother.

Guys! Guys! I won’t have Voldemort hanging on my front porch on Diwali either. Does Halloween have to be gory? Think of some themes and see if you can come up with decor that does not drip blood. Something positive, a call to action and also save our souls. How about that? I said.

When the daughter said, Fine!, I left them to their own devices and pottered around the house.

I must say that I was mighty impressed with the resulting effort.

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We picked your favorite theme, Nature, amma. So, you can put up some of this stuff for Diwali too. Then after Diwali, the next day, we can quickly put up bats and pumpkins all around and we are set, she said.

I agreed.

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On the Diwali rangoli, we placed a large pumpkin surrounded by little lamps. The rain helpfully washed away the rangoli that very night leaving a damp, morose spot for the Pumpkin the next day. All very satisfying.

Happy Diwali and Happy Halloween. May we learn to take care of our World, the living beings we share it with, and balance our yin and yang for a beautiful whole.

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