A Fairy Tale Ending

When the daylight savings time change happens, regardless of how tiring the day and the commute has been, I will pep up in the evenings. Just listening to the twittering birds on the trees outside, the sight of young trees in bloom, and the new leaves are like a soothing balm to the soul.  The children who come out to play have all invariably shot up during the winter months and it is heartening to see them revel in the evenings on their bicycles or tricycles. The hues the setting sun throws against the sky never fails to lift my heart.

It is as the poets say, only I cannot say it half as well or correctly as they do. Isn’t it something like: February goeth like a lamb and March springs in like a lion or is it March goeth like a lamb? Or something about March springing like lions or going like lions. Anyway, the point is that March goeth just like February goeth and January goeth.

I stepped into the home one evening to find the evening chaos was worse than usual. Everywhere I looked, it seemed to me a bit of spring cleaning was in order. Piles of paper were on tables, coats and backpacks were strewn on sofas and floors, shoes with socks spilling out of them lay everywhere. My heart sank. I cradled my head in agony at the sight.

“There is so much junk in this house!” I said and started clearing up frenetically. The do-er is the worst, for it makes the non-doers squirm with guilt. The daughter squirmed, and the son looked discomfited.

“Oh you are cleaning up. Why, is anyone coming?”, quipped the teenaged daughter, and I moaned. I like to dispel this notion that we must clean up only when someone is visiting the old home, and I said so, loudly.

“Okay…okay…no need to get all learn-a-life-lesson-y, just asking.” The look she gave me suggested I was one screw short.

I donned my efficient look and got on with my cleaning spree keeping a running commentary up on the junk collection.

I picked up some plasticine (why do we spoil the environment with this trash?), a rubber ball (anyone plays with this still?), a torn glove(how did this beautiful glove tear and where is the other one?), a fruit bowl with what looked suspiciously like glue caked and dried(what is this? ), and a book of fairy tales that had come apart at its bindings. The pages were not held together by glue anymore, but they were still there inside the cover. (I had nothing to say but I smiled).

Heavens – how dearly I remembered the old book! The torn and tattered pages that I held gingerly in my hands seemed to take me back to those lovely spring evenings years ago when the daughter, then a toddler, would come to me clutching the large book in her hands asking to be read a story from it. The book was as large as her torso, and she tottered under the weight, but she loved the book. I knew she liked those stories so much. She listened intently, and sometimes, she would re-tell her grandfather the stories much to his delight.

fairytale

We had learnt morals, taken leaps of faith, and realized that external appearances do not matter all that much.

I looked at the torn book in my hands, and smiled again. Now more than ever, we must obsessively read our fairy tales and children’s books. Beautiful princesses can control their destiny, frogs can be princes, beasts can be gentlemen, elephants can hatch eggs and good always triumphs over evil.

Albert Einstein on Fairy Tales:

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/14/einstein-fairy-tales/

If Mimosa Pudica Met Humpty Dumpty

The children ask me interesting stories about my childhood every now and then. They seem to think I lived in a fairy tale and maybe I did. I find my reminiscences are often seen through the endearing lens of time ignoring the trials and strife of living in a wet, rainy, cold place. My stories often feature panthers, wild boars, and tigers. Occasionally, just to spice things up, I tell them about the different berries, clovers and exotic plants that were native to the Nilgiri Hills and they marvel at the wonders in this world and how on earth I am alive and kicking today when I seem to have used such loose food control mechanisms as picking berries to plop into my mouth. Today, when I attempt to pluck a wild berry and put it in my mouth, I am met with aghast looks and stopped with pleas appealing to my remaining sanity.

I remember being enamored over touch-me-nots too. Have you played with touch-me-not plants? If not, I suggest taking the term and tucking it firmly in the back of your brain and keep looking out for the curious species. The scientific name is Mimosa Pudica.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_pudica

The fascinating little plants react to external threats by closing up their leaves as if in tune to a rhythmic heartbeat. There is something deeply soothing about watching them close their leaves to one’s touch and then open them again. To the immense delight of the children, we found clusters of touch-me-nots on our last trip to the Nilgiris and they spent an entire morning playing with them.

In the Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben cites a piece of research showing that plants learn and indeed have memories. What the researchers did was take the shy mimosa plant into the laboratory. The mimosa plant closes itself up on external stimuli. So, to see whether the plant can learn, researchers set up the plant under a steady trickle of water.

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Dr Monica Gagliano designed an experiment where individual drops of water fell on the plants’ foliage at regular intervals. At first, the anxious leaves closed immediately but after a while, the little plants learned there was no danger of damage from the water droplets. After that, the leaves remained open despite the drops. Even more surprising was the fact that the mimosas could remember and apply their lesson weeks later.

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It is a good lesson for us to learn in these times of constant interruptions, distractions, news and fake news. These are steady drips and we the mimosas can learn and adapt.

Like the mimosa plant, it may be a worthwhile skill to find methods to rise and react when required rather than when Mr Donald Trump wants to divert attention onto something other than what he wants us looking at.

http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20170320/tweet-grinder/

The last time President Trump faced an uncomfortable moment, he tweeted the Obama-phone-hack claim, and all the kings horses and all kings men went chasing after the latest tweet leaving the egg he wanted to crash to do so unattended.

mimosa_humpty

If Mimosa plants met Humpty Dumpty regularly, what would they do? It is a great philosophical question to ask oneself.

Essential or Eternal Communication?

I recently read a book called The Hidden Life of Trees written by a forester, Peter Wohlleben.

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Trees have always fascinated me. I have tried becoming one with little success.

Their calm, stoic essence of being is reassuring. Trees are social beings, and they are capable of immense internal processes that not only sustain their lives, but also those of others around them.

Reading the book is like dipping into a life that we as a race can barely contemplate for as the author reminds us in the book, trees live life in the slow lane, and that is what made the reading experience refreshing. It is largely based on observations and of the forester’s study on the forests he helps to manage. Throughout the book, he cites relevant research studies that have been carried by botanists.

Trees are social beings and know that they can thrive if they look out for one another. Many interesting anecdotes dot the book such as the one with the giraffes chomping down the leaves of the acacia trees in the Savannah.

The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores.

The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind.

How beautifully nature equipped the trees and giraffes for survival.

After reading about how effectively and essentially Trees communicate, I could not help comparing and contrasting our lives with those of our stoic friends. This frenzied communication lifestyle we have adapted as our own, often leads to amusing outcomes, but sometimes to questionable ones.

One morning, I set out to enjoy a leisurely week-end breakfast with the children. When the menu card says ‘Noodles’, the beaming sous chef in the home is more active than is called for. I doubt restaurant kitchens have sous chefs standing on chairs next to the chef gabbling instructions for all to hear, but our kitchen does.

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Minutes later, we clattered down with our bowls of steaming instant noodles – there is something deeply satisfying about slurping the long noodle strings noisily, and reveling in the liberating feeling of not being governed by the ticking minutes of the clock for a change.

I was doing my best to ignore the incessant modes of communication that is our bane today, but I was still interrupted with the International Phone Call.  On the call, I was given the shocking news that Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp had been vying to give me, and told to check it all immediately. Apparently, the noodles I was eating that very day had 17% lead content. 17% lead. Funny because I did not feel like I had a metal tube lodged in my intestines after eating it, nor did I feel like an old ceiling waiting to be torn down. What it meant to say of course is that there were supposedly 17 parts per million of lead in the offending food item, a claim that in itself proved to be baseless later on.

lead

Quote from link: http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20170310/leaky-gut-reaction/

The wrongness of the initial stories is the result of a perfect storm of three factors: Technical subject matter, a master of disinformation, and always on race to publish stories quickly. It’s yet another reminder of the Internet’s five least common words: Let me think about that.

Should we learn the art of essential communication, and develop the ability to chaff it from the demands of eternal communication? Maybe learn a lesson or two from our stoic friends.

For a quick read: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/09/26/the-hidden-life-of-trees-peter-wohlleben/

How To Become Dandelions?

I have wracked my mind to find what it is I would like to share about Women’s Day. Surely, I have something to say. Everyone had something to say: We celebrate women, we demand equality and abhor the crimes committed against womenkind. Yet, there I was on the sidelines still twiddling my thumbs and looking lost. Some said ‘Happy Something’. The day passed, and I must say critics would call the tripe I had written ‘pedantic and whiny’, and what is more, I would have to agree with them wholeheartedly and shake their hands for the right choice of words.

I mostly like being female.

Except when I am told not to laugh too much because I am a girl #Direnkahkaha anyone?

Or when I am told not to apologize. I am sorry, did I step on your toes? Tough Luck Buddy! Hee Her Haw Haw….

NY Times: When an apology is anything but

Or being told to be a man to be a woman. Huh?!

Medium: Leveling both sides of….

I mostly like being female. I say mostly because there are times when I feel being a dandelion would be better. You know a gust of wind would take care of reproduction, and one does not have to worry so much about being a female dandelion or a male dandelion, and policy makers do not have to concern themselves about dandelion population. We don’t yet know how to interpret dandelion communication, but when I see a circle of dandelions, I see a beautifully androgynous group reveling in each other’s company – till a deer comes along and chomps them down of course. (We recently read this sunny little children’s book.)

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So, what is with reproduction? Human beings are obsessed with reproduction though it is established beyond doubt that the human race is in no jeopardy. We are always in danger of nuking ourselves of course, but that is idiocy not procreation – quite different.

I remember clearly one hot summer afternoon several years ago.  I had just had the son, and his doting older sister was casting adoring glances at her infant brother. She told me that her first grade classroom had sang congratulations for her that day when she told them she had a baby brother. ‘Though, it is a lot of work Amma.’ she said looking solicitous. I was touched by her observation and told her about imagining a lifetime of hot summers with a new baby every other year. She whooped and said golly and giggled like elementary school children do, and I went on to tell her about my stellar grandmother who had nine children, all bawling, healthy and hungry.

Why didn’t she stop with two or even three? Nine seems like so much. she said in a matter-of-fact tone, and I told her in terms as best as I could about how the concept of planning one’s family size itself was a luxury only afforded to the past two or three generations. How many children to have and when to have them was not things women controlled then, I said.

grandma

I am saddened indeed that on International Women’s Day (about a century after this day was officially set up), this news item pops up.

Planned Parenthood rejects Trump proposal to stop abortion services – CNNPolitics.com

What will it take for reproductive choices for Women to become a civil liberty?

Back to the Dandelion theory, wouldn’t it be nice to just have have a storm knock the wind out of us, scatter and reproduce thus – all of us men and women. I’d like to see whether men will control the wind intensity and direction of the wind then.

I can barely state things better than Melinda Gates though:

https://www.gatesnotes.com/2017-Annual-Letter

Towards becoming Dandelions then!

Of Hailstones & Laundry Baskets

“I have a great idea! “, said the kindergartener. His face was shining with excitement. I braced myself and nodded for him to go on. I had between my teeth, a clip that threatened to tie my tongue together, my hands were yanking a large unruly mess of hair into a pony-tail for the daughter, and the stove was hissing ominously.

“Why don’t I wear the red laundry basket to school?” said the kindergartener. That tied my tongue, the daughter yelped because I pulled on the hair making her pony tail look like a sausage through a tree, and the stove boiled over.

The past week has been a whimsical one. It was ‘Read Across America’ week to honor Theodore Seuss Geisel’s birthday and the little world around us lit up. In Elementary schools, everyday of the week, it seemed, was a special one, and fliers exhorted all of us to jump in. I love the Elementary school age-group when the human mind is at its most creative, supple and fertile and is bursting at its seams with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Wear As Many Colors As You Can Day
Crazy Hat Day (the red laundry basket is always being worn as a hat by the toddler at home, and he thought it was a marvelous idea to go like that to school)
Favorite Story Book Character Day
What Do You Want To Become Day (What do you want to be?)
Mismatched Fox in Socks Day

Somewhere along the line, we lose that element of fun, and I admire how children can help us tap into it at times. The past week was a hectic one, but I must say that I enjoyed wearing mismatched socks on purpose just as much as the children did. There were times during the stern day when I smiled to myself thinking of my striped sock and my polka dotted mismatched socks that had resulted in so such mirth in the morning rush.

I had with all good intentions gotten a biography of Dr Seuss to read before his birthday, but in my typical feather brained inefficiency had not so much as moved past the Prelude to the Introduction (why do books do that?) So, the Dr Seuss post would just have to wait.

Dr Seuss was very much on our minds as we stepped out for a walk by a river to wrap up the week. There we were, ambling along a roaring river with the backdrop of the mountains in the distance. It was also a deceptively cold day(I am too cold), for there were patches of sun(I am too hot), patches of dark grey clouds scudded past the cumulonimbus clouds and the wind whooshing at times knocked off our hats (not laundry baskets.)

drseuss.jpg

Minutes into the walk, we were stringing together nonsense Seuss-ian style and cackling:
I am too cold
I am too hot
Why are you always too something?
I thought you were five
No I am not five cold
I am not five hot
I am too cold
I am not two but too
I thought you were five

And so it went….

You know how they tell you in these be-calm lessons not to do anything suddenly? Ignore it. For suddenly, the rain pelted down, and not just that, it pelted down with hail stones. Silly or not, being pelted with hailstones is amusing and annoying especially when the good intentioned mother did not bring an umbrella on a walk. But the toddler tackled the problem with a whining grace. He ducked under his jacket and we raced to a tree, and stood under the tree sticking our tongues and hands out to catch the hailstones.

“Eat it”, I said as I popped a hailstone into my mouth.
“What? No! Amma! You cannot do that. “
“Yes you can – you may like it. Try it Try it if you may.”
“Say! I like Green Eggs and Ham”, finished the toddler and popped in the hailstone looking amused.

Colors

It is perfectly normal to be mistaken for normal if you wear laundry baskets and eat hailstones, thanks to Dr Seuss.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/29/what-pet-should-i-get-dr-seuss/

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.

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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.”

Blame The Toxos

Every once in a while a book comes along that changes the way you fundamentally view things. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong is one such. In the book, the author covers various types of microbes, bacteria and pathogens that we carry within ourselves or encounter in the world. A fascinating adventure awaits the reader on this microscopic journey.

The book shows us how each being is a complex symbiosis unto itself. A concept we know vaguely but appreciate deeply when we read the book.

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We have heard of parasitic infections that control the minds of hosts like rabies. Rabies makes its carriers aggressive and the only way for it to spread is by biting and scratching another being. ( Rabies is probably the basis for the myth of the werewolf.)

There is one particular type of parasite that is chilling in its tale. Toxoplasma Gondii or Toxo is a single celled organism that latches itself onto brains. It is also referred to in the TED talk linked below for further information.

Quote : Toxoplasma Gondii is a brain parasite otherwise known as Toxo. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodents natural fear of cats and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards the cats with fatal results, and T.gondii gets to complete its life cycle.

Toxo has been known to manipulate mammals. It makes rats run towards cats and offer themselves as prey just so toxo can reproduce. Classic tale of self destructive behavior, wouldn’t you agree? It is also proven that many humans play host to Toxo.

TED Talk by Ed Yong

The book led to many happy, wild conjectures such as:
(a) Could that be the reason Cat videos are so popular on You-tube? I mean, I have always wondered: Why Cat Videos? Why not hippo videos?

(b) Humans affected with Toxo also fare differently on personality tests, showing different trajectories when it comes to risk taking and pleasure seeking behaviors. Could a combination of Toxo and Dopamine releasing behaviors such as increased reliance on social media have engineered the elections?

It sounds like a weird sci-fi scenario: Toxo encourages self-destruction, dopamine clamors for fake news, and the world falls prey to single celled organisms manipulating mammals (us), while we run around like zombies thinking we have free will.

The understanding of human biology has fascinated mankind for centuries. But advances in microbiology itself is less than 200 hundred years old. Even then, our narrative surrounding the understanding has been harsh: Bacterial infections, germs, plagues, survival of the fittest. While there are numerous examples of these, the truth is that we also play host to a large number of helpful microbes and bacteria.

Theodore Rosebury, a microbiologist, wrote in 1928, during his research that:

“The knowledge that micro organisms can be helpful to man has never had much popular appeal, for men as a rule are more preoccupied with the danger that threatens their life than in the biological forces on which they depend. The history of warfare always proves more glamorous than accounts of co-operation.”

A fact so timeless that we ought to have it framed in halls of learning if it isn’t already.

P.S: Please watch the TED Talk by Ed Yong – it is only 13 minutes long.