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!’.

bazaar

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.

lunch_box

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.

Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

The thing about travel is it lets you indulge in conversations that you otherwise may not have: With car drivers (White Tiger, Driver Shiva or Murugan and Driver KillerMan ) for instance.

We were returning from a trip to Chichen Itza by van. The drive is a good three hours, and the husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. I settled down with ‘The Gene’, By Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book is one that requires concentration, especially for one who made stout Biology teachers quail. The book is held tight by a web weaving historical context, scientific detail and personal insights. It is a fascinating read, if somewhat heavy going in places.

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Genetics as a discipline had a number of misdirections and key researches almost lost to mankind, like Mendel’s experiment with pea plants, but for a lucky discovery of his article over 50 years after his death. The book touches upon many such instances. It talks about the supposed brilliance of scientists, how scientists are after all human and how their personalities can sometimes thwart and stifle growth. I particularly enjoyed the little quotations at the beginning of every chapter.

Every now and then, I stopped to take in the rustic scenery outside in the Yucatan province. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if in a somewhat one-sided fashion. The van driver liked his audience and his theories grew wilder, and his tales more grandiose.

The man said he was originally from Canada, then moved to US before settling in Mexico. His tales, at any rate, portrayed a colorful life – a trucker, a pop-star, construction, sound recording. We had niggling doubts as to why his life had followed the pattern it had, but did not dig too closely. (He had the power of the van remember?)

‘How is Gene?’ asked the husband turning his head wife-ward. I had gotten past the horrifying section on Eugenics thankfully and said a thing or two about what all mankind is answerable for. Evolution, I said, better have a good reason for cruelty.

’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver, perking up since he hadn’t spoken for all of three minutes. He bore the look of a man doing a grand flick off some sad sop’s tale from the internet, ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

Aliens_theory

‘I mean, look at the size of those computers earlier on, and look at them now.’ He stopped here for dramatic effect, like one coming with the argument that clinches all.’ The aliens then got a much better model with humans and current life forms and decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Earth to get rid of the dinosaurs.They were just too big for them.’

The husband and I exchanged significant glances in our minds without once looking at each other. “I will take it that you just consider it a theory.”, said the husband, a man who would have obviously done well in the diplomatic services.

“Well…evolution is a theory no doubt,” said the driver, as though conceding a poorly paid chess move by dim witted opponents. “But aliens is a better concept. You know the supposed asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs fell right here? Yes – right here in the Yucatan desert.” , he said opening his arms wide, and the van jerked alarmingly. I implored him to hold the steering wheel, to which he laughed, ‘Of course, it was a nuclear bomb sent by aliens, and it is funny that centuries later, we are talking about it, and trying to fit in theories like evolution.”

crater
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

I set out to explain the experiments with pea plants, how the evidence set up the basis for genetics etc, but the man was bored, and said I must open my mind a little and consider the aliens theory. I bridled. I love a tall tale as much as the next one, but… The husband seem to sense my state, and shot me a warning look.

I had to concede that here was a fellow who had obviously educated himself on the Internet, and was proud of it. The Science teachers in his school days had done their best, and I too must learn to accept that he liked his erudition because he understood complex theories like aliens implanting life on earth.

By the end of the trip I needed some time to reflect, and when I did, I realized that travel had once again made sure I met a person so different in ideologies than myself. I hope he thought a little bit about things that could be proven vs things that could not be, when he reflected later on.

I, for my part, was able to understand why it is easy to believe compulsively written theories on the Internet.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

Science lessons seem so far off tucked away in the recesses of the childhood brain. What time is left after earning one’s livelihood can easily be spent in the entertainment industry’s efforts to keep us glued: An industry that thrives on blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

As Lisa Randall says in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/28/dark-matter-and-the-dinosaurs-lisa-randall/

What we need is to be able to travel more, so we get to see another’s view point every now and then, even if we do not agree. Especially if we do not agree.

After all, we are nothing but star dust.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/02/01/we-are-all-stardust-steven-weinberg-interview/

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.

Quote:

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/