The Quixotic Birthday Gift

Family and friends enveloped me with love and showered their kindness on me for my birthday. In the words of Oliver Gold Smith, I often think our lives are lived out in what is called the ‘vale of obscurity’, but this essence of living and giving bathes me in gratitude. This Thanksgiving, I counted my blessings with joy, thanked everyone for enabling a fruitful life and continued to ponder on the mysterious power of love.

I don’t care what physicists have to say about it, or whether the teenagers in my life roll their eyes, it is love that makes the world go around.

“So, what do you want as a birthday gift?”, asked the children dancing around me excited. I had seen and marveled their cards, and they looked on expectantly as I struggled to find a wish they could fulfill.

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Finally, I said,  “Sometime this year, I want to go a national park I have never been to before.

“Ugh! I don’t want to go another national park!”, moaned the daughter.

“Well…thank you for that marvelous gift my dear. Like Jane Austen says: They are much to be pitied who have not been given a taste for nature early in life. ”, I said.

She had the grace to blush and said, “Good job at the sarcasm Amma! But another nature themed vacation? Seriously?”

I nodded unabashed at this less than enthusiastic response. I had my eyes set on two national parks that I had been planning and dropping for the past 10 years: Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

“Why? It will be lovely, we can go hiking, running and playing.”, said her little brother skipping at the prospect of the great open.

“Oh please!” was the only response she deigned to grace us with. Not one to mince words, she made it clear that she was a reluctant camper, and that I had pulled a low trick in asking for a National Park trip as a birthday gift. I chuckled. A grunt told me that the matter was under consideration, and I left the matter to rest for the time being.

The next morning we scrambled to school in the usual fashion. One snack pack lay forgotten on the kitchen counter, two clean socks had flown through the car window hitting the car-driver squarely in the cheek (Appa! Duck your head, Socks incoming!) , and three sheets of loose paper trailed the way to the car. I tootled cheerfully as the car left the garage, ‘Have a nice day! Remember – next week is off!’

Leaving For School
Leaving For School in the morning

That evening, the daughter came back beaming benevolently. Nibbling on a cheese sandwich of her own making, she said, “You know? It might be lovely in Zion national park this time of the year. “

The son and I exchanged quizzical looks at this volte-face.

Apparently, one of her close friends in school had said that the national parks in question were beautiful and that she would love an opportunity to go back there again. That evening, the banal national-parks-again tune had changed to a vibrant symphony of Zion-is-beautiful, but Bryce-is-much-prettier. I smiled to myself. Oh! The beauty of friendship. I only hope she continues to have level headed and smart friends, was my private thought.

The daughter’s friend was right: Zion had a majestic grandeur to it,  while Bryce Canyon can only be described as breath-takingly beautiful. I had never imagined sparse vegetation and sheer rock face to be this splendid.  I have always been more a lover of trees, and streams. But Zion and Bryce made me think of beauty in a whole other manner. It was as if in one short trip across 4 states(CA, NV, AZ & UT), we had been transported to another planet.

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A land where hoodoos made magnificent shapes against the blue sky, 

A place where bristlecone trees cling to cliffs

Towering over the abyss of erstwhile marine trenches, 

Where overhead, peregrine falcons swoop swiftly upon their prey 

Hundreds of feet below in the rust colored labyrinths. 

It is a vibrant diorama sparkling underneath the weak wintry sun in the desert

An ecosystem that has seen it all, and still persists. 

 

 

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Historically Speaking …

I looked at the delectable pile of books by my side waiting to be read. The top of the pile was the beautifully annotated ‘Jane Austen’s History of England. –

Just the sort of history book that appeals to me. Written by Jane Austen when she was 16 years old, the book bears the hallmark of her humor.

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I sat smiling at some of the things written about Henry the 8th & Anne Boleyn.

The book certainly sounded like some of the answer papers of my youth.

I have always felt that History was one of those subjects that was calculated to freeze my brain. Good though my teachers in the subject were, bless them, they could not but help say that the Second Battle of Panipat was fought in 1556. Inside my brain, this simple fact would start a whistling train of thought:

1556. Hmm … funny number.

How to remember that number?

55 in the middle and 6-1 = 5. 

Why not 6551? Because that is in the future.

Very clever. But what about the number 6? Why 6 and not 7?

Maybe, History is the sixth period(?)

But only on Wednesdays.

If only it were 1596, 15*6=90  and then add 6

“Can anybody tell me what happened to Akbar after that battle?” These teachers have voices that have a way of cutting through the most interesting meanderings of the mind.

“What battle?”, I’d write on the side margin, and slip it across to my friend. There she would be, sitting by my side at the wooden desk with a vacant expression on her face biting her pencil. But at this urgent message, she’d stoutly pull herself together and write back, “The Battle of Panipuri, I think.”

Then the exams would roll along, and after days spent cramming the dates and emperors, I would come to the conclusion that all emperors who sought to reign should be made to stand in line in shorts and recite the dates of all those who aspired to power before them.  If they still want to reign, may their shorts fall while they lead the charge – that should teach them not to add to that horribly long list.

To make matters worse, the rumor mills during examination time worked overtime:

(a) The teachers likes diagrams, one person would say, stating emphatically that whatever you do, make sure you draw a diagram for it.

Feverishly, we would start drawing Africa maps, and label the Gold Coast, and the Sahara desert, throwing in the Kilimanjaro for luck. Never mind that the question was about Egypt.

(b) The more you write, the better will be your marks.

So, we would write double-spaced and add spice to the Spice Wars.

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One time I remember writing about Alexander’s Horse. Our History teacher had on one occasion told us about the fine breeds of horses that emperors prided themselves on. My brain tick-tocked away with Alexander’s Horse, and I found to my amazement that the brave stallion was heroic beyond what History books knew. I imagined the horse pulling his great emperor across the blizzards of the mountains one day just by trusting its instinct. The marvelous animal found a stream of fresh flowing water for its emperor. I wrote about 16 sentences on the virtues of the horse, borrowing heavily from my recent reading of Black Beauty (also a black horse with a star on its forehead, duh!) I wrote of its aching muscles, its loyalty that was much admired, and how stable managers had a job that was olfactorily unsatisfactory maybe, but really quite a prestigious one, if it meant looking after the emperor’s horse. I also gave him a name, Macedonia, if I remember right – sealing my understanding of the reign once and for all. (Alexander’s Horse, Bucephalus, would have turned in his grave and asked ‘Is she talking about me? Neigh! ‘ )

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By Walter Crane – The story of Greece : told to boys and girls

“15 more minutes.” the examiner said, and I looked to see that while the paper had a brilliant character sketch of the horse, it had very little about Alexander the Great.

I hastily started another paragraph on the the horse’s rider and finished up the paper. I came out into the brilliant sunshine from the exam hall when my friend said looking at me in admiration, “How much you wrote! I saw you taking two extra sheets! I am sure you are going to ace it!”

I shrugged off this undue praise guiltily, feeling a little sorry for the teacher who had to read such drivel.

It was years later that I read “I, Claudius”, the historical fiction book written by Robert Graves,  and came upon Incitatus, Caligula’s horse. Whether it was fiction or not I cannot say, but this was the horse that the Roman ruler, Caligula, sought to make a senator, and invited to State dinners.

http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/did-caligula-really-make-his-horse-a-consul

The truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. Mark Twain

I smiled at these pleasant memories, and opened the book in my hand.

 

Jane Austen said,

Edward the 4th

This monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted behavior in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor Woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity & Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore, who has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son.

A Jane Austen Education

 I like to draw relaxation from the joy in little things. The ability to stop and look at a flower or amble along with friends and family discussing the little matters of life that make up the notes of music as we hum along in our lives.

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The ability to feel like it is okay to not be driven by this high sense of purpose, but living a useful life all the same.

There is no power on Earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple and useful life. - Booker. T. Washington
There is no power on Earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple and useful life. – Booker. T. Washington

When people talk about good stories, they are usually pumped up about plot, drama and suspense. I am all for plot, drama, suspense, mystery, hot-cold love and so on. But our lives don’t always turn out that way, nor should it. That is why I recharge myself with writings of Miss Read, Jane Austen and P.G.Wodehouse. When I read these authors, I can assure myself that it is perfectly okay to lead lives that will not get a dramatist to reach for his recording device, but one that is joyful enough in its pursuits and activities to make it an interesting one.

Every time, I unwind with a Jane Austen movie, the nourish-n-cherish family rolls its eyes and flees the television area. Now that I think about it, it seems to be the only way for me to get some air time with the television. Hmmm (Evil laugh with gleam in eyes). But I hope one day to be able to get them to enjoy the movies with me.

I am reading ‘A Jane Austen Education’ by William Deresiewicz, that is essentially all the life lessons that her writings have for us to imbibe. Such a delightful book! There are some things that are clearly just the author’s perspective of applying her writing to his life. Not to mention that this book was written by a man, so it is only natural that his and my perspectives vary. 

The books starts with my favorite book of hers: Emma.

Little nuggets of writing like this spot the whole book and make me want to open it up at random and read again.

Jane Austen was about a year old when another English Author wrote a statement that could serve as a motto for all her books. “Life is a comedy for those who think”, said Horace Walpole,  “and a tragedy for those who feel.”. Everyone thinks and feels, but Jane Austen’s question was, which one you are going to put first? Comedies are stories with happy endings. I could grow up and find happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important. Not my feelings, but my belief in my feelings, the conviction that they were always right.

Another one:

Being happy and feeling good about yourself are not the same thing.

A dictum that Mansfield Park reveals, that is as good today or even more apt today than any other day in the past.

Perpetual amusement leads only to the perpetual threat of boredom.

 I can tell you that it was truly a shocking revelation to me, that a recent study said we reach for our phone 221 times a day. (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/02/25/we-are-hopelessly-hooked/)

Imagine that. More than 200 moments in time when we could be observing (anything at all really) spent checking a digital device. Are we not just as guilty as the Crawfords in Mansfield Park for needing that kind of continuous stimulation? It is no wonder that Digital Addiction is a real thing  requiring treatment.

http://www.gq.com/story/video-game-rehab?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

It reminds me of this article:

Anyone with any degree of mental toughness,” artist Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in contemplating life and the art of setting priorities, “ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.

A sobering thought indeed.