Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

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Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

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The Nest

Summer had spread its warmth and happiness in myriad ways. It had browned the state of California, made children cherish a vacation spent in the warm company of cousins, friends and grandparents. It had also led us to discussing a pair of swallows or robins who had raised their family over a friend’s garage recently. The excitement over this last item was palpable, if second-hand. I have told the children lots of tales before of growing up amidst nature, and their favorites are the ones featuring fauna of various shapes and sizes. The time we ran from a mouse, the time the panther came, and so on.

Amma – have you really seen a nest before?”

“Yes. Of course.” I replied.

They had the look of expectancy about them, and I did not disappoint.

I told them that not only had I seen a bird’s nest before, but was so shocked at having seen it, that I almost toppled off the tree in fright. They guffawed at this, as though nothing amused them more than mothers falling off trees, and I mock-pursed my lips at this misplaced joy. But I had to admit, if I imagined my mother falling off a tree at their age, I would’ve guffawed too, and genetics cannot be helped and all that.

I cleared my throat and continued with the thrilling tale of the nest. They listened with rapture.

We were playing what loosely passes for badminton out in the rushing wind just to see how to play when the gusts of wind took the shuttle askew. One time, the shuttle caught in a tree, and we tried retrieving the thing with hockey sticks,  shouting (our sound waves generate sonic boom to dislodge shuttle – duh), and a myriad other techniques before placing a stool on a chair and hoisting me up to the nearest branch. It was then, I saw the dear home. It looked just like I liked it: haphazardly thrown together, a comfortable haven from a stormy world. Cozy, if a little messy. I stood there for a few seconds delighted at my find, and prudently did not holler the finding to my playmates below.

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I have always had a soft spot for babies, and there must have been some being raised there. I almost clambered down without the shuttle-cock in shock.  I kept the information quiet from some of the more cruel children, and expertly diverted our game elsewhere.

The children gave a wistful sigh, “Hmmm…..Wish we could see a nest!”

Every time we go to a wooded area, we look for a nest, but so far we have been unsuccessful in our quest.

A few days later, I was meandering around the lanes, when I spotted something on the floor. The pine trees in the lane had shed plenty of its pines, and the brown pine needles and the pine cones make an interesting scene partly because we are always on the lookout for lovely looking pinecones. It was then I spotted what was unmistakably a nest. There it was – perfectly shaped to house little birds (an ornithologist could probably look at the nest and tell you which birds planned to raise a family in them, but I could not) I picked it up and saw the nest must have fallen a good 10-15 feet even if it were on the lowest branch. Luckily, no eggs were in the vicinity, and I gingerly picked up the nest to show it to the children.

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After the initial excitement, I was told that I had been heartless in bringing the nest home. Why could I have not put back on the tree? While I admired the sentiment behind this, I felt that expecting me to scramble up that large a tree to put a nest back was a bit much. So, the nest was housed in an adjoining tree whose branch was accessible to my height, and we hoped some bird who had procrastinated nest building would be able to find and use it.

“How will any bird know to look for a nest?”, the children asked. I was doubtful too.

A few days later, I picked up the children’s book, A Nest Is Noisy. The dear book assured me that there were plenty of birds that look for built nests, and the nest I had picked up could one day become a home again.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. John Burroughs

Hola Amigos! Tres Bien Nachos

This article appeared in The Hindu’s Open Page Section dated 15th October 2017

“Hi Amma. Konichiwa!”, said the little fellow as he pranced home from school.

Konichiwa?”

“It means Hola! Hello in Japanese.” said the fellow beaming.

“Oh that’s nice. Konichiwa. It sounds like a tinkling windchime. Koni-chiwa. “

Ni Hao is Hello in Chinese.” said the Hello expert.

“How did you know these things? Did they teach you in school?” I asked.

He pulled out a beautiful children’s book called ‘Say Hello’ by Rachel Isadora, and said he picked that from the library that day. That night we snuggled into bed with the Say Hello book. I must say that it is a most beautiful inclusive book and includes illustrations as a little girl walks through town saying Hello to the various people she meets.

The Shalom Aleikkum, Ni Hao and Konichiwa-s roll out with ease, before she finally finds her Abuela and says ‘Hola!’

The daughter sometimes joins us for story-time, and this time the two minute read turned into a twelve minute reminiscence into what is lovingly known as the Hola Snafu At Cancun.

The fellow at the gates to the resort in Cancun was looking morose, and wondering whether there was any purpose in going on sitting at the resort gates like this. There were folks inside going about their duties sipping a whisk of margarita as they were preparing some for the guests at the bar inside, while he had an iced water bottle that had long since melted the ice and left a puddle around it. Our van pulled up after a day’s trip to Chichen-Itza, and I poked my head out.

Hola! Uno nuevo nuevo deux.” I said and smiled. I gave him the room number allocated to us at the resort, so he could let us pass. It had been a long day with dinosaurs, asteroids, nuclear warfare by aliens from another galaxy, hobnobbing with the spirits of those who built the pyramids centuries ago.

The fellow chuckled to himself and looked uplifted in spirits. Just for this performance of Spanish, it was well worth giving up the spot to work at the bartenders backyard. He waved us in cheerfully, and I said in perfect Spanish. “Thank you Amigos. Have a tres bien day!

I turned around to see the daughter who incidentally learns Spanish up at the school rolling in the aisles and laughing with her little brother. “Did you just think you spoke Spanish?” she gurgled when I asked her what the matter was.

Our van was trundling in toward the resort, so I must have said all the right things, I said Oui with confidence.

“Have a tres bien day! Tres Bien is French Amma, not Spanish!”

It sure was. I had not considered the possibility that French and Spanish occupied the same area in the old brain. Amazing what all happens inside the walnut isn’t it?

“Well Spain is near France, so I am sure they will understand. “, I said miffed that my marvelous attempt at Spanish was being given the rip down by the children.

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“Yes! But Mexico isn’t near France. If I were him I would have asked for the room number again, and keep you there till you got it right.”

I was on solid ground there. Our room number was 1-9-9-2. Uno Nuevo Nuevo Deux.

Nuevo means ‘New’ ; Nueve means 9”, said the Stickler for Spanish Perfection.

“Why didn’t you say anything then, eh? Hola?”

I hola-ed and tres bien-ed and buenos nachos and muchos gracias-ed my way through the Mexican resort much to the delight of the staff there. Some of them taught me that Buenos Nachos means ‘Good Nachos’, not Good Night but smiled along indulging me in my Spanish dreams of fluency.

We all laughed, but the husband said that the important thing is that I made the effort to communicate with them all, and they understood that. Even when I said Muchos Nachos Tres Bien, and Google translator had no clue what that meant, the server who had laid out dinner for us with amazing vegetarian fare knew I meant well, and bestowed an avuncular smile on me.

The recent mass shooting at Las Vegas has horrified America yet again, and the press has said the latest terrorist attack was because the terrorist was a lone wolf. (Yes, when an act is calculated and carried out to spread terror, it is a terrorist attack, ask any fellow who works up these places that curates dictionaries and so on. The press seems to have this curious idea that the word can only be applied to certain sub sects of people, though the feeling of terror is universal.)

Anyway, as I was saying the Lone Wolf – I read a book by Daniel Byman a professor on Middle Eastern studies who tried to see the correlation between how terrorist organizations recruit and train towards extremism and any other factor (economic, academic, geographic), but came up with no correlation whatsoever. It was baffling. There was only one unifying factor among each of the recruits: They were all Lone Wolves. 

That got me thinking that every time we spot someone feeling lonely in our community, why not send a Hello or Hola or an Konichiwa or Ni Hao or Namaste or Salaam Alaikkum their way? We never know when a simple smile and word can change the course of one’s day. A smile is as universal as loneliness after all.

 

Ma With Fahrenheit 451

As I took a walk one morning, I tried to identify the flowers and trees in the neighborhood, and found myself humbled by my meagre botanical knowledge. A bird or two chirped nearby, and I tried my best to enjoy the quiet by zoning out the drone of the constant hum of traffic from the main road. I looked up at a tree that I loved, a Gingko tree, and sat myself down nearby watching the suns life giving rays upon a garden just watered. The tiny water droplets refracted the suns rays, and the world around me felt magical.

As if to complete this picture of serenity, two butterflies danced into view. Their dance around the flowers on that sunlit morning with the rays of the sun coming in through the Gingko trees leaves was enough to mesmerize anyone, and I found myself smiling and lapsing into a contented silence. It is not often that I get to slow life down enough to sit and watch butterflies in the garden. In those few blissful moments, I experienced the beautiful concept of Ma. Ma is the Japanese concept signifying the space between moments, and is a practice in the Zen art of being present in the moment. Ma is the pause between sounds.

Ma is beautifully explained in the children’s book written by Katrina Goldsaito and Illustrated by Julia Kao titled, The Sound of Silence.

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In the book, Little Yoshio looks for the sound of silence after he hears an old koto player on the street tell him that her favorite sound is the sound of ma, of silence. Intrigued, Yoshio looks for the sound of silence in the streets of the city around him, he looks for it in the bamboo garden, but finds other noises are constantly present, and is wondering whether he can ever find Ma.

Then one morning, he enters his school earlier than usual and immerses himself in a book, he experiences it for the first time. “Suddenly in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed.

The butterflies cavorted higher and higher and then swooped down with joy to the lavender patch. I let my mind flitter about like the creatures I was watching. Reflecting upon life is increasingly becoming a luxury, I thought to myself. I had just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, and could not help thinking of some of the things in the book that Ray Bradbury had the foresight of seeing 50-60 years ago, long before we were addicted to technology and lured by the concept of busyness. Fahrenheit 451 talks about a future in which all books are burned by firemen. (451 F is the temperature at which book paper burns. )

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People live in homes where the Televisor is on all 4 walls, signifying constant stimulation. One fireman is curious to see what is there in the books that those who love it so much are even willing to die to keep them. He steals a random book here and a book there with every burning, and he tries his best to make sense of it, but is unable to grasp the beauty of random poetry. He tracks down one person whose books he had burned and asks him to explain. Excerpt from the book below:

“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we may forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched patches of the universe together into one garment for us. 3 things are missing

Number one: Quality, texture of information. They show the pores in the face of life

Number Two: Leisure”

“Oh, but we have plenty of off hours.”

“Off hours yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a 100 miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting i some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor. Why? The televisor is real. It in immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense?’

Summing up, he says the books give you three things:

Number one: quality of information.

Number two: leisure to digest it.

And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.

Complement with Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

From Botany to Ma and Fahrenheit 451, I was flitting about like a butterfly myself, and could not have asked for a more pleasurable show in my head had I planned the thing.

A Whiff of Youth & A Hint of Innocence

As summer closes its curtains, I look forward to the beautiful season of Fall. I yearn to see the colors of the leaves changing, resplendent in their glory for a few weeks, and the inevitable flutter they produce in my heart as they come to terms with letting go of their branches.

The children and I had our first scrunch-party this morning: We saw a small bunch of dried leaves near our feet, and we jumped and heard the delightful scrunch that was then followed by giggles that caused a squirrel to pause on its scamper and chitter at us looking amused from the roof above, reminding me of one of the poems in the book, A Whiff of Pine and a Hint of Skunk ( A Forest of poems by Deborah Ruddell & Joan Rankin)

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  • Above my head a robin sings
  • a shy hello and flaps her wings.
  • She whistles to a waiting squirrel
  • who gives his fuzzy tail a twirl
  • and bounces on a flimsy branch
  • which starts a leafy avalanche
  • of red and gold from every tree
  • as if they’ve planned it all for me.
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A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk

Afterward, we made our way to the son’s school. I waved goodbye to the fellow, and then dilly-dallied for a minute after he had gone into his own classroom. I love the atmosphere of the fresh energy and exuberance of children on a Friday morning. I was soaking in the scene when I saw a child crying. Great big tears coursed down her cheeks, and her face was so troubled, I stopped to ask her what the matter was. I cannot bear to see children cry (Tantrums annoy, but these genuine feelings of sorrow wrack my heart).

It was then I saw three girls her own age come and stand around her in a knot. They comforted her in their own way, asked her what the matter was, and then took her along to walk to the classroom with them. Her slumped shoulder straightened just a wee bit after a few steps, and her hands that were held by one of the girls was given more willingly. I watched them walk away together, and a warm glow suffused me.

In that glimpse of school, I saw the heartening stirrings of a friendship, the kind heartedness of fellow classmates, the easy grace with which relationships start – an art that adults seem to have forgotten along the way.

I walk around the neighborhood seeing the early stirrings of fall. The precocious among leaves are turning color. Fall raises the question of mortality, and I admire the example the fall leaves set for us, when the time has come for them, by letting go and fluttering down. with the promise of renewal in the air.

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It reminds me of a conversation I was having with my parents, as many people of the older generation grapple with the problem of aging. For the first time in the history of mankind, we will soon have the same number of people over the age of 80 as below the age of 5. Depression and anxiety among the aged is common. (My article here on Aging: Toby Turtle’s Lesson on Life)

If old age were indeed the second childhood, what would it take to keep forging relationships without expectation, and reaping its unexpected rewards, like the little girls that morning? How to infuse our minds with a hint of innocence and a whiff of youth?

Freedom Is Sweet

Driving through lush green hills, past wide rivers and huge boulders, the route was marvelous. We had been a-visiting India for a short trip. The roads were smooth, and the rain clouds brought on a blast of monsoon rains. The little car burst forth joyfully on the empty roads swerving like a little child to splash puddles along the way.

The driver may be a grown man who sports whiskers on his face, but the heart the body houses is a child’s when it rains.
“You know? Two years ago, I took this road and it was agonizing to drive. The road was full of potholes, and our backs were sore for days.” he said smiling before splashing a big puddle again. The brother was driving and we were on the way to the city where my parents lived.
“What changed then?” I asked puzzled, for the gray ribbon in front of us was smooth and clean.
“Politics happened. The interim chief minister’s constituency is somewhere on this road, so we got our lovely scenic route done up – no charge.”

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We reached home and affectionate greetings exchanged between parents, grandparents and children alike. A little while later, I was sprawled on the couch listening to the pater rile himself up with the news. Blithering-idiots-the-lot-of-them-are, seemed to about the gist of it, and I watched him amused.

The next day was Indian Independence Day, and the politicians were scrambling to see whose speeches would get maximum coverage on television, while ensuring that important topics of daily living were tabled for later. One incensed statement from the host of the News network forced the father to mute the television, and launch into a full scale explanation of politics that is best explained with a bedtime story. If you would snuggle in and close your eyes. Good then..:

There was a diamond ring, and everyone wanted it. But one strong, majestic troll had it, and did not let anybody else touch it. One day, the troll died, and all the remaining trolls fought each other for the ring. The troll children were hungry and thirsty, but that bothered no one. They are still fighting for the ring.

The End.

I know what you are thinking. As far as bedtime stories go, that was pretty rotten! I agree, but the state in which the parents live had recently lost their chief minister, and the squabble around the position was enough to make reality show hosts blanch. The populace has learned to look at the ensuing drama as such, and take a philosophical view of enjoying the good roads while they lasted.

We chewed the fat about the latest situ. in the United States, and how divisive strains were making themselves heard, and how we must do all we can to fight it.

Like Mark Twain said, The truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities whereas the Truth isn’t.

The next day was August 15th – Indian Independence Day, and we chirped with the birds, looked smart and went down for the flag hoisting in the community. I had with me my son and nephew – both five year olds who were eager for any activity involving the outdoors. As they stepped out, the boys were warned that they were not to take more than 1 sweet when offered the plate after the flag hoisting. If they were pups, I could have seen their ears drooping, but they bore the blow stoically enough and charged downstairs.

I stood there marveling at the fact that a month earlier we had celebrated Independence Day in the US. I looked around at the knot of people with whom I was celebrating Indian Independence Day. The stupendous privilege of celebrating Independence Day in the world’s largest democracies was not lost on me. To every one of us who looked at the flower petals fluttering down from the flag, freedom meant a different thing. To some of us, it meant living peaceful lives, to some, it meant having the right to dream, to some others, the ability to dissent. But we all agreed that it deserves celebration.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about the oppressive regime in Iran, was still in my mind, and as I was in the habit of reading particularly affecting passages to those near me ( a malady I inherited from the pater), I was doubly grateful to Democracy in spite of all its pitfalls. Fighting for diamond rings or no, taking a stand against divisive policies or not, we have something worth fighting for.

Afterward, we walked towards a small store. The path was an exciting one – past barking dogs, and motorcycles weaving their way through the streets. I smiled and asked for some chocolates for the lads. Their faces lit up with joy: Freedom is sweet.

 

The Moon’s Beard

The son and I had been on a quick trip to see my family in India. The brother, the shining Galahad of our family, said he would be there to pick the little fellow and self at the airport. I nestled into the journey comfortably equipped with books.

I was midway through Reading Lolita In Tehran, a book that has languished on my to-read list for far too long. The journey was comfortable enough, and I found myself pulled into the period from the overthrow of the Shah of Iran to the early 2000s when the author finally decided to leave the country and move to the United States. The author is a professor of English Literature and her upbringing in an intellectual family and world make it very hard for her to digest the increasingly repressive practices the regime imposed on them.

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3734465

In the book, she writes of how many of her students were categorically rigid in their views. Some boys (or young men) were vociferous and rigid in their condemnations and swallowed all the rhetoric that had been fed to them by the repressive regime. Men could be punished for not sporting beards, women flogged for not wearing purdahs. One time she finds herself cautioning a young man who followed her to her office parroting things about the West after a class on Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, that he may well end up like Elizabeth changing her mind about Mr Darcy one slur at a time.

It is astonishing how many young minds could be made to think a certain way. As I moodily prodded a potato on the flight’s lunch, I looked to the son sitting next to me – he was avidly watching Cars and pulling my attention to particular scenes.

“See? See? Lightning is going to blow a tire now. Now Amma.” he said far too loudly, for he had the headsets on, and was excited. How did innocent boys like him grow to young men like I was reading about?

You ready to meet Maama (Uncle)? I asked the son as he sat up after he finished watching the movie for the n-th time. Yes! he beamed and I thought how much he resembled my brother when he was a child. He had the same beam like a full moon.

I got down at the airport and scoured the crowds gathered outside. I looked out for the beaming face of my brother, couldn’t see him and stepped back inside to get wifi access so I could message him. It was then that I noticed a man of palm tree height, swinging his branches at us. There was no reason to single us out. It was 3 am and the throng outside was not waving at us. It was minding its own business. Plus this tree was employing that windmill action that is characteristic of the Bala family. But this could not be him.

What I saw wasn’t the smooth face of a full moon, but a moon that slipped and muddied itself in the nearest marsh. Apart from a beak and two eyes, everything else as I said was scoured. I peered closely and he leaped forward startling some of the crowd with his “HIIII”. The voice was his, but I could not understand why he looked like Ayatollah Khomeini , and I said so with some asperity.

“Reading a book on Iran I see?” he said shrewdly as he pulled me in for a hug.

“Reading Lolita In Tehran”, I said bemusedly. “What’s with the beard – like a louse rug on a biscuit.”

The beard affected me strongly, and I set aside sisterly tones of affection and reached for the tug – “It looks ghastly.” The brother looked pleased that I was taking the facial hay like this, and he clung to it looking more like three billy goats gruff, every minute.

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“Keep with the times! The latest fashion – all the dudes have them.” At this point, he stopped to reel off the names of cricket stars and film actors, the best of whom I could not recognize if I had coffee with them beardless. If they were beardless I mean. I don’t have a beard. Estrogen and all that.

I sighed and quoted Azar Nafisi’s husband from Reading Lolita in Tehran:
None of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them.

The son was peering at his loving uncle in that keen manner that children have. “Maama – how come your hair is coming out of your face? Mine only grows on my head!” said the fellow who has been under the influence of the clean shaven thus far.

“Magic!” murmured the brother and chuckled softly at his awe. The moon beamed down at us from the sky above, and a gentle breeze rustled the palm trees, as we made our way home.