Shoshin Seeking & Science Writing

Shoshin is a concept dear to me as regular readers know. Shoshin is the Zen Buddhist word for ‘beginner’s mind’, denoting the capacity to bring wonder and open-mindedness to learning anything.

To continue the quest in Shoshin seeking,  I volunteered to take an online writing class with a focus on Science for elementary school children. 

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The idea for the class was inspired by multiple factors:

(1) A sense of wanting to be useful while doing the socially responsible thing of staying home during the Corona-virus shelter-in-place. 

(2) My brain after years of running around from Place A to Place B found a method to calm down from the frenzied lifestyle that modern man prides himself on (The Virus is a reminder of something lost long ago – an essay by Alan Lightman – a writer and physicist at MIT) 

(3) Combining the marvels of Science and keeping the wonder of Shoshin alive is pretty much what my writing has been about (at least in the past 1/2 a decade). An area of passion that I was happy to share with the children, from whom I learn Shoshin in spades.

(4) A love for children and young minds has me yearning to be like them on multiple levels. I live precariously through this yearning by reading children’s books, squabbling childishly with my own children, and much more.

The result of this was a marvelous month in which I went about reading topics that had long since been pushed to the back of the brain. I wondered as I prepared for the classes, how we wasted those marvelous moments of youth with all these fascinating subjects. I understood as the class went on:  sometimes the children were enthusiastic and wanted to write all about the topic under discussion. Other times, they liked the sound of music-like science lilting in their ears, and they nodded along sagely. The rays of the afternoon sun filtering in through the window made for warm, cozy sessions in which one saw one’s friends on the zoom call, and answered when one felt like being a part of the discussion. This was nothing close to the normal they knew, but they adapted with ease and their customary good sense. All in all, it made for a marvelous time, and with the children happy, so was I, their teacher. 

If post-Covid, some children recall sunny afternoons with thrilling science to a background of their classmates trilling in the background, while taking a leap of imagination, it is time well spent, in my opinion. 

I remember distinct moments when something piqued the children’s attention. The time I told them about giraffes in the savannah, or when we played the little game of hearing frequencies, or when we spun off pretending to be whales using sonographic techniques to unearth something really unexpected.

I am going to sign up for another 4 week session in which I hope to have as much fun, learn as much and enjoy the companionship of younger authors, who are by  virtue of their youth also leaps ahead in imagination and spirits.  Wish me luck!

Missing Chemistry Lab?!

“How are you managing to do Science experiments during these Covid times?” I asked the daughter as she munched on a cookie while on a diatribe about her latest Chemistry assignment.

“Oh we do it online. You can tip stuff into test tubes with your mouse, and it shows you what happens.” she said with a shrug, and I must tell you, I paled.

Wasn’t the whole fun of Chemistry lab the hissing noises as two unlikely elements reacted? Or the joy of seeing the colors change inside the test tube as you held it up to be seen by the light? The bright copper sulphate blue, the lilac, the pinks and turning neutrally to white letting out fumes? What about the olfactory? The hydrogen sulphide that sent us gagging towards the windows with the rotten egg smells. (The fact that we made it straight to lunch after a Chemistry lab with H2and tucked in with an enormous appetite speaks volumes to the marvelous feeling of youth.)

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I said as much to the daughter, and she gave me the pitying look she reserves for me when she senses that I miss my school days. “It’s just Chem Lab, it will be fine! Don’t worry!”

“Should I just forget about those eggs I bought a while back, so you can experience the rotten egg smells to your heart’s content?!” I asked solicitous.

She roared with laughter at this and said, “Your cooking is Chemistry enough Mother!”

It was in part conversations like this that peppered my read of Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, A Chemical Boyhood.

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His journey with the Sciences and his joyous epiphanies as he realized the neat order of things, and his poetic joy  as he traversed the Periodic table, gave me a new appreciation for the Periodic table too. In his words,

“Chemical exploration, chemical discovery , was all the more romantic for its dangers. I felt a certain boyish glee in playing with these dangerous substances, and I was struck in my reading, of the range of accidents that had befallen the pioneers. Few naturalists had been devoured by wild animals or stung to death by noxious plants or insects; few physicists had lost their eyesight gazing at the heavens , or broken a leg on an inclined plane; but many chemists had lost their eyes, limbs and even their lives, usually through producing inadvertent toxins or explosions.”

Chemistry, is tucked so far away in my consciousness, that I reveled in the beauty of it all almost anew. Glimpses of my committed Chemistry teachers in my youth came to me. I remember the feeling where their passion for the subject came through as they explained how the electrons revolved around the nucleus, the atomic weights, the inert gases and all the rest of it. I can vaguely begin to recognize how it must’ve felt to wax eloquent about the structural wonders in the world around us, to a bunch of mildly interested, if not completely indifferent, teenagers.

If ever there was a profession that was steeped in delayed gratification, teaching must be it. Why does it takes us decades to realize the stalwarts who did their best by us?! I tried putting all of this into words as I discussed the book with the daughter, and she said, “Yeah age makes you kooky I suppose. Must find the chemical reactions for that!” She laughed at her own wit while I  scowled. Slowly, she donned a far-off look, and said, “You know? Chem is just fine if he doesn’t keep having us go back and write out our mistakes for him so we show him why we made the mistake! Really! He is a grumpy old man and he is only twenty!”

I guffawed out loud at this – I must remember to ask about this Chemistry teacher of hers a few decades from now.

The Music of Guttural Sounds

“What happened?” I said the concerned mother note seeping into my voice when I heard a guttural moan. The sound I heard started with a low pitch , and then increased in volume and intensity towards the end of the gut-wrenching sound.
Uuurrrgggghhhhhh!”
“What?!”
“What happened?” I asked again for teenagers do not take kindly to having to reply in full sentences after they have felt the need to emit guttural sounds like the one just described.
“Are you missing your friends?” I asked by way of sparing the child the need to speak.

guttural_sounds

“Nooooo..” said the g.sound emitter.
“Well, glad to hear that young lady. I will just send an insta to your friends.”
She laughed because one does not use Instagram to send certain kinds of messages apparently! But the laugh loosened up the neurons controlling speech, for she went from uuuuurrrrgggghhhh to garrulous in 3 seconds. A Ferrari could have taken lessons.

“You know? I really thought high school would be more fun! Like, all these TV shows and you-tubers make it seem. I mean you know how they keep telling you about how kids are on high scale social mode? Parties and stuff.”

“What do you mean?” I asked concerned that a Freudian moment was approaching. Was the child having trouble of some sort? I tugged my super-mom tights on in my mental image (I always imagine super moms wearing Elastigirls costume, and I got to tell you those tights don’t sit well on my short-ish, mother-of-two frame), and waited for her to continue.

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57814521

“You know?!” she clucked impatiently, and I was glad to see her brisk impatience make a show again. “All these you-tubers have you think that high school is one long party, and that you just cannot manage all the different parties, and still find a way to study!”

“Hmm…Corona put a stop to that?” I asked. Friends have been sharing topics on loneliness and mental health during these times.

She gave me a pitying look.

“Gosh! Nothing of the sort – we go nowhere, and this is not even Corona-times. I am talking like normal times. I mean, come on! I sometimes take a walk with Shrubs (the nickname she has for her friend) around the neighborhood, sweet talk you into getting me a boba tea sometimes, go to classes and come back. Where is all the partying?” she asked with such sincere yearning that I burst out laughing.

“Well you sometimes go to make stuff for your clubs and such right? In any case, do you want to have that lifestyle?”

“Well .. not exactly. But it would be nice to have that kind of life once in a while, don’t you think? You know – not know which party to go to. I mean I love my little group of friends – but just think! Well…you know what? Having that sort of non-stop fun must be killing those folks right now. This Covid stuff must be really hard. ”

“Isn’t it hard for you though? Do you miss hanging out with your friends?” I asked.

“Sometimes! But this way, I get to hang out with those I want to anyway on FaceTime, and I don’t have to hang out with those I don’t want to. ” and she shrugged.

I have always admired how children adapt and respond to situations.  They wore masks because it was what you had to do. They stayed indoors for the most part, apart from a social-distancing walk.

“You poor things. Why don’t you come and play with me – we’ll play a nice little game tonight.” I said magnanimously offering our company. I should have known better after all these years.

“Nope! Rather moan about stuff! And amma! One more thing. Stop acting like you are on a summer vacay or whatever okay? We have so much work to do. I mean teachers are just getting better and better at assigning stuff to us. ”

“So was that what that uuurrrggghhhh about? I thought you had a pig in labor in your room!” I said.

She guffawed at the simile and said, “Oh that is because we had to correct our Chem test and how! We have to write what we got wrong, why we made the mistake in the first place, and write out the correct answer! ” she said sounding indignant. “Really! Teachers think they have to keep us busy and go on assigning more and more stuff! They can chill right?”

I chuckled. What a warming thought for Teacher Appreciation Week she had?

‘You want to chill? Or you want them to chill my dear?”

“Well…both. How about we chill with a boba tea?” said the sly vixen.

I gave in, and the pair of us sipped the tapioca pearls with a satisfying slurp and emitted a ‘glllluuuuuggg ggguuullllppp’ topped with a giggle. Guttural sounds are musical.

Teacher Appreciation Week

I hovered near the bookshelf – like a child hovering around the glass-pane of the candy store, Looking for that perfect piece of sweet : something familiar, good and a slight twist to wake up your cells every time.

It has been a long and stern day filled with purposeful adults, all filled to the brim with the cares of living, earning a living, and forgetting to live. My brain looked for a release, and a mode to thrive.

I picked up a book of short stories by one of my favorite authors: P.G.Wodehouse.

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Eighteen Carat Kid and Other Stories: I opened the first page and was pulled in like an elephant to the early morning waters in the forest.

Paragraph 1:
There is something always going on in a private school.
Beyond breaking up fights, stopping big boys bullying small boys, preventing small boys bullying smaller boys, inducing boys of all sizes not to throw stones, go on the wet grass, worry the cook, tease the cat, make too much noise, climb trees, scale waterspouts, lean too far out of windows, slide down the banisters, swallow pencils, and drink ink because somebody bet them they wouldn’t, I had very little to do except teach mathematics, carve the joint, help the pudding, play football, read prayers, herd stragglers into meals, and go round the dormitories at night to see that the lights were out. ”

Both my parents were teachers (my father was a teacher in a residential school – public schools as they are called in India, private school in the US & UK) I sent the snippet to him, and he heartily took a trip down the memory lane and agreed in his booming, hearty voice that addressed assemblies without mikes, that there never was a dull day in his teaching career. Being a vegetarian, he did not often have to ‘carve the joint’ , but that apart, pretty much everything else was true, he said. It is always to good to hear the joy of being a teacher coming through.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I thought of sharing this essay the son had written for his 3rd Grade essay:

Topic: Imagine you are a teacher taking your class on a field trip to Baltimore National Aquarium

The Baltimore National Aquarium

At the Baltimore National Aquarium there is lots of life. This is one of the places where humans and marine life see each other as fun things.Anyway I brought my class with me because the principal wants the kids to experience new things, which I can understand. When we got to the nearest exhibit, I did a headcount of all the students. We were missing 6 of them.Thankfully, I found them near the water (where the animals are) and I gave them a good talk about not leaving the group. Then when I turned around all the other children were scattered. I thought to myself, “This is gonna be a long day.” After that, we went from exhibit to exhibit in the huge aquarium. As we were about to go to the display of skeleton from a dinosaur, we found another class. The kids merged together and the other teacher and I had the same expression: “Kids!” We sorted everything out and went to the dinosaur. I read from the brochure “This is the Shaustasourus, the largest marine dinosaur ever.” After many more mishaps we got back on the bus. For the first time, we had a full class. When we got back none of the kids thanked me for not losing them. Sometimes the world really isn’t fair, but that’s okay. I guess I had lots of fun too.

I guffawed at this piece of writing.

People who imagined the teacher’s job to be putty, are having to re-evaluate their assessments – their puddings of pie children weren’t such darlings when the Mathematics had to be taught by their parents anymore.

This is Teacher Appreciation Week in the US – really what would we do without the steady, positive influence of teachers?

Teachable Moments

I was telling the husband casually about a friend of mine. “She is thinking of taking up primary school teaching.”

“Huh?! Really?” said the son, his ears twiddling, for the news interested him. He loved this particular aunt.

“Well – maybe I should tell her the best grades to teach then!” said he.

“What do you mean the best grades to teach? ” I said cautiously for I felt a moment to savor coming on in my bones, but acted as nonchalant as possible. “Elementary school teaching – doesn’t that mean kids in your school?”

“Well, you know how it is? We aren’t all just cute kids like you think Amma! There are some grades you want to be careful with.” he said with a meaningful look in his eyes.

“What do you mean? I’ve seen you children in Elementary School – so sweet you all are!” I said – knowing fully well the reaction this would elicit.

“Ha! Okay, okay – I’ll tell you. Kindergarteners are naughty, 1st graders are okay, 2nd graders are rowdy, 3rd graders are sassy, 4th graders think everything is lame, and 5th graders are okay.”

I stifled a hearty laugh for the moment, and asked him, “So only 1st and 5th grades are okay to teach huh?!”

“Yep! Pretty much! ” he said.

I gave into a full throated laugh, not for the first time admiring and thanking all the stellar teachers of the Naughty, Sassy, Rowdy, and Think-Everything-Is-Lame children. Somehow, these magicians strive to make students of them all.

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Later that evening, the daughter came moaning into the kitchen – “Gosh! There is just so much homework! I mean – these teachers think we are awesome, but we really aren’t!”

Coming hot on the wheels of the Elementary School analysis, this seemed to be something to be milked for its true worth. So I tried.

“Are you saying your teachers are poor things for trying to uplift you and so on?”

“Of course they are!” said she.

“Remember they were teenagers too once, and probably realize that teen potential is high. They do want to give you the best opportunity to attain your true potential!” I said, thinking of the stalwart teachers of the folks who make the 30-under-30 and 20-under-20 lists.

Yeeaaarrcccchhh!” she said. I am quite sure Yeeaaarrcccchhh isn’t a real word, but a guttural sound open to interpretation. After a moment she said, “I sometimes think to myself what my teachers must be like if they were teenagers today. ”

There was silence for a moment. A silence I did not break while she gathered her thoughts. This was going to be something, I knew. When the daughter thinks of smart-aleck moments, it is best for the waiting populace to take cover.
“My Chem teacher would probably be obnoxious, but not a super smart version of Sheldon. My Math teacher would be a shy but sweet kid. My history teacher would have been the low key popular kid who is friends with everybody.”

I laughed enjoying this analysis as she went down the list of teachers. And then, I asked looking as innocent as it was possible to be. “What would you think of me as a teenager?”

“HA! Not falling for that one – better luck next time Mother! Mother, who is long past her teenage years!” she said, ruffling my head like I was a cute dog, and made off for her room to tackle the oodles of homework her stellar teachers had set out for her.

As a child I was keenly aware of both sides of the coin. Both my parents were teachers, but that did not stop me from becoming a dab hand at imitating my teachers, and giving them fond pet-names when required. The father and I enjoyed the creativity there.

All in all, I know in the name of professionalism and growing up, we lose this marvelous trait of making light of things, but I wish we didn’t.

For those who enjoy light tales of children in their schools, these are all good reads and worth chuckling anytime one feels the weight of the years settling in on them.

Some whimsical poems here:

We-Are-Teachers.Com

Golden Memory Bubbles

I was excited beyond measure – I was going to see my dearest friend after almost two decades. It didn’t feel like decades had passed since I last saw her. The flutter in my stomach was the same as when school reopened after the holidays. I was eager, expectant and a little nervous.

As I took her in, the years fell away from us. I was so happy to hear her voice, see her smile and take in the movements that were so familiar to me as a girl. After watching me spend the evening with my dear friend, the daughter said, “You know I have never seen Amma this giggly and happy! It is like she is a teenager!”

“You know? There are a few moments that will shine in every one’s mind. It is one of the dearest moments in life when I sat next to the girl with wavy hair and a blue hairpin in Second grade. She stoutly stood by me even in ugly situations such as me being threatened with worms 🐛 and I hope I did the same for her. ” I said with a dreamy look in my eyes.

The next morning, I was lazing in bed, when a memory rose unbidden from the depths pushing aside decades of adulthood and surfacing the teenage self. It reminded me of Mole, Rat, & Badger in The Wind in the Willows.

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We had been “bunking class” as it was called. It was technically no more than taking a circuitous route to the restroom and back. But for some reason, our teachers did not like to see us “loitering” around the corridors as they so inelegantly put it. I would have preferred the term “musing along the corridors”. So, it was no surprise then that we were hailed in stern tones, almost as soon as we left class, by one of our milder and more patient teachers.

Inexplicably, we decided that the prudent course of action is to run to the girls toilets instead of back to our classroom. A dumber choice I cannot think of, for the girls bathroom was a good way off. Off we ran – charging down the corridors, and skating down hallways to the safety of the girls bathroom, giggling and encouraging each other to keep up.

When finally we locked ourselves in, we burst out laughing, heady with relief at outwitting the poor man, though it must have been glaringly obvious to him who the miscreants were. We were also dumb enough to call each other by name just in case he had any problems with his sight. Really! The collective intelligence of teenagers is to be seen to be believed.

I laughed in my sleepy state, and the teenage daughter gave me a quizzical look, “Why? what happened?” I sheepishly told her.

“You bunked class? ” she said a little incredulously. “Well…actually it shouldn’t surprise me that much. Thaatha (grandpaand paati (grandma) said that you were the naughtiest of the three children.” said she with a newfound respect in her voice. This summer was a revelation of sorts for her.

Within minutes, this confession had the most marvelous effect I could have wished for. The children and nieces piled on to the bed I was lounging on, and each one narrated their own school tales to much hilarity and pride. A glimpse into their world with no inhibitions is a marvelous gift. I looked into their shining and mischievous eyes, and listened to them. Amusing escapades revealing their beautiful personalities – fun-loving, good, loyal, sharp, sincere, and witty.

These golden bubbles to be treasured come unbidden, spontaneously and genuinely.

The feeling of being in a Wind in a Willows sort of world deepened:

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“A book of youth, and so perhaps chiefly for youth and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them; of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides, free of problems, clear of the clash of the sex, of life as it might fairly be supposed to be regarded by some of the wise, small things that ‘glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck’.”

I wished for these children nothing more than the warmth and strength of the gift of lifelong friendships that allow them to smile just thinking of them.

A Mother’s Day Gift

I walked into the classroom to read my story on Mothers Day to the children. I was a little nervous. Would the tough audience respond well to the story? It is always the surest test. If their attention dithers, you have lost, if they are enthralled, nothing else matters.

The teacher told me that they will be settling down soon. I watched amazed as she quietly got all the children, who were, less than a minute ago, tumbling and hanging upside down in the playgrounds outside to sit on the rug in the middle of the class, and settle down to Reading Time.

Now..Now..Ian, what did we say about sitting quietly facing me?
Ardvash, sit with your bottoms on the floor please.
All of you, sit with your bottoms on the floor and look ahead. We have a very special thing happening today. Can anybody tell me what it is?

A flurry of hands shot up into the air, and several people started talking at the same time. A minute later, they sat chastened by the fact that they had talked over each other without waiting their turns. There is no greater joy than seeing children respond sweetly to their teachers. A mellow voice bursting with pride at being picked said, “We are getting story-time”
“Yes!” Said their teacher. “And we are lucky have an author, a real author, come to read us her book.”

I took a deep breath, had the children do the same, and launched into the story. I read to them how the animals had planned to celebrate Mothers Day in the Jungle. When Potini Elephant was in tears because she could not find her dear child, Trumpy Elephant, there was a hush. The story built on, and every now and then I stole a glance at the faces of the children. The sweet sincerity with which they bestowed their attention made my heart sing.

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Mothers Day In The Jungle – By B S Bumble

When the book was over, the children clapped and their teacher gently asked them if they were forgetting something. “Thank you!” they all chorused.

It is Teacher Appreciation Week, and the importance of a loving, firm but gentle influence on the children day in and day out is not lost on me.

We do not need to be told to sit on our bottoms when we get to work, or go to a restaurant. But I wish somebody would tell us to sit on our bottoms and listen to the wind rustling through the trees or the geese quacking their way home every night, and we listened with the heart-warming sincerity of children.

When you get the opportunity to read your Mother’s Day story to a class of children sitting “with their bottoms on the floor”, and they listen with rapt attention, there is no better gift for Mother’s Day, is there?

#HappyMothersDay to all you wonderful mothers and mother-like figures.

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The Peanut Mystery

Why Dr P. V . Ramachandra was nicknamed after a peanut (Kadalai in Tamil) has many interpretations in school folklore. One interpretation said he distributed chikkis -( sweetened peanut bars), whenever you visited him. But that was not true. I am not saying I made a pest of myself at people’s houses for the snacks they offered. But I am saying that that particular strain of the origin of the nickname is not true. There was always warm hospitality coupled with tasty snacks such as kodubele, vadais, sweets of different varieties at their place, but chikkis were not a staple stand-by as was commonly believed. These things were important to get right.

Another version said the name was because he had been seen buying Lonavla chikkis on the station platform even as the train huffed and puffed getting ready to leave.

Even the mystery surrounding the origin of the nickname is a mild, gentle one, like the man it was bestowed on. Kaddu or Kadalai was the Deputy Headmaster of the Lawrence School. Another one of those stalwart people who joined the school as bachelors with my father, and retired three decades later bestowing on all those who knew him care, and affection.

I thought of Kaddu a few weeks ago as I read this sparkling piece of wisdom in the Anne of Green Gables series by L M Montgomery:

Rilla of Ingleside: L M Montgomery

“Sometimes I wish something dramatic would happen once in a while.”, said Rilla

“Don’t wish it. Dramatic things always have a bitterness for someone.” said Miss Oliver

That in essence was my impression of him. Life sometimes flowed swiftly in the small community we lived in. Drama swirled in pockets of the river where the currents were especially swift. In a school housing teenaged children day in and day out, it was inevitable. I am always in admiration of those who can be serene in a whirlpool. PVR had the ability that I strive for: to be an amused spectator when possible, and when his intervention was demanded, to be as undramatic, and useful, as possible.

His energies were diverted into quiet intellectual pursuits such as philately, and extensive academic interests such as reading, writing and research. This curiosity enabled him to pursue a string of degrees in a variety of subjects. He held advanced degrees in Mathematics, Economics, History and a Doctorate in Sanskrit on the subject of Shringara Rasa. For all of these achievements, he was a remarkably humble and quiet man.

I heard the sad news of his passing a few days ago. My father sounded sadder than usual as he recalled the strength of his friendship with Dr PVR.  A mild, gentle man whose passing has once again reminded the Lawrencian community about how lucky we were to have had the influence and wisdom of personalities such as him.

See also : In Memory of Raga, Dear Athai, Monkey Pedaling , Mr Bharathan

 

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.

forest

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?

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.

history

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! ‘ )

He_ran_toward_the_horse_and_seized_the_bridle
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.