Do Not Hate In The Plural

I was reading a short story by P.G.Wodehouse on the train. These are the times when I most mistaken for a lunatic. My seat shudders with unconcealed mirth. I giggle, laugh and sometimes wipe away tears of laughter, while the world is going about the stern business of earning a living. He is one of my favorite authors, and after every few books that makes me mope around the world pondering on the wretchedness and seriousness of life, I turn to a P.G.W book to remind myself that tomfoolery is a virtue to be exalted and celebrated. His turn of phrase, his romping joy, is enough to set me straight.

When I read his autobiography ‘Over Seventy’ a few years ago, I could see that the septuagenarian viewed his own life pretty much the same way he came across in his writing: Sunny and delightful. In his own words, he simply lacked the life required for a gripping autobiography because one needs some level of suffering to bung into the thing. “My father was plain as rice pudding and everyone in school understood me perfectly.” he wrote.

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So, it must have been particularly jarring to the man when he was treated as a pariah in his own country.

P.G.Wodehouse had his head in books and led a sheltered life. Whether it was Blandings Castle, or Jeeves rescuing his young master, his thoughts were almost always occupied with love and the stirrings of the idiotic. P.G.Wodehouse, known as ‘Plum’ to his friends, had a villa in the South of France where he and his wife Ethel often stayed. Plum and his wife were unfortunately there, when German troops stormed France, and he was taken prisoner at the beginning of the Second World War.

The Germans released him after 42 weeks, when he was nearing 60 as they seldom kept foreign internees beyond the age of 60. Through an old Hollywood friend of his, they sought to use him to make humorous broadcasts about his internment, and he naively did so. His was a trusting nature completely devoid of malice of any kind, and incapable of seeing political propaganda. Though he suffered immensely during his internment – he lost around 60 pounds, and ‘looked like something the carrion crow had brought in’, he did not quite realize the extent of evil and genocide that was happening inside War-time Germany. He simply intended to let his readers know that he was alive and well.

That back-fired, however, and the author went from beloved to pariah in his native United Kingdom. People were looking for a scape-goat and he fitted the bill perfectly. He sadly became his own Bertie Wooster with no Jeeves to help.

Sometime after the Second World War ended, P.G.W was goaded by a journalist asking him whether he hated the Germans for what they put him through. To which the author supposedly replied, elegantly smoking his pipe, ‘I do not hate in the plural’.

A truly astounding statement. It was this statement of ‘not hating in the plural‘ that I sought out to find when I read the books below, but I could find no reference to the actual statement.

What I found instead was a man who was not only the world’s funniest author, but also the most hard-working, shy, kind and gentle person, who so magnanimously shared the gift of his sunny mind with the world.

I read all five of his broadcasts in entirety and to my equally naive mind, there is nothing in there that can be seen as treason. It shows how war, and malice can take any inane thing and wring it out of shape and proportion. What is real and what is fake when power is involved?

The piece written by George Orwell defending P.G.W’s innocence is well worth reading:
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The article and the broadcasts dealt mainly with Wodehouse’s experiences in internment, but they did include a very few comments on the war. The following are fair samples:
“I never was interested in politics. I’m quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I’m about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings.”

P.G.Wodehouse was finally knighted by the British Government in January 1975. He died the following month on 14th February 1975, aged 93.

I am immensely grateful to the dear author, even if that means the Prims & Propers of the world lift their eyebrows and look away uncomfortably when I laugh. I cannot say it better than Stephen Fry does on the personal influence of P.G.Wodehouse:
He taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.

 

The Magic of Biomimicry

I recently read a book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus. A book, whose underlying concept appealed to the very core of my being, for it outlined how little we know of the world around us, and how much more there is to learn from Nature’s processes.

How do we become harmonious citizens of a planet that houses, apart from 7 billion of us, billions of plant and animal forms? It is a question that floats into my mind every so often. How beautifully a bee arranges its hive, how marvelously a dandelion reproduces, how trees take in water, how they produce energy. All of these things make me wonder and marvel at Nature the Tinkerer.

I am afraid I made rather a pest of myself with friends and family. I cornered parents-in-law while they were taking a rest and spoke to them of Do-Nothing farming, I got a children’s book on the subject and read tantalizing bits of information out to the children. I bored friends with it. I could see the scramble-and-run-before-it-is-too-late look on everyone’s faces when I stopped to admire the squirrel prudently checking whether the fruits are ripe before digging in.

‘Why is it wet winter or hot summer, some grasslands thrive?’, I’d ask, only to find that tasks of monumental importance spring up requiring immediate attention for my audience.

Did that stop me? No. If anything, I am going to go and do on the blog what I have been physically doing to those around me.

The book is arranged into the following sections:

Echoing Nature
 Why Biomimicry now?
How will we feed ourselves?
 Farming to fit the land: Growing food like a prairie
How will we harness energy?
 Light into life: Gathering energy like a leaf
How will we make things?
 Fitting form to function: Weaving fibers like a spider
How will we heal ourselves?
 Experts in our midst: Finding cures like a chimp
How will we store what we learn?
 Dances with Molecules: Computing like a cell
How will we conduct business?
 Closing the loops in commerce: Running a business like a redwood forest
Where will we go from here?
 May wonders never cease: Toward a biomimetic future

Higher education in Science has arranged itself along silo-ed areas of expertise. Biologists rarely study Computer Science. Mechanical Engineers rarely take up Zoology.

The author writes of her interactions with various scientists who have successfully transcended narrow areas of study to walk the line between disciplines to see where we can benefit from nature.
1) The materials science engineer who combines fibre optics and biology to study the beauty and resilience of spider silk

2) The agriculturist who, over decades, has perfected the technique of do-nothing farming, conscientiously chipping away at unnecessary practices while studying natural prairies and grasslands to see how plants grow in the wilderness, thereby coming up with the highest yield of natural grain per acre.

3) The anthropologist who studies chimps and how they cure themselves to see how we can identify cures for common problems.

Quote:
In exploring life’s know-how, we are reaching back to some very old roots, satisfying an urge to affiliate with life that is embossed on our genes. For the 99% of time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we have a leaning to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.

This about sums up our position on Earth.
“In reality we haven’t escaped the gravity of life at all. We are still beholden to ecological laws, the same as any other life form.”

Now is the time for us to take our place as one species among billions in the ecological vote bank, and make wise choices.

P.S: Please see the TED talk on Biomimicry

Frog & Toad’s Wisdom

Dinner was done, the kitchen was clean enough, and the children were smelling delightful after a hot bath (They looked and smelled like mops after playing all evening just an hour ago). The kindergartner and I had read a children’s book. After a few minutes, I thought I heard the rhythmic breathing that meant he fell asleep and, I started fiddling about with the phone. I had started with the intention of checking my email, and had gone all over the place, finally grazing my Facebook feed.

Every now and then, an article pops up in my feed exhorting me to rise to greater heights and tell me in 10 easy ways how to become a Better Person. Over the past decade, the nature of these articles has changed. At first, it said great things like Manage Priorities in your list and how best to Stick to Plan and all that.

Now, things have been taken down a couple of notches. We will get you effective to the point of Making Lists. Then, you are on your own. Go back to your phone if you like. If you want to stick to the lists, you must already be efficient enough, the articles say and throw up their hands.

This one told me how to Be Productive in the age of notifications.

‘It has been a long time since we read Frog & Toad’, said a sleepy child’s voice by my side. I looked up and the pair of us started laughing.
‘You didn’t sleep yet!’
‘No!’ he chuckled.
I gladly set aside my phone – pesky little thing telling me how to be Effective and Efficient. Like I wanted that. Pssk Tssk and Zsssk.

’Let’s read it then!’, I said. ‘Yeah!’, he said, and we settled down together. I love those books. I am drawn to the simple problems, the bonds of friendship that endures between them and the humor in them.

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Frog & Toad Eat Cookies

Frog & Toad sat at the tables eating cookies out of a jar. Frog had made the cookies and the friends could not stop eating them.

Hmmm….the brain said, and I glanced at the phone buzzing and blinking with a notification.

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Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another. “You know, Toad,” said Frog, with his mouth full, “I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.”

The friends try closing the jar each time after taking a cookie.
But they find they can open the jar every time.

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They then try closing the jar, and putting it on a high shelf where you have to mount a ladder.
They find that they can climb a ladder, open the jar, and eat the cookies.

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My mind could not help drawing parallels to the article I had just been reading. The article told me that the way to stop the habit of grazing your favorite apps was to move the oft-used icons to a different, hard to find area in the phone. I had done that, but found myself, swiping a few screens, opening a folder with the apps, and going after them anyway.

I was Frog getting on a ladder and opening the jar of cookies.

Frog & Toad now figure they are going to get a stomach ache soon, and are desperate to stop eating the cookies. So, they decide that as long as they know the cookies are there, they cannot stop. The best path forward would be to share the cookies with the birds and the cookies are done, they agree, and take the cookie tin out into the Spring evening to share with the birds.

Like the wise friends above, it might be a better thing to do, to just ‘share the cookies with the birds’ and be done with it. I pushed the phone away from me resolutely, and we took to discussing cookies. ‘Yummy- I love cookies. Let’s bake them one day.’, said the little fellow. I agreed, and content with that promise, he settled down and fell asleep almost instantaneously.

I lay musing. It is a good reminder for us to read how our brains respond to the demands of technology (we know the effects of Dopamine, we know how companies gain by making us spend more time, but yet…)

Tristan Harris is a Design Ethicist who has taken it upon himself to make us aware of the challenges we face:

Quote from article

“Never before in history have a handful of technology designers working at three tech companies … influenced how a billion people spend their attention.”

https://ww2.kqed.org/futureofyou/2017/05/25/tristan-harris-brain-hacking/

Well….

Not all wisdom is new, nor is all folly out of date. – Bertrand Russell

 

An Elephant is Faithful 100%

“Ughhh! Amma, why is this boy so bright in the morning?” moaned the daughter. The daughter and I are slow to rise and shine. The eye first creeps open, the bath helps a little but not much. By the time, we muster the energy to throw our weight around, it is mid-morning. We are like sunbeams trying to break through a misty, foggy, cold morning. The husband and son, on the other hand, are like light bulbs. When they are up, the switch is on and they beam brightly with all the wattage available. The duo look indecently chirpy in the morning and bustle around with breakfast, cracking jokes and what-not. The daughter and I exchange dark looks and shudder a bit at this exuberance.

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One morning, the son looked at me, shook his head with pity and said, “I know what will wake you up! Let’s listen to Horton Hatches An Egg”, and we did. The toddler son was cracking up with hilarious laughter in the car and I don’t care what you say about speed of light being a constant and all that, I must confess that the sun beams broke through the misty morning fog a little faster. It is a marvelous book, and takes one through the most hilarious plot of an elephant hatching an egg.

I recently read Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel, by Judith & Neil Morgan, a biography of the beloved author, Dr Seuss. Ted Geisel confessed that he saw the world through the ‘wrong end of the telescope’ and  he seemed to have stayed in touch with his childlike curiosity and joy through life.

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Ted’s family was well-off. His father, after running the successful family business for several years, later worked for the public parks system with access to a zoo. He puts many of his influences down to the natural loafing around in the countryside with access to animals as a child. His mother, had a knack of reading things in verse to him in a way that stuck in his brain. Over his brilliant career, he would combine both these influences in a charming manner to enable an entire generation to love reading.

Reading about his foibles and his educational escapades gives a glimpse into the kind of endearing personality he must have been. Especially in the early part of the book, you see the boy and young man Geisel was not exactly a Grade-A student. From an early age, he exhibited a wonderful personality with humor, zest and curiosity.

His college sweetheart, and later, wife, Helen Palmer, was the first person to suggest to Ted that he may be better off drawing and writing than pursuing an academic career at Cambridge. He says this was around the time he realized that writing and drawing were like the Yin and Yang to his work.

One day she watched Ted undertake to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost; he drew the angel Uriel sliding down a sunbeam, oiling the beam as he went from a can that resembled a tuba.

“You’re crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw.” she blurted out. She glanced at a cow he had drawn and said, “That is a beautiful cow!

Praise from one you love is truly lovely, and it set him on the course of his career.

Ted was used to taking brisk walks during frequent breaks from his studio in La Jolla, California. One time, he accidentally left a window near his desk open. When he came back, he saw that one transparent sketch had flown over the other, resulting in a strange juxtaposition of an elephant sitting on a tree. This set off a magnificent thought process in his head. What was the elephant doing on the tree, why, hatching an egg of course. Why is he there – what happened to the mother bird and so on. What resulted after months of mulling this train of thought and multiple revisions is the brilliant book, Horton Hatches The Egg.

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent!”

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Image Source: Wikipedia 

If you haven’t read it, please do so. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient to living: Dr Seuss.

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Coming up next:

Ted was a school going child when the First World War started. The Geisels were first generation German-Americans and though they were naturalized citizens at the time of war, it turns out the world around them did not treat them kindly.

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.)

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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.

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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/

Stop and Look at the Snails

After enduring a particularly long spell of drought, we are relishing the rains lashing down on us this year. The clean, fresh air after the rain is one we relish. As the toddler son and I make our way to school every morning, our heart lifts at the marvelous rainbows, the cherry blossoms starting to bloom and the beautiful snails out on the roads.

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Sometimes, we come up with silly names for the little creatures we find on our path. Turbo the Snail is always a welcome sight. Earthy Worm invokes the same curiosity if not adoration. Toby Turtle is remembered with affection, and we wonder aloud how we can find ways to hobnob more freely with turtles.

Watching the snails leave a shiny trail behind them one rainy day, we squatted there wondering whether that trail left behind by snails is poisonous. That innocent minute squatting on the sidewalk looking at snails criss-cross our path raised so many questions. It looked to us like a snail could not get very far if it had to flee a predator.

Where do they live when it is not raining and can’t move?
What if we had slippery slopes for snails? said the toddler always keen to help.
Do only snails walk the slippery slope? (completely lost on the toddler of course) and so on.

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“Amma, we will be late! Hurry up.” said the conscientious fellow and we galloped past the snails wondering how much there was to do in the world, and how little we manage to do.

The thought that there is so much more to be done can sneak up at you in the most unexpected moments. Like the time I was reading a love story written by Alexander McCall Smith in the book Chance Developments. The story imagined the life of a young man in Scotland using a vintage photograph of a young man helping to change a car tire in the presence of a beautiful young lady in a cream colored coat.

 

In the book, the young man is taking a stroll around a loch and is fascinated by some plants that many ignored because they were believed to be poisonous, but he nibbles at them lovingly almost, since his father had tried and demonstrated to him that these particular plants were not poisonous at all. He had studied the properties of the plant, and traced the origins of the myth to a Celtic folktale, and though most tales started off with a kernel of truth, this one probably did not.

How is a story as innocuous as that supposed to make one feel like there is so much to be done? Because they are so many ways in which we can remain curious, to question the this-is-how-it-is-done-s of the world. The fact that we can bust one myth just by questioning it is good. And it proves that we pave the path for one more myth to be broken and then one more.

It has been a few years since I read ’Surely, You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’ By Richard Feynman. I remember one passage in which the celebrated scientist talks of watching ants as they made their way around his backyard. Marveling at how they navigated obstacles placed in their path, and admiring the innate steadfastness of the species.

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The quest for knowledge can be a curious, interesting journey, if only we take the time to stop and look at the snails.

Richard Feynman on the Meaning of Life – Brain Pickings

Weaving The Sequins Of Time

Taking a drive up the mountains is always a nostalgic experience for me. Regular readers know I grew up in a small village nestled in the mountainside and every time I spot a pine cone or take in a whiff of Eucalyptus scented air, I get a gleamy look in my eyes that prompts the daughter to ask me for a story about my childhood. I comply almost gleefully and she sits back and imagines her mother as a little girl, a person who is vastly more interesting than the adult version. One loopy enough to jump across streams, build mud tree houses and make a wish against a shooting star.

I was thoroughly pleased to do that again during our recent visit to the Inyo Canyons. Not build a mud tree house, but to make a wish against a shooting star. One of the best things about going out to the vast expanses of nature that we urban dwellers completely forget is how the dark the sky is at night (duh!) and how many stars we can see against this backdrop.

We were blessed with remarkably clear skies during our time there, and we headed out bundled up like Eskimoes in Winter to see the night skies. We made our way up a winding mountain road that overlooked a vast plain thereby giving us a wonderful vantage point for seeing the skies. Maybe it was the enormity of what was in front of us, but it subdued our normally stentorian voices temporarily. We stood there in companionable silence for a while just gazing at the outer arms of the Milky Way (at this time of year, apparently, we do not get to see the whole Milky Way).

My, it is so dark – it can be lonely here, we whispered to each other after some time.

The stars tousled our hair gently teasing us : of course it is dark, what did you expect, and look up at us. You are not lonely unless you wish to be. You have a universe unto yourself. ( I have an idea brewing here: it may be laughably inadequate, but that has not stopped me from publishing before)

The sun groaned from the other side : Duh, everyday I give you the gift of night, you know?

For the first time, I saw Ursa Major or Big Dipper drawn large against the night sky, with nothing to impede its view. It is amazing how many different civilizations managed to study the skies in varying yet similar ways.

There is the North Star, that was known as the Dhruva Nakshatram  in the early days when the Indian civilization named it (Story here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhruva).

Can you see Arundathi? Did you know the story about Arundathi being a twin star to Vashishta and rotating around each other? That is why it is a wedding ritual.  Alcor & Mizar known as Vashishta and Arundhati. Really?

So it went.

The daughter rattled stories from Greek Mythology that we tried to find Indian equivalents for. The magic of story-telling under the stars came alive for us that night. Sirius barked and Taurus ran. The hunters belt was bright and gleaming, the Plaeidis cluster was there, the Seven sisters were being relentlessly chased by the Big Hunter, while the same Krittikai sisters raised Karthikeya in the plains of Indus Valley millenia ago.

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Lest you run off thinking that the daughter has sat down with the classics and pondered the deep recesses of ancient cosmology, let me assure you that Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson books formed the basis for the bulk of her knowledge.

The white cloud that we never really see in urban areas was visible – consisting of millions of stars, the cosmos probably is home to millions of Earths fostering life and intelligent lifeforms. I was reminded yet again of Carl Sagan’s words  about the pale blue dot.

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It is true, every tyrant, every usurper of power, every chaser of money, every person with cares in this world, should stand beneath the blanket of stars everyday, and look at our souls in a detached manner. See ourselves as specks in a dark world where the only place for us to find light is by looking inwards and capture the feeling of light in our hearts like Earth captures sunlight and warmth in its atmosphere.

As we stood there with the children bundled up in the cold on a mountainside overlooking a vast plain with the stars shining down, we saw in the distant horizon seven or eight shooting stars.

Magical moments come in various ways, sometimes it comes in the form of shooting stars, sometimes it comes in the form of a fluttering leaf falling upon you and other times it comes in the warmth of a lazy winter morning when all the world outside seems bleak, but you feel warm inside. Even these cold winters can be translated to a warm feeling that the Danish have a wonderful word for: Hygge. ( pronounced – Hoo-ghey)

Embracing Hygge – The Danish Secret to staying happy in the winter

It is the feeling of warmth and coziness even when the world outside is harsh and cold.

As Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well says, “It leads to a sense of a rich inner life that radiates out through bleak days.”

What better way to weave the little sequins of magical moments into the fabric of life?