Jan 31, 2014

Listen To Your Mother: Kolkata, Kenya and a faded coverlet

My mother was a housewife. Not a 'homemaker' but a wife who stayed at home. The mom part went without saying, though I'm sure I said it a lot anyway. It was “Maa! Maa! Maa!” for me constantly until I turned 6 and went to school for the first time. She defined my world in every possible way.

We left Kolkata, India when I was around two. It was known as Calcutta back then. As the oldest son, my father had the responsibility of supporting a large extended family in the traditional Indian way. A young electrical engineer in state employ had only so far to go in the early '70s though and East Africa needed electrification.

Jan 29, 2014

'Not happy'

The other night, I tuned into a documentary titled 'Happy'. It achieved my desired end and put me to sleep within minutes but not before I'd caught the requisite opening scene of a poor rickshaw driver in Kolkata, India (my hometown). He grinned happily while describing the joys in his subsistence level existence, full of confessed privations. The fuzzy thoughts running through my head as eyes lids dropped was "That's not 'happy': that's 'not sad'". In the light of day I recalled and altered my reaction: the interviewee WAS speaking of his simple sources of joy. That I'd read them as being illusory said a lot more about my entitled, elitist perspective than any weaknesses in his skills of self-expression. And that brought me around to this topic of 'happy' that had been buzzing around my head for a long time. I've read bits of Daniel Gilbert and Gretchen Rubin (authors delving into 'Happiness'), news magazines and zeitgeist tracking online sites and have a dawning awareness that deconstructing our 'happiness' is now part of our cultural fabric. At least for self-identified 'thinkers'.

Jan 22, 2014

Tales of tails

"A mouse just ran over my foot!" is the status I chose for my FB wall today.

It was one of those supposedly funny chain gags that ripple out from FB from time to time.The modern version of a chain letter. I commented on someones odd sounding status and was then tasked with picking an odd status for myself from amongst a list to trap unsuspecting commenter's from MY FB network and further the chain.I didn't find it particularly funny and was about to pass when one of the status options caught my attention. To be fair, they all did: included were "I was approached by someone to become a prostitute" and "I'm going to adopt a monkey". (Really, who thinks up this stuff and have they considered using their powers for good?) Anyway, the one about the mouse tugged gently at me, suggesting I lighten up a bit and laugh with some friends.

Jan 9, 2014

Alien in the garden

While watering our summer garden I spotted this on one of our tomato plants. I hollered for Oyon to come see his classroom science lesson come to life. I thought I'd found the butterfly eggs he'd been diligently seeking over the past few weeks.


We gleefully nosed closer for a better look then jumped back in shock. A quick web search left us gazing sadly at the poor parasitized Hornworm hanging off our plant. Seems it was hosting Wasp cocoons. And by 'hosting' I don't mean making sure the sheets were fresh, clean towels were handy and that there was something more interesting than Fruit Loops for breakfast. They were feeding the wasp larvae in the most literal sense.
Because that's what was happening to those Hornworms: they were being eaten alive from the inside. As I tried not to gag and groped to relocate my ecological sensitivity so I could reconcile to the gory wonder that was the food-chain, two further surprises (via Google) came whizzing my way:
Sphinx Moth:
The 'Hummingbird' that had delighted us earlier in the summer by hovering next to Oyon's right ear for a few seconds was more likely a Hummingbird MOTH. They are drawn to Butterfly Bushes (like our neighbors) but also to the Anthurium I'd planted. Some, I'd placed in the vegetable bed (to draw pollinators for our veggies) and others around our front door in planters - which is where the Moth had appeared. And what is one of the stages of a Sphinx Moth's life cycle? Hornworm! 'Curiouser and curioser' turns out be just the phrase when you're falling down this kind of rabbit hole. Lewis Carroll must've had a kitchen garden.
Braconid Wasp:
The delicate little red-winged 'flies' that we had been spotting (and admiring) outside all summer long? Turns out the only thing 'fly' about them is their preferred mode of travel. Actually Braconid Wasps, these insects hold only warmth for humans in their dear little hearts and no sting at all. They buzz around, generously pollinating to ensure that zucchini flowers turn into zucchini vegetables and constantly searching for.....Hornworm! Yes, the plot does indeed thicken here. Hornworms, doomed offspring of Sphinx Moths, are the budget motel of choice in the Braconid Wasp world. They lay their eggs (via stinger) just under the Hornworms skin and cocoons emerge in time, housing larvae that  then avail of the round-the-clock, all-you-can-eat buffet until it's time to emerge as adult wasps.
So to connect the dots: the flowers in our garden attracted pollinators that made our plants productive THEN they produced predators to destroy said produce but THEN one predator-pollinator attacked the other, interrupting both its dastardly plans and its life cycle and.....SCORE for us vegetable loving humans!!!!
It's called 'bio control' and practised mindfully as 'Integrated Pest Management' in ecologically conscious farming operation. In our garden though, it was just another awe-inspiring instance of Nature thumbing her nose at our paltry efforts to 'save' the planet as it effortlessly functions the way it has to.
Baby Braconid Wasps emerge after gestation.

Empty cocoons on a spent Hornworm.

All that remains

Jan 8, 2014

News Graphs

Last winter 6 year old Oyon took to leafing through the Boston Globe newspaper that his grandmother left every day on the dining table. And demanding explanations that I was hesitant to offer.

His Dad often discusses current affairs with him as they browse news magazines together but this was new territory for me. I periodically shared a few dumbed-down headlines with him but my day of reckoning came when he declared that it looked like the world was in really bad shape and that he didn't want to hear any more news.

He didn't look happy. He can be a brooder and his sadness was unmistakable.

Not surprising either as the winter of 2012 was particularly brutal in our world. The Newtown school shootings were followed closely by the Delhi bus gang-rape, there was war everywhere, we lost 2 family members and people close to us were suffering from a gamut of very real challenges. There wasn't exactly sunshine and light surrounding him no matter how tightly we tried to keep the filters in place.

Plus, 6 year olds can take things quite literally: if the newspaper was reporting that the world was in a bad way, it must be true. That particular Saturday morning, when my little son gave up on the world with a heavy sigh, I bristled at what the world was doing to this little mind, what dark perspectives were etching themselves across this blank page full of promise. This little person, who would one day go on to shape the world we are leaving to him, was learning to give up before he even got started. I've no soaring hope from him that he'll become a world-changing leader. Good for him if he does, but I don't need him to. I DO need him to the best person he can be and that involves thinking for himself .

So I wasn't going to give in so easily. The 'graphs' his Kindergarten class had been drawing and their science game of Disproving Hypotheses flashed across my mind.  I scribbled a little chart with multiple columns, labelled the first 2 -'Good news' and 'Bad News' and handed it to him along with a few markers. I told him we were going to investigate what he just said.

We then got to work trying to see if all the news really WAS as bad as it seemed. No declared hypothesis but he understood (I think) that we were testing a notion for validity. We fetched his little globe so we knew where in the world the news was and I verbally summarized each article on the front page for him. He happily evaluated each news item then filled in a cell in the appropriate column (good vs. bad news) for a little while.

Then he piped up with one of the most wonderful insights that I have ever encountered in my 42 years on this planet. Paraphrased, it went something like this:
    "We need some more words, Mummum. It's not all 'good news' or 'bad news'. Some stuff starts out 'good' then turns into 'bad news'. But some OTHER stuff is sad but actually, kind of good!"

To my puzzled look he patiently explained the following about all the A380 Dreamliner aircraft that were just grounded (because of battery caused fires). Again , paraphrased, it went something like this:
  " It's BAD NEWS that people can't use those new, expensive planes. But isn't it actually 'GOOD news that they're fixing it so people don't suddenly fall out of the sky?"

I can no longer remember an example of how 'good news' proved to not be so. Suffice it to say, he didn't find too many of these instances. Already, he had learned to read what he WANTED to but I was happy to have him err on the side of optimism: there's plenty of time to teach him about Reality and introduce him to Cynicism.

The clincher came though when he asked me to add a category for 'Kind of silly'. The news item that prompted this was that some drunk police officers from our neighboring town, Newton, had chucked eggs at their supervisors house and then got caught. He refused to really qualify this as 'news' of  any sort and insisted on the special category. He chuckled a bit at the silly choice they made ("Didn't they know they'd get in trouble?!") but also at the thought of them handcuffing themselves since they were both THE law AND breaking it! When he'd recovered from that particular giggling fit we incorporated some basic math and took a look at just how bad the news really was.

This is how the world looked, per the The Boston Globe to my 6 year old Son in early 2012. In case you can't read it, there are 13 pieces of good headlines vs. 6 bad:

We repeated the exercise the following month:

The 'Kind of silly' article was a picture of some Patriots (our football team) fans crying in a sports bar over the team's loss. He not only thought it was silly to cry when you lost, he wondered why anyone would put that picture in the paper! I didn't have an answer for that one.

I really liked the way he categorized the world though. I love that when you add it all up, there's always more in the 'Good' column than the 'bad', that not everything is how it seems and that my little man learnt first-hand that the world is as good or as bad as you make it out to be.