Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Perils of Reconnection

Reconnecting with old classmates from 30+ years ago is always good, or so I thought till recently.

After a long break, an old classmate of mine, who had been in my class all the way from kindergarten through college, contacted me via Whatsapp to mention that the old schoolmates from 10th standard were trying to get in touch with me to add my name to their group. Apparently, I had been out of the loop for over 30 years, while they had managed to keep in touch, willy-nilly, through snail mail, then email, then the social media in recent years.

It was a big thrill to go back and see the enthusiastic Hellos and how are you doing, what happened to you in the intervening years welcome posts. For a while. Then it started to go back to what happened to just about every other Whatsapp group that I am a member of: Birthday posts, accomplishments of kids/photos, vacation photos, etc. etc.

And then it struck me. I am not a sharing person. I don't like to post photos of my kids or activities or vacations. The only people I would do that to are close members of my family. I wouldn't hesitate to share photos one-on-one in person, but over the internet, it is a line that I don't want to cross,which may be odd, because I share a lot about myself in these blog posts. But you won't see any personally identifiable photos of me or my family.

So, in the hubbub of reconnection with old schoolmates, when an 'inspirational' post was put up by some girl (or woman now) that I faintly remembered as ever-smiling J, something about a minister advising a youngster by handing him a rosebud and asking him to make it unfurl into a flower. The young man tries hard to do so delicately with his hands, but gives up on the task as impossible to accomplish without damaging the flower. The older minister pontificates on how God makes these bloom in good time etc. as the Prime Mover of the world, which is the moral of the story.

Except that I had to jump in with a semi-snarky comment "Why didn't the young fellow just place the bud in a vase with water and wait a day or so?" It was meant in good humor.

J must have been a little miffed at my spoiling the 'inspirational moment' that she was trying to share. She jumped back with a snarkier comment about my being able to use the brains that God had given me to good effect. And I, in all innocence, compounded the offense by saying it was just plain common sense and that simple observation of cut flowers that was all that was needed.

'You must have plenty of time to observe that, no such luck here', she zinged back.

Oh dear, back to high school again. I didn't know if  I wanted to revisit those days again. So much for the charms of reconnection; the perils were looming larger now.

It struck me how little I knew of my classmates from that time. I think that I was always a bit of an oddball, with intense friendships with maybe one or two girls who were in my class, and a general disregard for the rest, no more than a cursory friendliness. But they had retained strong bonds over the years, mine were much weaker and at this point of time, practically non-existent. They were a bunch of strangers to me, and I wasn't going to do much more than pay lip-service to staying in touch with them.

Sad to say, but that is exactly the approach that all this flurry of wishing to reconnect generates in me these days. Let bygones be bygones, and onward into a future without reference to a distant past.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dawn Chorus

'Ranoranilac" or "Ranilac" (Serbo-Croat for 'early riser') was a topic of discussion on Facebook recently, with a friend of mine. She was talking of sightings of the moon in daylight hours, but to my mind, it was a perfect one-word description of the birds of the summer, and myself.

At the first hint of light in the east,the tweets and chirps start up. By the time I step outside for a pre-dawn walk, the chorus of the birds is in full swing. No need for earbuds and music when one has serenading singers all around.

I looked up the phenomenon and found this link, which explains why birds like to sing so early.
 The dawn chorus occurs when birds sing at the start of a new day. In temperate countries this is most noticeable in spring when the birds are either defending a breeding territory, trying to attract a mate, or calling in the flock. In a given location, it is common for different species to do their dawn singing at different times.
There is even an example audio of the dawn chorus at the link, a recording made in the UK. But it pales in loudness and vigor in comparison with the loud suburban cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, robins, mourning doves and other birds in this part of the world.

I had read elsewhere that birds in urban and (presumably, by extension, the suburbs)  are louder than their forest counterparts, maybe because they need to make themselves heard above the usual sounds of motor vehicles, lawn mowers, blowers and such. Or it could also be that the birds were in better physical shape, feeding at the bounteous birdfeeders that dot the area. Or a combination thereof.

Here is an audio sample of the dawn chorus:

And now, for no particular reason, except cuteness galore, a photo of a baby robin from near my office. We engaged in a staring match for a few minutes, till my attempt to move in for a close range photo spooked it and it mustered the requisite skill to fly away.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Butterfly on Concrete

Another cloudy humid day, and a brisk walk to refresh the mind.

There is a nice flat sidewalk in along the group of office building that permits me to walk a quick 20 minute mile. The view on one side is that of the Parkway, the other side has boring office buildings, separated by grassy expanses and a railway line from the river Monongahela.
The large grassy stretch that separates the road from the road heading to downtown Pittsburgh is not just green today. It's speckled with yellow deervetch and pink clover. A whiff of clover comes by every now and then, as a mild breeze pushes it towards me. The air is still cool from the heavy rains of the previous night and early morning, but the humidity is starting to verge on unpleasant.

There, right in front, a black butterfly with bright orange red markings. I bend down and take a picture, then attempt to get it to move off the path, as I notice a couple of joggers headed towards me. The butterfly ineffectually flutters its wings and settles down on another part of the concrete. A jogger stops to watch me.

"Are you trying to catch him?" he asks.

"No, just trying to get it off the concrete and into the grass."

He bends down to mimic my action in moving towards the antenna tips of the butterfly to get it to start fluttering away. After a couple of tries, success.The butterfly moves to the grass by the side of the path, where it is less likely to be trodden upon by joggers who might not see it.

"Thanks", I call out to the jogger as he continues on his run.

I reach a turnaround point and start walking back to my office.

The butterfly is back on the concrete again. This time, I continue past it. "It's your choice, buddy. I'm not going to force you into the grass if the concrete is where you want to be."

There is something to be said for the doggedness of the butterfly, no silly flutterby mind, this.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

P.S. More on the habits of the Red admiral, it feeds on bird droppings among other things, and the concrete of the path is often covered with droppings from geese landing and feeding on the lawns near the buildings. Mystery of why the butterfly preferred the concrete to the grass solved!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Art of Fix-it-yourself

It's that time of the year when hubby is gone on another bout of travel and things in the house start to break apart again,. So Yours Truly is now stuck with figuring out how to get things back up and running.

Case in point: a few days ago, the flush lever on the toilet broke. It had already been replaced once, and the replacement was unfortunately a cheap metal finish painted plastic which didn't survive much beyond the one year mark.

"I'll call the handyman to help with this." just as Hubby headed to the airport. "I don't want to be struggling with manually lifting the flap in the tank all the time."

"It's a simple replacement, we may even have the required spare part in the basement."

"Really, what do I have to do then?"

"Just unscrew the part by hand and put in the new one, reconnect to the chain."

Famous last words.

I gamely face the wall of replacement toilet parts in the nearby Home Depot. Should I get the silly plastic one (cost $4.97) or maybe go for the largely metal 'Brushed nickel' finish one ($6.97)? That looks sturdier and should surely last for longer than a year.  That's what I grab and rush out to the checkout counter.

Back home, I am trying to unscrew the old broken part. Boy, this is way harder than anything I have had to unscrew in the kitchen. I need to locate a spanner maybe, to muster enough leverage. I trot down a couple of flights of stairs, fish around in the toolbox, locating about 5 different sizes of spanners, including what looks like a regular heavy duty adjustable spanner.

I spent about 15 minutes with the various spanners before realizing that the plastic part was starting to come apart, not unscrewing. Time to back off.

Next day, same story, when I tried again. In the evening, I went to the old go-to for information : Videos on Youtube, and got my first clue. "Reverse threading" hollered the annoying guy in the video. I had been attempting to unscrew the nut the wrong way, tightening it instead of loosening. "Also, just take the broken part with you to the store when you get the replacement!"
Too late for that, since I already have a replacement, but I am sure it will be interchangeable, and better quality as well!

I gingerly positioned the adjustable spanner and tried the other way. Did it just budge a little? Once again, and it finally started to move. I could now unscrew it by hand and finally remove the old part.

Time to put in the new part. But it didn't fit properly and the chain was too short to make it to the lever. Was I supposed to bend the lever to make it reach? It didn't seem quite right. After a couple of useless tries, I looked again at the broken part. The appearance didn't match the new part.

Next day, it was time to return the replacement and walk the aisles again, this time to find another equally flimsy plastic but correct replacement for the type of  cadet tank and mechanism that we had. I was back in business.

Now it is day 3 and the lever is finally fixed with the new part, which took about 5 minutes to put in once I worked out the correct sequence for insertion and screwing the nut on, for a grand total of two hours of my time over the three days, including driving time to and from the store.

Next time, I will do this in 5 minutes flat once I get the proper part, since I have this blog post as a reference for what not to do.

But next time, it might be something else that breaks, and that may end up taking a few hours to figure out, just like this one.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Plays in Parallel

My daughter's dance school recently put on a production of  Rabindranath Tagore's Bengali language dance drama Shyama, with recorded music and live dance performances.It went very well, and was rapturously received by the audiences on both days of the show.
The story is that of a beautiful royal courtesan Shyama, who falls in love with a young merchant Bojrosen, unjustly accused of theft and condemned to death. She persuades Uttiyo, a young admirer of hers, to substitute for the merchant. Uttiyo willingly sacrifices his life reasoning that there could be no greater trajectory for his life since Shyama has rejected him and set her heart on Bojrosen instead. After Uttiyo's execution, Shyama spends happy times with her new lover. Going against counsel from her companions, but racked by guilt over the death of Uttiyo, she confesses the train of events  to Bojrosen, who is horrified and casts her aside, vowing never to allow her near again. However he still agonizes over his lost love and pines for her presence. Calling out to her desperately, grasping an anklet of his beloved, he is almost reconciled with her, but it is not to be. Haunted by his horror at what she had done to procure his freedom, and the life lost, the former lovers go their separate ways.

Tagore had reworked a brief story from Rajendralal Mitra's book of Sanskrit Buddhist tales from Nepal.

The original runs thus:

Story of Shyama and Vajrasena. —
The reason why Buddha abandoned his faithful wife Yashodhara is given in the following story.

There was in times of yore a horse-dealer at Takshasila, named
Vajrasena ; on his way to the fair at Varanasi, his horses were stolen,
and he was severely wounded. As he slept in a deserted house in the
suburbs of Varanasi, he was caught by policemen as a thief. He was
ordered to the place of execution. But his manly beauty attracted the
attention of Shyama, the first public woman in Varanasi. She grew
enamoured of the man, and requested one of her handmaids to rescue
the criminal at any hazard. By offering large sums of money, she
succeeded in inducing the executioners to set Vajrasena free, and execute
the orders of the king on another, a banker's son, who was an admirer
of Shyama. The latter, not knowing his fate, approached the place of
execution with victuals for the criminal, and was severed in two by the

The woman was devotedly attached to Vajrasena. But her inhuman conduct to the
banker's son made a deep impression on his mind.
He could not reconcile himself to the idea of being in love with the
perpetrator of such a crime. On an occasion when they both set on a pluvial
excursion, Vajrasena plied her with wine, and, when she was almost
senseless, smothered and drowned her. When he thought she was quite
dead, he dragged her to the steps of the ghat and fled, leaving her in
that helpless condition. Her mother, who was at hand, came to her
rescue and by great assiduity resuscitated her. Shyama's first measure,
after recovery, was to find out a Bhikshuni of Takshashila, and to send
through her a message to Vajrasena, inviting him to her loving
embrace. Buddha was that Vajrasena, and Shyama, Yasodhara.

Tagore's short story recast it somewhat, and formed the basis for his more elaborate dance drama, the last that he would write :

Shyama becomes a larger than life personality, more wronged against than sinner from the original Sanskrit tale.Uttiya becomes a willing selfless sacrificer, rather than an unwitting dupe, and Vajrasen is not quite as violent in how he disposes of Shyama when he comes to know of her role in Uttiyo's death.

I noticed interesting parallels to the Tamil epic of Silappadikaram, which features a merchant Kovalan unjustly accused of theft of an anklet, a tale also featuring a beautiful dancer Madhavi as Kovalan's lady-love, but in addition brings in the element of wronged wife Kannagi, and the unjust king who literally drops dead of remorse when he finds out that he has erred in ordering the execution of an innocent man. Kannagi is still so inflamed at the miscarriage of justice that she curses the city to go up in flames, exempting only the young and elderly, even in her fury.

Perhaps both stories have their roots in older Jain morality tales and just gotten filtered through the lenses of their times and eras , embellished by poetic license. The parallels of merchant, dancer, anklet, unjust execution, love, sacrifice and retribution are striking, to say the least.

On a personal note, a mini-drama played out on the sidelines. My daughter M, was unhappy at her being recast in one of the shows, where she had been earlier allowed to play the role of a Sakhi (companion)who advises Shyama to stay silent about Uttiyo to Bojrosen ('Nirobe thakish'--"Stay silent, O Sakhi", she counsels.)
She underwent the usual pangs of a rejected teen, to the point where I had to say. 

"You are getting a good feel for how Uttiyo must have felt at Shyama's rejection." 
M was bent on talking to her teacher to find out why the 'demotion', when I pointed out multiple possible reasons, all reasonable. It was then my turn to advise her :
"Nirobe thakish- don't bother asking", as the end result would not change the outcome, beyond making her more or less happy. 
We truly ended up in "It's all the same to us" mode, quite worthy of a Buddha.