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Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year 2013

and a thoughtful one too, for there is much to think about in the coming days, no matter which part of the globe you live in.



Sunday, December 30, 2012

Imaginary Portraits

Could it really be a lost portrait of Jane Austen...or rather someone's imagined version of the famous author?

I came across this article today highlighting a to-be-released book in January 2013, along with an intriguing graphite on vellum portrait of some lady in an Empire dress, with quill in hand, flattened lace bonnet on her head and pronounced nose, gazing determinedly into the distance.

From the Guardian article:
"The portrait drawing, in graphite on vellum, had been in a private collection for years, and was being auctioned as an "imaginary portrait" of Austen, with "Miss Jane Austin" written on the back. "When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it. I thought it looks like her family. I recognised the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar," Byrne told the Guardian. "The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn't exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination."
Of the experts consulted by Byrne as to the authenticity of the painting, two agreed that it was most likely Jane Austen, while a third thought it to be an imaginary portrait.
The term 'imaginary portrait' appears to have been coined by Walter Pater in 1878, which is well after Austen had passed on. If the dating of the portrait holds (estimated at 1815, based on the clothing details), it might very well be an actual portrait rather than an 'imaginary' one.
Origin of the phrase aside, the only problem with Byrne's assertion that the genre of 'imaginary portraiture' doesn't exist, is that art is full of imaginary portraits of all kinds, some adapted from living humans, others the figments of the artist's imagination and skill.
Here, for comparison, is a portrait of Jane Austen attributed to her sister Cassandra, in which she looks rather cross.
There are more images of Jane Austen in this blog post on Austen blog - real, or reimagined, softened, prettified (turned into a veritable Regency belle by the 'photoshoppers' of the Victorian school of romanticized painting). The portrait of 'Miss Jane Austin' has a lively reality to it, without any attempt to soften the features.

James Austen-Leigh's memoir of Jane Austen is available in full at Project Gutenberg, and is separated from his aunt's era only by the filters of a single generation. Will this new biography by Byrne shed any new light on Jane Austen?
I'm not quite sure. But the portrait, if it is indeed that of Jane Austen (Austin, as the portraitist appears to have spelled it), shows her with a sharper, thinner face than the widely accepted 'only existing' portrait, gazing into a distant future, absorbed in thought, while the cat keeps her company.





Friday, December 21, 2012

Just another day

a normal Winter Solstice, a normal end of the 13th Mayan Bak'tun (400 year cycle). Much hailed by the globalized doomsaying crowd as the 2012 Apocalypse.

There have been many predictions of doomsday, from time immemorial, to the present day, when spectacular failures of the said predictions are much more quickly disseminated, the better to be laughed at. There are groups of people who make it their life's mission to be prepared in such an eventuality, which when it comes, is likely to be millions of years into the future, by which time, it will either be a post-human civilization, or a bunch of robots who couldn't care less about survival, or a bunch of microbes, which may not have the consciousness to care either.

Here is an interesting round up of predictions from Stephen Tomkins of The Guardian. Of these, some of the most entertaining are the ones  made by Winston Churchill in 1931. Surprisingly, he fares quite well on many of his predictions, though some are perhaps better applied to 2012 than to the 1980's, which are the years he was attempting to foresee.

In the meantime, this is the way that my morning started. I went out for my usual constitutional at 5:30 am. The sky seemed lighter than usual, flush with the pink glow on the east, not from the sun, but from the glow of a thousand sodium-vapor lamps near the mall. Clouds loomed, threatening something. Not rain, but snow. A snowpocalypse was expected in time for rush hour, according the local weathercasters. The air was chilly, but not bitingly so.

As I walked, gazing up at the black outlines of bare trees against the grey-orange sky, little gusts and eddies started blowing, with a hint of colder air in them. 

A day like any other, is what I predict. Tomorrow will be the start of a new Mayan era, though.

Happy Winter Solstice, and Happy New Mayan Bak'tun!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Musical Musings

Today, I came across this article in the online edition of The Hindu, discussing some of the pros and cons of online gurukulas, as the author, Rohan Krishnamurthy, likes to term it, for music. So fascinated is he by the phenomenon, that he is dedicating a few years of his life to researching this for a PhD program.
" I became fascinated with this radically new system of techno-pedagogy and chose to pursue it as the topic of my PhD dissertation, focusing on the realm of Carnatic percussion (mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, and konnakol vocal percussion). I arrived in Chennai in August to conduct ethnographic fieldwork to study the musical, social, and cultural impact of virtual music lessons in Carnatic percussion."
Let me suggest at least a few other possibilities, other than the usual suspects, of why some would want to rigorously pursue online lessons other than the admitted serious and honorable ones enumerated in the article.

(1) Keeping up with the Krishnans syndrome. ("Oh dear, they have little Anusha already singing raaga alapanais in online lessons with ____ (insert name of famous Chennai singer) twice weekly. Shouldn't we try to get Madhavan mama's uncle's nephew's wife, who is a student of _______(insert another famous singer) to take Skype lessons for our budding genius. Let's see who will take the prize at the next Cleveland Aradhana competition for pallavi singing!"

(2)  The pleasures of learning music in your pajamas, or whatever you wish to wear, without driving miles and miles back and forth, spending a whole day in your peregrinations to acquire musical moksha. Actually, the traffic situation in some places has gotten so bad, that teachers do online lessons with students who live only a paltry 20 miles away, instead of 20,000.


(3) It's the perfect excuse to bow out of attending that pesky soiree. ("Sorry, Mami, I will not be able to attend. Anusha has a two hour music Skype class that evening, time difference problem, you know...")

(4) It gives the techie-NRI crowd ample opportunity to brush up on the appropriate terminology, which can be dropped, along with names at the latest pot-luck party.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why..

do innocents get killed by disturbed young men who have no business getting hold of guns?
do politicians pay tribute, but never take action ?
do gun lobbyists come out with "but it wasn't the guns" excuses after the nth occurrence of a mass shooting?
do people affirm 'never again' after a shooting, and yet it happens again, and again?
do we react in horror only when tragedy strikes closer to home, rather than in distant climes?


Too many whys and not enough why nots.

Why not..

provide more support to those whose mental health is in question?
make it harder to obtain guns and ammunition without questions asked?
guarantee that anyone with mental disorders is never in the vicinity of guns?
recognize that we may never be able to prevent all crimes, but that we can take concrete steps towards making it much harder for the next gun massacre to happen?




Friday, December 14, 2012

Gem(inid) of the Day

It's that time of the year again. When holiday writers struggling for headlines proclaim "The Geminid meteor shower is on, prepare for a fantastic view in the night skies!", along with assorted photos of  what appear to be almost fireworks-like displays of meteors bursting from the constellation Gemini into the skies surrounding.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret. It means little to the general population and much more to the astronomers who study these phenomena. The actual showers never look as spectacularly shower like as the visualizations that accompany these headlines might suggest.

I remember about 20 years back, when I went Leonid hunting with my husband and another friend to some of the darkest skies around Pittsburgh- the Hartwood acres  park.  We waited and shivered there for a couple of hours and were rewarded with the occasional cry of 'Ooh, there goes a meteor" from one or the other (never all at the same time) maybe once every 10 minutes or so. That, my friend, constitutes a 'fantastic view' of the meteor shower, in astronomic terms.

Of late, as the days darken early and the sun takes its own sweet time rising, my morning walks have been moonlit and starlit. How nice it would be if I could catch a meteor in the morning, I thought. So I kept a watchful eye out in the media for the increase in numbers of exclamation points regarding the Geminids, and saw them ( the exclamation points, not the meteors) peak yesterday.

So off I went this morning, determined to keep my eyes glued to the western sky, focused fiercely on Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, that give the showers their name. Unlike the photo that is up ( from earthsky.org), staring at the Twins did nothing for me.

It's all my poor luck, I muttered and  turned eastward, walking back to  my home. And there, in the blink of an eye, a meteor shot across to the northern sky, vanishing somewhere in the vicinity of the Little Dipper.

And that's my Gem(inid) of the Day!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Not Quite a Classic

A long-lost early short story by Hans Christian Andersen has been unearthed in Denmark, shedding some light on the thought processes that might have preceded his rise to fame as a writer of fairy tales. 'The Tallow Candle', as it is called, reads more like an essay of an earnest schoolboy ( I recall that we were often asked to write essays along the lines of 'One day in the life of a rupee note'  or "A day in the life of a post card'.)

Here is an excerpt:
"It sizzled and fizzled as the flames fired the cauldron.. it was the Tallow Candle’s cradle - and out of the warm cradle came a flawless candle; solid, shining white and slim, it was formed in a way that made everyone who saw it believe that it was a promise of a bright and radiant future – promises that everyone who looked on believed it would really want to keep and fulfil.
The sheep – a fine little sheep – was the candle’s mother, and the melting pot its father. Its mother had given it a shiny white body and an inkling about life, but from its father it had been given a craving for the flaming fire that would eventually go through its marrow and bone and shine for it in life.
That’s how it was born and had grown; and with the best and brightest anticipation cast itself into existence."


To read the complete tale, go to http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/ECE1841044/hans-christian-andersens-the-tallow-candle/

On a side note, I wasn't quite sure of what 'tallow' meant until I looked it up. I knew it was some sort of solid fat, but didn't realize that it is actually rendered animal fat that is used primarily in cosmetics and specialty cooking, these days. That would explain the reference to the sheep being the 'mother' of the candle.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reel Life

Is Glenn Greenwald making a mountain out of a mole hill in his recent Guardian piece lambasting the depiction of waterboarding in the critically acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty?

James Poniewozik of Time magazine ponders whether 'great' movies and the depiction of violence in those acknowledged as such can be tantamount to endorsing the violence, as Greenwald argues is the case in the making and reviewing of Zero Dark Thirty.

Greenwald on the waterboarding shown in the film:
"If Bigelow had merely depicted episodes that actually happened, then her defense that she is not judging and has no responsibility to do so would be more debatable. But the fact that she's presenting lies as fact on an issue as vital as these war crimes, all while patting herself on the back for her "journalistic approach" to the topic, makes the behavior indefensible, even reprehensible. Is it really possible to say: this is a great film despite the fact that it glorifies torture using patent falsehoods?Ultimately, I don't believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It's more accurate to say it's so admired because of this."

Poniewozik's counterpoint:
"It’s a simplistic way of looking at art, but it’s not surprising, because Greenwald is a political writer (or at least an ideological public-affairs writer), and this is the political way of looking at art. For someone who’s passionate about policy and public issues, aesthetics are secondary. Utility comes first. Things help the cause or they hurt it. There are Parts of the Solution and there are Parts of the Problem.
There are several bad assumptions that go into that kind of thinking. For one, that the primary function of art is to serve, or at least not undermine, one’s desired political arguments. For another, that artworks have literal, direct and easily predictable effects. In this kind of worldview, one kind of entertainment makes people more conservative, another makes them more liberal."

If you live in the Foxian world, where every thing shown on (especially a TV) screen is gospel truth, then Greenwald's argument about the waterboarding scene rings true. Like '24', it will attract the goodwill of those addicted to seeing violence perpetrated on any that they see as enemies.  24 was much praised and awarded, no doubt the same critics who lauded it, are now jumping on to the 'Praise Zero Dark Thirty' bandwagon.

But in the real world, will it be regarded by most thinking people as anything more than an off-note in an otherwise excellent recreation of the events leading to Bin Laden's killing?  Many reviewers have commented on it seeming like gratuitous violence, designed to sate the film makers' thirst for the dramatic, in a movie that is dedicated to showcasing the painstaking (and sometimes very dirty) work of how OBL was traced to his hiding place in Abbottabad.

Of course, I haven't seen the movie yet, and will most definitely catch it when time and circumstance permit. Somehow, I don't think Greenwald is going to give this a pass and miss seeing it, torture glorified or not.

Update: Three U.S. Senators agree that the film wrongly conveys the impression that torture produced some information that helped get Bin Laden. Most notably, Senator John McCain (who himself had been tortured), said so after viewing the film.  The senators are demanding that the filmmakers alter the movie and make it clear that torture did not produce the information.
"We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see 'Zero Dark Thirty' will believe that the events it portrays are facts," the three senators wrote. "The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner."

The End of an Era

Accidental Blogger is closing, remaining just as an archive on the internet. It was where I had my first taste of blogging, having been invited by its owner and main blogger Ruchira Paul to contribute a post.
My association with Ruchira and A.B. has lasted almost 6 years, and it is with a bittersweet feeling that I report its closure.

In Ruchira's words:
"The launch of Accidental Blogger was indeed accidental - an impulsive move that turned out to be a wonderful experience. The decision to end it however, is a deliberate and considered step. Among other things, blogging began for me as an exciting journey to a mostly unknown place. I had a vague idea of what I hoped to achieve but none whatsoever of what lay en route. The time, the place and the emerging technology of web based communications offered a ticket to ride and I set out with much anticipation and very little preparation. I always enjoyed writing and sharing my thoughts with anyone who would care to listen. Blogging was the perfect vehicle to pursue that interest. Now, after 7+ years, the trip is near the inevitable end. Again, the changes in time, place and technology, as also the diminished energy for the process of putting one's thoughts in order for a meaningful exchange with others, have played a role in the decision to apply the brakes, get off and move on."

I owe Ruchira an enormous debt of gratitude. It was primarily through her introduction to the world of blogs that I started to gain confidence in voicing my opinions and presenting my writing to a larger public.

What will I do, now that A.B. is closing? What about all those posts that flit across my mind, more serious stuff regarding the latest in world news, science, medicine, and so many other areas? Maybe I will start recording them here. There might be less fluff and more stuff coming up, further down the line, if this mood holds.

But never fear, this will still remain the outlet for my random musings on fun and family, as well. It was designed as a personal outlet, but will now be supplemented with other more general essays.

Stay tuned for more...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Can do Craft

Of late, I've rediscovered a love of crafting. I've resurrected a couple of knitting projects, one being an afghan with blue, black, green and white squares,  that I had intended to get ready before S went off to college. Now that he is at college, it behooves me to finish it up and send it to him before he completes his first year.
The second is Barbara Walker's Learn to Knit afghan, which was stuck at square 11 out of 63. I completed 11 and am now ready to tackle square 12, in cream and country blue.
The reason for all this, I confess, is a new-found addiction of sorts to pinterest.com. Go online, check out the boards in the DIY and Craft categories, and I would defy anyone to not get drawn into thinking- "That's so easy! I must try it myself!"
And so I did, starting with trying out an aluminum foil craft ( with reasonable success) for a group of teens attending M's birthday party. Then it was off to embellish a couple of Pirouline cans, dolling them up with a lovely printed paper napkin from Pier One Imports. Here is the end result. The method is simple, just paint the can sides with glue, wrap the unfolded napkin around. The ends are clipped, folded and glued on the base and on the top. The same technique works for the lids as well.
Now I envision a series of specialty paper napkin inspired cans and canisters, maybe with a coating or two of Mod Podge.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lessons in Adversity

It's good that S wasn't going to California for college, I thought. (1) It was too far and the logistics of travel back and forth were horrendous. (2)It was in earthquake zone- Who knew when the San Andreas fault was going to trigger the Big One?  I didn't relish the prospect of trying to establish contact with him so far away, were a major earthquake to strike the area.
As things turned out, he went to Manhattan, NYC,and for a while everything was hunky-dory. The communication part was no better than I thought. It was painful to extract anything from him beyond the weekly text message. Live conversation became a strict no-no. It was a full six weeks before I even got to hear his voice (in person, as he travelled down to Pittsburgh for a short break).
Then Hurricane Sandy hit. In Pittsburgh, we got a smattering of heavy rains and winds. NYC got rains, winds of 80 mph, and storm surges topping 14 feet.  Lower Manhattan got a spectacular explosion at the far end of East 14th St near FDR Dr, that may have caused the complete loss of power to over half a million people in the area, including S's residence hall and other university buildings.
The communication problem, already bad pre-storm, became worse. It was over 24 hours before I would hear from him, my sole sanity being the frequent updates by parents on the university's Facebook page, as they heard from their near and dear.
I was painting a mental picture of S's day, imagining him in line at the many queues for food at the student center. Or hanging out with friends in the absence of working computers and internet. Or getting to bed early once it turned dark ( the residence hall had generator power, but only to hallways and common areas, not the rooms).
Finally 24 hours after the storm had passed, I got an email message from him, confirming that he was doing fine, had enough food, continued to stay in his residence hall, which still had running water and heat. He didn't rely solely on the university food lines, but also chose to buy from the street corner cart vendors, who amazingly enough, appear to have remained in the city through the storm.
He had spent a couple of days walking up to Times Square, the Empire State building and other areas of mid and uptown that still had power, having had no classes with the university closed through the weekend.
The power was finally restored to that sector on Friday, signaled by a celebratory email from S.  Shortly later, we were able to text and talk with him, as the cellular networks came back online.
Life was back to normal after the four days of 'adversity', and I went back to perusing Facebook for the occasional evidence that S was still busy with all the usual things a student his age does.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Zen of Driving a Hybrid

I have been driving one for almost two months now and have come to the grand conclusion that the best way to drive a hybrid car, is not to think that it is a hybrid.
My new car came with a snazzy display right next to the speedometer, tastefully lit indicators showing me that I was in 'Charging' or EV (electric vehicle) or 'Eco' hybrid (Electric + gas engine) or 'Power' (gas engine) mode. It had little prompts on the screen showing me the running average of mileage that I was getting from my driving. Having started its journey to me from a dealership lot in VA, it already had about 280 miles on it, with a driver who was either running the A/C constantly, or had a leaden foot, as the average mileage showed 33 miles.
To my delight, as I continued to drive the car, set firmly to the 'Eco' mode, it was averaging about 45- 47 mpg on each individual trip, patting me on the back as I turned off the power switch- Any trip which clocks 42+ miles-per-gallon is marked with  a little display showing 'Excellent!' , like giving a preschooler a star and candy for mastering each letter in the alphabet.
But then the rate of increasing mileage started to slow, after an initial quick climb to the 40 mark. It started to painfully creep up (and down), adding 0.1 mpg over a period of days, then weeks. Now it appears to be taking a month to move up, the mark has been stuck at 41.7mpg.
I tried driving slower, especially local trips, striving to keep the car in the EV zone whenever possible, but that didn't always make for higher mileage. The ups and downs of the Pittsburgh roads will do that to you.
I tried driving a bit slower than usual on the highway, staying mostly on the right lane. The mileage didn't improve.
I tried keeping the car in Eco mode whenever possible. Again, no dice.
I gave up looking at the gauges and started driving normally, not paying attention to the mode, whether EV, Eco or Power, just focussing on carefully getting to work and back in the least time that I could manage.
Bingo, the mileage per trip started to go up again.
So, here we come to the moral of the story.  
To achieve the zen of driving, drive with true detachment  to the mileage recorded for the trip, just focus on getting from point A to B. It's the trip, not the vehicle, that matters.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What was I doing on 9/11?

That's the question to which M wanted to know the answer. I thought back to that day 11 years ago.
It was a slightly out-of-routine start to the morning. S had been sick the previous evening, and I decided to keep him home instead of sending him to school. M was a baby, not quite a year old, just the age of crawling and getting into things. She took a mini-nap, while S watched his favorite cartoons on the TV.
The phone rang, and my friend excitedly urged me "Turn to CNN, a plane crashed into the World Trade Center". How horrible an accident, I thought, as I switched channels.
A moment later, another figure came out of nowhere, and flew into the second tower. S and I were shocked at what we had seen. "Was that another plane?", he asked. Indeed it was.
More panic set in as the anchors intoned the 'America is under attack' phrase. There were other similar hijacked planes out there, one heading for DC, another heading, maybe for Pittsburgh. I got a call from my husband, they had an office not too far from the airport, and had been advised to stay off the roads, with the possibility of the plane coming in for a landing.
Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville PA, not too far away from Pittsburgh. No one can say where that plane was headed with certainty, though guesses have been made.
This 9/11, I was in office, S is in a university not far from Ground Zero, where he is afforded the sight of the sunlight glinting off the new tower going up  where the WTC once stood. M was in school, maintaining her moment of silence with the rest of a generation that must now strain to remember what they did when 9/11 happened.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Nest Half Empty

"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday."

                                                                                     --Kahlil Gibran

It has a numbing feel to it. A bed lying empty. No creaks of footsteps in the bedroom above my home office. No random openings and closings of the fridge door as a hungry mouth prowls the house in search of food.  No exasperated yells of "Come down to dinner" going up to head-phoned ears. No more eyes rolled at clueless parental comments. No more ready smile as he walks in from school.

Last weekend, we dropped off S in Manhattan, where he is going to attend New York University as a Film and TV major. ('What, not engineering or medicine??!!! What kind of parents are you?" are the unspoken words we hear for every exclamation of 'Wow, how interesting, at least a different kind of major!" that we hear from other desi parents, whose kids are predictably bent on becoming neurologists or pediatricians or computer scientists or engineers. Maybe, we are crazy, or ahead of the curve, or both.)

Little things matter, as we collect the minimalist belongings that we figure S can fit into his share of bedroom space in the residence hall. They supply all furniture, we supply bed linens, clothes, a clothes hamper, laundry supplies and toiletries, and all importantly S's PC and his laptop. Everything fits into a few of the cavernous suitcases that we haul every year on trips to India. A life condensed into the bare essentials. For everything else, there's the friendly neighborhood K-mart, that the maps of Manhattan assure us is just a couple of blocks away.

We spend a day scouting out the new location, before S is allowed to move in. I start to feel more and more at ease as we walk past the residence hall. There's a Trader Joe's supermarket within stone's throw, a Whole Foods another block away. Two of the few green spaces in Manhattan(Union Square and Washington Square) are both 5-10 minutes from the hall.  Bookstores galore, eateries galore (Dunkin Donuts in the same building, Subway, Pizza place, Chipotle right across the street.) The compact nature of urban living hits our suburban sensibilities with the promise of easy accessibility to food for our first-born. The one thing that I'm sure S will never lack, even considering that he is on a freshman's food plan in the university dining halls, is Food. 

So, we leave him there, waving to us as we leave the building for the parking garage a few blocks away. Mission accomplished, or started. How does S get from being a dependent adolescent to an independent adult, I wonder.

A day later, I chance upon a review of a documentary on film makers in the New York Times online. It's a must see for any serious connoisseur and student of film, 'worth a whole year of film school', raves the reviewer. In tiny letters at the bottom, 'playing at the Quad, xxxx E13th st, Manhattan'. I send the link to S via email, advising him to catch it if he can, not thinking too much of it.

I get a call in the evening. S is literally falling over his words in excitement. He went to see the film, and got to participate in a Q&A session with the director, it being the last day that the event was being held after the film show.

I was floored. That's where passion and interest will get you. It's for these kind of opportunities that we were willing to send him to the Big Apple, even if it came at the cost of proximity and comfort in selecting a university. I only hope that it gets him where he wants to be a few years from now in the film or television industry.




Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Very Bunny Tale

One misty moisty morning, when cloudy was the weather,
I chanced to meet an old man...

So goes the rhyme. But what I met was neither old, nor man. I set off on my morning walk as usual, admiring the pale yellowness of the mist enveloping all the trees. As I thought of walking up to see the sunrise over Southgate (love the alliterativeness of that phrase), a hare jumped away a few feet in alarm.  I stopped.

It watched me unflinchingly, and started to make little clicking sounds with its tongue. What was it saying, I wondered. Then it bent its head and started to lick its neck. I watched for a few more minutes (or was it seconds), continued to amble. I was suddenly aware that a very tiny something not more than a foot away from my feet, scurried into the shade of the pines. A baby bunny!

Mommy must have been instructing him. "Stay still, the human will pass by without noticing. Then move to the safety of the trees."

I left them to their breakfasts, and walked further down. Two more hares sat on the crumbling asphalt of a driveway, just beyond a line of untidy hedge. One browsed on the weeds in the potholes, moving slightly stiffly, while the other crouched, watching. The stiff movement caught my attention, and I watched them for a couple of minutes. The hare with the stiff leg moved around slowly. I thought initially that it might have been age, then realized that it was possibly hurt in the leg.

On, past the house with a newly planted 'Home Run' rose, complete with labelling from the pot, down towards the line of trees separating both halves of the road. I froze.

A baby bunny froze with me, and her watchful mother. The baby was right at the road's edge, munching on the weeds that lined it. The mother was in the grass, doing likewise.

How close would I be able to approach, before they hopped away?  I stepped carefully, slowly towards the middle of the road. Could I manage to pass through without disturbing either? Not likely, but worth a try.

A few steps. The baby held very still. The mother set back her ears. A few more steps.

I was about 2 feet away. The mother took off with leaping bounds, stopping in the grass about 30 feet away. The baby nearly simultaneously hopped into the safety of the tree divider, scooting into the pine mulch at the base, to blend with the soft browns there.

Sorry for interrupting your breakfast, bunnies.

I finished my walk back up the cul-de-sac and headed for home. No turkeys in sight, this morning, I thought. But no, there they were. The mother turkey and --what happened to the fourth baby turkey? I stopped and looked, as she clucked anxiously at her three.

A few days ago, I had seen her with four, and today there were three.

Such is life.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

All the World's my Garden

All plants are my plants.

A bad paraphrase of the Tamil saying "Yaadhum oore, yaavarum kelir" : a sentiment that conveys the sense of " All towns are ours, all men our kinsmen."

That's the impression I get after days of walks in the neighborhood. I stop every day to admire the variegated Lantana, carefully planted in miniature sequence with another yellow flower near the railway carriage mailbox.
The enormous butterfly bush waves at me as I walk past it. It must take a good square foot of ground space. I must remember to supply as much when I get around to planting the one that I got from the garden center. Maybe I shall even see some butterflies flitting around the flowers, later in the season.
The lawns are stressed out, turning straw brown. This is the fault of the Scotts lawn monoculture, where they hawk bags of grass seed guaranteed to grow fast, stay green (if watered and fertilized with Scotts fertilizer, naturally). Only, we don't water, neither do the neighbors, barring a few who have installed timed sprinklers, or who bring out the hoses and temporary ones. Our lawn, which is a multicultural experience, composed largely of older fine fescue and some ryegrass, clover, dandelion patches, moss, low growing assorted wildflowers ( I hesitate to call them weeds), has weathered the heat spell with minimal fuss or watering, shaded by the large 'noble' trees on our lot.
Strange but true- I wistfully watched the gorgeous greenery of the Kentucky bluegrass lawns in early spring, but am having the last laugh as I watch those lawns turn to yellow, while our 'sad sack' of a lawn, untidy as it is, but shaded by massive maples and oaks, remains peacefully green in the midsummer heat.
The pines give me a whiff of resin as I pass by. Little solid drops on the tree trunks gleam as the sunlight hits them. I scrape one off and crush it between the fingers. The piney smell becomes unbearably intense,  the finger feels unpleasantly sticky, a simple swipe with a tissue won't do to remove it. It's going to take a good scrubbing to go away.

There's a little fairy garden on the far end of one of the lots. Small scale plants, with a little brown bridge, a couple of arches and (presumably ceramic) toadstools for effect. It looks lovely, even though I see it from a distance of about 5 feet, hesitating to trespass on the mulch to get a closer look. Some day, perhaps I can persuade M to try making one of these. Or not. The charms of the internet and allure of mindless TV beckon over the heat and humidity of digging in dirt.



Wednesday, June 27, 2012

M is for Macro

 An M's eye view of the world. She is still experimenting with her camera settings, and complains about how shaky her hand is. But it results in some amazing shots, like these.








Sunday, June 24, 2012

Quill vs. Feather

Sometimes, the best things in life are free.

It struck me quite forcefully today, as I  came back from my morning walk. I start early, before the sun is more than an orange red ball in the east, and the air is not yet befouled by the fumes of the early morning cars. Most people are still abed, and my main encounters are  with the hares that hop away in alarm from the clover patches,  the robins that fly off to  the low shrub branches, scolding me for disturbing their breakfast, and the occasional turkey or deer peering watchfully at my gait to check if I am headed for them.

A few weeks ago, we had bought a rather expensive boxed 'quill set' at a historical site's gift shop. M wanted to try calligraphy using the beautifully styled feather with a nib and the tiny ink-bottle that came with it. Unfortunately, as lovely as it looked, we soon realized that the feather inserted into the fancy holder (shaped like a musical treble clef notation) was purely ornamental and of no use whatever in drawing up the ink through its capillaries, even though the metal nib looked quite capable. M was frustrated that the quill would not write, since it was incapable of holding ink.

Today as I walked, there lay at my feet a large feather. It was a bit straggly about the ends, but the pointed tip was well formed and would make a gorgeous quill, if cut properly. I picked it up and continued on my route, at risk of appearing crazy to any humans I might encounter on my walk.
Was this feather from a  turkey (Benjamin Franklin's favorite, that he favored over the Bald Eagle as the official symbol of the U.S) or  a crow? I couldn't tell for sure.

I continued on the route, and as I approached a small corner wilderness tamed into a mowed lawn with trees and a plastic bench, no part of a property, but nevertheless with a small mailbox, I saw a turkey cross in front from there, hurrying her brood of seven babies with her.

I must have gotten a turkey feather, I thought. And sure enough, there lay another similar feather in front in the mini-park. This had a split end though and I was a bit disappointed. But a few steps away there was a perfectly formed large feather, even better than the first one that I picked up.

After I reached home, I tucked away the feathers in a little container on the kitchen counter, to await M after she wakes up. I will show her how to trim the edge at a slant to approximate a nib , so she can finally try her hand at the quill calligraphy, albeit with a free quill that would function properly, rather than an expensive dud.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Clean Slate

It's been a long while since I wrote a garden blog post. That's because my garden has been in cold storage, so to speak.
Last year, tiring of the never-ending lawn chores, my husband hired a lawn care service to mow the lawn and clean out the beds of the thistles that had overtaken them. Unfortunately, while they were enthusiastic with the weed whacker, they didn't know enough about which were ornamentals and which were weeds. As they removed everything, including old mulch, with a vengeance, I lost many of my painstakingly grown perennials ( Sob, sob, goodbye Coneflowers and farewell tulips!) Incidentally, he decided that the ox-eye daisies, technically a weed, were ornamentals, and left those painstakingly in place. How annoying!
I was so disgusted with the whole thing, that I let it be for a whole year without attempting to add new plants. But hope springs eternal. This spring I felt the urge to surround myself with colors and new plants to fill the voids left, including the one resulting from the removal of a hedge of hollies near our deck that my husband had always decried. "What is this useless stuff, nothing but berries and thorns?"
I planted rose bushes where the hollies once stood. Just as thorny, but producing profusions of great yellow flowers that even my husband couldn't question, as they looked fantastic. These were end-of-season clearance from the local grocery, and were very unfussy prolific bud producers. I rounded those out with a tiny 'Knockout' rose and a blue hydrangea that I thought would like the partly shaded spot.Never mind if the colors don't match exactly. Martha Stewart's garden, this ain't!
Other than that, I decided to restore an azalea to a spot where it once stood, cut down some years ago because the older shrub was growing too straggly. No more unidentifiable perennials to be mowed down by an clueless lawn guy. A substantial, tagged shrub would not be weed-whacked out of existence. Annuals would add some color, and I wouldn't feel too bad about those being cut down by mistake, so in went a few petunias, celosia, and lobelia in assorted locations, both ground and pots.
Bee balm ( and I swear that I saw a hummingbird darting around it a few days ago), daylilies, tall phlox, sedum, a mini-rhododendron and a peony rounded up my list for a long problematic area near our deck. Once in the early years, it used to be a wildlife wonderland with assorted vines and a line of arborvitae separating our plot from the neighbor's. But it was deemed too untidy and to be removed and mulched over. When the removal was complete and mulch in place, I attempted planting some bulbs which enlivened only the spring. By summer, it became a fiesta of fleabane and thistles, some growing as high as 6 feet tall.  I spent some time and energy putting in black eyed susan, Russian sage, lavender, and assorted daylilies. All were now gone in the most recent sweep, along with the mulch which lent some depth to the area.
Now I went in there, adding in my new acquisitions.  I still need to put in a few more, then will place down newspaper and mulch surrounding the plants. Let me see if these will survive into the next season, despite clueless lawn guys and itinerant turkey and deer that love to munch on these kinds of delicacies. 
My English and French lavender survived the plant holocaust, fenced in as they were in my old vegetable garden. They have grown tremendously, producing profusions of fragrant blossoms, the delight of bumblebees and honeybees that buzz around incessantly from sun up till sun down.
I cut down the humongous thistles growing there and have put in a couple of cheap flats of an Early Boy hybrid tomato and a solitary zucchini. I will start pole beans and okra from seed. Again, no fear if I take off a couple of weekends this summer on road trips. If they survive they will, if not I shall not worry to much about them.

Here's a sampling of photos from my garden:



Celosia

Rose

Hydrangea



Daylily



Phlox

Lavender


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Welcome to Pigsburgh!

O give me a road,
Where the pot-bellied pigs roam,
Where the cars are just parked in a line,
Where they crawl every day
Down the slowest Parkway
Just under the Pigsburgh sign.

(to the tune of Home on the Range)

I join the morning crawl, on one of the US' slowest commutes, only bettered by knotty gnarls in New York city and Los Angeles- the dreaded Parkway West.
This morning seemed no different. I reached the midpoint from the Carnegie on-ramp around 8:05 am, top of Greentree Hill by 8:20, Fort Pitt tunnel by 8:42. A good and routine time, whiled away by practicing my singing, while trying not to spook the driver ahead of me by making faces that would be visible in her rearview mirror.
In doing so, I missed the drama unfolding behind me, the legend of the nattily attired Pot Bellied Pig who trotted down the 'fast' lane of the Parkway. A little pig, wearing a scarf, made its way onto the parkway, running past bemused observers, some of who got out to photograph the phenomenon.
This is one little pig, who lost its way from the market, and hopefully, made it all the way home. It scurried into the woods after some distance.
I guess that there is a silver lining to the slow crawl traffic on the Parkway every morning, otherwise the little pig would have been turned into bacon, rather than surviving its adventure by the hairs of its chinny-chin-chin.

More photos and a funny radio commentary

Update: Not to be out done by a pig, a bull and a cow stopped the traffic on Route 28, today.
What's next, horses horsing around Route 19? At this rate, Pittsburgh should rename itself to Farmsburgh, given that the traffic is being tied up so frequently by domesticated animals.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The One that Got Away

We had gone on a school trip to a nature preserve last week. One of the highlights of the experience was for the kids to fish in the lovely lake, stocked with bass, bluegill and other types of sunfish.
M looked dubiously at the bamboo fishing rod she was handed. The sharp hook at the end gleamed in the sun. "Do I have to put the worm on?"
"I will", said her gym teacher, fishing out a fat nightcrawler from the bucket she held. She dextrously maneuvered it on to the hook, still wriggling a little. (Ouch, wouldn't that hurt? The internet is not much use in resolving the question of whether they feel pain- one site suggests no, because no organs associated with pain sensing are located in the very simple nervous system, another site suggests yes, because the worms are known to produce opioid substances which would serve no purpose other than pain relief. Well, at least this site offers a more reasoned discussion.)

Anyway, the worm was on the hook, and M trotted off to the dock, which was getting crowded with other kids trying to fish. A few minutes later, heeding the suggestion of a friend, M decided to move to another location, less congested, but requiring a mini-hike through the bushes, brambles and rocks. I followed, the better to keep an eye on the group.

At the slightly rickety dock, dipping in the middle, M wandered from point to point aimlessly, casting the rod again and again, in a sort of rotation with her friends doing the same thing. It's going to be a long hour, I concluded after 10 minutes of this. One of the other kid's moms also arrived at the dock around this time. Her daughter raised up her pole: "A big fish just came by and took the worm off my hook!", she complained.  M was in the vicinity, and I could see the big fish slithering around in the shallows. "Do you want to try and see if it will come to your bait?"

Not a few seconds later, M shrieked in surprise and lifted the rod out the water, struggling with the weight. "I caught him, I caught him!". The other mother came running to help her, while I struggled with the camera, trying to snap a shot of the moment. The fish was a good-sized one, with dark back and white belly, about 8-10 inches long at least, thrashing frantically. In no time, it dislodged from the hook and lay on the dock, continuing to thrash, while I caught a photo of a disbelieving M staring at the now vanished worm from the hook.

The fish flopped so hard that it practically propelled itself off the dock, with the other mom's hand helping it back, into the water where it belonged. All done with in the matter of a less than a minute.
"I think the fish scratched me!", pointing to a tiny red mark on the wrist,"Something on the spine may have done this."
"You may want to get an antiseptic cream to put on that", I suggested. She looked dubious and decided to lick it instead. "Saliva will do just fine."

M, meanwhile, hopped around screaming at her highest pitch "It was a demon fish, a demon fish. I tell ya!".
Back at the shed where we handed back the rods, we heard another similar story from another girl. Only, her mother hadn't been able to get a photo of the fish before that one got away.

'There's a moral in all this, girls', opined the teacher."You won't understand it now, but when you're older. Remember that men are like fish, they always get away."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Makeover for the Market

I managed to skim my way through the Hunger Games trilogy, which came well-recommended by M, who devoured the whole set in a couple of weeks. Or rather the two-book set that was shaped into a three-book set that will be made into a four-movie set.

Book 1 was good, both the writing, characters and plot-line. Book 2 had me starting the skimming rather than reading around chapter 3 or 4. Why the endless descriptions of food and makeovers, all in the voice of the main protagonist? She didn't seem the type to linger on these, if one were to go by the persona established in the first book. By the time one arrives at  a repeat of the Games in the second half of Book 2, I decided to rush through to the final pages to find out what the plot twist was that would keep readers waiting for Book 3.
Book 3, started off promisingly enough, and was surprisingly coherent in tone compared with Book 2, as far as inner voice of protagonist goes. Katniss sounds like herself once more. Of course, there are long tediously detailed descriptions of battle scenes, but most seem to be geared towards the inevitable screenplay rather than merely advancing the action. Then the final chapters, the moral of the story,  the carefully-created tidy-but-not-too-tidy ending.

The whole thing gives me fodder to ruminate on what the publishing industry does to a good premise or start of a book to make it more marketable to a global audience. Pick a promising author, polish him/her, give the book a makeover nearly as complete as Katniss's Beauty Base Zero, release it to the world as the Next Big Thing in Books and Movies and Multimedia. Sit back, relax and watch the millions of dollars roll in.

So, the book that would have made a good 2-book set is stretched, with some not-so-great fillers, into a three-book set. The movies that should have terminated in one single blockbuster, get stretched out to a four-set with the last one having parts I and II. Sound familar? Of course, it's Harry Potter and Twilight all over again.

Plagiarism accusations abound, but are hushed or dismissed ('Battle Royale' anyone, or  hints of 'Lord of the Flies' in the savagery unleashed at the games?) Suzanne Collins maintains her inspirations were from the circuses of ancient Rome, witness the ostentatious selection of character names from Roman and Greek history and mythology.  It is a perfect mishmash of influences, headed by a very attractive heroine standing in for a cross between Artemis/Diana with the bow and arrows, and Scarlett O'Hara in her I-will-survive mode.  Too many tropes to count swirl across the pages, from reality show unrealities ( American Idol, Survivor) , to cyanide pills (Tamil Tigers, anybody), to flaming bombs on children and PTSD (does anyone remember Vietnam?), to utter annihilation of a city (Hiroshima? Nagasaki?), the horrors of wars past (not including the Holocaust, which must have been overused for the author to incorporate, or didn't fit in with this theme.) Maybe even Margaret Atwood, Queen of Dystopian fiction and her totalitarian worlds in Oryx and Crake with its mutant pigoons and rakunks.

Here is a link to the New York Times article about the series and an interview with the author (hat tip to Sujatha Bagal of Blogpourri in her essay about her and her son's reaction to Hunger Games. )

What will be the Next Big Thing, when will it arrive? We will find out after Mockingjay-II is done with its final release date set in stone. By then, Someone-Else will have been picked up, groomed and had the preliminary buzz build-up, while Suzanne Collins, like J.K.Rowling,  may rest on her laurels in a golden sunset of retirement in a soft green valley growing greenbacks, perhaps working on a new 'blockbuster'.

(Thank Dickens! M is now onto the next Big Thing in her world, which is reading Great Expectations in the original. And what an original it is, far removed from the morose greys and blacks of the film version that triggered the interest. And, it is all free, thanks to the expiration of copyright. So no film conglomerate can claim it as their own, though they can come out with ever newer versions of it with different actors, to keep this franchise going.)




Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Winter that Wasn't

a winter.

The snowdrop near my front door always shows up at the end of January. I like to think of this particular snowdrop  as 'January's fair- maid', not like Tennyson's 'February Fair-maid'.

Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!"

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


It's quite nice to see the flower peeking up cheekily, even through the snow that sometimes covers it.

But this time, my January fair-maid decided to show up at the end of December, even before I left for my India trip, and had me wondering what that portended for a winter that hadn't quite got into its stride.

We are now in early March, and I saw the first crocuses, which normally show up in early April. My tulips and daffodils have been showing early activity as well. The tulips are putting out their shoots, while the daffodils have started budding.

The maple trees have started early on their buds.  I feel the effect on my nose, as tree pollen shows up earlier in the allergy forecasts. The moss has taken over the lawn in spots, the moderate temperatures and water-logged soil provide it with perfect conditions to overtake the few wisps of grass that remain.
We have had precious little snow this winter. There were a few desultory 2-inch days, but with a ground that never quite froze, nothing stayed on the ground for long, it seemed.
After having gotten used to significantly colder and snowier winters, this year seems like a respite, but there is a certain anxiety and restlessness. If winter just becomes an extended prelude to spring, without any of its usual attributes of extreme cold and frequent heavy snows, would it be winter any more?
  It feels rather like listening to a melody, without the dramatic crescendos in the flow of the theme. There is no tension building up, and no relief as the theme descends from its not-so-high peak. All that we get is a faint sense of disappointment.
So this is the winter that wasn't, disappointing in many ways, perhaps a relief in others. If this is 'global warming' or climate change though,  I'm not sure that I'm all for it.




Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sari Forever

I  admit that I was the first in my family to abandon the sari. As a teen, the salwar-kameez that was just coming into vogue seemed much more practical, less restrictive and freeing. Even to the point of ditching the dupatta/chunni that was de rigueur for modesty/warmth in North India. I would happily go around in various salwar-kameez combinations, ignoring the piles of saris that got added to regularly by my mother, who was and still remains a major sari-maniac.
Of late, though, the charms of saris have started to beckon to me. Never mind that it is primarily a special-occasion wear now. But I did indulge in sari-shopping this time around on my visit to India. There was the mandatory silks that were gifts from my mother, my in-laws, all necessitating rushed trips to the tailor to get the blouses stitched in the few days that I had. A visit to a sari-shop is always dazzling to the senses. So many colors, fabrics, tossed with elaborate carelessness by the assigned salesperson, hoping to catch the eye of the customer. Just when you fixate on one particular sari is when some other customer wistfully sneaks up beside you to either finger or look at the same, while your grip tightens on it possessively.  "This is the one I should get, before the other tries to snatch it away."
For the last few months, my eyes kept following the headlines "Hermès is introducing a line of saris to be sold in high-end boutiques', a much ballyhooed  entry made into the Indian market. $6100 or thereabouts for one of those? I knew that it was doomed to failure at that price point, except perhaps among the Lakshmi Mittals of the world. Considering that Indians have always demanded value for money, what value did the Hermès saris provide other than bragging rights for $6100? Precious little, I would say, the same amount of money spent on a noname Indian specialty sari (Kanjivaram, Banarasi, Balucheri, Mysore...) would get not only the top quality, but also a beauty that could be passed on as an heirloom to at least a couple of generations in the future.
So, I have come to praise the sari, not bury it. I only wish that I knew more styles than the traditional 'Nivi' to wear it. Especially the '9-gajam' variant that I saw my grandmothers wearing, old fashioned as it was. Now, however, there are a multitude of useful Youtube videos that show every method from the basic Nivi to all sorts of regional variants. Perhaps I will set aside a day for experimenting on these, with M as the model, since she will likely be able to make use of it for dance performances with her dance school (they do folk dances as well as Bharatanatyam).
I was thrilled to find a page on 'How to wear a sari' with simple line drawings in the "Daring Book for Girls", so guess what M got from the book store recently.  And hope to pass on at least a whiff of sari-mania to a daughter who is probably going to be much more comfortable in jeans than salwars (which she does wear routinely for dance classes) or saris.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Happy New Year 2012

A rather belated set of New Year Wishes to all my readers for 2012!

I have just returned from a short dash to India and back to visit my family. These kinds of trips are always sagas in themselves, even if the duration has been shortened from the months needed for ship voyages to just hours on planes. I traveled on one of the few airlines where you were not assaulted with Christmas music over the PA system all the time, or manned by stewards/stewardesses with Santa Hats, so Christmas Day 2011 itself passed in a bleary eyed sleepiness of reclined seats, wakeups for feedings, occasional trots down the aisle (must fend off Deep Venous Thrombosis at all costs). No sign of Santa flying outside. Or rather, M was too dazzled with the inflight entertainment to care.
Next time, I could lighten my handbag and her backpack with lot less reading material. We did not crack open any books during the flights. Or maybe I should just get a Kindle or Nook or tablet.
The 12-14 hour flights are murder on the back and legs, of course, but Emirates has the best and most comfortable seats in Economy class, with the way their A-380's are configured. We always had enough wiggle room, even with the seats before us reclined.  Of course now, I ought to be cautious about singing the praises of the A-380, given that premature wing rib cracks are causing some concern in various airline fleets. But it is a supremely comfortable aircraft.
The Economy class isn't as fantastic as the First Class, but the slideshow had me in a fit of giggles " Divider that you can lower to talk to your neighbor?" And the 'fully stocked mini-bar' (Pity the keffiyeh-ed gentleman, who has to settle for a tame cup of orange juice, despite the fancy vodkas, handcrafted liquors etc.) But I do envy them the total flat bed. That is worth every penny they charge for it, obnoxious (and block-offable) neighbors with mini-bars or not.

As for India: the more it changes, the more it remains the same. There will be more of this trip and observations in future blog posts.