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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


I stood in line at the local department store, clutching a couple of tops and a blouse, wondering why the person ahead was taking so long.
To my left, a family with a little girl belted firmly in the stroller. She yelled loudly "Appa..." and my mind categorized them firmly as 'another desi family'.
The cashier wasn't done yet with the man at the register. He stood, looking thin and worn out,  in a leather or pleather jacket and jeans, with an 8 or 9 year old daughter in pigtails standing at his side. A toddler with cropped hair wearing a floral dress over leggings padded about in bare feet around the store display, while her sister watched her from a distance, not attempting to go after her, just holding silently to an empty umbrella stroller.
The line behind me was growing longer, the whiff of impatience growing stronger with little murmurings behind me. The toddler waved about what looked like a gift card and wrapper, her father looked desperately in the direction of the shoe aisle, waiting, as he clutched a discount card and flyer.
A loud voice announced something about buying a dress, behind me. In Tamil. Ok, so that means 'desi family' was actually Tamilians shopping in the store.
Hmm, what about the harassed father with two daughters? They looked faintly desi, but not quite.
Just then, a very young lady with a highly decorative hijab, blue with embroidery and a small sparkly fringe, wearing an equally pretty blue kameez and pants, rushed up to the counter, carrying a winter jacket.
The man sighed in relief as the cashier finished up the sale and rang them out, smiling broadly as he handed over the discount coupon. The mother looked frantically a moment for the toddler and retrieved her from near the dishcloth display, perching her on the hip with a swift efficiency. The gift card fell unnoticed to the middle of my path to the cash register.
Should I pick it up or ignore it? No matter, a bare half minute, the older daughter darted in, picked up the gift card, and adroitly put it back in with the other gift cards at the sales counter.
Sale done, the whole family trundled out the door, discussing their purchases of bulky winter jackets that were almost surely a fantastic bargain, end-of-year clearance. Hopefully it will keep the girls warm as the weather turns cold in the fall.
The cashier seemed extra short and unfriendly to me as she went through the motions of ringing my purchases up, no matter that I finished up my transaction in a tiny fraction of the time of the previous customer. Maybe she was worn out from holding on to her civility for them, and not too inclined to be polite to any more brown people for the day.
If so, I'm glad that the young family ahead got the polite and patient treatment, even if I didn't. Let them have at least some more time to savor America as a welcoming refuge, even if time eventually disabuses them of that dream.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Lessons on a Sewing Machine

I'm not really a novice sewer, despite the impression that the title of this post might convey. But with my father's Tanglish aphorism of 'Inji-neer, chukku-neer' ( a pun on 'Engineer' and 'Ginger water') ringing in my memory, I undertook to repair my nearly 25-year old sewing machine, an appliance that I have lived with longer than with my own kids.
Flashback: I went out on my birthday to pick out a suitably decorous birthday present as a new bride. A lovely pair of opal studs caught my eye and it was duly paid for and boxed up in a delicate little jewelry box,. But the price tag was a sore trial. At $150, it seemed like a small fortune to me, especially considering it against what we might have paid in rupees.
I went home and rethought the 'investment'. The opals and the 18k gold of the studs were of no real value, it wasn't going to appreciate in price, and the amount seemed too steep to pay. I hesitantly spoke with my husband and asked if we could return the studs and instead get a less decorative, but to my mind, a more valuable gift for about the same amount. And so we did. I came home the next evening, the proud owner of a new Singer 5932 machine with 23 stitches and 4-step buttonhole.
Now, so many years and plenty of miscellaneous sewing of clothes and home furnishings later, the machine was still chugging along just fine till last week.  I needed to make a small modification to a new dress, and disaster struck. 
Without being too technical about it, the sewing machine has a presser foot lowering lever, which somehow lost the spring loading that kept the fabric pressed up properly against the feed and advanced the fabric as the motor was running. I couldn't sew, period, as the presser foot wouldn't go on, and with no way to insert the needle correctly.
Armed with a couple of old screwdrivers, I started to take apart the machine, and identified what might have been a problem part. But part of the problem was that it appeared to look just fine, not broken or in need of replacement. I googled to price the replacement part and found it to be around $12 with shipping. That won't be too expensive, I thought, as I started to put the removed parts back together again. Maybe I should go ahead and get that and try to replace it, painful as it might be to manipulate that part in place. But it might not fix the problem, and then what?
Problem #2: - I had failed to note how I dismantled the machine, and struggled mightily to get everything back together. Did the black screw go here or there? Why am I having to press this part hard against that in order to insert this screw? Oh dear, I need a third hand here! I called my highly-amused husband to help with tightening that screw.
"Why do you struggle so much over a 25-year old machine? Just get rid of it and get a new one."
He had a point. I abandoned trying to close the machine, with its screws incorrectly positioned and all, and spent a happy hour on the internet, looking up replacement sewing machines.
A day later, I placed an order online and avidly tracked the shipment, with the new sewing machine delivered at my doorstep in a couple of days.  I unboxed it, admired it to my heart's content, with critical eyes that noted however that (a) it had more plastic parts than the older model, including some high-use parts that were sure to be candidates for replacement sooner rather than later (b) the lighting was  a tiny white LED, more energy efficient for sure, but hardly helpful for ageing eyes. Threading this needle was going to be a painful endeavour, unless I learned to use the autothread mechanism in a jiffy. (c) Bobbin sizes were much larger than the old one. How annoying, I might not be able to use all of the old bobbins then.
I started the sewing, and well pleased with the new machine's performance,  happily finished my project, plotting all the while what to do with the old one.
Next, I looked online for suitable repair places and found what looked like the best option, a tiny old-fashioned repair store that was right on my way to work, owned by someone who sounded like a character from a novel. 'H.M. helped me repair my old vacuum, even though I thought it couldn't be fixed'. or 'He tuned and fixed my mother's sewing machine for a very reasonable price.' the reviews were few, but sounded quite genuinely heartfelt.
"Why bother with repairing it? Surely some sewing studio or the other will take it as it is as a donation and fix it themselves to be able to use it." -Another reasonable suggestion from Hubby.
I tried calling around, and no they did not want a 25-year old Singer, even if it had been in proper working condition, being tied in with an ecosystem of other manufacturers whose machines they sold to the customers. I was going to have to try sneaking it past the eagle eyes of the Goodwill or Salvation Army and see if they would take, disassembled/unrepaired as it still was.
Every evening, I took to dedicating 10 minutes of my time to going back and examining the disassembled sewing machine. Something clicked in my brain. This screw should go there, that screw should go here, this needed to be connected to that plate, and that one to this plate, and voila, everything would fall in place like a charm and I would finally be able to close the machine up correctly. Well, at least everything except for a  final horrible little screw that held the cover in place. But at least it all fit properly together.
Another day, and I decided, "Let me take another look at the spring assembly and try something that I had found on Google." Bingo, now the presser foot was raising and lowering better, closer to the way it should, though not yet quite right.
A third day, and I brought it down to the kitchen table with bright sunlight streaming down on it. Every part seemed ablaze with the light, and I could feel a sense of wellness as I happily unscrewed plates and took it apart for the nth time. It was an old friend whose insides were rapidly becoming as familiar as its outside had been all these years. Let me try one more adjustment, push up on this, unscrew and tighten that. Finally, the holy grail, a functional presser foot that moved up and down correctly. Time to reassemble and give it a try with stitching.
Alas, not so fast, the height was still incorrect. Take a deep breath, watch a couple more assembly videos on the internet ( of different unrelated sewing machines), disassemble and try again. Readjust the foot ever so carefully, and finally put it all back again. Worn out, getting to the final cosmetic screw, resort to cellotape to hold that in place in a couple of strategic points.
Rethread, start up the machine, lo and behold, my sewing machine was fixed, and I was super-thrilled of having lived up to the 'Inji-neer, chukku-neer' ideal!

Shall I give it away, or stash it away in case the brand-new delicate darling machine ever fails? I don't know. I shall temporize and keep it for a while till I decide.