As Summer winds up..

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The schools have opened today and last weekend was the last hurrah for most of the kids in my church. Everybody was back from visiting their relatives in far flung places, and just before they start on another year of school, we had our church retreat at Camp of the Woods, Albany.COTW is a Christian Retreat Centre in the Adirondack Mountains near Lake George.

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The cottages are named after native American tribes, some of them familiar, some very new (mine was Wichita). It was my very first time here, and I think I had a foretaste of heaven when I walked into my room that faced the beach front. The room basking in the warmth of setting sun rays streaming through the blinds, a pretty and clean beach to step out on to, strewn with nothing but the stars in the sky above, and a cosy room to retire for the night. What more can one ask for? Safety, scrumptious meals, quiet nooks and crannies – just the perfect setting to spend some time alone with God or with a group and have a spiritual renewal.

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The kids enjoyed the 18-hole miniature golf, and building sand castles on the beach. 11-month old Yohannan stepped into a pool for the first time in his life here. The teenagers went canoeing, and the guys of course played cricket. The campfire crackled with jokes and skits and songs and goodies from India were passed around while the moon shone serenely over this all. All this is in addition to the power packed sessions we had.

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I also got time to indulge in my love of photography, and time to stand in renewed awe at the vibrant ecstasy that only Nature, crafted by the Divine Creator can produce. How awesome it is of God to give us such a beautiful world. The Gospel of Matthew says, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” If this is what God gives us without asking, can you even imagine what He would grant us, if we asked according to His will? May God bless you in the seasons ahead.

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My Admin who Alphonsed

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Can you imagine how dry our languages would be if they hadn’t any metaphors or simlies or idioms or delightful little phrases? “As quiet as a church mouse”, “over my dead body”, “it rained cats and dogs”. Yes, I think communication wouldn’t just be same if it wasn’t peppered with these words that could almost visually evoke the feeling of the moment.

Every language dictionary has their standard stock of such phrases aimed to familiarize the learner with the language. But language, my dear, is a fickle friend. The same language changes across countries, regions of the same country, even over a generation. Have you walked into a new club, or a new school, or visited a new family and heard something that you had never heard before? To the true learner, it comes as a joy to unlock the doors that lead to the shared thoughts, ideas and history that cook up their unique and sometimes surprising set of phrases.

At work last week, I had reached out to the Admin group to request an access. They are quite prompt, but this time, it took a week. The access was accompanied by a delightful apology -“we might have Alphonsed and Gastoned this one”. I had never come across the term before. Who or what was Alphonse and Gaston?

Alphonse and Gaston, it turns out, was an American comic strip by Frederick Burr Opper, featuring a bumbling pair of Frenchmen with a penchant for politeness.The strip’s premise was that both were extremely polite, constantly bowing and deferring to each other. Neither could ever do anything or go anywhere because each insisted on letting the other precede him. Ah, now I understand why the request took a week in completing 🙂

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courtesy: Wikipedia

But here’s what surprised me the most – they first appeared in the New York Journal on September 22, 1901! I was being reintroduced to a catchphrase that was more than a hundred years old, though the admin guy did say that he’d heard the phrase in his childhood – and that there was some hockey commentator in Detriot who used the term pretty frequently. Wiki says, Their “After you, Alphonse.”, “No, you first, my dear Gaston!” routine entertained readers for more than a decade. The catchphrase continues to the present day, spoken in situations when a person receives a dare to do something difficult or dangerous or both; the catchphrase returns the dare to the person who made it. Sometimes it is said when two people are simultaneously trying to go through the same doorway and awkwardly stop to let the other go through.” Well, now you know the perfect phrase for such a situation 🙂

What new phrases have you learnt recently?

PS: All details of the comic strip Alphose and Gaston were got from Wikipedia

The thoughts and life of Jane Eyre

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Set in the 1800s in the English countryside, the intensity of the love between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester find their echoes in the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. It may be that I have drawn a non-existent parallel only because these books are written by sisters. However, the overarching desire to “possess” the one they loved was a common strain.

Cover of Jane Eyre, courtesy The Compulsive Reader

Jane is definitely a character to reckon with. As Jane says of herself, she is one of extremes, “I know no medium: I neverin my life have known any medium in my dealings with positive, hard characters,antagonistic to my own, between absolute submission and determined revolt. I have always faithfully observed the one, up to the moment of bursting, sometimes with volcanic vehemence.”

Beginning with the cruelty at Gateshead under the hands of her cousin John Reed, his mother and unsympatheic sisters, Jane looks upon life as misery and hates that she is dependent on relatives who are forced to provide her charity at the behest of her uncle on his deathbed. Her few glimpses of sunshine come from Bessie, a maid and a few books that talk of a life beyond the walls of Gateshead. A chance episode at Gateshead has Jane shipped off to school at Lowood, where under the guidance of the gentle and accomplished supervisor, Miss Temple, Jane goes on to become their brightest student and a teacher at Lowood.

The marriage of Miss Temple snap her ties to Lowood, and Jane gives impetus to the adventurer in her lurking beneath the staidness of Lowood. One has to compliment, a young woman of eighteen, who has never seen the world or known it’s ruffianry, advertising in the paper, seeking a position to further her independence. I think I was in awe of Jane then. But of course, good things happen to those who are brave, and a Mrs. Fairfax requested her services at Thornfiled Hall to be a governess to a girl of 10. It is here that the next phase of Jane’s life unravels. It is here she meets Adele, her charge, a simple, beautiful, spoilt child and Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester, the master of Thornton Hall, and who’s ward Adele is, a dominating, hard and sometimes savage man.

Over the weeks that pass, Mr. Rochester opens up to Jane the vista of his experiences, the treasure trove of his knowledge, his sharp wit and intelligence, his just and fair dealings, along with his disdainful outlook and burdened heart of his past life. She saw Paris through his eyes, visited the opera, met the Italian, his words and communion brought alive the adventures she had always sought.  Man’s greatest need is to be wanted, cherished, treasured for what one is. To know that what I do or say infinitely thrills someone, my endeavours are a service to someone, that I am the light of somebody’s life. Jane and Edward fulfilled these needs in each other and Mr.Rochester asks Jane to marry him, seeing her as the medicine and the hope for transformation and repentance of his old life.

It is at the altar that Jane learns that Mr.Rochester is already married, and the ground falls out beneath her. It is at this moment that the greatest moral dilemma presents itself to Jane. To enjoy the geatest joy life could ever offer her, succumb to the justification that the first wife was a “wife” no more but an error. Or to turn a blind eye to the entreaties of the one person who had loved her and she had loved in return and heed the high calling of principle, spurn the sweet joy of being Mr.Rochester’s mistress for a life of loss. Jane wouldn’t be Jane if she had not run off from Thornton Hall before daylight the next day. She travelled as far as she could with what little money she had and started a new life in the town of Morton. For days she went hungry and slept under the open sky, till on a rainy evening she forced herself into the house of the two Rivers sisters. The good sisters and their chaplain brother along with the housekeeper nursed Jane back to health from her famished, fatigued figure.

The sisters Diana and Mary prove to be soul sisters for Jane and the brother St.John finds employment for her in the town as the Mistress of a school that he has just opened for the little girls of the town of Morton. Life passes complacently by and not much is known or asked of Jane’s prior life till, the brother St.John gets a letter that entitles Jane to a fortune. Seeing Jane’s reaction to her coming into a fortune, and observing her many accomplishments, St.John, whose aim it was to be a missionary in the Eastern world, thinks that Jane would make a perfect missionary’s wife, and asks for her hand in marriage. Jane wonders at the doors that this would open. If she could not have Mr.Rochester, what binds her to England? However, Jane was true to herself and realises that she is a mere tool, albeit it very useful tool, in the hand of the missionary to establish his works in a lost land, and marriage to St.John was a mere convenience, an aid to his ambitions. Gentlemanly and of the highest Christian disposition though he was, Jane understood that St.John’s passion lay in his work, and no human could ever claim it, and she turned him down.

In the months that has intervened, Jane had not forgotten Mr.Rochester, and had even sent letters to Mrs.Fairfax on two occassions asking after the health of Mr.Rochester. There were no replies. She knew she had denied him life-giving breath by plucking herself out of his life, and now, even more she would not rest till she found out what had become of her master of Thornton Hall. The book ends with their reunion and what happens thereafter. Suffice to say, unlike Catherine and Heathcliff, the tomb was not the only place Jane and Edward rested side by side. And the book ends on a victorious note encumbering the reader of the blessing of a marriage based on the love of compatible minds – ” I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest–blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully is he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.”

On a parting note, it does amuse me however to see repeated charaters’s names. There are 4 Johns (The cousin John Reed, the chaplain St.John, the uncle John Eyre, and John the servant at Thornton Hall), 3 Janes (Jane, her mother and the daughter Bessie names after Jane). There are also 3 Marys. It makes you wonder why a lot of names are repeated :). And Jane’s submissiveness to a strong authority figure and rising to their improbable and exacting standards made me wonder if the “Jane” Quimby of Jane by Design was modelled on our very own Jane Eyre 🙂

The ingenuous Jane and her exacting boss, Gray Chandler Murray. Jane by Design Poster courtesy Zap2it

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Book cover – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, from Wikipedia

A wonderfully researched book into the history of the HeLa cells, the foundation for most of the cellular reasearch and break throughs that we’ve had in the last half century. The author Rebecca Skloot objectively presents the dilemma of the ethics of preserving human freedom, choice and dignity in the face of the progress of science which demands faithfulness only to itself.

The book starts with the life of Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920, in Virginia, one of 10 children, into the life of Tobacco farmers, growing in her Grandfather’s home-house with a bunch of cousins. She married Day, the cousin she literally grew up with. The Second World War created a huge demand for steel and led Henrietta and her family to move to a Steel Plant in Turner Station, Maryland with the help of her cousin, Fred Garret.

Just before the conception of her fifth child, when Henrietta started feeling a knot in her womb, she knew something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t until the birth of Joe, and the when the pains got unbearably worse that she went to Johns Hopkins and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The book then chronicles the growth, diagnosis and treatment of Henrietta’s tumours and her eventual death at the age of 31. The detailed description of the scientific knowledge available in the 1950s, of carcinomas, their treatment, the condition of hospitals all bring before our very eyes how little knowledge was available, how little we knew how to battle giants like cancer and other lethal illnesses.

Unbeknownst to Henrietta and her family, a sample of her cancerous cells were sent as part of a then routine procedure to head of Tissue Culture at Johns Hopkins, George Gey, who was attempting to grow the first immortal line of human cells. Gey’s lab colleagues had spent hours and years in the lab, culturing cells, meticulously following sterilizing rules, only to see the cells die after a few hours. Till they came across Henrietta’s (HeLa)cells. (Each sample was named after the first two letters of the patients first and last name). Not just a few hours, but even after two days, they were multiplying with a ferocious intensity, and finally the tissue culture unit at Johns Hopkins were able to rejoice they had made history with the first line of immortal human cells – with Hela.

Hela was initially sent to researchers across the globe, and later on was cultured and sold commercially, and went on to be the research material for many vaccines like the polio and small pox, and other experimental procedures as sending them off to space, exposing them to radiation and many other such potential life saving and life-enhancing initiatives. On the flip side, the author also beautifully brings out the ethical fuzziness that surrounds the use and exploitation of human tissue without consent. Can an excised mole be considered still the patient’s possession? Should hospitals and pharma companies make money off a patient’s discarded tissues? Is it ethical to study the tissues/DNA of a person without their consent? The book brilliantly raises questions, but does not make the mistake of providing answers, but instead takes us through what transpires in the family of Henrietta Lacks, when they find out almost 20 years later, that their mother’s cells now circle the globe and beyond.

This book is well worth a read, even if you are not a Biology major. Rebecca Skloot’s untiring efforts at getting to the truth behind Hela is commendable. However, I would have liked to understood better what made these cells “immortal”. The explanation of the telomerase that help rebuild the telomeres was helpful, but why it was so only in Henrietta’s cells? Her exposition of the medical practices prevalent in those times was an eye-opener to me, and most of the time horrifying. Let me give you an example – “Pneumoencephalography was a technique developed in 1919 for taking images of the brain, which floats in a sea of liquid. That fluid protects the brain from damage, but makes it very difficult to X-ray, since images taken through fluid are cloudy. Pneumoencephalograpghy involved drilling holes into the skulls of research subjects, draining the fluid surrounding their brains, and pumping air or helium into the skull in place of the fluid to allow crisp X-rays of the brain”. The book is of course more than just the retelling of the grisly medical practices of those years, and while legislation surrounding hospitals, health care and drugs have advanced to a great degree, we must remember that the Hippocratic oath and the Nuremberg Code are not binding. They are not law.

We may feel safe this century, because of the laws that protect us. But we must realise the laws are there, because of the abuse of Man. The more powerful and selfish a man gets, the more he seeks to destroy and exploit the weak and powerless. William Golding did not have to shipwreck a few boys on an island to show us the “Beast” in Man. Man’s depravity is measured by the laws our society and goverment passes (in order that we might not tear each other up).However, the Prophet Isaiah promised us hope in his book, that depravity would disappear when Man chooses to replace sin in his heart with the knowledge of God.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.”

“They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.”