Sunday, September 25, 2011

Garden Highlights

The garden is a big source of satisfaction and serenity to me. Some highlights of how it turned out this year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bullying in the Online World

It’s very hard for me to learn about kids that are driven to commit suicide due to unbearable bullying in school. Almost every month, I hear of some unfortunate story. There was a documentary I watched a while back that makes a strong case for recognizing bullying as a punishable offense by law. Some states have brought such laws into effect, but for the most part the debate continues on the ambiguity of what is bullying, when does it cross the line to turn into an offense, and who are responsible for it. 
Some amount of bullying is part of growing up in any animal society. It either makes one tougher, or affects one deeply as to stunt their confidence, self-esteem and psychological growth. Perhaps due to more awareness, wider news coverage, the power of social media, or the gradual changes in the personalities of the newer generations, it seems like there are more children who are drastically affected by bullying. Children - the very definition of innocence and goodness, also seem to bear a cruel streak. Even in kindergarten, there are those little bullies that don’t hesitate to tease, push, hit, and dominate over the docile ones. They are capable of being relentlessly merciless to kids that are different and “weaker” than them in any sense. Perhaps it’s the indelible animal instinct that wakes up and flares until it is tamed by discipline and social norms. Perhaps it can be attributed to genes and chemical imbalances in the brain. Or more regrettably, it’s due to parental negligence, resulting in low-self esteem and the need to assert one’s superiority and buried frustrations on the weaker ones. Whatever the reasons, it continues to shock and horrify me to encounter such kids. It surprises me even more that in this land of abounding school counselors and therapists, these kids still grow into hardened bullies, and the bullied kids receive inadequate reprieve or weak support systems to deal with the harassment. 
But according to me, there is one obvious factor that has pushed bullying to intolerable heights in today’s age. Thanks to the immense power of social media, one demeaning post, one embarrassing picture, or one painful video can go viral, reach out to thousands, and shatter the dignity and tender feelings of a bullied kid. It’s much more easier to tease, gossip, spread horrendous rumours, photoshop/morph photos, and engage in dark-humor with a wider audience of thousands and millions. I see kids under 10 years having their own facebook profiles because they simply entered a fake age to set up the account. In the hands of such kids who are unaware of the power and far-reaching impacts of the Internet and social media, the worst gets showcased. They have no understanding of privacy or security. A while back, online chat forums proved to be disastrous for kids, today it is the seemingly safe and “useful” world of  social networking. In addition to such forums depleting their precious time with aimless acitivites, they prove to be channels that unleash instincts that are carefully repressed in the real world. And it’s all done with impunity. This has been said numerous times before, but I feel the need to say it again. 
Of late, I have started to firmly believe that we need newer branches of the social sciences to study the evolution of human society as influenced and shaped by the Internet. There are numerous impacts that ripple out as the virtual and real worlds intersect. The dynamics of social interactions in online social forums and networks is vastly different from what we are used to in the real world. There are different rules, structures, and consequences. We need to understand how to reliably restrict access and control to this sphere, just as how we try to restrict access to books, movies, information, food, drinks, and environments in the physical space. The process gets more complicated and more ambiguous for sure. Freedom of expression takes a slightly different color in the virtual world. Boundaries are even more blurred and confusing. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re dealing with a whole new world. Nothing is solved by applying stop-gap solutions based on trial and error stemming from our basic comprehension of the real world dynamics. Everything cannot be extrapolated directly from the real world to the virtual world. More thoughtful research is necessary. 
In the meanwhile, perhaps we have some responsibility in speaking out to friends and family that naively encourage and or ignore their kids’ online activities.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections: The Thorn Birds

How do I start writing about this book or the epic tale. I waited long enough for words and the right thoughts, but I don’t think any words of mine will do justice to the book.

This book is not for a young audience, for I myself didn’t find anything impressive enough to want to read it when I was young. The language seemed good, the plot was surely scandalous to tug you into reading it, but I didn’t find enough soul or substance in the book to finish it. But upon reading it now, my experience was totally different. And I can’t put that feeling down in words.

The plot is a family saga that spreads through three generations. The Cleary family is an eclectic mix. They relocate to Drogeda in the Australian outbacks upon the demand of their wealthy and embittered aunt, Mary Carson, who subtly starts training the Clearys to eventually take over the sprawling acres of Drogeda. Father Ralph de Bricassart is a charming and kind priest in Drogeda, working around the whims and fancies of Mary Carson. The priest’s benevolent heart is drawn towards the young and neglected Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of the Clearys. In his efforts to keep Meggie safe and happy, the priest pays special attention to the welfare of the rugged and good-natured Clearys, who generously reciprocate his kindness. But over the years, Ralph and Meggie’s affectionate bond grows into something poignantly powerful and inevitable. As the priest doggedly pursues his service and devotion to God, rising higher and higher in the Church, Meggie naively flounders in her life, falling and rising in her struggles to win what her heart desires.

This plot can be turned into something trite and shallow by an inexperienced writer. But Colleen McCollough captures the very depths of the soul and psyche of the characters through her wonderful, perceptive writing. McCollough is firstly a neuroscientist. That explains a lot, for her psychological definitions of the characters are brilliant. I have never before read a book that delves so expertly into all the characters’ psyche with such accuracy, insight, and beauty! Each and every character in this huge tale is developed so beautifully from their birth to their adulthood to the ways in which they grow, temper, and change over time and experience. When mortals like me struggle to understand the innate core of my personality and identity, here is an intelligent writer who sharply identifies the core of all her characters and retains the integrity of the core while masterfully describing the reasons for why some other characteristics evolve and harden over time.

And there is a reason why young readers may not see the beauty of such character development and transformation. We ourselves need to see and experience some of Life’s vagaries and ironies before appreciating the beauty of a writers’ expressions of them. For a naive idealist, everything about such books and characters may seem unnecessarily complicated. But having sensed that complexity within oneself and within the cycles of Life, it is moving to connect with such books and writing.

On the surface, it might seem like the book is making a statement against religion and its enforced rules and dogmatic stances. But that’s not all. It’s probably a secondary point. The primary point in this book is that some of us mortals are driven to rise above our nature and limitations to achieve a pinnacle of perfection that doesn’t exist. We force our way through Life trying to decline our basic instincts and necessities, viewing ourselves as special and capable of being different. But in all this struggle, it is essential to first acknowledge who we are in our unadulterated forms, to accept it, to be humble enough to see our faults and limitations before trying to perfect ourselves, however unrealistic the pursuit of perfection may be. Like thorn birds that look for thorns to impale themselves to sing the most beautiful song, we all hang on to difficult and torturous decisions, travel on roads less traveled, and choose to introduce challenges, for our Life takes on more meaning and depth when there is pain tingeing our pleasures - from motherhood to everything else.

In McCullough’s beautiful words - “The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters, there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breast, we know. We understand. And we still do it. We still do it.”