Sunday, December 27, 2009

Strangling fig

In Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins describes strangling figs:
The story of the strangling figs is worth telling. The forest floor is a dark place, starved of solar energy. It is the goal of every tree in the forest to reach the open sky and the sun. Tree trunks are leaf-elevators, devices for lifting solar panels - leaves- above the shade of rival trees. Most trees are fated to die as saplings. Only when an adult tree in the immediate vicinity crashes down, overcome by gales and years, does a young sapling have its chance. At any one point in the forest, this lucky event may happen just once in a hundred years. When it does, there is a gold rush to the sun. All the saplings in the area, drawn from many species, enter a headlong race to be the one to fill the precious gap in the canopy.

But the strangling figs have discovered their own sinister short cut and their story would upstage the serpent of Genesis. Instead of waiting for an existing tree to die, they contrive the event. A strangling fig tree begins life as a climber. It wraps itself around an existing tree of another species and grows like a clematis or rambling rose. But, unlike a clematis, the strangling fig's tendrils continue to grow stouter and stronger. It relentlessly tightens its grip on the unfortunate host tree, preventing it growing and eventually achieving the botanical equivalent of throttling it to death. The fig tree has by now grown to a respectable height, and it easily wins the race to the patch of light vacated by the stifled tree. The banyan tree is a kind of strangling fig with an added, remarkable, feature. Having smothered its original host, it sends out aerial roots which, when they hit ground, become proper, absorbing roots but, above ground, serve as additional trunks. So the single tree becomes an entire wood which may be 1,,000 Feet in diameter and can provide shelter for a medium-sized covered market in India.
When someone mentions anything about MRI (even if it does not have anything to do with me) I am reminded of strangling figs. Thinking of lying in the narrow space inside an MRI machine makes me feel like the tree being smothered by a strangling fig.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Who would believe that so small a space could contain all the images of the universe? – Leonardo da Vinci, on the eye.

I was reading about the discovery of the Chauvet caves, which has wall paintings dated at about 32,000 years old, in Evolution : The Triumph of an Idea.
Chauvet's team followed a mule path through the oaks and boxtrees until they reached a cliff, and there they found a hole. The hole was barely big enough for them to stoop their way inside, and they soon found themselves in a downward-sloping passageway a few yards long. It might well have been a dead end, but among the rubble at the end of the passageway they felt a slight draft.

The three of them took turns pulling the rocks away from the passageway, lying on their stomachs, heads downward. Finally they cleared a way through, and Deschamps, the smallest of the three, wriggled her way forward 10 feet. She found that the passageway opened at its end. When she cast her flashlight ahead, the beam soared out into a giant gallery, its floor 30 feet below.
I suddenly felt nervous and my heart started racing. I felt as if I was trapped in a narrow passage, unable to see anybody or to wriggle out. The feeling was inexplicable because I had watched programmes on spelunking on TV without any problems. I think that it happened because I have become so reliant on my eyes to communicate that the thought of not being able to see anything made me nervous. Sometimes a cloth accidentally covers my eyes and I feel more helpless than a shorn Samson.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What you see is not the whole story

For a few years after the stroke people used to suggest that I be taken to some hospital where some doctor will cure me in a few months. When asked whether there was a bed with railings and adjustable upper half (which is required for giving feeding), we will be told not to worry about such small things. When asked if there are facilities for attenders to stay, we will be told that it can be arranged. When Jaya will wonder about where to leave Sujit, the refrain will be that it should not be a problem. For everything there will be some such vague answer. But as usual, the devil lies in the details and it will be for Jaya to worry about them.

I think watching me sitting relaxed in the front hall for an hour or two, they perhaps did not realise that Jaya and the nurse had to put in some hours of hard work to make me presentable. If I have to travel at 10 a.m., they will probably have to get up around 5 a.m. in order to get me ready. I myself will not have to do anything more taxing than lying quietly watching TV while I am being pulled this way and that (and getting worried about what all could go wrong).

Once Jaya had to attend her cousin's wedding. The nurse was on leave at the time and was to return on the morning of the wedding. Jaya decided that she will go for the wedding if the nurse returned otherwise she will skip it. One person said that she should not skip the wedding and that if the nurse doesn't return he will stay back. After all, he reasoned, it should not be too difficult to take care of me - I will just be lying on the bed watching TV and giving feeds is easy. Jaya asked him what he will do if I wanted to pass urine or motion. He uttered an 'Oh!' It was the first time it had occurred to him that such unpleasant things were involved. I could see his hitherto 'can do' expression becoming sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.

Probably, after interacting with me for a brief while, it does not occur to some that looking after me may be a bit like what is often said about legislation and sausages- the outcome is more pleasant to contemplate than the process that went into making it .

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My homebody disposition

Any suggestion that would require me to travel gives me a daymare. Occasionally, family members will ask me to accompany them to somebody's house. I will balk at all such suggestions but very occasionally I will succumb to the entreaties and agree to travel. Such instances would have caused Jeeves to observe, 'A somewhat sharp crisis in your affairs would appear to have been precipitated, sir.' I would be beset by all sorts of anxieties - Would my gastrostomy leak and cause pain (as it sometimes does) making me want to lie down? Would I suddenly want to pass motion? would Jaya have to attend to some phone call leaving me with no means of communication?

People around me are always willing to help but it is not much use if they cannot understand what I am telling. Some famous neurologist whose name I forget said,'When I point look at where I point not at my finger'. Many people have the habit of looking at my face instead of looking at where I am looking with the result that they remain baffled about what I am indicating.

I think the biggest reason for my reluctance to travel is the perception of loss of control, however illusory, of my surroundings. In my room I know what is kept where, where the switches for the fan and lights are, etc. Folks at home can easily make out what I want . If I want to suddenly pass motion or urine, the appropriate steps can be taken immediately. This is not easy when I am out of my home. In Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky says:
Place two people in adjoining rooms, and expose both to intermittent noxious, loud noises; the person who has a button and believes that pressing it decreases the likelihood of more noise is less hypertensive. In one variant on this experiment, subjects with the button who did not bother to press it did just as well as those who actually pressed the button. Thus, the exercise of control is not critical; rather, it is the belief that you have it. An everyday example: airplanes are safer than cars, yet more of us are phobic about flying. Why? Because your average driver believes that he is a better-than-average driver, thus more in control. In an airplane, we have no control at all.
Another reason for my reluctance to roam the countryside is that I may not find the conversations gripping. I was not a social butterfly before my stroke so I am not likely to be a party animal now. An inability to speak is not the best aid for charming conviviality. I will keep thinking wistfully about how I could have spent the time reading something interesting. I will be relieved when I finally return home. By that time I will have a backache and a headache after inhaling all that smoke at traffic jams. (I am getting a bit long in the tooth, you know!) I am happiest when comfortably ensconced in my wheelchair in my cozy little room quietly poring over a book or perusing an interesting blog post.