When Breath Becomes Air

Every once in a while, not too often, you come across a book that blows you away. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is one such book.

I first heard of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, when I read his article How long have I got left? I then read another piece Before I Go and I was fascinated by his story and his powerful writing. I was sad when I heard about his death and when his book came out earlier this year, I bought it fairly quickly.

I think I started the book sometime in the afternoon and could not put it down until I finished it later that night. The story was heartbreaking, honest, deeply moving, and yet, in a strange way, uplifting.

What blew me away was the quality of the writing–it is terrific and in some places, it sings like poetry (in prose) on the page. It is incredible that someone who trained to be a neurosurgeon could also write in such an accomplished way because doing one of those things is hard enough, being able to do both is amazing.

When I finished reading the book and thought about it later, I was sad because there is no great body of work of Paul Kalanithi’s that we can read–there are only a couple of articles and this book. But, if you had to write a book about your life while dying of cancer, what a stunning book to write.

The quality of the book is enhanced by the foreword, written by Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the beautiful book ‘The Tennis Partner’, and the epilogue, written by Paul’s wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who, Paul asked to “shepherd the manuscript of his book to publication.” Lucy Kalanithi’s essay in the NY Times is also a must-read.

If you have not yet read When Breath Becomes Air, you are really missing something. It’s the best book that I’ve read this year and considering that I’ve been lucky to read some terrific ones, that’s really saying something.

Seriously. Go read it; you’ll be glad that you did.

On sharpening knives and scissors

It turns out that I knew diddly squat about sharpening knives. And, even less about sharpening scissors.

My Dad gave me a knife sharpening stone called a whetstone a few years ago and I used it without knowing how to use it. I tried my own methods but the knives never really got sharp. Then, I found out about this thing called the Internet (this is a few months ago)  and looked for videos about how to do this.

It turns out that there are different types of stones that you can use and how you use them depends on the type of stone. The stone that I have is a waterstone, which means that you actually have to soak the thing in water before you use it. Then, there’s a specific way to actually sharpen the knife on the stone.

The best video that I found on this subject is Howtocast’s How to use a sharpening stone but after you watch it, you have to actually practice doing this before you actually learn. The first time I sharpened a knife properly–and it took a few tries–it was pure joy because it was that sudden moment of clarity that comes when you actually learn something and internalize what you learn.

The interesting part about this is that I now actually enjoy sharpening knives–it takes skill, it takes time (soak stone for 20 minutes), it’s not easy, and you have to be careful dealing as you are with objects that can actually maim. I think the family finds it mildly amusing and doesn’t really get it but because I have sharp knives they don’t say anything. Either that, or they’re polite.

So, why stop at knives? How about that other sharp instruments that you find around: scissors?

A scissor by any other name is not a knife

Turns out, sharpening scissors is slightly different from sharpening knives and I learned this after I had taken my best scissors, which could cut cloth, and proceeded to dull it down to where it wouldn’t cut paper. I was close to distraught because the scissors were a gift and I thought I’d ruined them.

So, I went to the Internet and asked the wise old Google for answers. After reading and watching a few articles and videos, I came upon a gem. Now, before I give you the link, this is a 17 minute video, so given that I have an attention span of the gerbil (only on the Internet), this was like asking me to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. 17 minutes on the Internet? Why, I have better things to do like check my notifications on Twitter.

The person in the video is Paul Sellers and he’s got a calm, unhurried voice, and he knows how to sharpen scissors. So, I actually watched the video and it made sense. Then, I realized that I didn’t have a file, so I went ahead and bought two. And, I tried his method. Remember the scissors that I actually screwed up; I’m pleased to report that they now work beautifully. It took hard work (trying different methods before I settled on Mr. Sellers’) and sweat but the sweet sound of that the two blades when I made a cutting motion was worth it.

So, here’s the link to the video: Scissor Sharpening – with Paul Sellers and I hope you’ll watch it.

I tried the method on another pair that was bad from the start and I’ve been able to get it to a point where it’s pretty good–it actually cuts. There’s still work to be done but I’m pleased. There are no scissors in my house now that are not sharp; I even resurrected another scissors that was dead and about to be thrown away.

The thing is that sharpening knives and scissors is they are the get-your-hands-dirty kinds of work and you’d think that doing this wouldn’t be fun but you’d be wrong. I’ve even gushed about this to my family and they are distinctly not impressed.

I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy this and I realize that it’s because these are skills that take time to learn and need practice and patience. (Yes, I realize that I’m not learning the violin.)

The fact that there is a degree of difficulty is what makes doing this fun. And, there’s something about working with your hands that is fulfilling in a way that I can’t explain–you have to do it to really get it. And, because you’re dealing with objects that can cause you physical pain, you really have to be in the moment, paying attention, concentrating. Sounds like a lot like flow doesn’t it?

Don’t take my word for it, go and try it. But, be careful though–remember that sticks and stones can break your bones, but knives and scissors can cut, sometimes to the bone.

Flogging a dead horse

So, I’m thinking that if I have the time to spend on Twitter–mostly constructive–then I can make the time to write on here again.

I’m (gulp!) committing publicly to two posts a month because one feels like I’m weaseling out and two feels like a hundred percent better.

Why commit? Because I’ve tried to jump start this blog before and without putting too fine a point on it, I didn’t follow through.

So, wish me luck. And, if I don’t post two* more times this month, feel free to remind me. No, really.

(Takes deep breath and hits publish)

* – To show that I’m not weaseling out, this post is not counted because it’s meta.

Who is Paul Kingsnorth and why you really should hear what he has to say

If you’ve been following me on Twitter (see feed on the sidebar), you may have already seen these articles that I am linking to in this post. I came across Paul Kingsnorth via an article in Grist. The article (or blog post) was intriguingly titled ‘I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth. The post is basically a discussion between him and another writer Wes Stephenson.

The ideas that Kingsnorth mentioned in the article were interesting enough that I wanted to read more. So, I read Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, an essay that Kingsnorth wrote and that was published in Orion magazine, and the stuff he wrote in the essay resonated with me.  Here’s an excerpt:

A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomization and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry inside their cars. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.

For the first time, I realize the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand, or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before Apples and BlackBerries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditized, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.

After reading the essay, I felt despair. Despair, because what Kingsnorth wrote about was something that I had felt sometimes, fleetingly, but that I’d not paid attention to; reading about it suddenly made things explicit. The best way to explain it is that it’s like the lens with which I was viewing the world had changed and I could not see things the old way anymore. A burst of clarity. (I will write more about this later; for now, let’s keep the focus on Kingsnorth.)

I decided to read more about Paul and found out that he co-founded something called The Dark Mountain Project, which you can read about via that link. Here’s another excerpt:

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

I also started following him on Twitter (@paulkingsnorth) and then read another one of his essays (published again in Orion). Dark Ecology is a powerful and brave essay about “searching for truth in a post-green world”. Here’s an excerpt:

I’VE RECENTLY BEEN reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. Some books do that, from time to time, and this is beginning to shape up as one of them.

It’s not that Kaczynski, who is a fierce, uncompromising critic of the techno-industrial system, is saying anything I haven’t heard before. I’ve heard it all before, many times. By his own admission, his arguments are not new. But the clarity with which he makes them, and his refusal to obfuscate, are refreshing. I seem to be at a point in my life where I am open to hearing this again. I don’t know quite why.

You may read Kingsnorth’s essays and feel that he’s being defeatist or that he’s a pessimist. For me though, what he’s doing nothing short of heroic. It takes an incredible amount of courage to write what he’s written, and to, in his words, “withdraw”. I’m not sure that I have that kind of courage; if I do, I am still finding it.

So, do me a favour and please do read these two essays that I’ve linked to. They’re long but they are worth the effort. So, go on now; I’ll be here when you get back.

Bangalore’s summers get a new dimension

I’ve been in Bangalore for more than a decade and yet I can’t remember a Bangalore summer like this. The ceiling fan chops hot air on to you, the mattress seems to radiate heat and yet the temperature is not in the mid-40s. I read an article in Deccan Herald a few weeks ago where one of the weather folks was explaining that the pollution in the city is not allowing the heat to escape thus making Bangalore much hotter than the temperature would suggest.

So far, it has been a miserable summer, and the only respite has been some spells of rain here and there. Even when that happens, the cooling doesn’t seem to last very long–it’s back to hot weather the next day.

Rapid urbanization, the explosion in cars and vehicles, the unnecessary usage of A/C units–I think all of these have been a major factor in changing Bangalore’s climate. And, I fear that this is going to get worse not better because I don’t see people changing lifestyles to reduce the amount of power they consume, to reduce vehicle usage, and so on. Heck, it’s the opposite; I personally know 2 people who have bought A/C units in the last two weeks. Think of it as more CO2 being pumped into that “great big sewer in the sky” (as Franke James would probably say) from the coal we’re burning to get our electricity.

We need to solve this problem but I am afraid we’re not going to start making changes until it’s too late. Now, if you’ll excuse me I will go and dunk my head in a bucket of water.

The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks

I had read of HeLa cells in a couple of books but I had never considered the story behind those cells and how scientists got a hold of them. The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells were taken without her permission, and the story of the family’s devastation, on finding out about these cells.

TILOHL is a gripping, fascinating book that reads like a thriller. The book raises important questions about the ethics governing the use of tissues from human beings but it’s core is the story of a Henrietta Lacks’ family. Reading about the Lacks family and the kind of suffering that Henrietta’s children endured is gut wrenching. If you also consider that companies made money from the HeLa cell line while the family itself struggled, it makes absolutely no sense.

I found the book hard to put down and once I was half way through the book, I stayed up fairly late on a weekday (around 2 AM I think) because I just *had* to finish the book. TILOHL deserves the awards that it’s received and Rebecca Skloot, who must have worked really hard to unearth all the information in the book and then put the information together to make it such a terrific read, deserves all the plaudits.

TILOHL is a superb book and, in my view, a must-read.

PS: This is not a new book, but what the heck. To paraphrase NBC, If you haven’t read it, it’s new to you.


I was tinkering with this blog yesterday and wondering if I should delete my old posts and start afresh. I figured that I’d archive my old posts elsewhere and point people to that blog. But, then what about the folks coming here via search engines? That kept me up at night yesterday.

So, I decided not to delete anything, for now, and to keep the stuff as it is. Because, why should I make life difficult for those people who come here via a search engine. I hardly get any traffic as it is, so why antagonize the few folks who come here looking for something to read.

Then, I thought about starting a new blog but then letting people know about it, asking the folks reading on RSS to move, etc., I figured that it’s not worth the trouble.

So, I’m sticking with the same blog for now. I have, if you noticed, changed the name because the blog feels kinda shapeless right now. It will take some sort of shape as time progresses I think, er, hope. I also want to write about other topics, so that’s what I’ll be doing.

I don’t know when I will post next or how frequently. The last time I promised to start posting–I posted a grand total of 1 post, so I’m thinking that making public pronouncements is not the way to go right now. Also, of the last 5 posts, including this one, 3 are “meta” posts. I’m just saying.

I need to figure out a better way to end posts.

On seeing the positive side

A couple of months ago, I watched Neil Pasricha’s wonderful TED talk, The 3 A’s of awesome. I had not heard of Pasricha before watching this talk; he started writing a blog called 1000 Awesome Things and that led to a Webby award and then a book.

You should watch the talk but the short story is that Pasricha figured out at a low point in his life that he needed a way to look at the positive side of things. He decided to do that by writing a blog about all the things that he thought were awesome: everyday, mundane stuff that we (mostly) take for granted.

Then, last month I heard Shawn Anchor on the HBR Ideacast Why a Happy Brain Performs Better . In that podcast, Anchor mentions something similar to what Pasricha talks about, writing a thank you note (or email), as a way to focus on the positive things and how that starts to make a difference in your (work) life.

A couple of days ago, I watched Martin Seligman’s talk on TED in which he talks about positive psychology and about how psychology is also looking at mental health as opposed to just the mental illness.

I’m sure you sense a theme here: Yes, I have been watching TED talks and listening to HBR podcasts.

Seriously though, there is no question that we notice many things in the world that have gone wrong. Maybe it’s the lizard brain that makes us much more susceptible to noticing the “dangers”.

But, the flip side is that we don’t tend to notice the things that are right often enough. I’m not suggesting a pollyanna-ish attitude to life, just one where we are aware that there are also many things in the world that are, as Pasricha says, awesome. I wrote a blog post a while back about some simple inventions, and if you look, you can find tons of things that are amazing in almost every facet of life.

A good way to start is to genuinely notice the things that are right with the world and feeling grateful for those things. For example, isn’t it amazing that I’m typing this blog post in a text editor and that I’ll copy it to WordPress.com and then publish it to the world wide web. WordPress will also let me publish this post to Twitter and Facebook, and you’ll read it either on the web, via email, or in an RSS reader. Heck, maybe you’ll read it on your phone, something you couldn’t have done a few years ago. I’m not even going into the networking technology that makes all this possible–that’s mindblowing stuff.

So, all this reminds me of this voice-over at the end of American Beauty:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain. And I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.

It’s a nice feeling, that gratitude. We need to feel it more often.

Back from vanvas*

It’s hard to figure out how to come back from a long absence, especially when you didn’t really intend to be absent for so long. But, sometimes these things take on a life of their own and you end up being absent for longer than you thought you would.

Anyway, for pretty much the whole of 2011, I was swamped at work and the lack of time (and energy) was the primary reason for my not blogging. Also, after working on a computer all day, I didn’t relish the prospect of pounding keys with my RSI-battered fingers and squinting at the screen with bloodshot eyes.

There were times that I felt like blogging, but, for the most part, I didn’t really miss it a great deal. I also realized that I didn’t have many readers because very few people asked me about my not blogging. (I promised my therapist that I wouldn’t make a big deal out of this, so there. But, it’s all your fault I didn’t blog. *Takes several deep breaths.*)

Now, I feel like blogging again and I hope that I will be able to post far more frequently than I have over the last few months (years?). Work is still going to be busy, but I’m hoping that since this is a leap year, having the extra day will help.

I’m also tweeting a lot more than I used to, so you can check out my Twitter page (@wiredal) or the tweets on the right hand side of this blog.

I’ll end with a couple of quotes that I found via Google while trying to figure out how to end this post.

“The secret to a rich life is to have more beginnings than endings.” ~David Weinbaum~

“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” ~Marcus Aurelius~

*: This wasn’t really Vanvas as implied in the preceding Wikipedia stub, but I’m sure you get the general drift.

Don’t let the Canadian government silence Franke James

It seems the the Canadian Government does not like what Franke James has to say and that they’re prepared to block an art show to ensure that she is silenced. Yes, an art show.

Franke, who is an artist and author of Bothered by My Green Conscience (and creator of other superb visual essays), and who I’ve linked to here numerous times, wrote a blog post today where she mentioned how the Canadian government is trying to stop her right to creative expression and free speech. Here is an excerpt from her blog post:

The Canadian Government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, is actively working to shut down my solo European art exhibition, which is set to tour 20 cities in Europe. The government’s interference includes phoning the corporate sponsor, and persuading them to cancel their $75,000 sponsorship.

Canadian officials have also bullied the NGO, Nektarina Non Profit, and warned them repeatedly to cancel the exhibition because they are opposed to “Franke James.”

Franke’s visual essays are powerful stories about the environment and about what we need to do to save the environment and ultimately, ourselves. To attempt to stop an artist from expressing herself is not something that you’d expect a democratic country to do, but that’s exactly what’s being done. Here’s an actual quote:

“Who was the idiot who approved an art show by that woman, Franke James?”

– Memorable words from one of Canada’s top officials on hearing that the Canadian Embassy in Croatia had offered support for Franke’s art show.

So, she needs our support. You can support Franke by tweeting or blogging about this, sharing it on Facebook (or Google+), leaving a comment on her blog post, or even emailing your friends.