6 February 2018

“Memento Mori” !!

This afternoon, I was at the hospice in the Memory Care Unit. I was a little early today. There were a lot of them in the common area. Not all of them were my patients, but I interact with and help all of them, anyways. Or at least, try to.

I had one of those powerful moments today. One of my patients – we will call him Mr. “L” today – who just listlessly walks and has no ability to understand or talk was doing his up and down rounds. After walking with him for some time, I rushed to help one of the attendants who was trying to help a patient yelling in pain (turned out to be a simple issue that was fixed quickly). When I turned back after fixing the problem, I noticed that my friend had walked up to another patient who was in his sofa – let’s call him Mr. “T” – and was blankly staring at him. Now Mr. T has no memory, repeats the same things, will laugh at you weirdly but is very cordial. I was expecting a very awkward moment. (my patient – Mr. “L” also drools all over the place – making a mess of others). But, in a flash of near normalness, Mr. T asked Mr. L – “How are you?”

You have to understand the import of the moment. None of them are “normal” by the normal definition of “normal”. They see each other many many times a day, although I am not quite sure they remember. Just when I was getting worried about a awkward moment when I have to clean up drool, the purportedly recipient of the drool – calmly greeted the soon-to-be drooler!! It was like he was more worried about his friend’s well being than being drooled upon.

I have noticed this among the ladies too. They are in very different state of coherence and cognition and many are outright upset, but put them in a table – and they always look out for each other. They will ask how the others are doing. If we are late in bringing yogurt to somebody at the table, the rest will create a din till their compatriot is taken care of.

It is an amazing feeling. It will make you wonder – where is all this cognitive power when it really matters? It is like they know they are at the hospice center for a few more days but they are determined to live the rest of their days in the best possible human way that their physical state will allow them.

A simple “How are you?”. Often the last words some of them will ever hear. Whether they can process it or not.

The difference though, is in the fact, somebody asked them. Like I said, whether they can process it or not.

In “On the Shortness of Life”, Seneca says… “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

Put in my way, let’s realize that we will all go one day. That we cannot change. What we can change is what we do from now till that day!

“Memento Mori”!! Remember that you will die!!

Acceptance of mortality can be a downer if one focuses on what one has not done or gotten. And yet, it can be one of the lightning rod for happiness if we leverage that acceptance to make us who we want to be in the days that are left.

That is a choice we have to make every single day.

What is your choice today?

2 February 2018

On the Shortness of Life

Very recently, a few of us were celebrating a friend’s birthday and the friend mentioned that at our age, he does not look forward to birthdays since that reminds him he is one year closer to his death. That started some very spirited (admittedly, some of the spirit was contributed by the wine we were drinking) discussion on life, how we spend it etc. I made a mental note of going back home and re-reading Seneca’s letter on “On the Shortness of Life”. I cannot remember a better treatise on what causes us to be remorseful of shortness of life than that letter. Roger Whitney and Somshekhar Baksi had pointed me to this literature in the past.

Some of the words have left a strong effect on me. A notable quote:
“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passes away before we knew it was passing”.

Which led me to realize that it is indeed a small part of life that we really live. The rest is not life but merely time.

There is a place where he talks in similar language to what I had first read in Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture.”. Addressing Paulinius, Seneca says
“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you do not notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply…”

Another thought that made a big mark in my mind was Seneca’s pointing out that we what we invest to achieve often takes more investment to keep. To preserve prosperity, he says, we need other prosperity. To support the prayers which have turned out well, we have to make other prayers. Remarkable quote again:

“So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil”

Fortune, after all, is never to be less trusted than when it is the fairest!!

If you ever get a chance, read the letter. It is usually available as a collection of three of his most famous letters. The other two did not make that large an impact on me. I read the Penguin Books version.

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31 January 2018

It was the pink color that got our attention first…

The moment our car emerged from our property and turned east on the dirt road, Niki and I noticed the rich pink color in the sky thru the trees. We pulled forward for a couple of hundred yards where the trees started clearing up and was immediately faced with the usage of a riot of colors. We could see yellow, orange and pink. Then there was sky blue and dark blue. Crisp, cold morning.

The sight was ephemeral though. Three minutes later, as we came to the end of the dirt road, we noticed that the distinctly pink color was gone and had changed to bright orange!

28 January 2018

My first impressions – “Rome’s Last Citizen”

Roger Whitney piqued my interest in Stoicism a few weeks back. I had downloaded a few books to understand what he was talking about and started in a slightly unconventional way. Instead of reading about the subject, I first started by reading about people who have followed it.

The history of Cato attracted me. Supposedly a very principled person and Julius Caesar’s arch nemesis (who he viewed as somebody bent on destroying the constitution), he was most famous for how he committed suicide rather than live one day under Julius Caesar’s reign. Ironically, Cato’s son-in-law – Brutus – would be instrumental in the killing of Caesar a couple of years later.

I would give this book about a 6 out of 10. It portrays Cato fairly brilliantly. It does a great job of not steadfastly putting up Cato as just a principled person. In fact, it highlights the fallacies and foibles that Cato had too. The times that he seemingly compromised. And the one time that he did not – when it could have completely changed Roman history in his favor. All due to deep seated fears he harbored of Pompey’s ambitions. It also does a great job of the times that Cato stood up to the rest of the world and like the Twelve Angry Men got the world (or at least those who mattered) to his point of view.

The best contribution the book has is to trash the myth of the so-called greatness of the Great Roman Civilization. If anything, it lays bare the internecine warfare, the depth at which corruption ran, the mockery of democracy by bribes, the backstabbing, the temporary friendships, the brutal use of force and all those things you would not call a civilization by the adjective “Great”.

Where the book gets tedious at times is getting lost in seemingly unimportant details. The book that is 381 pages in lowest size font in iBook (on an iPad Pro) could have been easily put in about 150-180 pages and still contained the full import. (That readers may not have paid the steep price for that thin a book is a different concept altogether)!

The other place where the book failed me personally (less to do with the book, more to do with the fact I was trying to understand Stoicism) is the way the authors make fairly weak and sometimes extremely tenuous connection between Stoicism and how that must have affected Cato. As an example, he giving his second wife Marcia off to the sexagenarian Hortensius – and how that comes from Stoic beliefs of women and their (re)productive years is extremely tortured if not outright misplaced.

As an aside – and the authors mention it only once tangentially – the parallels between the Roman democracy during those years and contemporary US politics was intriguing to me. The influence of money; the conservative (often associated with the Republicans and Cato) versus the liberal (often associated with the Democrats and Julius Caesar), the use of filibuster, the “oppose everything the other guy stands for” … was almost prescient to me!!

Would I suggest you read this book? Not if you are trying to understand Stoicism. But if you had any interest in understanding Cato or the internal workings of the Roman elite (versus the public), it is a reasonably good read. A tad long though it might be.

9 January 2018

Scored 100 percentile???

All the Indian newspapers are touting the results of CAT exams. Most are running headlines about how 20 students including women and non-engineers have “scored 100 percentile”. See the picture as an example.

Here is my question – as somebody who had to pass CAT long time back – how the heck do you score 100 percentile? I can understand 100 percent. But percentile?

Wasn’t the definition of nth percentile score that n% of the population was lower than the score? (It was strictly less than and not less than or equal to). Which is why I thought we were always taught that you can be 99 percentile… 99.9 percentile… but you can never be 100 percentile (by definition, you could not have scored less than yourself).

So, what gives?

1 January 2018

Fountain Pens from Kolkata!!

Managed to escape from family for a couple of hours in Kolkata and check out some pen shops. This is the city where I had grown my passion for fountain pens and colorful inks (started with two Wingsung Hero pens I had bought in Garia). I brought my father in law too. I did not have time to go to the “Pen Hospital” where one can pick up some really old time classics. Instead settled for a couple of Sheaffers including a Ferrari 300 series from William Penn. I even got the pen shop owner – Jeet – to take a picture with me to celebrate his first sale of the year!

Roger, I can’t wait to show you the pens!!