Thursday, March 31, 2011

I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?

Thought-provoking idea from noted neuropsychologist Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land: "the self is a story the brain tells itself."

In other words, our brain needs to conjure a "self" -- consciousness, self-awareness -- to help make make sense not merely of the myriad (that word again) perceptions and sensations that penetrate our awareness, but, uniquely in humans, also come from within the mind. We rise from the sea of instinct to become both tale-teller and our own avid audience.

When babies emerge from the darkness of the womb, they have to learn the rules of seeing. For example, if a patch of a single color moves across our visual field without changing shape, the chances are it's one thing out there in the real world. If there's an abrupt change in color, it may well represent an edge. A blue shape with red shapes on either side could be three separate objects, but it could -- aha! -- be a small blue thing in front of a larger red thing, and so on. (Nature gives us a start -- a baby will turn his or eyes toward two black dots on a piece of card, probably thinking they're eyes in a face, a schema that many scientists think is innate.)

But in humans, pattern recognition goes beyond making sense of sensations. With our highly developed cortices, we have to deal with capacities that most animals don't have, and no animal has to our extent: language, memory of events, awareness of time, knowledge of causality, imagination, visualization, etc. And so we see patterns in behavior, too -- past behavior predicts future behavior, first impressions count, anger precedes violence, "when you're lying, your eyes look upward. . . ." We remember the past, we envisage the future, and thus we see ourselves as a character, moving from one to the other.

What I find most extraordinary, most intriguing about this metaphor for consciousness is its application to dreams. Put broadly, dreaming is the brain doing things during sleep that it didn't have time to do during the day. Sometimes it's because an issue is so overwhelming that the waking hours are not long enough to contain it, and so our anxieties party on past their curfew. Sometimes we refuse to deal with a troubling topic during the day, and so it surfaces as a nightmare when sleep overcomes our sentinels. But mainly, the brain is just catching up on the filing, storing those associations between events that you failed to note when you were awake, tucking those loitering perceptions into their pigeon holes in long-term memory.

But here's the deal: as those flashes of recent memory, newly forged associations, rehearsals of new physical skills, mental gymnastics tromp across the stage of the Theater of the Night, we continue to try to make some sense of them, just as if they were daytime images. From this haphazard mixture, we improvise surreal little stories, filling out the plot points with a touch of imagination from our own store, straining for a passing coherence.

In other words, daytime storytelling and nighttime storytelling are no different. They're exactly the same mental process.

The difference lies only in the raw material. When we're awake, our goal is to use our perceptions and our higher cortical processes to form a mental model of the world that's close enough to the real world to rely on for making predictions (often with spectacular mismatches, from believing that the scorchmarks on a tortilla are the face of Jesus to denying that the swastika tattoo on the forehead of a new beau means he's anything other than a lovable scamp).

Dream images, on the other hand, can never be forced to cohere with reality, no matter how hard we try. But we do try. And its the compromises and distortions we therefore conjure that makes them so interesting. And often preferable to reality. Go ask Alice.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I know I'm a gentleman. It said so on my dressing-room door.

It was during that production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (I'm a stickler for the inclusion of "Adventures"; if Lewis had wanted to call it Alice in Wonderland, he would've; blame Disney), that I formulated a key criterion for personal couth. The conclusion of our outdoor play happened after the sun had set, necessitating a quick change for me, from the Executioner to Duckworth, behind a tree in the twilight. And so I had my definition: "A gentleman is someone who can tie a proper bow-tie in the dark."

(Did you know the Queen is reported to hate clip-ons?)

But I was eclipsed by a good alternative, which surfaced during a recent radio interview with Steve Martin, about his new (and hugely enjoyable) bluegrass album: "A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo -- but doesn't."

Okay, it's funnier than mine, but it loses points because I've heard it before, applied to the piano-accordion.

A kind of fame.

Hey, in checking out Dame Maggie Smith's birthdate -- I'm too much of a gentleman to reveal it -- I found a cross-reference to Wikipedia's page about the University College Players (Dame M appeared in an 1953 production by the Players, when she was only . . . no, not going there.)

The entry mentions the Players' outdoor production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1977 and 1978. Incorrectly, it was only 1978, and I know this because not only did I appear in that production, in four roles -- Robinson Duckworth, the Duck, the Executioner, and the voice of the pig-baby as it was tossed into the River Cherwell -- but I also adapted it from Lewis Carroll's book (and designed the poster). Yes, friends, I have lived. It was directed by my old friend, Robin Hodgkinson, who went on to marry the young lady playing Alice. Ahhhh.

(Distinguished author and former editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement Andrew Robinson -- not the Andrew Robinson who was so memorably shot by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry -- was the Hatter. QC and Deputy High Court Judge Andrew Edis was the March Hare.)

But can a published mystery author get a Wiki credit for his early work? Nooooooo.

And so we say farewell, and if we'd only stopped there, we'd have been fine.

Unworthy confession. When the NPR news reporter adopted that funereal tone and began "Veteran British actress and Oscar-winner Dame . . ." my mind was already racing ahead. "Oh, please, not Judi Dench, not Maggie Smith." (Two of my favorite actors of all time.)

And then it turned out to be Elizabeth Taylor. Phew.

Oh, I'm very sorry, of course, but the news was tinged with a little relief after my assumptions. Well, Dame E's only a couple of years older than the other two (who were born just three weeks apart), but she had long retired from our screens, and her frequent bouts of ill-health had culminated in a hospital confinement since the beginning of the year, so although still sad, this development wasn't unexpected; while M and Professor McGonagall are still going strong, and have, in fact, made another movie together, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is due out later this year.

By the way, at what point did "legendary" become a legitimate term for news agencies, synonymous with "well-known"? Is it another "miraculous"? (The Catholic Church, despite its vested interest, is scrupulously cautious and thorough about granting the status of a miracle. New York's eleven o'clock news broadcast seems to think they happen every day. "Well, truly a miraculous escape for a Bronx mother after a taxi goes out of a control . . .") Okay, it may be a shade of hyperbole that's crept into the dictionary definitions, but shouldn't a journalist be the last to adopt it?

Friday, March 18, 2011

You can't make this stuff up.

In a BBC radio documentary about the current state of the Roman Catholic Church in England, the reporter covers several controversial elements that have torn congregations apart. Among them, whether or not the priest turns his back to the worshipers at a key point in the mass, and that old favorite, the sly return of the old rite, the Latin "extraordinary form" of the service.

A priest who is unrepentant about this harking back to older values, justifies his actions:

"People also complain that because of Latin, the mass can't be understood," he allows. "[But] the mass is not immediately intelligible in English either."

Nonplussed, the reporter asks politely "Isn't that a bit patronizing?"

"Of course, people can understand English," the priest concedes. "But I wouldn't necessary be able to understand somebody talking about high energy physics. In theology, and in the words of the liturgy, it is a technical and specialized language. The prayers of the church aren't an attempt to make that language intelligible to everybody, any more than a nuclear physics textbook for postgraduates would be written in language that I could understand."

Is it me, or is this . . . ?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hasn't that Bieber kid's voice broken yet?

Secundus has set himself the task of naming twenty singers. He lowers it to ten, but successfully completes his decalogue with a clutch of teenage female singers who all seem to have Nickelodeon or Disney Channel shows. Or vice versa.

"You missed a big name," I tell him. "What about Lady Gaga?"

"Yeah, I wasn't really thinking about any old singers," he says.

Gaga is 24.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A myriad of thanks.

Hey, I just saw that my hit counter has gone over the ten thousand mark. Yes, I know that's a pretty low number compared with a lot of websites. (Kathi Taylor's over half a million, but she claims that's because she blogs about American Idol for the Pacific time zones. I think that's just false modesty. Have you seen her knitting? Wonderful.)

And yes, I know a good chunk of that number is me, logging in to make edits.

But given that my latest book is still on the conveyor belt, and so I am not yet a household name, I just want to thank any regular readers who catch this entry for checking in from time to time. And I know there are a lot more of you than the nice people who've signed up as followers. (I'm not sure what being a follower does for you, compared with just clicking a bookmark, but feel free to find out.)

And yes, that's what a myriad means, literally. Ten thousand. If you didn't know that already, my work here is done.


Anal, the well-known typo.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring forward! (Okay, shamble forward, then.)

Primus is not a morning person, and the advent of daylight saving time makes it worse. My irruption into the bedroom at seven o'clock, with merry cries of "Good morning, campers!", an impression of a bugle playing reveille, and a tara-diddle or two on Secundus's drum-kit is unappreciated for some reason.

He stumbles into the kitchen twenty minutes later, and my cheerful exhortations over breakfast to "Get to school and show 'em what you got!" or "Tell them to get behind you or get out of your way!" produce only silent scowls. Eventually, he speaks to his beloved father:

"If you didn't feed me, I'd disown you."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Visitor from above.

A red-tailed hawk, who decided to perch on the railing of our deck for half an hour yesterday afternoon. (A good place for hunting bunnies, if the droppings behind the swing-set are any indication.)

This picture wasn't taken with a particularly powerful telephoto (55mm on a digital SLR, equivalent to about 90mm on an older film camera), and I haven't cropped it much. The bird let me get within five feet. Well, with a beak and talons like that, what does it have to get nervous about?