Monday, October 29, 2007

What was Descartes thinking?

Cogito ergo sum. "I think therefore I am," so says Descartes.

'Thinkers' conclude that this little sentence separates humans from animals. It has to do with problem solving. But my cat thinks and he certainly solves problems.

He thinks about how to keep his litter box clean. Then he proceeds to clean up after our two other felines, scratching and covering, smoothing and mounding, until odor is gone, all is neatly covered, and the problem is solved. He has mastered the art of stealing my ink pens and hiding them under the rug. He even takes joy in watching my husband step on said hidden ink pens in his bare feet and then yelling and hobbling around like some one-legged wildebeest. (Yes, I believe cats also have a sense of humor.)

My cat also thinks about thumping me on the head with his paw in the middle of the night so that I will wake up and scratch his itch. In that respect, he has me totally trained. Thump, scratch. Thump, scratch.

He thinks about catching bugs and lizards. I think that makes him as much of a thinker as many humans I know. The one aspect of life he seems to constantly bump up against and hasn't mastered is gravity. But, like all cats I've known, even fighting against gravity -- he lands on his feet.

Most humans can't do that.

So what is it about problem solving and thinking that makes humans feel elevated above other species? I pondered this and realized that it is the unrelated elements that come together into a new thought that might be the dividing point between species.

And, I believe that women have conquered that Everest, while men are still at base camp. Men even admit that they can't figure out how women think. And have you noticed that most of the scientific data has been gathered on MALE subjects? Descartes should have listened more to his wife. He would have seen real problem solving in action.

What sent me onto this topic was an obsession of mine: Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series. Now bear with me. Diana has come up with a name for her newest book in that series. So far the names are: Outlander (duh), Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, and A Breath of Snow and Ashes. All wonderful titles of which I do not know the thought process nor the origins. But the next book's title, that one I have seen explained in her email to the CompuServe book group. It beautifully reveals her thought process.

In a nutshell, she and hubby are sandwiched together on a plane flying to a book-related engagement in Alaska. Gabaldon writes, "I was thinking about the shape of the book (of which I have a vague approximation, but not firm at all, yet), and generally considering it in abstract visual terms (i.e., not 'visual' as in thinking of incidents....but rather the pattern that emerges from them)."

You can see why her books are a gazillion pages long -- her emails are not word thrifty and obviously her thoughts aren't either.

Anyway, she sees pebbles dropped into water forming ripples. (If you read her books, this actually makes sense.)

Ripples which rhyme with nipples doesn't seem like a title of choice and pebble might bring the similar ripple, nipple concept to mind. So she keeps thinking of ripples, which she admits makes her think of lakes, which leads to water which leads to waves.

Which makes her think of Loch Ness and standing waves, which she explains is "one suggestion as to the origin of the Loch Ness monster; i.e., that people saw a standing wave--which occur frequently in the loch--and assumed it to be the back of a sea monster."

She, bless her heart, even includes a definition of standing wave: "A type of wave in which the surface oscillates vertically between fixed nodes, without any forward progression; the crest at one moment becomes the trough at the next. Standing waves may be caused by the meeting of two similar wave groups that are traveling in opposing directions."

Running the idea of 'Standing Waves" past her dear husband, his response was to hold his nose. So she continued her musings. Reverting back to ripples and waves, she investigates various wave forms and arrived at 'echo.'

Which, according to describes echo as:
    1. the repetition of a sound by reflection of sound waves from a surface
    2. a sound so produced

    1. any repetition or imitation of the words, style, ideas, etc. of another
    2. a person who thus repeats or imitates
  1. sympathetic response
  2. Electronics a radar wave reflected from an object, appearing as a spot of light on a radarscope
  3. Gr. Myth. a nymph who, because of her unreturned love for Narcissus, pines away until only her voice remains
  4. Music
    1. a soft repetition of a phrase
    2. an organ stop for producing the effect of echo
  5. Radio, TV the reception of two similar and almost simultaneous signals because one of them has been delayed slightly by reflection from the E layer in transmission

"Well, all _righty_, then," she thought. "Echo is a much more evocative word than 'ripple,' and has multiple related definitions, virtually all of which might apply to the metaphorical levels of this book. Cool. I like 'echo.'"

I freely admit here that I probably would have stopped my own problem solving at ripples. Who cares if it reminds anyone of nipples....

Over the course of several days the author mulled over the title concept, drew on some of her own writings and came up with "Echo in the Flesh."

Her dear husband thought that sounded "butcherous" so she switched to "Echo in the Blood" which sounded more like a crime novel. She sorted around for body parts and came up with bone which, with the help of a well placed preposition became "An Echo in the Bone."

The repetition of the "O" sound in Echo and Bone was pleasing and mimics the U in Drums of Autumn vowel repetition. After trying it out on agent, editors, and a couple rooms full of people, she decided she had her title.

I don't think my cat could have done this, but he might have thumped me on the head until he got me to do it.

I wonder if Gabaldon has a cat.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The anatomy of laughter

While I write this, my husband sits in the adjacent room breathing hard and stimulating his zygomatic major muscle. No silly, he's not doing THAT, he's watching "Evan Almighty" and laughing his head off.

Until this evening, I, a surprising un-curious writer, hadn't thought about the 'act' of laughing. According to "How Stuff Works"

Laughter is the physiological response to humor. Laughter consists of two parts -- a set of gestures and the production of a sound. When we laugh, the brain pressures us to conduct both those activities simultaneously. When we laugh heartily, changes occur in many parts of the body, even the arm, leg and trunk muscles.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes laughter as: "rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions." I think it is much easier to do it, than describe it.

The first laugh may have been in response to the passing of danger. A couple of cave men staring up at the gruesome teeth of some hungry dinosaur and then run like hell for their lives. They meet up in a cave, look at each other and in relief, they vocalize, breathe deeply and out it comes. The world's first human laugh. Of course hyenas and most animals have been enjoying a good joke since the first moment they saw that relatively hairless wonder called: Man.

One of my favorite songs not only tells about laughing, but makes those hearing it want to laugh. The whole movie is wonderfully laugh-riddled: Mary Poppins.


Of course the cause of laughter is subjective. My husband loves Mary Poppins, The Three Stoodges, that Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" and any visual prat fall. I don't usually share his choices. But I adore a good joke, especially a woman's insider perspective on men, males, husbands and boyfriends as well as those insider jokes shared by the 'sisterhood.' I like jokes with a touch of truth and irony and allows me to just be me:
Martha's Way: Stuff a miniature marshmallow in the bottom of a sugar cone to prevent ice cream drips.
My Way: Just suck the ice cream out of the bottom of the cone, for Pete's sake. You are probably lying on the couch with your feet up anyway.
But then, I can see the humor in "Who's on first...." or

The Anatomy of Humor 6: "A guy walks into a bar . . ."


No one knows when the first joke beginning with the six words "A guy walks into a bar . . ." was told, or how it went. Nevertheless, an entire genre of jokes has been created revolving around that opening scenario. Here's a sampling of some of the variants that have sprung up, many now involving animals or inanimate objects:

A guy walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm and says, "A beer please, and one for the road."

An amnesiac walks into a bar and asks the bartender, "Do I come here often?"

A guy with dyslexia walks into a bra.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

War -- What is it good for?

It is decades and yet just a moment since the summer of 1968. Young men I had sat beside in high school classerooms, had watched them throw spit balls or carve their names in the wooden study hall desks or catch a football out on the field of play -- they were dying, or being wounded, in Vietnam. I sat quietly and said nothing.

Against the war? Oh yes, I was totally against the war. Just hearing the anti-war songs again brought it all back. Every element of it. The letters from my fiance who volunteered to fight in Vietnam -- he thought it was brave. I thought him a coward for not standing up against a war. I was the coward. I kept silent and watched the list grow. The names of the dead: John Hale, Dave Cox, Neil Mason, the list so long, all killed. They fought bravely, they faced whatever was thrown at them. Today's soldiers do no less. They are brave and take duty seriously. Our leaders have no sense of duty. They put this brave band of brothers and sisters into harms way for ill-thought out goals.

Silently I watched others return wounded in mind and body. Stood silent as I watched their lives fall apart through the ensuing years because they were stuck in that awful jungle battlefield. We offer so little in return for their lives. Walter Reed Hospital reflects our lack of respect.

Today I speak out through the words of this video. Not my creative construction -- but if I could be so creative this is what I would have wanted to make. The sounds may reflect back to a Vietnam era of protest -- but the pictures clearly show that war is no good -- not yesterday nor today.

Some things we MUST fight for. To protest the war in Iraq is to fight for integrity, humanity. And in the protest of this war, in trying to find global agreement rather than discord, hopefully, America can find its moral compass.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Of Gardens, Gore and Good Ideas

He won! Was there any doubt that he would? Al Gore of course. The Nobel Peace Prize for 2007! But then many of us thought he would win eight years ago. Perhaps this 'win' is for the greater good. Still, part of me wonders where we would be right now if he had been named president....but I can't dwell on that. What I can dwell on is his Current TV and some of the videos and information coming out of that project. Such as this exciting one featuring an ecovillage in Tennessee! Gardeners take note, some of these things we can try in our own little back yards.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Robert Frost, earthworms and childhood

I learned today that earthworms only have a few thousand brain cells, and according to Douglas Hofstadter in his book Godel, Escher, Bach, every earthworm brain is like every other earthworm brain. I guess if you've seen one earthworm, you've seen them all.

Each mammal, each human is one-of-a-kind. Our brains basically come from the same mold, but Hofstadter assures us each brain has evolved into something unique. The scary part, I think, comes when psychologists discuss the architecture of these unique brains. Most of the building apparently takes place within the FIRST TWO YEARS OF LIFE. According to Norman N. Holland's book "Robert Frost's Brain":

The child's brain develops virtually all its potentially useful neural interconnections by the age of two, and then goes on to develop a lot more. The brains of children from three to eleven use twice as much energy as adults' brains. Specifically, in the first year of life, the metabolic rate of the baby's brain (established by PET scan) is about two-thirds that of an adult brain. By the age of two, the rate equals the adult's. During those two years, the neurons have been branching and interconnecting. Indeed, during the first year of life, "dendritic and synaptic elaboration" increases by a factor of 20. Then, by three or four, the metabolic rate becomes twice that of an adult's. By the age of six or seven, a child's brain equals in weight and volume an adult's, but it uses twice as much energy, and it has twice the number of synaptic connections. The brain stays "super- charged" until early adolescence. Then, from eleven to fourteen, the metabolic rate begins to fall until it subsides to the adult level. Similarly, there are twice as many synaptic connections in the cortex of a child's brain as in an adult's. Then that number falls by half in early adolescence. Young children experience twice as much deep sleep as adults, and then from eleven to fourteen years of age, children move into adult sleep patterns.

With all of this energy and growth, it rather explains why childhood plays such a major part in making us who we are. The experiences of childhood stay with us forever and show up in unexpected places.

For example Holland discovers a childhood moment in one of Robert Frost's poems.
Once by the Pacific
The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last Put out the Light was spoken.

It appears to be a description of storm, yet the simple word usage suggests a child's view of this event. Frost remembers in his memoirs the moment that prompted this poem, yet doesn't elaborate on what all was going on. According to Holland this has more to do with human sexuality, parents, abandonment than with an ocean storm. For more of his critique, please visit UCF's online copy of "Robert Frost's Brain", page 16.

As a mother, I belatedly realize how vital those first few years of life were for my sons. In hindsight would I do things differently? I would hope so. But maybe this little blog can motivate parents to take more seriously the childhood experiences they offer their children, the environment in which they raise their children, the amount of time their child feels 'abandoned' such as Frost felt in this poem, and the number of times they hug their babies and introduce them to something new.

I've long wondered why we decorate nurseries with baby stuff instead of what we hope will interest and mold our children. Frank Lloyd Wright's mother filled his nursery with great architecture -- is it a fluke that he became one of America's best known architects?

Why do we dumb down the way we talk to our children, the books we read to them, the explanations we give them? Maybe with higher expectations, a broader spectrum of information and opportunities, we will help our children expand their little neurons.

If I had my babies back today, I would read to them of their world. Books about the solar system, color, sound, the golden Phi, snowflake architecture and the history of man. I would spend lest time reading of giant jam sandwiches and dirty dogs and steam shovels. Although, I enjoyed those books as much as they did. I still do. I wonder what that says about my childhood.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Where's Your Bookmark?

It's a frequently asked question on the DorothyL list. "Where's Your Bookmark?" This group brought together by mystery -- writing that is. Booklovers, authors, readers, reviewers, we all like to talk books, primarily mystery books. Seems like in most books, there is an element of mystery, even in the badly written ones -- the mystery there is how did they ever get published? It is a great place to chat with your favorite mystery authors, too.

The latest mystery I read was by Judy Clemens "The Day Will Come" and the review, if you're interested, is in the November issues of Mystery Scene Magazine. I've also read a few non-mystery genres. A nonfiction that's been out for a few years written by Erik Larson: "The Devil in the White City."

And in the spirit of working toward writing and publishing my own novel, I am reading everything I can get my hands on about the Gilded Age, thinking that might make a great time to set a book that I could actually write. I'm no Diana Gabaldon, though. Where she can find pages and pages of information to impart, I can only eek out a couple of sentences, so I need to fill my reservoir of facts while putting pen to paper.

Not surprising perhaps, my bookmark is back in "The Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon. The fact that I am rereading a book, especially rereading it within the same year, within six months of having read it the first time, is extraordinary. There are so many books and so little time that rereading something just seems sacrilegious.

But I am so drawn to her characters, setting, storytelling. I began reading with the intent to study her methods, figure out her style, hunt down the clues that make her writing so addictive, I mean, delightful. I'm a writer hoping, praying, wishing and actually working toward publishing my own novel, so I thought it wise to study an author whose work makes me green with envy. I mean whose work I respect.

Wikipedia says this about Gabaldon: Diana Jean Gabaldon Watkins (b. January 11, 1952 in Arizona) is an American author of Mexican-American and English ancestry. Diana Gabaldon is her maiden name, and the one she uses professionally. Her books are difficult to classify by genre, since they contain elements of romantic fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction (in the form of time travel). Her books have so far been sold in 23 countries, and translated into 19 languages besides English.

Yep, that's who I want to be when I grow up!

I managed to get through the first sentence of "Outlander" with an eye toward technique. "Good hook," I mumbled. She set up the coming pages, the coming chapters with one sentence: "It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance."

Rereading it here, I see that it could be leaner, tighter, more active. Maybe "Looking around, who would have believed this a good place to disappear?" Begin with a question that she will answer. But, that first sentence is about all I remember as far as style or technique or how she fills those pages. Instead, I stepped through the pages and did a little time travel of my own right into the midst of her book. She brought me there at the speed of thought.

How does she do that?