Archive for April, 2018

Mirror Neurons

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Trailers

Shadow photo by David Jouris

I was sitting in the Mendocino Taqueria waiting for my tacos when a man and woman came in, the woman carrying a three-month-old baby boy who was being fussy and crying. The woman jiggled and bounced the baby and cooed reassuringly, but the baby was not to be consoled. The man ordered their supper and went to use the bathroom, and the baby continued to fuss and whimper despite the tender cajoling of his mother.

I smiled at the woman to communicate my support for her efforts to soothe her baby, and the baby saw my smile, locked eyes with me, and stopped crying. My eyes widened and I said “Hello,” to the baby, and the baby gurgled a reply, and we continued to look at each other for a minute or two until the mother turned away, breaking the connection between her baby and me. This breakage caused the baby to start fussing and whimpering again, which caused the mother to jiggle and bounce the baby again, but the baby was not to be consoled until his mother happened to turn toward me again, and the baby subsided into fascination with me and I with him—the baby’s mother unaware of what was causing him to stop fussing.

When I say “locked eyes” what may have happened, according to recent neurological discoveries, was that the baby’s mirror neurons and my mirror neurons engaged with each other, and this engagement created what some neuroscientists call a conjoined neurological system—the sharing of our two minds.

Mirror neurons are a fairly recent discovery, and there are different kinds of mirror neurons, and there is intense debate among psychologists and neurologists about how mirror neurons work, but what I’ve read about them has made me a devout believer in conjoined neurological systems.

I’m sure you’ve had many experiences similar to my hookup with that baby boy in the taqueria, and I have no doubt that conjoined neurological systems make possible the pleasure and sense of completeness that so many new mothers experience in relation to their babies, the feelings of satisfaction that so many parents experience while relating to their children, and the phenomenon of people falling in love with each other.

I’ve had thousands of such transcendental hookups with babies, children, dogs, cats, and other humans in my life, and now that I have read multiple texts about neurobiology and mirror neurons, I am hyper-aware of how quickly these mind melds can occur when I and my fellow animals are open to such unions.

According to Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, optimal human health—mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—depends on frequent positive interpersonal brain hookups. Our brains and nervous systems—our minds—evolved specifically to interact with other brains. We are inherently cooperative animals, and when we don’t have enough interaction with other animals, our brains atrophy and die.

This is why solitary confinement in prison is so damaging to a person’s health and sanity. It is one thing to choose to be alone for a day or two or three, but to be forced into isolation with no hope of connecting healthfully and meaningfully with other people or animals or living things is truly terrible torture.

I am a social isolate, not by nature, but in response to my abusive parents who combined individual abuse of their children with aggressively disallowing my siblings and I to unite in order to weather the ongoing misery. This made it necessary for each of us to emotionally fend for ourselves, and as a result, all four of us became social isolates in our own unique ways.

When I chose to pursue writing as a career rather than becoming an actor, I was unaware that my tendency to isolate was the largest determining factor in that choice. I was not a gifted writer, but I was an excellent actor; yet after high school I chose to pursue writing instead of acting because my lifelong habit of self-isolation was too strong for me to overcome. Thus, as Gabor Maté discusses so compellingly: what began as a childhood coping mechanism became my habit, and my tendency to self-isolate, which was my salvation until I left home at seventeen, made group activities much more challenging for me than for people who grew up in families that supported and encouraged the healthy inclination to interact and cooperate and collaborate with others.

Despite my tendency to self-isolate, I have always been a person who other people, including complete strangers, feel comfortable confiding in, and I’ve often wondered why this is so. As the result of some experiments I’ve been conducting, I understand that when I interact with other people, I emanate the vibe of someone safe and enjoyable to talk to.

As the result of my reading about how our neurological system works, I know that most human brains are ready, one might even say eager, to hook up with other brains if, and this is a hugely important ­if, those other brains communicate: I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding.

Prior to my recent experiments, I must have been unconsciously emanating this message. In my experiments, I consciously think (and feel) I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding when I start up a conversation with someone in line at the bakery or I bump into someone at the post office or I engage with the checker at the grocery store.

The results have been astounding. Not only do nearly all randomly selected people open up to me as if I am a dear and trusted friend, but their bodies relax, their faces soften, and my body and face relax and soften, too. These physical and emotional changes occur so predictably in the course of our interactions, if I hadn’t read volumes of neurobiology I might think I’d stumbled on the trick of emotional hypnosis. But what I’ve learned is that humans are hardwired to connect in this way if given the opportunity.

We live in a society that produces highly defended people, defended internally and externally. But being so intensely defended is not our true nature. Our true nature, our genetic heritage, is to be closely connected—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually—with the other members of a band of people. We are designed to be part of conjoined neurological systems.

And when we meet others of our kind and we feel/hear/believe/trust that the other is friendly and wants to interact with us so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding, then our true natures are awakened.

Little Bit Of Talent

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

bfcx

“Japanese psychologists claim they have taught pigeons how to tell a Picasso from a Monet with 90 per cent accuracy. However, the birds were not able to tell a Cezanne from a Renoir.” Ivan Weiss and Lynn Mucken

If I ever regain the energy and ambition of my youth, I will create a competitive game show to air on YouTube called Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent. The show will feature people I know and people I don’t know who have no desire to become famous for doing anything, but who have little bits of talent, even possibly talents they don’t consider talents.

Contestants on Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent, or EHALBOT as the wildly popular show will come to be known, are their own judges. A contestant—there is only one per episode—will join me in my living room or at the beach or in a café or in a clearing in the forest. Here I will pepper the person with intriguing questions to discover their little bit of talent, something they won’t mind sharing with our tens of millions of viewers.

The hypothesis of EHALBOT is that everyone has talent, not only people who sing versions of pop songs just as well or maybe even a little better than the people who made those pop songs popular. Nor will the contestants on EHALBOT dance provocatively with uncanny flexibility to loud pulsating music. Nor are we looking for cynical holier-than-thou sexually crude comedians.

On EHALBOT we showcase more subtle and nuanced forms of talent, the kinds of talent everyone has a little bit of. What do I mean? Well, a contestant might whistle pleasantly, not in a jaw-dropping oh-my-God-he-sounds-just-like-a-saxophone kind of way, but quietly and mostly on key. He or she might whistle some catchy old tune he or she learned from a grandparent, and he or she might punctuate the pleasant whistling with equally pleasant humming of the tune.

Or a contestant might make neato doodles while talking about the weather or about something funny their cat did or about anything that strikes their fancy—doodles that are fun to watch appear on a piece of paper as the contestant draws them.

Or a contestant might skip along the beach in a way that makes viewers laugh with pleasure, or at least smile a little, remembering when they were kids and would just out-of-the-blue start skipping around, or if not skipping then jumping and running, simply because we all went through a time of being children because we were born and that’s what happens.

Or maybe the contestant has a knack for making mushroom and green onion omelets in a cast iron frying pan, omelets that turn out pretty well, and he or she makes one during the episode and then we sit on the deck outside my kitchen eating the omelet and making yummy sounds.

At the end of a first-round episode of EHALBOT, the contestant stands in front of a big mirror, and while one camera films the person, a second camera films the person’s reflection, and we see both the person and the reflection on a split screen. The person speaks to her reflection and talks about her little bit of talent, and when the person is done expressing herself to her reflection, the person asks her reflection if she wants to move on to the next round of the competition. If the reflection gives thumbs up, the person moves on to the next round. If the reflection gives thumbs down, the contestant is presented with an Everyone Has A Little Bit of Talent T-shirt available in a variety of colors, and thanked profusely for coming on the show.

How do you like the concept so far? I love it.

So…after thirty people get thumbs up from their reflections, those thirty are randomly paired up, which gives us fifteen dyads with little bits of talent, and these dyads are asked to give a performance combining their talents. For instance, the humming whistler might whistle and hum pleasantly to accompany the omelet maker as he makes an omelet, and then I and that dyad will share the omelet out on the deck, along with coffee and toast, and make yummy sounds, or not, depending on how well the omelet and coffee and toast turn out.

The person who skips on the beach might skip in a big circle around the doodler on the beach who is making big doodles in the sand with a stick, the doodles inspired by the roaring waves and the person skipping around.

Or maybe the whistling hummer is paired with the skipping person, and the doodler is paired with the omelet maker. Anything is possible on EHALBOT.

At the end of each of those fifteen dyadic performances, the dyads stand side-by-side in front of a large mirror and speak to their reflections, each person telling the other person’s reflection how the collaboration made them feel. These second-round mirror sessions tend to last a bit longer than the first-round mirror sessions and are often revelatory of surprising aspects of the contestants’ lives.

To move on to the next round of EHALBOT, a contestant’s reflection must again give thumbs up. If the thumbs go down, the contestant receives an EHALBOT T-shirt and profuse thanks. In some cases, one member of the dyad will give thumbs up and the other member will give thumbs down because that’s just how it goes sometimes.

In the next and penultimate round, the remaining contestants gather in my living room in the early evening for drinks and hors d’oeuvres—about twenty contestants, four videographers, yours truly, and several people who are always good to have at parties. During the drinking and eating and socializing, I will casually ask each contestant how he or she feels about the experience of being on Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent.

Those who admit to enjoying the experience are invited to the final round of the competition, while those contestants who imply through unpleasant tones of voice, hostile body language, or slurs and insults suggesting they feel their experience of coming on the show has been a waste of time, are presented with an EHALBOT T-shirt, which they may or may not want, and asked to leave.

The final round of Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent takes place the next day in my living room or on the deck if the weather is nice. The finalists and I gather in a circle with our shoulders just touching the shoulders of the persons to our rights and the shoulders of the persons to our lefts. This collective just-touchingness never fails to create a comfortable group intimacy, and when a sense of completion overcomes me, I announce, “Congratulations, you are the winners of Everyone Has A Little Bit Of Talent.”

Each contestant is presented with a check for a large sum of money, depending on what EHALBOT’s share of YouTube ad revenue is for the year, along with a red or black or pearly white EHALBOT kimono, an EHALBOT baseball cap, an EHALBOT omelet pan, a large sketchpad of acid-free paper, and a collection of fine-tipped pens excellent for doodling.

T-shirts courtesy of Max

Be Good To Yourself

Monday, April 16th, 2018

lunch break

Lunch Break photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

Twenty years ago, living in Berkeley and finding no willing publishers for my fiction, I was down to my last few shekels when I was presented with the opportunity to work for an ambitious outgoing woman as her twenty-hour-a-week secretary, editor, and ghostwriter. With my rent due and needing groceries, I took the job. The work was tedious, but the pay was good and my employer was a delightful person. I eventually wrote two books for her, each a commercial flop, though both books were beautifully published.

By the time that five-year gig ended, I had managed to publish two non-fiction works of my own, Open Body: Creating Your Own Yoga and The Writer’s Path. Alas, sales of those lovely books were minimal and I was once again running low on funds, so I put up my shingle, so to speak, as an editor-for-hire.

The phone rang frequently thereafter and over the next couple of years I edited a handful of academic theses as well as a few dreadful novels and memoirs written by people who had succumbed to the now-ubiquitous delusion that anyone can write a book without first learning to write a reasonable sentence. And then I was hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of an elderly man who had been a closeted homosexual in Georgia and Kentucky for all but the last few years of his life.

This project involved several in-person meetings with my client and hundreds of phone interviews. This dear man told me at our first meeting that he was certain his story would be a bestseller. He gave me a two-hour synopsis of his extraordinary life, and I told him what I knew to be true: “If you were famous and your story involved you being intimately involved with other famous people, a book about your life would almost surely find a publisher and be successful. Given that you are not even a tiny bit famous and you don’t know anyone famous means that it is highly unlikely any publisher will be interested in your book, even if we write a masterpiece.”

He was undaunted by that prognosis, took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant, and we agreed to work together. He was neither a writer nor a gifted storyteller, which meant I had to painstakingly interview him in order to piece together the details of his life and ferret out the most fascinating parts. Over the course of a year I wrote three drafts of his very long autobiography, which he eventually self-published and only a handful of people ever read.

Nearing the end of my labors for him, I was having dreams I knew to be heavily influenced by my client’s life; and when, several months after completing that work, the creative sector of my brain finally individuated from his, I vowed never to ghostwrite anything ever again. Ghostwriting books about tea and handkerchiefs was no great mental challenge for me, but mind melding with another person in order to write the story of their tortured life was a psychic nightmare.

And that is the preface to what I’m about to tell you.

The delightful woman for whom I worked for five years became my dear friend, and it was her habit to call me every day at precisely nine in the morning to discuss the day ahead. She called every day at nine, unfailingly, even if her day did not include working with me. When I would answer my phone, she would invariably say, “Hello. It’s only me.”

For the first few months of these daily calls, I tried to think of thoughtful and/or humorous responses to her unchanging greeting, such as, “You’re hardly an only,” or “Oh you underrate yourself,” or “What a surprise to hear from you,” or “Me who?” Eventually I settled on the simple reply: “Hello, you.” And for some reason, my saying those two words was a never-ending delight to her. Sometimes she would respond to my “Hello, you,” with a hearty laugh, sometimes with a sigh of pleasure, and sometimes she would reply, “Now everything is right with the world.”

I came to greatly appreciate this ritual of mutual acknowledgment; and all these years later, my dear friend gone now for fifteen years, I miss that daily confirmation of our appreciation for each other.

The man for whom I ghostwrote the story of his life had an answering machine message he never changed, the tag line being, “And remember, be good to yourself.”

His kindly suggestion barely registered with me the first several times I called to leave a message, and when his advice did begin to register, I felt annoyed and then resentful—the implication of his suggestion being that I wasn’t being good to myself. How dare he? So I took to holding the phone at arm’s length and pointing the speaker away from me until I heard the All Clear beep, and then I would leave my message.

But one day, whilst in the throes of an emotional crisis, I called him, got his answering machine, and rather than hold the phone away from me, I listened to his message, and when his deep Georgia-accented voice said, “And remember, be good to yourself,” I burst into tears and had a good long cry during which I realized I had once again fallen into my lifelong habit of not being good to myself, and so resolved to break that habit immediately.

And my first act of self-love was to treat myself to a cookie and coffee at Toot Sweets, the little bakery around the corner from my Berkeley digs, where, whilst grazing in that den of pastries and caffeine, I bumped into the stellar singer/songwriter Alexis Harte who I had recently met through a mutual acquaintance.

We chatted about his music and mine, and I heard myself saying I wanted to record some of my songs, something I hadn’t said to anyone in many years. Alexis informed me that he had a little recording studio behind his house where I could do some recording for a reasonable fee—at which moment I recalled my client’s tender “Be good to yourself,” and decided to take Alexis up on his offer, which was the beginning of many wonderful musical adventures.

Work Surfaces

Monday, April 9th, 2018

choir practice

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s autobiography Dreaming of Lions. Near the beginning of her memoir, she tells of her time as a young woman when she and her brother and parents lived with a band of Bushmen in the Kalahari. At one point, Thomas enumerates all the possessions of a Bushman woman.

“…she owned her front and back aprons, also her leather cape and the sinew string which served as a belt, also her digging stick, two or three empty ostrich eggshells in which the people carried water, the grass stoppers for those ostrich eggshells, a leather bag, her necklace of ostrich eggshell beads, perhaps four or five hair ornaments, also a pair of leather sandals, and a tortoise shell in which she carried a sweet-smelling powder.”

Then Thomas enumerates the total possessions of a Bushman man. “He would own his leather loincloth, a leather bag, perhaps a leather cape for warmth, a pair of sandals, also a quiver, perhaps eight or nine arrows, a knife, a spear, perhaps a digging stick, and a pair of fire sticks. He also might own a necklace or some other ornament.”

For both a woman and a man, the total number of possessions was nineteen, give or take one or two. This enumeration put me in mind of when I lived as a vagabond for a few years and carried with me all my worldly possessions. I had many more than nineteen things, but certainly no more than sixty, including my clothing and shoes and survival tools and a few books. Today I am possessed of thousands of things. Thousands.

So…this morning, having put off the task for a year, I decided to clean up and organize the four work surfaces in my office/studio, also known as the Stables of Augeas. This undertaking resulted in my cleaning the entire room from floor to ceiling, and in the course of my excavations I found my good tape measure I’ve been missing for several weeks as well as two unanswered letters (shame on me), seven half-finished drawings, and five beginnings of stories. I also found so many pens, I feel abashed to have bought another box thinking I’d run out.

Yes, I agree that multiple dysfunctional work surfaces and a hyper-cluttered office/studio filled with unfinished, unanswered, unrealized things might be indicative of emotional and creative bottlenecks, and now that I have created these vast open spaces, the question does arise: how will I use this spaciousness? Could I have been avoiding the question of what to do next with my one precious creative life by engineering a physical conundrum composed of mystery heaps and jumbles of stuff obfuscating those work surfaces? Don’t be silly.

I do wonder why I kept a large bike pump on one corner of my writing desk for so many months, and why I stacked several notebooks filled with writing I’d already transcribed on top of a list of people I was planning to contact six months ago about something I felt was important at the time, but once the list was lost to view I forgot about contacting those people, and now I can’t remember why I wanted to contact them. Could this mean the something I wanted to contact them about was not really important, or might this be yet another example of self-sabotage? Oh, please.

These are just a few of the many questions that arose during the clearing process. Here are a few more. Why did I bring five old shoes from my bedroom closet into my office and put them under the table where I keep my postal scale and stamps and telephone? Why did I keep two large cardboard boxes on the left side of my drawing table for nearly a year, each box containing a single book, rather than put those books on a shelf, recycle the boxes, and give myself more room to draw?

An archaeologist generalizing about ancient Californians from the artifacts discovered in the tomb of my office might posit that the two hand-pruners found in Strata 47C on the same desk with pens and papers suggests that pruning and writing were conjoined activities in the olden days in California. A sentence fragment found in a nearby amalgam of disintegrating papers supports this hypothesis. “Pruning a fruit tree is kin to editing a passage of prose, for both words and branches…” Ah but the rest of the sentence has been lost to the exigencies of time and rot. However, the archaeologist feels confirmed in his thesis. These early Californians thought of fruit trees as living essays. Gads what a sophisticated culture!

Having conquered my interior, I stumbled forth from my revitalized creativity complex and found those same early Californians had been at work cluttering up the yard much as they had cluttered up my office. Incensed, I moved five wheelbarrow-loads of seasoned kindling into the woodshed, something I intended to do six months ago before the onset of winter but never accomplished before the rains came and so hastily covered the kindling pile with a tarp, and once a pile is covered, well, out of sight out of mind. Meanwhile, I was making more kindling to be stacked for seasoning, but then the rains came and I didn’t get much of what I cut stacked, and then the grasses started growing and engulfed the unstacked kindling, and so forth.

This is where a list might come in handy: a list of Things To Be Done Soon. I made several such lists, and before they vanished into the yawning maw of the Bermuda Triangle of my office, I’m sure I suggested to myself that I get that seasoned kindling into the woodshed and stack the new kindling before the rains came. And sure enough I found those lists when I sorted through the detritus on my work surfaces; and on three of those lists the first item was Clean The Gutters Before The Rains Come, and beside that item on one of the lists was a triumphant check mark!

kindling pyramid

 

Haircuts

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

pre-cut

Before the Cut photo by Marcia Sloane

“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Today, the first of April, Easter, 2018, no kidding, Marcia is giving me a haircut. The weather has turned warmish, finally, the Japanese maples are leafing out, the huckleberries have set prodigious quantities of blossoms for the second year in a row and the bumblebees are loudly pollinating those blossoms, the hummingbirds are zooming around looking for flowers and love, the mouth of Big River is teaming with harbor seals, and life she is on the upswing.

I only brush my hair when I happen to look in a mirror, which is not often. Thus my hair is frequently in a state of disarray, and when my hair is long I resemble a gray-haired Bozo the Clown. In the 1960s and 70s I wanted to grow my hair long enough to have a ponytail, but even when I went without a cut for four years, my hair only got about five-inches-long all around and thereafter the tips grew brittle and broke off. Nowadays I enjoy a little extra fur during the winter, and when spring has sprung, Marcia tames the tangle.

When I was a boy, my mother would take me to a barbershop every six months and a not-very-friendly man would cut off most of my hair. They called this a crew cut, though it might have been called a shaved head. I hated getting haircuts, but after a day or so of my ears feeling cold, I forgot about my hair, not being one who looked in mirrors.

While in a Bozo-the-Clown phase, as I have been for some months now, my hair elicits comments from people I know and from people I don’t know. Interestingly, nearly all these comments are complimentary, in a roundabout way. For instance, a woman coming out of the grocery store a few days ago startled at the sight of me and said, “Whoa. Great hair.” Subtext: You actually scared me a little, but I appreciate the wildness.

In the post office, a woman with hair even more topsy-turvy than mine, grinned at my coiffure and said, “Way to go.”

Marcia recently underwent a radical change in her hair style, her first major style shift since several years before we got together eleven years ago. The Marcia I married had long blonde hair that fell nearly to her waist. Indeed, she was renowned in Mendocino as the principal cellist of Symphony of the Redwoods with gorgeous long blonde hair, and as the cellist in the Mendocino Music Festival orchestra with gorgeous long blonde hair. Thus when she got most of her hair cut off last year, dozens of people came up to me at the first orchestral concert of the music festival and said one of two things. “Marcia cut her hair!” or “Where is Marcia?”

My answers were, “Yes, she did,” and “She is there with short hair.”

My haircuts, by contrast, do not prompt widespread alarm in the community. In fact, only a few people will notice that I’ve gotten the haircut I am about to get because I am not locally renowned for my hair or anything else. If I were to start wearing a suit and tie every day, some people in town would notice my wardrobe change and wonder why I no longer wore Giants sweatshirts. However, to elicit multiple comments about my hair I would have to dye my mop pink, and I think pink hair would make me look weird. Weirder.

When I lived in Berkeley, I got a haircut every six months. I would walk to Solano Avenue where, guided by chance and intuition, I would choose one of the several hair cut joints staffed by Chinese women who spoke little or no English. I would enter the joint, wait for someone to gesture at an empty barber’s chair, and say politely, “May I please have my hair cut short on the sides and leave some on top.” And then I would surrender to the gods of haircuts.

On one occasion, a young woman began cutting my hair and after a few minutes stopped to confer with another young woman who then took over cutting my hair. After a moment, this second woman stopped cutting my hair and called over an older woman who studied my hair for a moment, smiled at me and said, “You hair no lie down. Only go up when cut short. No can brush down.”

“Yes,” I said. “Is okay. Cut short on sides, leave some on top.”

And then to put them at ease, I told my favorite haircutting joke. “You know the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut?”

The three women looked at me with obvious concern and said many things to each other in Chinese.

“Two weeks,” I said, and when it was clear they didn’t understand the joke, I tried to explain why it was funny, which is never a good idea, and then I told the joke again, which caused the older woman to nod emphatically and say, “Yes, okay. You come back two weeks. Sure. We cut some man hair every week.”

Now the deed is done. Marcia worked uncharacteristically fast today, snipping and fluffing and snipping, and she seemed to enjoy the process this time, which has not always been the case.

I certainly feel lighter and more intelligent. I don’t know why getting a haircut sharpens the mind, but it does for me. Perhaps we receive vital information from the collective consciousness through our hair, and by removing the old brittle hair tips, my reception of useful data has improved. Let’s hope so.

I saved the hair that was previously attached to my head, and once I get the fire going in the woodstove this evening I will burn those detached locks in a ritualistic pagan Easter Passover rebirth ceremony, no kidding, to bid farewell to old fears and erroneous assumptions that have been holding me back from optimal appreciation of this moment.

After the Cut photo by Marcia Sloane