All posts by dhoward@cyg.net

What’s going on. . . when nothing’s going on?

In what passed as the dark ages of neuropsychobiology (certainly for me!), aka five decades ago, wannabe clinical psychologists were deemed to be lacking in the ‘hard science’ exposure that defined academic psychology. The discipline was polarized into ‘applied’ (the ‘us’) and ‘research’ (the ‘them’). In efforts to balance this (quite real) disparity, we future clinicians were required to complete a potpourri of four-week ‘samplers’ designed to plug the leaky dike that was applied psychology — I’m sure, every bit as torturous for the faculty drawing the short straw as the student abruptly plucked from his soft, touchy-feely, people-based (ugh!) prospectus and thrust into the rigour and precision of signal detection theory and neuropsychology in general. Who knew, long before the DSM-5 was even a glint in anyone’s eye, that brain science would come to define both sides of ‘the great divide’; and that the bespectacled, aloof, ‘lab guy’ who spent his happiest hours inserting electrodes into the brains of Rhesus monkeys (and his unhappiest attempting to pound a lifetime of research into smug grad students’ brains in one short month!) would be so figural — in his own esoteric way.Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 7.41.55 AM

A couple of decades after this semester from hell, Quirks and Quarks, a favourite CBC go-to of mine, aired a segment on problem solving. The twist for this research was that ‘real work’ could be done . . . while we’re asleep. In short, instead of just twiddling its Delta wave thumbs, waiting to get back on the waking job and wiling its time away in passively restorative functions, the brain becomes available to a very different kind of work. It becomes a lateral thinking machine! Freed from the constraints and distractions of waking periods, it’s able to roam and speculate in a marvelously free-associative way that opens to possibility, observing out of the corner of its metaphoric eye things, options that would be evaluated and rejected, if noted at all, during waking time. Welcome creativity.

The ‘set up’ for this particular segment was being presented with a riddle with instructions to read it over two or three times immediately before retiring. On waking, one was to note any possible solutions — or more properly ‘indications of solution’ that may have surfaced over night. In this case, we were asked to consider a man, running in one direction, looking up, and seeing a second man, wearing a mask (how particularly poignant during a pandemic!), and then running back in the direction from which he’d come. Two waking images, from my night’s sleep bubbled up (apologies for the double entendre): an old-fashioned drinking fountain with its ongoing jet of water holding a baseball suspended at the jet’s apex; and a fuzzy awareness of Kelly Gruber, the Blue Jays third basemen at the time, standing on first base. The solution, completely out of reach on retiring, clicked: a baserunner, attempting to steal home from third, sees the catcher with ball in hand; and retreats to third base. Hmm. (Now if I’d only put that long, dry, neuropsych. text under my pillow. . .)

Another thirty years forward in the time machine. Nicola ran across a fascinating book recently, Rest. The author, Alex Pang, makes a well-illustrated and compelling, evidence-based argument for purposeful, scheduled periods in our days and weeks for, as his title suggests . . . resting. Far beyond merely fallow time, when we are simply ‘not working’, the case is made for planning these periods and defending their sanctity, as sources of creativity and inspiration. Focussed, intense, concentrated, and effortful work generally is required for, as one early 20th century author puts it, the ‘preparation and incubation of’ ideas, insights — those things we like to call ‘aha moments’. The instant of illumination, however, when the light bulb actually turns on, often occurs in the unfocussed, daydreaming, reflective times when we are engaged in ‘restful activities’ — walking, napping, meditating, . . even sleeping.

Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 10.17.26 AMEvidently, our brains ‘knew’ this all along — just hadn’t shared the wisdom with us until relatively recently. A diffuse, set of neural connections, initially thought to be irritating, difficult to partial out, ’background static’ (in early fMRI research) turns out to be a gear the brain kicks into when, well, we’re not doing anything! Instead of this activity being a water-treading, idling state, akin to the ‘stealth mode’ that hybrid vehicles slide into when waiting for the next push on the gas pedal, our brain moves over to the Default Mode Network (DMN). Our ‘modern’ preoccupation with measuring the usefulness of states / activities by the time invested in, the (apparent) output generated by, the ‘degree of difficulty’ attached to has marginalized these overtly ‘pointless’ periods as wool gathering at best, wastes of time at worst. Quite lemming-like we become human doings (vs. human beings).
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Seems distributing four to five hours of intense focus over our day, interspersed with planned, safeguarded periods of activity normally associated with leisurely, ‘unproductive’ pastimes — even sleep, that most expendable commodity, regularly encroached upon in the name of ‘getting stuff done’. Finding one’s rhythm is an individual experiment. But the math remains the same: some variation on 2 parts sleep, 1 part intense focus, 3 parts . . . rest.

So I’m trying to compose a Mother’s Day poem. The elements are there for my favored form: haiku. Swallows, their preferred food (insects) — nature and metaphysical allusion. But no cigar. A good night’s sleep, a little time spent with the DMN and:

Midges: swarm, shiver,
Swallows: dart, swallow —
Drawn by feast to this false Spring
.

Never going to win any prizes for literature — but the connections amongst a snowy Sunday morning in May, a hat-tip to an Aesopian fable, and the immediacy and grace of flocks of birds in their well-choreographed dance.

What’s going on when nothing’s going on — evidently quite a lot!

Ay, There’s the Rub

To glove or not to glove . . . sorry, Hal, but that’s no longer the question! That gauntlet got tossed (down) a long time ago. The quandary now, to continue the Prince’s equivocating ways, is which glove?

The most complicated piece of prep before heading to the grocery store used to be remembering the list. Smart phones kinda obviated that bit. Then came the days of reusable string bags. Aside having to excavate and disentangle from all the other trunk junk, that one got solved too: get a green bin. And now it’s the glove dilemma. So many choices, so many considerations. With the weather finally warming, sliding by with the winter woolies just doesn’t fool anyone anymore. And so a brief primmer on the pro’s and con’s of what’s out there:

IMG_1366The beauty at the left is fast becoming ‘standard issue’. Cheap, disposable, chic (if black is still the new black), and available thru’ my son in law’s generosity. (He keeps a, now dwindling supply for work on the oilier jobs with his 2CV — tantamount to surgical procedures in some instances). I’ve ‘test-driven’ this model. Easy off, full tactile experience (whatever that means), and clearly (as long as Simon’s supply holds out) affordable. The rub, as it were, is ‘easy off’ does not mean ‘easy on’. Anticipating the problem, I spent some considerable time in our parking garage (to avoid embarrassing moments in the store lot) donning these babies. I found ‘pre-stretching’ an essential: standing on the cuff and pulling upwards, gently but firmly, toward the knee. (A measure of economy is lost with several pairs being lost to the process.) Then looping the (now expanded) cuff over the opposing thumb, clenching teeth over same (cuff, not thumb) and pulling for all one’s worth. Makes donning compression socks look like a dream — or just maybe a viable alternative.

IMG_1367The latex-faced, nubby-palmed construction model has much to recommend it. Unlike it’s limp sibling (above), it’s a breeze to put on. No more dropped bottles of cheap red, boasting excellent qualities of adhesion to those slippery surfaces. And no risk of incidental electrocution. Downside: punching the touch screen on your smart phone is a fool’s errand. The ease of on and off is compromised with the need to do just that, several hundred times — as the list fades to black. Expensive, but washable, reusable and not wholly unattractive.

B450DE68-BD93-4671-89E3-24AFCB773447_1_201_aThe Jack and Jill is next up. Gender accommodating, for those of us born in the mid-last century. Readily available in most households — although the provenance of used gloves may need to be confirmed if found under the bathroom sink. Covid-19 is one thing; residual . . . well, best left to the imagination. Smart screen responsiveness can be variable.

IMG_1369Sadly, the hockey bag, the cycling shelf, and / or the baseball locker, despite offering up a wealth of choice, have some obvious limitations, generally begging the question.shopping-1shopping

And so to Prince Hamlet’s parting ambivalence:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of germs
And by opposing end them.

Not an easy call!

Good Friday, 2010. Riding Westward

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.

SW face pan 1

Ten years ago to the day we were in Cheshire housed for Holy Week in an idyllic, converted outbuilding misleadingly called ‘The Stable’. (If this was a stable, these had been very pampered cows indeed.) Perched on the cusp of the UK’s Peak District, an hour’s drive east of Chester Cathedral. Daily, we’d head to the still partially Roman-walled city that houses this beautiful sandstone edifice. And join the several hundreds, drawn to the ritual and, in Chester’s case, the artistry of the week’s services.

The decision to ‘immerse’ in the progression of days, commencing Palm Sunday, had not been difficult. Early days spent as an ‘indifferent Presbyterian’, the concept of a compelling build to Easter Sunday had failed to take root in my spiritual side. Easter holidays had meant annual trips to find warmth, usually south of the Mason-Dixon. Later, Good Friday was a day off work. Easter Sunday, after the mandatory church service (generally, the only service!), was as much about ham, scalloped potatoes, new ‘bonnets’. chocolate rabbits, and egg hunts. A ‘brush’ with Anglican liturgy had piqued my interest a few years earlier. And so, here we were.

We’d come expecting a full plate of Evensong, supplementing all the traditional service elements of the ‘season’. We were not disappointed. The ‘bonus’, however, followed Good Friday morning’s service: a three-hour devotional, somewhat enigmatically entitled Let There Be Dark. Canon Trevor Dennis, a teacher, writer, and performer, in addition to his role as clergy, had assembled a selection of readings from his several collections of poems and stories, interspersed with periods of contemplative silence, organ music, and hymns.

Cloister cardThe readings were delivered, depending on the particular ‘spin’, from the pulpit (the ‘right’ side, corresponding with the ‘upbeat’, positive stories) or the lectern (the left side for the sinister ones). One narrative thread included a plea for understanding from a Jew of Christ’s day, recounting the potential for chaos visited on him and his brethren by Jesus’ radical ideas, asking for a bit of patience and time to adjust. Another, a diatribe against chocolate and ‘spring colours’, appropriately ending with ‘let there be dark’. Others: Job’s wife given a voice, Eve, admitting to feeling that it was ‘safe to go back in the water’ — only to find her long-awaited celebration shrouded in black.

It came as no surprise that, following each reading, the nave was absolutely silent. This was not a man advocating dark thoughts. Only that each side, each polarity serves to define the other. To inform, clarify and give meaning to the other. Both deserve, require exploration and, ultimately acknowledgement and acceptance.

This Easter Sunday morning echoes much of the paradox, the contrasts that Donne may have felt as he penned his Good Friday poem, four hundred years ago. Taken as a pivotal point in the poet’s life, as he transitioned from the secular to the spiritual, his journey’s account describes his pull in opposing directions, a view of ‘two worlds’, two solitudes (all the more resonant today) as he struggles to reconcile each with the other.

We’d made the ‘ride’, over similar ground, ten years ago, to be present for the concluding services of this same week, Holy Week, in a building attended by hundreds. This morning I’m reminded of Canon Dennis’ message of that time: how do you appreciate one — without its polar opposite.

This morning, the buildings are empty. The world is a very different place. And we have ‘the opposite’. The challenge, the task it seems is holding the space between, finding ways of ‘joining’, adapting, and continuing to celebrate. A few days ago, we’d watched Bach’s Passion of John, a very ‘different’ vehicle and, for many, bordering on heresy at the time — now a standard. This morning we viewed some of the many, herculean efforts of musicians, clergy, choristers, and parishioners prepared, at personal risk and cost over the past week (again, Holy Week) to provide the elements that transcend ‘bricks and mortar’. Working alone, or in the small numbers that the times allow; singing, speaking to vacant, unpopulated space. Different, to be sure. Lesser, diminished — absolutely not!

Happy Easter.