Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Your Brain Is Playing Telephone

As a writer, I have observed that my output improves dramatically if I pause now and then to play Solitaire. It is so fruitful that I no longer even worry I'm wasting time, and I just go ahead and play whenever the mood hits.

A typical session might go as follows: black queen on red king, black six on red seven, turn, turn, OMG Camilla needs to be kidnapped and Hattie totally loses her shit in the next scene, three on ace.

It's reliable and cheaper than running a hot shower all day, which is the other way to produce ideas. But I've been at a loss to understand how it works.

In order to understand how creativity works, or any thought process at all, you must know a little about neurotransmission. Fortunately, that's exactly the amount I do know about neurotransmission.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that poot out of the pointy axon end of a neuron and get gobbled up by the fluffy dendrite end of the next neuron over. It's the way they communicate. Without neurotransmitters, all our cells would just be a jumbled collection jostling each other on the platform, wondering when the train would arrive. But with neurotransmitters, our cells are lined up and whispering to each other in sequence, such that "Take your hand off the burner" eventually arrives in the spinal cord as "Tag Old Stan in the bunghole."

The first named neurotransmitter was discovered in 1921 by a guy named Otto, who got to name it. He called it Vagusstoff, but he was wrong, it turned out to be acetylcholine. Anyway, ol' Otto suspended two beating frog hearts in saline solution and molested one of them, causing it to slow down, and then the other one slowed down too, even though it was not otherwise involved. Also, all the frogs within a ten-mile radius dug deeper down into the mud.

The neurotransmitters in the brain cross over a gap between neurons called a synapse (Greek for "hole in the head"). There are gobs of neurons in the brain, and if you have a very small head like I do, they're packed in really tight. In addition to the neurons, there are even more cells called glia. They are not well understood but appear to be the support crew. They're either tightening bolts or sending out for sandwiches. In addition, they keep the neurons from rubbing up against each other and chafing.

It's not really known if the adult brain continues to create neurons. For a while there it was thought to, because this was observed in rat brains. People were really pumped about that, because they were pretty sure the standard neuron allotment wasn't cutting the mustard. Recently, it's come to light that this might be a rodent thing, and primates more or less make do with what they started with. This would be depressing were it not for the fact that we're already not doing much with the ones we have.

Synaptic pruning in process.
Furthermore, the adult brain is a sleeker model than the child brain, because during adolescence the brain undergoes something called "synaptic pruning," in which some 50% of the neuron connections are tidied up and disposed of. Theoretically this makes the adult brain more streamlined and efficient, but it's possible this is more of a process of civilization for the good of the species as a whole; a process by which humans transition from a life of unbridled masturbation to overeating, TV, and quiet desperation.

Back in oldener times, the brain was thought to be a wired-up electrical model. This was a daunting analysis in the days when people could devote hours to unscrewing every light on the Christmas tree to find the bad bulb. Nowadays we have a more nuanced understanding of brain processes, secure in the notion that if things go wrong we can always unplug, wait a few minutes, and plug back in.

And that's where the Solitaire comes in.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Your Odds Were Long

Looking for frog eggs
Eggs. Red-legged frogs lug them around this time of year, and they don't look comfortable. After consulting with the hormone department, I got rid of all mine. It was one of my better moves.

We female humans have all the eggs we'll ever need and about a million more when we're born. In fact, the high point of our egg-carrying life occurs well before then. At twenty weeks gestation we're packing five million of the suckers. Fortunately, brain development is continuing apace, probably including the ability to track the egg surplus, and we begin feverishly killing them off until we're left with only about a third. Don't tell the Pope.

That still leaves a lot of eggs to lug around. The human female trots out only about four hundred during her reproductive ("bloaty") years and the rest have to die, because otherwise she'd menstruate for several hundred years, and you think men are warlike. So our human female continues to destroy some 11,000 eggs a month until she hits or otherwise smacks into puberty. Now we're down to a more reasonable 300,000 eggs, which is a lot of attrition by any standard. There is no evidence that the selection of eggs to discard is anything other than random. If there were quality control, the 2016 election would have turned out a lot different.

The immature eggs live in little bags of goo called follicles. Thirty or forty of them audition to be a human being every month, but only one matures and gets sent out to the show. Tryouts go on constantly and are not hormone-dependent. But the winning follicle is generally the first to react to Follicle Stimulating Hormone and gets a head start that none of the other follicles can catch up with. The now-mature stimulated egg gets the tiara and all the others die. Which means all of you are here because at some point you sprinted ahead and turned your back on all your fellow follicles. You must be very proud.

The egg with the tiara then gets pooted out of the ovary and into the uterus via the Fallopian tubes. Amazingly, a man named Gabriello Fallopio discovered them 450 years ago; he probably was alerted by the name similarity. He was noted for his dissection skills early on, a distinction that can lead to a life as either a respected scientist or a serial murderer. As later developments revealed, he should have studied tuberculosis instead.

Anyway, our mature egg now travels to the uterus, which has recently been staged with overstuffed sofas and a full pantry, and sits back comfy with the tiara waiting for a date, but when he doesn't show, all the furniture gets shoved out for another month, through a tiny hole, and isn't that a righteous picnic for everyone involved. Sure as shit is.

You're done with it all, however, when the eggs run out, which they will. One thing about those last eggs, though, is they are not spring chicken eggs. They've been through the wringer. Older women have a far greater percentage of Abbie Normal eggs and although the most common consequence of that is their eggs don't properly take to the comfy furniture and turn into humans, another possibility is that they do turn into humans, but not necessarily the kind you were hoping for. There's a lot more likelihood of chromosomal aberrations in an older woman's eggs due to longer exposure to free radicals and fevers and stress and whiskey and such.

Which might have been a thing for my mom to think about when she had me at age forty, if indeed I had been thought about at all, although indications are I was not specifically on anyone's agenda. But my egg was probably all right. It was tucked inside a Norwegian. You can't get much safer than that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Take The Last Shuttle To Sexville

We've been scooping up frogs and bucketing them across Highway 30 for several years now, since that is the direction they insist on going in order to make replacement frogs, and we want them to keep doing that. Frogs have a number of obstacles in life. The other name for tadpoles, for instance, is "lunch." But even if they manage to grow right the heck up to full size, they're no match for a Chevy.

We've also been keeping nice data on them. We know exactly what sorts of conditions they require to make the trek (damp, dark, warmer than 43 degrees). Although, to be fair, we started out knowing that. It's in The Literature. The Literature is where all the scientific knowledge is stashed so no one needs to remember it. We do keep track of the sex of the frogs and the weather and the temperature and stuff. It helps us know when to be on the lookout. This season we had something like six frogs venture out over the course of a few weeks and then, bam, 345 in one night. You want to be prepared for a detonation like that.

One of the patterns we've noticed over the years is that the great frog migration is led by males. They'll be down at the pond telling tall tales and scoping out the competition weeks before the females make the trek. You can tell the males because they have long, uh, thumbs, and they're very avid. Boing! Boing! Boing! Also they're a lot smaller than females. This leads them to compensate, and for all we know, they're compensating away day and night down there in the pond once we let them go.

Later the females lug themselves down the hill with nothing like the verve of the males (or spunk, if you will). Bloop. Bloop. Bloop. It's hard to say whether they're just not as enthusiastic about the enterprise or if it's all that water weight. They're packing upwards of a thousand eggs each and, honey, it shows. They're one strand of elastic away from a world-class muffin-top. Perhaps there is some kind of primal drive getting them to the Mixer but it's entirely possible they just want to dump the eggs. As soon as they hit the water at least one male is going to want to grab on and squeeze and he's not about to be ditched at the punchbowl. He's on there until he gets something to fertilize--that's the nice term for it--and then he's all done and the female has to find someplace to arrange the eggs in a neat ball and then she bops back uphill, stretch marks and all. The guys hang out a little longer in case another lucky lady happens by looking for a big thumb.

Plus, a bonus salamander.
I don't know. I've never wanted to be a male but there are some things about the female condition that are not ideal. Primarily the bloat. I'd have been fine with lower pay and condescension if I could have negotiated away the bloat. If I were a frog I'd want to ditch those eggs all at once and as soon as possible.

In fact, I wouldn't have minded that option myself. It's one thing to harbor a pizza for a night or two and another thing altogether to suffer involuntary tissue turgidity once a month for decades, for no good reason. And to make it worse--it exactly coincides with the time everyone around you gets super annoying.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Universal Ma'amer

"Yes ma'am," I said, and winced instantly, with a furtive glance at the grocery clerk I was directing it to. Stout in the eyebrows, sure, and kind of a mustache, sure, but otherwise a doughy feminine model of a face, with no offense registered on it. I get this wrong a lot. To be fair, I always have. I grew up saying "Yes ma'am" to pretty much everybody and I'd have had to be in a heap of trouble in a formal situation to let fly with a Yes Sir. To my way of thinking, "Ma'am" is Yes's last name.

It doesn't always go over well. People can get prickly about their pronouns and they can't be expected to know that I Ma'am universally. I always feel bad and embarrassed when I get corrected and it would be worth my while to work on eliminating the whole locution, but it runs deep. The worst one was the day I was facing a gang of mailboxes (don't laugh, that is what they're called) poking letters into them and someone came up behind me and asked, in a highish voice, if I was done with Apartment 503 yet. "No ma'am," I sang out, and my new friend immediately said "Sir." Which threw me into the usual jumbled panic syntax and I turned around to apologize, only to find I was face to face with a person completely covered in tattoo ink, including every side of his head. Jot this down. If you are an individual of the checker-headed persuasion, it would be more considerate not to spring yourself on someone from two feet away.

None of the words in my apology were in the right order to begin with, and after I turned around and caught sight of the man, it all just collapsed into unrelated syllables. I do not know if he enjoyed my discomfiture, because his checkerboard interfered with his expression. We ended up becoming friends, which is how I found out he wasn't completely covered in tattoos after all--he was still missing half of one sleeve and the palms of his hands, I believe, plus his eyeballs, but I understand these omissions have now been rectified. Nothing has been left out, which you can see for yourself at his website, as long as you check the "over eighteen" box.

That was the worst episode, but we're conditioned to feel bad when we get someone's sex wrong. People feel strongly about it. I don't, myself. Or, at least, I don't think I would care if I got Sirred. I can't remember it happening. No one ever thinks I'm a boy, even though I lack couth, fart audibly, and don't clean up after myself.

One time when I was a little girl I pulled my hair back severely and said to my parents, Look, this is what I'd look like if I was a boy! There would be no reason to remember this episode except for how quiet it got afterward. Real quiet. My folks were quiet anyway but when they got that quiet it put a spotlight on the Thing That Must Not Be Said. Their sudden silence framed it like the city painting around a pothole. You can't miss it.

I didn't know it at the time, but my father's sister had declared herself a boy at a very young age and there was no precedent for such a thing in local society. Not in the early 1900s. It didn't work out for him or anybody else in the family, not that that was Uncle Bill's fault. I didn't meet him until I was grown, and by that time he'd fended off the Ma'am thing by wearing a suit jacket, fedora, and wingtips from the boys' department at all times. He had an unusually thick head of hair and his mustache wasn't that great. I'm pretty sure I never ma'amed him. I would have felt awful. But it wouldn't have been the worst thing that ever happened to him.

He deserved better. We all do, so don't tell my friend from the mailbox that I call him Checkerhead. Or That Colored Boy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Dumpling

Why? What does your plunger look like?
My insurance company sent me a card on my birthday, just like Grandma used to do, only instead of having a five-dollar bill in it, it had a home colon screening kit. I sent Grandma a thank-you note every year, but these folks want something different.

It's pretty easy, but you do have to think about it. Weeks can pass by when you do what you're used to doing and then go, oh crap. I forgot to do the kit again. And it's a little problematic because most of the time when I'm on the toilet all kinds of things can happen. Well not all kinds, but one thing or the other. And in this case, you don't want the One thing, you just want the Other thing.

But finally I remembered to get out the kit at just the right time, at the E.T.A. of the B.M., and I unfolded the tissue paper and laid it neatly on the water surface, and everything was going just fine. Then you get the little twiddle stick and twiddle it in your Issue Of The Residuum, pack it away, and mail it off. It's a tiny twiddler. It looks like a toothbrush for a shrew. You only have the one shot at it, but I had a lot to work with, so I picked a particularly nice spot to twiddle. You don't want to be sending off a corn kernel on a stick.

I packed off my nice sample, fine of texture and hue, and then I cleaned up per usual and gave 'er a flush.

I will pause here to note that I have never plugged up the toilet I use regularly, as it were. My toilet and I are on the same page. Other people have plugged up the toilet. Or more often they make it run on and on. We have a toilet with a little handle in the center of the tank. I thought it was adorable when we picked it out but it has its drawbacks. You are supposed to pull it up gently, but for some reason guests like to reef on it like they're starting up a lawn mower, and then the little chain gets overexcited and bunches up, and the toilet runs on and on. And because you can't just take the tank lid all the way off, because the chain is attached to it, you have to try to fix it blind with your arm jammed under the lid.

But I have never plugged up my toilet. Until now.

I flushed gently, and watched the perfectly centered tissue paper fold up neatly around my production like a Chinese bao--oh, let's go ahead and call it a Dumpling--and wedge itself in the go-away hole. And there it sat, a big toilet bolus. It wasn't awful to look at or anything--it was very neatly wrapped indeed. A bow wouldn't have been at all out of place.

I've certainly plugged up a toilet before. Not mine. Notably, I once visited a world of hurt on the spotless bathroom belonging to an obsessively tidy gentleman who threw himself off a bridge shortly after the incident, and I'm not even kidding. But my record with my own toilet is clean. So this was a situation. Several flushes served only to send the water level to the uh-oh zone. I was not at all inclined to sacrifice a barbecue fork, although I believe a simple perforation would have done the trick. Finally I annoyed the bolus with a plunger and it slipped the swirly bonds. No harm done.

But I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the tidy dead gentleman, and I'm sorry to have handed my mailman a biohazard, and I'm sorry to have stressed out my toilet. Really, I should apologize to my toilet every day. It was such a champ during my last actual colonoscopy prep. I'm not a bit sorry about anything that might have happened during my colonoscopy. Those people had it coming.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Grok Say 'Uff Da'

Hans and Petra Skari
I went ahead and sent my spit to a DNA company, because I feel there is such a thing as too much privacy, and also because I was curious about my genetic heritage. Lots of you have done the same thing, including some 589 close relatives of mine, which is extraordinary, inasmuch as I thought my family tree had been reduced to a stump with a few of us suckers coming out of it. (I haven't paid the extra to be introduced to these people, because of the risk they'd be a lot like me.)

I generally describe myself as half Norwegian. Americans like to do that. We have only the single citizenship and no familiarity with other languages or cultures or anything but you ask any of your basic paler Americans what they "are" and they'll start ticking countries off their fingers. We're real proud of our immigrant heritage as long as it has at least a few decades of antiquity to it. So I say I'm half Norwegian because my mom's parents were both from the old country and it was assumed their parents were too, and so on and so forth. I describe the other half as a dull mixture of pasty peoples in the English realm, but don't get too specific. I figure they're all interchangeable anyway.

But I was surprised to discover that I actually am 43.7% Norwegian. Surprised, because this DNA business goes back a long way and it seems to me people should have moved around a bit more than that, or, in the case of the Vikings, conquered more people than that, and so I would have expected my DNA to reflect inferior vanquished overrun peoples' DNA. Your Russian, your French, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Greek, Italian, maybe even some Mi'kmaq from Newfoundland. Could I possibly have come from Viking stock? Oh looky there! I'm 0.4% Northern African! The Vikings conquered Morocco in 845. Boo-yah!

So I am quite tickled about the results,  because mild-mannered folk like myself like to imagine we harbor an inner Viking. Robust! Hearty! Swinging a broadsword through a cranium like it was butter! In fact--if we are what we eat--buttery! And that includes us womenfolk, with our fat blond braids tucked into our belts alongside our battle axes, ready to bash people over the head with our krumkake irons. Uff da!

All I've got to threaten people with is writing them into my novels.

Anyway, sure enough, the rest of the story was mixed and pasty. Until we get to the good stuff. The stuff I was most interested in.

Yes, folks, read it and weep. I have way more Neanderthal in me than most of you. Nearly 4%. The reconstructions of Neanderthal skeletons are not as dreadful-looking as most people imagine, I'll have you know. The Neanderthal is short and stocky and has thicker, denser facial bones than their skinny-ass compatriots in the H. sapiens school. I can relate. I am short and--oh, let's substitute "sturdy" for "stocky," why don't we--and I have empirical evidence that my head is not fragile, because I keep falling on it, and nothing has spilled out. Between my inner Vikings and Neanderthals I'm pretty sure I could keep my smug inner Irish and English portions in line. I like to think they didn't contribute much to the wonder that is me.

Maybe just the eyebrows.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

When Death Approached: The Floofy Swan

I might have been a little hard on ol' Orlando Gibbons, there, the madrigal composer, who, after all, did write some mighty melodic songs. Sure, he whacked the bejesus out of that silver swan, but he also got in some pointed commentary. "Farewell, all joys! Oh Death, come close my eyes" is followed by "More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise."

The bit about the geese and the fools is timeless. It's every bit as appropriate now as it was in the seventeenth century. Doesn't matter when you live, you can count on being surrounded by idiots. But I'm not sure it's all that fair to the geese.

Ducks and geese and swans all roll off the same general template, the Anseriformes, with a lot of the same attributes, only in different sizes. I suspect the geese are assumed to be fools because they go off honking all the time, like a clarinet recital by first-graders. Gibbons's silver swan, on the other hand, says nothing at all, a tactic that makes one seem wise, except in the case of Clarence Thomas. The silver swan sings a swan song upon her death and that's the whole repertoire. At least, that's what a lot of people believed.

But even Mute Swans make a racket. So it isn't true. Not only that, but the song the swan supposedly sings upon death probably is no such thing, but the sound of its lungs collapsing and forcing air through its massive tracheal loop, with a coda later when the dead swan bloats up and the gas farts out. Much the same effect could be achieved with a bagpipe or accordion dropped from a high place, as has been demonstrated many, many, many times.

The actual moment, featuring my entire sister.
The other thing that's not really fair is this idea that swans are all that wonderful just because they're fancy. People think poorly of the goose but revere the big, white, graceful, fluffy swan. I know my sister and I admired one when we happened upon it in a lake near her house. "Look how beautiiful," she said, as it floofed up and advanced smoothly toward us at the shoreline. "Get my camera," she said, and crouched down and prepared to snap a tremendous close-up of the floofiness and regal neck.

And then the swan hove up and grobbed my entire sister and flang her in the lake.

Evidently, I commemorated the event in silk.
To be fair, my sister was not at all a large person, but she wasn't threatening anyone, and that swan was an asshole. We read up later and discovered that your fluffy swan is a homicidal swan, and you'd best keep your distance until it sleeks back down. Basically, it's no improvement on an irascible goose, except it's bigger.

I will admit it didn't sing a note. But that's just because it's sneaky.

Historical note: I didn't write much of anything for about thirty years, but interesting turns of phrase appeared in my head often enough that I thought of myself as a writer. I never wrote any of them down, but I did remember the one about the swan and my sister, and I thought: some day I'm going to put that in something. So I just did.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Silver Swanne

I miss our madrigal group. I do. There's something awfully satisfying about making music with other people. Even if our instruments are not in tune, and ours weren't, it's fun. Nobody pays much attention to anybody but the first soprano, and with Dorothy nailing down that spot, we probably didn't sound too bad, from a distance. Madrigals are particularly fun because they're written with tight, interesting harmonies. Even the alto gets the occasional star turn instead of the usual mid-range mayonnaise that's only in there to keep the tenors from bumping into the sopranos. You do not want to bump into a soprano. We altos sacrifice our bodies to keep the peace and keep down the chafing.

I didn't used to be an alto. I sang soprano in the church choirs, and while anything above high F was painful to me and anyone else around, I could hit it in a pinch. I'd be in the front of the group on account of being small but never sang the really high parts. Guess you could call me a minute second soprano.

That's the worst thing about quitting church, if you don't seek out other choral groups. You quit singing, and in no time your range compresses down to a wafer. Since the alto parts rarely ask much of the singer, it works out. You get to doodle around with your allotted five or six notes but you do make a contribution. You're not the steering wheel or the engine but everyone likes cup-holders.

The madrigal group met periodically. Oh, we cut loose with our merry lads and bonny lasses, but we couldn't quit until we'd wallowed in The Silver Swan. The Silver Swan, in case you don't know, is a long drawn-out murder of a very depressing bird, and almost impossible to sing without clutching your chest and keeling over and making gack noises. The poor silver swan, living, had no note. Didn't sing a lick until she was at death's door, and then sang her first and last and sang no more. Farewell all joys! Oh Death, come close my eyes!

This madrigal should most properly be sung in a bathtub with razor blades.

Once we'd slain the swan, we were free to go, but we usually had to knock back a tankard of ale first just to regain our desire to live. Orlando Gibbons wrote The Silver Swanne in the early seventeenth century and it's his best-known effort, but he did bang out quite the oeuvre, hitting many of the same themes (musically, this is known as a "rut"). For instance, there was his Daintie Bird. Yet another bird, this one encaged, and so like the composer! Both imprisoned, both singing to please a woman, but unlike the daintie bird who sings to live, he sings and drops dead.

Or "Farewell, all Joyes," in which he begs to "let me die lamenting."

It's the dang swanne all over again.

Orlando Gibbons died at age 41, which is said to have surprised his peers, but jeezy peezy, they should've seen this coming. He hadn't written himself any alternatives. They called it apoplexy at the time, one of those antique general-purpose deaths, like consumption, that could refer to any number of things but got the job done. Three hundred years down the road, genius pianist Glenn Gould declared Gibbons his favorite composer, but Glenn Gould would fold up and fall apart if the air temperature wasn't just so, and groaned all the way through his pieces, and basically died of hypochondria. An apoplexy, actually. Cue the swanne.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Almost Well Done

The other day--you probably heard--a group of people working together stuck an entire robot on Mars. They totally did. They shot it out into space and time both, and sliced it through the Martian atmosphere just so, and figured out how to reach the brake pedal from here, and the little sucker ploopeted down to the dust and took a selfie. No it didn't. But it did take a picture of Mars.

And that's simply an extraordinary accomplishment. It would be for anybody, but I happen to be the kind of person you don't stand behind while playing horseshoes. I can't chuck bad fruit at the compost pile without having to mount a rescue mission in the neighbor's yard. I once missed my face with a toothbrush.

So that day, I celebrated the remarkable cleverness of humankind by putting my hand on the metal handle of a pan right out of the stove. I pulled the pan out of the oven with a proper mitt and left it on the stove top, and a short minute later I turned around and grobbed it by that handle, and searing commenced. Something made me let go of the handle right away, but not soon enough. That's the thing about too-hot. You get the message, but it takes an awful long time to get to the brain or even a spinal way-station, even when you're kind of short, and then it has to make it all the way back to your hand. Similarly, if you step into water that's way too hot, you have time to pull your foot out and pen an apology to your toes before the pain actually hits.

I'm not going to put any of the blame on the sympathetic nervous system. Mine is a system that doesn't give a shit about me one way or the other.

In order for the message of pain to get all the way from my burnt fingers to my spinal cord and back again, a series of electrical impulses needs to be sent along a neural pathway, in my case at a dead mosey. "Hey," my fingers say to my neurons, "here's a pigeon. Take this note to the people in charge and tell them we've got a situation here, and get back to me with instructions." And off they go, and probably miss the turn at the shoulder, whilst wondering what rhymes with "ouch" and what that smell is.

The thing keeping me out of worthwhile employment at NASA isn't the initial burning of the hand. It would be the repeated burning of the hand. I'm certain I will do this again. That's just how I broil. In my defense, I never owned a frying pan that went directly into the oven before now. So when I took it out and put it on the stovetop, in short order it looked like all the other frying pans I have known, none of which has been hostile.

Here's what I know. If I walked out of my house and saw a sinkhole appearing before me, I would not step in it. What I would do is turn around to go get my camera, and maybe pick up some dropped laundry and check my email, and then I'd go out and step in the sinkhole, because my default front yard doesn't have a sinkhole in it, and I got used to that.

The closest I can get to clever now is to deliberately introduce new habits for my increasingly perilous dotage: squaring up at the top of the stairs before going down, taking an extra second to plant my feet getting out of the shower, and now, leaving the oven mitt draped over the pan handle when I take it out of the oven. Orange safety cones won't work on me. I trip over those.