Archive for August, 2018


We do a lot of work convincing ourselves that we are smart, that we know a great deal, that others should perceive us as intelligent, and it’s all an elaborate farce.  In truth, what we actually do most is to convince ourselves that we don’t know, are not equipped to know certain parcels of cognitive real estate.  This describes a conflict, perhaps the most basic of human conundrums.


We do this to ourselves, tugging psyche in opposing directions.  We don’t question it, assuming it to be a given, and in so doing we cut ourselves off from banquets of reality, whole realms of understanding that could be ours to savor but that are declared off-limits to our quest for knowledge.


How do I know this?  I observe.  I watch myself and others actuate this silly mechanism again and again and yet again, denying ourselves sweeping vistas of vision.  You and me and him and her and they.  All pronouns apply.  Intelligent though we might be, every one of us succumbs to this stupidity.


How did I come upon this fact?  I watched.  I figured it out.  To wit:


Any action that I determine to take will foment a fusillade of thoughts that tend to sabotage intention.  If I want to add 564 and 783, my brain pops up with, “Girls aren’t good at arithmetic.”  If I try to remember the name of the man I met at church last Sunday, my brain snaps to the reminder that I’m getting old and am sure to be getting forgetful.  If I fumble a dinner plate, it would be super if I could just sweep it out of the air, but I must wait until my brain gets finished disputing my ability to make the catch and sends a signal to my hand to grab it.


There is a magic moment that exists between the plate falling and the brain’s conscious decision to do something about it.  Cognitive function just isn’t fast enough.  The plate hits the floor.  The autonomic nervous system, however, is perfectly capable of stepping into that magic moment, telling the hand to reach for the plate, even as it is falling, and in the same fluid instant, plucking it from the inevitability of destruction.  I don’t understand scientifically how this works, but I know it has saved many a dish in my kitchen.  Surprisingly, even as most other functions are slowing, I am still catching Corelle as it hurtles to oblivion.


Understanding this to be a verifiable phenomenon, I have been motivated to study and utilize it in my own behavior.  I have never been good at names and faces.  Since I am indeed a visual learner with language skills verifiably intact, this deficit presents a puzzler.  Observing my thought process led me to an interesting discovery.  When presented with a human face, my first response, the one that clogged the magic dish catching moment, was the thought, “I can’t remember faces.”  In every instance, I was wasting the magic moment wherein I might have effortlessly linked the name and the face.  Based on this observation, I formulated an hypothesis:  The lag time that exists between autonomic perception and purposeful cognitive response is predictable and can be put to use to improve memory and performance.


Since 2007 I have been watching way too much cable news trying to parse American culture.  I have watched hundreds of talking heads pontificate for way too many hours.  No notes.  Just watched and listened.  Usually when a face would flash on the screen it was several seconds before the name and mojo of the speaker would appear onscreen.  I decided to utilize  my magic moments and see what would happen.  Internalizing Nike, I told myself, “Just do it”.  When a face appeared, I refrained from telling myself “you can’t”; I just spoke the name.  The amazing result was that I did know those people’s names and faces and could match them up amazingly well for a geek with a suspected learning disability.


The next thing to do was to examine my learning process both past and present.  From the time I could prattle letters and numbers, I was convinced that only a limited amount of information could be stored inside my little blonde pigtailed noggin.  I guarded my ROM’s capacity, refusing to memorize what I regarded as extraneous.  What possible use could be found for adding numbers, or worse still, multiplying them?  I would never have learned my times tables had a savvy teacher not taken away my library privileges until the deed was accomplished.  The problem was so bad that it was only in the seventh grade at boarding school that I began sneaking down into the first grade classroom during the wee hours and using baby flash cards to memorize addition and subtraction facts by flashlight.


My parents were complicit in this farce.  Mommy told me from the start that girls weren’t good at arithmetic, so I shouldn’t fret over it.  When I asked my dad for help with addition facts,  he showed me his all-time-best method for counting on my fingers.  Starting with the larger numeral he said to then digit count up through the second number to achieve the sum.  I employed that method until I invented a unique process for counting up visualized dots, unique to every numeral.  The number one had one dot at its base.  The number two had two dots, one at each end of its base.  Each number sported its commensurate number of dots positioned for ready visualization, the larger ones distributed in domino patterns.


All this functioned marginally, earning me B’s but denying me the A’s I wanted.  I had created a monster–a big ugly secret.  Guarding that secret became a knot of anxiety centered in my gut.  It moved in and took over my way of seeing the world of performance, like a cancer eating ability to sing, play an instrument, speak before an audience, and of course doing arithmetic spontaneously in the presence of others.  While as a child soloist I had sung before large audiences, I abdicated that spotlight and became one of a gaggle of choir sopranos.  I had once played the piano with remarkable dexterity and expression, but eventually gave up solo recitals altogether.


While arithmetic was ever my bane, conceptual mathematics tantalized me with its beautiful mysteries.  During the early grades, I spent time on the potty tearing up squares of toilet paper into ever diminishing progressions that approached but never achieved zero.  I marveled at the fact that each unit alternated between being a square and being a rectangle.  There was surely some truth lurking in the diminishing and alternating shapes.  It was like standing between two mirrors and trying to count the images that replicated to infinity.  In the second grade I discovered the fun of walking to school using every available hypotenuse, odd since I had not yet  met Pythagoras.


Then came Algebra, and I fell in love.  Algebra was letters–friendly letters.  Numbers were involved, but peripherally.  I was the duck; Algebra was the water.  An elegant proof could bring tears to my eyes.  It was time to make those A’s, but of course I got tangled up in the under-drawers of my arithmetic anxiety.  It slowed me down and added a boat-load of fear to the mix.  I was stuck in the purgatory of being a pretty-good math student.  One day my teacher provided a life-changing insight, removing the pressure of performance.  He put an equation on the board and announced, “No one will be able to do this, but I’m letting you people try it just for fun”.  Silence.  All the straight A students sat pondering as I walked to the board and chalked the entire solution.  The teacher smiled and said, “I always suspected there might be more to you.”  So I accepted myself as retarded at arithmetic but promising at mathematics.


That quandary haunted me through thirty-five years of a BS degree, and a career, though admittedly checkered, in engineering.  I was a rip roaring CAD jock and inventor, but never if somebody was watching.  Now it’s all over, and I am free to investigate the weirdness.  I have learned not to believe people when they say “You can’t do that,” “What will people think?”  “But you’re only a girl.” and the absolute worst, “You’re just a little old lady.”  I have learned to use those magic moments.  My job is to “just do it” and to pass that winning algorithm on to my progeny along with my still functioning set of Corelle.


Could it be that all of us start out as bloomin’ geniuses but are selectively dissuaded from flowering into our promise?  What if Mozart had been told at the outset that musically he was not all that special?  What if Einstein had suspected that he was not the brightest?  True he wasn’t super slick in advanced math and had to get help from his old professor detailing his insights on relativity, but that didn’t stop him.  He caught a lot of flak from the learning establishment, advancing only to “clerk” in a Swiss patent office, where he took his flying leap into immortality.  He wallowed in the art of the thought experiment, spending most of his waking hours adrift in their possibilities.  Perhaps Albert wasn’t the smartest, but he never fell into the rotten habit of asking, “What if I can’t?”





Read Full Post »


The receptionist smiled and proceeded to deliver her patent good-morning-and-how-are-you-today question.  Unremarkable until she added, “And what was your name?”


“My name is Dorothy Martin,” I replied, jaw muscles tensed.  “And it still is.”  To what period of time are you alluding?  When I was born I received my name, printed as a legal fact on my certificate of birth, attested to by the doctor who delivered me into my mother’s arms.  When I woke up this morning and looked in the mirror it was me that I saw.  I was still Dorothy Martin.  As far as I know, I continue to embody Dorothy Martin as a human entity, and plan to continue so doing until as far into the future as conveniently possible.


What is it with younger generations’ obliquity?  Why must they create an angled offset, a safe distance from some perceived confrontation, if not of distance, then of time?  Why must they root their question in the past, where they don’t have to own up to the truth of their own power to ask it?


Why must they enlist my support in performing their job—filling out their form—so we are gathered about our enjoined perception of an IT task, my attention safely diverted from their own real and vulnerable persona? Their face?  Their eyes?  Their presence daring to assert itself?


Perhaps it is a logical extension of valley-girl speech, where everything isn’t something, but only like something.  As if it were something.  The sure test for this error of cognition is to substitute “as if it were” for the ever ubiquitous “like.”  If it follows as a logical progression of thought, the answer is plain.  It’s sad to remark how this verbal crutch has taken over the language, testament to its ability to lower anxiety levels wherever inserted.


Turning to another error of cognition, my own is equally suspect.  Why must I analyze commercial conversations, parsing them out for foolish meanings, whether hidden or apparent? It’s no business of mine if a medical receptionist is totally honest, either to herself or to me.  What goes on inside the head of another person falls outside the purview of my own.  Surely it’s all I can do to police my own level of honesty.  Dissecting dialogue suggests its own form of distancing.  How can I even begin to relate to another if I am busy critiquing their performance? I need to focus on giving a civil reply to questions and saving my energy for more productive pursuits.  If I could actually do something about generational obliquity it might make sense to complain.


The Serenity Prayer addresses separating what we can change and what we cannot, citing as wisdom the ability to know the difference.  Good advice!

Read Full Post »

Lesson Learned

My mother snapped a shot
of two-year-old me.
It was to become her favorite,
the one she chose to install
in the small oval frame
touting the provenance
of the bronzed baby shoes
forever fixed
on right and left sides,
shredded toes attesting to
many miles crawled
before that first upright step
presaged many more to follow.
It captured my authentic self
before the world began
working its will
and having its way.

I like to say hello to this picture,
smile and say,
“I remember you.
You were the ‘me’
that got a hatchling
in your Easter basket.
You loved that fuzzy duck.
He was soft and yellow
and oh so very dear.
He was little; you were big;
You wanted to grok him.

“Your baby book said,

‘Cows go moo;
Dogs go woof;
Ducks go quack.’

“He was a bad duck.
You wanted him
to be a good duck
and say quack.

“You put him on the ground.
You set a board on top of him.
You stood on the board—
He didn’t quack.

“That was the day
that ended your duck’s
days of knowing
and began the long
parade of your own.
The first of
a great many
lessons learned.
“Thank your little duck,
two-year-old that was me.
He was a poor quacker,
but as it turns out,
a consummate teacher.”

Read Full Post »


“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”


Timing is everything.  I learned that by changing schools again, and again, and again.  Between Miss Chater’s Newtonville, Massachusetts first grade and Westport, Connecticut’s Staples High School graduation ceremony, I attended twenty-one different schools.  Most problematic was being whip-sawed back and forth between Northeast and Southwest, time after time after time after time.


Most obvious was always being the new girl, the one that others stared at but didn’t engage.  I learned it oh so well.  The school cafeteria was the main battleground.  Entering that dreaded domain, I headed for the nearest empty table and staked my claim.  I ate fast, hoping to escape before anyone might notice that no one sat with me.  Too often, I skipped the cafeteria line entire, spending lunch money for ice cream or candy to munch while hiding in a book.


Even more basic than the social confusion of being ever on the move, was learning to speak at correct speed.  Texans take their time expressing themselves, snuggling down into the full possibilities inherent in the diphthong, drawing phrases out and up, often ending as a question where none is asked nor implied.  A Texan owns his time.  He feels safe settling into it and getting comfortable.  In the Lone Star State children are taught not to interrupt while another is speaking.  In a discussion, all will wait until the speaker has completed his thought, and then allow a full beat to elapse before jumping in to interject their own thought.


In the Northeast, especially in New York City the opposite applies; In a friendly discussion, speakers are surrounded by hungry adversaries who pace, salivating, surrounding the teller’s tale, alert for any hint of an incipient pause, wherein they might dart, snatch a word, and supplant their own cuckoo-bird opinion in its place.  New Yorkers talk fast.  Everybody knows that.  I learned it again and again at gut level.  There is an art to interruption, and I have yet to master it.  It can be done seamlessly incurring little offence, but as a born Texan, that perfect act of timing eludes me.  If I interrupt, I draw scowls of derision, even accusations of being impolitic.  My timing is just… off.


An apposite example of NY parlance could be any Woody Allen movie.  There are no pauses.  Each speaker is an island alone.  No one listens, but everyone natters in an uninterrupted arc of verbal vomitus, every response a non-sequitur, non-responsive since no one has listened to anyone else.  I can’t bear to sit through a Woody Allen movie.  It incites a temporary insanity that lasts until I can go home and hide until my heart settles down to a normal southern sinus rhythm.


I tried to moderate my writer’s group once, but was precipitously fired because one of our New York members interpreted my pause for the requisite beat as proof that I didn’t know what to say.  I acquiesced, not wanting to moderate anyway.  Others were better suited to that chore…some really great.


The timing of speech patterns does bring up a vital question: Are fast speakers smarter than slow?  I suspect they are.  Like playing challenging video games, speaking fast must urge people to think in like manner.  I saw this played out in my school-girl musical chairs/schools.  Dallas, Sherman, and Irving were always a year behind Waltham, Watertown, and Westport.  At each move, I had to run to catch up, or settle for a snooze, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line I had landed.  I made good grades, but never the straight A’s to which I aspired, and my checkered performance assured me that whatever I did, no matter how slow or how fast I did it, I would never be good enough.


One saving grace in this comedy of ill-timing, netting questionable performance has been a curious gift of creativity.  No matter where I found myself, I was ever alert and aware, paying attention, and noticing.  Trading school-days for work-days, imagination bridged any gap, whether real or hypothetical.  Rote memory has never been my strength, but a new breaking concept would often save the day.  I trained myself to forget the details of a previous job after settling into the next.  Why devote cognitive real estate to the past? Even the Buddha extolled beginner’s mind.  I have come to accept myself as a Yellow Rose of Texas, retarded in my speech, but a noticer, appreciator, and cultivator of “wild hares.”

Once while living and working on the farm, my paternal family’s homestead west of Ft. Worth, I named the new street to my new home “Jackrabbit Track” to honor the flow of new ideas popping up in remembered conversations with my Grandfather as we enjoyed evening walks, scaring up the occasional jackrabbit, opossum, or armadillo.  The local postmistress informed me that the US Postal Service does not recognize “Track” even if it is made by Texas jackrabbits.  The FEDS renamed my street “Jackrabbit Trail,” but I proceeded to use “Jackrabbit Track” as my return address until I moved to Sherman for a better paying job at Johnson & Johnson.  Bureaucrats drive me nuts.  Maybe it’s a timing issue, as in marching to a different drummer…or dreamer.  The truth is that jackrabbits don’t create trails, those roadways laid down by mindless following, nose to tail the rabbit ahead to wherever some rabbit somewhere up front might be heading.  A jackrabbit zig-zags back and forth, dodging obstacles, anticipating leaps ahead, leaving pursuers behind and befuddled.  Bunnies make trails; Jackrabbits make tracks.




As a pre-teen, I visited for two weeks most summers with my grandparents on that familiar home place.  Given all the moving around, the homestead was a comforting familiar.  In the pasture beyond the fenced front yard there was an ancient oak tree with several generations of farming detritus strewn about its roots.  There were wagon wheels, rims, chain, wire, lanterns, gears, pails, and innumerable miscellany.  Most were rusty, but all were full of imaginative possibility.  It was my own special Skunk-works.


With these junk components I conglomerated numerous marvels of invention.  I made a bicycle with wheels that turned in place but didn’t go anywhere.  There was a rocket ship, a loom, and an escalator.  There was even a horse and buggy, but you had to imagine the horse.  I filled the hours in between Grandma’s meals with my serious “work.”


A scrawny child but growing aggressively, I never lost track of the possibilities of breakfast: Eggs, sausage, steaming buttermilk biscuits, fresh churned butter, pear preserves and red-eye gravy.  There were high noon farm hand dinners spread on the dining room table, the old oilcloth clean but sticky and quiet evening suppers, retrospective warm-ups of the noontide feast.  Those meals must have been inspired by memories of men, strong, hot and dripping sweat, just in from the hayfield and powerful hungry.


The hours under my tree were peopled with those laborer’s ghosts and empowered by their implements laid aside just in case someday they might prove useful to the work at hand.  Fortified with Grandma’s cooking, I toiled.  Grasshoppers buzzed.  Dragonflies chased and caught each other, then lit all-coupled on the quiet creek skim, celebrating the marvels of surface tension.  Cicadas shrilled a solid wall of scream.  I had all I needed to complete my task.


Each object had a right place where it fit, each necessary to the whole.  All the parts went together, mechanisms incarnate.  They lived.  Wheels turned.  Bearings screeched.  Rims rolled.  Chains pulled.  Pails frothed with warm buttery milk.  Old harness became pliant and slick with horse and sweat.  Square nails and rusty rings married dreams, as once they had bonded boards and leather strapping.  Time shrank while I embodied happiness.


One evening Grandpa came to visit me under my tree.  I showed him my wondrous creations, demonstrating how each one worked.  We spoke of future projects.  I confided my worry that since everything had already been thought of there would be nothing left for me to invent.  He assured me there were marvels yet to come, and said to keep an open mind for “wild hares” passing.  As light faded to the west and early stars blinked on, we walked together toward the house and rest.  I slipped my hand into his.  “Grandpa,” I whispered, “you know, don’t you, that I don’t really believe my machines are real?  They are ‘just pretend’ like the mud-pies Grandma and I made when I was little.”


He looked down at me, eyes twinkling but with a face full of serious. “Sure,” he said.  “I know. But you can never tell with those jackrabbits.”




That was a different time, a different place, a different perception of self and what propels today’s reality.  Timing, whatever iteration of the real, will always be part of the equation.

Read Full Post »