Monday, September 04, 2006

Dopamine--mystery chemical?

One might question that a fiction writer's blog would delve into a brain chemical--in the realm of fact, and a subject not lending itself to light reading. I'd agree on the light reading part after wading through several articles on dopamine from the Internet. But, as for the realm of fact, I'm not so sure. The Wikipedia leaves many of the properties and information on dopamine's structure and hazards followed by question marks, and the entry begs for shared expertise on the subject.
But, come on, who are we kidding here? Bio-scientific fact is what has brought us diet fads that change year after year as newer studies disprove the most recent ones and often give new vitality to old studies. I just read an article in the Monterey Herald that disputes the whole notion of 8 glasses of water a day. Now, we've known since I was a little girl that you were supposed to drink plenty of water, and suddenly your kidneys can't handle that much? Give me a break!
See, it's fiction, couched in the guise of science. The plot involves making a case for your new break-through and making sure it turns all of our present practices completely around. If it's not entirely true, it may shine a new light on the truth we all know and accept, and give our knowledge a new edge.
Take this water business. I've often wondered what good all that water was doing, since it seems to go straight through me. What if the body needs to receive its water locked into the moist cells of food? In the form of plump lettuce leaves, celery stalks, squash, watermelon, peaches, apples, grapes--to name a few examples. Who would have known? Or rather, all the stress on eating more fruits and vegetables was not just about bio-flavenoids.
But, back to dopamine. I find what I've read so far about dopamine something akin to a mystery novel. Dopamine has to do with the sense of pleasure and reward in the body--not the consciousness of present contentment, but the anticipation of reward. It would be the substance that enables our nervous system to remind us that a steak would taste good, that sex would feel good, that our favorite game would be entertaining. But it also seems to remind us that we enjoy getting together with friends--despite their failings; that learning is rewarding--despite being a challenge; that worship makes raises our spirits--even if it means giving up time we could have used otherwise.
Dopamine seems to help us sustain our expectation of ultimate reward, despite the short-term frustration or boredom we may encounter in the process. This may be why a lack of it is implicated in adult attention-deficit syndrome. ADD sufferers typically find boredom in routine activities and seek novelty, innovation, and activity as a remedy, frequently getting sidetracked from the task at hand.
What we don't seem to know is how much the presence of dopamine in our systems can be increased by outside events or by states of mind. Love and Sex: the Vole Story by Kate Egan, studies the difference peptide hormones such as oxytocin, estrogen, and vasopressin can make in the lives of rodents, and dopamine is associated with these in our bodies as well.
Egan's story points out that the female prairie vole has does not become sexually mature until she encounters a substance from the urine of a male. At that time she goes into estrus and mates with this male, who will become her life partner. In other words, it requires a stimulus from outside her to trigger the process of production and interaction of these substances in her body.
Now, a rodent, presumably, would have no way of conveying to another the idea of what having a mate would be all about. A female vole has no preconceived notion of the male, and her body is dependent on the physical stimulus of the male's own chemistry. But what happens in the case of human beings, who can be stimulated by ideas received from other people, from reading, or from observation? For us thinking is a large part of our motivation. Sure, we're hungry, but it isn't until we see the commercial for the Fruit Loops that we realize that they might satisfy our breakfast longings. For me, the realization that I was prone to hypoglycemia changed my tastes considerably. A sweet breakfast, once the object of my desires, became something to be feared and even somewhat repulsive. In a sense, then, my mind taught my appetite what to like. Conversely, during recent health concerns my chiropractor recommended I increase the percentage of raw foods in my diet. Never one to prefer a luncheon salad to a juicy pastrami on rye, I set upon this course with trepidation, but soon discovered that an enormous salad tasted pretty good. Now I salivate at the thought of my newly developed lunch habit. Again, mind over body.
If this is true, then I am wondering how much a chosen pattern of thinking, based, perhaps, on a voluntary exposure to certain kinds of ideas, can stimulate our bodies/brains to produce the neuro-transmitters that create in us an attitude of well-being, a desire for community, a sense of nurturing towards others. My chiropractor also advised me to repeat affirmations: I am healthy, my body is functioning as it should. I can ignore aches and pains and go for a walk, focusing on the beauty of nature, or for a run, and these activities help me focus on health and wholeness.
Does the monk who chants the psalms seven times daily, recalling the goodness of God, reprogram his brain to also experience that goodness? Does the Buddhist who meditates on thoughts of peace pave the neuro-pathway leading to that peace?
We don't know the answers for sure, but there's enough evidence to keep me interested.

Monday, February 06, 2006

What Were We Thinking?

"This younger generation doesn't know how to think for itself," I grumbled to myself as I rounded the bend on Costado Street this morning. I noted the progress of the rhododendrons, their red buds just beginning to burst out. A particularly graceful acacia in full bloom drew my attention. Thinking. Wasn't it Montaigne that said, "Une tête bien faite vaut mieux qu’une tête bien pleine?" These words of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a French philosopher of the 16th Century, ring as true today as they were then.

In English, "A well-ordered head is worth more than one that is well-filled." In other words, it's not enough to know a lot of facts; the important thing is to be able to think clearly. I mused over this idea as I passed the bramble bank where the poison oak is just leafing out. We jump so quickly onto the nearest band-wagon, I thought, but how many of us are actually examining the opinions we've glommed onto in our daily encounters with the media and our circle of acquaintances? We live in a sea of opinion, awash in the ebb and flow of talk show discussions, newspaper op-eds and news service reports; in the splash of web sites, blogs, and e-mails. It's very easy to drift into ones own eddy and find a backwater of shared opinion, in which to escape the tug and pull of the surf. But one can as readily catch a rip tide and get pulled out to sea. Live in your own little world, not dealing with the complexities of the world, or follow the strongest thought current uncritically: these are the two perils of the life of the mind today.

Only today? Thinking back to Montaigne during the 1500s, I see that he found this a concern in his own day as well. His was a century of massive paradigm shifts. Whole new worlds had literally opened up to Europeans, and vice versa. The great sea was no longer impermeable, the world was round and much larger than most people had suspected, there were people who knew nothing of European ways. Furthermore, the earth was suddenly being thrust out of its privileged position as center of the universe, which meant that the whole ordered system of the spheres could no longer explain the heavens. The Catholic Church was shaken to its core by schism and reformation, and Europe was torn by wars of religion.

Two developments made all of this possible. First came the universities, which began to creep into Europe from the Islamic world--first into Spain and Italy, and then into France and England. Knowledge that had once flourished in the Hellenic world, now found its way back into Medieval Europe. Students in these institutions began to consider the knowledge they aquired and to expand upon it. On top of this came the printing press. Once Gutenberg had designed it, people could disseminate their ideas for all to share. Anyone could find access to information, and could form his own opinion of it.

We live on the opposite side of that divide. Not only can we access information, we are inundated by it. If Montaigne was concerned that book learning might fill the head with facts without enabling it to think, how much more does that danger face us today?

I want to go on with this train of thought, with some musing as to why it is that we all think the upcoming generation is much worse in all respects than our own. Also, I will add some comments on a new book by John C. Maxwell, Thinking for a Change.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Grammatical Right

What is the correct way to punctuate a book title? If you said it should be underlined or italicized, how do you explain the fact that the New York Times uses quotation marks for book titles? I mean, if they aren't right, who is?
This was a test question. If you responded, "Who cares?" you may have grown up during the Fifties and gone to college in the Sixties, at which time you learned that your parents and teachers were all wrong, and you pretty much agreed, having suspected as much all along. You bought into a new ethic: that punctuation and grammar are all based on usage. Whatever people actually say and write is normative for the language. We should not be bound by what's in a grammar book or a dictionary.

A word like "infer" once meant to draw a certain meaning from. Its companion word was "imply," which means to convey a certain meaning, albeit indirectly. Now, if lots of people start saying "infer" when they mean "imply," and vice versa, the Fifties child above would say, then these words have evolved to mean the same thing. Most of us Fifties kids never really reached this degree of open-mindedness, and each of us has certain pet peeves about aspects of the language that are being butchered by contemporary speakers. But in general, we understand the principle that language is a fluid medium, always changing to meet new needs.

Now if you answered that punctuation question, "I don't know. I'd better look it up," you may have grown up in the forties. You would then be irritated to find that the Times violates the rules set forth in the Harbrace Handbook (and you'd know what the Harbrace Handbook is, and might even have the 1941 edition.)

But if you answered that question, "Of course it's got to be italicized, and I don't need any whatchamacallem handbook to tell me that!" you may have gone to school during the Sixties and Seventies. You know in your gut that the Times is wrong because it just looks bad. You can correct people's misuse of commas, and you know what infer means, and you are pretty sure about how to use capitals. What's more, you feel pretty strongly about these things.

This is just a wild theory of mine, but I think it might have some truth to it. I grew up among that first group, diagramming sentences, doing exercise after exercise on punctuation, learning the difference between can and may. When I started college in 1960, my English prof returned papers to me that resembled a drunk's nose--criss-crossed as they were by red hatchings, all references to the Harbrace Handbook. All of those first papers received "F" and "D" grades. Little by little, our ability to write correct Harbracian English improved, until, at the end of the semester, we were getting As and Bs on those papers, and sounding more articulate.

By the time I finished college and began learning how to teach English and French, the whole philosophy of teaching had changed. In linguistics I learned about the natural evolution of languages. Teaching English as a Second Language, I came to see how punctuation has to follow good usage, and not the other way around. Until you can form good sentences, it is futile to learn punctuation and rules of grammar. I began to see changes in rules I had learned earlier--fewer commas, different use of apostrophes, relaxed usage of certain vocabulary words. Did one fight this, or accept it as the natural process of linguistic development?

There are also different kinds of usage, depending on the situation in which one finds onesself. The language of a term paper is not that of the daily newspaper. A document to be read at a serious public occasion is not the same as one destined for a poetry reading in a coffee house. The informal speech I used for my fiction characters' dialogue was not the same as language I might use in a non-fiction newspaper article. Much of language is situational, and, like ethics, tends to take on a certain relativity at times. Our philosophy was, "Cut the crap!" What counted was meaning, and if you could get punctuation with that, sweet, but if not, too bad.

So much for the Fifties child. But what of that other person--the one who grows up in the Sixties? In the Sixties, children were more likely to learn in elementary school classrooms where you spent your time in learning centers and sat in circles. Teachers taught for creativity and hesitated to correct children, lest their spontaneity be crushed and frustrated. By the time these people began college, the Harbrace Handbook was history. You formed small groups and talked about how a given reading made you feel, and then wrote something expressive about it. Am I being snide? Not really. I had to stalk my daughter's elementary school to ensure that she had a properly structured classroom, since she tended to drift away in learning centers (as I would have). During the Seventies I attended my share of classes where we spent most of our time discussing questions in small groups.

We were all at fault in creating that world. Most of us had bought into this way of learning, in theory at least. We had lost our faith in authoritarian learning models, even if this new model seemed counter-intuitive at times.

Many of those educated during this period have no intellectual framework to match mine--that network of rules and regulations that supported our use of language. This is not to say they do not use the language as well as or better than my contemporaries do. If the theory was correct, anyone bathed in the English language day after day should be able to use it. It comes to us as a birthright, we learn it as we grow. It doesn't require rules to be used well.

However, rules are handy things for defining what we do after the fact. They give a certain reassurance, express our communal ownership of the way we speak. I suspect that one who has not grown up with the rules may sense a certain something lacking.

What I'm seeing is a new authoratarianism emerging. Perhaps it's similar to the Religious Right, a similar phenomenon. This is the grammatical right. What it may tell us is that we all need rules if we are to be a communal people. Throwing aside the rules and authorities is an individualistic attitude, the zenith of romanticism. As we come to see our need to be part of a whole, we also need to establish commonly accepted practices, understanding as to how we do things as a people.

If you infer from this that I'm suggesting we all need grammar rules, I guess I'd agree that that was my implication.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Pursuit of Happiness

Darrin M. McMahon, author of Happiness: A History

McMahon is tonight's main speaker on On Point Radio with Tom Ashbrook. According to McMahon, the world has not always considered happiness a goal within the reach of the individual person. That is, it would not be available within this lifetime. The word "happiness" derives from the same root as our word "happenstance" or "happen" or "mishap," all of which denote something out of our control. "Shit happens," in the words of a once popular bumper sticker. Or maybe something good happens. Happiness lay in the luck of the draw, but so did misery.

Christianity picked up on this idea, stressing that life was full of suffering and that only in the next world would people be truly happy--and that, only if you made it to heaven.
It was not until the Protestant reformation, with Martin Luther, that the idea of happiness as God's reward for virtue began to take root. This developed over the next centuries into the Enlightenment, when a Rousseau would put forth the idea of happiness as, not only a possibility for the individual, but as a right.

Thomas Jefferson suggested this right in his Declaration of Independence, stating that all men are entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
However, even then the idea of a pursuit of happiness was not intended as the entitlement we think of today, and happiness itself still held a community component. Happiness resulted from a community that lived in peace. It came about when a person lived in harmony with society and nature, and was not a right a person could demand on the basis of their being.

It is interesting to consider how far we've come in our attitude toward happiness. Happiness is our right. We seek it through possessions, through sex, through drugs, through activity. When we don't achieve it, we tend to blame our situation, our neighbor, our government. Our rights should enable us to attain happiness, and when our rights are infringed upon, we lose our ability to be happy.

But, observing the lack of happiness in those who should be enjoying it the most--those most gifted with the rights we all claim--one wonders what has gone wrong. One listener pointed out the social component of happiness during early centuries. Happiness resulted from a well-ordered community, from healthy relationships. It comes when we can put the common good ahead of our own individual benefit.

I found this talk extremely provocative, and would like to read the book, Happiness: a History.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Era: What Would Marshall McLuhan Say?

This train of thought actually had its origin in a punctuation dispute. I had used a question mark rather than a semi-colon or comma to break a couple of short clauses, and had neglected to capitalize the letter following the punctuation. To help the reader visualize such a sentence, it was something like the following: Was it interesting? or not? Obviously, if the first question mark were missing, the sentence would read clearly with no added punctuation, and no capital letter in the middle. But add the question mark, and you have a whole different animal.

Mind you, I got no sympathy. The two writers I consulted both agreed with the first person who objected to my usage. All three were in league against me. I went to my grammar bible, The Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, Thirteenth Edition; that, too, stood in opposition to my unorthodoxy. I had to admit defeat. But I am curious that the sentence with the offending punctuation did not offend my sensibilities. Furthermore, I am surprised that what seems to me a rather small and almost negligeable mistake could arouse such strong feelings in readers.

But this is what really intrigues me: I wonder if poor writing would excite as much attention as did a punctuation error. I wonder if errors in fact, rather than form, would be as quickly attacked. Some of this thinking coursed through my mind as I sat listening to the homily at 11:00 Mass this morning over at the Mission. If that seems in any way unrelated, one might bear in mind that the psalm of the day read, "If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts." It was all about speaking out and listening.

It seems to me that we are hearing less today, understanding poorly, impatient with complexity, dull to subtlety. With all the printed matter that passes through our lives, can this really be true? In my case, it was certainly true that my mind only half listened to that homily this morning, as it wove itself around these other concerns.

I read as I watch TV or listen to the radio and think I'm hearing both. Unlike a friend of mine who reads the newspaper from one end to the other, I graze through it. My eyes leap impatiently through long e-mails, wanting to get on with my day. Patently, none of this is in-depth reading or listening. Are we becoming a desultory bunch of samplers?

How typical is the pattern I've described here? Without conducting a survey, I might just note some observations. People tend to have cable television and frequently channel surf. One hears of more people who do not bother to read a newspaper, but rely on a few minutes of network news to keep themselves updated. Libraries actually close--an unthinkable prospect even ten years ago. One by one, the independent bookstores are shutting their doors. We are told that people don't read much any more.

How surprised can we really be? Marshall McLuhan could have told us as much back in the 1960s, when he wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This work actually gave us the term "media," that has remained with us ever since. In this book, McLuhan shows how the medium we use to express or extend ourselves actually molds the way we relate to the world. People who rely on books relate in a different sort of way than do people who rely on electronic media. McLuhan predicted with amazing accuracy the way the world would move into the electronic era, anticipating the way this move would bring us into a single world-consciousness. We may imagine that democracy or corporations or education has brought us to this point, but can it be first and foremost the electronic revolution we have to thank for this?

What do we gain, and what do we lose as the previous era drifts beyond our grasp? Can we pull it back? Can we have the best of both worlds?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Diverse Views on "Doonesbury"

At least the Monterey Herald Editor is listening to comments made by dedicated "Doonesbury" fans. I e-mailed my local friends yesterday, urging them to write to Carolina Garcia, and a couple of people copied me on their own letters to the editor. I'm sharing comments from John Clark, linguist, and Walter E. Gourlay, historian.

I’m wondering if this decision was motivated to any degree by (1) political considerations on the part of the Herald staff and/or (2) the possibility that the Herald could economize a bit by substituting less expensive comic titles than may have been the case with Doonesbury.

In all events, we now have such bird-cage liner candidates as Boondocks (“Y’all can build all the snowmen you want in here. I ain’t turnin’ on the heat”) and Mutts (“Oh, ‘shniff,’ Earl, ‘sniff’ I think “coff’ I hab a cold. ‘Sniff’” “Do you ‘sniff’ think ‘coff’ it’s ‘sniffle’ catchy?” “I ‘shniffle’ ‘cough’ doubt it.” That’s “achoo’ good.”

Bottom line for me is that the Herald is, and will remain, in both the editorial and public service boondocks unless and until it reverses course and brings back Doonesbury. I should also mention that the vertical size of each strip has been shrunk considerably, which negatively affects both legibility and overall visual quality by comparison to the “pre-change” format.

I’m e-mailing a copy of the above to the Herald, and sincerely hope that many of your other recipients will take a moment to express their thoughts on this matter as well.

John Clark

I have just returned from a trip to Southern California and I am amazed, perplexed and dismayed that you have axed your most literate and adult-oriented comic strip, Doonesbury. If you have taken this step for economic reasons, shame on you. If because of its political messages, shame on you. If because of pressure from the redneck portion of your readers, doubly shame on you. Doonesbury was one of the major reasons I bought your paper and I will tend to pass by your vending machines in the future.
(Dr.) Walter E. Gourlay
I can only hope that these views will be shared with the Herald's readership.

Not so funny

This is Day Three of comics-without-Doonesbury. Monday it made me so sick, I couldn't stomach the Monterey County Herald comics. I went out and bought the San Jose Mercury News instead, and discovered the exciting reality of much more world and national news in addition to two pages of comics. Real comics.
Tuesday I called the Herald to change my subscription to Sunday only (couldn't quite make a clean break!), and subscribed on-line to the Mercury News on a bargain subscription site.
All over "Doonesbury?" Well, not quite. They also retired four or five others of my favorites. "Prince Valiant" is gone now, along with "Luanne," "Cathy," "Dinette Set," and "Close to Home."
Now, you might say, "All this over comics?" After all, a serious paper like the "New York Times" doesn't even have comics.
However, a lot of truth is spoken through humor. Remember "All in the Family," the 1970s sit com? How much did that one show, and its spin-offs, contribute to new attitudes towards the issues of the day--particularly racism and chauvinism?
"Luanne" poked gentle fun at the issues facing a young woman today. Over the years, "Cathy" exposed the foibles of the single life-style, and now goes on with those of the young-married. "Dinette Set" took on the city red-neck lifestyle, with its greed and small-mindedness. "Close to Home" came as close to the zany, off-beat humor of "The Far Side" as any contemporary comic. But these got the guillotine.
Why? In a phone conversation, the editor mentioned today's catch word: diversity. We need diverse comics today--like, I suppose, a black strip, and a Latino one, and one about gays? But what about women? Two of the strips dropped were about women. Of the new strips, one features African-Americans--"The Boondocks"--and another, "Baldo," Latinos. Now, this is a good idea, I think. But "Pickles" looks pretty white to me. "Mutts" is about animals, and I don't know what "Bizarro" is about. I miss "Frank and Ernest" too--two old derelicts. Derelicts are diverse, aren't they?
Is this, like the demise of our favorite local independent bookstore, another sign of the end of an era? Small newspapers have to be struggling financially too, but there is competition springing up all the time from even smaller ones. Considering the popularity of the comics--the Herald got over 5000 votes on its comics survey!--it would seem that increasing the number of comics rather than pruning people's favorites would be the way to keeping customers.
At least two I know of will not be reading the Herald in coming months as a result of this changing of the guard.
In my next entry, some opinions about Doonesbury.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The End of an Era

The Monterey County Herald calls the closing of the Thunderbird Bookshop "the end of an era." If that is so, there are so many other signs of its demise--this era--and questions, in my mind, as to what will replace it.

Is it not a coincidence that the first of the baby-boomers will be turning 60 next year? No, more like this year. That's the generation that is now graying seriously and whose era is now on the ebb. And the Thunderbird was, in a sense, a product of the 60s. Oh, its founder, May, was a pre-war child, but she and her clientele found their inspiration in the tremendous idealism of the 60s--the enthronement of nature and human values, which were quickly slipping into the jaws of a menacing corporate world, a mega-capitalism for which the only value would be money. In the 40s and 50s, her kind were the prophets, the idealists. In the 60s, they discovered their validation. The people of the 60s discovered the importance of relationship, the inherent goodness of the body, the joy of sex, the importance of natural foods and exercise, the importance of human values over those of commerce. "Stop and smell the roses," was the 60s motto.

Out of that world sprang the Thunderbird. It was a place where people could find good books, gather over coffee or lunch, meet authors. The Thunderbird occupied the place of a jewel in the ring of stores that made up the Barnyard, a rural-style shopping village outside Carmel, where the setting was as important as the shopping. Year round something was blooming in the many flower beds, and often times live music drifted among the shops.

But that world is drifting away. I see the same forces at work in Monterey, as the City Council seems determined to cut off Safeway's lease in order to negotiate a deal with Trader Joe's to take over the property there on Munras St. Even in the face of popular uproar, the Council has set its jaw. Now, you would think Trader Joe's would be the obvious choice for a product of the 60s, and that's true in principle. But in the case of Monterey, the value at hand is real people. We have here a real community, with real inhabitants, that is being hijacked by commercial interests that want to turn it into a theme park. It's a tourist destination, a night-time haunt, but not a place where real inhabitants can go to shop. Even now, there is no hardward store in Monterey, no variety store, no kitchen-supply, no stationery store, and soon there will be no full-service grocery. But the value of a living, working community of people has taken second place to the primary value of pulling in those tourist dollars.

I wake up at night wondering what will take the place of these waning vestiges of the 60s, when human workmanship was still important, when artistry meant something, where a place for human beings to gather counted. Can we hang onto our Paris Bakery, our Morgans', in the face of Starbucks?
What will it take for the new generation to wake up and smell the coffee?