Sunglasses after dark

My latest hobby seems to be looking online for pictures of people I used to know to remember what they looked like. The good thing is they now look like I remember them. But back in 2006 my epilepsy began acting up something fierce and I woke up one morning with my facial recognition zapped away. Think they call that prosopagnosia? Some unpronounceable Greek word anyway. Even faces I knew extremely well looked alien to me, and I could walk right up to people I’d known for years and seen every day and not recognize them till they spoke. I remember looking up people’s pictures–on what I don’t know, this was before Facebook–and they looked so different. Of course, if I tried to see in my mind’s eye how I remembered them there would be a fleeting mental image that would immediately dissolve into nothing. Literally dissolve. There’d be a half second glimpse of their face and then it would just granulate into pixels and then blackness. It was a trip. For the first couple years I was always startled at how different you all looked. Even my wife. And when I spoke to you I’d find my gaze looking at things you never normally notice. Without the usual focus, my eyes would wander as if I were studying a portrait, I’d see your skin–amazing the pores we have–and hair, and facial structure. Ears. Wrinkles. Shaving scars. It was incredibly distracting.

For a while I couldn’t recognize profiles at all, even my brother’s. Some pretty funny shit went down, all of it embarrassing. Not so funny, though, was how suddenly I couldn’t read people. Talk about unnerving. I’d be talking to someone and have no idea how they were reacting. I could not tell if I was bothering them, or boring them, or what. Inevitably, I began avoiding people. Eventually I learned to visually recognize you all in other ways, by your voices, body language, whatever, and I did eventually manage to begin reading you all again, though nowhere nearly as well as I once had. It is funny when you go from being very adept at something to instantly being lousy at it. After a couple years I just got used to it. Though I still avoid people more than I did before. It’s inevitable. As a species we read each others’ faces so well. Indeed, we impart more information with facial expressions than we do speaking. Lose that skill and you’re a little fucked. And mine was a relatively mild case. I wasn’t completely face blind. Some people are.

But now my mind’s eye images seems to match your looks. That’s a relief. Even pictures of people I haven’t seen in years match my memory of them. It’s a significant recovery. I’ve long dreaded a repeat of my bad epilepsy year of 2006, because among other things I didn’t want to go though that prosopagnosia bullshit again. It was really inconvenient. Crippling even. And it was also embarrassing. I took to wearing shades because I realized that people could tell I wasn’t looking at what people normally look at when they are talking to you. Mainly the eyes, I think. You can tell when some idiot is looking at your hair or chin or ears when you are trying to talk to him. So shades helped.

Although there was a downside to wearing shades. Like the time I was walking into work and found myself behind a lady I didn’t recognize. Must be a new employee, I figured. I caught her profile as she slipped in the door ahead of me. Didn’t know who she was, but she was definitely hot. Safely behind my shades I was checking her out. I was forty nine years old and safely behind my sunglasses acting like a high school kid. I watched her walk ahead of me, her hips sliding this way, then that, like dancing a slow salsa. That’s America to me, I thought to myself. What it meant I do not know but I distinctly remember thinking that to myself because suddenly the lady in front of me stopped and turned around. What are you looking at, she asked. I knew that voice instantly. It was the lady I’d worked with for a decade. Probably my closest friend in the whole building. We talked every single day. We’d sat next to each other for years. She was gorgeous, sure, but I had never ogled her once. I worked with her. She was a friend. There are rules about those things.

But unfortunately I hadn’t recognized her by her profile and besides I hadn’t been looking at her face anyway. Suddenly I felt so stupid, like a forty nine year old man caught acting like a high school kid. I’d never been so busted in my life, not even as a teenaged high school kid. But she was also one of the very few people at work who knew about my sudden face blindness. I spluttered an apology that I hadn’t recognized her. I know you didn’t, she said, that’s why you were checking out my ass. The epilepsy had also rendered me with one hell of a stutter, and thoroughly flustered I stammered something inane. You idiot, she said, take off those stupid sunglasses, you’re inside. I shoved them in my pocket. You’re blushing, she said, and cackling a pinay laugh went up the stairs to her desk. Aren’t you coming she asked. I said I’ll take the elevator. My knee, I said. My knee was fine. I just needed a few minutes alone to stop blushing. Sometimes it takes minutes. And then sometimes it takes forever. On my way to the lobby I stopped by the restroom and splashed my face with cold water. It didn’t help. I made my way to the elevator. Just as the doors were closing someone yelled hold that elevator! Half a dozen women got on, still feeling their two martini lunch. I knew all of them. Why are you blushing? the loudest of them asked. What did you do? They started snickering. He probably got busted checking out some babe’s ass! Instantly I flushed crimson again, and you’d think it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. How do women know these things? I tried to say something and stammered.

Mortified, I made a mental note that sunglasses and epilepsy don’t mix.

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Verbs not adjectives

[This was an email from 2010 that attempted to explain what I had drunkenly been describing to a friend at one of our parties. I failed. But she was terribly nice about it. I found the email later, turned it into a blog post. Then I realized I hadn’t discussed metaphors at all–which I always advise to use sparingly because the reading brain tends to trip over them–and worse yet, couldn’t discuss them. So I decided to do more reading up on metaphors. Now, reading this again, I don’t see why I thought this piece failed, as it works fine without the metaphor discussion. Whatever. This is what happens when college drop outs try to think like smart people.]

Ya know, L., I just remembered we were talking at that party about my verbs-instead-of-adjectives thing. Here’s the LA Weekly piece I was describing:

Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.*

How that piece happened was I asked to do a pick on an upcoming Herman Riley gig at Charlie O’s. He was one of the great tenor saxophonists and yet a virtual unknown. I called him up for a few comments before writing. He spilled for a half hour, his whole life. It was overwhelming. I didn’t dare cut him off. He was one of my heroes. So I just dashed off some notes and then pulled them together. I had 200 words, tops, to work with.  I probably had 400 words first draft. Kept winnowing. Reducing.  Down to the verbs. It’s nearly all verbs, action. I had a real good friend at work I used to instant message all the time, and I became fascinated with how language was used in our messages. By how brief a message could be if reduced to the verbs, and how much of an impact it would have. It could be quite visceral. I was doing a lot of heavy thinking about neurolinguistics then, how language works mechanically in the brain. It seemed to me that action was much more effective than description, and could get across the same info. Furthermore, when you used verbs instead of actions, the brain—by means of mirror neurons—automatically pictures what is being described without any necessary descriptive context—it somehow fills all that  in. That means that virtually no description is needed beyond bare hints. I never say where it is I am seeing him play here, even though that is based upon an actual event (a Charlie O’s gig I had just seen.) But even so, invariably the response from readers was “I felt like I was there”. Where exactly? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the action.

The brain is more powerfully affected by action than anything else in language. It sees something or even reads about something and the exact same neurons that are used to actually perform the action are stimulated. I just picked up a glass of water. In your mind the exact same neurons that you would use to pick up a glass of water fired off as if they were picking up a glass of water and not me writing that I had. No matter…whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, the effect is the same. And that is why narratives that are based on action instead of description, that describe movement, things take place in time, are so powerful. **

That being said, you have to think about perspective, and not from the point of view of the writer but of the reader. I believe it works this way: if you describe something in first person the reader’s mind has to visualize the action, then interpret it into you taking the action, and then interpreting that action as if they were doing it themselves, and then imagining you doing so, etc, etc. That’s a lot of steps. Third person works the same way pretty much.  Second person, in English, anyway, is impossible to pull off—you do this, you do that, etc. Very cumbersome. Our language is not grammatically designed to pull that off easily (but that’s another lecture….) So I use an implied second person. Everything I do is first person, but I remove myself (by not using the first person pronoun much) and let the reader get the feeling that it is actually he that is doing/seeing/hearing what I describe. Again, this shortens the steps necessary for the brain to interpret what it is reading into understanding.  I’ve noticed that the fewer steps required the faster the language is retrieved by the brain and the more powerful the impact. And good writing is all about impact. You want to move people, you have to increase the visceral impact of the prose. And to do that you need to think about how it is that the brain turns the words you right into thoughts it can visualize. It’s verbs, baby.

The brain is designed for verbs. It sees in verbs. It has instantaneous perception in verbs. Adjectives take extra thinking. You don’t want extra thinking. You want your words to turn themselves into those units of perception that lay beneath language, that existed before language, and you want that process to occur as quickly as possible. Think of porn. The sexual excitement people get viewing it is not literary. It’s older than that. As is love. And just about anything else important. I mean the hell with language. You have to get beneath it. You have to aim for the centers beyond the brain’s language centers, because that is where the feeling is. That is where you move people. And the most direct way to get there is action, verbs.

It interesting to note that vision was initially a matter of detecting motion, indeed a matter of detecting the change in light. If a primitive animal was hiding and suddenly all was light, it meant something might have exposed it in order to eat it. Or if the light suddenly changed to dark, it meant something blocking the light might be there to eat it. This implies movement. Go forward half a billion years or so and amphibians detect movement and not much else. You can see this in a frog to this day. A fly sits on a leave three inches from the frog, the frog can’t see it.  The fly takes flight and zap, it’s the frog’s lunch. Reptiles can see more than amphibians. Mammals more still ***. But the fundamental basis of recognition remains movement.

Adjectives reflect a much more sophisticated vision and awareness of what is being seen. Adjectives require observation and analysis. There is no equivalent of mirror neurons for the kind of information adjectives describe. You watch a tennis player serve the ball, the mirror neurons fire in exactly the same way in your brain as they do in the tennis player’s brain even though you are not actually moving. They reflect the motion. But the neurons that fire to let you know that you are seeing a tennis player with red hair, a blue shirt and a green tennis ball, they do not fire in the same way the tennis player’s does. The only automatic understanding of what you see is the parts of the brain that detect motion, that is action. Those have been firing off in brains for hundreds of millions of years. They are part of the fundamental infrastructure of the brain, much as the hypothalamus deep in the temporal lobe controls the fundamental 4 F’s (feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating) of human and mammalian behavior, and reptilian and amphibian and fish behavior****. That is, going back over half a billion years (though way back when it was not necessarily a hypothalamus per se in other animals, I believe, but the things that evolved into our own hypothalamus). Mirror neurons are also an ancient part of the brain. Information relayed through mirror neurons is understood instantly by the brain. Whatever you write that fires them off will be much more quickly and powerfully–indeed viscerally–responded to by the reader. In fact, you have only to give the absolute barest amount of descriptive detail, since the brain seems to automatically fill that in. If you say you walk into a room and sit in a chair, the reader’s brain automatically seems to provide all the details it needs to understand the scene. The reader gets that “it feels like I’m there” feeling. And nothing gets a response from readers more than prose that makes them feel as if they are part of the action. Makes them feel they are the one actually walking into the room and sitting in a chair. Or sitting in a bar and seeing and hearing a saxophone player.

Plus you should spell good.

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Notes: Continue reading

The limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world.

A friend said something beautiful. The limits of one’s language, he wrote, are the limits of one’s world. My friend, an old punk rocker like me, had of late revealed a gift for poetry hidden in prose. Deep stuff, beautifully written. Even something so dry and philosophical in another’s hands came out with a lilt, a tinge of sophistication. The words spill out like a melody. How the limits of our language are the limits of our world.

But I dunno. That seems too limiting. I think that sometimes those bent towards language over estimate its importance. Here’s why:

You see, our brains get most of their information without language at all–via sight, mostly, but also hearing, smell, touch, taste, not to mention balance, motion, memory, time, pheromones, etc….it’s not our world that is limited by our facility with language, but our ability to put much of that into words. Language is maybe 100,000 or 200,000 years old, but sensory perception is a billion years old, so the vast majority of how we perceive the world cannot even be described in words because it was created so long before we began using language…and most of it we are unaware of anyway. These are awarenesses (to coin an ugly plural) that happen without us even knowing they’re occurring. Most of what makes us aware we don’t even realize is operating. We don’t know in the same way a deer doesn’t know, or a lizard, or a fish. Or even an invertebrate…some of whose sensory perceptions extend far back, long before the first hint of a backbone–then a boneless column we call a notochord, still found in lampreys and lungfish–ever evolved.

Light, for instance….far back in the Precambrian ancient animals reacted to light and dark. We still do. People in polar zones become depressed during the winter when the sun scarcely rises above the horizon. They are wrapped in darkness 23 hours of the day, and depression steps in, and they sit, morose and miserable, in their overheated cabins longing for sunlight and perhaps not even knowing it. The roots of that go back a billion years, long before eyes existed. We bask in the light of the sun and don’t even realize just how primal that is. It is fundamental to who we are, this profoundly binary sense of light versus dark. Try describing that feeling without relying on scientific concepts (as I just had to do there). Try describing that feeling in the first person without explaining it. Just describe how it feels and what is happening to you. You can’t. It’s something that exists not only without language, but without consciousness at all. We simply don’t think about, nor can we explain it in language. Language doesn’t realize it’s there. It is an awareness beyond language, a perception beneath what we would consider a conscious perception.

Notice I didn’t even mention writing. Here’s why….writing is maybe 5,000 years old, written story telling (The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example) maybe three thousand years plus a few. So we can so far only put a tiny percentage of language into writing. It’s still more a technology than an instinct. We learn to write. Language is built in, and we begin to speak at a certain age. Writing is so new that in brain terms it is almost inconsequential. We write after someone shows us how to.

So I don’t think that the limits of one’s world are the limits of one’s language, because language barely scrapes the surface how we perceive the world….since almost all of it is done without language at all.

I think the more you write the more limited the language you write with seems…in can be really frustrating seeing something that you can’t actually describe…and describing sound is even harder. Music is virtually impossible to describe, because writing is a visual thing–you describe what you see–and not a hearing thing. And this is just scratching the surface. We are very profoundly driven by  pheromones and yet we aren’t even aware of it.  Pheromones work below the level of consciousness–they evolved long before consciousness did–and so we are not actually aware of just how much of what we are is pheromone driven. Which means we can’t even write–let alone talk–about experiencing them. We can’t describe how pheromones are making us act, and yet they affect almost everything we do. That is very much our world, but how do we write about it when we don’t even know what is happening? It’s like theoretical physicists postulating all kinds of dimensions of universes existing at the same time, and that we live in all of them simultaneously, but we don’t know it. Those are hypothetical constructs, though. But we actually do live within multiple sensory dimensions, but we are only consciously aware of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. When you realize that pheromones have vastly more impact on us than does taste or smell (as in olfactory smell–pheromones are “smelled” differently), and yet we cannot even tell what they do, that’s when you realize the problem with language. It barely scratches the surface of who we are and what the world is around us. Our brain and body responds to far more sensory information than we are consciously aware of.