The Jibbertalky

I have few accomplishments to recommend me; I cannot draw, my recitals on the pianoforte are clumsy at best and I have neither a talent for embroidery nor the gift of graceful movement. The one area in which, after much searching, I have found myself to excel is in the ability to produce plausible-sounding Gibberish at will.
Though it is far from my best, you may have a listen here.

I have found that the children I babysit for nextdoor can speak Gibberish fluently but that older, more refined people sometimes struggle with the language. My Long-Suffering-Boyfriend (LSB) for example, speaks only pidgeon Gibberish, but enough to get by in most situations. I can only aspire to match some day the eloquence of Charlie Chaplin, the world’s only native speaker of Gibberish as he introduced the world to Sauerkraut.

I think my good friend Stephen Pinker would have a lot to say about Gibberish. He mentions Lewis Carroll’s 1872 nonsense poem The Jabberwocky in his book The Language Instinct as appealing to our hard-wired knowledge of and acquired predictions about language. If he were to condescend to read my blog and then stoop even lower to follow its links, I imagine he would point to the patterns of intonation in my speech as consisting of a mad mishmash of the grammatical structures of the languages I have been exposed to and that he would herald subtleties in prosody as indicative of uniformity in the portrayal of emotion through language.

I believe that my penchant for Gibberish is also connected to my tendency toward deceit. Let me explain. In order to compensate for my shockingly limited general knowledge, I periodically fabricate bizarre facts and relate them to my nearest and dearest. Once, for instance, on a rather dull bus journey from York to London, I turned suddenly to my LSB and said, “Did you know that T.S.Eliot was the first known poet to use the word peanuts in a poem?” A look of intelligent surprise crept over his face. I knew he would remember it for life.
“Really?”, he asked rhetorically.
“No”, I said, “I just made it up”. He looked at me, searchingly.

On another occasion, I broke a comfortable silence with the slow, dramatic outburst: “On gelded wheatgrass glides the linnet’s wing”.
“What’s that?”, he asked.
“Oh, just Milton”, I said with the nonchalance of a pouting fish.
“Really really?”
“No. Sorry.”

Since I always confess my wrongdoing within seconds of a Gibberishish utterance, I rarely suffer the consequences of my perjury. Having pondered the matter privately at length however, I have come to the conclusion that at the root of my silly amusement lies my inability to see the trees for the wood.

Looking for the Trees in the Wood.

You see, as I’ve mentioned before, I like to take a fly’s eye of the world. I find pleasure in understanding how people work, how language works, how the brain wires itself. My ineptitude resides in my lack of interest in the details; I am perfectly content to marvel at brain plasticity, but I’d be damned if I memorise the precise nature of the neurotransmissions that allow me to type this prepostrous post at four in the morning.

I may never be afforded the opportunity to advertise my unconventional charms to Mr Darcy, as Lizzy Bennett was, but were the opportunity to arise, I would do my very best to present my bad habit as an … impediment.

A Brief Treatise on Colin Firth’s Possession of Charm

Interaction of eyes and lips to produce Charm.

Colin Firth has made me cry eleven times in the past week; once while gazing with melancholic resolution toward Elizabeth Bennett, once while strolling with her through the grounds of Longbourn, once on the occasion of his wedding day and eight times as vexed and sensitive King, battling with a speech impediment.

It’s the rare interaction of eyes and jaw that does it for me. When the subtly determined curl of his lips is softened by his lost, intelligent eyes I become an emotional wreck. In these instances, he brings to life Ezra Pound’s definition of the ‘image’ as that which presents “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”.

A Charming Metaphor

Charm twirls itself about you like a ribbon; its intellectual appeal lies in its emotional reserve; it is a tease. Natalie Portman has it as does the German political interviewer Sandra Maischberger. Bryan Dobson possesses it and so too does Alexis Bliedl, but only when she is Rory Gilmore.

Charm, though extremely useful as a sexual tool need not take a seductive route. It’s interesting to note that when a brash young man accosts a lady at a bar with a chat-up line below her dignity she will often remark saractically “… charming” to her girlfriends after he has departed. Furthermore, it is customary for members of the general population to find scantily- clad women parading in stillettos and clutching bottles of Corrs Light as lacking in charm.

Potentially charmless girls

The perception of charm requires a little effort and as such the fruits of its identification carry an emotional value: we place worth on that in which we invest our energies. This is not to reduce charm to a mere self-serving bias but rather to highlight that intellect and emotion or “head and heart” are not always as far removed as we believe them to be.

To be charmed is one matter; to be charming another. Countless pamphlets have been penned on the latter so I thought it time to thrust open the question to the blogosphere: what charms you?

Why Plastic is Fantastic

Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself is already inspiring me to get off farcebook and engage in mental gymnastics, and I am only on page 92. In his book, Doidge documents cases in which people have benefited from the plasticity (the ability to change) of the brain.

Let’s take the example of Cheryl Shiltz, because hers is a nice-sounding name. Because of damage to the area of her brain dealing with balance (or the vestibular apparatus), Cheryl constantly feels as if she is falling. So great is the sensation that she is unable to sustain a career or maintain a conventional daily routine. Along comes the researcher Paul Bach-y-Rita and gives her a hat, as well as a thin strip to wear on her tongue. Attached to the strip are small electrodes and inside the hat is a device called an accelerometer. The accelerometer sends signals to the electrodes and both are connected to a computer.

Most of us keep our balance because tiny hairs in our cochlea, or inner ear respond to movement in the fluid canals that surround them and communicate this movement successfully with a clump of neurons, whicn in turn tell our muscles which way to move in order to maintain balance. Since the tiny hairs in Cheryl’s cochlea are not working properly, the accelerometer in the hat detects movement instead and conveys this information to her tongue, which then sends the signals to the specialised clump of neurons in her brain which then advise her muscles which way to move. The journey simply changes from the conventional Hair – Neuron clump – Muscles to become Hat -Tongue- Neuron clump – Muscles. In other words, the hat and the electrodes attached to her tongue allow her to stay balanced.
Nobody wants to hang out in a construction hat and attached to electrodes though. The marvelous, wonderous thing is that with repeated wearing of the hat, Cheryl’s brain developed a residual effect of increasing time periods, until eventually she learned to balance herself without wearing the hat. What this means is that her brain managed to change itself to find new pathways to that clump of neurons. Nice one.

Cheryl’s case illustrates what every road-tripper knows: if you miss your turn, you can take a roundtrip and still reach your destination.

The idea of brain plasticity was long contested among neuroscientists because of their success in assigning areas of the brain to specific functions. This idea, known as localisation assumed that the areas of the brain associated with specific tasks were fixed and that once certain critical periods were passed, if certain cognitive feats had not yet been mastered, they would never be.

Now that I’m curled up, hanging out with Cheryl and many others with inspiring stories, I am thinking about the possibilities of the human mind and that maybe some day, I really will master Arabic. As soon as I get my hands on that €13 teach -yourself set my boyfriend found but did not hold on to while he was stacking books into a pyramid at work, I’m on it. I may be unemployed and not up to much, but that is no excuse not to learn to turn mental somersaults in the middle east. Never before have nerds been so plastic.

On Growing a (de)Tail

I hit my forehead against the side of a glass shelf in the Birkenstock shop at 36 Wicklow Street this afternoon. The blow inflicted a sharp pain which faded until this evening, when I absent-mindedly rubbed my forehead as I was watching Upstairs Downstairs on BBC4.

The man behind the till in the Birkenstock shop was old, with the air of an indifferent butler and if he noticed my accident, he masked his perception with perfection.

Then I met my friend Reuben at Central Bank. He had on shorts and as I approached him he was reading. There’s that way that we all stuff a book out of sight or yank earphones into a tangle when somebody we have been waiting for approaches us suddenly. A universal movement away from ourselves and into that self-governing realm of conversation.

Reuben’s cup had flowers on it and contained lemon and green tea, but mine was glassy and plain. We both got bendy spoons though, which hovered over the rims of our cups and I didn’t notice until Reuben pointed it out, that the spoons were smiling. When it was time to pay, I put a tiny sum into the tip jar and took a mint. I felt bad when the waitress offered me a mint after, because that meant I had taken mine out of turn.

On the way home I crossed the road because there were boys in tracksuits on my side. In Centra, the Irish Times was sold out but there was a handful of London Times and Independents left over.

My mum read me two German Christmas stories tonight. She is the best reader in the world.

During Upstairs Downstairs my dad cupped his hands expectantly so I threw him a Malteser. After that I threw Maltesers at him without his hands being cupped.

In Avoca, a table yelled for my mum and two girls gave her effusive hugs. Grateful, smiling students of hers. It moved me strangely. I was feeling tender today, with preoccupations of an uncertain future. We met the mother again, as we were walking into Zara. She said it was ‘crazy’ in there.

There is a golden button missing from my coat. It came that way, but I have a spare because my boyfriend is magic and he went into AWear and asked for one once. They ripped a button off a faulty coat for him and I have been meaning to sew it on for seven weeks. I wondered today where that button was, but then, outside the Pound Shop in Rathmines, I felt it in the undersized pocket of my coat.

My sister and I sat beside the fire and when our feet touched by accident, her toes recoiled and danced away in disgust. She left the room to talk to her boyfriend while I listened to my mum’s stories. When she came back, we talked about epigenetics and how everything is related to everything.

I told my mum about what Ian McEwan said. That to write, is to have a detail, and not a story. That Atonement sprang from a single observation of his bossy elder daughter directing and staging a play. That a single detail can grow into love and war and betrayal and atonement and a moving masterpiece.

I’ve a lot more to gather, but this was a start.

I wish there were a fly in my eye.

If I were a fly, I would crawl up billboards and over the faces of celebrities advertising shampoo. If I got peckish I’d fly to my nearest bakery and alight on an almond bun. I’d avoid flying on my own on dull days in case I got trapped in a spider’s web that’s only visible in the sun.

I’m not a fly though and so I’m forced to navigate the world conventionally. I have to get a job to buy an almond bun. I need to battle against the forces of economic psychology to buy cheap supermarket own-brand shampoo with no promises of instant glamour and folical success. And I can crush a spider’s deathtrap with my fist.

I just finished ‘reading’ (three of the seven essays consist of a series of images with no words) John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and though there was a lot I read too superficially to grasp, the last essay, which focusses on publicity and consumerism, got me thinking about the place where I drank a whiskey and lemonade last Saturday night.

It was the basement of a nightclub on the quays called ‘Gypsy Rose’. The walls, table-tops and tshirts of the band were decorated by gothic-style roses and a backdrop of despondent-looking skulls with over-sized teeth biting into shotguns. The lighting was dim, the band playing exceptionally loud and the decor scarlet and deep purple. My flowery green dress, polo neck and snow boots flouted the dress code.

Nearly everyone there had multiple tattoos. My friend told me that it’s a familiar haunt of the ‘tattoo society’. I thought he meant to break it to me that I’d walked in on some political social, but actually he just meant that it’s full of people with tonnes of tattoos, which I could see for myself.

If they weren’t musuclar skinheads wearing band tshirts, they were charmingly nerdish-looking and in leather trenchcoats. The girls had edgy jet black hairstyles and facial piercings and next to them I looked like a ridiculous daisy sprouting from a graveyard patch of bleeding roses.

The whiskey was good and in spite of its unreasonable volume, so was the band. And yet, there I was with my eyes convincing me that I shouldn’t be there.

No biggy; just not my kinda place, I mused on the luas home.  I just like it more mellow, with pots of tea and shisha and perhaps an acoustic guitar in the background. “Damn hippy indie chick” somebody probably sighed as I took out my book.   

I think I find comfort and shame in equal measure in the personalised telescope through which I view the world. I’m comforted because by knowing through sight what I am not I can guess what I might be instead. I am ashamed because I never look through the lens for long enough to understand fully what it is that I am not.
PS – I would love to capture, spookily, the Zeitgeist in a piece of prose. I can’t, because I am much too busy lounging in my own world view. If I were a fly,I might get trapped in a web of images, but at least I’d have had the privilege of a bird’s eye view of the world.

Ah Thanks Love.

I’m imagining a portly cavewoman bent over a roaring fire, gingerly carving up a slab of meat, which hours ago her bearded partner wrestled ferociously with in the depths of the surrounding forest. Hands still bloodied from the kill and with several of his children fighting for the bones, I wonder whether Caveman gives his wife a tender kiss alongside a “thanks, honey” for the lovely meal or whether Cavewoman thanks her man for providing her with the succulent flesh of an Irish boar. Perhaps they thank each other in their own, silent way.

Thinking about thanking should be natural to us, since the two words stem from the same root; the Proto Indo-European word tong meaning to feel. Thinking pre-existed thanking- a fact which matches up nicely with the intuition that gratitude should be considered rather than automatic. It is no wonder that in Stone Age times, where food, shelter and sex were the hallmarks of successful existence, thinking and thanking were relegated to a common sentience. While thinking about thanking is a sign of evolutionary progress, not thinking about thanking is yet one step more advanced. After all, automatic thanking is synonymous with the language of service transaction, which constitutes a process more sophisticated than the simple bartering of one good for another. Take a bog standard morning in the city centre of Dublin for instance. The 15 A bus arrives late and takes me in to town. I alight and thank the bus driver. As I pass the gates of Trinity College, a religious enthusiast thrusts upon me a medallion of the Virgin Mary, which she claims will protect me from everything the world may throw at me, excepting medallions themselves it seems. I thank her with a smile and hurry on. I am groggy and so I head straight to Butlers Chocolate Café, where I order a caramel machiato ‘to go’. I thank the man at the till as I hand him over my money. Without thinking, I have given thanks for a tardy service for which a driver earns his keep, for an item I would rather be without and for due receipt of a steaming cup for which I have paid ready money.

But why? A 2007 study into cultural service exchanges argues that “the use of thanks in closing conversations … reflects local concerns of conversational management, insofar as participants need to demonstrate their final alignment to a common frame of reference and a shared satisfactory role-relationship.” In other words, perhaps what I am meaning to say is “I appreciate that you’ve battled through the morning traffic to drop me into town”, “Despite my complete indifference to your cause, I respect your dedication to The Legion of Mary and the fact that you are standing here in the freezing cold offering gratuitous items to passers-by” and “I value my cup of sweet warmth and your pleasant demeanour, even if provision of both forms part of your job description”. 

Uttering thanks may have become automatic but feeling gratitude is a state much more specific to the individual and ultimately more meaningful. A child can be forced to say “thank you” for the cotton socks its Great Auntie has bestowed upon it, but in no way can the feeling of gratitude be imposed. The human brain – plastic with potential – can differentiate between uttering thanks and being grateful. Indeed, true gratitude is often exceptionally hard to articulate. A youtube video promoting gratitude to American service men and women, which has registered over two and a half million hits, describes some of the problems, which accompany the attempt to express true gratitude. One of the most common is the feeling of awkwardness. How do you tell somebody you have never met how grateful you are for their actions? How do you tell somebody you see every day how much they mean to you?

Perhaps it’s about showing and not telling. Like love and hope and fear, it’s actions that speak louder than words. Thank somebody with a look, a hug, a card, a surprise and watch the warm feeling break across their face. It is nobler to thank than to be thanked but there is nothing that replaces that affirming feeling of being appreciated.

This Thanksgiving Festival, as modern Man Matt carves the organic turkey that Marigold’s high-powered legal job has helped provide and Hannah Montana occupies the kids in the background, perhaps it will be a silent, prehistoric glance between man and wife and not a glass-tipping dedication to America that will express true thanks. “To Silent Gratitude”.

That is like so funny, NOT.

Try as I might, there is little in this world I find less funny than Anchorman. In these two minutes and twenty eight seconds, designed to tickle my funny bone and whet my apetite for more, the temptation to lol is absent and the possibility of lmaoing and rofling out of the question. But why then do I find frumpy Maeve Higgins and her sister having the banter while baking hilarious when  Ron Burgundy’s string of faux pas invariably leaves me straight-faced? Is what you find funny not more than simply a matter of which way the cookie crumbles?

Cognitive Psychologists believe that what you find funny depends on your interpretation of the incongruous. Which incongruities in particular amuse you depend on the level of intellectual effort required to recognise the inconsistency. Let’s take Stand Up comedy. It’s thought that jokes about rape get a laugh not on account of particularly twisted audience members but rather due to their acknowledgement that a taboo is being flouted and that on top of that, the Unspeakable is being treated with flipancy.

I have been thinking a lot in the past few days about the things that do and don’t make me laugh. Sarcasm never does.  The mental effort required  ro recognise the blantantly incongruous: that somebody is saying the opposite of what they mean just doesn’t cross the threshold of intellectual toil necessary to cause me to chortle. (Each to their own I guess….. :NOT?!) 

I am reduced to convulsions of laughter however by anything that approaches the Ridiculous, as long as it is left discreetly packaged in the Understated. Rape jokes don’t do it for me, but hidden camera shows, in which those taken in treat their pranksters (sometimes even consciously) with the sobriety appropriate to a genuine situation make me laugh. In these scenarios, you’ve got the obvious incongruity of the joker acting as something he’s not. In addition however, you have the intellectual pleasure of watching the punked-ee respond in accordance with the conversational and societal maxims they have imbibed through experience. Furthermore, the possibilities of their own moulding of the situation and the potential to ‘play along’ with the prankster leaves an element of unpredictability which itches my funny bone.

Speaking of the Unpredictable reminds me of the eighth wonder of the world: the apparent hilarity of a short clip that my parents watch without fail, every New Year’s Eve on Bavarian television. The clip is a black and white British sketch of the title “Dinner for One” and dubbed into German for maximum comedy. It portrays an imaginary dinner party given by a senile lady of royalty- status. The lady, imagining that she is surrounded by prestigious guests orders her butler to fill their glasses and heap their plates. The catchphrase of the dopey butler is the polite question:”Same Procedure as Last Year?” which is invariably answered by the delusional hostess in the affirmative. As well as that line, what makes my parents hysterical is the increasingly intoxicated state of the butler as he downs the drinks of the imaginary guests and falls repeatedly over the head of a tigerskin mat. Before I set off in hope of actual intoxication last New Year’s Eve, I watched with incredulous amusement as my parents came close to rofling off the sofa.

Given that I am pretty certain of my genetic relationship to those I call my parents, I cannot but conclude that there is no such thing as “Intelligent Humour”. What I can say without a doubt though, is that what you find funny is a representation of the way you view the world. And that may well depend on which way the cookie crumbles.

Pendulums and Prodigies: Sorry Love, You Just Don’t Get It Yet.

Last Friday night I grabbed some plastic clothes hangers from my wardrobe. I cut some string and attached to it a blob of red playdough. Then I tied the string to the hanger and asked my mum to hold it high and steady as I set my little pendulum a-oscillating. I was preparing for my Psychology class the following morning, where I was to introduce my prodigies to Piaget’s theory of child development.

Piaget believed that cognitive development happens in distinct stages. Fundamental shifts in thinking patterns lead to the simultaneous development of ever more sophisticated competencies. For example, when a baby is born, it relies entirely on its reflexes; it clutches and sucks to survive. In the months that follow, it learns that it is a phsyical entity separate from its surroundings, that objects continue to exist even when out of sight and that control can be exercised over the same objects. These realisations, or shifts allow the baby to experiment with its toys, to imitate those around them and to co-ordinate its movements to achieve a goal. 

Piaget also believed that the developing child is active in its own development. No blank canvas, salivating stimulus-response theory for him, thank goodness. He proposed that at age 11 or 12, children reach the most sophisticated cognitive stage, which changes little into adulthood. He called this stage the Formal Operation period and characterised it by the ability to think in the abstract, to hypothesise, to form ideals and to employ the scientific method.

To test whether children had reached this stage of reasoning, he devised The Pendulum Problem, which brings me right back to my plastic coat hangers, playdough and string. Piaget set children the task of investigating what factor affects how quickly a pendulum swings from side to side. He gave them strings of different lengths and provided them with objects of various weights, alongside professional-looking hooks rather than plastic clothes hangers. If the children were able to test each factor (weight, string length and force) by keeping all other factors constant, and come up with the correct answer: that oscillation rate depends only on string length, he deemed them Formal Operataionalists and capable of learning algebra, pondering human existence and reasoning empirically.

As I stand at the front of the class on Saturday morning, armed with my coathangers, playdough and string, I am amused at the uniformly perplexed expression on the faces in front of me. Before I distribute my materials, I ask sneakily, as if it is an aside, whether anybody in the class is under 11. Three put up their hands. As I am dividing them into groups, I unite, casually the three youngest, and watch with pleasure my very own scientific method in progress.

An older group of boys in front isolates the potential factors immediately and adds a further variable to the equation; the position on the coat hanger from which the string swings. Another group is moulding its playdough into the shape of feline heads, but sensibly keeping their size and weight constant. I alight at the youngest group and watch them operate. I am steering the groups, without giving anything away. “So what factors may you have to change?” I prompt them “Weight”, says one. “Good!” say I, “what else?” “The length of the string!”, says another. “Let’s change them both”, choruses the third. I watch in facsination as they take a short piece of string, attach to it a light weight, before comparing it to a long piece of string with a heavy weight.

 I never dreamed that I would vindicate old Piaget. Of course it wasn’t super-scientific, but it made me think seriously about whether fundamental shifts in thinking may really occur throughout the lifespan. David Anderegg, an American child therapist blogged last year about the death of developmental psychology. He describes a kindergarden teacher, who with the best intentions, refuses to allow her charges to move around the room because they are getting ready for school, where they will have to sit quietely. Rather than allowing the little ones to enjoy the challanges of their natural developmental stage, he argues that this policy only robs children of the intrinsic joy associated with exploring more about themselves and their environment.

As I am explaining all this to my scholars, I wonder whether the Under 11s are insulted by Piaget’s inference that: Sorry Love, You Just Don’t Get It Yet.

Hair today, where tomorrow?

Echart Tolle is all about living in the present and listening to the senses. I hear him speaking on the John Murray show before rushing out (naturally..) to get my hair cut. Although I am power-walking with intent, I pretend that I am hanging out sensualy without purpose. I take note of the dark and crunchy leaves on Mountpleasant Avenue and mould the relative smoothness of its concrete path into an aesthetic pleasure. Before I can wait for the little green man, the traffic at Portobello has glided to a sublime appreciation of life’s industrial hum.

I arrive in Stephen’s Green breathless but full of life. Unfortunately I have no cash, so after a mindful trip to the ATM machine I arrive a respectable seven minutes late for my appointment. As usual, I am getting my hair cut by trainees. You can tell that they are trainees because they listen carefully to what you tell them you want done and before they begin, they ask you if your scalp ever gets itchy, because they have been told to ask this question. As I am getting a bib wrapped around me like a baby, I watch the group of ten girls who are taking a class in the corner of the salon. They are creating elaborate ballroom styles on uniformly attractive mannequin heads. Agreeing with Michelle, my stylist that I am a ‘medium-dark blend’ of a person with a penchant for autumn colours, I begin to flick through Marie Claire and alight at the few pages which boast sustained passages of prose. I stumble across three articles on the same theme: living in the moment. It seems to be the mantra of  my day. One is written by a woman who had a lesbian relationship with her best friend after (and later while) being in a relationship with the father of her child. The next is a story of contented single life by a woman in her late 30s, who now befriends rather than resents her many exes. The last tells of the regrets of an Oxford graduate for feeling intimidated by her toff-ee friends for three years instead of quitting after one and joining Smash Hit magazine as had always been her dream.

I like self-help. I think the idea of ‘living in the moment’ is fascinating. The scientist in me wants to find out:can it be? Is Echart Tolle really motivated to have a chat with Dawkins, Gaybo and Murray by an appreciation of the quotidian or is he, like most of us, drawn to the notion of acclaim? It’s difficult to ‘live in the moment’ when you are a (nearly totally) unemployed graduate still living at home. After yet another job rejection yesterday morning, I think I may be ready to disregard the future though.  The past; dull and continuous might just have to come second to the present, which (while tense) is reassuringly habitual. I am not getting started on the conditional, but Echart Tolle would be proud.

Echart Tolle and purple flowers

Me shorn.. for the moment