Friday, February 24, 2006

Cobwebs of the mind

I just realized I clicked on the Recycle Bin instead of my e-mail and spent the last ten minutes reading stuff I intended to trash. So that's where I'm coming from today.

So I'll just quote Albert Einstein to bask in a bit of reflected brilliance:

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."--Albert Einstein

How do you view the world? Some see the world as a battlefield, where good and evil are pitted against each other and the forces of light battle the forces of darkness. Others see the world as a proving ground or series of tests, a type of moral gauntlet to teach you lessons and make you a better person, eventually admitting you to nirvana. Still others will tell you they see the world as a horrible trap or cage from which the goal is escape to a higher, transcendent state of being. Then there is the machine or scientific view that the world is a collection of inanimate objects that interact in predictable ways based on natural laws that dictate a discontinuity between mind and matter, the subjective and the objective and ultimately between science and religion.

There are many world views, perhaps as many as there are distinct cultures on planet earth. Western Civilization can be divided by world views: First was the Classical Age of Gods and Oracles, then there was the Medieval Age of Faith and Superstition and, finally, we have our Modern Age, the so-called Age of Reason and Science.

World views exist to explain the mysteries of life and how we interact with a seemingly disinterested, unfeeling "Regulator" who governs nature and being. Very recently, the new field of quantum physics has proposed new principles governing life, the universe and everything else.

For example, there is a very smart guy by the name of Seth Lloyd, an MIT professor by trade, quantum mechanic and author of the book, "Programming the Universe." His world view is that of a cosmic computer. "If I have one new message to convey in my book, it is that the universe is a system where the very specific details and structures in it are created when quantum (sub-nano) bits choose one path out of multiple possibilities and that this process is identical to quantum computation." He tells his kids the universe is made of tiny bits, not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information--ones and zeros. When his kids correct him and say, "No Daddy, everything is made of atoms, except for light." he tells them, "Yes, but those atoms are also information. You can think of atoms as carrying bits of information and you can think of bits of information as carrying atoms. You can't separate the two."

Whew! All this makes my brain hurt. But it is all worth pondering. Fascinating, in fact. Want to know more about this quantum stuff? Check out your Cable TV listings for a program called "What the Bleep Do We Know?" It's a fascinating combination of movie and documentary. Entertaining and stimulating. Thought-provoking and disturbing. It will clear out those cobwebs!

The Stickler

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Go with your gut

"Go with your gut!" That's the advice many of us receive when we are perplexed over a decision. It turns out this familiar admonishment is rooted in physical and neurological fact. You may think with your brain, but you may well make decisions with your gut--in other words, your bowel. I'm referring to the "enteric nervous system," known to anatomists and psychologists alike as "the second brain." The Enteric Nervous System is now getting the attention it deserves in the study of all sorts of vexing medical/psychological conditions such as epilepsy, nervous ulcers and depression.

The Vagus Nerve
No, that's not "vegas" in the gambling sense, but the name of the longest nerve in the body. Vagus means wandering in Latin and that is precisely what the Vagus Nerve does in the body. It's about two feet long, starts in the brainstem, goes down the neck (next to the jugular vein) and into the abdomen. Along the way, it affects the vocal chords, acid content in the stomach, frequency and rhythm of the heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rate of the lungs, sweating and operation of the bowels. In the brain, it connects to areas believed to be responsible for seizures, mood, appetite, memory and anxiety. Strangely enough, the Vagus Nerve does not have many pain transmitters, a quality that may make it the miracle highway for many sufferers of depression, eating disorders, nervous conditions and even Alzheimer's disease.

The Vagus Nerve is the connection between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system (ENS). There are, at least, 30 chemicals that transmit instructions in the brain. All of these chemicals are present in the enteric network as well. There is ample evidence that the ENS is not just a collection of relays, receptors and transmitters, but a complex integrated brain in its own right.

The implications of the ENS for diagnostic and therapeutic applications are strong. For example, the brain and the ENS are subject to lesions found in Parkinson's Disease and thought to be identified with Alzeimer's disease. It is conceivable that Alzheimer's disease, so difficult to diagnose in the absence of autopsy data, may some day be routinely identified by rectal biopsy. Hence, the statement that one's bowel is as important as one's brain. The Vagus Nerve is the highway between the abdomen and bowels and the brain. And, the reason we say, intuitively, go with your gut feeling.

VNS Therapy
This is what gets me excited, as a person who has struggled with depression for some twenty years. Researchers have found that a small electrical stimulation of the Vagus Nerve affects mood. They discovered this when using electrical stimulation of the Vagus Nerve to treat epilepsy. Some of the patients, who had suffered from depression, were remarkably improved. After numerous studies, the FDA has approved VNS therapy for the treatment of depression. It involves the implantation of a battery powered Pulse Generator and lead to the Vagus Nerve. It delivers a small electrical charge intermittently on a 24/7 basis for ten years or more.

The FDA agrees the therapy works. Most insurance companies, however, will not cover the implantation procedure and associated costs of VNS therapy. A petition drive is underway to convince health insurers of the efficacy of VNS therapy. For more information, go to: http://www.vagusnervestimulator.com.

There is also a book on the subject: "Out of the Black Hole." That's where I got the idea for this post.

The Stickler

Go with your gut

"Go with your gut!" That's the advice many of us receive when we are perplexed over a decision. It turns out this familiar admonishment is rooted in physical and neurological fact. You may think with your brain, but you may well make decisions with your gut--in other words, your bowel. I'm referring to the "enteric nervous system," known to anatomists and psychologists alike as "the second brain." The Enteric Nervous System is now getting the attention it deserves in the study of all sorts of vexing medical/psychological conditions such as epilepsy, nervous ulcers and depression.

The Vagus Nerve
No, that's not "vegas" in the gambling sense, but the name of the longest nerve in the body. Vagus means wandering in Latin and that is precisely what the Vagus Nerve does in the body. It's about two feet long, starts in the brainstem, goes down the neck (next to the jugular vein) and into the abdomen. Along the way, it affects the vocal chords, acid content in the stomach, frequency and rhythm of the heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rate of the lungs, sweating and operation of the bowels. In the brain, it connects to areas believed to be responsible for seizures, mood, appetite, memory and anxiety. Strangely enough, the Vagus Nerve does not have many pain transmitters, a quality that may make it the miracle highway for many sufferers of depression, eating disorders, nervous conditions and even Alzheimer's disease.

The Vagus Nerve is the connection between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system (ENS). There are, at least, 30 chemicals that transmit instructions in the brain. All of these chemicals are present in the enteric network as well. There is ample evidence that the ENS is not just a collection of relays, receptors and transmitters, but a complex integrated brain in its own right.

The implications of the ENS for diagnostic and therapeutic applications are strong. For example, the brain and the ENS are subject to lesions found in Parkinson's Disease and thought to be identified with Alzeimer's disease. It is conceivable that Alzheimer's disease, so difficult to diagnose in the absence of autopsy data, may some day be routinely identified by rectal biopsy. Hence, the statement that one's bowel is as important as one's brain. The Vagus Nerve is the highway between the abdomen and bowels and the brain. And, the reason we say, intuitively, go with your gut feeling.

VNS Therapy
This is what gets me excited, as a person who has struggled with depression for some twenty years. Researchers have found that a small electrical stimulation of the Vagus Nerve affects mood. They discovered this when using electrical stimulation of the Vagus Nerve to treat epilepsy. Some of the patients, who had suffered from depression, were remarkably improved. After numerous studies, the FDA has approved VNS therapy for the treatment of depression. It involves the implantation of a battery powered Pulse Generator and lead to the Vagus Nerve. It delivers a small electrical charge intermittently on a 24/7 basis for ten years or more.

The FDA agrees the therapy works. Most insurance companies, however, will not cover the implantation procedure and associated costs of VNS therapy. A petition drive is underway to convince health insurers of the efficacy of VNS therapy. For more information, go to: http://www.vagusnervestimulator.com.

There is also a book on the subject: "Out of the Black Hole." That's where I got the idea for this post.

The Stickler

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Self-perpetuating government is ruining America

Americans live in a republic, a form of government, in which supreme power is held by citizens entitled to vote and exercised by elected representatives who govern at the will of voters and according to laws enacted to preserve basic freedoms established in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is becoming clear that this definition is being corrupted by elected officials and their appointees who are pursuing a blatantly political agenda rather than the one that prompted citizens to vote them in to office. Time, money and talent is consistently squandered by our elected representatives in rancorous attacks upon one another instead of in well-reasoned debate over the best solutions to problems facing the American people. More effort is invested in one-ups-man-ship than in lawmaking and serving the public interest. In fact, a case can be made that the true mission of our government is to determine which political party is the strongest. Holding an elected public position has much less to do with service than it does with perpetuating the government bureaucracy and staffing it with as many politically like-minded sycophants as possible. Since this is the way the political parties want government to work, it is highly unlikely we will see any candidates for public office running on a platform devoted to changing the situation.

So it would seem we are stuck with these narcissistic yammer-jammers. This would be correct if the founders of our country had not invested each of us with certain inalienable (incapable of being surrendered) rights. I refer you to the United States Constitution, establish in 1789, and the oldest written national constitution currently in effect. It has served the ongoing needs of this country through the addition of amendments that establish and define our basic freedoms as Americans. The First Amendment protects many of the freedoms we exercise on a daily basis, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to freely practice religion, and the right to peacefully assemble. The first ten amendments, together known as the Bill of Rights, outline the various basic freedoms that make this country such a tremendous place to live. This incredibly prescient document states clearly that government is for the people and by the people. Moreover, it recognizes rights as being both individual and corporate, meaning that Americans are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and individual rights under the Constitution.

This is an extremely important point considering the fact that politicians and their employees and appointees are trying to hijack our government and appear to be getting away with it. Read the news, watch and listen to media broadcasts and surf the Internet for evidence of political larceny. You will encounter spin and outright lies; character assassination and cruel disregard for one group’s interests versus another’s. You will easily identify agendas and goals that have nothing to do with governance, representation or public service. And you will witness selfish and sometimes criminal behavior devoted to self-aggrandizement from people who self-righteously swear they are serving in your best interests. Baloney.

It’s time to get mad and refuse to take it anymore. Fortunately, there are alternatives for political corrective action, but the vehicle is weak and its capabilities limited by a rather small constituency. It’s known as the Libertarian Party, a political organization that calls itself “the party of principle.” The Libertarians back that up with a short “statement of principles” that would seemingly have great appeal, but has very little visibility. Here it is:

“We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

Isn’t that simple and logical? Can you find fault or deficiency with it? I can’t. But, the Libertarian Party gets short shrift because of an apparently fatal flaw: It abhors the bureaucratic organization that a political party apparently needs to win elections. Oh, there is one other plank in the Libertarian platform that gives people heartburn. They proclaim that drug laws do more harm than good and advocate their repeal. That’s the biggie. And, while arguably a true statement, it scares away a lot of people who might otherwise sign up for the program.

Oh, the Libertarians like to carry around a little card they call “the world’s smallest political quiz.” I thought I’d let you take it see where you stand. You score yourself this way: Give yourself 20 points for a YES; 10 points for a MAYBE; and zero points for a NO.

Are you a self-governor on PERSONAL issues? My PERSONAL issues score: ______

· Military service should be voluntary (no draft).
· Government should not control radio, TV, the press or the Internet.
· Repeal regulations on sex for consenting adults.
· Drug laws do more harm than good. Repeal them.
· Let peaceful people cross borders freely.

Are you a self-governor on ECONOMIC issues? My ECONOMIC issues score: _____

· Businesses and farms should operate without government subsidies.
· People are better off with free trade than with tariffs.
· Minimum wage laws cause unemployment. Repeal them.
· End taxes. Pay for services with user fees.
· All foreign aid should be privately funded.

Go to http://www.self-gov.org and plot your score on the Self-government Compass.

Hey, don’t stand for any more political phooey from the jerks you inadvertently voted for. Get a Libertarian in office for a change.

The Stickler

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Word of the Year

Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people have made it official, the 2005 Word-of-the-Year is:

INFOSNACKING
Time spent on the computer at work doing things that aren't work-related.
Now that is a word I can relate to. Why I feel a snack attack coming on right now! Hoo-Ha!!!
Why not try to work "infosnacking" into your vocabulary?
Chow!
The Stickler

Friday, February 10, 2006

The difference between art and music

My watercolor painting class prompted me to compare learning a musical instrument to beginning to draw and paint. I surprised myself with this analysis and I'm not certain what to make of it.

When you learn a music instrument your skill level is instantly recognizable. It is only after one attains a certain mastery that matters of style and interpretation come into play. Not so with art. Take me, for example. I am just beginning to grasp the skills of watercolors painting and my drawing ability is strictly amateur. Despite these limitations, some of my paintings compare favorably to those of highly skilled and experienced watercolors. How is this possible?

The answer lies in our brains. I believe practically all people, musicians and non-musicians alike, develop a high sensitivity to pitch and rhythm. We know when someone is singing off key or playing out of tune. We know when the beat is "off." How do we know? It's because of music standards that we absorb naturally, without conscious effort. So most people know when they are listening to an amateur versus the performance of a professional. All you have to do is watch and listen to American Idol and my point is clear (I hope!).

But this sensitivity does not apparently apply to art. True, we all tend to recognize a child's art rendition. There are the stereotypical shapes of people, pets and houses. But, children grow out of this style because it is very much a maturity of vision and mental processing than it is a skill issue. Upon reaching a certain maturity, art expression changes. The assessment of art becomes much more subjective and the issue of skill blurs. Unskilled people are very capable of producing stunning art that is enjoyable to view even by highly talented, well-schooled artists. My point is that, like some of my work, art can transcend ability in ways music cannot.

So what do I make of this difference? My take is that humans are much more "open-minded" when it comes to things they see. Since we are consciously "seeing" most of the time, we get used to many and varied combinations of shapes, colors and forms. Our eyes "see" better than a camera lense, for example. By this I mean we view the sight before us in all its dimensions while a photo has limits to its focus, depth-of-field and proportions. I believe our range of appreciation in art is much wider than in music because of the way we see and interpret things versus our expectations for music.

In fact, expectation is the real key to the difference between the two arts. We expect music to fall into certain familiar styles. The cues that prompt our "music filters" occur almost instantaeously when we hear musical sound. If it is folk music, it sounds this way. If it is jazz, it sounds this way. If it is rock 'n roll, it sounds like this. And so on. If something is off--in other words, not in keeping with our expectations--we recognize it and react, usually in a negative way. But, familiarity can breed tolerance. Take bebop jazz and rap/hip-hop music, for example. When people first heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the new style offended their ears. But, over time, listeners became familiar with the "strange" harmonies of bop. Today, bebop is an accepted style of jazz and we do not cringe when hearing it, even if it isn't our preferred style of music. Rap followed the same pattern. From a cultural niche style asociated with fringe elements of society, rap grew into a mainstream style that is preferred by a high percentage of teenagers over other styles of music. Go figure. And when you do figure, meaning "stop to think about it," music must meet more strict standards and pass through finer filters than art.

I consider this a benefit. Even with my limited skills, I can produce art that a lot of people find pleasant to view. This is why I alwasy encourage people to express themselves graphically. Artistic creativity is far more accessible to people than they think.

Of course, you can DRAW your own conclusions!

The Stickler

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Trickster Technology

I'm reading "WE" by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopian (some say the first) novel set in the One State of the great Benefactor. There are no individuals, only numbers. Life is mathematically precise, regulated by a collective schedule. D-503, architect of the Integral, a spaceship intended to take totalitarian bliss to other worlds, writes a diary intended for those who encounter his ship. In the days preceding the launch, D-503 makes two crucial, life-changing discoveries: (1) he discovers love, an emotion thought to be efficiently subdued by One State and (2) the impending subjucation of IMAGINATION, the key step in keeping humans yoked to the beneficent control of reason.

This great sci-fi novel was written at the beginning of the 20th century. It is as relevant today, at the beginning of the 21st century, as it was back in the day. So far, it has alerted me to worrisome trends in our own technologically shaped society.

All of the seeds of remote control have been planted: First there is wireless technology, the capability of communicating anywhere, anytime, any place. Second, there is the ubiquity and increasing utility of the cellular telephone. For many people the cell phone is already their central information and communication hub. Third, there is nano technology, the miniaturization of everything. And fourth, there is biotechnology, the growing science of healing, replicating, implanting and modifying the human body.

Combine them and you have the recipe for benevolent control. Of course, technology has not yet solved the problems of integrating all four elements of the system, but give science ten to twenty years and my predicted outcome is plausible.

So what would this biocyber nanoplant look like? Well, it would be tiny, no more than the size of the implantable pet ID chips we have today. But the biocyber chip would be designed to interact with our cerebral cortex with a yet-to-be-designed electro-neural interface that translates electron-based signals into biotransmitteed data. It would have audio, visual and subliminal capabilities, creating not only a "theatre of the mind," but a link to the subconscious brain as well.

When the biocyber nanoplant becomes reality, the potential for mind control becomes dangerously real. Until then, enjoy the mobility of your cell phone with all of its entertainment options, maximize your productivity with your wi-fi connectivity and marvel at how "nano" your electronic companions are becoming. Oh, and the next time you don your ear buds with surround-sound music processing, imagine a day when such a sound will emanate from your brain with no apparent source whatsoever.

Mind-boggling...or should we say mind-blowing?

Stickler...OUT

Monday, February 06, 2006

I miss you, Jake

Jake Chapel, Loyal Schnauzer and Nearly Perfect Puppy

Our first puppy was named Jake, the runt of his litter, but a Schnauzer with a giant heart. Jake was born in Maine and, therefore, a legitimate Mainer, unlike us, his parents from “away.” In my opinion, Jake sensed this distinction. When we walked down to Al’s Country Store and the West Poland, ME post office, Jake was master of his domain. In fact, at Al’s Jake was legendary for his attitude. In the morning, Big Al and the boys would sit around shootin’ the shit. So, one day Jake and I mosey in to pick up a paper. Al likes to talk tough, so he observes that Jake would be perfect for helping clean up the store. “Why I’d stick a broomstick up his ass and mop the floor with that fur ball.” The boys chuckled and Jake gave Al a withering stare. I swear he understood him. Then, with great deliberation, Jake walked over to the wire news rack, lifted his leg, and peed on it. This act became legend in West Poland as the day Jake shut Al’s mouth faster than a steel trap. Of course, I had to buy all the wet papers, but they were well worth the money. Jake had made a statement in a most dramatic way.

Over at the post office, a tiny shack with barely enough room for a wall of p.o. boxes and a service counter, Jake was known by name by most everyone who picked up mail shortly after Craig, the Postmaster, sorted the mail—around 10 am. Craig pretended to be outraged at how spoiled Jake was. Of course, it has to be said that Craig seemed to be outraged by just about everything. Still, I gradually became aware of Jake’s tendency to goad good old Craig. I admit I was guilty of aiding and abetting this behavior by lifting him up to the counter so Jake and Craig would be face-to-face. Jake liked to irritate Craig by licking his finger sponge or grabbing his counter pen and yanking the chain that secured it to the counter. Whatever Jake did, Craig would get up his bluster and state loudly, “Jake, that’s government property. I can have you put away for that.” This was a regular routine guaranteed to please a puppy. Jake would woof and growl in response. And everyone who witnessed the exchange would laugh, mostly at Craig because he was such a standard product of the U.S. Postal Service, constantly disgruntled and a genuine asshole.

Growing up in Maine with a big yard surrounded by a horse field was puppy heaven. Jake loved the smells and the constant variety of wildlife surrounding him. One day, during Jake’s puppy-hood, a truck carrying chickens to the egg farm up Megquier Hill Road rumbled by. Jake lifted his head, opened his mouth and let out a howl, a sound I had never heard him make. Clearly, the aroma of chickens sent him to some higher level of consciousness, stimulating the wild instincts of hunting dog. I never saw this behavior again. Of course, Jake loved the horse field, which was “off-limits” to him, but protected only by a flimsy old, falling-down, split-rail fence. So whenever he could, Jake would sneak off into the horse field and see what he could “Schnauzer up.” Almost always, that would be a horse bun. So when we would yell at him and tell him in-no-uncertain-terms that he better get his fuzzy ass back in his own yard, well, Jake would come running with the odoriferous prize in his mouth, hopping like a bunny and daring us to chase him. Disgustingly funny. Then there was fall and leaf raking. We used an old bedspread as a tarp and piled the leaves on it for transport to a pile behind the garage. Jake loved “attacking” the bundled leaves thrown over my back. He would bark with joy, growl like a wild animal, jump and nip at the bedspread and generally go nuts over the whole process. After dumping the leaves, Jake would race back to the yard and get ready to interfere with the next pile. Pure joy it was.

Like all dogs, Jake loved walks. We had our morning run down to the store and the post office. Most of the time, that included a stroll down the dirt path to the boat ramp on Tripp Lake, a great place for the Jakester to slurp up some yummy lake water. In the afternoon, we’d head up the hill, past the apple farm and orchard to the old white church and the cemetery. Jake loved this because he would often get the privilege of running free around the grave markers, chasing birds and romping around with total inhibition. Should anyone chance to walk into the cemetery, Jake would take notice and give a thorough bark-up. Wherever Jake was, he considered himself boss dog. Occasionally, we’d take a really long walk down the Lake Road and check out the abandoned trailers and junk cars. That was always a treat and got the boy tired out so he would flop down upon his return and snuzzle down for a doggie nap, the picture of relaxation and pooped-out pleasure.

As much as he loved the outdoors, Jake was essentially a civilized Schnauzer and made our house his home. One day we purchased a beanbag for lounging on the floor in front of the TV. Jake took one look at it and decided it was the perfect bag for him. It never served its intended purpose. And when you plopped on Jake’s bag, you were in for a tussle over property rights. Jake’s favorite place was the sun porch, a 3-season room looking out over the backyard and the horse field. We had these comfy padded bamboo swivel chairs in that room but, in reality, they were always Jake property. He would spend hours sitting and watching interspersed with snoozing with his head hanging off the edge of one or the other chairs. The one thing Jake never mastered in his house was the hard wood steps leading to the upstairs bedrooms. The stairs were slippery for doggie paws and he sensed the danger. As a result, Jake expected to be picked up and carried up and down those stairs. Of course, it goes without saying our bed was Jake’s bed. When I got up in the morning, Jake would go to the top of the stairs and wait. When I was ready, he would hop in my arms to be carried downstairs. Perhaps this is how he became known as “the luxury pup.”

I raised Jake from a shoebox size puppy since I was working from a home office at the time. Janet was working at a company in Lewiston, so she would head off to work every day. This led to rumor and speculation in the gossip-driven village of West Poland. There was talk about “the guy with the little dog who doesn’t work and suspicions that I might be a lazy bum who makes his wife support him, but that’s another story altogether. I was a freelance advertising man, making my living writing ad copy and producing marketing materials for various companies. It just looked a bit suspicious to the no-tech redneck crowd we called our fellow citizens.

Jake quickly became an “office dog” and would serve as my timekeeper for breaks and attention. His need for attention often reflected how busy I was. If a phone conversation went a bit too long for his taste, Jake would select a particularly loud squeaky toy and create his own style of Muzak, much to the amusement (usually) of my clients. Whenever possible, I would take Jake with me on client service runs that I knew would be short. I had this baby blue VW Beetle I used whenever Janet was using the van or her car was in the shop. One particularly blustery winter day, Jake and went on a run down to Gorham to drop off a newsletter design for approval. It was cold and the V-Dub just wasn’t making much heat, being air-cooled. So Jake, no dummy and not one for shivering, climbed into my lap and before I knew it was zipped into my jacket. His little head stuck out and looked around while I tended to the driving. This was probably not legal in Maine, but what the heck? There is nothing like a warm puppy snuggled in your jacket. Unfortunately, from this moment on, Jake preferred to ride in my lap, much to my chagrin and the amused mocking of the rough‘n tumble Mainers.

Like I said upfront, Jake was the runt of his litter. He was rather small for a Schnauzer, even though he was a purebred AKC Miniature Schnauzer. Anyway, he had his medical issues, such as the lump that grew around his chest. The vet over in Mechanic Falls recommended removing it surgically. We agreed and later concluded his surgical work was not much better than a butcher sewing up a stuffed turkey. So Jake had this ugly surgery and earned himself a scar. It wouldn’t be the last of his medical trials and tribulations, but he had heart and courage, like all dogs do. He wanted to be strong and live for the sake of his parents—his pack in dog-think.

During his Maine childhood, Jake had limited contact with other dogs but our friends, the Michies, introduced Milo, their Rotweiler puppy to Jake and they became great friends. Of course, even as a puppy, Milo was much larger than Jake. Still, Milo recognized Jake as the older dog and respected him. They had a hilarious routine where Milo would tease Jake with a stick or ball and then take off with Jake in hot pursuit, barking and snarling. Finally, Milo would stop and Jake would run in circles around him. They had great fun together.

The advertising work eventually led to an offer from a client, but it meant a move down to Stamford, CT. Not knowing if this would be a permanent gig, we decided to remain Maine residents and keep our house. I found an apartment in Stamford and convinced Tony the landlord to allow Jake to be with me. So, Jake and I became 600-mile commuters, living and working in Stamford and getting back to Maine as often as we could. It wasn’t easy—for Jake or for me, or for Janet for that matter. But, the deal was intended to rake in some much-needed funds for retirement.

I made it a habit to head home at lunch, a very feasible plan since I was only 6 miles away from the apartment. So Jake and I would have lunch and take a walk. Then, I’d head back to work for the afternoon. Jake adopted a seat I set up in my small studio room. He could observe all the action on Broad Street, a major route in Stamford. Lots to see and take in. I was impressed with how quickly and easily he adapted to the new routine. I started referring to him as “the nearly perfect puppy” since he hardly ever put a paw wrong.

Not everyone thought Jake was perfect, though. Anyone who walks a dog knows that there are people who loathe dogs and fear dog poop as if it were cancer. With a regular walking route, you become aware of those who stare at you with hatred almost hoping your dog poops on their property so they can go ballistic. But there are the “lurkers” as well. These are dog haters that seethe silently in the shadows and behind curtains. Since I picked up after Jake, I made it a practice to give the “shit” right back to the harassers. When a drunk behind the wheel of a pickup truck questioned whether I really picked up Jake’s poop, despite seeing my swaying bag of bumstuff, I finally tossed my baggie into his truck. That led to the Stamford Police tracking us down and giving us a lecture and a ticket for “breach-of-peace.” You can’t win against the NIMBYs.

During our Stamford period, Jake went everywhere with me. We loved Scalzi Park, a giant recreation area with lots of romping room. We walked the Broad Street neighborhood and the grounds of Stamford Hospital (until Security kicked us out). All this adventure must have exposed Jake to germs and viruses because he developed a frightening intestinal infection with internal bleeding. I got him to the vet just in time and he pulled through, but I thought Jake might be a goner. Later, he came down with an ear infection that spread to his outer ears. It was very painful, but Jake was a trooper and let me doctor him. He knew I was worried about him and trusted me to help him. But these episodes took their toll. Jake was growing older and slowing down.

His age and attitude showed when my friend Kathryn got a Westie puppy named Fiona. Being a puppy and a very active breed, Fiona wanted Jake to play and romp with her, but Jake was not very interested. One visit involved Jake sitting in the middle of Kathryn’s living room with Fiona racing around him. As she made frantic circles around him, he would track her with his head and give her a “woof” at around 11 o’clock position and then keep tracking her. This went on for numerous circles until Fiona was actually dizzy.

But, make no mistake, Jake and Fiona were friends. Kathryn and I became doggie sitters whenever we had to travel. She would take in Jake and I would go over and stay with Fiona (accompanied by Jake, of course) when she traveled on business. It was always fun, especially taking walks with the two terriers.

Doggy sitting was great management training, especially when it came to making sleeping arrangements. Jake is used to sleeping with me. Fiona is used to sleeping on Kathryn’s bed. I’m supposed to sleep on Kathryn’s bed. Thinking like a dog, I realized this was a recipe for disaster, or at least a territorial confrontation. So, I looked around and found Kathryn’s guest room and camped out there. I tossed my sleeping bag on the bed so Jake would recognize it as ours and got Fiona’s blankey from Kathryn’s room and spread it out on one side. I positioned myself in the middle. Jake on one side. Fiona on the other. A doggie sandwich. Instant satisfaction! Both pups settled in, molded to my body and we slept like…puppies.

There is nothing more comforting than a concerned doggie. After all, in a dog’s mind, his master is GOD. I found out just how sensitive a dog can be to illness and how empathetic they can be. My illness was a kidney stone, not only a painful condition, but also one that reduces you to pathetic whimpering. So there I was in bed, curled up in fetal position, trying to endure the grinding/squeezing/plowing feeling of the stone. Jake was right there. He positioned himself on the other pillow and focused on me intently, occasionally licking my forehead or ear. When I would groan, he would change position, trying to get closer, as if to absorb my discomfort and take it on himself. I mumbled stuff to him—just what I don’t remember—and he produced “wimpy” sounds, a unique sound meaning he was there and loving me.

I took Jake to the office a couple of times. The first trip was a quickie. Had to pick up some stuff I forgot and check on a file I needed to send to a magazine. I shut the door to the office so Jake wouldn’t be tempted to explore. He sniffed around and got up on one of the guest chairs. The telephone rang—odd for a Saturday—so I answered it. It was Ray from Moncton, my ad guy friend. He was as surprised to hear my voice, as I was to hear his. While we were talking, Suzanne—my boss—walks down the hallway and sees Jake. So she opens the door, waves to me and pets Jake. Then, she asks him if he would like to see her office. Jake was off the chair before she finished the question. I knew he’d never make it to her office. Sure enough, Jake decides not to follow and takes off down the hallway. I told Ray that Jake was on the loose and I had to find him. So I rang off and headed after my boy. I found him. Jake had found the president’s office, which was open because the guy lived for work, weekends included. The worst had happened. Jake had just taken a huge dump on the floor. Luckily, the prez was down a couple of offices talking to another workaholic suck-up. I grabbed some tissues from the box on the big desk and got the mess cleaned up. Fortunately, he laid some solid Lincoln Logs so no harm done. Just then, the pres walks in with me holding a stinkin’ wad of doggie poop.
“Hi Bert,” I said. Thinking quickly, I said, “Bert, I’d like you to meet my son, Jake.” He had a weird look on his face that I figured meant he was picking up on the awful odor in his office. Fortunately, his phone rang and we were able to make an exit without having to make any explanations. It was a close call.

We spent seven years in Stamford. Jake and I, roomies in an attic studio apartment that was more doghouse than executive pad. Jake was getting older. He still loved his walks, but he preferred lap time to playing. So, I’d put on my jazz CDs and Jake would climb into my lap. I’d have a Jack Daniels on the magazine stand and one of my favorite periodicals open for reading. It was perfect. It was our routine. I’d get drunk just about every night that seventh year of the Stamford period. Jake would keep me company until we hit the sack. Then he would mold himself to my side and we’d drift off to dreamland. Idyllic scene—except I had become a drunk and Jake was an old man.

My employer brought reality back into the picture when I was laid off during a reorganization and purge in preparation for the corporate office moving to Toronto. This was a rough time. My marriage was on the rocks due to the Stamford distance from Maine and I knew I was an alcoholic. My dad died an alcoholic so I knew what was in store for me. As much as I loved my friend Jack Daniels, I kicked the booze out and quit cold turkey. Once again, Jake had my back while I dried out and dealt with the demons of withdrawal. He was right there: my very best friend and soul mate.

I got the pink slip late in the month and we moved out within days of the event. We headed back to Worcester where I bought a home. It was my old stompin’ grounds, but new to Jake. But, being “Mister Adaptable,” he quickly sniffed out the neighborhood and made friends with kids. It brought back some youth and vigor, by my eye. He seemed quite happy, especially since I was home with him trying to get a freelance writing business started.

I really don’t know what happened to Jake at the end. Upon reflection, it seems he had some kind of neurological event because he became lethargic, frequently nauseated and increasingly unresponsive. We took him to the vet. She ran tests and tried some meds, but to no avail. I was sitting in my Lazy Boy watching Jake lying on the living room floor when he started convulsing. It was very upsetting. I scooped him into my arms and took him to the vet. I called Janet on the way. She met me there. It was clear Jake was ready to check out. We signed the papers, kissed and hugged him and left in tears. A few weeks later, we received his ashes in a brass tin. I placed them on the mantel so he could be with us forever.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Art there child art prodigies?

The conventional wisdom is that there are child prodigies in music, but not art. This is posited by experts who believe the visual aspects of art always reveal immaturity, that only life experience can truly inform the visual arts, no matter how talented the child may be. Until I came across the following website, I had no opinion on the subject. In fact, I hadn't thought about it. After all, all children create art and a lot of it is precious, if not precocious. It is fun to view and interesting to interpret. That it reflects a child-like view and experience is to be expected. After all, this is the art of children. Apparently, there have been very few children who express themselves visually with sufficient depth and emotion to impress the art critics.

That may have to change, if you examine the work of the 11-year-old Akiane. Here's her website: http://www.artakiane.com/home.htm The images are certainly impressive and many of them are not images one would connect with a child's world view. Take a look at the portraits. She may not have the life experience of her subjects, but she is definitely reflecting their life experience in her paintings. Not good enough, say many art analysts. They caution that only time will tell. This is undoubtedly true. I would expect her skills and her visual maturity to increase with age, education and experience. There's no telling what her chosen style will be. Right now, it is clearly realistic, but who is to say she won't find her muse in abstraction or the invention of a new means of artistic expression?

The critics point out that her website is designed to sell her work. Duh? What artist does not desire the validation of someone wanting to own their art? From what I can see, her paintings are superior from a skill standpoint than many works I've seen for sale on the Internet or at local art shows. Besides, beauty and value are definitely in the eye of the beholder. If the charm of having been created by an 11-year-old is part of the purchase decision, well, so be it.

Akiane is also a writer--poetry to be precise. Her appearances on Oprah's show have included readings and conversations about her motivations. Her poetry has a strong spiritual tone. She clearly views her skills as blessings in a religious context. Whether this is her own interpretation or a reflection of a religious home, it is hard to tell. But, one thing is certain, she deflects compliments with statements to the effect that God intends her to help people through her abilities. Whether you are religious or not, this is a refreshing attitude. I can't help but think that a young girl with a talent for popular music would have a hard time avoiding a "diva" attitude. Come to think of it, a plain old 11-year-old attitude can be pretty hard to take at times!

So, my assessment is Akiane is the real deal, a child art prodigy with skills that will only sharpen and mature as she gains years and experiences. As an amateur artist myself, I can't help feeling a bit of envy!

The Stickler

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Chronic Deja Vu

You've got Chronic Déjà Vu. You don't even go to the doctor because you feel like you've already been there. Yikes!

This is a real syndrome, according to British medical researchers who are studying memory and finding it an unforgettable experience.

"We had a peculiar referral from a man who said there was no point visiting the clinic because he'd already been there, although this would have been impossible," said psychologist Chris Moulin, who runs a memory clinic at the University of Leeds in the UK.

So Moulin has started the first known study of the condition.

Of course we are all familiar with déjà vu. It hits most of us now and then. We're struck by the sensation that we have experienced an event before, even though we can't fully remember it or perhaps know it didn't really happen.

The sensation has long fascinated psychologists but the condition is fleeting, so researchers can't study it. What was needed was a research subject with a more permanent case of the syndrome.

After running ads and hitting the talk show circuit, Moulin finally heard from a man with the first known case of permanent deja vu. When he visited Moulin's clinic, he gave details of his previous visit, even though the clinic didn't exist at the time. The man is never certain what is genuine memory and what is imagined. He has déjà vu so bad that he doesn't watch TV news because he feels like he's seen it all before.

"When this particular patient's wife asked what was going to happen next on a TV program he'd claimed to have already seen, he said, 'How should I know? I have a memory problem!"

Moulin and colleagues have since found other patients, now that they know what to look for.
The condition can cause depression and is sometimes diagnosed as a state of delusion. But Moulin's team believes it to be a memory problem.

"The exciting thing about these people is that they can 'recall' specific details about an event or meeting that never actually occurred," Moulin said. "It suggests that the sensations associated with remembering are separate to the contents of memory, that there are two different systems in the brain at work."

The problem might involve a memory circuit that is overactive or stuck in the "on" position.

The researchers believe they have tried everything to pinpoint the problem. "Why I remember distinctly conducting a brain scan on this man before I even realized he had deja vu," said Moulin scratching his head. Members of the research team say they don't know why their boss is studying this medical condition because they remember studying it before. They just can't seem to find the records. One young scientists said he has been telling them about the last time he served on a research team. They had a mass memory failure leading to a cancelation of their research grant due to inactivity.

The deja vu syndrome is familiar to many Americans who believe they have a strange variation of the condition called "Groundhog Day Syndrome." It involves watching the Bill Murray movie over and over, not realizing they had seen it before. So far, American psychologists and memory researchers have dismissed the problem. "Been there, done that," concluded Dr. Phineas T. Butler, a clinical psychologist from Punxatawney, PA.

Filed by The Stickler, who failed to see his shadow today.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Time to Leave

Jobs absorb so much of life that one shouldn't put up with a job from hell. No matter what the situation, if the best description of your job is "stress," then you are long overdue for a change. According to Dory Hollander, author of "The Doom-Loop System," staying stressed out on a job you don't like will surely reduce your performance and turn you against your employer and fellow workers.

"People think the time to leave is when things become unbearable, or is somehow related to the time you've been there. It's not," says Hollander. "Actually, the longer you stay on an unsatisfying job, the more likely it is you will lose confidence in your ability to do anything else."

One of the most unpleasant aspects of hating your job is that it always shows. No matter how well-regarded your work is once was, if you develop a reputation as a depressing crank, your fellow workers will distance themselves. The isolation tends to make the situation even worse. You get angrier and angrier. Worse, you feel like hell. Unhappiness undermines your health. Stress can really wring you out with stomach aches, headaches and insomnia. At that point, it is way beyond time to leave. In fact, you may be scaring your employer. At this stage, it is time to put a job search into high gear because you are on thin ice. And, it is always better to leave on your own terms than to be fired.

For those who are convinced a job is just a job and it will always be a pain to work, Hollander says she understands, but believes there are ways of remaining psychologically healthy, even on a job you dislike.

"See your job as a funding source for what you want to do next," she states. "Do what's required and do it as quickly as you can, then network with those who can give you the growth you need for the next job."

For most of us, work is a necessity. Health is also a necessity. The goal is to get a job you can live with--otherwise a stressful job can make you wish you were dead.