Monday, June 05, 2017

Frenzied Computations

One of my favorite 'retirement' pastimes is Lumosity. For a couple of years now, I've been getting their daily workouts, 5 games designed to challenge me in different areas: problem solving, attention, speed, memory and - damn, I forgot the 5th one!
 Rectum! Sorry, wrong movie. That was from Punch Line, where Tom Hanks plays a stand-up comic who, in the opening scene, flunks out of Medical School. His original answer was "poop chute", at which point the examiners pack up and start to leave the room. Hanks then smacks himself in the forehead. I coulda had a V-8!

Flexibility was what I meant to say.  Memory, at least short-term, is not one of my strengths..So yeah, I get a fair-to-middlin' workout every morning with that first(or second)cup o' Joe. Get the old encephalon warmed up for the day. 

Sometimes that does me for the day, but many times I linger and work on one game or another. One I've always loved is Train of Thought, where you have to connect different colored trains with their respective stations. Maddening but fun. I somehow worked through the different levels, 14 in all, until I got to 13. 

Seems like I was locked in that level forever, something like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, having to re-live the same day over and over and over.  Finally made it to 14, and even through 14, and thought there'd be some kind of fanfare after all that Herculean effort. Maybe throw me a parade or something. But they just give you more trains..

In the last week or so, they've added a new game in which I've had much the same fate. It's called Fuse Clues. You're the superintendent of an apartment building that's just lost power, and you have to connect the fuses. There's a series of numbers, with of course about half of them missing, and you have to deduce the remaining numbers. Like the kind of thing you'd see on an IQ test, only with cooler sound-effects.

Some of them are baby-simple and others are hard as hell.  And I've found additionally that they sometimes throw in numbers that almost work in a certain way, to throw you off course. Maybe a bit of sadism or schadenfreude on the part of the game developers, who knows? Wouldn't put it past them..

Well somehow, I've managed to squeak through the different levels- 12 this time- and just as with the trains, spent an eternity on the penultimate level. I'm now on level 12, and getting my arse kicked just as I did on the level before this.  But I'm hanging in there. 

Fuse Clues involves a bit more ciphering than any game I've played on here. There are number sequences you sometimes have to work out on paper(at least this dummy does!). So I'm noticing all this paper with furious numeric scribbles, and I flash back to almost 30 years ago. 1988-89. 

In that period, I was a married guy with kids(her 2, at home with us). My ex worked at a retail facility that had a Lotto machine, and for a time became hooked on 'playing the numbers'. She had all kinds of  schemes going as to what might come through, most or all of them scribbled on little pieces of paper. Quite often, her numbers would almost make it(I'm sure she would love this feature of Fuse Clues!), much to her dismay.

She'd walk around our apartment intoning, 5-1-4, or whatever the almost-numbers were. Her daughter, then about 5, would walk behind her- 514!- just like Mommy. She had no idea what her Mom was talking about, but still had this look of great certainty on her face. That's one thing(of many, of course)that's so cool about kids, their ignorance/wisdom.

I used to refer to all my ex's  scribbles as her "frenzied computations". Always easier to see 'flaws' in someone else(if indeed they are flaws)than in oneself. So, almost 30 years later,  I look around the room here and see a wastebasket stuffed with my own nombres. My own frenzied computations, if you will..

So this recent experience of mine was a sort of portal to a time long past. One of the better moments from that period. There were, of course, many funky moments as well, but I try not to revisit those. I'm thinking of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's planet Tralfamador, where you could "literally" revisit any moment of your life- past, present or future. And naturally, you'd concentrate on the good times and avoid the bad ones. 

I haven't thought about my ex-wife in a long time. Wish her the best, no reason not to. I'm imagining that there's something she's engrossed in, and probably has a notebook or a wastebasket full of some kind of frenzied computations. 5 1 4! 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sleep, Two, Three, Four!

It wasn't any sort of oneupsmanship, a case of my-Dad-can-beat-up-your-Dad, but a co-worker some years back was talking about his Father, and what a relaxed guy he was. 

"My Dad", he said, "would come home from work at lunchtime and grab an hour's nap before heading back". And judging from that, he was probably one of those lucky souls who falls asleep right as his head is hitting the pillow. Upon impact, as it were. 

My Dad(and thus half  my DNA), on the other hand, was just the opposite. He had a hell of a time getting to sleep at night--a midday nap, at least during his "working years", would be all but unthinkable--to the extent that he even had a mini-library of books on how to reach the elusive Land of Slumber. I told my co-worker friend that his Dad, at least in this respect, was the very antithesis of mine.

There were three or four such books in Dad's library(which he termed the Study--this sounded incredibly pompous to me as a kid, strangely enough, much less so now as an oldster). My favorite title in this collection-actually, the only one I remember- was "Sleep, two three four!"

And my perspective has changed here too. As a kid, I used to laugh at my Dad's mini-library of sleep books(soporifics in themselves), not derisively of course, but more from the gentle humor towards one's all-too-human foibles. People are often funny as hell in ways they'd really rather not be, and my Dad was no exception. With him, it was a sort of dramatic fretfulness(and sometimes just plain dramatics, always uttered in deep, Stentorian tones)-occasionally viewed with concern, but mostly with a sort of compassionate amusement. 

As far as his difficulties in getting to sleep, not so funny now that I'm experiencing it myself, now that the shoe is on the other foot. Okay, Dad, you got the last laugh. But then I'm not surprised. Ever since I can remember, I've had occasional trouble getting off to sleep. So it figures that this problem would follow me throughout my life, all the way into retirement. And maybe even intensify.

During my working years, I'd occasionally hit a patch of 2 or 3 days, never longer than that. Probably because you're kept active at work all day, and thus giving yourself something to sleep off. And after that first night's good sleep resumes, you feel wonderful! So good it was almost worth it to feel that bad.

In these retired years(at least thusfar), it's different. Upon embarking on this new period, I did note that every night was a good night's sleep, and this began a good two year span of relatively undisturbed slumber(ahh-the halcyon days of my retirement!). But in August of last year, I had the first of what were to be several patches of insomnia. Four, sometimes five days- which, of course, are progressively rougher day by day. 

 One in August, one in September and one in October. And then another in January of this year. Since then they've tapered off considerably, but still occasionally there. And then I just had one this month, from which I'm emerging. Never say never again, I guess..

There are those souls, like my co-worker friend's Dad, and my next-door neighbor, who drift off effortlessly into blissful slumber. Unlike the Unicorn, they do exist. But for every one of those 'genetic mutants' I meet, there are at least two more(sorry to say)kindred spirits who experience trouble either getting to sleep or staying asleep on at least a semi-regular basis.  

For many folks, it's a chronic problem. For me, just an occasional annoyance, one which has gained more regularity with advancing age(or maybe I'm just more aware of it, having all this time), but still remains something I can fend off- though not always as quickly as I'd like.  Still, I figure if I got myself into this mess, I can, with the right kind of effort, get myself back out again. 

So how do you get out of it? Well, there are a goodly number of remedies out there. Some folks like meditation tapes. Tried that Zampfir flute thing myself and it just weirded out my cats. Sleeping pills work to an extent(as does Melatonin) but they're really just a nudge. Got some from my Doctor, and take them, but still have occasional trouble. 

The only things I know to do are the commonsensical things every healthcare person you ask will tell you to do: avoid caffeine later in the day, avoid naps, wind down at bedtime. Exercise is probably the best remedy though, particularly strenuous exercise. At least that seems to turn it around for me. Hit the body hard enough and the head will follow, to borrow a phrase from one postulate of the sweet science. 

So I try to have as few sleepless nights as I can, trying to do the right things as far as maintaining. Despite my best efforts, it still fluctuates, but most of the time I sleep just fine. Out in maybe 20-25 minutes, not to awaken until morning. And it reinforces itself, just like the sleep-deprived periods can. Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. 

In these periods of Nice Restful Sleep, which I hope I'm re-entering, I feel a little bit like my neighbor and my office friend's Dad, or at least like I've been granted access to their world. Not having their same makeup(see 'genetic mutant' earlier in this piece), I have to make my peace with the fact that at least a few of my days. perhaps like Persephone in Hell,  will have to be served Elsewhere. 





Thursday, July 28, 2016

Destination: Ptuj!

Yes, there really is such a place. Ptuj, pronounced(just how you'd think)p'tooey, is a small city in northeastern Slovenia, with about 18,000 inhabitants. For what it's worth, Ptuj is also the oldest city in Slovenia, dating back to the 1st century, when it was under Roman rule.

The republic of Slovenia, if you've never heard of it, is a tiny nation in eastern Europe, a little more than half the size of Denmark- and that's small! About 2 million people live there. Slovenia was once one of the six countries which made up Yugoslavia. Seems like they've been under somebody's thumb for most of their history until the last 24 years. Slovenia has been a free nation since 1992, and are members of NATO and the European Union. All plugged in, and like that.

Geographically, it's bounded by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and has a small southern coast on the Adriatic Sea. Interestingly enough, the Slovenian language is spoken in parts of each neighboring country and also "borrows" some pronunciation from each of them. Almost a symbiotic relationship. 

Their capital, and biggest city, is Ljubljana, with about 275,000 residents. Their second-biggest city is Maribol, with 116,000 people. And then there are the interesting little towns like Ptuj.

From the pictures, Ptuj looks like a peaceful little place, idyllic even. I'm sure the lake attracts its people year-round, for swimming in the Summer and skating in the Winter. And there's more:

 Ptuj is the center place of a ten-day carnival in the Spring, an ancient Slavic pagan rite of Spring and fertility, called Kurentovanje or Korantovanje. Kurent is believed to be the name of an ancient god of hedonism-perhaps the Slavic counterpart of the Greek Priapus(with or without the characteristic tumescence, who knows)although there are no written records. 

Kurenti or Koranti(singular: Kurent or Korant)are figures dressed in sheep skin who go around the town wearing masks, a long red tongue, cow bells, and multi-colored ribbons on their heads. The Kurenti from Ptuj and neighboring villages also wear feathers, while those from other regions wear horns. Organized in groups, Kurents go through town, from house to house, making noise with their bells and wooden sticks, to symbolically scare off evil spirits and the Winter. 

I'm sure it's quite a show for those ten days, with lots of food and drink and merriment. To me, that door-to-door business would feel like I landed in the middle of a Jehovah's Witness Convention(tell me they don't exist), but to the natives, these Kurenti would be more like trick-or-treaters. Well, only in a weird, mythological sense. To these eyes, the characters in sheep skin running around would be both amusing and scary. 

Believe it or not, this isn't the first time I've written about Slovenia. There's a post in here from about two years ago, titled Bones n' Slovenia(with, to recommend it, a beautiful picture of Bledisland). The impetus then was that a good friend of mine went there to play music. So it got me curious, jump-started a few neurons, and I did a little research.

 The motivation this time was the same friend adopting a Slovenian alter-ego, whom he named Zoltan. He was writing a bit in Slovenian, so to get a linguistic handle on things, I found what I could about Slovenian(also called Slovene). And through the miracle of copy-and-paste, I've been able to interject a bit of Slovene into my online exchanges with Zoltan. One phrase I threw in translates to "get a plumber at once!"

Wonder if he ever caught that, and if so, how?

Hope you've enjoyed our virtual trip to Ptuj. I keep wanting to put an i on the end, like our onamotapoetic word ptui(although I personally favor the perhaps archaic p'tooey). Some things, culturally, just cross that International Mirth Line, and hilarity ensues. Like the German word fährt. It means journey, and comes from their word fahren, to travel. My Dad spent some time over there(on a Muni Band trip, not during wartime!)and told me the Germans he met cracked up when they learned how their word "translated" into English. 

And I'm sure, crossing the International Mirth Line from the other side, that there are plenty of things done here in the US that folks from other countries, other cultures, would find hilarious. Things we'd have no sense of humor about. Either we wouldn't see the humor or it'd be something we take all-too-seriously and thus piss us off. Who knows? I sure don't. 

I'm interested in places all over the globe, but have a particular intrigue with the out-of-the-way spots. Slovenia is definitely connected to the world at large, with their own literary, music and sports figures, but at the same time seems very self-contained to me, just from all the dialects spoken there. The number seems to vary 7 or 8 main ones, which break down to as many as 50! And this is in a miniscule country about the size of Indiana. Talk about localized. 

There's a Slovenian proverb which might explain it. (Let's hope so, because it's the only one I know!) Every village has its own story. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Meet the Meerkats(and a few of their friends!)

I've had this picture sitting around in my computer for the longest time. Can't really tell you why--just an oddity I couldn't quite part with. Something in those eyes, which I first thought were photoshopped. Downright anthropomorphic, like someone graphically superimposed people eyes on 'em. Real or fabricated, they're still somehow compelling.They draw you in.
   Anything is possible I guess, but not the case here. Those are their real peepers, eyes that look at you with what comes off(at least to me)as a thoughtful reserve. These animals are Meerkats, also called Suricates. They're members of the Mongoose family, and are found in various locations in southern Africa: all over the Khalahari Desert in Botswana, much of the Namib Desert in Namibia, southwestern Angola and South Africa. 
   They're classified as omnivores, but insects are their main thing there in the arid desert . For their daily bread, they often have to compete with the smaller birds, mainly their "buddy" the Drongo. And also to watch out for bigger(and thus predatory)birds--mainly the varieties of Eagle that can swoop them from the ground in a New York second. 
  For the Meerkats, it's a bit like being in a Boxing ring, where the object is to hit and not get hit. Here the objective is to eat and not get eaten.
  In this area, Mr Drongo is a bit of a trickster. He is known to sound a warning cry , to signal an approaching Eagle. Then, as the Meerkats scamper to safety, he'll come down and eat their food. Some varieties of Drongo are skilled at mimicry and can imitate the sound of the Meerkats' sentinel, sending them scurrying to safety from another false alarm.
 Much of the time, the Drongo's warning cries are legitimate. But still, a guy's gotta eat..
  Back to the Meerkats. Very social creatures,  they generally live in families of 20 to 30, and as many as 50.  There is a designated Alpha Pair, the Prom King and Queen who propagate the species, and everyone else has their roles to play as well. They generally have litters of one to four pups, and live around 10 to 12 years, probably less there in the wild. 

  Due to the extreme heat, they aren't out in the sunlight for very long during the day, only enough to forage for food. Their dwellings are a network of underground tunnels which protect them from the elements. And that's all I know(perhaps even less)about Meerkats. 
   Africa has some amazing birds, besides the mischievous Mr Drongo. The Picathartes is a beautifully and strangely colored creature, who, like Pigeons and Catholics,mates for life(to quote the old Woody Allen joke). The parents share their duties of watching the nest/foraging for food in shifts. Not much time to work with as far as getting their young ones ready. They live in central Africa, in the 
tropical region.     
                                And I didn't even get started about the Elephants or Black Rhinos and their respective communities, or the myriad other life forms ekking out an existence there.  

Last but not least, though, I must mention the Shoebill. Strangely familiar, but that might just be a memory from something out of  Walt Disney- or, more aptly, Dr Seuss. These very odd birds are found in central Africa, in the tropical climates.They look very jovial, but I wouldn't want to get too close.
                              All of this information is courtesy a fascinating documentary series on Africa I just finished watching. I never was a Discovery Channel nut growing up--my Dad had an occasional thing for them-- but shows about wildlife get my attention anymore--particularly when the wildlife is as exotic(and at times downright psychedelic)as was found in the show I just watched. 
          I even know the names of a few more of those 54 countries. Some, of course, have changed over the years. For example,  Tanganyika, which I remembered as a kid, is now Tanzania. But most have been there as long as I can remember. Big countries like Algeria and Libya, tiny ones like Rwanda and Swaziland. Lesotho I'd forgotten about, speaking of Chihuahua-sized lands. It's completely surrounded by South Africa, sort of a country-within-a-country. Hope they don't have any plans to try to take over the world..

 Anyway! A fascinating glimpse into the world of wild animals. Their social structure of course  parallels that of the human animal, with their designated leaders and followers- and the concomitant power struggles between the leaders and would-be leaders, from Elephants to Giraffes to Lions and on down the line.  Interesting to observe the gathering places for Elephants and Black Rhinos and others. A place to meet, mingle and mate. 

For what it's worth, there is also supposed to be a community of marine life, found at the sea's floor. It's called the Benthos, and was no doubt the inspiration for Spongebob Squarepants' hometown of Bikini Bottom.  

This current stumble, into the land of Africa's wildlife, has awakened an appetite in me. Maybe not to go there, but certainly to view more. Discovery channel, here I come. Wow, in my advancing age, I'm turning into my Dad.                                                                 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Long and the Short of It

This is
the shortest man in the world meeting the tallest man in the world. The biological extreme points. The apex and nadir.  Alpha and Omega Man. 
 Or, if you prefer, the ambassadors of Brobdignag and Lilliput. 
The big guy stands 8'3" or so. He's from Turkey. Due to his extreme size, as you can see, he needs a cane to stand upright. (Alton Illinois' Robert Wadlow, who was 8'9", also had difficulty standing, and had to use a cane to get around.)Engaged to be married at the time of this photograph session, you wonder about the fiancee. She probably has to get on top. 
 Of his height, he said that the biggest advantage is being able to see great distances. Yeah, that would be pretty cool..
The little guy stands 19 inches. He's from Nepal. He lives with his nephews. There was a meeting between him and the shortest woman in the world, probably just a ceremony like this one. He said that this will be great publicity for Nepal. For his sake, I hope he got 'serviced' when he met her. Probably not, but it's worth hoping for..
Those poor guys. If I were either man, I'd be doing just what they're doing, milking it for all it's worth- but still... I feel more empathy for the little guy of course, being more on the Lilliputian side myself. Epsilon Man. But I wouldn't want to walk in either man's shoes---what would those sizes be: 1AAAA and 26EEE? 
The simple fact is, if you're very tall or very short, that you stand out. You're different. And since differences are perceived quicker than similarities, that's the first thing people see. And, unfortunately, comment on. Boy are you tall- or boy are you short!

 It's easier, of course, being on the taller, Brobdignagian side of the spectrum. Society tends to ascribe more value to you if there's more of you. The Alpha Male or Female.  And there are a goodly number of big guys who've bought into this nonsense, and really think they have more intrinsic value by virtue of their size. They usually refer to themselves as Big Dan or Big Bob(I actually saw this on a business card for guitar repairs!)and exult in their biological superiority. 
But there are also a goodly number of guys who are tired of being labeled, tired of always having to be Big Dan or Big Bob. They're just as sensitive about their size as the guys under the norm. Funny thing here. Both groups-  the 6'5" and over, and the 5'5" and under- would probably like, ideally,  to be around 5'9"-5'10". Just tall enough not to be short, and just short enough not to be tall.
I remember on two occasions asking a very tall guy his height. Both of them told me 5'4". Strangely enough, that's my height(and shrinking). This led me to one of two possible conclusions: either there's a different system of measurement for tall people; or they were just as tired as I was of inquiries about their height.

Practically no one likes being kidded about their stature. It's as true of women as it is of men; and just as true of big people as it is to little folks. Again, it sets you apart- and even though it's rarely malicious on the part of the commenter, it's still basically an attempt on their part to feel better at your expense. "Well, I may suck at many things, but at least I'm not super-short like whatsisname"--or, yes, super-tall..

Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. Or something along that line..I suppose we all need to bolster our egos sometimes. But the shorter you are, the more folks you have trying to bolster those egos at your expense. So you begin to dislike, even despise your shortness, since it's the source of much aggravation. Thus begins a variety of compensatory measures: shoes with heels, weight-lifting, martial arts to name a few, until one finally throws up one's hands and realizes there's no sense taking it personally. What the hell, I'm short. Just the card I was dealt.

There are worse cards to be dealt than being shorter than average, but it is something you have to make your peace with. For me, that's been tough. Being a little short guy, with all its disadvantages, is something I have no sense of humor about. It's been a handicap. Whatever success I've had in life has been in spite of it.

Fortunately I do have a sense of humor about damn near everything else in life--including the fact that I have no sense of humor about being a little short guy! Yes, I can see the humor in my own rigidity and humorlessness(these qualities are, ironically enough, what makes characters like Inspector Clouseau so funny!). Even if I'm not laughing on the outside, I am at least chuckling on a deeper level. 

Actually I refer to my height and stature as my Load of Karma. I figure somewhere back in the cycle of birth and rebirth, I was a tall person who was very rude to a short one. So now I'm getting paid back for all the flak I must've given to somebody or somebodies, reaping what I've sown. Hm, maybe I do have a sense of humor about my height after all.

One advantage, perhaps the only one I can think of, in being a little short guy, is that less is expected of you. If you're a guy like Mr Eight Foot Three from Turkey, to use the most extreme example, you're automatically Big Man on Campus as far as your status in society. People automatically  admire and respect you . But you're expected to be able to back it up. If you're that damn big, you're figured to be able to whip any man in the house. This guy can't even walk without his cane. He could take the little 19 inch guy with just the cane, and certainly someone like me (unless I tripped him or something, and then there's the risk of being fallen on), but most fellow Brobdignagians could easily clobber him into a vast mass of protoplasm. 

And of course women are going to be attracted to someone that toweringly big. It's just built into our creaturehood that they're going to gravitate toward the potential Alpha Male. But of course that Alpha Male is expected again to be able to back it up. When you're that big all over, I'm sure there's an expectation on the part of these women as to what you're packing. Anything less than a great one is going to look small on you. I don't know how that works if you're all of eight feet tall, but I do remember my ex-wife telling me about big strapping guys she'd been with who had hardly anything going in that department. 

Well I suppose that's one instance of justice in the Universe. I remember one supervisor I had in my working days, who, for all his other, nicer qualities, used to continually make short-guy remarks either to me or about me in my presence. One day I was coming back from lunch, and he was standing around talking with someone at the door. As I walked by, he said, "yeah, little guy like this probably has a tremendous one!" "No", I replied. "I have an average one. But it looks bigger on me."