Superman on a couch in Spain

Aug 13, 2016

I was stretched out on the couch last night. Rosa's mother had cooked dinner, we ate outside, then Rosa and I went upstairs to the little room with a low ceiling (careful of your head) two couches and a TV. At her parents' house, upstairs is where Rosa and I sleep, watch TV, use the bathroom. Everything else happens downstairs.

So I'm in the TV room on one of the couches with my head on a little pillow cushion at one end and my feet at the other, reading something on my tablet and listening to music through earphones. After a few hours of passing time like this I get so lazy that just clicking on another webpage is an effort.
I move my arm an inch in order to get my finger to the trackpad to move the cursor. With some more strength I click and open the webpage. But I'm feeling too lazy to read even one word of this article so I just leave it open. I have the strength of a fly - a fruit fly, one of those flying dots. But one that's just eaten too much peach and is now lying motionless on a banana. On a banana with a little pillow cushion under its head.

Later, I realized that by sitting up instead of lying down I could maintain my wits and energy better. Sitting upright on the sofa, I become more decisive. Yes, I believe I will click on this webpage.  No problem. If I want to I can even read a few sentences of the article.

Pan con tomate and people who rub me the wrong way

Aug 8, 2016

I first met pan con tomate at a cavernous Spanish restaurant in the East Village of NYC. They called it Pan Catalan. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be one of my favorite dishes. Thick bread cut into pieces, rubbed with ripe tomato, and drizzled with olive oil.  It's not a typical dish here in the northwest so it's not on every menu. But there's a cafe near me that makes it, and I had it yesterday with my morning coffee.

Later I went to the gym where I've been exercising here every few days, and I had a conversation with a guy that looked like a jerk.  I mean I talked to him specifically because he looked like a jerk.  I know that sounds weird. It's something I've done a few times recently. The first time I did this was before leaving for Spain.   I was about to sit at an outdoor table at my favorite cafe' (the Hungarian Pastry Shop) in New York. Only one of the unoccupied tables was shaded from the hot sun. But the tables are close together, and a guy sitting at the adjoining table made me uncomfortable. Probably in his late 20s, he gave me the impression through his clothes, facial expression, and so on, that he was a combination of yuppie and arrogant. In Spain, you'd say he looked pijo.

But I wanted the shade, and so I sat at the table. After a few minutes I still felt uncomfortable sitting next to him, and so I smiled and said something like 'We're lucky to be sitting here in the shade'. I knew from past experience that my initial impressions can be way off, and that once we said a few words to each other, I'd be able to replace my prejudice with reality.  I don't remember exactly how he responded, but during the next half hour we had one of the most interesting and enjoyable conversations I'd had in a long time. We talked about travel, jobs, philosophy, psychology. He had a good sense of humor and wasn't arrogant at all. He may have been a yuppie, he was working for a financial firm, but what difference does that make?

Yesterday something similar happened in the gym. This guy with a serious tough-guy look, one of the 'regulars' at the gym who seems to be working out all the time, always gave me a bad feeling when I saw him there. After my work-out I was closing my locker in the dressing room when he entered. I decided to see if the trick would work twice. "Did you have a good workout?" I asked him in my American-accented Spanish. He replied that it's hard during the summer because he's thinking about being on the beach instead. We chatted just for a few minutes, but again he was nothing like I'd imagined.  He seemed nice, easy going, and the truth is that I look forward to seeing him next time I'm in the gym. Will these kinds of experiences eventually keep me from jumping to conclusions about people I don't know? Maybe not, but they do remind me to take my impressions with a grain of salt.

The brain and perception of time

Aug 2, 2016

At a certain point after coming to Spain for a number of years, I got more confident in my Spanish and tried telling jokes in Spanish. I don't do that much now. I'd enthusiastically tell my joke and get a great laugh at the end - in fact a better laugh than I would when I told it in English to my friends at home. Just as I was feeling good about the joke, I realized that they weren't laughing about the ending of the joke, but because I'd said the punchline in an odd or incorrect way and it sounded really funny.

I've been thinking more about noticing changes over the day, over the year. It's interesting to ask how the brain perceives time passage. Neuroscientists have learned a lot about how the brain sees, hears, smells, moves, even how it stores and retrieves memories. But they know much less about the perception of time. Most believe that there's a kind of brain-based clock that keeps track of time passage.

Even a rat keeps track of time. Say it always receives food 30 seconds after a light has turned on, it'll get excited at about 25 seconds after the light comes on, and its excitement will build as 30 seconds approaches. If it always gets the reward 60 seconds after the light has turned on, its excitement may start at around second 50. It's less precise in estimating very long time intervals. Like us.

When we say that time passes more quickly as we age, that probably means that our brain-based clock is slowing down so the same time interval (say an hour) that used to last for a lot of clicks of our brain clock now lasts for a fewer number of clicks of the brain-clock. If the brain clock clicks fewer times, we feel like less time has passed. What exactly is the brain clock and what does it mean for it to 'click'? Nobody really knows.