We are fruit flies

by Dave Williams

It’s Saturday morning, my favorite time of the week.

I slept well and longer than usual. I’m drinking coffee and enjoying a North Texas spring rain with Amelia.

Amelia, snoozing on my footstool, her toy is her pillow.

Saturday morning is luxurious because it allows me guilt-free time for my mind to wander. This morning it has wandered to short attention spans. I’m not sure why, probably because I was reading people’s kneejerk reactions to mere headlines of slanted news articles posted on Facebook, but  it’s Saturday morning. Let’s not go there.

I just start thinking about stuff.

By now we’ve all heard that the memory of a goldfish lasts just three seconds.

Turns out that’s a myth. It is  fun to think about a goldfish looking at me through the glass, taking one quick trip around the bowl and upon seeing me again wondering, “Who’s that?” It’s just not true, apparently, though I don’t know that anyone hasn’t researched it but wouldn’t be surprised if someone has.

I don’t know why my mind wandered to that this morning but further cogitation led me to this gem of serious scientific research: The Attention Span of a Fly, by Bruno van Swinderen, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland Brain Institute.

In his abstract summary (abstract is his scientific word, not my snarky comment) he explains:

In the brain recording preparation, local field potential (LFP) activity in the 20–30 Hz range was found to be transiently associated with novel images and suppressed for competing, non-novel images.*

I don’t know about you but when I read that I throw in my cards and admit that this man’s brain spins at a much higher frequency than mine. But I still wanted to know the results of the study, so I poured another cup of Joe and dug in. Here’s what I managed to decipher:

A wild fruit fly can remember an image for nine to twelve seconds.

Fruit flies dream like we do. And they sleep eight hours. Think about that!

Ponder that for a moment, not the finding as much as the fact that there are people who want so badly to know this sort of arcane and arguably useless information that they will dedicate their lives to its exploration.

(And no, I didn’t realize there is such a thing as a domestic fruit fly, as implied. Let’s not go there just yet. Maybe in a future post.)

I’m not making fun of Professor van Swinderen, far from it.

Bruno, not the coke bottle glasses old science geek you expected, is he? Twitter photo.

With just a little more digging I learned that he’s a highly respected authority on human brain function and it turns out that understanding the human brain requires some experimentation with fruit flies. (Wild ones, at least.)

At the end of it all I’ve learned a factoid but I also discovered Professor van Swinderen, a fascinating man doing interesting and important work in ways I would never have imagined.

Yes, my brain goes in wildly unexpected places when unshackled from its daily requirements. It’s what makes Saturday mornings and my occasional writing sabbaticals so rewarding.

Now, for the snarky comment:

Nearly nobody will read this blog, much less consider for themselves the attention span of a goldfish or a fruit fly. Nor will most people consider the importance of this sort of research. Based upon a headline they’ll label Professor van Swinderen a loon.

Most of us construct our serious thinking these days from social media, blasts of ill-constructed pre-determined opinions posing as fact. We don’t bother to read, think for ourselves nor spend five minutes investigating truth by looking for the bigger picture. We just don’t have the time.

We carry all the recorded information in all of human history in our pockets. Think of that! — It’s mindblowing, but we don’t take time to appreciate it nor to be fascinated by our own amazing minds nor allow ourselves time to just think.

We’ve got other stuff to do.

When you come right down to it we’re fruit flies, by choice.

–May 16, 2020

 

*Bruno van Swinderen (2007) The Attention Span of a Fly, Fly, 1:3, 187-189, DOI: 10.4161/fly.4561

https://www.vanswinderenlab.com/

Bruno featured podcast, A Grey Matter: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/podcast-general-anaesthetics-and-consciousness

…in small steps

by Dave Williams
April 25, 2020

I find myself wanting to write but having nothing to say.

This COVID-19 business has dominated our every thought and action for the past five or six weeks. Most of us are even having COVID-19 dreams. Some of us are really stressed. Others think its nonsense.

I’m trying to remain vigilant, patient; optimistic.

My daughter-in-law shared this gem from a Russian writer on Facebook this morning. It says everything.

Wise words from Grandma

Grandma once gave me a tip:

Picture by Tasha Burgess Tudor, illustrator of children’s books. (1915-2008)

During difficult times, you move forward in small steps.

Do what you have to do, but little by bit.

Don’t think about the future, not even what might happen tomorrow.

Wash the dishes.

Take off the dust.

Write a letter.

Make some soup.

Do you see?

You are moving forward step by step.

Take a step and stop.

Get some rest.

Compliment yourself.

Take another step.

Then another one.

You won’t notice, but your steps will grow bigger and bigger.

And time will come when you can think about the future without crying.

— Elena Mikhalkova, The Room of Ancient Keys

 

Judge not…

by Dave Williams

My special friend and blogging partner, Anita Garner, just posted an insightful piece called The Way You Make Me Feel. You should read it. It will make you think.

When I was young I was quick to judge others for their attitudes, words and actions. I was young, strong, handsome, wise and cocky.

The only part of that I have left is wise and I’m less sure about that the more I learn about life and myself every day.

Many years ago my adult son asked about my relationship with his mother from whom I had been divorced since he was four.

“I can’t see what you and Mom could have ever had in common,” he said.

“You didn’t know us when we were seventeen,” I answered. “We had a lot in common. We were in love but we grew up in different directions.”

As I am dragged kicking and screaming into my golden years I find great peace in learning that we are all still growing up in directions we never would have expected.

I’m still a flawed mortal, I do pass judgments on others but these days it’s usually judgments on social media squawks from people I don’t know and will never meet. We all need to identify the idiots in the world, right?

But, I’m deeply satisfied with myself these days for having been relieved of the burden of critical introspection in realizing that I have no way nor reason to judge the paths others have chosen or the perspectives and opinions they’ve developed along the way.

I’m interested in your life but I can’t share the millions of moments that have shaped the person you are right now.

We’ll both be different the next time we meet. I can’t wait.

© 2020, Dave Williams

Aunt Viettia’s Wise Advice

November 16, 2019:

Viettia Newcomb celebrating her 84th birthday.

Viettia Newcomb is the younger sister of my wife’s late mother. In the 31 years CarolAnn and I have been married Viettia (the second i is silent) has been a happy part of my life and I consider her my Auntie, too. I love her dearly.

At 84 she is a no-nonsense manager of a Northern California mobile home park. She doesn’t suffer fools and will put them in their place but she also laughs all the time and has the most pure and loving heart you will ever find.

Viettia has known great joy, tragedy and hard times in her life and taken their lessons to heart.

She’s also damned smart. She posted the following piece of advice on Facebook today, tagging and addressing specific members of her family but posted for the world to read. With her permission I am sharing it with you here.

This is the best, most down-to-earth parenting advice I have ever read and it doesn’t require a whole book filled with psycho-babble.

Children and parents of all ages, live and learn…

I proudly give you Auntie Viettia:

_____________________

For all my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I have advice. Remember always – advice is free, and you can take it or leave it.

Sing to your babies. Tell them stories, read them stories, and give them your love and attention.

Dry cornstarch is better than any over the counter baby powder you will ever find, and much cheaper.

You do not “spoil” a baby with love. The spoiling occurs when you allow your child to be unruly, or a bully.

Teach your baby love, concern for others, and teach him or her that while you love them, you will not allow them to be unruly. Our basic concern for our children should be that we raise them to be people others will like and admire. We should not allow our babies to be the kind of people others do not want to be around. This training must start early.

To realize the wisdom of this, look at the children of your friends and relatives, and think how you feel about them and how you would wish people to feel about your children.

This advice comes from Grandma aka Great Grandma aka Big Grandma.

I sincerely love all of you, my dears, and I care every day of the world.

 

 

A father’s advice: part one

Dad and me, c. 1967

by Dave Williams

Today I have some words of advice for my sons and theirs. We dads are very good at this. Even if the advice is sometimes nonsense we never stop spewing warnings, admonitions, analogies, metaphors and stories that begin with, “When I was your age…”

My own dad was a master of the art. He’s been gone for several years now but every day of my life things happen that remind me of something he said or did largely created the better parts of the man I am today. I still seek his advice and he still delivers.

Whenever I am faced with a perplexing decision I only have to ask myself, “What would Dad tell you?” The answer comes to me in a flash.

Jeremy and me camping c. 1986

It works very well the other way around, too. Sometimes I have a dilemma that just can’t be sorted out by weighing the pros and cons of alternative actions or decisions. If I simply ask myself, “What would you tell Jeremy or Nathan to do?” I get my answer immediately with clarity and confidence.

These wise tricks of fatherhood are excellent tools and I highly recommend them. They almost always work.

Almost.

So, the first piece of advice I must give my sons is: have faith in your wisdom but embrace your honest ignorance. There’s no shame in it.

Repeat after me now the three little words that are the most powerful item in a father’s bag of tricks:

“I don’t know.”

Say it again, fearlessly, as if you mean it this time.

“I don’t know.”

The more you say it the easier it becomes but you also must understand that these words should never be used except in sincerity. Your eternal responsibility to your children requires that you make every effort to help them find their way through life’s labyrinth. You, of course, are still finding your own way through the maze and sometimes they will encounter an intersection you’ve not seen. So, again with feeling, please:

“I don’t know.”

It’s getting kind of warm and charming, isn’t it? Maybe later we can address the other three words you need in your toolkit which require much greater skill and caution:

“Ask your mother.”

Post Script: After she read this my wife, the lovely and feisty CarolAnn Conley-Williams said, “You need to add the other three words that are the most important of all: ‘I love you.'” I replied, “That’s obvious.” She said, “No, it’s not. Many fathers can’t or won’t say it.”

She’s right, of course. I didn’t think of it because we Williams dads have no problem with it at all. You can read her comment below.

Sunrise and old men at McDonalds

by Dave Williams

Sunrise at McDonalds. Burkburnett, Texas.

You see them in every city and country village. As sure as the birdsong of morning sunrise brings old men to McDonalds restaurants all across America.

Before he passed away my dad was one of them. Most mornings he’d get on his bicycle at daybreak or hop into his old truck if the weather was bad and travel about a quarter mile to the nearest McDonalds. His buddies arrived about the same time and together they would grab a bite and drink coffee while solving the world’s problems for an hour or two.

That’s what Dad told me, “We drink coffee and solve the world’s problems.”

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
— Mark Twain

If you know me at all you know I have a deep respect and love for old people. I’ve been that way since I was a child and asked my grandparents to tell me about their lives when they were young. Most of the time I got a quick smile and a dismissive comment like, “Oh, that was a long time ago. It don’t mean anything now. Go play.” Occasionally I’d get just a tidbit of information like, “We didn’t have TV” or “We didn’t have money for toys”. That’s not what I was asking but I got the idea they didn’t want to talk about it so I left the room to play.

I’ve written often about how old  people are overlooked and disrespected these days but as I get older myself, a month away from 67 as I write this, I’m beginning to understand there’s more to it. Sometimes old people just seem to lose the need or desire to be heard. I shouldn’t assume their silence is a sorrowful response to being ignored. Sometimes they’re just satisfied to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Solving the world’s problems.

A couple of days ago at work a colleague in her late thirties said something to me about how America has changed for the worse since her childhood. She’s entering the age of nostalgia, I guess. I was about to just agree but instead I told her, “Maybe, but I’m not so sure things were all that great 60 years ago when I was a kid. They were probably bad in different ways. Things are a mess now, that’s for sure, but I have faith in my grandsons. They’ll fix the problems we’re handing to them while they create new ones.”

My colleague gave me a look I gratefully accepted as a sign of respect. So, I added:

“The nice thing about being my age is I don’t think these are my problems anymore. I did what I could to make the world better. I tried to help. Now I’m retiring from all of that.”

She smiled and said, “Must be nice.”

“It is,” I assured her. “You’ll get there but not yet. If you retire from all that stuff now it’s just giving up.”

This is another reason people don’t talk to old men, except other old men.

We get philosophical.

Great Minds

I don’t write as much as I used to. When I was young I was much smarter. Wisdom came to me so fast I couldn’t explain it all. But, over the years I’ve come to realize the older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

Me, thinking deep thoughts.

That was an original thought when I thunk it. Nobody enlightened me. I had never heard or read anything like it. It was a brilliant and original epiphany. But now we have the Internet and ego crushing reality is just a search away.

A minute ago I typed “The more I learn…” into Google and here’s what popped up:

“The more you learn, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. So why bother to learn? — George Bernard Shaw”

And…

“The more you know, the less you understand. — Lao-Tse”

And the real stunner…

“The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know. — Socrates”

Socrates had my original thought 2,400 years before I did and said it more crisply!

AND, in ancient Greek!

Socrates had nothing on me.

I suppose having an idea expressed by one of the great thinkers in history come to me all by itself is cool but there’s no point in my passing it along. It obviously occurs to everybody eventually.

Plus, if we all regurgitated every brilliantly mundane original thought we have what would become of the poor philosophy majors who have nothing else to do with their educations?

The other reason I don’t write much anymore is because Americans don’t read much anymore.

We Tweet. We text. We spend our days expressing every banal thought that crosses our mind in such a way that we don’t have to bother hearing or reading a response.

Maybe we don’t want response. We’re just spewin’.  Maybe we’re just trying to shut off the noise and hear ourselves think.

I could be wrong about this. Maybe, but how can I know?

I’ve learned so much, so fast, I’m rushing toward total ignorance.

Great Thinkers, Chapter 1: The Groz

The nice thing about growing older is growing wiser, of course, but sometimes we’re disappointed to learn that our epiphanies are not original.

“The more I learn the more I learn how little I know.” — Dave Williams, c. 2002

When I had that revelation I figured I was a genius. I thought it belonged in a book of quotations!

Every time I have thunk a great thought I soon learned that many other people with brains mightier than mine had the same thought long before me and they usually phrased it better.

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” – Aristotle, 350 B.C.

Socrates, who taught Plato who taught Aristotle. See how this works?

I still think we should take credit for our great thoughts. When an idea first occurs to us it marks our arrival at a new mile post in our life’s journey.

That’s significant no matter who arrived there first.

I’ve decided to honor my special friends and family members by noting the wise things they’ve told me that made a lasting impression, regardless of whether it was original to them or whether they heard or read it somewhere.

We are, after all, a combination of our life experiences and all the people we’ve loved and admired along the way.

In that spirit I will start here, with my dear friend and former colleague, Dave Grosby, who told me this when we were both young and single, shortly after my divorce in 1981.

I don’t remember where we were when Groz said this to me. I’m sure we were drinking hard and laughing our asses off. That’s how we rolled in the early 1980s.

But you know what? I never forgot it and it did guide me through seven years of my life as a newly single man.

Eventually this sage advice led me to Carolann, the love of my life, who treats waiters, babies and stray dogs with the same respect and dignity she still gives me.

Love you, Groz.

— Dave Williams, March 11, 2017