Archive for May, 2015

Baby Think

May 29th, 2015

What do babies understand and how do they think? In a 2011 TED talk that I recently watched by Dr. Alison Gopnik, she hypothesized that broccoli may be the secret to finding out just how babies think.

The study leaders gave the 15 and 18 month old babies a bowl of raw broccoli and a bowl of goldfish crackers. When the adults study coordinators pretended to love the broccoli and then asked the babies for food, the result was somewhat amazing, and this is where the fun comes into this equation.

The 15 month old babies handed out only the goldfish crackers because they just couldn’t believe that anyone would actually like that broccoli. They stared in disbelief when the adults made a positive fuss over the broccoli and had clearly decided that everyone loves goldfish crackers.  

The 18 month old babies might have had trouble comprehending why anyone actually liked the raw broccoli, but if the adult pretended to like it, that’s exactly the food that the baby would give them. If, on the other hand, the adult made a positive fuss over the goldfish crackers, the babies responded accordingly. They gave the adults whichever food they pretended to like.

This experiment demonstrated that the older babies had actually figured out that, not only did people like different things, but also that, if they wanted to please these adults, they should give them what they loved. Just thinking about the sophistication of that decision making should make your adult heads spin just a little becuase I’ve known several adults who have not progressed that far in their thinking.

The question is how do babies learn so much in such a short amount of time? It turns out that there is a direct relationship between how long a childhood any particular member of any species has that is directly related to how big their brains are. For example, as Dr. Gopnik pointed out, crows are very smart while chickens are not. Baby crows depend on their mothers to feed them for up to two years while baby chickens are usually independent within a couple of months. Dr Gopnik’s talk indicated that this may be the reason why crows are incredibly smart and chickens “end up in the soup pot.”

Some animals are great at doing only one thing while others are phenomenal at multi-tasking. Because human beings have bigger brains in relation to their bodies than any other species, we’re smarter, we can learn more, but we’re much more dependent as children than any other species.

The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is that we have a lot of baby time to do our research and development. Babies’ brains seem to be the most powerful scientific computers in this world. Babies are actually making complicated theoretical decisions based on the scientific method using conditional probability measures on a routine basis.

As it turns out, four year olds are much better at finding unlikely answers to questions than adults might be. When children experiment we call it “getting into everything,” but when you ask a kid to explain something, they actually employ scientific hypothesis.  

While adults usually decide that something is relevant and then typically focus on only that element, babies and children find answers through their open mindedness.   They can take in lots of information from lots of locations at once. This demonstrates exceptional neuroplasticity.   (Which is why creative people may be more childlike in their thinking as well.)

Dr. Gopnik ended by saying that coffee mimics the effect of a baby’s way of thinking.   “Being a baby is like falling in love in Paris for the first time after having three double espressos,” but she went on to say that this type of living might also contribute to waking up and crying at three in the morning!


Memorial Day and the Girls

May 25th, 2015

My son and his wife were leaving for her best friend’s wedding.  This gala weeklong event was to be held on some island in the Caribbean. The funny part about that is that, when I was his age, a wedding on an island might have been Neville Island by a Gulf Oil storage tank, not the Grand Caiman Islands.  And the trip there would have been in a used Chevy.

Because I was designated as the babysitter du jour, I picked up the Pittsburgh girls to take them to Johnstown, to hang with their cousins.  It would be another city cousins meet country cousins for Memorial Day week-end event. They would go from their comfortable, pet less, Pittsburgh home with its 3D television, American Girl dolls, and comfortable fenced in backyard to their cousins’ home, the Ponderosa.  There they would play on a trampoline, a swing set, and ten wooded acres of magnificent trails and craziness with two giant dogs and a dozen other little kids.  Oh, yes, and they would swim in the new pool and eat all of their favorite picnic foods while waiting to see the fireworks.

The first thing that we had to do, though, was to go shopping at their local Target department store. I bought a masculine looking gardener’s kneeling pad (no pretty flowers or goofy butterflies), a bucket, a manly trowel, a dirt digger-handheld little rake kind of thing, and some man-sized gardening gloves, a.k.a., Macho Gardening!

When you live in a city condo without even a balcony, gardening tools are not a necessity.  My current collection of condo tools consists of two screwdrivers (one of each kind), a crescent wrench, a roll of duct tape, pliers, and a hammer. In fact, when my grandson asked me about my tool box, I told him that it was very small and black.  He raised his brows in consternation until I reached in my back pocket and showed him my wallet.

Anyway, back to the tool purchase.  When we got to the checkout counter, I felt tangible sticker shock.  These four little, stupid things cost over $50, and the real tragedy of this purchase is that they would not be used again until next Memorial Day.  The $50 did not represent the entire purchase, though, because, while we were there, we had to buy Shopkins, TicTacs, bubble gum, and an outfit for baby, Pete.  “Buy this one, Poppa, how cute.  He’ll look so cute in this one,” they both cried out as we swept through the baby department.

Why the bucket and tools?  You see, the girls were going to learn about planting flowers on their great and great great grandparent’s and their twin great uncle’s graves for Memorial Day.  The youngest and baddest had already asked me three times if we could skip the working, planting, digging dirt part and just get right to her cousins, but with their other great uncle still hospitalized, it had been my pledge to him to get this obligatory task done before Monday.

We drove the 60 minutes to the first graveyard, and I had to explain that we were not going to dig up my mother and father and that yes, my dad had been buried in a blue suit. He hated blue. Then, at my grandparents’ grave site, I had to explain why there was a tombstone right beside theirs covered in Steeler’s logos. (The guy must have been a dedicated fan.)   Finally, at my twin brothers’ grave, things went very well, very fast and we were done for the day.

As we drove by the house that was my childhood home and headed off to the mountains where we made a promised Blizzard stop at Dairy Queen, I tried to explain the day one more time.  Maybe someday they’ll understand what this trip was really about, and maybe I will, too.


I’ve Seen Fire, and I’ve Seen Rain

May 17th, 2015

I’ve flown over the Sahara, visited Italy, France, Germany, Spain, England, Nigeria, Bosnia, Serbia, the Netherlands, Greece, Turkey, Corsica, Malta, Mexico, Aruba, Canada. Hawaii, Alaska, and thirty eight other States.

I’ve danced until I dropped, I’ve been operated on seven times, have been in love a few times in my life and was only ever in one fist fight at age 11, and it ended in a draw.

I’ve been robbed of tens of thousands of dollars at least three times by unarmed men in suits that I trusted. I’ve almost been fired at least three times that I knew about, quit once, and retired once. (Hated retirement.)

I’ve ridden up the side of a mountain on the back of a mule, eaten Afghan food with my fingers, been chased by a goose, had arguments with generals, spent an evening with a Prince and Princess, eaten alligator meat, and chocolate covered ants, but not on the same day.

I’ve had pretty good food in some darn good restaurants, owned a few dozen cars, held both of my parents in my arms as they took their last breath and have literally lost my heart to my kids and grandkids.

I’ve had too much to drink a few times but never used recreational drugs, and love a cold beer on a hot day.

I’ve survived a violent automobile accident without serious injury, have had dozens of close calls, hit three deer, a garbage can and the pillars in my parking garage twice. In college I’ve smoked cigarettes, a pipe, and as a young teacher chewed snuff once and side chew but stopped immediately after I threw up both times.

I’ve seen and heard some of the best jazz and rock musicians who ever lived and even played backup trumpet for a few of them. I’ve directed bands, orchestras, jazz bands, combos, and even musicals.

I’ve lived. I’ve laughed, and I’ve loved. I’ve also cried, and I’ve mourned.

I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain . . . James Taylor.

I’ve been employed in over a dozen jobs: railroader, glass factory worker, store clerk, and not so handyman, choir director, music teacher, trumpet instructor, arts manager, tourism executive, hospital administrator, research institute executive, healthcare consultant, and throughout all of that, I still feel like I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of living yet.

I’ve never jumped out of an airplane, never scratched a lion’s belly, never skied the Alps, have never seen the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, and haven’t visited Norway, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, China, Antarctic, South Africa, Granada, Tahiti, Australia, Peru, or New Zealand.

I’ve never seen the Himalayas, don’t know anyone named Sven, and only saw St. Petersburg on the Travel Channel.

I’ve never drank mare’s milk or eaten mule cheese. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras or the Fantasy Fest in Key West. I’ve never seen Maui, Vancouver, or Tahiti, and I’m not really sure where St Barth is in the Caribbean.

As the future comes more into focus, I must admit that, although I’m not a rich guy, there are plenty of rich guy things on my bucket list and my bucket is getting closer to that proverbial kicking tee every year.

Yes, like everyone else my age, I have some physical challenges that could eventually be problematic, as in fatal, but right now I’m still ambulatory and inquisitive, interested and attentive.

The reality that I’m facing though isn’t one of additional personal stimulation through self-indulgence.

Rather, it is how many people can I help in how many ways before I’m no longer effective? So, the conundrum of “To see or not to see.” is not really my challenge.

My challenge is “To do and how long to keep doing it.” It’s my burden, but it’s also my legacy, and my personal reward.

Darn you, mom!