Posts Tagged ‘The Comic Toolbox’

The Boss of the Brain

Back in 1995, I spent a semester at Northwestern University as a guest lecturer. One weekend, I drove across Illinois to play poker at a riverboat casino in Iowa. There, killing time in a motel room, I wrote the essay you’ll find below.


Friends accuse me of sourcing information far too cavalierly. They say I don’t really bother learning anything completely, just enough of a concept to twist it and mold it and somehow make it my own. I cop to this. I even go a step further, using bogus bibliographies to make up sources rather than going to the trouble of actually finding them. And yes it’s true, do prefer to do research in my mind as opposed to a library[1]. And when I grasp information, I grasp it lightly, absorbing only enough to get me going on thoughts of my own. Call me a dilettante; I prefer the term “synthesist.”

For example, just now, here in this motel in Dubuque, Iowa (where, for reasons far too arcane to go into here, I was “guest of the day,”) I caught a psychology program on the local PBS station. Had the Spice Channel been free, it might have been a far different story. As it was, I caught a snippet of a presentation on how the brain is organized. Since a snippet is all I caught, I’m a little short on detail, but I gather that this model has the brain divided into various resource centers which are swapped into and out of consciousness as needed, much the way computer programs are swapped in and out of random access memory.

Was this the presentation of a valid theory? Speculation? Or pure metaphorical nonsense? I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. A theory like this needn’t be the slightest bit true to be worthy of contemplation, not to me.

I’ll try anything on for size.

And then I’ll make it my own.

I start by assuming that there’s such a thing as master consciousness, the “I” of the brain. To extend the computer metaphor to my own liking, I declare that the I is not the central processing unit of the computer but rather the person selecting which program to run when. The end user, if you will.

You wake up in the morning. Your  teeth are all mungy. The sense-resource sends this message to your brain’s central clearing house. The I then invokes various physical programs… “get up…” “go to the bathroom…” etc., slotting them into the working part of the brain as necessary. This makes sense on the face of it. Why retain in an active file on how to brush your teeth at any moment other than the actual time you need it?

So there’s a whole class of information we might label “how-to programs.” How to ride a bus, how to shake a hand, how to type or bounce a soccer ball off your head or catch a frisbee or feed a dog or start an arson fire. We don’t use them except when we need them. But obviously there’s more to the brain than how to do things. There are also memories, available upon demand, but only on demand. In a moment I’m going to ask you to recall something. Until the instant that you see the words, you won’t have the picture in your mind; however, once you read the words, you can’t help but have the picture in your mind. Ready? Here we go.

Think of your first kiss.

Boom, there it is.

I’m in seventh grade, playing spin-the-bottle in Sue Coon’s father’s den. Her father has a gun rack, and I look at it as I kiss her. The irony is not lost on me.

Seems to me that the brain is a good-news bad-news situation. The good news is that there’s all this information (maybe all the information we’ve ever encountered) stored inside, but it stays inside unless we have the proper triggers. Would you have thought of your first kiss just now if I hadn’t brought it up? I wouldn’t. I’m doing my damndest not to think of the Spice Channel.

Okay, there’s how-to programming, and there’s memory programming, and hey look, the two swap files. My how-to file on how to rewire a lamp, for example, contains memory of the time I tried to do the job without unplugging the lamp first. Ouch!

Now it seems that this loose coalition of brain resources is nested: memories within how-tos and… feelings within memories.

When I thought of Sue Coon just now and that fabulous first kiss, the memory came attached to a warm, fuzzy feeling. A whole slew of feelings, actually: fondness for the girl; regret that I have no idea where on the planet she might be now; a sense of loss at the years gone by; a certain smug satisfaction in knowing so much more now; plus hints and fragments of other feelings that flesh out the memory like chocolate hops or cumin round out the taste of a microbrewed beer.

So here’s the “feelings” center of the brain, a rowdy, wild-west region that doesn’t respond to the conscious control of the I, but introduces itself unbidden. You see someone attractive walking down the street, you say “woo doll!” The I may have no intention of saying “woo doll!” It just spills out. And if the I’s spouse is walking with the I, the I would be well served to keep this particular “woo doll!” to I’tself.

Do you like football? Can’t stand the sport myself. Too much sense memory of getting clobbered into mush in neighborhood sandlot games. But lots of people like football, and they cheer when their team scores. Does that cheer come consciously bidden? Does the I send an instruction to the cheering section of the brain? I don’t know. Like I said, I only caught a snippet of the show.

So let’s fudge the question. Let’s say that feelings come to us both bidden and unbidden. If I look out the window now, I see a bright sunny day. I feel regret that I’m not out there enjoying the day. But I feel satisfaction that I’m in here writing. Which of these feelings is consciously controlled? Either? Neither? Both? And how do they relate to the I of the brain? Are those thoughts “me?” Or are they just “part of me?” And if they’re “part of me” who is the whole me, and where is he to be found?

How-to, memories, feelings… now we’ve stumbled on ideas. I understand that some people think in pictures, but I personally think in words. When I’m having an idea, when I’m “formulating a thought,” that thought takes shape as a sentence, or a sentence fragment, or a word. So some part of my brain is constantly processing language. I formulate the thought, “Have another cup of coffee,” as exactly those words. But I don’t formulate the thought, “Drink from the cup,” as words. I just do that. Somewhere along the line between thought and action, the linguistic instruction breaks down. Where? Don’t ask me. I’m making this shit up as I go along.

I seem mostly to think in words when I’m contemplating the future. “I’ll  drive downtown this afternoon and pick up a video. After that I’ll stop at the store and get some food for dinner.” If I don’t formulate these thoughts as words, I simply don’t have them. There’s no picture in my brain of the future except a picture painted of words.

But there are no words attached to the past. Those events all come to me as pictures. The shock of Sue Coon’s lips. The shock of that plugged-in lamp. Think about how your memories come to you. Same as mine? Different? What can we draw from that?

I’m playing with you a little bit here. The thing I really want you to notice is the immense gap separating your memories from the part of your brain that contemplates them. And the huge gap between your linguistic formulation of ideas and the “receiver” that takes that information in. And the overwhelming chasm between your bidden or unbidden feelings and the person who ends up suffering from or thriving under that torrent of emotion. We are many separate people.

What if the brain isn’t loadable programs and an end user? What if it’s more like a royal court. There’s lots of room in that metaphor for lots of advisors, all sorts. Let’s see…

There’s a practical advisor. It tells you to brush your teeth or eat when you’re hungry or run for the bus.

There’s a spiritual advisor. It tells you to believe in God or not to believe in God. It formulates your morality and ethics. It points you to the lucky slot machine.

There’s a historian, the archivist who tends to your memories and makes them available on demand. Fittingly, as this archivist gets older, s/he tends to become more doddering, less reliable. Once I was “guest of the day” at the Comfort Inn in Dubuque. Now why was that again?

There’s the prime minister, planning your day, carrying out orders in your name. S/he goes to work, does a job, picks up Chinese food on the way home. Sometimes your servant is your master; you really didn’t want all that fatty food, did you?

There’s the royal consort, urging you to reproduce.

There’s the queen mother or father, reading ancient edicts from the past. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, you miserable loser. Go sit on your throne till you figure out what you’ve done wrong!”

Maybe there’s a rogue minister with an agenda all his/her own. This minister feeds your habits, keeps them functioning in you. Maybe you’d like to displace this minister. Maybe you’d like to behead this minister. But this is a sinister minister, tricky and insidious, using misdirection and subterfuge to keep you drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, smoking crack, watching the Spice Channel, whatever.

Is there a wizard in your royal court? Is there magic in your mind? Do creative gifts come unbidden? Do you wish you could give the wizard more power — or use more effectively the power the wizard has?

Maybe if we allied the wizard with the historian we could start to get a sense of the patterns of our personal magic. We might see, for example, that we got more “magic,” more raw creativity when we wrote in the morning than in the afternoon. The historian and the wizard compare notes, pass on their findings to the prime minister who sends a suggestion to the monarch: Write in the morning; you do a better job of it then.

Maybe all the ministers communicate with one another, deal and strategize with one another. Suppose your queen mother relentlessly presented you with a picture of yourself as a fat, ineffectual child. She might go to the rogue minister and say, “Make that monarch eat, make that monarch binge; together we can keep that fat, ineffectual, vision of weakness alive.

Maybe they compete. The royal consort and the spiritual advisor are locked in a raging debate. The consort insists that there is no meaning to life but children; it’s the job of the species to reproduce, full stop. The spiritual advisor says no, if we reproduce it’s God’s will. If we don’t, that’s God’s will too.

So what you’re saying is that if I never find love it’s God’s will and I should just accept that? Speaking as the monarch, I find that argument bogus.

But if I’m a weak monarch, or anyway relatively weaker than my spiritual advisor, I buy the argument and I act accordingly. I accept that it’s God’s will for me not to be loved.

But what if… what if… what if the queen mother is secretly in cahoots with the spiritual advisor? What if the queen mother (who wants to keep me weak) is putting words in the spiritual advisor’s mouth? Am I a smart enough monarch to see through all the intrigues and machinations of my court?

Do I have enough awareness?

The monarch is the one who acts. All this information comes into the brain, but there in the brain someone or something sorts the information and makes a judgment, executes a plan. That’s the monarch. That’s the person in charge.

Are you a powerful monarch or a weak one? Do you listen to your advisors, weigh their input and then make a decision in the best interest of the body (politic)? Or are you reflexive, self-indulgent? Do you let your baseness boss you around? Do you yield to old arguments out of habit, precedent?

“I have not, therefore I must not.”

Alternatively, do you rebel against old voices just because you recognize them as old?

“I never have, therefore I will.”

Or do you get trapped between voices unable to decide?

“I have not, but I must, so I will (if I can.)”

The PBS psychologist had a nice little theory, graphically presenting benign, helpful little packets of information flowing to and from the conscious center of the brain. Need to know what 2 + 2 equals? We’re here to help, master. Want to remember what your first college roommate looked like? We have that information at hand. Don’t know how to cross the street? Just open this file labeled “Street, Look Both Ways Before Crossing.”

That’s a pleasant sorting system, but it assumes that the parts of the brain are all in service of the whole. Not sure you can trust that assumption. To take an unfortunate and unpleasant example, a heroin addict’s whole brain is in service to the one part generating the instruction, “Get more heroin.” Other parts… “kick,” or “get a job,” or “find God”… they’re just voices in the storm.

And even you and I who challenge ourselves to find higher consciousness have hidden alliances at work in our brains. No one is perfect, obviously, and one way to think about how we’re not perfect is to imagine how parts of our brains might be more interested in serving themselves than in serving their leader, the I.

I love doughnuts. But I have high cholesterol, and have been persuaded (by the royal physician?) that eating those doughnuts is bad for me. I have a standing royal decree in my brain: Don’t Eat Doughnuts. Does that mean I never eat doughnuts?

I ate a doughnut this morning.

Some part of my brain (The court baker? The court jester?) overrode that standing command, overruled the king.

Hey, one doughnut’s not going to kill me, right? That’s the argument they used.

But in the name of closing the gap between who I am and who I want to be, I’d like to keep control over those doughnuts. I want my rulings to stick.

How can I contemplate my mind? How can I see clearly the thing I want to see when the thing doing the viewing and the thing being viewed are one in the same? It’s like the ocean asking what’s water? The answer is at once self-evident and inconceivable.

Yet we try. We struggle. We want better performance from our brains, so we seek systems for understanding them. PBS psychologists give us a glimpse of the fragmentary nature of the thing, and suggest that the part in control, the “I” of the brain, is just one small home page in a vast world wide web.

To that I add the metaphor of the royal court because it allows me to externalize my thinking. It lets me see the players in my brain as representations of archetypes of the outside world. I only do this to make it easier for me to understand what’s going on in there. (I don’t imagine literal royal robes.) If I have to go play poker now because the court jester insists that it’s time to be amused, at least I know why I’m going. That is, I know “a” why I’m going.

For a system as vast and vexing as the human mind, no metaphor can serve in the end. That would be like the ocean, contemplating what’s water, saying, “Well okay, the ocean is like a puddle, only bigger.” Yes it’s true, but is it useful?

Only if the ocean can look in the puddle and see some reflection  of itself. And only if the ocean can turn that information into action.

Do you suffer writer’s block? Do you wish you wrote more hours of the day than you do? Put the problem to your royal court. See who takes what kind of stand on the issue.

Your historian may hold you back by point out your dismal track record; you’ve never been the kind of writer you want to be. What makes you think you’ll get there now?

Your royal consort may be against the whole idea: “If you follow your dreams, where does that leave love?”

That nasty rogue might just want to subvert your effort for no other reason than s/he can. “I’ll show you who has the power in this brain.”

And maybe, deep down in the dungeon of the castle, there’s an ex-advisor who’s long since fallen out of favor. This advisor was a sad and pathetic creature who used to whisper “I’m no good. I don’t deserve.” You locked this advisor in chains in the basement. You put bars on the door and reinforced the walls. You order the royal musicians to play pretty music in your head so that you don’t have to hear this advisor’s plaintive wail.

You’re convinced that you’ve silenced that voice.

But how can you be sure? Maybe the rogue is sneaking down food (doughnuts!) Maybe every time you fail to live up to your expectations as a writer (or artist or athlete or crosser-of-the-street) you’re actually doing it because your advisors are conspiring to keep that little voice of failure alive in your head. How will you deal with that?

Take off the chains, that’s a start. Bring that advisor back into the royal court where you can at least keep an eye on him/her. Listen to that voice, acknowledge it… and then consciously, proactively refuse to yield.

You can’t say no to a voice you can’t hear.

So listen to all your voices. Seek consensus if it suits you, but remember who’s boss. There is only one listener in your head; the rest are just talkers. Let the listener be the decision-maker too, and you’ll end up doing what’s in your best interest.

As an exercise, should you so choose, visit the royal court inside your head and give names to your advisors. Jot them down. Don’t be afraid to paste labels from the real world: Some of the most powerful voices in our heads are our parents’, our friends’, our lovers’. Other voices come from our own expectations of ourselves. For instance, I have one advisor whose job is to do nothing but remind me that I’m supposed to be famous one day. No matter how many times I tell myself that that voice is invalid, old programming, the voice remains. So I acknowledge it. I list it and I listen to it, but I don’t give in.

And if you’re a writer, don’t forget that the characters you create all have their royal courts too. Keep this in mind and your characters will naturally become more interesting and colorful. We imagine that our characters are monolithic wholes, but they’re not, no more than we ourselves are. Everyone, real or imagined, is a coalition, and sometimes the coalition can get very shaky indeed.

[1]Or what passes for a library these days, i.e. a bookstore.

Back in the Soup

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

“Back in the soup” is an expression I’ve often used to describe the exasperation I feel when returning home from overseas work, vacation, or other extended travel. It’s often a function of nothing more than, well, mail: the bills that have piled up, and the checks that, somehow, haven’t arrived. There’s also the laundry to be done, work contacts to re-establish and, of course, work to return to. Whether I’ve been working overseas or just (as now) on vacation, it always seems a little like fantasyland out there, but back here it’s reality. And it can make me feel like I’m, well, “in the soup.”

It’s the price I pay for travel, of course. I know that, and embrace it. Still, it always takes me a few days to shake off the former routine and establish the new regime. I find myself extensively stalling for time: doing busy work; writing random emails; this blog post. Mostly I’m just reacquainting myself with my desk. But it doesn’t fit right and it doesn’t feel right. I’d just gotten used to a beach chair. But hey, let’s call this what it is: a luxury crisis. If I didn’t get to go to groovy places like the Bahamas, I’d never have the hangover that comes with day one back in the soup.

So let’s bid the Bahamas a fond farewell with a smile and a photo.

It was a great trip, a wonderful battery-recharge, and now it’s on to the next adventure.

Even if that “adventure” is only paying the bills.

More later, -jv

The Magic Land of Alakazam

I was six years old, maybe five, when I went to my first live TV taping, a local TV show called The Magic Land of Alakazam. There were hundreds and hundreds of screaming, unruly kids, and I was in the back row, far off to the side, when they asked for volunteers to join the magician on camera. I stood on my chair and waved my hand like a madman. And I got picked. No one in my family was surprised — nor surprised at my attempts to subvert the magician’s tricks. plus ça change, my friends, plus ça change…

Pure Poetry

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

One of the things I love about my novelist avocation is how the fruits of my research can lead me to such strange corners of the known world. Just now, while searching for the perfect brand of malt liquor to have a character drink (I settled on King Cobra), I came across a brew I’d never heard of, O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock. And I don’t know, something about the name just tickled me. So I dug a little deeper. I found pictures…


Historical accounts…

I used to drink this when I first moved out on my own in Alberta. It was THE “cowboy malt likker” they sold at al the cabarets. My 3 roomies and I drank oceans of this stuff

And, most specially, this review:

Smells of wet socks and vomit, lumberjack shirts, and stale nicotine smoke. Tastes like cardboard and wool. These days when out in the cabin I prefer turpentine.

And that was such poetry that I just had to share it with you.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back to work. Writing about drinking: It’s the next best thing to doing it.

More later, -jv

An Odd Conflation

Monday, February 1st, 2010

So I was trying to find out how old core ice is in Antarctica (because I’m thinking about distilling vodka from that source) when I came across this found object in Google:

Antarctic ice is growing, not melting away |

Ice expanding in much of Antarctica Eastern coast getting colder Western section … I had sex with my friend’s 16-year-old daughter. What should I do? …

I suppose they’re just two random pulls from the same news source (, where you can also follow the latest controversy of letting children lick nine-volt batteries) but it left me grimly amused. The good news is, there’s no global warming. The bad news…

More later, -jv

Word for the Day

Monday, February 1st, 2010



An unsubstantiated story that makes you freak out. Can you think of examples of panicdotes? I’m starting a collection.

True Fact/Bar Fact, Multiple Choice Edition

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Which of these is not another name for kiwifruit?

A) Yang Tao

B) Chinese Gooseberry

C) Melonette

D) Fruit Potato


Email for answer jvx at

It’s That Cold

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

But it’s not that cold. Okay, it is that cold. Like, it hasn’t been above single digit temperatures all week (and that’s in Fahrenheit — it’s even colder in centigrade). But yesterday when I was out walking in the Big Popsicle that is Moscow, I realized, hey, I’m not even miserable. Yes, it’s cold and yes, I’m cold, but I’m not suffering… I’m just cold. And as I looked around at passers-by, I realized that many of them weren’t wearing hats or gloves. Many carried on cell phone conversations, with bare hands and heads, just as if it were any other — okay, every other — day on the streets of Moscow. They weren’t miserable, either. They were just cold.

This is a huge revelation for me. I thought I HATED the cold. I recall living in Boston and hating winter so much that the cold actually made me angry. That’s one of the reasons I moved to Los Angeles — to put the misery behind me. Well, now I’m in the middle of Moscow’s coldest winter in years (global warming? hah!) and it’s really not that hard to take. I can walk in the cold. I can BE cold. And I’m not unhappy.

Or maybe I’m just numb.

Frankly, it’s too cold to tell.

Also — knock on wood — I seem to be avoiding the treacherous slip-and-falls that have plagued me in the past. The sidewalks are ridiculously slick, but I’ve developed a system for not falling down. I just follow these simple steps.

1. EYES DOWN. Keep intensely focused on each step. This keeps ice patches from taking you by surprise.

2. HANDS OUT. Sure your fingers get cold, but your hands won’t do you any good in your pockets when you’re falling down.

3. LOW CENTER OF GRAVITY. Stay loose and stay low to keep balanced.

4. WATCH FOR DOWNSPOUTS. Where water flows down off rooftops it settles into deadly patches of black ice. Keep your eye on the downspouts and know that the ice is lurking.

Okay, what’s that thing pride goeth before? That’s right… a fall. So I’ll be specially careful going home tonight.

Stay warm, campers; it’s not even February yet.

More later, -jv

A Fortitious Happenstance

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

So it’s Sunday, my designated writing day, and I’m banging away on my next novel (The Albuquerque Turkey, due out in 2011, so it damn well better be finished by then!) I’m arguing with myself over whether fortitious is a word. I know fortuitous is, but I’m thinking that fortitious might be my own English-to-English false cognate. So I go to the internet to glean the opinion of consensus reality. Wikipedia thinks I mean fictitious. Webster just laughs. But Google returns some 1,860 hits for  fortitious. That’s not much by internet standards (fortuitous returns 1.6 million hits) but still it’s not nothing.

I’m curious to know how others treat the word, so I click about for a moment or two, and thus find my way to “Donna Zagotta’s Art Blog” ( The use of fortitious wasn’t even hers; it appeared in the text of a reader’s comment, in response to Donna’s post about being a member of an art show jury. And now here comes the fortitious happenstance, for Donna lists the (admittedly subjective) criteria by which she judges art. Here’s what she looks for:

– Work that is personal, unique, creative, and imaginative.

– Work that contains a personal visual language.

– Work that is well put together and creatively designed.

– Work that is fully resolved and contains a complete statement.

– Work that communicates something meaningful, whether a subject is present or not.

– Work that contains beauty. Not beauty for pretty’s sake, but the kind of beauty that results when the artist is authentically engaged with process, design, subject, and meaning.

– Most of all, I look for work that contains the artist’s passion.

And I realize — fortitious happenstance — that I look for essentially the same thing in a writer’s work. People often ask me how I know if a writer “has it.” I always said that I don’t know, I just know. But thanks to Donna Zagotta, I now have (and you now have) an objective set of criteria for subjective aesthetic judgment. And that’s certainly not nothing, and surely worth the ten minutes’ detour from my work.

So thanks for that, Donna; I’ll be pitching your standards as early as tomorrow morning here in Moscow, because the writers I work with are ever in need of clear, concise guidelines, and these are among the best I’ve seen. Don’t worry; I’ll give credit where it’s due, and you may end up getting more hits at your blog. More even, maybe, than fortitious.

And the last word on fortitious, campers? Of course it’s a word. I declare it a word. Which you knew from the start that I’d do, didn’t you?

More later, -jv

The Good Cognac

Friday, December 4th, 2009

When you’re in my line of work, sometimes people give you gifts. When you work in Russia, some of your colleagues may hail from the region of Dagestan, where the cognac is considered to be quite nice. When your Dagestani colleagues give you a gift, it may be freshly-brewed cognac, in the packaging of choice, a five-liter water bottle. It might look a lot like this.

Moscow 12-09 015

Is it tasty? Well, I could tell you that it’s far and away the best Dagestani cognac I’ve ever had, but that would be flip, so let me be slightly less so:  I like it — and I don’t like cognac.

Not like the pepper-flavored vodka someone once gave me that, “started like Tabasco sauce and finished like paint thinner.”

Meanwhile, we have some interesting skies these Moscow December days and nights. Here’s two views.

Moscow 12-09 001

Moscow 12-09 004

Must run now. Work beckons. At least I have the good cognac to come home to. More later, -jv