The day has arrived. I lost my red comb.

It was a cheap comb, made of plastic, and had nothing significant about it other than I had owned it for 37 years. I have so few items from my childhood, basically: a few drawings, even less writings, the only postcard I ever received from my grandmother, a few photos, a toy dog, a doll that belonged to my Mom, a pin my grandmother gave me, a nightstand, a spoon, and a can opener. You can see from this little list that each item takes on great significance. The items are worth nothing. They are would literally be garbage if I didn’t attach some sentimental value to them. Some of them, like the comb, have no value even to me other than they’ve managed to travel through time with me to numerous places.

In the vast expanse of time, that comb wouldn’t have been in my possession much longer — maybe 50 years if I live to be very, very old. (my Dad was just telling me about a neighbor Of his who lived to be 103 and was playing tennis until he was 99). I guess its nice that its final resting place is in The Florida Keys where I was vacationing. There it will stay, probably for a million years, completely non-biodegradable. Perhaps a future civilization will find it and wonder at the significance of an object so brightly colored and so durable. Perhaps that comb will be the only proof that I ever existed, my only legacy.

Yesterday was a day I’d been awaiting for about 15 years. The wait was caused by nothing other than my inability to perceive that what I wanted was completely doable. To whit, I flew a plane.

Flight lessons, and airplanes in general, are very expensive. Fifteen years ago I won a flight in a small plane at a silent auction for a school in Sonoma. I was enthralled and immediately started thinking about flight lessons. Soon afterward, I switched to part-time work so had very little money. The spare money I did have went to another type of flying I was enamored with — flying trapeze, an activity I was mightily addicted to for eight years. There’s a lot of parallels between the two which I won’t go into right now.

Once I had money again, another goal appeared: my life-long desire to own a home. Saving up for a downpayment when you are an artsy type who doesn’t like to work is no easy feat, but I did it. But it didn’t leave anything over for flight lessons.

Perhaps I was also distracted for a bit by my fantasy of being an astronaut.

This year I realized how much time has gone by and if I had started way back when, well, I would’ve been a pilot a long time ago. I vowed this year I would fly.

Here in the eleventh hour, or twelfth month, I’ve finally done it. When you don’t have an pilots as pals, it’s hard to know how to get started. I had a fortuitous meeting with a cousin who is a very experienced pilot at a family event this year. I don’t think I ever even had a conversation with him but when I asked him about being a pilot, boy, did he want to talk. Not only that, but afterward he emailed me very useful information.

There was a little ass-dragging on my part and then some failed attempts to contact a disorganized flight club but finally, finally I was scheduled for a demo or introductory flight.

It was so bizarre to actually fly a plane that I barely believe it was real. It was strangely normal and completely dreamlike at the same time. My instructor’s line, “Aim straight ahead for that cloud” keeps pinging around inside my skull.

I remember looking down at my neighborhood, at all the beautiful, freshly green East Bay Regional Parks, at the snow-capped Sierras shining in the sun out of reach of the storm clouds.

Most impressive was the incoming storm, just hours away, filling the sky with an amazing array of clouds.

And then we were on the ground, just like that.

I don’t know how long it’ll take until I’m a pilot, but who cares? I’m finally on my way.

hawk and crow restinghawk and crow restingThanks to Valerie Sylveste who sent me these photos. We finally have some proof of this phenomenon. She says:

I did a google search because I have been witnessing this phenomena in Linden MI for the last month or so. I throw scraps out daily for a family of crows so the same group visits regularly.

There is a small hawk that often joins them in the flying and swooping. Then they hang out in the tree together. I sometimes see them down the road hanging out on the ground together.

I have included the two pics I managed to get.

Maybe you can identify the hawk?

This looks to me like an immature Cooper’s Hawk. It would make sense that it is a juvenile, and that the crow is a juvenile too – it seems it would be more likely that they would play together. If anyone has a better ID, please let us know.

Evidence suggests that humans are not the only animals that can think about thinking

Scientific American September 2014


When you do not know the answer to a question, say, a crossword puzzle hint, you realize your shortcomings and devise a strategy for finding the missing information. The ability to identify the state of your knowledge—thinking about thinking—is known as metacognition. It is hard to tell whether other animals are also capable of metacognition because we cannot ask them; studies of primates and birds have not yet been able to rule out simpler explanations for this complex process.

Scientists know, however, that some animals, such as western scrub jays, can plan for the future. Western scrub jays, corvids native to western North America, are a favorite of cognitive scientists because they are not “stuck in time”—that is, they are able to remember past events and are known to cache their food in anticipation of hunger, according to psychologist Arii Watanabe of the University of Cambridge. But the question remained: Are they aware that they are planning?

Watanabe devised a way to test them. He let five birds watch two researchers hide food, in this case a wax worm. The first researcher could hide the food in any of four cups lined up in front of him. The second had three covered cups, so he could place the food only in the open one. The trick was that the researchers hid their food at the same time, forcing the birds to choose which one to watch.

If the jays were capable of metacognition, Watanabe surmised, the birds should realize that they could easily find the second researcher’s food. The wax worm had to be in the singular open cup. They should instead prefer keeping their eyes on the setup with four open cups because witnessing where that food went would prove more useful in the future. And that is exactly what happened: the jays spent more time watching the first researcher. The results appeared in the July issue of the journal Animal Cognition.

Friederike Hillemann, who studies corvids at the University of Göttingen in Germany, thinks the experiment is an elegant way to determine whether animals are capable of reasoning about their own knowledge states. Although this experiment did not directly test consciousness, the findings are exciting because they provide further evidence that humans are not the only species with the ability to think about their thought processes. Or, as Watanabe put it, “some birds study for a test like humans do.”

Failure

Filed Under nerd nerge | 1 Comment 

When I experience some that I perceive as a failure, I go into a panic and feel like crying. The urge to cry that seems so perplexing, so I started to think about why this might occur. It finally dawned on me why I react so strongly and emotionally.

The first time I ever experienced a big failure, I was 15. I had tried out to be a high-school majorette and failed. Certainly, before that time I had not succeeded at everything I tried, but this was first time I didn’t succeed at something I desperately wanted despite no indication that I could be successful in my attempt.

In junior high, now known as middle school, I lost all social standing. Being smart had no currency; being a cute girl in fashionable clothing did. I wore my bargain-store clothes and hand-me-downs on my gawky frame, my legs about 3/4 of my body height, and no one considered me cute. The best friend I had from sixth grade would only speak to me at lunch, when I still was allowed to sit at a table with other girls. They didn’t speak to me much, they sometimes mocked me, but it was all I had. I didn’t have the nerve to approach a different table.

At this time I knew a girl, Eileen Temkin, from gym class. We were both skinny nerds but she had loads of confidence. She tried to convince me many times to go to a school dance with her. I didn’t understand her. Why go humiliate myself? I already knew what boys thought of me — a “dog”. That’s what they called me. Why stand there and not be asked to dance? Eileen didn’t care. She thought she could get someone to dance with her.

She decided to start a squad of baton twirlers, who she called majorettes, to attend sports functions at the school. She strongly encouraged me to try out. I begged my Mom to buy me a baton. I had no money of my own. My Mom did relent, but just bought me a cheap toy one. She said she wouldn’t buy me a real one because I wasn’t on the squad.

Despite this handicap I practiced my heart out, twirling the hell out of that thing. My Mom would yell at me that I was going to break something but I still practiced. And you know what? I made the squad.

This wasn’t a huge prestige thing. It seemed to me we were all the misfits, the rejects. But were were so proud of ourselves. Even though people would walk right through our routines on the court, and not even show us common courtesy, we were very happy with ourselves. And we really did like twirling batons. For someone as uncoordinated as me, it was amazing to physically master something.

When it came time to try out for the high school squad, I didn’t hesitate. This, however, was a whole different ball game. Suddenly being a cute, popular girl mattered. We had to learn a dance routine as well. I practiced and practiced and practiced. But I did not make the cut. It was clearly a popularity contest, so how could I?

Despite the odds being totally against me, I was still stunned and devastated when I didn’t make it. It was the first time I had failed at something. And not only that: it was clear that I had failed at being a Real Girl. I couldn’t stop crying. I cried for days and days. I remember being on errands with my Mom and I kept turning my head away so she couldn’t see that I was crying. For reasons I’ve never understood, crying made my Mom angry. I was sent to my room for crying.

Not being a Real Girl meant I would have no friends, never mind boyfriends. That’s how it was for my first two years in high school. I would go days without speaking to anyone. I finally met some girl who was in the same boat as me. We found each other because we had both developed the habit of eating our lunches hunkered down in a corner of the hallway. We didn’t dare go to the lunchroom and sit alone.

I didn’t become real friends with her; I don’t even remember her name and we never saw each other outside of school. Through her I met a few other girls, all of us painfully shy, and our social interactions were brief gatherings in the hallways. I hung out with these girls for the remainder of my junior year, at about which time I started becoming friends with Irene.

Now that I see the source for this reaction, I’m hoping that its power has been diminished and will not plague me anymore.

This is it. I don’t want to wait any more. This is the year I learn to fly.

I guess I’ve done some forms of flying before. I was a student of flying trapeze for eight years, so I was actually called a “flyer”. This kind of flying has all the things one would want associated with that verb: thrills, excitement, moments of weightlessness, and a manageable sense of danger.

The other kind flying I’ve had is in lucid dreams, which I’ve written about here on The Nerge. Those experiences have run the gamut from mundane to breathtaking. Even in the mundane scenarios, it’ll quite amazing to be weightless and moving through space without any danger.

The flying I’m talking about here is flying an airplane. I’ve been wanting to taking flying lessons for about 15 years. The cost and the lack of time have been obstacles, either or both, at any given moment. I’ve decided that I’m just going to have to make time and find the money to do it. I imagine if I take just one lesson a month I can squeeze it in. That may mean it takes me ten years to get my license, but what do I care? In the meantime I’ll be flying a plane once a month, which is infinitely more than now when I fly a plane 0% of the time.

K’s grandmother flew her own plane for many years. She was a ballet instructor and would fly to remote places in the South to give lessons. She talked about it with me and how much she loved flying. She is certainly an inspiration for me.

In preparation for this, I have joined AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), who sends me newsletters full of jargon I can barely comprehend. Being a nerd, this excites me quite a bit. Flying is fucking complicated, it’s going to be mentally challenging — bring it on!

I heard about AOPA through a cousin of mine whom I spoke to at the family event I just posted about. He flew to the wedding in his own plane, accompanied by his wife, sister, and brother-in-law. He and his sister learned to fly when they were young, but apparently only he has kept up with it. I remember as a teenager hearing that they had their own planes. How glamorous that seemed! Of course, they were much wealthier than us so they could have these things. In my young mind, I pictured airplanes parked in their driveway like cars.

I have barely ever spoken to this cousin, but I approached him and told him that I was interested in becoming a pilot. He handed me his phone and told me to type in my email address and that he’d send me information. He gave me a few tips right there, and I thought, well this is fine but I don’t think he’ll actually remember to email me.

He emailed me the next day with the names of potential instructors, airfields, and organizations I should look into. Then he emailed me again with more information. My opinion of this cousin went WAY up. People who keep their word count a lot in my world.

So, once my schedule isn’t so full of work, I’m going to follow up on this information and get going on lessons. In the meantime, I’ll read my newsletters about virga and crosswinds and dream of being in the cockpit.

I’m in New York for my cousin’s wedding. I was nervous about coming to a family event, which has be stressful and trying in the past. I’ve noticed that has been changing in the last few years. The biggest difference is now the next generation are young adults. They’ve grown up with me and accept me as I am in a way my generation, and more so the older generation cannot, because of their ideas of who I should be. This is incredibly liberating.

It turns out my Great Aunt S. is buried not from from the hotel I’m staying in. I was very close to her. I used to always hang out with her at these family events, so since she’s gone, they’ve were less fun for several years. My cousin D. drove me to the cemetery to see her, which was closed for shabbat. We went in anyway. It was strange to see her grave, and I didn’t expect to, but I cried. Also near her is buried my Uncle Abey who died when I was 14. He was a lot of fun, I remember him very well, and I had no idea it was the same cemetery and I had been there before. All of this was not fun but was that kind of thing that touches a part of me inside, a part that says, this is real, this is important.

Soon after that my brother & family showed up with my Mom and Stepdad. Of course, I’m always happy to be with my awesome Stepdad but the treat was my nieces. They are really different now, as young adults and not kids or teens, and really want to hang out with me. This wasn’t always true, and certainly wasn’t when they were awkward middle school kids. They are 18 and 22 and both gorgeous too. I had a great conversation with E. (22) who is thinking of being a field scientist. She just spent some time in the last few weeks in North Carolina trapping and taking data on alligators.

We all went out for a family dinner, the first cousins and offspring, and afterwards I joined my stepdad for a Manhattan at the hotel. He told bad jokes and tales of his various adventures. My Mom was actually convinced to have a drink and then she was kind of fun. I wish she’d drink more. A lot more.

Then my nieces and I went to the pool. It was about 9:30 at night. Some guys were gawking at them through the glass door. C.’s suit is very skimpy and she is very curvaceous, so there was a lot to see. Suddenly E. went to the door, opened it and said, “DO YOU WANT TO COME IN?”. Man, did that scare them off. I was impressed with her cleverness.

So, there’s a new dimension to the family thing which is, as long as my nieces are around, it’s a pretty good time.

People often say things at these events about “The Family” and “How we are” and sometimes “How us Jews are” and I think, you people don’t know. I am nothing like you. I can barely relate to you. I relate the best to my non-Jewish nieces and my Irish stepdad. How is that, when I am so Jewish? When Jewishness is so important to me?

I’ve been back in the U.S. long enough to readjust to my home environment. I’ve gotten used to some of the niceties of home. The spaciousness of things is a big one. The fact that I live on a city, but still on a wide tree-lined street, is very pleasant and something that doesn’t exist in Japan.

The human interactions in the U.S., especially with strangers, still is a source of stress because it’s so unpredictable. People can be friendly, hostile, funny, bitter — you have no idea what you’ll get. I notice that I, and quite a few people I know, dispel the uncertainty with humor. But even though everyone is not going to be kind a pleasant as in Japan, sometimes you have an interaction that is so creative and funny that it’s notable and memorable. This fits into the concept that in a country where everything is pleasant and calm, creativity takes a hit.

I have noticed that the calmness I felt in Japan is still with me. All that sitting in temples and visiting fox shrines has had a lingering effect. I feel less agitated in situations that usually send me through the roof. When I start to become tense, I tell myself it’s no big deal, take a deep breath, and think of Nishi Hongaji or Fushimi-inari. I seem to be able to release the tension in my body much more easily than I could before Japan. I hope this ability will remain withe me.

Next Page →