Sunday, February 10, 2013

Test Patterns of the Mind

When I was a child growing up, our television displayed a test pattern when there was no programming. The area where I lived, on the frontier of North America, was quite possibly one of the last areas in Canada and the USA to get TV reception. It came to the north late in 1962 or early 1963, and by the summer of 1963, our family had a small black and white box with rabbit ears in the corner of our living room. There was only one channel, a local station that broadcast CBC along with some local programming, and the reception was inconsistent and the image was fuzzy. On weekdays, the programming didn't start until twelve noon when the news came on, and I believe that it went off the air at midnight (although I am not entirely certain, as I was not allowed to stay up that late). By the time I was old enough to babysit, the late show came on after the eleven o'clock evening news, and programming ended around 2 a.m. and resumed at 6 a.m.

If you turned on the TV during a time that there was no scheduled programming, you would see the TV test pattern. In the early years, the test pattern that I recall was a modified version (I think) of the famous Indian head test card. When the programming was about to start or just after it ended, a tone marked the transition from or to the test pattern. In the early years, aside from the transition tone, the test pattern was silent but in later years they played insipid music (the forerunner of grocery store music) during test pattern hours. When colour TV came in a few years later, CBC's test pattern image changed.

Anyways, the purpose of this post is not really to talk about television, but rather to use the analogy of a test pattern for what the mind does while at rest. What got me thinking about this was a conversation that I had with Rob a couple of weeks ago. I commented to him about the kind of music that I heard in my head. Very often, when I am not consciously thinking about something but just letting my mind wander (especially while walking, driving, or working physically) I have a tune running through my head. Sometimes it is something that I have recently heard on the radio, or it may be a song that comes into my mind suggested by a word or a phrase. Sometimes it is original music that I invent, and in those cases, if I am alone I often find myself humming, whistling, or singing, and beating out a rhythm as I go along.

Rob responded that he doesn't hear music in his head. This astonished me because I had always just assumed that everyone hears music in their heads. Rob is a person who loves to listen to music. He has a huge music collection, and is much more knowledgeable about music than I. But I have tunes running through my mind and he does not.

That made me wonder about the degree to which people's mental test patterns differ. When I talk about test patterns of the mind, I mean those images or sounds that the mind sees and hears while awake but in neutral, not really focused on anything in particular. I thought I might describe some of my visual test patterns.

Often when my eyes are closed, my mind is drifting, and I am just about to drift off to sleep, I see colours. I will see, for example, bright purple, or green, or blue, and it will start in the middle of my visual field and spread out into an abstract shape. Then another colour will start in the middle and spread out, and so on. Or sometimes the colour shapes will scroll from the top to the bottom. When I say that the colours are bright, I mean they are like the colours of the spectrum, bright and pure.

Another visual test pattern that I sometimes have are rounded blob shapes that appear, and spread, and morph together. They are a little like droplets of oil floating on water that come together into bigger rounded shapes, and break apart again into small blob shapes. Finally, sometimes, quite rarely, I see complex multicoloured abstract patterns, and these again are always in motion, smoothly changing form. I am curious; do other people see patterns like these behind their eyes?

When I am awake but at rest, with my eyes open staring at nothing, my mind invents humans or anthropomorphized animals out of the shadows, the rug pattern, or the creases of the comforter. I will see a knight with a curly beard riding an elongated horse, or a dragon with hunched shoulders, or a woman with bouffant hair turning to look behind her. I know that I have done this since I was very young. My mind turns the Rorschach ink blots supplied by the environment into humans or animals. Am I fanciful, or do others have their own typical test patterns too?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Depression Era Legacies

Although my mother was just a small child during the years of the Great Depression, her formative experiences from 1933 to 1939 and throughout the war years shaped her beliefs and practices in ways that have lasted a lifetime. Perhaps more surprisingly, they also have had an impact on the way that I have lived my life, even though I am a baby boomer born in good economic times. The habits of thrift, of bearing up and finding ways of making do during hard times, being careful with money, working hard, and never taking good times for granted were all things I learned growing up with Mom.

Some things, like certain old family recipes, I can see in retrospect were actually substitutions for items that, during the depression, had become unavailable luxuries. I grew up eating homemade pancake syrup, made with brown sugar and water heated in a pan on the stove. I was probably in my thirties before I stopped making "syrup" this way and bought my first bottle of syrup from a store. It was another ten years after that that I splurged and began to buy real maple syrup (but only once in awhile, for a treat). Similarly, Mom used to make lettuce salad dressed with vinegar and sugar. I think it was not so much creative cookery (although my Mom is a good cook), as a way to compensate for not being able to obtain or afford salad dressing. Of course, by the time I was growing up, salad dressing was readily available in stores, and except during tight financial times for a few years when I was quite young, my parents could afford to buy salad dressing. But habits become ingrained, and beliefs and behaviours learned early often are never questioned.

One of the depression era principles was, "Make it yourself." My Mom used to make Popsicles for us when we were children. She would save the plastic moulds that the chocolate Easter bunnies came in (thrift) as well as the wooden popsicle sticks on the rare occasions that we had actual store-bought popsicles, and then freeze Kool-aid or Freshie in the moulds. All the kids in the neighbourhood would congregate at our house and enjoy giant purple bunny popsicles. She also made homemade root beer in beer bottles that she saved and sterilized. I'm sure you can picture the scene: neighbourhood children swaggering about in the backyard, sucking back root beer out of beer bottles on a hot summer day. The root beer was very popular. Mom continued making it for years, until one disastrous occasion when the caps popped off some of the bottles as the root beer was curing, and it foamed out all over the shoes in my parents' bedroom closet. (It had to be stored in a warm dark place for a few weeks to develop its flavour and fizzyness.)

In keeping with the do it yourself approach, my parents always had a vegetable garden, and Mom canned and froze the produce, which we ate throughout the winter. In particular, we had many raspberry canes, as well as other berry bushes like gooseberries and red and black currants. All summer long we helped Mom pick berries, which she made into jam and jelly, using recycled jars that she saved or was given by friends. There was always far more jam than we could eat, and my Mom would give it away to anyone who wanted some. I remember her cursing the damn berries that need to be picked already again, but out she would go to pick them and then she'd make another batch of jam. We did not need so many berries or so much jam, but my Mom simply could not waste the fruit. Waste not, want not -- another depression era principle.

Mom also was frugal with money. For several decades she kept a dime-saver in the kitchen. This was a cardboard folder with slots for fifty dimes. Whatever change was left lying around or that she retrieved from pants pockets in the laundry or from under the couch cushions, she tucked into the dime-saver. Once she had filled it, she would take the dimes out and roll them, then walk down to the bank and deposit the five dollars in a special savings account that she had opened. Even back then, a dime wasn't worth much, so as you can imagine, the savings account grew very slowly.

This frugal habit extended to household objects as well. My Mom had three pairs of scissors when I was growing up: the barber scissors used to cut my brothers' hair (thus avoiding having to pay a barber), her sewing scissors that had been her grandmother's and which we were not allowed to use in case we dulled them by cutting something other than cloth, and the kitchen scissors. The kitchen scissors were kept in the third drawer (the drawer is a story for another time), and they were wretchedly dull. The entire family used them to cut everything from twine to cardboard to wire. They were probably not of very good quality to begin with, and after a time they became next to useless, but Mom would not throw them out or replace them. Likewise, she keeps her towels until they are threadbare, and has the nice new ones she has received as gifts tucked away so they don't get ruined, or displayed on towel racks, but not actually used. Eventually the threadbare towels are recycled; she moves them to the laundry room and uses them to lay out the hand washing on, and finally they are cut up to serve as rags (thus reducing the need for paper towels).

In this time of throw-away materialism and store-bought culture, there is something to be said for the depression era approach. I certainly have continued to live by many of my Mom's depression era principles. I've made pancake syrup, salad dressing, Popsicles, root beer, and endless amounts of jelly and jam. I've saved my coins and rolled them, and I keep a cheque register and balance it every month. I recycle my towels and old tee shirts into rags, and sometimes don't get around to replacing items until they are very shabby. For example, I have a set of lamps in my living room that are 25 years old. They were cheap, not very attractive lamps to begin with, and the lampshades have been shredded by children, pets, and several moves. I have been meaning to get new lamps for....years. But somehow, it seems like a big investment and big decision, and I haven't got around to it.

I guess, for me, the interesting thing about all this is that I took for granted this way of living, and only recently made the connection that my Mom's practices arose from her depression era experiences. I wonder if I have passed onto my children some of the same beliefs and behaviours that i learned from my Mom? Looking at the bigger picture, I think it is fascinating the way we create a culture by our principles and daily details of living, and how we pass on those ways to others, sometimes across multiple generations. Another thing that I am thinking is that it is good to sometimes stop and reflect about taken for granted ways of behaving; sometimes we might find that that we are holding onto habits that are adaptations to conditions that no longer exist, like the Great Depression.