Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Ghost in the Machine

A few days ago I received an email containing some of the data from my MRI scan in July. I was just expecting a picture of a brain, but instead I received something far more human:

Someone asked me what the zig-zaggy bits were. I explained that they enabled me to communicate telepathically with a man in New Zealand, called Colin.

I'm not sure what's happened to the hair. Perhaps it's not magnetic enough.

On a more sensible note, it's a rare privilege to be offered such an unsual perspective without having to endure the worry of a suspected illness. I thought I'd be repulsed by the physicality of seeing the ghost in the machine, but my brain seems to like looking at itself. It's a funny thing.

I've been thinking a lot about the brain recently, as I have started playing the piano again after a break of 30 years and it's extraordinary how many pieces of music have come back to me - not just the notes, but also the fingering. All of that information, lying dormant in a cluster of neurons.

The pieces I enjoy playing most are some arrangements by Bartok based on Slovakian folksongs. They're relatively simple pieces, written for children, but are a pleasure to play because they're quirky and unpredictable, with exotic harmonies.

Here's a 51-second clip of one of them. Needless to say, this isn't me playing. My version would be lento:

When not playing Bartok, I've been trying to get out as much as possible and make the most of what's left of the summer. Last week, I took my wife and sons out after dark to a remote car park in Ashdown Forest where, after checking that it wasn't full of people dogging, we watched the Perseid meteors light up the sky.

The first two meteors were tiny little flashes and we ooohed and ahhhed politely, feeling slightly disappointed, then suddenly a bright ball of fire streaked across the sky, leaving a trail of smoke in its wake, followed by a faint smell of gunpowder. At this point, my younger son buried his head in my lap and said that he was worried about being blinded.

I knew it was a mistake to let him watch The Day of the Triffids.

Later in the week we drove to Beachy Head, to watch the Eastbourne Airshow.

I'd never been to an airshow before and wasn't terribly impressed to see a solitary plane slowly ambling around Eastbourne. Neither were my boys, who complained that they were bored.

After half an hour, I went off to some bushes near the cliff edge to answer the call of nature and quickly looked around to check that the coast was clear. Suddenly, I heard a roar and a Vulcan bomber appeared right in front of me, emerging from underneath the cliffs. Sadly, I wasn't holding my camera at the time:

We had no idea that we were witnessing the Vulcan's final flight, but for many watching it must have been a bittersweet experience. The photo above doesn't do justice to the size and power of the Vulcan. Even my wife, who is the last person who would normally enjoy an airshow, thought that it was an incredible spectacle.

In other news, my book shed has a new addition to its menagerie of animals:

I found it wandering aimlessly at the bottom of a shelving unit. I think it might be a toadlet.

A man at a Finnish academic library recently returned an order to me because of a "possible microbial infection". He'd bought the 70-year-old book, which had been advertised as being in fair to good condition, for £6. To me, it just looked like a book that had been read a few times, but was still in pretty good shape.

What was he expecting for £6? Perhaps I should throw in a toad next time.


Steerforth said...

Actually I take it all back. I've just had a go and can play the Bartok piece at the same speed, just not very well.

Sarah said...

I play most stuff lento on the piano. Over the years I've come to the (forced) conclusion it sounds better that way!

Steerforth said...

Quite right. Any faster is just showing off.

Dale in New Zealand said...

I know Colin. He reports to me.

So far, nothing too alarming. But we're watching you.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoy the insights into your life.

Travellin' Penguin said...

Love the story of the book buyer possibly catching a microbial infection. Yes, I do believe you might include a toad next time. Love your posts, wouldn't miss one for the world.

Grey Area said...

The MRI is astonishing - it's half a photograph of who you are - and then something abstract and alien at the same time. After my accident one of the few things I can remember from the day is being placed into the giant MRI scanner - which is like being inside an evil machine and not a nice experience at all, and later waking up in the acute ward - my bed directly adjacent to the alcove that the doctors used as an office - all huddled around a large screen - studying what was clearly the results of my scan - it works in flat slices from the top of my head to my toes - at 90 degrees to yours - so it looked like I was being sliced like a cake - seeing the inside of my entire body - combined with the drugs and a head injury - was very strange and other-worldly - everyone was quiet so I piped up with a feeble 'is that really me?' - they all spun round and looked really embarrassed, like they had just seen me without my clothes on. Then I passed out again, but it's a remarkably vivid memory. Brain looks like porridge from the inside.

Steerforth said...

Dale - Colin says that there's a faint whiff of spring in the air, after a colder than average winter. Is he right?

Boundforoz - Thanks for reading them. I always worry that they're just boring, so I'm very hrateful for comments like yours.

Travellin' Penguin - I felt like emailing him a picture of my shed. I went in today and there was a very weird scratching sound. Bigger than a microbe, I'd say.

Richard - When they emailed the MRI images, I was also give the link to some free software that lets me go through my head, from ear to ear, also revolving it 360 degrees, plus I can change the colours - hours of fun!

I agree that the MRI scanner is rather unpleasant. I felt as if I had been abducted by aliens and hated having my head locked in a virtual vice, but the results have made it all worthwhile. Knowing that my entire 'self' resides in this odd-looking organic entity was awe-inspiring.

Chris Matarazzo said...

It really is amazing how the music does stay with you. I tend to forget things I've memorized. I even have to re-learn my own compositions from time to time. But with classical guitar, I find I can put it down for months and pick up (minus the muscular endurance) right where I left off, as long as I am reading. The other day, I picked up Torroba's "Torija"and played it right through. It's a good feeling. (Although, I fear my guitar might have some kind of toadlet-caused microbial infection...and it was $3,000!)

Steerforth said...

I think it's called 'flow' isn't it, where you lose yourself in an activity? Sadly, the moment I stop thinking and embrace the moment just leads to a wrong note.

Lucille said...

Like Lucia I just play the slow movement of the Moonlight Sonata and then close the piano lid with a sigh.
You must send antibacterial wipes to Finland in future.

Chris Matarazzo said...

My guitar teacher is always telling me never to stop thinking, while others I know think the closer one moves toward instinctual playing, the better one plays. (Jazz players versus classical, maybe?) Once I really memorize something, I do tend to disappear into it. My wife once stood behind me waiting for me to finish playing something of mine on the piano and she described it by saying I looked as if I was coming up from under water as I finished -- like an awakening and a deep breath. I guess it all depends, for me.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Tarrago, Tarrega and now Torroba? Love the Bartok - my sisters used to play them. Mikrokosmos? I can only play chords! ;-)

Steerforth said...

Lucille - I tried to get my piano teacher to teach me the Moonlight Sonata, but after one lesson she threatened to kill herself if she had to listen to another note. A bit extreme, I thought.

Chris - I suppose the answer is to keep thinking until the you know the piece backwards, at which point instinct can take over, Sadly, I've never reached that point.

Lucy - Mikrokosmos is/are another corker. It takes real talent to make something relatively simple so interesting and unpredictable.

Anonymous said...

I would have that MRI framed for my study.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

Hasn't the Finn realised yet that life is one long opportunity for microbial infection ? Probably why soap was invented .

How lovely to have Bartok on tap !