Friday, April 17, 2009

Post 5: guys, spies, rough stuff, and snuff

After a day of slogging over a grant on Wednesday, it was off to my Master’s Lodge for cocktails. I’ve written about how empressive Barry Everitt’s quarters at Downing College are from the outside. But they are spectacular on the inside. A curling, cantilevered staircase, lots of art on loan from the Fitz (Fitzwilliam) gracing the walls, rooms ready for any occasion (a recital, a banquet) and a magnificent garden that you get to by opening a huge window and stepping up on a little stool. Birds are chirping, flowers blooming, and spring is in the Cambridge air.

Over a glass of white wine (Riesling I think), conversation drifted to the local scene in Cambridge, and Barry told me that the park that I had been cutting through on my way back from music pubs in the outer areas of Grafton or Chesterton could be a rough place late at night. Local ruffians are known to hang in the dark center and beat you to a pulp if they don’t like the way you look. Not a frequent occurrence, he said, but obviously frequent enough for him to mention it. It all fell into place. Several times in cafes or pubs I’ve noticed “towns” (as in gowns and towns) with quite an edge, one giving a young Indian waiter a hard time after too many pints, and another in a pub across the way getting a bit out of hand. There does seem to be a rougher element in Cambridge than I noticed in Oxford when I was there.

But we were far from the maddening crowds tucked behind the walls of Downing, guarded by the ever vigilant porters that watch the entrances to the colleges with an eagle eye. Barry and I discussed one of the topics I’m here to learn more about—the role of the amygdala in addiction. Steve Grant, an old friend who now works on the program staff at NIDA has been trying to get me to apply for a grant on the role of the amygdala in addiction for a long time. But I was doing OK at NIMH and didn’t feel the need to pursue it. Lately I’ve had some trouble with my grants at NIMH and am ready to give it a shot at NIDA. It seems like a good time. The addiction filed has come to recognize that the kind of stuff we’ve learned about the role of the amygdala aversive states may be very important in understanding addiction. People don’t just take drugs to get high, they also take them to redcue aversive states, and the reduction in the aversive state reinforces drug use. This is exactly what we are studying in terms of avoidance conditioning, and is highly relevant to addiction. So I’m very excited about this grant, and getting lots of help from David Bush and Chris Cain. David did his PhD studying addiction, and Chris has been doing a lot of research on instrumental conditioning in my lab. Maybe we can get Barry to consult on the grant.

After a while, Barry and I walk across the lawn of the Downing quadrangle (one side is open but it still has a quadrangle feel because the flats where I live sort of form the missing side). We met up with Paul, the classics tutor at Downing. I was glad to have a few minutes with him since Milo, who is studying classics at the other place, will be here on Monday and I want them to meet. Should be interesting.

After some wine out in the yard, and brief trip into the tea rooom where Fellows put on their gowns, we go into the dinning hall. There’s only 6 or 7 of us, all guys (no women and no students of any gender). It’s vacation time and people are away. So we have the whole dining room. Everyone was very interesting and fun to talk to. Soon a delicious appetizer (a goat cheese plug wrapped in grilled zuchinni and graced with pommegranate seeds and a juicy red sauce) appears. That was followed by a tasty strip of beef with gravy, served with abundant potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower. Then came a chocolate mouse with some sort of curly pasty sticking out (like the front of Elvis’ hair in 1957).

Each step along the way, starting at Barry’s, on to the garden outside the dining hall, to the dinner, and finally to the cheese extravaganza in the back room, wines were matched to the occasion. By the end of the evening it didn’t matter since you no longer remember what occasion you were there for. The only thing that helped me keep my wits was a dip in the snuff container as it came around. A little pinch on the forehand, with the dark powder divided into two portions, with one going in the left and the rest in the right nostril. It was a jolt. Nicotine straight to the brain. Instant attention and focus. I had done snuff before, but was pretty rotten stuff. This was a different animal.

The conversation picked up steam. Mr X in politics had achieved quite a lot, but after all, he had studied ancient Greek and understood things that others didn’t. Then there was the Fellow from the past who hadn’t visited for 20 years. He was on his way to some mysterious operation in Switzerland but had gotten all the way from Leeds to Cambridge on 6 pounds 10, an achievement he was proud of. There were comments out of the side his mouth about who was spying for whom back in the 60s, and insisting that classmate John Clees, of Monty Python, truly was from Downing, in spite of his claim to the contrary. Then came the discussion about how back then you had to be in your room by 11 pm, and the most clever chaps knew all the various ways to get past the eagle eye of the porter through gates here that there that could be opened if you knew the tricks.

The dinner ended around 11. So I was not able to make it to see Jack at Hopbines. But no loss. All in all, a very interesting evening.

Song of the day: “I feel fine.” Why? Because I’ve been on a two track Beatles kick, reading “John Lennon,” Phillip Norman’s engaging biography, and watching DVDs from The Beatles Anthology, which my friends from Knock Out Noise (Tim Sommer, Jennifer Brout, and Stuart Chatwood) gave me for Christmas. In part 4, George and Paul, and George Martin, discuss how the feedback intro to "I Feel Fine" came about. They said John had been playing an acoustic electric Gibson and leaned it up against his Vox amp when all of a sudden the A string started to vibrate and the rest is history. They decided to record the feedback at the intro to the song. They all claimed this was the first use of feedback in R’n’R, and that Hendrix and others got the idea there. I thought that was interesting. What I’m left wondering is why it has to be the A string. What is it about 440 Hz that interacts with amp electronics to make the feedback? Anybody know?

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