Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Going Around Again

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Korte

Hymn To The Gentle Sun

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.” Lewis Carroll

If I had a dollar for every person who said to me in the last few weeks, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I could buy three excellent tacos at the new taqueria in Mendocino.

When people say, “I can’t wait for this year to be over,” I am tempted to reply, “Do you really think the first day of January will be a vast improvement over the last day of December?”

But I don’t say that because I know what they really mean is they hope things for them and the planet and everyone they know will improve in the future, so why not use the beginning of a so-called new year as a way to imagine the end of unpleasantness and the beginning of less unpleasantness and maybe even some really fun things happening?

A year, it turns out, for those who believe the earth revolves around the sun, is the time it takes the earth to go once around the sun. The first day of January is the day many people have agreed is the first day of that revolution, but we might agree that the Winter Solstice is the first day, or the Summer Solstice is the first day. Or, as I like to agree with myself, the day I was born is the first day of my current trip around the sun.

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” Mark Twain

About six months ago, as part of my attempt to lessen the severe anxiety I was experiencing in my every day life, I stopped following the news. I stopped reading news stories on my computer, stopped listening to news on the radio, stopped reading newspapers, and excused myself when the people began talking about the latest mass murder or war atrocity or something terrible our government was doing or not doing.

At first, I felt ashamed and guilty about not keeping up with the daily horror show, but within a few days of giving up mass media, my anxiety was so vastly reduced, I hardly minded feeling ashamed; and pretty soon the shame and guilt vanished, too.

This experience confirmed for me that at least part of my anxiety was related to consuming ideas and images that frighten or anger or depress me. Given a choice, why would anyone choose to consume frightening, angering, and depressing ideas and images as a regular part of his or her daily life? My answer to that is that most people don’t choose to follow the news, but are entrained to do so, habituated to doing so, which means they are habituated to thinking of the world and human society as relentlessly terrible. Which would explain why so many people are eager for this year to be over.

However, if we continue to absorb the emanations of mass media, we will soon be eager for next year to be over, too.

Am I suggesting you stop following the news in the ways you follow the news? No.

“For years I was tuned a few notes too high—I don’t see how I could stand it.” William Stafford

In a recent letter to my friend Max, I wrote:

We change. Our tastes change. I hadn’t read any prose other than my own work for a couple years and thought I might never again read any prose by other authors (except Kim by Rudyard Kipling every few years), and then I was given two volumes of essays by Kathleen Jamie and gobbled them like a starving person. What a surprise. But reading Jamie didn’t get me reading other prose stuff again. Most contemporary prose is dreadful to my senses. But I was happy to know I might still occasionally find things that feed me.

I have become so sensitive to giant imagery and loud sounds that I will never go see a movie in a theatre again because it might kill me, literally. Even attending symphony concerts is getting harder for me because the music is often too loud for my circuits to handle comfortably, and I have to plug my ears during the loud parts.

Thirty years ago, one of my favorite poets was Mary Norbert Körte. She was a nun for several years when she was a young woman, then left the convent and moved to Mendocino County and became a hippy wild woman poet. For a time she worked on the Skunk Train, the tourist train that runs between Willits and Fort Bragg going through the redwood forests, up and down over the coast range.

I read with her once in Sacramento long ago, and listening to her read, I felt I was sharing the bill with a great genius. The first time I heard her read was many years before that in Santa Cruz, and I thought she was one of the most insightful humans I’d ever heard; and I never imagined I would one day read with her. I have a volume of her poems she wrote when she was a nun, Hymn To the Gentle Sun, and I used to love those poems. Now I don’t connect with them. I wonder what Mary thinks of those poems after all these years?

I am forever disappointing people because I won’t/can’t read books they tell me are wonderful and great. I give these books a try by using the Look Inside feature at Amazon, and if any of them ever pass the two-page test I will buy that book and give it a try, but so far none of these recommended books have passed the two-paragraph test. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful books, it just means they aren’t for me as I am currently configured.

Maybe you and I are dealing with huge self-defining issues that have shaped our lives up to now. Maybe we had roles in our families, relational roles that continue to play out in our lives. In therapy, I’ve uncovered some of those early defining issues in my life (what Gabor Maté calls coping mechanisms that become traits—things we did to survive that became habits) such as feeling responsible for everyone else’s happiness or unhappiness. Turns out I’m not. Can’t be. But my system was habituated to trying to make other people happy or feeling I was a failure and despicable if someone I knew was unhappy. A kind of less-obvious narcissism. I am responsible for other people’s happiness or unhappiness? That’s plain silly, not to mention tiring.

So follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously said. Follow what you know in this moment to be right for you, knowing you can’t make a mistake. You’re just hiking along the trail and reacting with an open heart and an open mind to what comes your way.

Love,

Todd

Afraid Of Silence

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Silence

Dahlia photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.” Jean Arp

I pruned trees for a woman in Berkeley who always had her television on. Loud. She would invite me in after I was done with my work, serve me lemonade, and write me a check while soap opera actors on her gigantic television screen emoted and spoke to each other as no humans have ever spoken to each other except in soap operas and bad plays.

“You make my garden look so nice!” the woman shouted over the projections of people talking on her gigantic television screen. “Tamed the wild jungle!”

The third year I pruned her trees, I felt I knew her well enough to ask if she wouldn’t mind turning down the volume on her television while we visited. She reddened and said, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those anti-television people.”

“I’m hard of hearing,” I lied, “and it’s easier for me to visit with you without the television so loud.”

She turned down the television and said, “Truth is I don’t even notice it.”

“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.” Francis Bacon

I was in the Mendocino Market a few days ago, the best sandwich shop in Mendocino, feeling lucky to have placed my order moments before a large mob of ravenous teenagers rambled down from the high school for lunch.

Three girls stood next to me, waiting for their sandwiches, and one of them said, “If they don’t fix my iPod today I’ll go insane.”

One of her compatriots opined, “I couldn’t deal with it. I’d feel so cut off.”

The third girl added, “That’s why I always have at least two I know are working. I totally freak when I don’t have my tunes.”

I was reminded of a woman I was once entangled with who could not bear silence. We would return to our house after being out for a few hours and before doing anything else she would rush to the stereo and turn on the radio or play an LP. If she chose to play a record rather than listen to the radio, the moment the record ended, and often before the last cut on the album was over, she would start another record or turn on the radio.

When she came home and found me sitting in silence, she would immediately turn on the radio or play a record. When we went on walks, she always wore a Walkman so she would have music to walk to. She ignited the stereo in the car before starting the engine and played music as we drove that was too loud to talk over. Whenever I turned the music down to say something to her, she would give me a pained expression to let me know she preferred I shout over rather than turn her music down. When we went to quiet restaurants she would give me a horrified look and say, “Creepy,” and we would leave and go somewhere loud.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Aldous Huxley

A friend who knows of my love of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant recommended the movie Le Plaisir, composed of three films based on three of Maupassant’s short stories. The longest of the three excellent films is about the madam of a popular whorehouse in a coastal city who takes her prostitutes with her to attend the communion of her niece in a little farming town, the six gaudy whores causing quite a stir in the rural village. The prostitutes find the deep quiet of the country so alarming they cannot sleep a wink during their one night there, so accustomed are they to the noisy brothel and the incessant sounds of the city.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” Khalil Gibran

A 2006 study by Luciano Bernardi to measure the effects of music on the brain revealed that impacts of music could be read in the bloodstream via changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. But his most striking finding came about when he randomly inserted stretches of silence between the music sequences. Two minutes of silence proved far more relaxing than “relaxing” music.

In 2010, while observing the brains of mice being stimulated with bursts of sound, researchers at the University of Oregon found that the onset of sound prompts a specialized network of neurons in the auditory cortex to light up, but when sounds continue in a constant manner, the neurons stop reacting.

In 2013, a scientist at Duke University examined the effect of sounds on the brains of adult mice by exposing four groups of mice to various auditory stimuli: music, baby mouse calls, white noise, and silence. The scientist’s expectation was that baby mouse calls, a form of mouse communication, might prompt the development of new brain cells. She used silence as a control and expected it to produce no effect. Yet she discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the seat of memory, whereas the baby mouse calls, white noise, and music produced no measureable cell development.

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” Elie Wiesel

Before I moved to Mendocino, expeditions to the ocean involved long drives through terrible city traffic before reaching the less traveled country roads leading to the sea. On one such expedition to Point Reyes with a friend, we found a lovely spot on a sand dune overlooking a pristine beach and sat quietly for an hour enjoying the revivifying effects of silence.

We might have luxuriated in that divine silence even longer but for the arrival of a couple with a boom box and a little boy who pointed at us and shouted over the blaring hip hop, “What’s wrong with those people? Why they just sitting there?”

Tenuous Grip

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Desert Dance Nolan WInkler mix med

Desert Dance by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Lewis Carroll

Have you ever had a day when you heard the same out-of-the-ordinary word or phrase over and over again from a variety of seemingly unconnected sources? Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, I wrote a piece for the Sacramento News & Review entitled Recurrence of Ninja, a true story of a single day in which I encountered the word ninja several times in a variety of contexts, spoken and written. Why ninja so many times on that particular day? I came to no conclusions, but I felt certain the unfathomable universe was trying to tell me something.

I was reminded of that day of many ninjas by what happened yesterday. I woke early (for me), had toast slathered with sesame butter accompanied by a banana-kale-flax seed-chia seed-apple juice-rice milk smoothie with Marcia, she the smoothie engineer, I the toaster, my bread free of gluten, her bread infested with the stuff. Then I answered a few emails, posted my Anderson Valley Advertiser article on my blog (I like to wait until the piece is in newsprint before I send the words into the ethers, silly me), worked for two hours on my new novel, and then set out on my walk to town—the day windy and cool.

Not far from home, I came upon a man in a bathrobe standing in front of his house and frowning at the sky. I said hello as I walked by and he replied, “I have a tenuous grip on reality today.”

I might have taken his self-assessment as an invitation to engage in conversation, but I did not. In the past, more often than not, I would have inquired further, but of late I am less drawn to strangers professing emotional fragility than I used to be. So I walked on and did not look back.

“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.” Voltaire

The wind off the ocean was fierce and the air was full of smoke from a number of burn piles unwisely lit on such a blustery day. I crossed Highway One, the road blanketed with smoke, and said hello to a tall bearded man standing on the corner gazing into a cell phone.

He frowned at me and proclaimed, “They chose a very bad day to burn.”

“Yes,” I said. “Ill-advised.”

“Because they have a tenuous grip on reality,” he said, lighting a large hand-rolled cigarette and taking a prodigious drag.

“Indeed,” I said, so amazed by his choice of words that I almost told him I had just heard someone else use the very same expression. But because I had seen this tall bearded man on previous occasions lecturing loudly to companions invisible to me, I was not greatly tempted to enter into a lengthy discussion with him.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

At the post office, I mailed two small packages and was heartened to find a few actual letters in our post office box along with the latest AVA. As I was sorting out our real mail from the junk, I overheard two women talking on the front porch of the post office, one of them saying, “So I said, ‘Rick, you gotta get a grip,’ and he said he was hanging by a thread and…”

There it was again, not the exact phrase, but the word grip and the implication that Rick’s grip was tenuous.

“Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” Tupac Shakur

In Corners, buying several fundamental comestibles, the lovely woman at the cash register made a few unforced errors (as they call them in tennis), laughingly corrected her mistakes and explained, “I’m still kind of…not all here today. Stayed up way too late last night. Haven’t had my coffee yet.”

“A somewhat tenuous grip on reality?” I ventured.

“Exactly,” she said, nodding. “Life is but a dream.”

 “For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.” Jean Dubuffet

Walking home from town, the recurrence of the phrase tenuous grip on reality put me in mind of my eleven years in Berkeley where I enjoyed life without a car and patched together a minimalist living as a writer, editor, ghost writer, arborist, and babysitter. I was single for many of those eleven years and on the few occasions I found myself mixing it up, so to speak, with women more affluent than I, there always came a time, usually around the fourth date, when the question of my economic viability became the focal point of conversation and I was recurrently judged to fall far short of what was minimally acceptable to these attractive pragmatists.

One of the women, bless her heart, who I had theretofore thought to be a wild and crazy gal in the best sense of those words, interviewed me as if I was applying for a house loan. At the end of the interview, she opined, “The only difference between you and a homeless person is that you currently rent a house and don’t walk around pushing a shopping cart.”

“I beg to differ,” I replied. “I am gainfully employed, I…”

“You’re very nice,” she said, rising to go, “and we get along wonderfully well, if you know what I mean, but you’re poor and I’m not about to jeopardize my life savings by hooking up with some medical crisis waiting to happen. Better to end things now before I like you too much.”

The last of the women I dated who was more affluent than I, a successful psychotherapist who sure seemed to like me, terminated our connection after the recurrent financial disclosure date by telling me that my lifestyle choices were, well, indicative of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, though she didn’t use those exact words. She said that someone as intelligent and personable as I, with so many marketable skills, who chose to live without a car or health insurance or a viable retirement strategy, must be at least somewhat delusional and possibly a borderline personality. Ouch.

I remember replying that as far as I was concerned anyone who judged other people solely on the basis of their economic status was either insane or a member of Congress, which I knew was redundant, but I was trying for a bit of levity as she ran out the door.

Thereafter the few women I did get involved with beyond the fourth date were as financially deficient as I and didn’t worry about their nest eggs because they didn’t have nest eggs. And, yes, those sweet paupers did at times seem to have a somewhat tenuous grip on reality, but who doesn’t now and then?

Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” Bob Dylan

As I thought about the recurrence of the expression tenuous grip on reality I found myself wondering: is the universe asking me to examine the current state of my grip on reality? And what came to mind was a night when I was thirteen and attending a ballroom dancing class with forty other boys and forty girls, an ordeal my mother insisted I undergo once a month for the two years preceding high school. To attend the class we were forced to wear a suit and tie, which meant I had to learn to tie a tie, which I did, and I had to wear shoes that required polishing, which I also did.

Upon our arrival at the country club where the ordeal took place, the boys would stay away from the girls, who were wearing long frilly dresses, and the girls would stay away from the boys. Then our instructors, a champion ballroom dancing couple, would somehow get the boys paired up with the girls and try to teach us how to fox trot, waltz, cha-cha, and swing. After an hour or so of rigorous practice with a variety of assigned partners, the ordeal would conclude with a half-hour of dancing without instruction. Boys were supposed to ask girls to dance, not the other way around, unless one of the champions announced that the next dance was a Sadie Hawkins (role reversal) dance. For those boys too fearful to ask girls to dance, our adult overseers would arbitrarily pair such boys with those unlucky girls remaining to be asked.

And one night, when the four or five girls I knew from school (so they were not terrifying to me) were paired up with other boys, and I was just about to make a break for the bathroom where I hoped to remain undetected for several minutes, a gorgeous young woman (as opposed to a girl) named Luisa Hernandez asked me to dance with her, though it was not a Sadie Hawkins dance! Luisa was by far the best female dancer in our mob and was often called upon to dance with one of the better male dancers to demonstrate a fox trot variation or a cha-cha turn or whatever those things are called that our champion instructors wanted us to see done well.

“I have two left feet,” I said, anxiously. “I’m no Fred Astaire.”

“You move beautifully,” said Luisa, looking deep into my eyes. “You just need a good partner.”

So we danced the next several dances together, and I can truly say that until I danced with Luisa I had never really danced with someone. I had gone through the motions with others and simulated dancing, and even had a little fun going through those motions, but with Luisa I danced, and our dancing was divine. And what I learned from her was that dancing with someone didn’t have to be about gripping the other person or being gripped by them, but was a way for two people to move together in harmonious time. Holding each other facilitated fueling off each other while enjoying the synchronous flow—the dancing never about trying to control the other—and so our physical connection was light and sure and flexible and tender.

What Really Happened?

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“There are three things I always forget. Names, faces and—the third I can’t remember.” Italo Svevo

The very first course that Norman O. Brown taught when he arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 was Myth & History and I was among the lucky people to hear him deliver that series of lectures. I was also privileged to meet with Norman in his office on two occasions to talk about various things, notably the fifty-page manuscript I composed in response to his lectures. I wish I still had a copy of that youthful creation—poems, dialogues, story fragments, essays, questions—with the notes Norman made throughout and his flattering words at the bottom of the final page, but I was only nineteen and saved nothing I wrote until I was in my twenties.

I have many vivid memories of Norman O. Brown, some of which I shared in an article I published two years ago. After that essay ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and was reprinted on the CounterPunch web site, I received a few emails and letters from people who thanked me for writing about Norman and wanted to share memories of him with me. I also received several angry missives from people telling me that my memories of Norman could not possibly be true, that Norman was nothing like the person I described, and how dare I misrepresent the great man. What I loved about these responses was that they absolutely confirmed the central thesis of Norman’s Myth & History lectures, which was that history is entirely subjective and over the course of time becomes indistinguishable from myth.

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I was reminded of the subjective nature of history during a recent visit from my sister Kathy with whom I had not communed in many years. As we shared memories of our shared past, we discovered that our recollections of people and events were sometimes identical, sometimes entirely different, and sometimes partly identical and partly entirely different. Of the greatest interest to me were those events involving Kathy that I remembered vividly and she had no memory of whatsoever.

Our parents—and this Kathy and I agreed on—regularly carried out long and painful interrogations of their four children—my two older sisters, my young brother, and I. They interrogated us one at a time, the child on a low stool looking up at the imperious father sitting on his throne-like chair, the angry mother pacing back and forth behind the scowling father. These interrogations took place in the living room in the evenings or on Sunday afternoons, our mother the arresting officer, so to speak, our father the prosecutor and judge.

The interrogations were ostensibly held in lieu of spanking us for our little crimes, but I think the real purpose of these trials was to fulfill our father’s desire to abuse us verbally, and my mother’s need to involve our father in her attempts to control us—our mother who was frequently overwhelmed by single-handedly trying to control four bright, independent, rambunctious children. She was perpetually angry with our father for not giving her more help with us, and these interrogations provided a way for her to involve him in our upbringing as well as allowing her to vent her fury about her situation in his presence.

We underwent these interrogations from early childhood until we were in our teens—the grueling sessions lengthy, abusive and emotionally damaging. I find it hard to believe that our intelligent, highly educated parents—my mother an attorney, my father a child psychiatrist—were unaware of the harm they were inflicting, and I assume they felt justified in carrying out what my three siblings and I remember as their relentless efforts to break our wills and verbally pound us into submission, first by forcing us to admit our crimes (real or not), then forcing us to beg them repeatedly for their forgiveness, then making us promise to never again do whatever they said we had done, and finally, sickeningly, to help them devise appropriate punishments for whatever they had forced us to admit to.

Kathy said several things about these interrogations that greatly surprised me. She said that at the outset of every interrogation, she would frantically try to shift the blame from her to another of the children, and she assumed we all did that. But I, as the younger brother of two powerful older sisters, never did that because I feared my bigger stronger sisters would take revenge on me if I dared to even try to divert my parents’ wrath onto them.

Kathy also said that during every interrogation, after our parents had verbally battered her into a state of desperate despair, she always wanted to shout at them, “Just hit me and get it over with!” but never had the courage to do so.

What made this revelation so surprising to me was that one of my most vivid childhood memories was of a time when I was eleven and Kathy was twelve, and my parents were viciously torturing Kathy and she was sobbing so convulsively I feared she might die. And my fear of my sister dying was so great, that despite the probability of being physically assaulted by my father for daring to defy him, I went to intervene on Kathy’s behalf. And just as I entered the living room to demand they leave her alone, Kathy shrieked, “Just hit me! Just hit me and get it over with!” Then she jumped up, ran down the hall, and locked herself in her room.

“I have no memory of doing that,” Kathy told me these many decades later, “though I always wanted to, so I’m glad to know I actually did it one time.”

When I imagine telling Norman O. Brown such a tale, I see him gazing off into space as he visualizes the drama, and then I hear him suggesting that regardless of what actually happened, the most interesting thing about my memory is that I wanted to rescue my sister—to be a hero—though I failed to act quickly enough for that to happen. And though I, too, find my desire to rescue her quite telling, what I find most interesting is that Kathy has no memory of ever acting out her wish, while I remember her defiance of my parents as an act of incredible bravery and self-preservation that empowered me to defy my parents, too.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

We now officially congressionally know that in 1964 the North Vietnamese did not attack a gigantic heavily armed United States of America battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin with a little motorboat and a pea shooter, and that the alleged attack was entirely fabricated by our government so they could begin the horrific saturation bombing of North Vietnam and escalate the ground war in Vietnam that went on for many years and killed millions of Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of Americans. Therefore, those of us who protested from the outset that the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a fraud can no longer be called conspiracy kooks, at least regarding that particular event.

Norman O. Brown frequently spoke of Gulf of Tonkin-like mytho-historic events that compose much of Greek and Roman history, and how there is really no way to distinguish ancient historical events, as writ by the victors, from myths, which is why the Norman O. Brown I remember was far more interested in archetypes and poetry and art and legends and philosophy arising from particular cultures and cultural milieus than he was in the historical records of who, what, when and why.

“The field of philosophy may be reduced to the following questions: 1. What can I know?  2. What ought I do?  3. What may I hope for?  4. What is man?” Immanuel Kant

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the trial and death of Socrates that probably (maybe) happened in Athens some 2400 years ago, assuming Plato and others who left behind accounts of the event may be trusted not to have fabricated the whole thing. Why do we trust Plato? I dunno. In any case, the trial and death of the famous Socrates, who left behind nary a scrap of his own writing, took place four hundred years before the birth, if there really was such a birth, of Jesus of Nazareth, who also did not leave behind a scrap of his own writing. Come to think of it, Gautama Buddha didn’t leave behind a scrap of writing either. Indeed, we only have the highly subjective words of others that these super famous people even existed.

Nevertheless, the more I read about Socrates, the clearer it becomes that he was either a great champion of democracy or he thought democracy was a terrible way to run a city-state; that he drank hemlock rather than flee because he wanted to honor the laws of Athens or because he was old and ill and preferred a quick death to lingering in misery; and the method of philosophical inquiry known as the Socratic Method either sprang from the brilliance of Socrates or from his inability to come to a conclusion about anything.

Speaking of conclusions, in honor of my wholly subjective memories of Norman O. Brown’s wide-ranging lectures in which he might read a poem by Robert Duncan, follow Duncan’s poem with a passage from Finnegan’s Wake, follow that with a salient and beautifully pronounced line or two of Latin, and finish that particular train of inquiry with a pronouncement such as “in psychoanalysis only exaggerations are important,” I will end this ramble with a quote from Jacques Cousteau.

“From the data, covering over a hundred shark encounters with many varieties, I can offer two conclusions: the better acquainted we become with sharks, the less we know them, and one can never tell what a shark is going to do.”

Crazy Memory

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” Aldous Huxley

I used to know a loquacious drunk who punctuated his pontifications with the disclaimer, “Of course, memories are, at best, only fair approximations of what actually happened, so please don’t quote me.” At least I think that’s what he said. And I took his disclaimer to mean that his memory was not so sharp, whereas my own recollections were essentially photographic and therefore highly accurate. Silly me.

A few nights ago we watched the movie Bedazzled (the original work of genius, not the execrable remake) created by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with a stirring cameo by the preternatural Raquel Welch, and we laughed so hard at some of the scenes I felt five years younger at movie’s end. I hadn’t seen Bedazzled in thirty years and feared the sarcastic romp might not stand the test of time, but it did with ease. However, what did not stand the test of time were my memories of favorite scenes from the film, for they were, as the drunk foresaw, only approximations of the actual scenes.

Indeed, I was crestfallen that my most favorite scene (as I remembered it) only barely resembled the actual scene in the film. Which scene? The one in which Raquel Welch brings Dudley Moore breakfast in bed. In my misremembered version, Raquel’s seduction of the hapless Moore lasts a good ten minutes and features the nearly naked Raquel erotically enunciating each syllable of the expression, “hot buttered buns” as part of an excruciatingly slow build to an orgasmic finish; when in actuality Raquel spat that delectable phrase rapid fire in the midst of a badly blurted speech prelude to seductus interruptus. Yet thirty years ago my brain seized on those three little words and made them the centerpiece of a seduction scene far more lurid and glorious than the one they filmed.

“Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.” Pierce Harris

During one of my many stints as a single man, I attended a party featuring scads of married couples and two single women, one seven-feet-tall, the other a midget, though now I’m not so sure about their heights. I am sure I fell into conversation with a vivacious married woman and ere long her jealous husband joined us. To assure him I had no designs on his wife (though she certainly inspired several marvelous designs) I asked them how they first met.

Vivacious Woman: We were working on the same float for the Rose Bowl parade and…

Husband of Vivacious Woman: No, honey. Rex and Sally set us up on a blind date a couple weeks before the parade.

Vivacious Woman: No, dear, you’re thinking of Tom and Rita. And it was two weeks after the parade. And it wasn’t a blind date because we already knew each other. No. You approached me ostensibly to borrow some pink flowers, but I knew you just wanted to get a closer look at me.

Husband of Vivacious Woman: Honey. Come on. You think I don’t remember how we met? It was only four years ago.

At this juncture, we were joined by a beautiful pregnant woman and her dumpy bald husband, and before Vivacious Woman and Husband of Vivacious Woman could come to blows over their divergent Rose Bowl memories, I asked Pregnant and Bald how they first met.

Pregnant: I was dating his brother…

Bald: You were not. We met long before you ever dated Jack. At the bowling alley. Remember? Then you went out with Jack a couple times, and then…

Pregnant: A couple times? I went out with your brother for a year, and if he hadn’t been transferred to Atlanta…

Bald: Ten months is not a year.

Pregnant: That’s true. Ten months is technically not a year.

“


Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.” Austin O’Malley




Speaking of crazy people and what we think we remember, in my former life as an author of books published by large publishers, I often performed in bookstores, cafés, theaters, and college auditoriums. And though I enjoyed performing and my audiences were generally appreciative, I eventually shied away from such public exposure because crazy people kept coming to my performances and zapping me with their psychic toxins. Here are two such encounters as I remember them.

Encounter #1: I am in a large old bookstore standing on a small dais facing an audience of sixty people. I have sung a couple songs, accompanying myself on guitar, and read a few stories, and the laughter and applause have been raucous. The master of ceremonies (the owner of the bookstore) announces a fifteen-minute intermission, various people thank me for my performance, an aggressively attractive woman hands me her business card and suggests we meet for coffee, and an old friend hugs me and whispers, “Watch out, buddy, she’s crazy as a loon.”

As I make my way outside for a breath of fresh air, a big man with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard approaches me. He is wearing a red plaid shirt, gray slacks and brown hiking boots, and I recall seeing him smiling at me during my performance—smiling gigantically. I stop walking when this man is within six feet of me and I fully expect him to stop at a reasonable distance from me, but he doesn’t stop until his face is within a few inches of mine.

“You kept looking at me,” he snarls. “Why were you looking at me?”

“I beg your pardon, but…”

“Don’t deny it,” he spits. “You kept looking at me because you thought I liked you, didn’t you? You saw me laughing when everybody else was laughing and you thought I was laughing because I liked you but I was only laughing because I wanted you to think I liked you when I don’t like you. I hate you. And if you don’t stop looking at me, I’ll kill you.”

“Now you’ve gone too far,” I say, looking around for help. “And I’m gonna call the police if you don’t leave on your own.”

“Fuck you!” he shouts, running away into the night. “Fuck you famous writer asshole motherfucker piece of shit!”

Encounter #2: I have just finished performing for a good little audience in a small café, (by good I mean they laughed at the funny parts and cheered at the end, and by little I mean more than ten but less than twenty) having larded my reading with improvisations rendered on a remarkably in-tune old upright piano. I am making my way toward a table where a half-dozen people are waiting to buy my books and home made cassette recordings, this being in the days before the advent of CDs and digital everything, when a slender cowgirl blocks my path, her red velvet cowboy hat dotted with silver sequins, her blond hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her black cowboy shirt detailed with creamy white embroidery, her skirt rawhide brown, her shiny boots lime green, her age somewhere between thirty and forty-five.

“Hey,” she says, her voice as breathy as the wind they call Mariah (not really, I just couldn’t resist using that expression), her accent distinctly Serbian, “can I speak with you for little moment?”

“Sure,” I say, happy to see the people waiting to buy my books have fresh drinks in hand. “What can I do for you?”

“You are so generous,” she says, staring at my lips—her eyes shattered blue marbles. “I can hear how generous in your music, and…well…I can see things. Is my special gift. To see things. You know what I mean? What can be and what cannot be when certain things don’t or do fall into place, or not.”

“I think I have an inkling about what you mean,” I say, imagining her face without cowgirl war paint and guessing she is way more than cute. “What do you see?”

“I see you must stop writing.” She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and nods prophetically. “You must give everything to music or gift will be taken away.”

“But why? I like doing both. Music and writing.”

“Maybe you like doing both, but they don’t like you doing them both.” She opens her eyes and glares at me. “Just as I would not like you doing me and doing somebody else, too. I could not stand it. I would go crazy.”

“But music and writing are not people,” I say, relieved to see no holster, no gun. “And I like doing both.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, sudden tears spilling from her eyes. “You are afraid to give yourself completely to music because…such intimacy terrifies you. I can see clear as day. I can see your life on one path or another path. And if you do not stop writing and give yourself only to music you are doomed to play in junky rat holes like this for rest of life begging people to buy your shitty little books and shitty little tapes, when you could be huge.”

“Maybe so,” I say, wondering what it is about me that attracts such cuckoo birds, “but if not for this junky little rat hole, I never would have met you.”

 “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

What are we without our memories?

When I was forty-three, my seventy-year-old mother led me away from the Thanksgiving feast, made sure we were not overheard, and whispered urgently, “I’m losing my mind and it’s not coming back. I’m in a nightmare and I want it to end. You have to help me kill myself.”

I realize now that my mother’s request was perfectly reasonable, but at the time I couldn’t imagine abetting her suicide, which I felt would make me a murderer. Twenty years gone by, I can easily imagine seeking the proper pill to curtail the horrendous suffering I watched my mother endure for twelve long years until finally, blessedly, at the age of eighty-two, she died in the skilled nursing facility where she had spent her last few years, having spent the previous eight years in a storage facility for those suffering from the brand of dementia known as Alzheimer’s.

Every few weeks for the years of my mother’s internment, I would take the train from San Francisco to Menlo Park and walk the half-mile from the station to that pea-green warehouse where Avis was a favorite of the friendly staff of Mexicans. They pronounced her named Ah-vees and identified her as ella que andando: she who walks, for my mother did little else when she wasn’t sleeping.

One day, after my mother had been in the joint for three years, I found her—lank white hair, plaid slacks inside out, yellow blouse wrongly buttoned, mismatched shoes—walking down a dimly lit hallway speaking to no one.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, catching up to her.

“They wanted fifty-seven and I told them where do you think?” she said, frowning at me. “How did you get here?”

“I took the train,” I said, holding her hand.

“You’re allowed to do that?” she asked, shaking her head. “I don’t trust him. Hiding under the mattress over his bandana.”

I took her outside where we could amble along the cement walkway that outlined the facility, my mother trying the locked gates to see if they might open—the air scented with stink from a nearby car fire.

“Would you like to go somewhere else?” I asked, hopelessly. “Into the village for an ice cream cone?”

“I sleep in a refrigerator,” she said, sitting on a bench and looking at her hand. “What a funny fig.”

I sat beside her and she jumped as if shocked.

“It’s only me,” I said, making light of her surprise.

“Who are you?” she asked, frowning suspiciously. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your son. Todd. I came on the train.”

“How dare they,” she said, pouting. “I gave him fifty-seven and he spilled nobody over again.”

“Are you thirsty?” I asked, wanting only to soothe her.

“I had fifty-seven overviews with red disasters,” she said, shaking her head. “But they couldn’t get over the river. Kaput.”

An old man, bent and grizzled, came around the corner, walking with mincing steps and peering intently at the ground.

My mother leapt up, embraced the old man, and kissed him on the lips.

The old man stuttered, “I haven’t…I don’t…why…who…okay.”

My mother took the old man’s hand and walked away with him, forgetting all about me.

“They hid under the milkshake and stayed there,” said my mother, kissing the old man’s cheek. “And pretty soon the shit was dry.”

Complexity

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Are most humans inherently incapable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, or can almost anyone develop such a capability?

Yesterday I heard live coverage of the eviction of campers at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, an occupation that began as a protest against rich people being further enriched by a corrupt financial system. After several weeks of camping in the park, the protestors morphed into an ongoing settlement of people who, judging from interviews I heard with a number of evicted campers, wanted to continue living in Zuccotti Park indefinitely because: “Where else am I supposed to go?” “The one per cent got rich ripping everyone else off.” “There are no good jobs left in America because the rich people sent all the jobs to China.” “It is my constitutional right to camp here as long as I want.” “Private property is a conspiracy of the one per cent.” “This is the beginning of a revolution.” “They can’t make us go.” “It’s time to make a stand.” “The system is totally rigged.” “It’s much better here than in the homeless shelters.” “We are family.”

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

A friend recently said to me, “I guess we should have voted for Hillary, now that we know what a fraud Obama is.”

“Are you serious?” I replied, having previously thought this person to be moderately intelligent.

“Well…just look at what he’s doing.”

“What does that have to do with Hillary? What makes you think she would do anything differently than Obama? She works for the same people he works for. She does whatever her handlers tell her to do.”

“Well…but under Clinton…”

“Don’t go there,” I warned. “Don’t rewrite history, please. Bill was the master deregulator, the champion of NAFTA, the destroyer of the safety net, enemy of our industrial base, servant of the fat cats. Don’t you remember?”

Remembering things is another human capability I wonder about. I am astonished by how little anyone remembers about anything. When I remind people that Al Gore, before his enthronement as an environmental guru, led the campaign against the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the usual reaction is disbelief. “He’s also a proponent of nuclear power,” I add, “and said so to Congress shortly after he made a big splash with his global warming movie.”

“No!”

Yes.

So if we can’t remember anything, and we can’t understand complex situations, where does that leave us?

The novel Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain is a comic tragic story of a well-meaning intelligent person who remembers things and is capable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, living in a society of racist imbeciles and self-serving charlatans. If the title has deterred you, I encourage you to give the book a try.

At the outset of the story we learn how our hero got his nickname, and how the dreadful label dramatically altered the course of his life.

[In that same month of February, Dawson’s Landing gained a new citizen. This was Mr. David Wilson, a young fellow of Scotch parentage. He had wandered to this remote region from his birthplace in the interior of the State of New York, to seek his fortune. He was twenty-five years old, college-bred, and had finished a post-college course in an Eastern law school a couple of years before.

He was a homely, freckled, sandy-haired young fellow, with an intelligent blue eye that had frankness and comradeship in it and a covert twinkle of a pleasant sort. But for an unfortunate remark of his, he would no doubt have entered at once upon a successful career at Dawson’s Landing. But he made his fatal remark the first day he spent in the village, and it ‘gaged’ him. He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:

“I wish I owned half that dog.”

“Why?” somebody asked.

“Because I would kill my half.”

The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:

“’Pears to be a fool.”

“’Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”

“Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot,” said a third. “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?”

“Why he must have thought it, unless he is the downrightest fool in the world; because if he hadn’t thought it, he would have wanted to own the whole dog, knowing that if he killed his half and the other half died, he would be responsible for that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don’t it look that way to you, gents?”

“Yes, it does. If he owned one half of the general dog, it would be so; if he owned one end of the dog and another person owned the other end, it would be so, just the same; particularly in the first case, because if you kill one half of a general dog, there ain’t any man that can tell whose half it was, but if he owned one end of the dog, maybe he could kill his end of it and—”

“No, he couldn’t, either; he couldn’t and not be responsible if the other end died, which it would. In my opinion the man ain’t in his right mind.”

“In my opinion he haint got any mind.”

No. 3 said: “Well, he’s a lummox, anyway.”

“That’s what he is,” said No. 4, “he’s a labrick—just a Simon-pure labrick, if ever there was one.”

“Yes, sir, he’s a dam fool, that’s the way I put him up,” said No. 5. “Anybody can think different that wants to, but those are my sentiments.”

“I’m with you, gentlemen,” said No. 6. “Perfect jackass—yes, and it ain’t going too far to say he is a pudd’nhead. If he ain’t a pudd’nhead, I ain’t no judge, that’s all.”

Mr. Wilson stood elected. The incident was told all over the town, and gravely discussed by everybody. Within a week he had lost his first name; Pudd’nhead took its place. In time he came to be liked, and well liked, too; but by that time the nickname had got well stuck on, and it stayed. That first day’s verdict made him a fool, and he was not able to get it set aside, or even modified. The nickname soon ceased to carry any harsh or unfriendly feeling with it, but it held its place, and was to continue to hold its place for twenty long years.]

Ah, subtlety, another of the lost arts, along with complexity and memory—attributes of an interesting mind, of the sort of intelligence I love engaging with, and just the sort of intelligence that is so painfully lacking in our contemporary fiction and plays and movies and humor. I love subtle irony, subtle sarcasm, subtle innuendo; and because I employ such subtlety in my speech, people are forever falling away from me as from something uncanny, so I feel compelled to say, “I was only kidding. That was a joke. Let me explain. Please.” But by then it is usually too late, as it was too late for Pudd’nhead, and I am taken for a fool, or for someone who likes complexity and subtlety and remembering what happened not so very long ago.

“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that make horse races.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

So…while the various Occupy encampments around the country were being raided by police, and the tents and belongings of several hundred campers were being removed, a video game called Modern Warfare 3 was released in America, and within twenty-four hours the game sold 6.5 million copies and grossed 400 million dollars, with the Japanese and German versions of the game soon to be released. “This game’s Survival Mode features one or two players fighting endless waves of enemies, with each wave becoming increasingly difficult. Despite being so frequently compared to the World At War Nazi Zombies Mode, enemies do not spawn at fixed locations like the zombies do; instead, they appear at tactical positions based on the current location of the player.”

This may be a stretch, but can you imagine a video game entitled Occupy Wall Street wherein the player(s) not only have to figure out how to successfully camp at Zuccotti Park and keep the police at bay, but also try to achieve objectives beyond continuous camping? Killing the enemy will not be an option in this game; which means subtlety, complexity, and an excellent knowledge of past protest movements will be extremely important in any game-winning strategy, which means, of course, no one will buy the game.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Goodnight, Gracie.