Reverberation

I’ve read a ton of books on writing in the past year.  Too many to count.  In one of them, about writing memoir, the author explains that writing about your memories has the effect of replacing them.  You end up remembering what you wrote more than what you actually experienced.  I’m sorry I can’t remember which book it was, so I can’t attribute this point to the author – if I do remember, I will update this later to give credit where credit is due.

I can imagine how this could happen.  You put so much time into thinking about what the right words are to capture some thought, feeling, or experience.  At least I do.  My tagline on this blog is ‘Me and my battle with words,’ for a reason.  I fully believe the right words are out there – it’s just a battle to figure out what combination is best.  And, there’s probably more than one combination that will work, but there are a zillion that don’t come close enough.  That’s what makes writing worth it – finding the right words.  It’s also what makes reading a great book so exhilarating.  Anyway, back to memories and how they change…

In The Black Swan, Taleb speaks of memory, in a section titled ‘Memories of things not quite past.’

“Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device, like a computer diskette.  In reality, memory is dynamic – not static – like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information.  (In a remarkable insight, the nineteenth-century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire compared our memory to a palimpsest, a type of parchment on which old texts can be erased and new ones written over them.) Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance.

So we pull memories along causative lines, revising them involuntarily and unconsciously.  We continuously renarrate past events in the light of what appears to make what we think of as logical sense after these events occur.

By a process called reverberation, a memory corresponds to the strengthening of connections from an increase of brain activity in a given sector of the brain – the more activity, the stronger the memory. While we believe that the memory is fixed, constant, and connected, all this is very far from truth. What makes sense according to information obtained subsequently will be remembered more vividly.”

I’m sure I’ve solidified mis-remembered memories as things I now believe to be true simply by remembering them repeatedly.  In fact, I’ve had odd discussions with both of my parents about two stories I remember hearing of my falling very ill as a baby and as a toddler.  Each parent remembers one story, but not the other, and they both swear by the story they remember, even though they are entirely different stories.  Neither has any recollection of the version the other believes, while I always thought both were true.  Maybe that says something about why they divorced.

Poor judgment

I’m reading The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  This book, like Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is partially about our capacity to judge probabilities and numerical values as humans, which according to these authors, is essentially horrible.  This fact (and I call it fact because I have been pretty convinced by the studies cited in both books, but really it’s just my opinion on what they posit) both fascinates and amuses me.  There are many simple examples in both books, though the underlying ideas are somewhat more complex.  For example:

When asked to propose a value for two sets of dishes, Set A, with 24 pieces, all completely intact, and Set B, with 40 dishes, 9 of which are broken, the following results were obtained:

– Average price of Set A when evaluated by itself – $33

– Average price of Set B when evaluated by itself – $23

– Average prices of Sets A and B when evaluated together – A, $32 and B, $30

This just defies logic, but apparently, our brains are not that capable of good judgment in areas like this.  Perhaps that is why The Price is Right has lasted so long.  It seems we are very swayed by the element of broken dishes.  Even when comparing the two sets, those that participated in the study seemed to think that the first 24 items were worth $30, but the additional 7 in Set B were only worth $2 more.

Another example:

An individual has been described by a neighbor as fololows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

Because this description of Steve is aligned with stereotypical traits we associate with librarians, most people instantly think he is more likely to be a librarian.  Statistically speaking, however, there are more than 20 male farmers for every male librarian in the United States, so Steve is much more likely to be a farmer.  Our brains just don’t work this way, though.  Well, some people’s brains might – in fact, I can think of a person or two I know that would probably recognize the statistical significance before answering the question, but most of us rely on stories, stereotypes, and other forms of narrative to perform fast associations, because it’s easier to process.

I would highly recommend both of these books to anyone interested in the psychology of decision-making, and the things that influence our thinking.  Our brains are much less sophisticated then we might think.

Happy New Year, and may you see many vegetable people in 2012

I was just glancing through “Old Friend from Far Away,” thinking it’s been a while since I just wrote randomly from a writing prompt.  I stopped on a page titled “Radish.”  The first paragraph opens:

“This is a wish. When you are writing about a radish, that you and the radish meet face to face. That you stay specific, present, and direct and through your true intention the radish becomes RADISH. You instantaneously summon the particular and also give life to the essence of that buried root plucked up red and edible.”

It’s good advice, I think, as I’m typing it out now, but that’s not what came to mind when I began to read.  I got distracted by memories of vegetable people.  I went through an odd phase a long time ago, when I couldn’t help but compare people to vegetables.  Visually, I mean.  One night, I was sitting at IHOP with my roommate and best friend, and someone walked in and I said, “Doesn’t that woman look like broccoli?”  My friend worked hard not to spit out his coffee, but in the end, he agreed that she looked surprisingly like a stalk of broccoli.  I can’t picture her anymore or I’d describe it for you better.  You might think people don’t really look a lot like vegetables, and maybe you’re right.  But, I challenge you to give it some thought.  You may not always see a vegetable when you look at a person, but you will be surprised how often you do, if you just think about it.  Leave your mind open to the fact that people can resemble, or at the very least, remind you of, vegetables.  Or other foods, if you need a broader target.

In the next few days, you might find yourself noticing that someone with a mottled complexion makes you think of frozen mixed vegetables, or someone that stands stiffly brings to mind a carrot.  Perhaps a balding man reminds you of a peeled onion, or someone else with spiky hair makes you think of the root end of a green onion.  The point is, allowing yourself the extra space to think about random things like this might make you smile just a little more frequently, and we could all stand to do that.  My New Year’s resolution is to see more vegetable people this year.

I haven’t given it a lot of thought until this minute, but if I had to classify a few of the characters I’ve introduced you to here, I’d say this.  My partner most resembles a stalk of celery (she’ll probably want to smack me for this comparison, but I mean no harm).  Barefoot boss – he’s a fingerling potato.  Gopher-man, hmm, I’ll have to come back to him – a cabbage, maybe.  Long Back Guy, an unripened Fresno chili.  The Guatemalan, a pineapple.  Cat Power, a roma tomato. Grass-phobia girl, a crimini mushroom.  Me, I probably look sort of like an eggplant.  Happy New Year!

I really love broken English

Maybe that makes me a little weird, but it’s true.  Since I started working at this company where we have lots of employees in China, I have regular happiness handed to me on a plate – well, in email, or Skype, or in meetings, or on the phone.  I’ve pondered why I like it so much, and actually given a lot of thought as to whether this is just plain politically incorrect, but I have decided I just don’t care.  I like it, so it’s good.  A few examples I particularly love follow:

——-

“Sorry for cost so long time since my unclever mind.”

If I tried for a week, I wouldn’t be able to come up with such a clever apology for missing the point of someone else’s e-mail (well, multiple emails over multiple days).

——-

“Roger.”  

This is an affirmation I get of most any statement I make in Skype to one particular guy I chat with all the time.  I guess in this case, my Chinese counterpart is not using English incorrectly at all.  He is just using it in a way no one else uses it anymore, and hasn’t really in fifty-some years.  I only know this because I decided to google it, though.  I knew “Roger” was a term that meant you understood what someone had said, and it had some association with pilots in the military, so I googled “roger as an affirmative statement.”  Turns out it comes from a radio alphabet (A = Alpha, B = Bravo, C = Charlie, etc.) that was the official alphabet of the US Navy until 1954.  One day I will ask where he picked up this statement.

——-

“need go to sleep…pain…headache”

Again, a simple Skype chat.  This time with someone who was trying to explain why he couldn’t answer my question.

——-

On the slightly serious side of this subject, I think I like seeing and hearing these mangled statements because I like language, and warped as these things seem, they give me an opportunity to look at language differently – to consider how it is entirely possible to get your point across in ways that aren’t supposed to work.  Add to that the sort of puzzle-solving aspect of translating the translation and it ‘s a perfect fit for me.  As a kid I loved to watch Jeopardy and I solved logic puzzles for fun all the time, so I guess it’s no surprise I take so much joy in capturing these little tidbits.

Man, I’ve got to get better at remembering birthdays!

I’ve written before about how I sometimes forget the right words to use – especially when I’m tired.  Well, I also am horrible about remembering some birthdays.  Today, I stepped out of the office for a few minutes in the afternoon to call my grandma and say “Happy birthday,” even though I knew I was a day late.  Weekdays are hard for me when it comes to calling home – they are all in Central time, I’m in Pacific time. If I have anything to do after work, they’re in bed by the time I get home, and that’s how yesterday was.  So, I ducked out today instead, knowing it wouldn’t be a huge surprise that I was calling a day late – most of my family expects me to be late with these things, or forget them altogether, which is odd, since I’m early or on time and completely organized for every other thing in my life.

I called and my grandpa answered.  “Hi,” I said.

Grandpa replied in his voice that has gotten soft and far away, “Oh, hi.”

“Are you busy?” I asked, more out of habit than because I actually thought he’d be busy.  He answered, perhaps one decibel above a whisper, which made it even harder for me to comprehend his answer.

“Actually, right now I am.”  Even he sounded surprised that he was busy.

I paused, then recovered and asked, “Is Grandma around?”  Again, an almost rhetorical question.  My grandparents don’t do much these days.  They’re approaching 80 and my grandpa in particular is quite frail.  Then I heard him say to whoever was with him, “My granddaughter…  from California…”  And there was a collective, “Ohhhh!!!” from the background, like I am some sort of celebrity or something.  I think it’s just that I live in California.  Long distance still matters to people that never understood the cell phone.  Grandpa hollered as best he could for Grandma who was upstairs, and said I was on the phone.

She picked up, and I pulled my cell phone away from my ear as she yelled into the receiver, “OK.  I got it!”

“Did I miss your birthday by a day?” I asked?  Grandma laughed a pretty big laugh and said, “Honey, it was a week ago!”

“What? You mean it was the 18th?!”

More laughing.  “No, it’s the 17th.”

“Dammit, I never get it right, do I?” I said, laughing back.

She said, “You know, I sent you the list.”  A few years ago, she hand-wrote all the important dates I should ever need to remember on a piece of paper and mailed it to me.  The  list has birthdays and anniversaries on it – for my aunt and uncles, my cousins, of course my grandparents – and my grandma even included my sister, my mother, and my sister’s kids on the list – birthdays I don’t generally have trouble remembering.  I know exactly where the list is.  It’s within arm’s reach of my desk, yet I never get it out in time.

“I know, I know,” I said.  “Well, did you do anything?”

“Your uncle came on Saturday and we went out for Chinese – you know we finally have a new Chinese restaurant in town.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yes.  He had to travel the next day, so he came early.  Then on Sunday I fixed dinner for your sister and mother and everyone.”

“Shouldn’t they be fixing dinner for you?” I joked.

“Well, yes, now that you mention it.  I think we should do it that way from now on.  Grandpa cooked a turkey outside, and we had mashed potatoes and vegetables.  It’s too much work.  I just can’t do it anymore.”

I understood, but the thought of Grandpa’s turkey grilled on the Weber and Grandma’s mashed potatoes and gravy started my mouth watering and reminded me of how someone has to watch over the mashed potatoes around my uncle and I, or we’ll empty the bowl and no one else will get any.  Our conversation ended just a few seconds later.  It’s impossible to get my grandparents to talk on the phone for more than about three and a half minutes.  They think long distance is too expensive, even though I’m the one calling, and I try over and over to tell them it doesn’t cost me any more to call them than it does to call someone on my own street.  I think they don’t believe me.  Still, it was a nice break in my hectic work day.

The thing is I don’t forget all birthdays – just some of them, which somehow makes it all seem worse.  I never forget my grandpa’s birthday – perhaps because it is near my mom’s – but I have a feeling I have never remembered my grandma’s birthday on time.  Lucky for me, she doesn’t seem to hold it against me.

This is almost as bad as a recent experience I had with a friend’s birthday.  I tend to associate birthdays together when I can, because it helps me come a little closer to remembering them, and I have a friend whose birthday I had associated with one of my sister’s kids.  In September, my niece’s birthday was coming up (which I remembered to call for, but I still haven’t sent her birthday present to her).  This triggered my associated memory of my friend’s birthday.  I had an odd nagging feeling in my mind that I might not be right about the exact date in relation to my niece’s birthday, and even though I hated to admit it (this friend never forgets my birthday), I broke down and sent an apologetic email saying, “I know your birthday is soon, but I can’t be positive it is today – so I apologize for that, but I wanted to say Happy Birthday even if I have the date wrong.  I hope you’re doing well.  We should get together soon.”

Later that day, I got an email back.

“Hi!  You are very thoughtful; your birthday is super easy because [it is the day after a holiday], but my day is a lot harder to remember.  My birthday is actually in April, but your email has put me in a totally celebratory birthday frame of mind, which I was not at all in, for my actual birthday. I think I am going to go to Cost Plus World Market this weekend and buy myself presents, and I am going to buy a whole box of Whole Foods vegan donuts (instead of a cake, because donuts really are even better than cake).”

Christ, it’s my nephew’s birthday that my friend’s birthday is next to, not my niece’s!  I explained.

“You know, after I hit send, I thought – wait, maybe it’s in April.  The issue is, I’ve associated your birthday with my nephew’s before, because his is in April – and yesterday was my niece’s birthday, and somehow the association got switched in my mind between the two of them – man, I’m not even 40 and already my mind is completely going!  I’m glad that you are now in a celebratory mood, though – that makes my huge mistake somewhat more tolerable.”

I guess worse things could come of forgetting someone’s birthday.

Trying to trigger my “right-brain”

I got back yesterday from my trip to Spokane for the Leadership and Imagination course I mentioned a few days ago.  Our first session, and Art scared the hell out of everyone in the course right from the start.  Apparently, we are all left-brain thinkers, relying on logic, checklists, organization, language, and structure to make our respective ways through life.  Our instructor, though, was determined to show us how to trigger our right-brain, the artistically creative hemisphere of our brains, into action.  We began by viewing a line drawing upside down, and attempting to replicate the drawing in 25 minutes.  
My first thought was, “OK.  No big deal.  I can certainly copy a drawing, even if I can’t draw anything from my imagination worth a damn.”  How wrong I was!  Viewing the image upside down shattered our ability to make sense of the lines.  I started at the bottom, because the lines there seemed much less daunting than those that made up this odd-looking man’s head.  Here is what I ended up with after 25 minutes of painstaking sketching (couldn’t turn off my perfectionist drive).

Upside Down Man

My attempt at copying Upside Down Man

While I think I was on my way to a passable copy, the most interesting part of the exercise is how difficult it was to make any progress quickly simply because the image was upside down, and our brains couldn’t “name” the parts of the picture instantly, like they would if the picture were right-side up.

The next exercise we did was to draw an image of our non-writing hands, curled up in some fashion, so it didn’t look like a kindergarten turkey.  To do this, we had to turn our bodies completely away from the table, hold our hands in the air in front of us, and write, almost behind us, so our left-brains would be a bit less tempted to cheat and look at the drawing.  I expected to see a mess of scribbles that looked like the wires behind so many people’s computer desks.  Imagine how shocked I was to see this!

Blind sketch of my hand

I may always view myself as the worst possible visual artist that walked the earth, but these exercises were interesting, in that, they force your brain to respond differently, and can serve to “prime the pump,” as our instructor said, when it comes to helping push people into a more creative space.  Unfortunately, I did not think to take a picture of the clay sculpture I made of Gollum (which was supposed to be my adorable cat).

Genealogy and Family Secrets

Depression is one of those plagues that weaves its’ way through generations in families, sort of like alcoholism.  My mom was depressed, her mom was depressed before her, and my sister struggled with depression even as a teenager.  I was depressed in my early twenties, and it hit me hard again when I began to have anxiety attacks in my late thirties. When I began researching my family’s history, I found there was some serious depression that ran in my family in earlier generations, too.

Some of these stories had been whispered about in my family for years, but if I openly asked about them, I was shut down in a second.  My grandparents are still from a generation where family secrets are just that – secrets.  Nonetheless, I set out to validate each taboo story and try to learn more about the details of each situation.  My  grandma’s mother, or my great-grandmother, was born in 1915, the youngest of three children.  Her oldest brother I’ll call Max and the middle child, Eric.  Their father died when they were all young, which would be only the beginning of a great deal of suffering and tragedy for the family.

As an adult, Max left Kiel, where they had grown up, and went to Milwaukee.  He worked as an auditor, and seemed to enjoy city life.  He wrote his mother regularly, and occasionally his little sister, too.  He told stories of the people he met in the city, described his efforts at finding a job, and one of his letters to his sister described a girl was quite smitten with.

Dear Sister,
I still have 20 some dollars in the bank.  If you can get it, I will send home the checkbook and you can withdraw it and pay your debts.  And, for God’s sake, have your tooth fixed.  I will send home some money if I can.
Give [Eric] the flannels, I don’t care.
[H] and I have been out all last week.  We have put in about 20 applications.  We are going out tomorrow again.
Well, sister, last Friday I had my first date.  I took her to the Wisconsin.  She is from Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  Her dad is mayor, vice president of a bank, and he owns a construction company.  He also has something in a paper mill.  She is the nicest girl I have ever met and she likes black wavy hair.  So, there you have it.
Write as soon as you get this so that I can send the book home.

Max

P.S.  I tried to have her teach me how to dance, but she can’t because she stays with 4 aunts and 4 cousins.  If you can get the money, pay my insurance.

Max had black, wavy hair.  At some point, he ended up in the service – the Army, I think.  No one in my family is sure why he joined, how long he served, or what he did, but he hated the experience.  He complained in his letters home to his mother.

Fort Sheridan, Il.
August 16, 1938

Dear Mother,
Monday and Tuesday we were at the rifle range, but I did not make marksmanship.  My shoulder was blue a little from shooting.  Next Monday and Tuesday we hike to the Great Lakes Naval Station, a distance of about ten miles, coming one day and going back the next.  We have to carry thirty-pound packs, rifle, mess outfits, and cartridge belts on the way.
Please write soon! Tell [G] and [E] to write too.  I have only gotten one letter so far from [S]. That’s a heck of a business. Some men are getting as many as three letters a day and I just have to sit there.  This is the address.  Don’t forget some of it as they get letters up here without even names on them or without the company.

Yours,
Max
C.M.T.C.  Co. F
Fort Sheridan, Illinois

He was discharged at the age of 29, near the end of 1941.  In early 1942, right after he turned 30, he received a telegram instructing him to report again for duty immediately.  He hung himself instead.

Although I didn’t doubt the truth of this story, I found newspaper articles that confirm the details.  In my grandma’s stack of papers, I found a Western Union telegram that was sent by the authorities in Milwaukee to the authorities in Kiel, giving them the details to pass onto his mother.  The family was devastated.

From the Milwaukee Journal:

Former Kiel Man is Found Dead

Milwaukee (AP).  [Max], age 30, an auditor, was released from the army last November because he was over 28. Wednesday he received notice to report immediately for further military service.  Yesterday his body was found hanging in his rooming house.  Police said he formerly lived in Kiel, Wis.

Death Notice by Telegram

This sad story makes me grateful for my life – grateful that in my many periods of darkness, I have never wanted to end my own life.  It also makes me grateful that those close to me in my family who have battled with depression never went so far as to write their own endings.  My grandma remembers little about her uncle, except that he was a sweet man.  She was eight when he took his life.  Whenever he came home to visit, he always had a small present for her.  Unfortunately, after his death, he became a family secret.  No one discussed him or his life any longer.  Perhaps it was because they felt shame about what he’d chosen to do when faced with a major obstacle in his life.  Perhaps it was because the pain of losing him was so deep.  Perhaps it was because they understood the temptation themselves, and knew it was best to keep it at bay by refusing to acknowledge it.