Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dark City and Last Thursdayism

In a discussion of the recently released movie Avatar over on Adrian McKinty's highly recommended blog, the

conversation veered toward other sci-fi movies hailed as landmarks, formative, influential and so on. Dark City came up in this context. Although wikipedia cites it as a cult classic, many may agree with McKinty's implication that this is now largely a forgotten movie. And though that itself might make good fuel for a blog about lapses of memory, in fact, it is the movie's subject matter that makes it rich material for this blog.

A man named John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub not remembering too much about how he got there, but he is soon on the run from the law and other forces with other ends. A nice little intro to the film can be found here. You might like to stop here and start with that if you haven't seen the film, which deserves to be watched without a lot of spoilers...

...If you are still with me, though, I will go on to say that Dark City is a stunning film about lost memory, recreated memory, and how much we should trust memory at all. Personally, I'm a sucker for movies whose theme is "reality as we know it is not as it seems", like The Matrix, Groundhog Day, Truman and, well, the list goes on and on, doesn't it? Put differently, how do we know that everything we believe about the world is true?

This film, perhaps even more than the others cited, makes the very foundations of our memory suspect. The analogy is most closely related to dreams, where premises we find ourselves adhering to turn out to have been created in the moment based on suppositions that wouldn't hold water if we could really think about them. But how much can we really think about anything, given that we have to use our own thoughts and memory as the very basis of our inquiry?

As for Last Thursdayism, I learned about it in the course of doing a little research for this post. According to Skepticwiki, Last Thursdayism is "the unfalsifiable belief that the whole of the universe was created Last Thursday with the apparent age of an ancient universe". It is apparently a parody of many Creationist arguments about the earth being only 6000 years old, in contradition to the geological record. Well, I'm hardly a creationist, but these kind of mind games do lead to the more difficult question of what it is we really know--one which I expect in the last analysis is unanswerable.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Unfortunately, I have been at one remove from several major accidents involving concussion over the past couple of years. (Two of these involved flukey bicycle accidents, so wear your helmets, people, even if for some reason you think it's uncool to do so. Spend some money on a comfortable and super hip helmet, and think of it as a gift to future generations, who, as small impressionable children, will adore your great look from afar.) I used to think that concussions were serious in the moment, but then you 'woke up' from them, so to speak and went on with your life. I now understand that concussions can have a more lasting effect, and that it isn't always clear, at least to the casual observer, what is just temporary and what is long term or permanent.

For this reason, I was especially interested in the recent 60 Minutes segment on professional athletes, concussion and memory loss.

I'm sure that helmets for motorcyclists, cyclists and basically anyone who rides around on things with wheels and no windows will eventually become de rigueur. But a designing genius may well come up with a helmet that everyone thinks is great to wear, and thus prevent many unnecessary accidents from keeping those hazardous slips on the ice, inadvertent walking in front of buses, and, well, general clumsiness from becoming the life altering accidents they could be.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Memory Squeaks

I was listening to Rick Kleffel's interview with E.L. Doctorow on our local radio station last week, and one thing Doctorow said particularly stood out to me. It struck me because I remembered Nabokov saying something quite similar in Speak, Memory. Both writers said essentially that using incidents in their own memory might have been helpful in their fiction, but that it had the curious effect of making that particular memory less rich and vivid to them forever after.

That's a bit discouraging, isn't it? We all know that memory can go, of course, but I suspect that we mostly assume it's in tact up until whatever disease or aging process kicks in and has its way with us. When I read Nabokov's comment, I noticed it, but I also partially dismissed it, as being largely about his own highly idiosyncratic mind. For Doctorow to say much the same makes me wonder if too much focus does in fact have a leaching process on memory. Both writers, as it happens, are talking about a very particular process of taking personal memory and in effect giving it to a fictional character.

I don't have a lot to add about all this. It could be just them, or it could be a wider principle at work. What I've noticed in my own telling of anecdotes is that, quite often, something will happen and it will seem worth mentioning to someone. If I choose the right person, chances are good that the tale will be a success, that in effect, I'll have 'nailed it'. But something about the repetition of the story has a negative effect. It wears thin, the accent is put on the wrong note, so to speak. It often works well on a second or third try, but after that, I believe it begins to sound a bit rote even to me, and people begin to wonder what the point was.

Now obviously, this can't be true for everyone. Professional comedians depend on being able to tell their old jokes fresh in a reliable sort of way. And actors in a hit show? How do they keep the thing fresh?

But anyway, I'm curious if this sort of wearing out of material rings true for anyone else. Or if anyone knows some sort of biochemical or even psychological reason why this should be so.

In any case, feel free to post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

computer brain death

I've been struggling to get my computer back up to speed for awhile now. Though successfully using a Linux drive to get online, I haven't been able to get my own system to work decently without a lot of annoying pop ups, messages and warnings. I've gone the usual route with this--taking it in to be repaired, finding that the repair didn't really solve anything, and so trying to decide what to do next. Lately, though, I haven't even been able to get in to anything. So last night, I just went for broke and reinstalled the hard drive.

This meant that a lot was lost.

I retrieved and backed up a lot of my documents,and since most of it was backed up anyway, I'll probably have some version of most of it somewhere. I'm a little sad to realize that most of my downloaded email is gone, but the fact is, all this has happened before.

So the relation to this blog is? Well, I'm kind of struck by the difference between how we, or at least many of us, save paper documents, and the way we save electronic ones. I suppose it will reveal me as very old school to say that I don't ever really throw away letters, but I have witnessed two wholesale clearances of computer memory with sadness, yes, but basically with a shrug. Yet I still have all those old faded letters.

It's interesting to me how we have consigned some of our essential recordkeeping, which is in essence a memory sort of job, to an unstable constantly self-revising electronic system. There is already much that I saved, ie, remembered, to technology that no longer works on my system. It doesn't mean I can never get at it--it's just that I can't do that easily.

I'm on the brink of doing a month long writing challenge through The founder of this venture, Chris Baty, just had his hard drive inexplicably die mere days before the big event, leading him to remind participants to back up their data and not rely on luck or chance to do so.

I'll close with two observations. One is that electronic "memory" tends to be very black and white. It either works or it doesn't. You can't "remember" lost data by trying harder to remember it. Basically, you only have the option of trying the equivalent of expensive brain surgery to retrieve it. And like brain surgery, the result isn't guaranteed.

The second is more related to memory--our memory--itself. I'd love if anyone cared to comment on a different take on this, but for me, when it comes to informational data, nostalgia is overrated. I hold on to a lot of this stuff, don't get around to deleting a whole lot of email, except for the obvious junk. But if the fates decide to take it away from me, after a bit of regret, I find I don't miss it all that much. From this I conclude that online data is different because it is just digital. Souvenirs of the past may need to be just a bit more material to be missed much.

Or so say I.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

October 17th, 1989

(In memory of Shawn McCormick and Robin Ortiz)

Every once in awhile, this blog is not about the lapse of memory, but memory, straight up. Today marked the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which some people may remember because of the World Series being played at that moment, and others may remember for images of people crushed and trapped on the collapsed Bay Bridge. However, the epicenter happened right here in Santa Cruz County, in the Forest of Nicene Marks, at a spot I have actually hiked to, though even that was a long time ago now.

Most people probably won't remember this earthquake at all, or maybe only vaguely, which perhaps ties in to my usual theme more than I thought. But this earthquake destroyed our downtown, forcing businesses into tents for a couple of years, and was one of those decisive moments in a community's history that marks all who were present forever. I don't mean that everyone was traumatized. I mean that our town changed forever from the kind of town that it had been only the day before. Many people lost property or suffered property damage. Many people left, changed their focus or direction. Some people, luckily only a few, lost their lives that day. However two of those people, very young people just starting their adult lives, died just on the other side of a wall from me. The wall fell the other way. They were in a little attic office, going over the days receipts of the coffee roasting enterprise that they were working in, and the top of the wall collapsed on them and buried them. The report later was that mercifully they had died instantly. But for days, many people stood around that pile of rubble, pleading with authorities to work faster, hoping against hope.

Today I walked down to the observances of the day. I wasn't really sure why I was going, though I had actually skipped going to my high school reunion for that very reason. As I walked down, I was struck by the incredible, almost too incredible vibrancy of the town. It was the last weekend of Open Studios and everywhere were signs advertising where some artist who had opened his or her home to the public could be found. A banner at the high school welcomed bands from around the state to the annual high school band review, which must have happened this morning. I walked past the Civic auditorium, where some sort of conference of jiu jitsu was in progress, and outdoor booths and music were spreading its followers out on to the street. The Pacific Rim Film Festival was in full tilt. And all of these things were bringing people out of their homes and over the mountains to our town, and none of it had anything to do with remembrance of the day at all.

Except it did. It was the sign of the phoenix's rise from the ashes, the town continuing in a new way with its old quirky energy, and no one could be blamed if they didn't make their way to the post office and the town clock to remember what was really only a moment in time. And I myself didn't go to hear the speeches, which was just as well, because some of them couldn't be heard anyway, from the back of the crowd. And there was a crowd, an old timer crowd, you might even say a home town crowd, although for all my years' involvement with the place, it's never really felt like my hometown. It probably never could.

As the speeches ended, the clock tolled the number of the dead from that day in our county. A couple of silver balloons floated into the air. I saw a few people I knew, but no one felt like talking. I walked over afterwards to the chainlink fence that to this day surrounds the site of the store that I worked in and the coffee house that the dead worked in. My eyes teared up. I didn't care about the store, though many still lament it. The store rose again in another location, after all, as did the town. Bigger and better you could even say, unless you didn't quite feel that way about it. And a hole in the ground is just a hole in the ground.

But the dead stay dead. Robin Ortiz and Shawn McCormack have not been part of the rebirth. I was glad to see the signs on the fence, with sweet sentimental comments like "We still miss you, Shawn." "I haven't forgotten you, Robyn." People brought bouquets of flowers to stick in the fence. Silver balloons were tied to the fence and floated above it.

Twenty years is a long time to be gone. A whole lifetime for some. My friends' son was born in a hospital right here in town the day before. Twenty years is an awful lot of living. I can't help but think of all the last twenty years has given me, all I did and failed to do--all I was granted time to do and fail to do.

Earlier this week, in a coincidental recapitulation, a tree fell in my yard. It was exciting, dramatic, but it fell the other way--harmless. The other one, its twin, which was leaning over my house did not fall. The thing to realize, if we can, is that this is not extraordinary luck on my part. We are all, for the moment, living on the right side of that brick wall. We are all, for the moment, living in the shadow of the tree that did not fall. And the only thing to ask, really, is what are we going to do with the time that remains?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Uncanny--the return of the repressed

In an excellent article in September's The Believer by Sara Gran and Megan Abbott on the now somewhat eclipsed horror queen V.C. Andrews, an essay of Freud's on the uncanny comes up. Not being much of a student of Freud, I found this analysis quite interesting, especially from the point of view of this blog. According to the authors, Freud thought that our sense of the uncanny came not from the unfamiliar but the familiar--it's our sense of dread in facing what we've known, but no longer have direct access to."The uncanny draws a map to what has been repressed." Gran and Abbott think that horror stories that revolve around "dolls, imaginary friends or other relics of childhood" have an extra power to scare us, because they bring back fears, desires and other memories from our earliest years that have since become unacceptable to us.

I've long been interested in the phenomenon I've seen around Andrews, which is the fact that they seem always to have been read mainly by young teenage girls, who read them as a sort of rite of passage. I was at a barbecue right after reading this article and took an informal poll about who had read her. Several hands shot up, all female, including that of one person who read her older sister's copies on the sly, as she was too young for them. That seemed quite in keeping with the Andrews tradition, though.

I liked the article's hypothesis that Andrew's can be found in plentiful supply in thrift shops and yard sales because, once read, these aren't the kind of books that people feel comfortable hanging on to. I wonder--do they forget the experiences brought up by the reading, or does the repressed see the light of day again?

Although I like some horror, it's never been my first area of interest, so I haven't read Andrews. I suppose, too, that I always felt a little superior to them, but I'll now concede I may have missed something.

Here's another interesting blog I came across that where this Believer article inspired a post.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Mysterious Case of the Forgotten Language

Over at Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders recently, the discussion turned to the curious fact that one of the members of the Swedish group ABBA, once fluent in English, has completely forgotten it. As several of us were trying to figure out how this could possibly be, it occurred to me that it would make a good post on this lapsed but not forgotten blog.

According to this informal but anecdotally interesting blog post, the facility with which children learn languages is exactly the reason why they forget them more easily when distanced from them too. In contrast,

Adult learners normally learn languages through grammar which gives them a skeleton onto which they hang the meat of vocabulary. Grammar based learning never delivers as good as result as immersion based learning but it does have the advantage of giving you hard wired rules that you don’t forget.

And another tangentially related article tells us that when people are trying to learn a new language, forgetting the correlate word in their own tongue may actually be an adaptive strategy. College students who had one year of Spanish under their belts were asked to name objects in Spanish, and the more they did so, the harder it was for them to come up with the word in English. Apparently, it gets easier to keep both in mind as you become more fluent in the second language.

Finally, I happened upon this rather poignant NPR piece about a Thai-American woman who was relearning Thai as an adult after her parents had made the decision that they would all speak only English in their new home in the Midwest--an adaptive strategy in its own right, but one that may have brought as many losses as it did gains.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Life Beyond

We all die, though virtually, it ain't necessarily so. Sara Paretsky's new website led me to this recent Times Magazine article , which has much to say about the ways the dead live on in their online presence, and how memory may be enhanced and shared by such possibilities.

This may seem a bit macabre, but I have already encountered my first blog ended by reason of death. This was the excellent blog of poet Reginald Shepherd, who died too young, of cancer. He's left us--his blog still remains. The survival of the blog is a good thing, I think. There is much to mine there, for those who are interested in his thought, and it remains a place where his partner can post announcements about various things related to the man and the poetry. Still, it does remain slightly unsettling to go to the bottom of my blog roll and click on that blog. I am tempted to erase it sometimes, as it's hardly dynamic.

For now, though, I think I'll leave it be.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On Forgetting Where You Read It

It's slightly ironic that I thought my next post here would be about a quote from Antonio Machado regarding dreams and memory. As those of you who have your own blogs may recognize, an aspect of the blogging world is that it turns many pieces of your own life into potential material. So I was quite excited when, going through a stack of used books I was considering purchasing, I came across this opening quote that seemed so apt.

Unfortunately, I can't find it again.

I've looked at all the books I thought it was in, but no dice. I've done a little internet research, but it turns out Machado has spoken, or perhaps more accurately, written poetry about dreams and memory many times. In any case, the quote did not come back to me.

Fortunately, this has sent me on a somewhat different tack about memory. I couldn't tell you how many times I have read something brilliant, or that resonated with me, or at the very least was worth recalling and pondering, and then been too lazy to drop what I was doing and write it down. Neither could I recount the number of times I have subsequently searched the text I know it was in, only to come up empty handed. "It had to have been about here." "I remember it came right after this." "I am absolutely sure it was on the left hand side of the page, towards the middle." If I turn out to be fifty percent right about these 'certainties', I'd be surprised.

More often than not, I never find the line that caught my interest again.

Now I'm sure more tenacious people, or those rare, commendable people with photographic memories, are sneering slightly at this point. And really, I don't blame them. I must say that if by now I haven't learned that I should at least make note of the page number, or in this case, the title--by which I mean actually write it down--well, more fool me.

But here's the interesting part. Sometimes, I do find the quote. And usually, it is not quite how I remembered. It does not quite express the point I thought it did. It says something almost the same, but not quite. It turns out that I have put my own spin on it. Used it to my own ends. It's not usually in contradiction to what the writer has to say, but my own brain has 'tweaked' it slightly. In some way, my mind has taken the ball and run with it. Hopefully towards our side's goalpost, but not always.

I like to think that this doesn't mean that I am just a careless reader, though obviously, sometimes I am. The more charitable view is that we all read things and sometimes identify closely with them, leading to our own insights, which we then in turn read back into the text, altering it ever so slightly as we go.

At least, I really hope it's not just me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"The true kiss vanishes the moment their lips separate."

In other words,"If you have a memory, the more you use it, the more you're likely to change it."

Or so I learned from Radio Lab, a show produced by WNYC, which my friend Brian O'Rourke was kind enough to track down for me. Admittedly, this was awhile ago, but although the theme of this blog might suggest otherwise, I did not actually forget about this. I have only recently gotten a DSL hookup, which makes listening to an hour long radio show on my laptop possible, rather than merely theoretical.

Just listened to the first segment, which was more than enough to absorb for one night.

In any case, here's the link.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On forgetting and remembering one's classmates

I just took a little trip down memory lane over the weekend when one of my high school friends, who I truly hadn't seen in a couple of decades, came to town and had lunch with me one day. Any event like this is an exercise in reminiscence--there's a bit of taxing of the grey matter that's both challenging and enjoyable. I wouldn't automatically have mentioned this on this blog, but I had an odd experience in relation to this that seemed apropos. My friend mentioned a name from our class, someone whom she'd gotten to know a bit better in recent years, and though I knew the name, could even remember the brother of the girl, I couldn't remember the person she meant at all. My friend left to return home and I was mulling over all that we'd talked about, when suddenly the image of the girl snapped into place. This is someone I haven't thought of since I graduated high school, I think, but suddenly she was vivid to me, unforgotten after all. And I have to say that this recollection of a person I had completely forgotten about filled me with a sense of elation and well being. It wasn't anything about the person herself so much as the mental act of remembering that was the elixir. It was like a replenishing or a repopulating of my own inner substance. It was unusual, though I suspect others have similar moments to recount. Feel free to do so here...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

That was fun--now what?

Awhile back I posted my fear that this blog would become a victim of my own forgetfulness, and wondered about all the forgotten blogs out there. Although its early demise has turned out to be a false alarm, Slate magazine currently has an article about one tweet Twitters and mentions in passing the link to a blog dedicated to one post blogs.

Now the reason for these abandoned twitters and blogs is probably boredom and lack of self-discipline more than forgetfulness, but I'm sure that a lapse of memory does play into most of them after awhile...

Check out that One Post Wonder blog by the way. It looks good.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Speak, Memory--but don't say too much

I think I mentioned awhile ago that I have come up with several ideas for post here that don't involve too much work on my part. Here's another.

When I read Nabokov's Speak, Memory in the not so distant past, I came across this article from Salon Magazine, which supplements his story a little.

All families have secrets, and I suppose all writers suppress certain aspects about their family that are hard for them to admit, for whatever reasons. However, when you invoke memory deliberately, you are setting a higher bar for yourself, and editing out your younger brother in the kind of ways Nabokov apparently did involves some effort.

I admire Nabokov as a writer, though my reading of the novels is patchy at best. I did not care for Speak, Memory, though. I am wonder if this particular lapse of memory may hold some of the reasons why.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It Never Really Went Away, You Just Forgot About It

Or that's the explanation over at about what happened to the avian flu that everyone was panicked by a few years ago. Pediatrician Sydney Spieisel's account of this is here.. On the one hand, it's lazy of me to just let him tell it, but on the other, you know he knows a lot more about this than I do.

Now that swine flu has reared its ugly head, we are thinking once again about deadly flus. But if it peters out, and I certainly hope it does, we will all put it on the back burners of our minds again.

Luckily for us, sometimes the organizational aspect of society works a little differently than our own small brains--in other words, our collective mind isn't so easily diverted by the next new thing. Many things have been thought through by the health care professionals while we as individuals forgot about this--things like how to distribute anti-viral medicines on a mass scale and how and when to impose a quarantine. So, as a result of the avian flu scare, we are better prepared to deal with a pandemic than we would have been otherwise.

Here's hoping you don't get any of these scary flus. And by the way--Gesundheit!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Past Continuous

At times I feel that of my several blogs, this is the one that ends up languishing on the vine. But in the past couple of weeks I've had several great ideas for topics. Great, because none of them involve a whole lot of work on my part!

I've been following Sucharita Sarkar's constantly thought-provoking blog Past Continuous for awhile now, though it is in some ways the opposite of this one--it's all about memory. But her latest post brings the two themes together: Her question to us all is "Do you remember when you first forgot something?" You can answer her question here.

Or I suppose I should say, you can try to. Remembering about forgetting is, I find, a slippery proposition.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On forgetting the names of characters

On a recent post on another of my blogs, two of the commenters referred blithely to a fellow named Parviz, assuming the reference would be self-evident to me. I in turn assumed that with their far superior cultural literacy, this was just someone they knew and I did not. I figured it was some Arabic poet, along the lines of Rumi, say, or Kabir.

Much to my mortification, it turned out to be a character from a novel that I had not only read, but posted about, and not too terribly long ago, either. Parviz is the first narrator in a book told from multiple perspectives.

I say 'mortification', but I don't really mean 'deep shame' so much as a certain sense of ruefulness. The fact is, I often don't remember the names of characters even for the length of time it takes me to read a book. It isn't that I don't remember the characters--Parviz in this book is a particularly sweet and slightly lost one. But names are somehow not what my brain latches on to. This is particularly true if there is some kind of similarity between the names. An easy example is if they were all Arabic, or Russian. But the fact is that even with the last P.D. James novel I read, there was a certain sameness to the very Anglo-Saxon names of the multiple suspects and it took me awhile to sort them all out in my head.

Usually, I can eventually figure it out by context. But sometimes I really do have to go back and nail down some of the characters more consciously. Most of the time, that's enough.

I was sitting out in the crowds waiting for a matinee performance of Shakespeare Santa Cruz one day, eavesdropping on my fellow picnickers to pass the time. Some parents were sitting with their college-aged daughter and they were talking about some foreign person who was in the news at the time. (No, of course I don't remember who it was--are you kidding?) It wasn't the easiest name for an American ear to assimilate, whatever it was, but the daughter pronounced it 'trippingly off the tongue'. Her parents (and I) were impressed. She replied, quite casually and not at all sarcastically, "I find that if you just pay a little attention at the time, it's not that hard to remember these things."


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Five point four million tons--a coal ash spill

Technically, this doesn't really qualify as a lapse of memory, I suppose. At least not my memory. Because, when news that, on December 22, 2008, 5.4 million tons of ash generated from fifty years of coal burst through a dike near Kingston, Tennessee, threatening farmlands and the nearby river, I really wasn't aware of it. I don't doubt that it made the national news. I do doubt that there was any sort of sustained coverage of it.

Here's the link .

What I find myself objecting to here is the idea that if you miss a couple of nights of evening news, in the holiday season--I mean, I work in retail and this was three days before Christmas--a disaster of this magnitude would simply disappear from our collective view is outrageous. It not only has implications for the lives and livelihoods of the people of that region, it spreads outward to hundreds of other coal ash storage sites across the land, raising questions of their safety, and it reaches backward and forward in history into the nature and wisdom of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and by extension, to the nature and wisdom of many other government led schemes. I use the word 'schemes' deliberately, as I've noticed on the BBC that this is quite a neutral word when it comes to big ideas dreamed up by government or business, but as an American, I can't really hear the word 'scheme' and fail to be concerned.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

White House Built by Slaves!

Originally, I thought I had a great new idea for this blog, because both the New Yorker and the Jim Lehrer Newshour have recently done thoughtful pieces on the fact that the White House was built in part by slaves. I thought I could say something about the way this little factoid comes to the surface now, and perhaps it's still worthy of mention. But it turns out it's the kind of factoid that is already on everyone's lips. Reporters looking at the White House can barely refrain from commenting, "built by African-American slaves, the White House..." and so on.

I did not know this fact before Obama was elected. I am glad, or maybe glad is not the right word, to know it now. But I am a little suspicious of the way we all do know it now, and how few of us knew it before the media decided that it would do as a nice frame for the moment. I can't help thinking that we should always have known this about the all too White House, first, because it is part of our history, and second because it makes a difference as to how we look at all kinds of things--Washington,D.C., government, democracy, even architecture.

Perhaps this is too cynical. There is something good too about the way facts, forgotten, resurface, and how sometimes they have all that much more weight for that. But I still feel I have been in the dark too long about this one.