Thursday, January 23, 2020

Memory


            Kim and I have watched a few episodes of “The Mind Explained” on Netflix. The episode that bothered me most was the one on memory. In it we learned, or relearned, that memory is an unreliable, even slapdash affair, where we piece together fragments from different areas of the brain. Eyewitnesses are unreliable.

            Sure, my memory is getting worse – whose isn’t? But that’s not what bothered me.

            When the “Memory” episode was over, Kim asked me if I had many vivid memories of growing up.

            “No.”

            “Do you remember your high school graduation – walking across the stage?”

            “No. I don’t even remember if it was indoors or not. I don’t remember my college graduation, either.”

            My memory of the past is poor. Even the recent past. Always has been. My high school memories center around some pranks I pulled (e.g., detouring traffic into friends’ driveways), getting hit in the cup while playing hockey, and discovering William Blake’s “The Tyger” in 10 grade English (thank you, Mr. Hayes). A few more memories trickle in as I write these down, but not much, and not, I fear, very reliably.

            “Where did you put the spatula?”

            “I never touched the spatula, except for maybe a month ago. I distinctly remember not touching or even seeing it.”

            Kim has several theories about why I don’t remember where I put the spatula, the names of people I just met, or what she fixed me for dinner yesterday. This may be age-related, but I don’t think so. See the word “always” a few paragraphs back. (At my age, I don’t have to worry about early-onset Alzheimer’s.) My brain may be busy trying to figure out what’s going on in Washington or what my next blog will be about. And this week I put together a document, “If David Dies First,” detailing for Kim how to access passwords and financial stuff on my computer, what is set up for automatic payment, who to call for insurance, investments, etc. This, addition to figuring out the 130 settings (true!) that need to be made on her new camera. This shit has to be occupying a lot of brain space! Not much left to remember where I put the fucking spatula!

            For a few years Kim worked with a company called Creative Memories, where she taught people to make scrapbooks. What I like most about the company is the name. Most of my memories are creative. As I repeat stories about my past, as old people tend to do, I’m sure that I’m being creative, revising the story with each telling to make it more amusing or making me more wonderful. Memory is not at all involved here.

            Also several years ago, I read an insightful book by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson called Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). The authors argue that the brain is wired for self-justification. I think that many of my creative memories are a product of that wiring, as are the many blanks in my memory. I loaned the book to someone. If you are reading this and have my book, please return it.

            I recall (I think I recall) hearing an interview with a very old Frenchman. He was asked about the secret of his being so healthy in old age.

            “Poor memory.” He went on to explain that he simply failed to remember the people who had offended him and wrongs he may or may not have done – too long ago to do anything about. Instead, enjoy your coffee and croissant in the morning and wine in the afternoon.

            By the way, the episode in The Mind Explained after “Memory” is “Psychedelics.” I have little to report on the subject at the moment, but stay tuned.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Song


            Last week a young couple, unrelated to us, told us they were engaged to be married. Somehow, it makes a difference in my life.

            We live about two miles from a restaurant, where we eat about once a week. This past summer, under the direction of a Romanian-born manager, they hired about a dozen Romanian students for the summer, when we have a lot more residents and guests than we have now in January. Kim and I got to know a few of these kids, thanks largely to Kim’s warmth, curiosity, and talent for getting people to talk about themselves. We helped them with their English – for example, explaining what it means to serve a Manhattan “up.” Among the visitors was Ion, who was actually from Moldova, small country located between Romania and Ukraine. (No, I‘d never heard of it, either.) The students all left in September, visiting various parts of the United States (Chicago, Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon) before heading home. We miss their youthful energy.

            At dinner a few weeks after they departed, we were talking to Das, a young local waitress who had been hired that summer. Kim asked her if she missed the Romanians. She said yes, especially Ion, who is her boyfriend. Kim told her that she made a good choice in boyfriends.

            Fast forward to January, when Das escorted us to our table. We asked if she had heard from Ion, and she said, Yes, he is here, and they are engaged. He came to our table to take our order, and, this being a slow night, we got to talking about their plans. No date set. He’s seeking work as an electrical engineer doing environment-friendly work. She is training to teach math and physics. They are sweet kids, and we wish them well.

            Sweet, but so what?

            Iran. North Korea. Puerto Rican earthquakes. Australian fires. Impeachment. Another school shooting. Global warming. Tornadoes. Plane crash. Flu deaths. Jefferey Epstein, African drought. Extinctions. Racism. Hate.

            No, we do what we can, vote, sign petitions, write letters. And feel encouraged by sweet moments.

            Not quite on the same subject, but here’s a poem that found me:

Earl
by Louis Jenkins
In Sitka, because they are fond of them, people have
named the sea lions. Every sea lion is named Earl because
they are killed one after another by the orca, the killer
whale; sea lion bodies tossed left and right into the air.
"At least he didn't get Earl," someone says. And sure
enough, after a time, that same friendly, bewhiskered face
bobs to the surface. It's Earl again. Well, how else are
you to live except by denial, by some palatable fiction,
some little song to sing while the inevitable, the black
and white blindsiding fact, comes hurtling toward you
out of the deep?

Ion and Das are my “little song to sing,” at least this week. Maybe yours is a grandchild, a piece of music, a bird, a meal, a small kindness observed.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Power Failure


            When I was teaching Hamlet  I suggested that in Act IV, when Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave and then jumps (or climbs) out, he is experiencing a symbolic “death and rebirth.” He can then go on to get his revenge on the man who killed his father. You probably find this as fascinating as my students did.

            Nevertheless, we find our “death and rebirth” moments wherever we can. Kim and I experienced one on New Year’s Eve. No, it did not involve midnight or resolutions. Rather, it was a result of the loss of electric power due to a heavy wet snow. Our power was off (or “down” or “out”) for about a day and a half.

            We made do. Our little gas Jotul stove has a back-up battery starter, so that provided heat to our enclosed porch. We had enough dry firewood for the living room, though the heating range there was a six-foot semi-circle. We could light our gas stove with matches, and we have a lot of candles. Kim, who apparently had watched The Little House on the Prairie, had enough foresight to store some gallon jugs of water for drinking and the occasional flush of the toilet. (Our neighbor, Joe, not so well prepared, used water from his toilet tank – we didn’t dare ask for what – until we gave him a jug of ours.) We used an old kerosene lamp for a while, but the wick was too dry to work well. The house is well insulated and we have thick comforters for bedding, so sleep was not a problem. In fact, after sitting on the semi-dark porch for about an hour, not watching television and reluctant to run down our cell phone batteries, we decided to go to bed early: about 8:30.

            We made some adjustments the next day. In the morning I drank a cup of cold leftover coffee (me? addicted?) until Kim showed me that she could heat it on the stove. We had been working on a difficult jigsaw puzzle, and that pretty much stopped, though I found that my progress in the dark was not much different from being stalled fully lit. 

            Once it was light enough to read the manual and the 430-page guide-book, we spent several hours trying to set up Kim’s new Sony camera. We made it through the process, which is not to say that the camera is working the way we want. We will have to wait for electricity to power up Kim’s computer to see if the dark muddy images on the LCD monitor are a problem with the monitor, the camera, or our screwed-up set-up. I’m guessing the latter.

            I shoveled snow a couple of times, partially because it needed shoveling, and partly because I don’t like waiting around.

            Meanwhile, we made a call to the local company that sells generators – a classic horse / barn-door scenario. They came right out and delivered an estimate of $8,000. I said I’d think about it.

            We made several calls to the electric company, first to report our outage – we learned there were 14,000 people without power in six counties. Then I wanted to speak to a human being, not a recording, and I learned that saying I’m calling to report a tree fallen on a live wire would get me someone. They were very sympathetic when I told them that we have a 95-year-old neighbor who is just home from the hospital with pneumonia (true), and I don’t know if he is on life-supporting medical equipment (not true – he’s not, unless you count his television).

            I called again in late afternoon of the 31st, and I decided to mention Kim’s cancer as an additional reason they should restore ours soon. I figured that most people who called had a similar story, and mine was true. I was told, after a minute or so on hold, that we were next, and sure enough, about 4:30 in the afternoon the power came on. (Notice how we say the power went off, and it came on.) Now, with the power on, we decided that the generator was an unnecessary expense.

            We were very happy. I felt reborn, without all the hassle of actually dying. For Kim it was “no big deal,” probably because she was prepared. This was New Year’s Eve, and we celebrated by flushing toilets. Not at midnight, though. No, despite our newly powered television and our exuberant rebirth as empowered people, we were both asleep by 9:30.

            These death and rebirth experiences, as Wallace Stevens noted, “occur as they occur.”

One's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,
One's tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur.

Kim and I experience death and rebirth, in a minor way perhaps, when we witness a sunrise, or for me, when I see Kim emerge, sleepy-eyed, from the bedroom in the morning. It’s just a matter of paying attention.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

New Year's Eve


          New Year’s Eve is unique among our holidays. It’s truly global, though many people wisely celebrate the Winter Solstice instead rather than an arbitrary product of the strange history of our calendar. But NYE (abbreviated to emphasize its brevity) is the only holiday that is focused equally on looking back and looking forward. It does not commemorate Something Special that happened on that day – such as Christmas, Easter or my birthday. It does not detach itself from its historical antecedents to take on a life of its own, like Hallowe’en or my personal favorite, April Fool’s Day, though for some NYE becomes just an excuse to stay up late and party. No, at the stroke of midnight and the times that frame the stroke, we look at the year gone by (who died, best movies, etc.) and the year to come resolutions – I’ve written about them before - http://www.dhstringer.com/2017/01/my-resolutions.html. It’s really a dimensionless point in time. Almost a nothing. That may be why we have made New Year’s Day the actual holiday – at least it has 24 hours, unlike the sliver of time when we move from one calendar to the next.

            Heraclitus said, famously, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Let’s assume that this is also true for women.) Profound, right? But Heraclitus did not take it far enough. None of us can step in the same river once, because, as he noted, the times they are a-changin’, and it ain’t the same river the moment you step into it. And what, similarly, isn’t changing in our lives as we move from one point in time to the next?

            We can look at NYE as a celebration of change itself. No, you probably won’t fulfill your resolutions, but the intention behind our resolutions is a celebration of change, or at least the possibility of change. And looking back at those who have died does give us a brief victory over time through the act of remembering, but for me the victory is subsumed by the sense of loss, death being the Ultimate Change. NYE is a point in time, perhaps a pivotal one, less than a moment long. It’s the moment when future becomes past.

            As I see it, we have three choices about how to deal with the fact of change: ignore it, lament it, or celebrate it. (There are other options, of course – deny it, mock it, or my favorite, change it. But let’s stick with the first three.) Most of the time we just ignore change because we are too busy washing dishes, driving to the store, or checking our email. Occasionally we slip into the lamentation mode, especially when looking in the mirror or at an old photograph, or lamenting a death. Hard to escape those moments. Celebration of change is harder to come by in our daily lives. We learn of a birth or marriage. Election results sometimes lead to celebration of change, though it’s often premature. Celebrating birthdays, as we get older, often move to the lamentation zone, though sometimes we are proud and pleased to have survived another year. Watch out, though, when friends and family treat your birthday like a Memorial Service, you know, a “celebration of your life,” – now, the unspoken phrase, pretty much over.

            All of which leaves NYE as a clear celebration of change. The numbers on the year change, but it’s not a measure of the march toward death. And since change is omnipresent, you don’t have to stay up to midnight on the 31stto celebrate. Kim and I didn’t. Everymoment is pivotal, or it can be. Pause and celebrate. If you celebrate a few days late – so, what?

            We woke up on January 1 to discover six inches of new snow.  Our world had changed again.







Thursday, December 26, 2019

Tech Support


            “Why are you beating your head against the wall?”

            “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

            Kim finally bought a new camera. After a lot of shopping, reading reviews, talking to photographers, etc., we decided on a Sony a7R III. We bought it from a local camera store, not online, because we figured we would need some live personal help in setting it up.

            Before committing to the camera, we had to make sure that Kim could download pictures into her Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, where she organizes and works on her images. This is where I stepped in as tech support. If I am tech support, we are in trouble . . ..

            I started out by trying things on my computer, as I was afraid I might destroy Kim’s photos if I experimented on hers. My next level of tech support, Miguel, told us where we could download an image taken with our Sony model to see if it would go into my Lightroom and thus into Kim’s. In order to do that, I had to update my Lightroom to Kim’s more current version. I did so, not realizing that my new one was just a bit more current than Kim’s. This took me about an hour. Then, when I tried to move the Sony image into Lightroom, I was told that I needed to install “Adobe Camera Raw Plug-in 10.5.” My computer was already plugged in, which confused me, but I looked around on the internet and found what I was looking for, so I installed it. All good.

            Then I moved over to Kim’s computer. When I tried to install the Camera Raw Plug-in on her computer, I was told I had to update her Lightroom to 6.14. An hour or two later, after checking with a number of YouTube sites and Adobe’s help forum, I thought I had done so. I downloaded the photo into Lightroom, but when Kim tried to move it into Photoshop, she was told she had to update her Photoshop. An hour later, that was done, and I was relieved that her photo library was still intact. When I tried to move the photo into her newly updated Photoshop, I was told that in order to do so I would have to download and install “Legacy Java SE 6.” I had no idea what that was, but I was encouraged by the word “Java” as I am good at making coffee.

            An hour later I had not figured out how to find it and download it, so I called Miguel in New Mexico. He did a good job of weeding through my “explanation” of what I had done and forwarded me the link to Legacy Java SE 6. I downloaded and installed it. Apparently, everything is working now, and Kim is good to go.

            I say “apparently” because the new camera is still in the box. It’s been sitting in the box for about two weeks, along with the 250-page instruction manual. We have been busy getting ready for Christmas, which includes a week with family guests coming and going, and we know that when we start to set up the camera we will want to see it through, and that will require a stretch of uninterrupted time – probably a long stretch – which we are expecting to have in January after washing sheets and towels, writing thank-you notes, and assembling a clothing rack whose instructions were poorly translated from Chinese. That’s why the new camera is still in the box and all the Lightroom and Photoshop changes untested.

            Of course, it might be that we are simply afraid.

            Still, I experienced this great feeling of satisfaction once I had apparently gotten Kim’s computer squared away. That great feeling was most likely not due to the questionable quality of my work, but rather it was because, for a while, I could stop providing tech support, and it feels so good when I stop.


Thursday, December 19, 2019

Squirrels





            What is it about squirrels? I have written before about how they attack our bird feeders, and that competition is ongoing. They are pests, but there is still something very appealing about them. No?

            Squirrels are cute. Their small, big-eyed furry faces tug at some protective instinct, as makers of stuffed toy animals for kids surely understand.

            Squirrels are clever. I almost said “intelligent,” but that gets into the quicksand of definitions, so I’ll stay with clever. They have learned to live with us, while not being our pets, and they are good at finding food and shelter in our world. They can solve problems. Kim’s dad used to string a line between two trees and then hang nuts and other squirrel treats from strings in little packages. The entertainment was in watching how they dealt with the challenges. (This was before satellite television came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)



            Squirrels are energetic. We have a lot of them, and I suspect that they burn more calories chasing each other away than they consume in the food they win.

            We have several species of squirrels on our property:

Red Squirrels – These little guys (I think of them as guys) are the most aggressive, chasing their larger cousins away from spilled seed from our feeders. If they can’t find any cousins, they chase each other.







Eastern Gray Squirrels – These are the most common species around here, and the most clever in attacking our feeders.





Black Squirrels – Not really a separate species, they are a “melanistic subgroup” of gray squirrels. About 30 seconds on the internet (praise google!) taught me that “the black squirrel is the product of interspecies breeding between the common gray squirrel and the fox squirrel. The black squirrel is actually a gray squirrel with a faulty pigment gene carried over from the fox squirrel that turns their fur a darker shade.” Who knew?



Fox Squirrels – We have not seen one here, though they were common when we lived in southeast Michigan. They are said to be larger and a bit redder than gray squirrels.



White Gray Squirrel – another morph. We found this one in a park in Florida’s Panhandle.

            

Here’s the quiz you’ve all been waiting for. Identify these squirrels. Extra credit given if you correct errors in the identifications we made above.

#1


#2 and #3


#4


#5

#6

#7

#8

#9

#10

#11


#12

Thursday, December 12, 2019

When I Grow Up?


            Who do you want to be when you grow up? I know – usually the question is, What do you want to be? with the expectation that the answer will be a vocation (fireman? tax lawyer? philosophy professor?). And the question is usually asked of young people, probably pre-teens.

            Well, I’m not going to do it that way. Here’s why: Kim and I recently watched a movie, The Feast of Love, and about halfway through I said to her, “I want to be Morgan Freeman when I grow up.”

            “You already are,” she said, though later she came up with some ways I am not like Morgan Freeman.

            But it got me to thinking: Who did I want to be when I grew up at various stages of my life? I knew it was Denzel Washington a few years back, and Kim even taught me how to do a “Denzel Walk” with great confidence, some sexiness, with a hint of threat. Denzel is no longer in my future.

            Atticus Finch served me well. Still does. And more recently, Barack Obama.

            When I was much younger I wanted to be Clark Kent. Not Superman – too much pressure. But “mild mannered” Clark felt just right. I liked having hidden potential, and I liked feeling that my awkward fumbling was only a cover. This still works for me occasionally.

            The one superhero I wanted to be when I grew up was the Invisible Man – H.G. Wells version. Invisibility was my survival strategy. Let my bold brother Bob take the heat for pushing the boundaries at home, which is how I saw staying out late and going out with girls. No, I’d stay in my room and read. Invisibly. I wondered how long I could pull that off . . ..

            Were there any real people who were models for who I wanted to become? Not that it matters, for real people are products of my imagination just as fictitious ones are. An early aspiration was Chuck Hayes, my 10th grade English teacher and hockey coach. It was about that time that I decided that I wanted to teach high school English. Other teachers who I wanted to be when I grew up were Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Jack Heath at Exeter, and Roger Sale at Amherst. All were, to some extent, comic book characters. Nothing wrong with that, is there? As I said, they were products of my imagination, as was the role I played as a teacher. I hope I retired before becoming a comic book version of myself.

            Aside from the “Who?” and the “want,” the other interesting part of the question is “when I grow up,” the implications being, 1) I am not yet grown up (and who is? Morgan Freeman), and 2) I am evolving, or at least I have the potential to evolve. And that’s probably good news. Choose a good model, and I may get a seat at the grown-ups table.

            On the other hand, maybe being grown up is over-rated.