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The Persistence of Memory

2 Oct

As I write, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her while both were in high school is perhaps the top story in the news (at least in the US.) The story has become a Rorschach test of sorts; how you see the issue depends not just on your political views, but on other views, such as your views on how memory works.

I once had a job repairing damaged motion picture prints of a talking head giving a lecture. The guy in the film talked about significant emotional events,  those events that  leave an impact that is not soon forgotten. The event could be a long-lasting one, such as the Great Depression, or a shorter one, such as the experience of being shouted at by another person.


No, not that Persistence of Memory…

I’m not surprised that Dr. Ford says that she does not remember some details of the alleged incident, as that’s how memory often works. When I was in high school, a teacher/coach grabbed another student and I and slammed our heads together. (Our crime?  We’d gone to our lockers  for our books, and he hadn’t authorized the trip.) My head hurt and I remember feeling angry, humiliated, and helpless. I pulled out of the teacher’s  grasp and made an “Errrrgh!” sound, the most resistance I could muster at that moment. Though he hadn’t quite managed to knock us out, I not sure whether I went back to his classroom or went somewhere else after this incident. (I’m not even sure of the time of year, though I believe it was late winter / early spring.) Had the other student or I reported the teacher, he might well have faced disciplinary action, perhaps even termination. I don’t remember telling anyone about the teacher’s mean-spirited act at the time. I believe that the first person I told may have been my wife, years later.

Several things stand out here: vivid details that I remember, other details that are hazy, a failure to tell others, and a passage of decades.  At the core though, I remember the other student’s name, I remember the teacher’s name and that this event happened.  There is no possibility that a different student was there or that another teacher assaulted us.  If anyone were to suggest that over time I confused the student with a different classmate or the teacher with another, my account would not change; though I have forgotten many details about that day, I know who the other parties were.

Some have suggested that Dr. Ford is mistaken, and that the alleged perpetrator was someone other than than Brett Kavanaugh.  I doubt that. My own experience of a significant emotional event suggests that  vivid recollections of disturbing events  remain vivid over decades, though peripheral details may be lost. In regard to current events, I believe that those who suggest otherwise are at best mistaken about how episodic memory works, or at worst, trying to dissemble. Those who suggest a political motive may well have their own.  Though I have used the term “alleged” throughout this post, I must admit that I believe Ford’s account; I know how episodic memory works. Of course, don’t take my word for it – think of a dramatic or traumatic event from your own life (not too traumatic, I hope!) and see if your experience fits the same constellation.


God Bless You, Fred Ianelli, Wherever You Are!

21 Dec

We’ve wanted to say “God Bless you, Fred Ianelli, wherever you are” for a while now but we didn’t for several reasons:

  1. Fred Ianelli is the name of an actual guy that we knew, though not well.  We weren’t (and still aren’t) sure about how he’d feel about our use of his real name (assuming he ever even sees this.)
  2. We thought that the gang down at Atheism, Inc. might boycott us if we invoked the Diety

We’ve long known from personal experience that sometimes a comment made during a brief encounter can make a big difference, as Fred’s did for us on a Friday many autumns ago.

We majored in Communications at a university in the Midwest. (Upon graduation, we were all set for a career in broadcasting in the 1950s – unfortunately, it was the late 1970s.)  Back in those halcyon days, we were taking this 400 level TV  directing class.  The first assignment seemed simple enough: theme music, fade in on a title card, cut to the talent (the person in front of the camera is called the talent, even if that person has none), let the talent speak about a subject, cut to an object or diagram, back to the talent,  more talking, fade out. The whole thing is over in 3 minutes.


All set for the 1950s

Each student was to direct a talent and also be the talent for another student’s segment. The chap slated to be our talent proved a bit elusive – he didn’t seem to want to meet with us, and the most we could get out of him was that he’d be talking about stereo stuff – woofers, tweeters and the like.  He said he’d refer to a diagram to augment his short spiel. The diagram worried us – graphics must be bold to be visible on camera. We offered to take his concept and produce the graphic ourselves, but he assured us that he would take care of its creation.

On the day of the class our worst fears were realized – far from creating a graphic that would show up well on camera, our talent had created an ill-defined diagram that we knew instantly would display as washed-out white with faint dark lines. It looked like a kid in grade school had made it. Oh, well, nothing to do but tape the segment. Needless to say, the result was underwhelming. In his critique, the instructor stressed that the graphic was poor and needed to be visible to the viewing audience. We got a C.

On the trek back to our dorm, we happened to encounter the eponymous Fred, with whom we exchanged a few words of greeting.  We mentioned our less than stellar experience in  the TV directing class, which he had also taken in the past. As we finished our tale of woe, we saw that Fred seemed really amused.  He clapped us on the arm and said “Don’t let them mindf**k you, my man! And that’s what they’re going to try to do.  Don’t let ’em.”  The “they” he was referring to was the entire Communications department at our august institution.  We realized that he was right, and it cheered us up immensely.  We’d taken the whole thing way too seriously. By the time we got back home, we were smiling.


Black Dog and Robin

14 Aug

“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me; you say it wearies you.”
-William Shakespeare

As we write, stories about Robin Williams’ suicide are all over the news. No doubt Vanity Fair will do a piece about Williams in a future issue, and in a few years someone will likely make a bio-pic about his life (spoiler: it probably won’t be very good.) Perhaps it’s too soon for us to write about the late comedian, as there is much that is still not known. Some of the reports we’ve read state that Williams sought professional help for depression, a condition that Winston Churchill famously referred to as ‘my old black dog.’

We know something about Black Dog, having had it ourselves some years ago. Here’s a few of our observations about it:

  • Black Dog / Depression is not ‘the blues’. It’s a whole lot bigger and a whole lot scarier.
  • The most apt analogy for Black Dog we know is J.K. Rowling’s description of being in the presence of Dementors in the Harry Potter books.
  • It’s useless to tell someone suffering from the Black Dog to “Snap out of it”.  If they could, they would.
  • Ditto telling the person “You’ve got to fight it.”  If it was something they could fight, they’d be taking kung-fu lessons.
  • The best thing that anyone said to us during that difficult time was the woman who told us to to just keep thinking “This will soon be over.”  She was right.
  • We’re not doctors, but Black Dog is often the result of neurotransmitters in the brain getting out of whack.
  • Antidepressant meds take a little time to work, but they’ll kick in before too long. That’s why you shouldn’t quit taking them when you start to feel better.
  • Anybody at all can get it.

We try to avoid discussing stuff that’s kind of personal, but Willams’ suicide really got us thinking about depression.  We wish he could have hung in there a little longer (OK, a lot longer. )

If only it were this cute.

If only it were this cute.

True Love

5 Oct

“True Love” is a term that really doesn’t mean anything.  Its exact meaning is imprecise, but it often connotes love that is simply meant to be, love that cannot be denied, love that will transcend all attempts to keep the lovers apart.  If a relationship lasts 50 years or so, we might say “it was true love that made their marriage last.”  OK, but what if we dropped the word “true” and simply said “love made their marriage last.”  Or how about if we got really honest and said something like “During their 50 years of marriage, they knew good times and really hard times.  Sometimes they drove each other crazy.  Sometimes they fought like cats and dogs.  But they had enough maturity, enough tenacity, and enough wisdom to know that they could resolve their issues and stay together.”  That lacks the heady quality of “true love”, but in our humble opinion, it’s ultimately a lot more satisfying.

Doctor Freud and Doctor Seuss

5 Oct

Was just about to post this, when a Web search revealed that I am hardly the only one to have noticed this.  Oh well, I hate to let a perfectly good post go to waste.

“The Cat in the Hat”  was written by Dr. Seuss, but it may as well have been written by Sigmund Freud. The two children in the story represent the ego, thus they must find a middle ground between the superego represented by their pet fish (“He should not be here while your mother is out”) and the id represented by the Cat in Hat (“We can have lots of good fun that is funny”.) As if to drive the point home further, the Cat releases Thing One and Thing Two from out of a box, unleashing elements from the subconscious.

Cat in the Hat

Freudian cat