Archive for September, 2010

How My Brain Remembers Names

Recently, while giving my medical history to a new doctor, I struggled to recall the name of the surgeon who had removed a benign mass from my neck nearly twenty years ago.  There was no need to remember his name; the situation had been taken care of and I had not needed his services since.  The last time I saw him was ten years ago, after (coincidentally) he operated on my dad.

But it bugged me, as it always does when I can’t remember a name.  I don’t keep decades-old medical records at hand, so I knew I would have to enter into that scariest storage facility of all–my brain.  Come along with me, if you dare, as I search my “files.”

We enter a room the size of an average bedroom.  The room has high ceilings–this is an older building, after all.  8 A.M. light shines through grime-streaked windows, causing you to raise your hand against the glare.  Cobwebs drape the walls, and dust bunnies crouch in the corners. You wrinkle your nose. You find all this rather messy.

Before us–not lined up against the walls, but scattered around the room–are half a dozen wood file cabinets that look like they’re from the 1920’s.  Each drawer is labelled with a letter of the alphabet. I believe the doctor’s name begins with the letter C; I head for that cabinet.

The drawer is filled with business cards, each with a “C” name inscribed.  Chen, Chew, Chou–the doctor I’m trying to remember did not have an Asian name, however, so this cannot be right.  I must be thinking of the plastic surgeon who repaired my nose after skin cancer surgery about six years ago.  His first name was Jae, and his last name was…Chen? No. Chew? Definitely not. Chou? Probably not.

Stop tapping your foot. I am not losing focus. This diversion, as it happens, reminds me that sometimes I remember first names more easily than last names. So, what was my mystery surgeon’s first name. Was it Greg?

You’re thinking of Greg House, you idiot, you say. I am not offended. It’s true.  I did go through a House, M.D. obsession this summer. The “Doctor” cabinet appears next to the “C” cabinet. This is my brain, the land of dreams, so that cabinet just appears. It does not wink into existence, it does not arrive on wheels, it simply is there. I’m sorry if it landed on your foot. It can’t hurt that much; this is all imaginary, remember?

I open the top drawer; it is filled with doctors’ names.  All kinds.  Medical doctors, TV doctors, PhDs, Doctors of Divinity… Naturally, you snarl, Uh oh, the “C” stands for Dr. Cuddy, or Cameron, or Chase. All right, whatever.

I banish the Doctor file cabinet and return to the letter files. By now, you are aware that with my brain files first and last names separately in their proper letter cabinets. And if the two names do go together, they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. But I am not having any luck fitting any of these pieces together.

By this point, you are understandably frustrated. The dust is getting to you. What’s wrong with you, you say. Why all these stupid cabinets? Can’t you transfer all of this to disk?

Alas, I have had little success in writing names on mental disk. You must remember, I am allotted less digital storage than, say, someone my daughter’s age. This is probably because I only began using computers in my mid-thirties. Often, while attempting to write data on the disk, I am given a Disk Full message, and am asked if I wish my data compressed. If say Yes, and the name is stored.  Too often, however, I return to find the data corrupted. The file cabinets serve me better, give me more of a visual to hang onto.

You are not very sympathetic. I am beginning to find your lack of patience trying. I’m taking a break. You can stay or go as you wish.

As I am straightening my hair, the second drawer of the “C” cabinet slides open, nearly knocking you over. (Sorry, but did you need to be standing right there in front of it?) It coughs up a single card. It lands before my eyes and bears a single name.

I now know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the doctor’s first name was Craig.

Craig rhymes with Greg, see? Had you checked your rhyming file cabinet, you sneer,  You might have made the connection more quickly.

Well, yes, I suppose that is true.

Okay, we have his first name; what is his last name? Dr. Craig…Mohr? No. Craig Mohr was a boy I liked in sixth grade. The “Boys I Liked Once” cabinet tries to appear, but I banish it before you can go all sarcastic on me.

But I now know that the doctor’s last name begins with “M.”

The drawers of the “M” cabinet are all stuck, though. And I’m stuck. Maybe I have enough info to go outside my brain.  Just Google it, you know? But as I open my laptop, I recall that, up until four years ago, I kept a hard-copy address book. And I still have it! It’s in the drawer of the table right next to my desk! You groan.

I hold my breath and turn to the letter “M.”

I read, “Dr. Mizes.”

The window of the storage room slides open, a fresh wind sweeps through the file cabinets, and scours the ceilings and corners of cobwebs and dust bunnies. Dr. Craig Mizes. And the plastic surgeon? He was Dr. Jae Chun. For a few moments, at least, my name storage room seems cleaner, clearer, and much better organized. Damn near what you might call efficient.

The entire process took a mere forty minutes.

Come along tomorrow, as my brain tries to remember where I put my keys.

Or not.

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Give Us This Day Our Daily Wild-Caught Salmon

Catching up with the  August 1 issue of The N.Y. Times Book Review, I happened upon a front-page review of Four Fish–The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg. The points in the book (as reviewed by Sam Sifton) paint a grim picture of the present and future of fishing, for wild-caught and farmed fish both. The wild-caught are increasingly scarce, and increasingly smaller.  Some farming shows promise, but salmon farming is always bad. Okay, so that’s a very rough and quick recap.

I am guilty of some holier-than-thou pride in my attitude toward the food I buy for our household.  I buy wild-caught fish and (and least sometimes) cage-free, organic chicken.  I shop–religiously is the correct adjective–at a large farmers’ market every Saturday morning for produce.  Depending on the time of year, I find utterly amazing heirloom tomatoes, peaches to make me drool, or beautiful fresh lima beans.  I also see (again, depending on season) items I have never seen in a grocery story, like baby garlic, purslane, and zucchini flowers.

I, my husband, and my daughter regularly fill our bellies with excellent food, and most days I feel pretty darn virtuous about our superiority in this area.  Until, that is, a review in NYTBR shakes my sense of  entitlement.  And it’s not the first time this year my smug sense of food-superiority has been shaken.

This past spring, I read this year’s Hugo-winning  The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi.  If you haven’t gotten to it yet, here’s a a quick and rough recap:  In the future, giant agribusinesses unleash bioplagues upon the world, virtually destroying the world’s wild and cultivated food sources.  Giant Agribusiness then shows up at the dock with boatloads of their own plague-proof produce, which they are kindly willing to sell you.  (There’s a lot more to the book; read it, because it is tremendously good.)

The book reminded me that my abundance of choice and access to really excellent food is something to feel pretty humble about.  Dedicated small farmers grow and bring this to us.  They are championed by  the larger community that supports the market, and the desire is fueled by all of the elite chefs, like Alice Waters, who have devoted their lives to living an ideal of cooking from freshly prepared, local ingredients. Looking at a dystopic future, whether non-fictional or fictional, reminds me that the abundance of which I partake is an historical anomaly, and even at present is confined to a privileged minority. It really is not under my control at all.

I need to remember that with every bite I take.

We ate these Sunday evening

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To the Teen in Front of Me

It happened again Tuesday; I’m driving along and see a young driver in front of me with his window rolled down, hand waving out the window.  No rude gesture or anything, just a hand, or maybe a casual elbow.  Other times, I’ll see the passenger stick a bare foot out the right window as well.   Youth makes me uneasy at times.  I wrote a poem about it a few years ago.  Here it is:

TO THE TEEN IN FRONT OF ME

Pull your thoughtless elbow back inside the car,

Your heedless foot and foolish head.

Stop waving to your friends.

Roll up the window; turn down the music.

You are driving down a boulevard of questions,

Where letters peer around corners and hide in trees.

They refuse to spell out the sign

That would tell you where you are going.

Keep both hands on the wheel;

Check your rear view mirror often.

Questions tail you;

They swerve and nearly sideswipe you,

Or they pull out from side streets

Right in front of you.

They are dangerous but stupid.

They barely know how to ask themselves,

Let alone imply those answers

You don’t even know you lack.

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Too Many Crows, Not Enough Grown-ups

As I sat down to begin this blog, a small murder of crows swooped over my house, performed a noisy, whirling circuit.  Two landed on the skylight on my roof and were dramatically silhouetted as they strutted and pecked.  The opaque skylight formed a canvas, and the birds, an interesting, even beautiful, composition.

Nonetheless, their scratching and pecking interfered with my concentration.  I went to get the thingy-ma-bopper I use to brush cobwebs from my ceilings, planning to thump on the plexiglass right under their feet, to scare them away.  But by the time I returned, the crows had flown away.

Likewise, the scratching, pecking, and cawing over the Florida would-be-Quran-burning preacher has faded.  You can’t say no harm done, as the news reports deaths in Afghanistan as a result of protests against the burning-that-wasn’t.  Still, I was happy he backed down.

When the media first brought this guy to our attention, however, and when everyone from General Petraeus to Secretaries Gates and Clinton saw fit to address the situation, I was a bit peeved.  For heaven’s sake, the man’s estranged daughter says he needs psychological help.  He’s just one crazy, misguided person, a guy way out on the edge.  Why, I asked, was anyone paying attention to this man?  That he could command, for a few days, the attention of the world, including high-placed members of our government and military, seemed ridiculous.  And it is.  It seems we’re always getting distracted from the real problems of humanity by this kind of nonsense, and I resent it.

But it’s sort of like listening to a bunch of damned crows, clattering about on the roof.  No one can ignore it.

And so General Petraeus, Secretaries Gates and Clinton, President Obama, Imam Muhammad Musri, all had to become involved in order to subdue this guy.  But they did get involved, and it apparently worked.  The preacher decided not to pursue the Quran-burning, now or ever.  He says he feels that God has told him to stop.  Seems to me it was people.  Better yet, people being grown-ups, facing the situation, were able to turn the preacher around.  My instinct, which was to ignore the crazy voice, was not the right one.  Once the media had blown this thing up, it could not be ignored.

Today, there are no crows on my roof, and I haven’t seen a single one in the sky.  But they’ll be back, with their cacophony of caws, their clattering and thumping attempts to tear the shingles off my roof.  I’ll have to make another decision, whether to ignore them, or fetch my thingy-ma-bopper and scare them off the roof.

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When Horror Works Best

At Diversicon in late July/early August, I picked up a copy of The Sound of Dead Hands Clapping, a chapbook of six horror stories by Mark Rich, published by Gothic Press.  I was attracted to the book by Mark’s cover art, which featured a forlorn (at least it seemed forlorn to me) and maimed creature (well, maybe it’s just a bit asymmetrical), looking out over a sea (or a lettuce patch?) from which weird, beseeching hands reach.  Toward something, someone. Mark’s art manages to be, at the same time, both creepy and adorable.

I’m not a huge fan of horror in general, but I am a fan of the quiet, psychological, and enigmatic.

These tales are like that.  In “House Dogs,” for instance, our protagonist, Michael Elders, is attended by a bunch of dogs.  They live in his house, and provide certain household services, in exchange for a significant price, one Michael Elders doesn’t believe he can pay.  They are not pets in any sense we would recognize, although Michael would like to have a pet–a dog–but a normal one, not these imperious creatures.  Unfortunately, at the local pet store, dogs have been “out of stock” for some time.  The clerk at the store (a woman he’s attracted t0) offers him some strange, hairless cats instead.

Much has happened before the story opens, events occurring and choices made, the nature of which we cannot know.    And because the author doesn’t give me the backstory, I speculate.

I recognize Michael Elders’ shame.  Somehow, in his mind, these dogs are his fault.  He has contradictory feelings toward them.  He dislikes and fears them, he wishes they would go away, and he is appalled by the price they ask of him.  Yet, he appreciates the comfortable home they make for him; he enjoys the meals they cook for him, and warms himself by the fire they lay for him.  He suspects certain acquaintances of his are harboring dogs as well, but the subject is too shameful for him ever to bring up.

The dogs are sort of like an addiction.  But not really.  They’re sort of like a deal with the devil.  But not really.  Michael Elders is clearly not alone in the choice (sin) that led to his entrapment by the House Dogs.  It is also clear that his entrapment somehow snuck up on him, reminding me of credit card debt more than anything else I can think of.

But I don’t want to know exactly what is going on here.  This story appeals to me precisely because I can’t figure it out.  Instead, it reminds me of something, something that makes all too much sense, something smarter and wilier than I am, something that will catch up to me one day, no matter how much I try to forget it.

And that, for me, is when horror works best.

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