Saturday, March 16, 2013

Memory and Memories

Do I have Barbara Streisand going in my head? I think it  was Sinatra in the shower, where my mind goes into fugue and I make all these brilliant connections I'm going to write about.

But the actual writing slows them down, or at least takes them over in a different direction, and so the seeming thoughts I had while showering are no more real than other phantasms; ghosts of thoughts I once thought I actually did have.

As you may have noticed, I've had blessed little time to write for quite a while. While I could and might and probably will blame it on my workload, it also represents a kind of choice. I have canned quite a few drafts, and never quite muster either the courage or the necessary editing time to move from draft to commit.

Then there has been the pure friction of the technology I've been stuck with. As you may have seen yesterday, I took a plunge to buy a new computer. I think I've also gotten a kind of courage infusion from a couple of different directions: the first is a bid to go back to graduate school. I'd previously written off that possibility, since there would be little benefit in it at my advanced age. The second has been a kind of muscling beyond my limit at work.

The work is plenty hard, but that's not the limit I'm writing about. As do many of you, I'm sure, I work in an environment characterized by bullying. In simple terms, this means that the workplace tolerates behaviors which couldn't and wouldn't be tolerated elsewhere. Oppression breeds oppression downward as Master Freire would tell you. Without enlightenment.

Since I'm not - by far - a member of any "protected class" there is no recourse in law for this condition. Certainly nobody's victim myself, the problem is that I'm surrounded by people who are victims. Many of them don't know it, and wouldn't admit it if they did, but plenty do. Some have power.

Sure, one has to follow the boss's dictates anywhere, and it's always less comfortable than you might wish. But there is also a point beyond which the organization as a whole suffers by the destruction or restriction of creative and productive capacities which are repressed beneath dysfunctional structures for bullying. Pushed beyond my edge, I must protest. If not me, who? If not now, when?

So here I am back in my little blogosphere, frequented largely by bots as far as I can tell. It's never been a comfortable realm for me, but just as I don't have the time to edit when I choose to be oppressed by work, I surely don't have the time to compose writing for publication, so this is a kind of liminal realm between.

(not that I would be capable of 'writing for publication' but I do know the work which would be required, and I simply don't have and haven't had the means)

What interests me here is whether there is any room for any kind of real "creativity" by which I think I mean that there should be the possibility for me myself to return to what I write and find there things to surprise me; evidence of a muse among the controlling impulses of my own bullying mind.

But here's the thing: How am I to tell the workings of a muse apart from the deterioration of my memory?

Quite often actually, I do run across something I've written and find that I need to invest nearly as much effort as you might to discern what it was I thought I was getting at. I have no clear or distinct memory of having written the thing and even sometimes it's pretty hard to discern myself in what I'd written.

To put it another way, if someone were to forge the provenance of what I'd written I might never claim it as my own. Plus there's that uncomfortable border between the self you cringe at and the one of which you might be proud. After all, reaching for something difficult to accomplish will surely expose foolishness faster than many other activities.

Among the things I haven't done for a while is to post the books I've read on Goodreads. Now I don't know where that compulsion ever came from, but somehow there is a mix of obligation to some phantasmagorical "public" and an obligation to myself.

You see, I am the type who rather embarrassingly often starts watching a movie only to realize I've actually seen it before. That can happen a distressing distance into the film, and even with films which I then remember I'd thought at the original time had had some significant impact on my soul.

Same thing with books. So Goodreads is a way to keep myself honest. I know I dropped off at some progressive rate as this job I do kept getting harder and more stressful (even as to the extent I don't show the stress at work, they seem to think I'm not working hard enough - I have no idea how 'never let them see you sweat' became a mantra of mine . . . well, I do , but I won't waste your time about that here just yet). But let's say I've left off for just a year - I have almost no confidence in my ability to reconstruct my reading across that time. And that's despite the fact that I've had blessed little time even to read, much less to write about it.

But I do know I've read a few things at least. One, ahem, memorable book has been Moonwalking with Einstein. You'd think I'd remember it because while I was reading it I kept talking about it as though it were the most important book I'd read.

It was about memory, and how we no longer teach the necessary techniques for remembering. It touched on the ways that various communications technologies, starting with writing and paper, mitigated the need to work on memory. Just now, for instance - and I'm pretty sure I've blogged about this - I depend utterly on some kind of smartphone (now just as likely to be the built-in web capacity of my up-capable Kindle) to make my references and definitions on the spot.

I even convince myself that this is improving my mind; and that the mitigation of my need to remember is minor compared against the vastly expanded scope in context for my reading. (I do remember the physical hassle of reading next to Websters, and then cataloguing mentally how many times I'd looked up that word I still couldn't quite place) But I'm not always so sure!

By the end of the Moonwalking book, I'd gotten jaded I must say. It was yet another callow Yalie presenting to the world his brilliance. He had provenance in parentage, worth at least the million dollar advance he'd gotten for the writing he would do.

Sure he presented and represented himself just the way I do, as someone challenged in the memory department. Making it all the more amazing that he became a champion in the memory Olympics. Or not. For sure, just as I lack confidence in my ability to craft publishable writing, I lack whatever work-ethic he must have to accomplish so much so early in life. Right?

But wait! I work damn hard. I guess I'm just not smart enough. But wait! I'm a Yalie too! OK, so I don't have the provenance. But wait! Among the books I've read is one I retrieved from Buffalo while there over Christmas depersonalizing the old space I'd lived in (It still looks like me, so I guess I'm not very good at that either). It's a genealogy compiled by my now severely memory-challenged Dad (he's housed in a "memory unit") about one branch of my illustrious family, twice-connected I remind myself, to those who came over on the Mayflower. Among those I descend from is the fellow who coined the term "Freeway" which somehow makes me feel more at home here in SoCal.

And he's by no means the most illustrious of the bunch. Lots of Harvard, lots of invention, lots of smart engineering, all things I claim - sometimes when I'm feeling feisty - as my heritage. But nobody giving me a boost when I need it. No current coat-tails. Well, plus a positive ethic against them.

Dad truly enjoyed telling about the $500 plus "good luck" he got when he turned 18 or so. A good academic record plus the bad eyesight to keep him away from frontlines in war and the GI bill got him through college and Harvard Law. Where he had the better record compared with famous classmates, dontchaknow?

I did actually travel Back East over the holidays in some conscious appreciation of that Einstein book, which recalls the techniques once taught alongside rhetoric to keep things precisely in mind. In brief, these involve a mental architecture and landscape which you populate with memorable things relating according to some code to the words you must remember.

My older daughter's now at Yale law (see, I can't really help myself) and I hadn't been back there since leaving in ignominy well longer ago than she is old (as Dad would always let people know upon his presentation of me, I did leave in ignominy rather more than once). So we took a little time, and she gave me well more than a little indulgence, to review and revisit those places I'd once inhabited.

Some tiny details were out of place, and some places were now shut off by the ubiquitous electronic barriers of our age, but it all came back. The boatyard where I'd rebuilt my now departed sailboat. Bits of carpentry miraculously still intact (I'm plenty proud of that piece!). We even got ourselves into the stacks at Sterling, by a kind of persistence I'm known for, after being rejected by the first officious minder (there I was only a little bit distressed by how many of my secret precious finds had been removed to offsite storage, perhaps for their preservation).

We rode this memory lane all the way back to Buffalo, where I continued across the much-delayed process of cleaning out files and bookshelves (I haven't the means in either time or money to travel back there, and so these things just sat). I've been through this all a distressing number of times, and feel as though I've written about it (you tell ME - I'm guessing it's sitting in some unpublished "draft" here in the blogosphere). I've moved rather a lot as I try to recalibrate my life without children to keep me focused.

But each little piece - some persist across serial and increasingly frequent cullings - does retain its memory. These provide some reassurance that I still persist to some greater extent than Dad does. I finally did have to enlist my younger daughter to throw stuff out, looking the other way and only butting in when the pain became too great. Little things, like the clay pipe issued when I finally did graduate from Yale. In a box somewhere in Mom's attic now while she still has one.

Now I'm reassured by an old friend who came to visit - the place I live in among old-folks because it's all I can afford - manages to "look like me." Yeah, well, I sometimes try to change and sometimes not. I have neither attic nor basement, and so the cullings have been as severe as the Southwest Airlines two-free-bag limit, which is a different blessing of sorts (cheaper to ship me than my stuff, haven't I already told you?).

So back to the point, assuming I still have one. I'm never sure if the writing I do is to keep my mind or to lose it. To build it or recall it.

I do know that without some sort of constructive thinking, most of the reading I do won't "go" anywhere. In the end, that's why I want to go back to school. And if I do write, maybe I can bring something to it that must go wanting when younger and more callow minds do their thing.

I mean it could be true that there is such a thing as just so very much brilliance that it's worth Zuckerberg-sized amounts of money. But it could also be that the rewards we give reflect a kind of compulsive systemic need to hold onto the structural components of our lives that we need most strongly to believe in. And who can tell the charlatans from the real deal? Better have some provenance.

(At some point one might hope that Zuckerberg would look in the mirror and gasp 'my god am I worth that much' and know the absurdity and injustice of it. But I guess he's no more likely than a prince is, or a Mafia chief or some one of China's politburo. I mean who elected you, right?)

Pay me and I can do good work too, if we could just get dumb luck out of the way. And so could you.

But well, here's the thing. My words are not the sum of me. They also cut me off from things that are or were. And those things which can be preserved digitally would never even instigate any recollection of myself.

You know, just now this morning I do ponder what I should and must do to move over the profile from my old PC. It carries in its belly those files that I had retrieved from computers which had held other living archives, and I never could muster the energy to go through them. It's not the same as the shoeboxes full of photos. Hell, now that my digital camera is long-stolen and I can rely on the work iPhone, every damn time I synchronize it, I get a different and differently redundant set of photos than the ones I got some other time across some other OS or iOS update, and who could possibly have the time to de-duplicate (or trust the software that I once investigated?)?

What parts of me are floating around Facebook or Goodreads or in some file-cabinet I forgot about or neglected or trashed? Does it matter? Will it go up in the smoke of my various passwords as I forget those? Does it matter?

See I cannot finish. It's more work than I can afford. But I can tell you that love is the secret (not to my password!). It's the only thing which gives me any coherence, and you know without my daughter there, I might never have paid a visit to myself either.

And so I will muster the courage to resist what they would have me do for money, or against the pain to live without it. I will recall my mission in life, and be glad I have one. And I will do my very best to be sure you here (???) about it. And I will do my very even better to be sure that it's worth hearing about and not some self-aggrandizement for the sake of my private castle in the sky or elsewhere.

I do declare . . . . what a mess!

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