On Memory and Brian Williams, with a side-trip to Bruce Jenner

On Memory and Brian Williams, with a side-trip to Bruce Jenner

People have been piling on Brian Williams for the last two weeks over his lapse of memory related to events that took place in 2003 in Northern Iraq. NBC suspended him without pay over it. But I think we need to take a beat before assuming bad intent on his part. I ask this as someone with deep experience on how memory of even the most monumental events can be as elusive as that little bit of egg shell that gets into your bowl of scrambled eggs: try to pick it out and it dives down into custardy oblivion, never to be found. Until you bite into it.

When my husband told me he was going to undergo gender reassignment surgery, time stopped and I remember that moment so clearly: I can hear my heart pounding and the rush of air as I drew in the kind of raggedy breath that comes when you’re on the edge of panic and anger and grief and trying hard not to lose it.

As I went through the following year, I thought multiple times about keeping a journal. But I didn’t, partly because I just didn’t have the time or energy to relive my day and my grief and my anger and panic. And I didn’t because I figured I’d remember the important stuff. But the thing is that I don’t remember a lot of it. At the very least, I thought I’d be able to feel around the edges of memory. I remember this plastic topographical map of California we had in my fifth grade classroom. I could close my eyes and still feel the indentation that was the San Francisco Bay, the hills over which lay Santa Cruz. I thought I’d be able to remember key points in this journey the way I could recognize what the Bay Area felt like under my fingers. Not true.

A year or so ago, I was driving at night, north on 405. In my memory, it was raining, and I was heading north to meet with my writing group listening to the local NPR station. That memory is wrong, though, because the one dark night I met with them, I was with another person in the car and we were talking, not listening. Memory is tricky.

It took a lot of brain excavating to remember when I took that trip and narrow down what I was listening to -- it was either a program on Big Picture Science or The Takeaway . Both are interesting pieces on the nature of memory that resonated with the struggles I was having recalling that first year after my husband revealed his intentions.

In his book Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough notes something about memory that is surprising, yet true when you think about it: when we recall an event in which we were an actor, or remember something that happened to us, we don’t remember it as if we are ourselves, looking out of our own eyes. We remember it as a third person – from above or outside ourselves, as if we were a camera recording the event. We become a character in our own memories, an unreliable witness to our own history. The general belief among researchers is that there is just one event that happens, and no reliable recreation if there aren't cameras to record it. Even then, the lack of perception of the people who experience the event render the cameras' recording an incomplete picture. This is why movies like Rashomon are so interesting, and the set up it uses, telling a story from various participants' perspective, continues to work in literature and film. There is no true memory: just the way we -- and others who are with us during an event -- reconstruct events.

Fernyhough noted in an interview on NPR (not the one I was listening to that rainy night; another one): “We don't record events like a video camera recording, you know, what's going on. We gather together lots of different kinds of information. We store it sometimes for decades and then we put it all back together. In the moment, we reconstruct those events from the perspective of now.”

So there is no truthful memory of an event. It happens and is gone forever. How I remember it may be some sort of true, but how someone else remembers it may differ in significant ways. So Williams, who has been recalling the events of 2003 in different venues for different purposes over the years, has always had to recall them based on the particular moment of recall. When talking to David Letterman, he has to recall them with an eye to making a joke; when recalling them for his newscast, he has to make it dramatic. It's easy to see how that now moment would influence his then memory.

We all like to think we have a good memory. I have some memories from when I was a toddler – running down a hill I thought was very steep. It was grass covered and I was running to where my brother was with two older girls. In my memory, they were teenagers, but I was two, so everyone was old to me. I remember what the doctor looked like who stitched up my head when I was two and a half and fell down the steps leading to our trailer home. He had Buddy Holly-style glasses. At least that’s my recollection.

I remember lots of moments from Kindergarten. The first day, I sat with a girl named Maria who became my best Kindergarten friend. I remember holding hands with her when we went out to recess, where I would have a snack – perhaps a Space Food Stick, because I remember taking them out of my bag on occasion.

But how much have I forgotten that I was sure I would remember. Now, here I am, half a decade on from finding out my husband was going to change genders, that unless I found my inner lesbian and found a way to live with my Wasband as woman and wife, I was going to be single in middle age, that the dreams I had of my golden years were never going to be realized. And I can’t remember things I feel I should.

I don’t remember telling my closest friends. I have a vague memory that when I told my friend H, she actually pulled her car off the road. This is significant because H had a habit of calling me without a hands free device while sobbing and driving in rush hour traffic. That my news wigged her out enough to pull over means it was pretty big news. The way I thought I told my best friend M? She says I have it all wrong. And I don’t remember telling my friend and rheumatology nurse S. I called her early on because I needed her to up my dose of antidepressants.

She was in Iowa on a biking vacation at the time. I hate calling her for health reasons on her off time, but sometimes you have to when your provider is also your friend. She doesn’t remember any more than I do, other than that I was very calm.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to my brother, but I called after I wrote the letter I would send out to family and friends in August 2010 to inform them of the change, but before I actually sent it. I have an email response to a request I sent him for 15 minutes of time when I could talk to him unimpeded. It’s dated August 10.

I called him on the 11th and filled him in. It was a selfish move on my part: I needed advice on how to tell mom and dad – whether to tell them on the phone or let them read the letter. And I wanted him to run interference and answer questions from anyone who had them, since I was uninterested in taking a shitload of phone calls from panicked friends and family who wanted to rubberneck. Maybe in their heads it would have been showing concern, but I viewed the prurient interest of others in the story as nothing more than wanting to see the gore at the side of the road and be happy it wasn’t happening to them.

I’ll say this for my concern, too: People hear the story even after all these years – or read it if I write about it – and I can hear their eyes go wide. And even if my friends and family are really concerned about me, I think there is still something in their questions that is akin to my dog salivating when I eat animal products, something lustful in their desire to know about man becoming woman. You see it now in the way people are reacting to the story of Bruce Jenner’s transition. It angers me.

This is not to imply that my nearest and dearest don’t care about me and my son, or even the Wasband. It is simply an acknowledgement that people are very curious about oddities.

Here’s another memory. There was an episode of the Waltons I remember reading about in the TV Guide when I was an adolescent. The episode summary said something like “John Boy has a freak accident at the mill”. I found those two words “freak accident” so alluring that I was adamant about watching that episode. Because a freak accident was something freaky, right? I have no idea what the accident was – I think some gnarly cut with a saw. I remember nothing of the episode. I only have a clear memory of reading those words in the TV Guide.

If what was happening to me now happened to someone else, I’m pretty sure I’d be just as curious. Only I’d couch it in terms of my profession, and my right to be nosy as a way of making a living.

But those moments I remember thinking would be burned in my memory forever, like telling my mom? I remember sitting on the couch where I am right now. I remember holding the phone. And that’s it.

The rest is a blank.

 

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Good things come in small packages — and come from small steps

Good things come in small packages — and come from small steps

exercise

This week for my Health123.com blog, I look at the power of small changes and how, over time, they can have a big positive impact. It's not just intuitive truth, but scientifically proved.

A lot of the literature and idea-banking of small changes is about diabetes, in part because it is such a huge problem, but also because it appears so responsive to taking incremental positive steps. A Mayo Health blog post covers how little things can both impact your health post diagnosis, and even prevent it from becoming a part of your medical record.

Health 123 isn’t alone in the quest for doing more by doing a little over and over again. Vancouver Canucks president Trevor Linden is the face of a new organization focused on men’s health that’s committed to making small changes, too.

Read more about some of the studies, and get some tips for making small changes here.

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The art of ignoring bad news

The art of ignoring bad news

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My shrink and I have spent a long time talking me into being less of a news junkie. Because when I focus on the news too much, I get depressed. Really depressed. Stay in bed depressed.

So I have avoided the news as much as possible today. I know that five men decided that the "religious freedom" of a company is more important than the religious freedom of women when it comes to their reproductive health. I know that three teenagers were murdered in the Middle East for the temerity of being Israeli Jews (and probably, some number of Palestinian youth were killed because they were unfortunate enough to be born Palestinian, or on the wrong side of the Israeli border, or of the wrong sex or sect). I know that there are people who want to kill people because of the borders they live within, the religion they espouse, the politics they follow, the books they read. I know that Republicans hate Democrats hate Republicans and poor people the world over will risk their lives and the lives of their children to come to this country. And I know that although the Seattle Mariners are doing a remarkable job this year, they will not likely make the World Series.

But on days like this when the news is so overwhelmingly sad or maddening I turn on the news but listen with half an ear; I skim the paper; I read the entertainment news and get mad that the Kardashians are eating up printer ink and trees because that's a safer kind of anger. I focus on cute kitty and puppy memes and girl empowerment videos from big corporate entities (who have helped distort the body image of generations of women -- but I ignore that part).

And I will sit on the deck as the sun sets and watch the youngsters of the Seattle Mariners trounce the Houston Astros (8-3 in the middle of the eighth as I type this) and not care if they tank late in the season or if they win a wild card spot in the playoffs only to lose in the first round.

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YA reading: It’s a generational thing

YA reading: It’s a generational thing

Frankfurt/Main, Jugenwohnheim

Since I asked last week for some ideas for good books for high school readers to donate to Treehouse, I've had a lot of comments from folks of my generation. And I find them astounding. Most of the books are adult literature or things that would be considered appropriate for middle grades now (read the comments for the post to see what I mean). Crime and Punishment and Are You There God, It's Me Margaret.

Now, there is a whole industry for young adult books -- things like the Hunger Games and Matched trilogies.

When I was at Powell's in Portland yesterday, I dropped some money (guess how much in the comments to this post! If you guess right, I'll send you a book of your choice, or donate one in your name to Treehouse!) I shopped with my Darling Niece, who helped me pick some books by authors popular with her late-high school crowd -- Sarah Dessen, David Levithen --  while I pulled stuff like the first two books in the Hitchhikers Guide series and some Jasper Fforde (and the ever-uplifting Go Ask Alice). My brother picked out Jules Verne, further proving the divergence between then and now when thinking of what kids on the verge of adulthood might like to read. Because I'm guessing when he wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mr. Verne wasn't thinking of marketing it just to teenagers.

We have made a specialness out of a period of growing up that didn't exist before industrialization and the creation of child labor laws. Before that, children were young and incapable of work, and then capable of work. Not two decades after the bulk of child labor laws were enacted in the 1930s came the beginnings of books written with teenage protagonists, largely written for that market. This post from the blog The Side of Wonder, talks about how Catcher in the Rye marked the true beginning of YA literature.

As the comments have come in from my friends, relatives, readers, it has startled me how those of my generation have favorites that area clearly what is now considered adult fiction, while if you ask young people, they talk about the latest John Green book -- a man whose books are popular with adults, but clearly written with a younger audience in mind.

I have no big aha ending to this. It's not good or bad. Well, it's probably good, because I like many of the YA books I've read while trying to find something that appeals to Darling Son (while he's found the most interest in graphic novels like Maus and books of alternative history like 11-22-63). It's just interesting.

Thoughts? More favorites from your misspent youth? I only have about 10 good titles, and I want at least 20. So keep the comments coming.

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Doggy Update

Doggy Update

This is a picture of Ruby's neck with the swelling about half what it was. She's back to jumping on the bannister in the morning, but still not barking much or leaping on beds and people. But we're just 24 hours into treatment.

God bless antibiotics!neck

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What was your favorite book in high school?

What was your favorite book in high school?

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I have a lot of friends who just don't listen to me or follow rules well at all. When I invited people to my 50th birthday party, I specified no gifts, or gifts of books for the kids at Treehouse, a great organization that provides the little extras, as well as counseling and mentors to foster children in Western Washington.

Some of them, however, gave me gift cards to a monolithic e-marketplace that is currently attempting to crush Hachette Book Group, probably as a warning shot to other publishers. I'm not going to use those cards to cut into my 150-odd long books I want list. I'm going to buy books for Treehouse. I got hundreds of books at my birthday party, but most of them were for younger readers. So I'm going to focus on young adult books with this money.

Everyone knows that The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars are big hits with this crowd, but I don't want to leave out classics. So I'm asking you to chime in. Tell me what your favorite book was in high school. I figure I have enough money to get about 20 books. I have about a dozen loyal readers. Let's see if you all can share this and cajole enough friends and relatives to participate so that we get 20 different titles in the comments. I'll buy them all and present them to Treehouse the week after Independence Day, when I'm scheduled to take in a Prius-full of books to the Wearhouse.

So go forth and share. But only after you tell me: what was your favorite young adult read?

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Looking wistfully back to last week

Looking wistfully back to last week

ruby

We always want what we don't have, right?

I have long complained about the irrational exuberance of my dog, Ruby. She bunny hops on my toes to say hello, squeaking at an ear splitting pitch. This happens not just when I've been away for days, or even hours, but if she saw me two minutes ago, when I left the house to take out the garbage.

She barks -- we call it shouting -- at every truck, dog, rolling bin, and most neighbors who walk by. I find this an asset when I'm home alone at night or the neighborhood listserv has reported area break-ins. She does this regardless of the hour of day or night. I cancelled my CSA in part because they delivered at 3 a.m. It was noise only my teenager could sleep through.

She's never calm or quiet. There isn't a family member or friend she isn't beside herself to see again. For the first time since this morning. Or yesterday. Or a year ago. Her reaction is the same, regardless.

So it's very disconcerting these last couple days that my dog is -- well, like a normal dog. She isn't jumping or barking. She was, until today, eating. But she's been off. If she had continued to eat, I wouldn't be as worried as I am now, but she's refusing bananas and apple cores, which are two of her favorite things. As good as cheese.

I'm calling the vet in the morning. I'm hoping it's as serious as the last time I had to take her in -- she sprained her tail from wagging it too hard (not joking). Cross your fingers, think good thoughts, say a prayer: whatever it is you do when someone isn't well and you want to show solidarity, do that. I want my old irritating dog back.

Update: Ruby probably has an infection in her throat, caused by an abrasion or cut received by eating a stick or something else foreign and forbidden. Her lack of jumping and occasional limping seems to be just her being all tensed up because of the pain in her neck. We're doing a week of strong antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. If that doesn't work (and we'll know in a couple three days if we're on the right track), we'll probably look at doing some imaging requiring sedation. But for the time being, they don't think it's a mass, just a swelling in her throat. And tonight, she ate homemade chicken and squash stew with quinoa and red rice with a dollop of yogurt. She probably thinks she's getting a treat.

Thanks for the good thoughts.

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Happy Birthday, Darling Son

Happy Birthday, Darling Son

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My son turns 17 today. He's a typical teenager: sleeps a lot, eats a lot, answers complex questions with a grunt, and complains that the world is "not fair!" I love him to death. I don't always like his behavior (that's my shrink talking; can you tell?).

He's mildly autistic, has ADD and a mild anxiety disorder. He doesn't socialize much or well with kids his own age and his room usually looks like a bomb went off. And there's that fug that teenagers carry with them no matter how much they shower.

But: he does a good job as a courtesy clerk at PCC, where I'm told he's a great cleaner of bathrooms (apparently, that skill doesn't translate to home). He loves his dog. All dogs. He takes a neighbor pet for walks when the owner, who is mildly disabled, is unable. He is engaged in the political world, volunteering for two campaigns, one for state senator, one for congressional representative. He reads news sites and Wikipedia for fun.

And then there was today. A month or so ago, there was a car accident at the corner a couple blocks up the road. A lady from the neighborhood swept up the debris. But it had scattered back into the road. So today he left early for work, broom in hand. He swept up the debris into a dustpan and walked it home to deposit into our garbage can.

Amazing kid.

Happy birthday Darling Son!

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Finding ways to exploit nature’s bounty — Health123.com

Finding ways to exploit nature’s bounty — Health123.com

veggies

Today in my Health123.com blog, I write about ways to put more veggies and fruits in your diet, particularly now that so many beautiful fresh specimens are available. Here's a tease. Click below if you'd like to see more.

...There are many previous blog posts right here on this very site that can show you study after study explaining their importance. This one from January has some of the basics, and this one from 2012 looks at the science behind some so-called superfoods (many of which are – wait for it – fruits and vegetables!).  But what you might need is some help finding new ways to enjoy foods you’ve grown bored of, or ways to get recalcitrant eaters to try some new flavors and tastes...(continue reading)

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