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August, 2009:

The Impersistence of Memory, Part 4

One of the interesting questions surrounding the failures of memory that I’ve been describing is whether there’s some “motivation” for the distorted memory. Any time I see any person I know and value who’s smoking, I cringe. Dottie and Sarah were good friends who shared some context with me, so some of the concern I felt when I saw Dottie smoking may have “bled over” into memories of Sarah in a similar context.

In my readings I’ve seen examples of people who remember incidents in ways that put them in a slightly better light. For example, nobody likes to remember themselves doing stupid things, so a memory of a faux pas may be “tweaked” to be a little less faux. Memories on which your self-esteem doesn’t hang might come down through the years a little more accurately. If there is some sort of inner redactor that attempts to make our remembered lives more tolerable, one might hypothesize that memories without importance might be less vulnerable to distortion than memories of things with emotional baggage. Psychologists used to believe this, but experiments like the Challenger study blew holes in the older notion that “flashbulb memories” are more accurate than mundane memories of no great significance. So how well do insignificant memories survive?

It’s hard to tell, of course, until you come across objective documentation of some little thing that doesn’t align with what you remember of it–and insignificant things are probably the things most easily forgotten. I do have an example, though, and it’s an odd one.

Back in 1999, the editor of Kite Lines magazine asked me to write a mini-memoir of my experience as a kid flying Hi-Flier kites. I began by sitting down in a chair with a notepad and taking notes on everything I could recall about the dime-store paper kites I had flown from 1961 to 1968 or so. I went down the list, describing the commonest Hi-Flier kites and my impressions of them, including as many details as I could clearly recall.

PlaymatesBlueOnBlue250Wide.jpgThe article was a great success, and after their exclusive period expired, I adapted the article to a Web article on my own site, which I have expanded over the years as new information has come to hand. In the article I described probably the most common of all Hi-Flier’s small paper diamond kites, the “Playmates of the Clouds.” (See example at left.) The three varieties of Playmates differ only in what’s immediately under the flying wing: A number, the words “Little Boy,” or nothing at all. I remembered kites with the number 30 as probably being the most common–but I remember flying Playmates with other numbers, particularly the number 94. I also clearly recall having a Playmate tagged with the number 6, and vaguely remember a number in the 40s somewhere.

After writing the Kite Lines article, I started watching for paper kites on eBay, and when the feature appeared, put a saved search on “Hi-Flier” and “paper kite.” Lots of kites have marched past the All-Seeing Eye of Ebay since 1999. I’m sure I’ve seen close to 1,000, and perhaps more. Playmates of the Clouds kites are very common, and I’ve bought a couple for use as wall art. But never in those ten years and on probably 200 Playmates kites have I seen a number other than 30.

Back in 2007 I heard from a chap who called me on it: He’s an avid collector of classic kites who has hundreds of his own and seen many more. He told me that the number 30 on Playmates of the Clouds kites indicated the size of the kite (it’s 30″ down the vertical stick) and that Hi-Flier never printed a Playmates kite with any number other than 30. I must have misrecalled.

I guess. But my memory of that magenta-on-white Playmates with a 94 on it is clear, and has some context: I had it for an unusually long time, for a paper kite. I flew it down in Blue Island at Aunt Josephine’s house on two rolls of string, out over the big railroad yard near their house, and got it back intact. I flew it for the rest of the summer, and only dumped it when I left it lying out in the rain overnight and it got soaked. It was a good kite (and a lucky one, mostly) and if it didn’t have a 94 on it, why do I remember the 94? Why not 48, or 57? Why don’t I just remember the 30?

It was never a big deal. The numbers on Playmates kites were significant to me only in that I thought they were stupid: The digits were just 2″ high, and after the kite was more than 50′ out, you couldn’t read them anymore. I assumed (with 12-year-old geek logic) that they were there to allow you to tell your kite from all the other Playmates kites in the air. Wouldn’t work. Rolls eyes. End of story.

So: The kites that I remember so clearly didn’t exist in the form that I remember them. This seems weird to me because there’s no motivation for the redaction: Remembering them differently doesn’t affect anything, and it’s a little weird that I remember small things like numbers on kites at all.

The point seems to be that we don’t always remember details well, whether the details are emotionally significant (“Where were you when Challenger exploded?”) or practically background noise (“What number was on your favorite kite?”) I’m guessing that in every life there are a staggering number of little disconnects between what we remember and what really happened, and we’re unaware of it only because we don’t generally have confirming documentation of all the little things that we remember–and mostly, we don’t care. When we notice such a disconnect, we snort, say, “heh!” and move on. No big deal.

I’ve gone on for a few days here because somebody asked me recently if I was ever going to write my autobiography, and I spent a little time thinking about it. Suppose I did: Would what I wrote bear a useful resemblance to what in fact happened? And if not, what’s the point of autobiography? How much, in fact, can we trust any kind of memoir? If memoir is read mostly as entertainment, why not just write fiction?

Perhaps we do. As best I can tell, our brains write our memories as a kind of historical fiction, drawing the broad strokes from reality and then filling in the gaps with whatever makes the best yarn. I find this troubling in a weird way, but I guess I’ll just have to get used to it: The bulk of what’s happened in my life has not only been forgotten, but was never actually remembered to begin with. If any revelation can literally be called humbling, well, that’s the one.

The Impersistence of Memory, Part 3

I had two college friends back in the early-mid 1970s; let’s call them Dottie and Sarah. I was quite close to them without getting mushy about it. (Back then it was common knowledge that I was committed to Carol and “safe,” though the term rankled me a little.) We went to a lot of the same parties, including the memorable one where a wide-eyed cheerleader type told me in slackjawed amazement: “You always talk in complete sentences!” Well, I have vivid memories of both girls smoking at one party or another. I found this appalling, because my father was dying of tobacco-induced cancer at the time, but I didn’t feel like I had enough claim on either of them to chew them out for it.

I lost track of them after 1975 or so. Dottie surfaced about ten years later, and I asked her if she had given up the coffin nails. Eyes downcast, she copped to smoking in the 70s, but said she hadn’t had one in years, and even in college only had one when the stress started to get to her. Fair enough. (And I hope it was the truth.)

I didn’t run into Sarah again until 2000. As I had with Dottie, I asked her if she’d given up smoking. She looked at me like I was a shopping-mall zombie with both arms shot off, and said a little coldly that she’d never held a lit cigarette in her entire life.

Whoa. But there’s that crystal-clear image of Sarah in 1974, leaning against somebody’s kitchen table piled high with cheese and half-empty wine bottles, holding a butt between two fingers and frowning while blowing smoke over her shoulder. The friendship had gotten very stale in 25 years, and my question did nothing to help. I dropped the subject. Still, the memory remains, as clear as ever. What the hell is going on here?

I think of Sarah and Dottie these days when the nutcase Extropians talk about uploading themselves to some sort of global Beowulf cluster. Human memory is not digital. Human memory has no checksums. Human memory comes without parity bits. Something is making me remember poor Sarah inhaling carcinogens, and whatever it is, I don’t want it to come along when I get copied into Metaspace and become one of the Players.

I’m increasingly convinced that we know less than we claim about the physical implementation of human memory, but I have a single slim clue about this particular case: One of my recurring nightmares is dreaming about Carol smoking. We’ve been together for 40 years now, and I have fair confidence that Carol has never held a lit cigarette either, but the dream images are terrifyingly real. I’m a good imaginer, and I write my stories by creating movie clips of the scenes in my head and watching them until I can describe them well. The same basic mechanism that allowed me to see (and then describe) scenes from The Cunning Blood torments me from time to time by creating scenes in which my soulmate embraces the evil that killed my father. If Carol, why not Sarah? I may have dreamed about her smoking years ago, and then over time forgot that I had seen it happen in a dream.

Michael Covington suggests that human memories get cross-linked like entries in a corrupt database, and that it’s happened to him. What I remember as Sarah smoking could be a memory of Dottie smoking, cross-linked to a memory of Sarah at a party. The two girls played similar roles in my life, and actually resembled one another in several ways. (And the parties, well, they were indistinguishable.) Most of our interactions happened 35 years ago. That’s plenty of time for analog chemical pointers to grow hair.

I have one more example to share, which in some respects is stranger than all of them. It’s one thing to forget something, and another to remember something badly. It’s truly odd to remember a person doing what a person never actually did. But in terms of pure weirdness, it’s hard to top vividly remembering an artifact that never existed at all.

Stay tuned.

The Impersistence of Memory, Part 2

Human memory is peculiarly unreliable–but verifiably unreliable. The science is there, and it’s pretty good science, too. In his excellent book, On Being Certain, neurologist Robert A. Burton describes the Challenger study: Within a day of the Challlenger disaster, a psychologist asked 106 of his students to write down precisely where they were when the explosion occurred, how they heard about it, and how they felt at that moment. Two and a half years later (hardly a lifetime, though significant for the young) the students were interviewed, and asked to recount the details of what they had written down and given to their professor. Fewer than ten percent of the students recalled all of the details correctly as they had written them. A quarter of the students’ memories were significantly different, and over half had some major differences with what they had recorded at the time.

Thirty months–and an event that stands in many people’s memories (including my own) as one of the most striking events of their lifetime. Intriguingly, even when confronted with their original notes written the day after the event, many students with conflicting memories insisted that their current memories were correct. As one said, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”


I’ve been struck in recent years with an increasing number of things that happened that I don’t remember, things I remember incorrectly, and (disturbingly) things that I remember vividly that simply didn’t happen at all. I introduced this topic with a simple example: A friend of mine found a college-era manuscript of a short story I wrote that I just don’t remember writing. Getting old, I guess. The bitchy part is that it’s a pretty good story, and it was completely outside my usual aliens-and-starships turf. Somehow I would have thought it would make a more vivid impression on me.

But we forget things. Odder are things we remember vividly that we in fact remember wrong. Forty-three years ago, when I was in eighth grade, I remember talking to a girl in my class and stumbling on the fact that her father had died. Forty years later, I ran into her again at our grade-school reunion, and it came out that it was her mother and not her father who had died. The original conversation was painful, and I remember painful things very well–you’d think I would have remembered it more accurately. In a different conversation with the same girl, I asked her what high school she would be attending that fall. I remember her indicating one Catholic girls’ school, but in fact (again, verified forty years later) she had attended another. She had never even considered the school that I remember her saying, because it was a fair ways off and the other school was within walking distance.

But I remember both conversations to this day, with the sort of clarity one would expect of a bright if nerdy kid attempting to make conversation with a girl he was a little sweet on. It took considerable courage to talk to her at all, and those are the things of which solid memories are made.

Except when they’re not, I guess.

It was that particular incident that started me looking critically at my own memories, especially those that could be verified somehow. I found a lot of little things that didn’t add up, including a few “flashbulb” memories (as psychologists call them) that one would expect would be vivid and indelible forever. The most recent one is something I chased down just the other day: I vividly remember the first time I kissed Carol–who wouldn’t?–and I remember that it was after we started school in the fall, which would be at least five or six weeks after we met at the end of July. Well, on the back of her 3 X 5 card in my teen-years telephone index box (which still exists among piles of oddments I’m amazed that I still have) is the note “kissed 8/16/69.” That was only two weeks after our most fateful meeting, and school was still another two weeks off. (Remember when school started after Labor Day?)

If I don’t remember that accurately, well, what hope for the rest of it? What kind of life did I actually live?

Stand by: The weirdest part is yet to come.

Contrarian Wisdom: Butter

Still on my several-day antihistamine high, but this short entry might be useful:

One of the odder things I uncovered during my ongoing research on the Carb Wars was the divide in American thought on whether butter needs to be refrigerated. You’d think something that simple and that wide, er, spread would have a simple yes/no answer that everybody accepted.

Not so: See the Yahoo Answers forum on the question, “Does Real Butter Spoil?” Almost as many people thought that butter left out even overnight would spoil as thought it could be left out at room temperature for some time.

The first answer on Yahoo Answers is correct: You can leave butter out for weeks and it won’t spoil. I don’t know precisely how long butter will last at room temperature, but it’s at least six weeks. I know that because on one of our trips to Chicago, Carol and I forgot to put the butter in the fridge before we left. When we got back a month and a half later it was fine, and we finished it.

In truth, we weren’t worried. 35 years ago, Carol’s grad school roommate was an Iowa farm girl, and Connie simply left the butter out in a covered dish in the middle of the kitchen table. It never went bad. Seeing (and tasting) is believing, and ever since then our butter has lived on the kitchen counter unless we knew we’d be away for a week or more.

I could never quite understand the confusion (nor the product category of “spreadable butter”) until I read Barry Groves’ uneven but worthwhile jeremiad Trick and Treat, which describes how margarine mostly replaced butter in American households after WWII, at first because it was cheap, and later because it was supposedly healthier. Margarine does go rancid if left at room temperature for more than a day or two, and in time margarine’s conventional wisdom replaced butter’s.

Butter is always spreadable unless you stick it in the fridge. And it makes almost anything taste better. Best of all, it isn’t shot full of chemistry-set goodies, like (of all things) nickel. (See this shrill but scary description of how margarine is made, and from what. They’re not exaggerating; I’ve seen similar descriptions elsewhere.)

Make peace with butter. The science that condemned it was weak, and little by little it’s being exonerated by more recent (and more honest) research.

The Biggest American Place You’ve Never Been

I’m still too groggy to tackle anything cerebral in this space (and it’s uncouth to let your nose drip down into your expensive buckling-spring keyboard) but this self-directed question came up while I was pondering the life I had documented versus the life I remembered: What was the largest American city I had never set foot in?

My guess going in was Minneapolis/St. Paul, but I was wrong, and wrong by a lot. Working from this list of the largest American cities by population, I discovered that the most populous American city I had never visited was…Jacksonville, Florida.


Jacksonville is not only larger than either Minneapolis or St. Paul, it’s larger than both of them put together, by almost 150,000 people. I didn’t know that. Nor did I think that Indianapolis was as big as it is (800,000) nor Pittsburgh as small (310,000).

My top three were Jacksonville, Memphis, and El Paso, assuming you don’t treat Minneapolis and St. Paul as a unit. (In practical terms, most people do.) If you do consider them as a unit, the Twin Cities come in third, narrowly ahead of El Paso. Of the top 100 cities listed, I had visited 66. I guess I’m not as much of a hermit as I thought I was, though I’ll admit it took me 57 years to get there.

It’s an interesting exercise, and if any of you are inclined to do the test yourself, I’d be interested in seeing your results in the comments. Now I need to pop another decongestant and lie down again, so that I can get back to real work (of which there is much) tomorrow.

Odd Trip Notes

Caved-in clay pipe under Gretchen's back yard

We rolled into the driveway here in Colorado about 3 PM yesterday after three weeks away, exhausted (as usual) and me fighting a nasty headcold, which blossomed last night (as usual) once I no longer had to drive 400 miles every day. As soon as I felt my scratchy throat last Sunday night I began taking Zicam Cherry Quick Melts, and while I can’t prove that they held off the cold during the subsequent four days, it’s possible–but it’s certainly true that they failed to prevent the cold entirely. (I also suspect that they give me mild headaches, and I don’t think I’ll be taking them again in the future.)

Just before we left Chicago, I rigged a wrist strap for my pocket camera and took a bunch more photos of the inside of Gretchen’s sinkhole. (See photo above.) It’s pretty clear now what’s going on under there: A section of 24″ clay drain pipe collapsed, allowing ground water to wash the surrounding soil into the storm drain system and hollowing out a large cave under the sod. This is what we figured, and at some point there will be a whole lot of digging going on back there.

Fat Dogs waterWhile passing through western Nebraska, we stopped at a Kum & Go and picked up a bottle of water. All bottled water tastes alike to me, so I bought the cheapest: Fat Dogs from Sandhills Water, which is bottled in Oshkosh, Nebraska, population 887 and the county seat of Garden County. I love the label and may keep the empty bottle. (See photo at left.) Above the logo is the legend, “You are nowhere.” Coastist dorks like Ted Rall may think so, but I kind of like Nebraska, not the least for this sort of self-deprecating humor, which I guarantee you won’t find in New York City.

I-80 travels a little south of the US 30 alignment, which in turn follows the original Union Pacific right-of-way. We stopped for gas at Cozad and drove north to the town center just to get a sense for it. Increased prices for corn have brought a certain prosperity to the town (which contains a monster grain elevator) and we saw three grocery stores, and Ace Hardware, a Walgreen’s, and museums celebrating artist Robert Henri, and Cozad’s location on the 100th meridian. The houses were tidy and everybody was driving recent cars. There are ghost towns in Nebraska, but Cozad is not one of them.

We stopped in Ogallala for the night and spent a couple of hours at Lake McConaughy, though we were too bushed to do any serious swimming, especially with my increasingly runny nose. So we walked up and down the beach together, picking up broken glass when we saw it (as we always do) and hoping to come back when both of us felt better. (Maybe September, when all the kids are back in school.)

There’s still a lot to post about human memory system corruption, but it may have to wait a day or two until I feel a little better. Let’s just say I’m very glad to be home again. I’ve got my own bed, and all the Kleenex my nose would ever want. Everything else will take care of itself.

The Impersistence of Memory, Part 1

The other day, I had dinner with my high school locker partner and college friend Tom Barounis. He handed me something that he had found among his own things: a college-era non-SF story manuscript of mine, a typewritten original and not a Xerox copy, complete with comments by an unknown third party who sounded like a college prof. On the back of the last sheet, in my own distinctive block printing, was the date: 4/30/72.

There were two things wrong with this: 1) I don’t remember having my Selectric typewriter in the spring of 1972, and 2) I don’t remember writing the story itself.

Point 1 is checkable. I used to date typewritten manuscripts, and I have two moving boxes full of them back home, so as soon as we get back to Colorado I can haul out my writer’s trunk and see when exactly I made the transition from Smith-Corona to IBM. I recall it being a year later, as I was ramping up for the Clarion SF workshop, which I attended in the summer of 1973.

Point 2 is more peculiar. I vaguely remember writing a story with that title, but the story I remember writing was nothing like the story I read last night, for probably the first time in 37 years. I know what probably happened with the manuscript: After getting it back from the prof I wrote it for, I passed it on to Tom to read, and it remained with him since the spring of 1972.

But why do I remember the story being about something else entirely?

I remember the story being a failed experiment, about two (male) friends who experience a physical attraction between them and don’t know how to deal with it. Instead, it was about two male friends stressing about the draft lottery, and how one of them runs to Canada when he pulls number 5. Furthermore, it was not a failure but a pretty decent story, considering that I only wrote “mainstream” (non-SF) fiction with a gun to my head in those days. (I’d even consider sending it out for publication, except that I don’t think anybody remembers what the draft lotteries were about anymore.)

It’s a headscratcher. It’s also the latest in a series of headscratchers that have turned up here and there as I’ve grown older, and have realized that a growing number of things that I remember happening did not happen anything like the way I remember them. Some did not, in fact, happen at all. I’ve begun to wonder what other memory holes are waiting for me to discover, and how much the life that I remember living resembles the life that I actually lived.

More in coming days.