A Long Memory on Butcher Paper.

There was an article in the news recently about one Frank Calloway: artist, 112 year-old man, and schizophrenic.  While it’s interesting to hear about this man and his history, and to hear the praise of his art, there are other sides of the story that are more important to me.  These do not relate to the nature of his character, which by all accounts is lovely, or to the accuracy and length of his memory, which is substantial and easily seen in his art which exemplifies turn-of-the-century rural life in the south.  More, I wondered what these pictures (obviously serious to this man) on huge sheets of butcher paper might look like.  Here are a few examples that I could find quickly of both the man and his work.

The art itself I’m not sure I would actually qualify as art.  Sure, this guy was entirely self-taught.  Sure, his subject matter is the simple objects and scenes of a bygone age.  There is true worth in that.  Still, I hesitate to cal it ‘art’.  It doesn’t do anything for me.  If it is art, I feel like it’s art that’s not trying – it doesn’t accurately portray a scene, it doesn’t relate to mankind in some way, or convey emotion or an idea.  it doesn’t have a message and doesn’t try to break conventions or perceptions.  To my eyes, it isn’t even attractive.

What does this mean?  Does this mean what this guy is doing is not art?  Is it just a type of art I don’t personally relate to?  Is it just something this guy does that has merit for other reasons?  And who am I, really to judge?  If these works have aesthetic value for any person on earth, does that make them art?

True Story

A few days ago, a woman named Olive Riley passed away in NSW.  She was 108, almost 109, and was called the world’s oldest blogger by many.  She was a popular blogger and visited by people across the world as she shared her life’s story in short vignettes and told the day to day life of her current existence.  That’s what many bloggers do – share their lives through the medium of the internet, allowing us to connect with yet another person across time and distance.

Anyone beyond the age of five has at least one story.  Anyone at that age has a vast resource of life spent to draw upon and share, which we seldom recognize.  I can remember a woman from my church who I visited to use as a source her memories of the WPA when I was doing a history paper.  We sat together in her living room and I asked her questions, but our conversation went far beyond that as my eyes were arrested by different objects around the rooms.  I remember the copper watering cans she got on her trip to Germany and the stained glass windows she had created herself, this and every room packed with the remnants of a life well-lived, a life filled with hidden stories.

I think of my grandfather, and going through his things after he passed away.  I think of visiting him in a nursing home, listening to him tell the same stories over and over again, and how they must have circled just the same when we were not there to listen.  I wonder what other stories were lost to him and us as well as his memory faded.  I wonder what he could’ve told me about the wooden fan and small ceramic vase he left behind for me to claim.  I try to make an effort to ask my parents their stories – who did you love before you met each other?  How did you decide what to study in school?  What are your favorite memories of your own parents?  I want to claim as much as I can, while I can, to find the hidden secrets of my own life, couched in others.

The Fourth

I love the Fourth of July.  Not because of the fireworks, or the barbecues, or because one of my good friends has a birthday then.  Certainly not because of the crowds and traffic and drunk people.  Not even because I’m a true patriot glorying in American independence.  But all of these things are unquestionably part of the holiday.

It has more to do with memory that I can’t escape.  I can remember sitting and waiting in endless boredom for the world to grow dark enough.  I can still see the afterimage of sparklers circling and spelling my name, and the occasional prick of a sparkle that comes too close to flesh.  I can remember setting off fountains in the driveway, the short catch of my breath anticipating the first spark.  I can remember blankets and food enough for an army spread to watch the explosions shot from the tallest deck of the highest skyscraper in Indianapolis.  I can remember the shivering intensity of waiting for the next big bang, my nerves as thick with crackle as in a thunderstorm.  I certainly can remember leaving early, before the crowds, looking back with longing at every next flash.  For all these memories  there must be a certain excitement surrounding the Fourth of July.

Last night I didn’t bring a camera to the rooftop barbecue I attended with friends.  I knew it would be dark and crowded and full of faces I have countless good pictures of – why waste the effort?  But at that moment of wonder when the fireworks started going off, I wanted to capture everything: The sense of joy and wonder and focus in everyone around me.  The colors burned into your eyes by thousands of tiny explosions.  The music of the Pops blaring as loudly as  possible through a 1980s clock radio that had seen better days. The scent of grill and citronella.  The sound of aimless voices singing along to patriotic songs they hear only once  a year, trying to recall childhood words.  The clapping and oohs for the ‘good’ ones.

The results are less than extraordinary:

Still, the feeling remains with me, and I am grateful enough for that.

I’m Mr. Yosuke Nakamura

What do a veterinary hospital, a policeman trying to be friendly, and the rooftops near Tokyo all have in common?  All of them were involved in returning one lost parrot, Yosuke, to his home.  Similar to Dory Finding Nemo, this particular parrot had learned its name and address through excessive repeating.  His family had actually be training him to talk to strangers and repeat the necessary information for the past two years, in the event he escaped his cage and was lost.  The plan worked successfully, and the smallest Mr. Nakamura is safely back at home in Nagareyama, near Tokyo, after an overnight stay at the veterinary hospital where he announced his name and address.

What was most curious about the situation was the parrot’s refusal to talk to the police, despite his training to speak to ‘anyone willing to help’.  The policeman who first found the bird on the roof of one of the Nakamura’s neighbors, says he tried to be friendly, but that the parrot was unresponsive.  Did the family have some sort of fear of the police?  Had the parrot been watching too many cop shows?  Was he waiting in vain for his lawyer to appear before questioning?  Or is it something more simple?  Did the family train the bird only to respond to people touching it, or only to those who might have had more familiarity with birds?  Could they have trained something into the parrot without realizing it?  An interesting question into the mind and education of birds.

Singing in the Brain

Ok – I totally stole the title for this post from MIT – but it was so ridiculously, ideally cheesy that I couldn’t resist.  While the article itself does present some interesting research about development, babble, and different areas of the brain, I must confess I was more amused by the title.  Everyone should take a look though, for the knowledge, and especially for the funny little songbird clips.

So.  Singing in the brain.  We’ve all done it – some wonderful, or completely annoying song or jingle will get stuck in our head, and there’s no getting it out.  You’ll be going through your day, and suddenly an old snatch of song or phrase (Bob Loblaw) will jump into your awareness.  How does this happen?  Just what are these little hiccoughs of memory and experience?  Why one song instead of another?  Why any song at all?

Though there is division about whether or not music (in particular, one type of music) aids memory, I am more interested in the particulars of spontaneous recall of a song.  Does the pattern of the rain remind me of some subtle rhythm?  Is it a particular phrase that reminds me of half-forgotten lyrics, springing full against my mind?  Does some sharp smell trigger an emotional or even visceral response that calls the past back to life?  Is it movement, the gentle touch of a hand, or the swift shifting between people in a crowd, that triggers the inner mind to sing?  Is it all of these, and something more besides?  Is it some subtle connection of inner vision, emotional and hormonal response of the body, and endless looping sparks of the memory that collide to yank a song from its memory space?

It’s an intriguing thought to me, the way all these triggers could interact.  I hope we don’t come up with a complete answer anytime soon.  It would take some joy out of the pondering, and take some delight out of the song.

Today sucks

Typically I get into work, sit down, and take about an hour or two to get settled and into the swing of things.  Then I start blogging away to occupy my time, meaning I usually have a post by 9:45 or 10:30 at the latest.  Today, I am writing this at 11:55 am, which means it’s the first day of one of the busiest weeks of my year.  It’s going t be generally disagreeable here until about next Thursday, when I can quit worrying about other people not doing their jobs, and get back to the business of having nothing much to do.  For most people, having to work until noon but getting paid for work until 5 would not be a bad thing.  For me, it’s not really a bad thing either.  I enjoy occasionally having things that need to get done.  What I hate is that I go from trying to occupy my time with something, a dull 2% on the stress meter, all the way up to a 95-96% on days like this.  Everything was supposed to be done yesterday, and I’m helping 20 people on 50 tasks that they are all freaking out about.  Admin. Assists. should not get ulcers!  No that I have one.  Yet.

The world seems to agree with me.  Headlines range across major accidents (train crash in China, wildfire engulfing a wedding party, earthquakes in Mexico) to pure human wretchedness (a man locking up his daughter and fathering children on her, a student beating another student to critical condition).  Life today, as well as every day in our mixed-up and confusing lives, is full of strife.  I listened to a provocative hotel recording about five times this morning, greeting me with a sexy “well, hello there”, and guaranteeing me whatever I want, whenever I want it, and assuring me that a hotel representative would be with me shortly to ‘provide for your every desire’.  It was creepy.  And how did we get to this state?

We may look back at the past and want to say it was better then.  Look at the 50s – all that boom of an economy, people first learning how to buy lots of household stuff, appliances made to last.  But then you have to take into account the rampant prejudices that led to the revolts of the 60s, and the stultifying conformism of the times.  Then what about something earlier, the time of the Revolution and the birth of our country?  It was a time of war and privation, yes, but also of fighting for a just cause.  But truly, should ‘our’ rights have prevailed?  Were not all Europeans invaders?  Well then, what about a more primitive time, the agriculture or hunter-gatherer lifestyles of the Native Americans?  Was that not a better time?  Shorter lifespans, less nutrition, more infant mortality – I suppose you could say it was better.  I would rather say that we have a nostalgic longing for the past, as if it were childhood.

When I was growing up, there was a show on Nickelodeon called “Today’s Special”.  The meanings of the phrase could be various, and currently I’m perplexed as to what it had to do with the show itself.  The show was live action and puppets, involving a mannequin (male) that turned alive at night and interacted with the night watchman and other people in the store when it was closed.  Was the ‘special’ a sale on goods at the store the next day?  Was it a product only carried for a limited time?  Was it some new clothing item the mannequin always wore in order to promote it?  When i was a child, there was no such doubt in my mind.  ‘Today’ was not possessive – it was part of a contraction.  It was obvious – I knew today is special.

Short-term memory loss.

 I have always been a ‘naturally’ forgetful person.  In fact, I always really sympathized with Forgetful Jones on Sesame Street and felt like other characters were unduly mean to him.  It wasn’t his fault he was forgetful!  He was just a poor, little, lost muppet puppet, and he had been made that way.  In my own case, the forgetfulness was probably not so innocent.  I do still have trouble keeping track of things I do not find important – why clutter up your mind with random, pointless knowledge like where your car is parked or your best friend’s birthday?  Until today,  I always attributed as an unwillingness to focus on my part, rather than a really medical condition.  However, this article proved me wrong.  The real cause of my forgetfulness?  Lack of blueberries.

Now, some of you may be saying “I don’t eat a lot of blueberries, and my memory is fine”.  Some of you may be speaking in a language I don’t understand, saying , “I’ve never even seen a blueberry.”  Well, for those I can’t understand, you probably get your short-term memory drugs from some other arcane source such as the go-go fruit.  But the rest of you will understand me when I say that there’s a difference between ‘a lot’ of blueberries and ‘none’.

I hate blueberries.  I personally feel they are the most disgusting fruit on the planet, with the questionable exception of unripe persimmons or quince.  I’ve never had unripe quince myself, but I understand they’re gross.  I don’t know – something about their texture or substance gives them the taste of grainy mud.  It’s like rotting in my mouth.  I apologize to all of you out there who are blueberry lovers, and assure you that  i am not disparaging your love.  I merely seek to accurately represent my own personal loathing for the fruit.

With this loathing, comes extreme avoidance.  Just thinking about a blueberry makes my mouth pucker.   So I haven’t been eating them.  And since I can’t get the go-go fruit at my local market or mystic items purveyor, I’ve been neglecting the full nutrition of my short-term memory for years.  I am determined now to find a substitute and to get my mind back up to par.  I will find the elusive go-go, and make use, if it’s the last thing I do.  Unfortunately, as Wonka says, “They all turn into blueberries.”

My Bathroom is Carpeted.

Not my current bathroom.  The one I grew up using as a child was wall-to-wall carpet.  The only uncarpeted section was the bathtub itself.  It was really a nice place to be in the morning.  My mom would bring out the little electric space heater when we were going to take a shower or a bath.  it would make the whole room toasty.  After I got out, I used to linger in front of the heater with my towel, letting my body ‘air-dry’.  Really I was probably completely drying out my skin, but that warm little heater just felt so good.

I am guessing from the content of my adult state that the heater probably had more to do with keeping the bathroom dry  than keeping me warm.  The reason most bathrooms aren’t carpeted is due to dampness and possible mold.  Tile just does better resisting the wet air.  The thing I don’t understand is when some people have wood floors in a bathroom – that seems like more trouble than carpet to me.  Personally, I don’t even like having sheetrock in the bathroom –  it’s too easy for it to get damp.  But that’s really beside the point.

The point is that I loved that bathroom, and that heater.   I loved the carpet underfoot, rich in the cold mornings.  I loved getting out into heat with a sheen of water still on my skin.  I’ve melted heaters into flaming puddles of plastic goo because of this love.  I’ve turned towels to ash.  But still, despite all the possible negatives of this kind of bathroom, when I’m lying in my warm, toasty bed in the morning, it’s still the one I’m most drawn to.