V is for Victuals

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You might or might not know that victuals is pronounced vittles.  I didn’t; I just learned it a couple of weeks ago.  When I think of vittles, I think of Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies.  Victuals, on the other hand, always makes me think of the poem “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” by A.E. Housman:

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:

You eat your victuals fast enough;

There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,

To see the rate you drink your beer.’[1]

I’ve always pronounced victuals with both the C and the U, like actual.  It’s one of those words I’d only seen, but never heard.  Or anyway, I didn’t know I’d heard it.  I thought what I’d heard was vittles.

In any event, this post isn’t about etymology or pronunciation or anything like that.

It’s about food.  Polish food.

I really wasn’t exposed to a great many Polish dishes as I was growing up.  We made chrusti with some frequency, and also my grandmother’s traditional Christmas bread (which I have never found an even remotely equivalent recipe for anywhere, so I have no idea what its Polish name might be).  We occasionally had golabki (which is pronounced “galumpki,” and that’s also how I’ve always spelled it), and I heard many stories about “glue balls” but never had the (dis)pleasure of actually trying them, though my cousins did.

We made potato pancakes often (they’re one of my own kids’ favorite foods), and we frequently made chicken soup with my grandmother’s fat, fabulous dumplings, but though I knew both of these had Polish origins, I never knew their Polish names.  (For the dumplings, I still don’t, but the pancakes are placki ziemniaczane.)

And of course there were my mom’s pork chops, which I never knew were Polish at all.

But that’s it.  The sum total of my exposure to Polish food.

Growing up, that was fine, but as an adult, and especially since I’ve been writing this book, I’ve wanted more.

I’ve bought cookbooks, and of course I’ve browsed the Internet, so I’ve learned a little about Polish cuisine, but I’ve never really had the courage to try any of the recipes I found because I had no way of knowing how correctly (or incorrectly) I might be following them.  My one attempt at golabki several years ago was an unmitigated disaster (a story for another time, perhaps), so I was leery of trying anything completely new.

And then—

My husband and I were walking down the main drag in Wisconsin Dells last summer, just doing the tourist thing, when a little sign caught my eye.  Polish Food, it said, with a little arrow pointing down an alley.

Really?  I chugged down that alley with Tom’s futile words drifting on the wind behind me:  “But we’ve already had lunch!”

I didn’t care.  It’s no trouble at all to order food to go.

I don’t remember the name of the place.  I’m not sure I ever even saw the name of the place.  It was just a teeny little storefront with two café tables inside:

polish restaurant dells 8-31-13

What’s gofry?  I wondered.  I didn’t know.

Turns out gofry is waffles.  These people seriously know how to do waffles.  The menu offered a wealth of other possibilities, as well.  I wasn’t sure where to start.

polish menu left dells 8-31-13

Sorry that picture’s blurry.  I was literally shaking with excitement.  Here’s the other half:

polish menu right dells 8-31-13

It took me awhile, but I finally narrowed it down.  I’d heard of bigos, a hunter’s stew that’s considered pretty much the Polish national food, but had never had it.  I’d also, believe it or not, never had pierogi.  And I had to try the golabki to see what I’d done wrong with them the one time I’d tried to make them myself.

polish food dells 8-31-13

Left, bigos; center, potato & cheese pierogi; right, golabki.

It was all fabulous.  Of course it was.

But the very best thing about this unexpected pit stop was talking to the women behind the counter, who spoke with Polish accents.  They sounded just like my grandmother.

I could have listened to them all day long.

But neither of them used the word vittles.

 

[1] http://www.bartleby.com/123/62.html

U is for Urynowicz

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My grandfather, when he arrived in America in 1907, was Josef Urynowicz, but his headstone reads Joseph Urenowicz.  You may have noticed that I use the two spellings interchangeably, and that’s why.

Josef and his friend Jan Chmiclewski sailed out of Hamburg, Germany and docked at New York Harbor on November 15, 1907.  This is the Pretoria, the ship they traveled on:

the pretoria from ellis island dot org[1]

I can only begin to imagine how foul it must have been below decks, which is where the 2382 steerage customers endured some pretty horrific living conditions for the duration of the voyage.

Josef and Jan were coming to stay with Josef’s brother Alex, who lived in Jersey City, New Jersey.  This was where my grandfather would soon meet my grandmother (Apolonie / Apolonia / Pauline).  They married there in June, 1909, and had their first two children there—my Aunt Joan and my Uncle Joe—before the New York Central Railroad, for which my grandfather was a boilermaker, transferred him to Jackson, Michigan in 1913.

This is their wedding picture:

grandma grampa wedding pic scanned 4-24-14

In Jackson, my grandparents bought a small bungalow on Loomis Street, where seven more children were born (including my mom); and in 1926 they sold the Loomis house and moved to a farm just north of town, where one more child, my Uncle Ray, was born.  I have many, many fond memories of the farm.  This is me at about age four:

me feeding the chickens, michigan

My grandfather (known as Grampa to his many grandchildren) had been drafted into the Russian army as a young man and sustained a leg injury in a fall from a horse that left him with a limp throughout the rest of his life.  In 1964, he developed gangrene and was told that the leg must be amputated.  His response to this news:  “I came into this world with two legs, and I’m going to go out with two legs.”

And so he did.  In November it will be fifty years.  I’d sure give a lot to be able to go back and speak with him now.

My grandparents’ 50th anniversary photo, taken in 1959:

grandma grampa 50th anniv june 1959 scanned 4-24-14

May they both rest in peace.

 

Are you interested in discovering your own family history? 

 

[1]   http://www.ellisisland.org/search/shipImage.asp?MID=13541073640892562880&LNM=URYNOWICZ&PLNM=URYNOWICZ&first_kind=1&last_kind=0&RF=13&pID=102135050365&

T is for Total Disaster

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I had a lot of T ideas for today and hadn’t settled on one yet, though I had narrowed it down to Theme or Tradition.  My youngest son and his family are here tonight and I wanted to keep it short so I could visit with them, so I decided to write on Theme, which wouldn’t require any research.

I opened my famous flash drive, which is already in the computer, to get started.

But instead of opening it, my computer gave me a pretty blue pop-up containing an error message:

Location is not available.  E:/ is not accessible.  The file or directory is corrupted and unreadable.

What?

I sat there staring at the words and felt like Woody in Toy Story.  You know, that part where he goes, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no” in utter despair.  I’m not sure why he does that—I don’t remember—but I know it can’t have been over anything as bad as this.

Tried again.  Same result.

And again.  Same.

Tried removing the flash drive.  The computer says it’s in use.  It’s not, but I’m going to get this posted before I mess around with it any further.

The good news:  I did back up my Novel folder last week.

The bad news:  I did not back up the Blog folder.  All of my blog stuff—all of it—is gone.  All my plans and ideas, not just for my A-Z blogs but all blog posts past present and future, are in that folder.

I also did not back up the Research folder, the Journal folder, the Old Drafts folder, or any other folders.

So yeah.  Today’s post is T is for Total Disaster.  I can’t believe something like this could happen twice in one month.  I can’t believe I was foolish enough not to back everything up.

LEARN FROM ME.  PLEASE.

(Does anyone know how to recover a corrupt flash drive?  That’s a trick I don’t know.)

S is for “Show, Don’t Tell”

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My biggest bugaboo as a fiction writer is having to go back and rewrite whole paragraphs, and even whole scenes, because they too often tell, rather than show.  The notes I write to myself in the margins of almost every page of a first draft are the same, over and over:  Show don’t tell?  Show don’t tell?

I understand the concept, of course.  A reader needs to see a character living such-and-such experience rather than merely be told about it.  Long paragraphs of telling are tedious.  Those are the bits readers skip.

I guess that’s why, as I’m getting the first draft fleshed out, my inner editor hollers, Hey, what does this look like?  You’re not showing!

She reminds me almost constantly that I need to remember to show.

Don’t say, “Bub was angry.”   Show him throwing things, slamming doors, shouting with red face and bulging eyes, and maybe a tic.  Leave out the weak verbs.  Get rid of the passive voice.  Write actively.

I have to remind myself to look for all five senses.  It’s not just about what something looks like.  What does it smell like?  What about taste, touch, and sound?

But I also have to remind myself that too much description can be as bad or worse than not enough.  It’s all about balance.

Sometimes I wonder, Do I need to show this? It’s really a matter of judgment, isn’t it?  It seems to me that I have to trust my reader to be able to imagine certain details.  If s/he doesn’t see something exactly the way I’m envisioning it, as long as it’s not vital to the plot, then it really doesn’t matter.

Or does it?

R is for Recursive

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It’s time to come clean:  I’m not nuts about one of the bits of writing advice I keep hearing everywhere.

Just write.  It doesn’t matter if it stinks.  Just get it written.

Even a couple of the quotes I posted yesterday offer this advice, or something like it.

I just can’t buy into that philosophy.  I wish I could.  But I’m a recursive writer, and in fact I think many of us are recursive writers and it just goes against our nature to do it any other way.  I think that for recursive people, it’s not possible to do it any other way.

I regularly ask my students to list the steps in their writing processes, from the day they receive a writing assignment to the day they turn in a completed paper.  As it turns out, very few of them seem to incorporate any steps into their process that are very different from anyone else’s steps.  I’m pretty sure these steps are universal, whether one is writing a freshman paper in college or the Great American Novel.

As the students call out their steps, I write them all on the board:

Read.  Think.  Procrastinate.  Brainstorm.  Generate ideas.  Outline.  Write.  Read out loud.  Revise.  Proofread.  Spell-check.  Edit.  Check formatting.  Submit.

Sound familiar?  I’m going to guess yes.  If you’re a writer, yes.

These steps all invariably fall into three categories:

  1. Invention (aka prewriting)
  2. Drafting (aka writing)
  3. Revision (aka rewriting)

So here’s the zillion-dollar question:  Do you do these in order when you write?  What I mean by this is, do you do all of your brainstorming and invention, get all your ideas together, do all of your research, and then start writing?  Do you write a whole draft from beginning to end without getting writer’s block, without doing any further research, without stopping to come up with new ideas, without changing a single word?  Do you wait until you have a whole complete draft before you launch into the dreaded revision and editing process?

I’m going to guess that unless you’re Jack Kerouac, the answer to that is a big fat NO.

Nobody does that.

That’s because writing itself is a recursive process.

You get an idea (invention).  You jot it down (writing).  You get a few more ideas and jot those down (invention and writing).  These jottings are starting to look like a story, but man, that third paragraph needs to come sooner.  So you move it (revision).  Now there’s a gap where it used to be, so you sit and think about how to fill the gap (invention).  You write another paragraph (writing), but the opening sentence is off, so you go back and reword it (revision).  Meanwhile you realize that you really don’t know anything about X, and you’re going to have to do some googling before you can move the story forward (invention).  Then, as you’re chugging along (writing), you develop a terrible case of writer’s block.  And back to idea generation you go (invention).

Sound familiar?

That’s the recursive nature of writing.  It bounces back and forth between those three stages.

And it’s NORMAL.  Almost nobody writes in a completely linear fashion.

Yet the writerly advice persists:  Just get it written.  You can go back and fix it later.

It’s true—you can go back and fix it later.  In fact, you’ll have to.  The recursivity of writing is not a substitute for good, solid revision once a draft is complete.  But the fact is, nothing I’ve ever written using the “no matter how bad it is, at least you’ve written something” theory is worth a crap.  It always results in my making more work for myself, not less.

Good writing takes time, no matter where you spend that time—but I know that no matter how much research and planning I do ahead of time, I’m not going to get to the complete draft stage without engaging in a lot of recursiveness in between here and there.  And I’ve found that beating myself up for doing it that way—for breaking someone else’s “rules”—is a mistake.  I’m sure that method works well for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

So here’s my theory:  There is no “right” way to get a draft done.

The “right” way to do it is your way.

So be bold.  Embrace your recursive self.

 

Q is for Quotes

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As a writer, I quite often find myself bogged down.  Stuck.  Ready to sail off to Quitsville.  One of the things I do to buck up when the dark closes in is to read inspirational quotes by other writers.*  It always helps to know that even the most famous, the most revered, the most successful writers go through all the same tough moments I do.

Here are eighteen of my favorites (eighteen for Eighteen Crossroads, you know):

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.  (Margaret Atwood)

­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.  (Margaret Atwood)

Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.  (Thomas Berger)

The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.  (John Campbell)

I firmly believe every book was meant to be written.  (Marchette Chute)

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining–researching–talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.  (E. L. Doctorow)

The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.  (William Faulkner)

There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.  (Ernest Hemingway)

I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged…I had poems which were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.  (Erica Jong)

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.  (Stephen King)

The secret of good writing is telling the truth.  (Gordon Lish) 

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary — it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.  (Somerset Maugham)

If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.  (Toni Morrison)

Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.   (Salman Rushdie)

Pretend to be writing to an aunt.  (John Steinbeck)

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else. (Gloria Steinem)

Don’t get it right, just get it written. (James Thurber)

The long-lived books of tomorrow are concealed somewhere amongst the so-far unpublished MSS of today.  (Philip Unwin)

 

Which is your favorite?  Or do you have a favorite that doesn’t appear here?  What keeps you going when the dark closes in?

 

*I’ve collected these over several years from all over the internet–they’re all google-able, but I don’t have sources for each one.  No copyright infringement is intended.

P is for Pisanki (Polish Easter Eggs)

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My mom was a big one for hobbies.  Just a few of the myriad projects we tried our hands at as I was growing up were crewel embroidery, decoupage, cloisonné, acrylic painting, rock tumbling, resin grapes and other resin crafts (enter “klick-klacks”—anyone remember those?), and several different types of crystal growing.  That one came in handy when I needed an 8th grade Science Fair project, since all of my crystals were already well underway when it was assigned.

One year, something inspired my mom to dye Easter eggs the way her family had done it when she was growing up.   I hadn’t thought about this in a long, long time, but the collision of the A-Z Challenge, my Challenge theme, and the approach of Easter jogged the memory.  I know exactly which of my stories this recollection will make it into, too.

We skipped the brightly-colored store-bought dyes and stickers that year; instead, Mom got out a bag of brown onions and started peeling off the dried outer skins.   When she had a whole saucepan full of skins, she covered them with water and brought them to a boil.

“What color will the dye be?” I asked doubtfully.  It just looked brown.  I wasn’t too impressed.

“Brown,” she said.  “The most beautiful brown.”

Brown Easter eggs?  I thought she’d lost her mind.  Why dye Easter eggs brown?  You can buy brown eggs.  I longed for bright pinks and greens and yellows, and robin’s egg blue.

I confess, I wasn’t a very good sport about this one.

While the dye was boiling, we blew a bunch of eggs.  Everyone knows how to blow eggs, right?  Poke a little hole in one end with a needle, and a slightly larger hole in the other end, and blow through the smaller hole until all of the egg has exited through the larger one.  Make the holes large enough that the blowing won’t damage your eardrums, and keep count so you can use the eggs in cooking later, or just make scrambled eggs.

We sat down at the kitchen table with our clean, empty shells and set to work with clear wax crayons, drawing intricate designs and patterns on our eggs.  I know now that an even better method—the traditional Polish method—is to use melted beeswax and apply it with a pin.  Crayons are smeary, and candle wax is hard to see, but beeswax, when it gets hot, turns a dark enough shade to be easily visible as you work, and it leaves a clear, sharp image.

When our designs were finished, we lowered the eggs into the dye and left them there until they had achieved the shade we wanted—a lovely deep reddish brown.

The next step, as with any other Easter eggs, was to remove them from the dye and let them dry completely.

Once they were dry, we held the eggs over a candle to melt the wax and used a paper towel to wipe it all off.  The eggs lay on the table and glowed.  They were beautiful.  I don’t have any photos of ours, but they looked something like these:

Coffee and Vanilla[1]

And they don’t have to be brown—you can use the same wax method with any type of dye.  There are actually several types of Polish Easter eggs, depending on the region:

  • Kraszanki, dyed with plant materials (leaves, flowers, onion skins, beet skins, etc.—what my mom and I did was a combination of this one and the next one)
  • Pisanki , decorated by applying a wax design before dying
  • Skrobanki or Rysowanki, decorated with a design scratched upon their surface
  • Wyklejanki, decorated with yarn, attached with glue
  • Nalepianki, decorated with paper cut-outs or straw glued to them
  • Malowanki, hand painted

You might want to give it a try, whether you have kids or not.  With a little practice, maybe you can make some like these:

pisanki-wydrapywane-2 rabbit skrobanie[2]

That one is a goose egg–that’s the skrobanki style.  The ones below show you can also use color:

PolishEasterEggs 4-17-14[3]

 

Take a look at these eggs, too—there are so many, I couldn’t possibly post all the photos I would have liked to!

Here’s a Pinterest collection of them for good measure.  I think you’ll agree that they’re just beautiful.

My mom and I never did eggs like that again.  I don’t know why it didn’t become a tradition.  I’m sorry to say I never tried it with my own kids when they were young, either—but I can’t wait to do it with my grandkids!

Happy Easter!

 

[1] http://www.coffeeandvanilla.com/traditional-polish-easter-eggs-dyed-in-onion-shells/

[2] http://manualni.pl/jak-zrobic-pisanki-cz-2/

[3] http://thehungariangirl.com/2012/03/23/easter-egg-styles-from-central-and-eastern-europe/

 

O is for Oneirology

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When I lay down to take a little nap before dinner, I still hadn’t yet decided what to write for today’s “O” post.

I slept for about an hour and a half, seemingly all of which was consumed with dreams.  Weird ones.

I rarely remember my dreams, so I immediately jotted down a few keywords and brief phrases so I wouldn’t forget (my short-term memory not being in even the same solar system as my long-term memory), and then I sat down and fleshed out everything I could remember.  Here’s the gist:

I was at a family reunion, but I didn’t know who most of the people were.  My cousin Susan was there, and my cousin Nancy and tons of other people I did know, but I also knew that even the ones I didn’t know were all family too.  I also didn’t recognize the house, which was huge and very opulent and dark.  I was in a big room furnished with several caskets and cribs, and it was hard to tell which was which.  They were all upholstered in maroon and looked very comfortable.

Two women I didn’t know were standing in a corner near a big roll-top desk, and one of them  was holding a tiny baby—a newborn in a yellow sleep-and-play suit.  I asked if I could hold him, and the woman said (not unkindly), “It’s a her, and no, it’s not a baby, it’s my mother.”  She explained that the “baby” had some kind of degenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s, except it didn’t just affect her mind, but her whole body.  That was why she was so tiny.

The baby’s head was deformed—huge in the back, tiny in the front—and she had only one eye; the other was just a blank, overgrown socket.  She also looked terribly  jaundiced.  I asked the woman if her mother (the baby) knew who she (the daughter) was—if the “baby” knew who anyone was—and she said, “no, there’s no recognition—I just tend to her needs.”

Something in the dream shifted, and I knew the reason I was there was that Tom and I were visiting someone .  My kids were all there, and we were all going to go to the beach—and I really wanted to go to the beach—but somehow I fell asleep, and when I woke up, nobody was around.  They had gone without me and I was all alone in this room full of caskets and cribs.

I found myself wandering around the house looking for someone.  Anyone.

In one room, I found someone on a bed, all covered up, crying.  I reached out a hand to try to comfort the person on the bed, and it turned out to be my mom.  She was dressed up for the family party in a black, blue, and white patterned blouse that she really did used to have, and we held hands and I asked what happened.  She said she and Dee (my aunt, her younger sister and best friend who in real life predeceased her by five years) had gotten into a terrible argument.

I didn’t question that Dee might have been alive at this party, even though I hadn’t seen her.  My mom covered herself back up and I left the room.

Then I was in a hallway, and as I passed by another open door, I saw that my mom was crying on the couch in that room.  I thought she had switched rooms because she wanted to be alone, so I kept walking—but then I passed another door and she was in that one, too, still crying, but this time I heard her say, “Dee, Dee,” and I realized that Dee was dead and my mom knew she was dead.

Then Tom was there again, back from the beach, and I was wearing two hats—a cloth bucket hat, yellow on the inside and white on the outside, with a straw wide-brimmed cowboy-type hat over it—and Tom wanted to wear one of them and I couldn’t decide which one to give him.  I took off the straw hat, since it was on top, but it was a struggle to separate them, and then I was left wearing only the bucket hat.  I was very uncomfortable (because a bucket hat really isn’t “me”) and it was also blinding (because it had no visor) and I didn’t like giving up the other hat.  I remember wondering why it was so suddenly bright, because the house had been so dark.  Where was I now?

And then I woke up.

One of my first thoughts upon waking up—aside from “whoa, that was weird”—was that I still didn’t have an “O” post, and I wondered if there might possibly be something about this dream that might be appropriate.

Of course.  Yes.  It was all about a family reunion at which I didn’t know most of the family members.  Sounds a lot like genealogy, right?  And after all, genealogy is the inspiration for my WIP, even though it’s fiction.

But nothing in the dream starts with O.  Nothing about dream analysis starts with O.

Or does it?  I started googling.

And you already know the answer:  The study of dreams is called Oneirology.

Talk about luck!

Do you remember your dreams?  Do they ever provide fodder for your writing?

 

N is for National Anthem

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Most Americans know “The Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. Most of us, I assume, also know at least most of the words, even if we sometimes injure ourselves in our efforts to carry the tune.

The song commemorates the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, after which, “by the dawn’s early light,” Francis Scott Key was inspired when he saw that “the flag was still there.”

One could argue fairly convincingly that the song came into being just as the country itself was coming into being, though it wasn’t officially declared the national anthem until 1931.

In Poland, it’s the opposite.

That is to say, the Polish national anthem, “Dabrowski’s Mazurka” (“Mazurek Dąbrowskiego” in Polish), was written by Józef Wybicki in 1797, two years after the final partitioning of the country led to its total obliteration from the map.

That’s right: the Polish national anthem came into being a couple of years after there was no country to sing it to.

Somehow, knowing this makes the opening lines of the song even more powerful . They can be translated in several ways, the most common of which are these:

     Poland has not yet died / So long as we still live.

     Poland is not yet lost / So long as we still live.

     Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live.

Whichever English version you prefer, you can feel the hope, the spunk, the spirit of these people. They were not giving up on their country just because it didn’t currently happen to exist.

In fact, Adam Mickiewicz explained to his students in 1842 that the opening lines of the song “mean that people who have in them what constitutes the essence of a nation can prolong the existence of their country regardless of its political circumstances and may even strive to make it real again.”[1]

You might say that while Americans were celebrating the birth of a new nation and in search of people to fill it, Poland—or more accurately, Polonia—was comprised of many people in search of a place they could freely call home while still maintaining their Polish identity.

Poland’s physical presence was re-established at the end of WWI in 1918, and the Mazurka became the unofficial anthem then. It was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1926.

You can listen to it here (with lyrics in both Polish and English).

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poland_Is_Not_Yet_Lost

M is for Memory

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Most people have probably heard of the woman whose amazing memory made the news a few years ago. Known only as AJ, she can recall what happened on any given date:

Asked what happened on Aug 16, 1977, she knew that Elvis Presley had died, but she also knew that a California tax initiative passed on June 6 of the following year, and a plane crashed in Chicago on May 25 of the next year, and so forth. Some may have had a personal meaning for her, but some did not.[1]

She was asked if she knew who Bing Crosby was. She said she did. Asked if she knew where he died, she responded, “Oh yes, he died on a golf course in Spain,” and then she also provided the date, including the day of the week. [1]

I confess—I can’t do that. I would have gotten the Elvis question right, and I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when I found out (and also where he died), but I suppose a lot of people of my era can do that. It was Elvis, after all.

But I do have an incredible long-term memory, the kind of memory that sometimes frustrates other people, since I often remember the events of their lives better than they do themselves, assuming I was there for whatever it was.

Short term memory?  Not so much.  My husband makes fun of me because I forget things all the time.  But long term, I remember all kinds of things, both important and unimportant, whether I want to or not.  Mostly unimportant, unfortunately.

Go ahead—give me a Top 40 song from the 70’s. Chances are pretty good I’ll be able to tell you who recorded it and when it came out. “Dancing in the Moonlight”? King Harvest. Late fall of 1972.

(After I wrote that, I looked it up. Wikipedia says it was a 1973 song. They’re wrong. It might have peaked on the charts in ’73, but it came out in the fall of ’72. I know this. I don’t know exactly why I know it, but I do.)

If you show me any American-made car built in the 1950’s or 60’s, I can tell you the make, model, and year.  I’m especially good at General Motors cars.

I can also tell you the birthday of just about every single person whose birthday I’ve ever known.

I don’t know why.

I can describe all of the classrooms I sat in throughout school from nursery to grad school. I can map the summer camps I went to.

I can remember the first time I climbed out of my crib—not just doing it but also the thinking process that went into it—and what my bedroom looked like, and what the curtains looked like in the bathroom. And even though we moved out of that house when I was five, I could sit down right now, fifty years later, and draw you a detailed floor plan, including furniture placement. I could tell you all kinds of things that happened there.

I could give you a pretty fair description of the inside of my paternal grandfather’s house, which I haven’t been in since before he died when I was seven.  I can smell my maternal grandmother’s service porch and the water in her bathroom and my aunt and uncle’s little convenience store on the shores of Ackerson Lake as if I’d been in them only a week ago, but the last time I was in any of those places, I was fourteen.

It’s not just a result of having kept a journal for so many years, since the memories go back much farther than the journals do, and it’s also not a result of having been an avid camera bug all my life, because although photos definitely can and do jog memories, I also have a crystal-clear remembrance of things for which there are no photos.  I have no photos of the store on Ackerson Lake or my grandmother’s service porch or the inside of my grandfather’s house.  I just remember them.  Clearly.

In fact, pretty much everything that has ever happened to me, everywhere I’ve ever been, and everything I’ve ever done, is available for total recall if I want it. And of course, as a writer, I want it.  Even the bad stuff.

In fact, this party trick makes it both very easy and very difficult to write fiction. Easy, because so many events are so readily available as potential fodder for my stories. Difficult, because I sometimes have trouble shifting between truth and fiction.

Until fairly recently, I assumed everyone else’s memory was the same as mine. I didn’t know it was just me until I read about AJ a few years ago and realized that although my memory is far from as amazing as hers, we’re actually more alike than different.

The researchers who studied her (and are still studying her) have so far identified only two hyperthymesiacs (she being the one they named the condition for), and they’re actively looking for others whose phenomenal memories might contribute to their research. They’ve devised a quiz, which is available for free online. I took it this morning and scored “Very Above Average.” I was given an additional battery of questions, and they requested my contact info for potential follow-up.

Do you have a fantastic memory? How does it affect your life, your work, your relationships, and your writing?

Do you think you might have hyperthymesia? Take the quiz here! 

 

[1] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1738881&page=1

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