Reading Memory

I recently wrote about writing too much (as if such a thing were possible).  After posting that I thought of how much the same can be said of reading.  I like to believe that whatever I’ve read is stored in my brain somewhere, rather like my writing on all those external drives.  I get some hopeful hints of this when a fragment of something read long ago suddenly reappears.  It’s good to know it’s there somewhere.  What brought this to mind is that a book I’m currently reading used a significant term.  Overly confident as I only am when reading, I figured I’d remember where it occurred.  A few days later I’d forgotten.  “No problem,” I thought, “the index.”  Indexes are never perfect and I’m always amazed by what strikes me as being so important failed to make the author’s cut.  So it happened.

This particular book was compactly written, but even so, it was more than sixty pages ago.  It took a few days of skimming, and finally going through line-by-line to find the word again.  It was a capitalized word and I thought mere skimming would be able to pick it out.  No such luck.  Part of the problem, I suppose, is that since I’ve left academia I’ve pretty much stopped writing in books.  I always did it in pencil, but still—there’s something about that pristine page so carefully typeset and laid out.  Well, if I had all the time in the world I could re-read those first sixty pages again, but I don’t have time to read all the books I need to, so I grabbed my old Pentel and began marking the spots I wanted to remember.

When we age it’s recall that suffers.  I tend to think the memories themselves are still there, sometimes distorted, sometimes altered, but present.  Books, after all, can be reread.  If I read something while commuting to Manhattan, there is a good likelihood that some of it was occluded by the worries of work lying ahead, coupled with the anxiety of catching the bus back home at the end of the day.  Not to mention anything that might’ve been happening in real life—that place outside of work that you really care about.  I’m glad for the commute reading; I regularly read over 100 books a year.  You couldn’t take notes while on a New Jersey Transit bus, though.  It’s not possible to read too much, but reading memory, it seems, is a sometimes a scarce resource.


Zoom Game

Perhaps you’ve notice it too.  The technology blame-game, I mean.  Although it’s grown more acute since the pandemic, it has been around for as long as the tech disparity has existed.  A typical scenario goes like this: someone (often of a more senior generation) encounters a techical problem communicating with someone else (often of a more recent generation) and asks them what the problem is with their (the younger person’s technology).  I sent you the message, the narrative goes, there must be something wrong with your tech if you didn’t receive it.  Believe me, I understand how bewildering this can be.  We’ve sold seniors (one of which I am rapidly becoming) on the idea that this little device in your hand can do anything.  When it doesn’t work, it must be somebody else’s fault.  The young, however, often have the latest tech and fastest speeds and broadest bandwidth, so the problem is probably on the sending end.

I run into this quite a bit since I run a small program for some local folks that involves weekly Zoom meetings.  I’m no Zoom maven.  My wife trained me in it and I can do passably well at running a meeting.  Many of those older than me, however, often have problems.  They wonder what is wrong with my broadcasting rather than their receiving.  I’m not sure how to say ever so gently that we pay (through the nose) for high-speed connectivity.  We have to since I work from home as a matter of course.  Now my wife also works from home and the two of us use our bandwidth all day long with multiple simultaneous meetings without any issues.  The tech here seems good.  We have no way of checking the tech on the end of those who are having connectivity issues.

I’m not setting myself up as any kind of tech prophet.  If you read my blog you know that I am deeply ambivalent about this whole thing.  I’ve been thinking a lot about overpromising recently and I wonder if that’s not a major part of the problem.  Technology will not solve all of our problems.  The fact that you need a regular source of electricity for it to run shows its inherent weakness.  It is a tool like any other, and if the tool is bladed to be useful it must have a dull part onto which one might hold.  Our Zoom society is bound to have issues.  Once we can see each other face-to-face again, all we’ll have to worry about is whether the laptop will communicate with the projector, or if the microphone is on the fritz this morning.  So it always has been.


Aging Tech

When I get an idea my first impulse is to grab an envelope and pencil and start scribbling.  I run around with an older crowd.  Many of my generation don’t appreciate how much a single “share” can do for a blog post, or what a simple link to a page can do.  I have college friends who have no email addresses and who are invisible on the web.  I guess this is a young person’s playing field.  I suppose one of my reasons for writing about horror is that it keeps me in the younger demographic.  I don’t know too many people my age who are fans of “the genre.”  Sci fi is a little more acceptable, I suppose.  Still, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why I find horror so fascinating.  There’s actually something redemptive about it, at least in my reading of the material.  It’s also a coping mechanism.

One reason that people tell stories (and read stories), according to psychologists, is to learn how to handle situations they might encounter.  This is on a subconscious level most of the time, otherwise speculative fiction simply wouldn’t apply.  I can’t recall having been in a crisis situation and stopping to think what a Stephen King character would have done in such circumstances, but I suppose that might be in the back of my mind somewhere, along with information about all the things I’ve mislaid over the years.  The older you get, in a technologically rapacious society, the more things there seem to be worthy of horror stories.  I haven’t even figured out the last round of devices before the new generation’s introduced.  No wonder so much of horror has to do with being attacked by monsters that look innocent.  Clinically engineered in a clean room.

Image credit: Pattymooney, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the horror comes from the inherent instability of a constantly upgrading tech.  My laptop’s a few years old.  While a little younger than that, the device that sits on my laptop is also not fresh from the factory.  The last time I tried to back up the contents, the external hard drive (new from the factory) refused to do what I commanded.  While I did eventually figure it out, I wasted a good deal of my scarce free time working out how a device I couldn’t control was in fact controlling me.  Younger folks grew up with this kind of problem solving drilled into them from kindergarten on.  Now I find myself in a world of devices I can’t comprehend and which don’t even react the same way they did last time I bought the exact same one.  I ask my fellow quinquagenarians what to do and I watch as they grab an envelope and pencil.


Autumn Music

It is an experience as old as humanity itself. At least humanity that started to realize that age, as remote as it may seem, will always eventually catch up with you. This past weekend was Family Weekend at my daughter’s college. Since her school does things up right, there were a variety of events on offer, one of which was an a cappella group concert. A cappella has come a long way since my college days, with students able to use their voices to sound like a band, professionally mixed, and full of energy. Somehow, I don’t recall that much energy from when I was a student. In any case, the inevitable group doing “oldies” took the stage an opened with a song from 1987. Wait. What? Since when was a song of which I remember the first release an oldie? The kids did a great cover, and I suspect in their minds it was really an old song. I was only 25 when it was given to the world. Can I really be an oldie? Outside the leaves on the trees were brilliant, as if on cue for the tuition payers to have their heartstrings wrung. Trees become their most alluring as they are about to die.

Songs, however, have a way of becoming part of you. Back when we were young(er) and idealistic, my wife had thought to study music therapy. Nashotah House, however, decided to change the career trajectories of an entire family in the name of orthodoxy. One of the things she learned in her classwork, prior to being sent back to the work-a-day world, was that patients suffering from dementia can often sing a song from their youth, even if they can’t speak a word. Music gets into our brains in a way that language learning doesn’t, and when we hear that song we are, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan (which another of the groups sang), forever young. It is a beautiful wish, endlessly covered and recovered. Watching those kids on stage, I recalled being on the cusp of adulthood myself. Everything seemed possible then. Then a world that others constructed imposed its constraints on me. My hair began to grow gray even as the leaves lit up yellow and scarlet and fire orange.

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Religion is the business of those who are old. Even as a religion major in college I was classed among those old before my time. We think of the hereafter on our deathbeds, not when we’re twenty. For those who teach their children to ponder eternity at a young age, however, that portal is never far from view. My fellow students were looking ahead to careers in all kinds of fields that would make their fortunes and reputations. My modest attempt to bring a younger generation to a more mature outlook faltered at the hands of Fundamentalists, and it was music that helped me through that terrible shock. Little do we think that that song we like so much is marking us indelibly as a child of our age. Time will not relent. We will be the ones, like the trees, showing our signs of age as our children show us where the future lies. And the attitude of that song from 1987 will be, for any who truly listen, forever young.


Retire Me This…

We’re all getting older.  My daily, grudging glimpse in the mirror reminds me that my beard wasn’t always gray, and there was a time *gasp* when no beard grew at all.  One of the realities of the brave new world we inhabit is that career stability has become a myth.  My father, in the brief time I knew him, worked as a house painter.  My stepfather worked in a sewage plant for a small town and drove a snowplow in winter to make ends meet.  These utilitarian jobs seemed never to end.  I made the mistake of going into higher education, not realizing that the risks were much higher and that I would make more money working in a sewage plant than I have ever made in my professional career, PhD in hand.  So it rankles me when I hear professors complaining about being too busy in retirement.  Retirement: what a concept.  When the guy who has custodianship of my minuscule retirement account from Nashotah House, after his gentle awaking from the defibrillator, looks at my records he always informs me, “you’re not well placed for retirement.”  Talking to my big brother we agree—our retirement plan is to die on the job.  So, when someone asks you to write another book, remember maybe it is some guy your own age who is trying not to starve.

As a society we’re aging.  Those who managed not to be fired by Fundamentalists have had a secure, tenure-ridden ride through the occupation that some of the rest of us were denied.  Busy in retirement?  Some of us will never have that privilege.  Funny thing is, it’s not funny.  I sometimes lean back in my editorial chair and realize, if this hadn’t happened to me, I would probably look at it the same way.  I would have published that second, third, and fourth book, and people would actually think my opinion mattered.  I would’ve become a resource to be tapped rather than a dancing monkey who hopes for anything shiny.  Is that another gray hair?

I don’t belittle the hard work of higher education—it’s not an easy profession. But writing books? That’s the fun part! Privilege induces blindness. How rare an opportunity it is to teach! While we as a nation devalue it, in many parts of the world those who shape future minds are revered. Yet elsewhere in the world there are those who are far worse off even than an editor—those for whom life is constant suffering and surviving another day is not reasonably assured. How easily I forget this as I neglect to balance my checkbook for fear of what I might find. We shouldn’t complain when someone asks us to give back, even in retirement. Those of us capable of writing books sometimes lack only the bona fide of a college or university position to do so. Otherwise I might hope to retire as well some day.

"Photo by Chalmers Butterfield"

“Photo by Chalmers Butterfield”