I recently found out that a friend’s granddaughter has a photographic memory. Never one to miss an opportunity to waste hours ruminating over useless hypothetical questions, the next morning I sat drinking my coffee wondering why I didn’t also have a photographic memory.
“How can you expect me to remember anything when you are always asking me to forget everything?” a pretentious little voice asked.
“What are you talking about?” I questioned.
“You are always telling me, ‘Forget this ever happened, Brain. It’s for our own good’.”
Offended I asked, “Like what?” .
“Well obviously I can’t remember,” my brain yelled back taking offense itself.
Maybe people with photographic memories have a better time accepting reality and don’t continuously write and rewrite their past like I do. (Never forgetting to highlight myself in the very best light.) Or maybe people with photographic memories are more in the moment. That way each task they do, their brain is paying attention to it, rather than, as my brain tends to do, running off barefoot like a feral child through a dense forest.
Incidentally, in no way shape or form have I ever considered that I am simply not as smart as someone with a photographic memory. Never. Not possible. I’m sure if I worked at it I could have my own photographic memory. I choose not to have a photographic memory, that’s all. I don’t feel like doing the hard work.
“Now you’re telling me to forget that we know that we are not smart enough to have a photographic memory.”
“What? I did not. Shhh. Go run in the forest.”
As I was walking my four-year-old son to pre-school one morning, he started telling me about Natalie, his girlfriend, whom he described as beautiful with hair that shined “lellow” in the sun.
“Natalie says I can’t have Adam come to my birthday party,” he said as he dropped little black berries on the sidewalk, Hansel and Gretel style.
“Oh really?!” I replied in the over-acted manner preferred by four out of five preschoolers.
He stopped at a bush, finding more berries to pick. “She says I can’t because I have to make her happy.”
BAM! Like a pack of dogs through a just-opened screen door, the next words bolted out of my mouth. I whistled helplessly for them to come back, but fast as the speed of sound, each word gonged themselves in succession against his tiny eardrums: Man. She. Sure. Is. Bossy. Realizing this was the first time he’d heard his mother talk bad about one of his friends, he turned and looked up at me, his eyes widening.
Only one day earlier, a mother reminded me that kids blab to their friends and teachers everything their parents say to them. I was aware of this when dealing with older children but I hadn’t quite grasped that my own boys were at that age. Meaning, I had yet to be shamed.
Truthfully I felt pretty confident that my kids never listen to me. I had tried to peer deep into their eyes a few times to see if my words where getting through to them. All I saw was the swift glimmer of their brain as it galloped past on its way to the forest where the wild things are. Their complete lack of comprehension was the only way I could explain why I found myself repeating the most basic of instructions. Like: “You don’t need an entire roll of toilet paper every time you use the toilet.”
Or, “I know you are trying to help clean but don’t keep putting old bowls of spaghetti back into the cabinet.”
And, “I’ve told you before if you’re going to inspect mummified lizards with magnifying glasses in my bed, please remember to take them back outside when you’re done.”
Oh, and, “Stop coming up to me and wiping your nose on my sleeve.”
Knowing that I was about to learn my gossip lesson, I quickly back-tracked. I knelt down to my son’s level and spoke to him of mutual respect, the dynamics of a male/female relationships. I brought up Martians and Venusians, King Solomon and his tasty gossip morsels. I used fast speech to jab at his pre-frontal cortex. I dropped four syllable boulders in front of his neural pathways. To overload his optical nerve, I gesticulated like a juggler with Parkinson’s. Anything to distract the arrival of those first five words to his hippocampus. Like a UPS central processing center, it’s the part of the brain where items get sorted and some are sent off to become long-term memories. I even said hippocampus a few times, just in case it is the hidden lair of the id.
I talked the rest of the way to school. I talked until his eyes crossed and birds flew around his head. I talked so much I was confident that I had rendered his brain incapable of remembering that I had said: she sure is bossy.
I kissed him off to school.
Three short hours later I walked back to pick him up.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“Mama, you were right. Natalie is bossy,” he said. My heart became an anvil and clanked on the floor. Blind-sided, I realized that my babbling had succeeded only in confusing my hippocampus.
“You didn’t call her that, did you?” I asked.
His eyes got big. “No, Mama.”
I sighed with relief.
“No, Mama, I told her that you said she was bossy.”
Due to my unfortunate experiences with antidepressants as a teenager, I have a bit of an (un)natural distrust for the “good ideas” that my brain pushes on me.
Like millions of other teenagers, I was prescribed these little black-magic pills before it was “discovered” that antidepressants can actually increase suicidal thoughts and actions.
(“Eureka, Dr. Holmes! It seems that if you look at the empirical data that we deleted to get Prozac passed by the FDA, the suicide rate actually increases with use as compared to the placebo or even doing nothing at all.” “My God, Dr. Watson! I’d say that means it’s time we start working on Abilify.”)
My brain, even antidepressant free, is sneaky, sneaky, always seeming to try to build up my trust for it. Of course you won’t forget the special place you put your passport. Or, I’ll remind you the parking break is on. Or, I’m sure caffeine won’t keep you up all night this time. My brain is like a badly run government agency trying to cover its tracks and reassure the public. The levies won’t break, people, the levies won’t break.
It’s a biological fact. The human brain never admits to mistakes. It’s why people with schizophrenia continually quit their medicine. Their brain tells them that they haven’t had any symptoms for weeks and they must be cured. But you need to take your medicine.
The brain’s stubbornness can also be seen in the paranoia associated with dementia. Even as the part of the brain that is thought to be involved in memory forming, the hippocampus, is eaten away by Alzheimer’s, it will never concede that it just may have forgotten something:
Frontal Lobe: “Message to hippocampus, message to hippocampus, where is the toothbrush?”
Hippocampus (roused from sleep): “Hmm?” Blinking and wiping his glasses. “Hmm, what was the question?”
Frontal Lobe: “WHERE is the toothbrush? You were supposed to transfer that to her long term memory yesterday.”
Hippocampus: “Well, yes I did do that, and it should be in the medicine cabinet.
Frontal Lobe: “It is not in the medicine cabinet. We already looked twice.”
Hippocampus: “Well if it is not there, then … it must have been stolen.”
Frontal Lobe: “STOLEN??? Who would want to steal a 95-year-old woman’s 10-year-old toothbrush?”
Hippocampus: “Are you trying to suggest that I forgot? I am the hippocampus. I said it has been stolen, so it has been stolen.”
Frontal Lobe: “Fine. Fine. OK. Send it on to the nervous system. Red alert everybody. Queue the adrenaline. It has been stolen.” Frontal lobe pauses, listening and then continues. “Amygdala is saying we should hide more stuff to prevent further stealing. Hippocampus, will you remember where the stuff is put?”
Frontal Lobe: “HIPPOCAMPUS!!!”
Hippocampus: “Yes. Yes, I always remember.” Hippocampus stands and stretches.
Frontal Lobe: Holy Brain Stem, Hippocampus! Put some pants on for Oxygen’s sake.”
I think my hippocampus has a few holes in it also, because I have a horrible memory. But I thought I had finally accepted it: as much as my brain tells me I’ll remember, I won’t. So I have to write everything down. A few weeks ago I started keeping lists, using Google Calendar, doing things as soon as I think of them. I was taking my medicine, so to speak.
Then yesterday I was going to the store and my brain said, You don’t need to make a list, you haven’t forgotten anything in weeks.
And I hadn’t forgotten anything in weeks! I was so proud. I do have a good memory. See I told you.
So I went to the store without a list. I only needed two things from the store, and I came home with seven.
Then this morning my husband had to break up a fight between me and my brain as I was trying to strangle it to death because I realized I hadn’t gotten either of the things I needed.
So take your medicine. (Unless it is antidepressants and you are a teenager.)
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Candy is the Currency of Childhood
The other day I was worrying about money, being greedy, wanting more, and I looked over at my happy children and thought, “Ahh, to be like that again. Not greedy.”
Oh, but then I realized they are greedy.
Greedy for candy.
And once a year, the whole nation obliges them. All they have to do is wear anything — something strange, wild, fantastical — ring the door bell and loads of candy comes flowing into the streets.
When my husband and I lived in Savannah, GA, none of the kids dressed up for Halloween. All night I opened the door for just plain old kids begging for candy.
“And what are you dressed up as?” I asked every one of them.
“Just give us your candy, lady,” they said.
“I put razor blades in it!” I would scream after them as they left my house.
I felt like Mr. Wilson, Dennis the Menace’s grouchy neighbor. This is the social contract. I did my job. You do your job. You don’t have to spend any money. Just cut two holes in your mother’s best sheet, put it over your head and you’re done. (IMPORTANT: Don’t forget to draw a big ghost mouth on the sheet, or else you’ll resemble a lower ranking member of the KKK.)
For three years I opened my door expecting a costume. Why wasn’t my annoyance persuading them to dress up?
Finally on the fourth year, I sat on my neighbor’s front porch with a glass of wine and laughed at all the regular kids walking around (while praying they wouldn’t egg my empty house).
Costume = The Candy
When my husband was 4 years old, he woke up in the middle of the night (say 11 p.m. in November) and thought, “I know, if I put on a costume, then I can go get candy from the neighbors.”
“Costume? Costume?” He searched his 4-year-old mind.
He decided on chimney sweep, took off his pajamas and rolled himself around in the fireplace ashes.
Imagine opening your door at 11 p.m. to a small naked child covered in soot. The neighbors screamed and called 911 to report a house on fire.
Poor kid got a whooping instead of the CANDY.
Where is the Household Goods Section in this Candy Store?
“Where stool?” my 2-year-old son asks me while he searches for the step stool. (So he could get into something that he was not supposed to, I’m sure.)
I told him I didn’t know where it was, and he should go look for it. He comes back 30 seconds later.
“I know,” he says in a sing-songy voice, jumping up and down smiling. “Buy new one at CANDY STORE!” (Throwing his hands above his head when he says candy store.)
Like he could trick me: Oh well, there are no stools in here but since we are already here I guess I should buy you some CANDY.
“Why do you want revenge, Mom? Why? Why?”
3-YEAR-OLD: Why is the light on?
MOM: (sweetly) So I can see what I am doing.
3-YEAR-OLD: What are you doing?
MOM: Packing for our trip, remember?
3-YEAR-OLD: Are we ready to go?
MOM: (nicely) No, I am still packing.
3-YEAR-OLD: With the light on?
MOM: Uh huh.
3-YEAR-OLD: What is light?
MOM: Ummmm, what do you think?
3-YEAR-OLD: I don’t remember. Are we ready to go?
MOM: No, I’m still packing.
3-YEAR-OLD: But why do you need the light on?
MOM: So I can see my clothes that I want to put into my suitcase.
3-YEAR-OLD: Why do you need them in your suitcase?
MOM: So we can go on our trip.
3-YEAR-OLD: And you need the light on?
3-YEAR-OLD: Can I turn it off?
MOM: Well, I still need it on, so I can see what I am packing.
MOM: (a little agitated) I just told you why. What did I say?
3-YEAR-OLD: I can’t remember. Are we ready to go?
MOM: No, as you can see, I am still packing.
3-YEAR-OLD: And you need the light on?
MOM: Yes, I do.
MOM: Why do you think?
3-YEAR-OLD: I can’t remember. Why do you still need to pack?
MOM: OK, no more “why” questions.
3-YEAR-OLD: How is the light on?
MOM: ARGHHHHHHHHHHHH (huffs out of the room)
13 Years Later
MOM: How was your day?
MOM: What did you do?
MOM: Did you learn anything fun in school?
MOM: Are you doing anything fun in your art class?
MOM: Science class?
MOM: Reading anything good in English?
16-YEAR-OLD: I don’t know.
MOM: What about that girl Shelly, have you seen her lately?
16-YEAR-OLD: (a little agitated) No, Mom.
MOM: She was nice. Are you going to see her soon?
16-YEAR-OLD: I don’t know.
MOM: Do you have anything coming up this weekend?
MOM: What about next week, are you doing anything exciting in school next week?
16-YEAR-OLD: ARGHHHHHHHHH. (huffs out of the room.)
MOM: (to herself) Hee-hee. (Loudly) What about college? Decided on a college?
Maybe I was watching too much Oprah, but it seemed like I kept hearing it: The morbidly obese saying they gained weight because they used food to comfort themselves. I felt like it was being chanted, by a very large chorus, “Food was my comfort. Food was my comfort.”
But I use food to comfort myself.
As my children got older, my drug of choice would change — Lindt Touch of Sea Salt Dark Chocolate, my friend Heather’s homemade cookies, Butterfinger Flurries — but the ritual stayed the same. Each evening I got my reward for a long day of work and for (expectantly) a long, sleepless night.
But after awhile, every time I would flop myself onto the couch and eat some luscious Hershey’s Kisses, these guilty feelings began creeping in. Even though I am not overweight, I worried: Am I headed down the wrong path? Am I slipping, one pound at a time, into being so large I can’t get off the couch? I looked that Hershey’s Kiss right in the eye: Will this Kiss be the one that leads me into a lifetime of diabetes and early death?
The guilt would lessen the pleasure from the chocolate, so I would need a few more to get the high.
I was in a dilemma, until one day when I was nursing my newborn and he rolled his eyes into the back of his head in sheer pleasure from the milk. At that moment, it dawned on me: If food wasn’t for comfort, your very first food wouldn’t taste like honey and come from your mom. It would not be given to you while you are held in someone’s arms and adored. Breast milk, I decided, is the ultimate comfort food.
I wondered how it would be at night if I were wrapped up in someone’s warm arms being spoon-fed honey-milk while being adored. (I’m willing to try.)
Isn’t food supposed to be a comfort? Why else would nature make your first food so sweet and warm and wonderful?
Where did we go wrong?
Now that obesity is the No. 1 cause of premature death in America, should we no longer allow ourselves to find pleasure in the taste of food?
I understand the deadly consequences, but pushing guilt is not the answer. I am sick of feeling guilty because of society’s agenda (lest I say the insurance companies’ agenda). We have attacked the symptom, not the cause. Pain and loneliness, unresolved wounds and fear of rejection cause people to wrap themselves up in a blanket of fat as protection from the outside world.
Don’t make people who eat when they feel bad about themselves feel guiltier. That just escalates the problem. I feel the same way about anti-smoking campaigns. Think of the kids who want to smoke: the anti-social kids who are trying to be scary and cool. The more dangerous you make smoking, the cooler it is to the prime target: that 16-year-old trying to make an impact. (Maybe this is why tobacco companies pay for their own anti-smoking ads.)
We should be pushing pleasure, not guilt. We should be educating people on the joy of a good meal: homemade bread, ripe fruit, fresh vegetables, stinky cheese.
Vegetables used to taste yummy before they became overprocessed, good-looking, bad-tasting mealy balls of pesticide. I bet some kids have never tasted a good vegetable. We are a society that values looks over taste, which makes no sense. Why do we keep buying these bright red tomatoes that are rock hard and white in the middle?
Food is supposed to be pleasurable. It should be savored, not crammed down one’s throat. Relishing each bite does not work with preservative-laced fast food. The slower you eat it, the more you can feel the burn from the chemicals in the back of your mouth. (You’re trained to quickly slurp down some soda in order to kill the aftertaste.)
Maybe if we indulged our pleasures without guilt, if we feasted with family and friends and took great ritual in enjoying healthy food together, we wouldn’t need that extra bite to get the high.
Note: Some Reese’s Pieces were killed in the making of this column.
The punchline is: You get the genes your parents gave ya’!
I have some pretty nasty hereditary diseases hidden in my genetic code: Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, suicide, impatience, bad posture and nonexistent calves.
Before I had kids, I would occasionally fret over the myriad of disasters that awaited my unborn children. (Another defect: worrying too much. Don’t worry; I worry about that, too.) Should I get an egg donor with a “purty” resume so we can have it all be a surprise, like a genetic box of chocolates? Is it better to know what you might get or to have a whole world of possible catastrophes?
I also wondered what my children would look like. I had dreamed of dark-haired, light-eyed children. (This is a lie. Like all Barbie haters, I truthfully wanted a blue-eyed girl with curly blond hair. I remember as a 14-year-old reading a passage in Maya Angelou’s autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” about how she couldn’t wait to grow up to be a cute blond white girl. Me, too! I was shocked. Our lives couldn’t have been more different, but as a little girl, I wished and prayed to grow up to be a blue-eyed blonde.)
I thought I had a chance for my dark-haired, light-eyed offspring because my husband’s mother’s eyes were green, and my mother’s eyes are blue. But instead I got two light-haired, dark-eyed boys. (It is quite difficult putting blue-colored contacts in a 2- and a 4-year-olds’ eyes every morning. Afterward, I hardly have the energy to dress them.)
How is it decided who gets which trait anyway? I have some vague memory of dominant and recessive genes (remember Punnett Squares?) from ninth-grade biology class, but I don’t think even scientists know exactly how a gene is chosen.
My husband likes to think genes are chosen by a war between the X and the Y chromosome. His genes, he says, are dominant, and slaughtered my genes. But I wonder did his march in and decimate my whole DNA colony, or did each trait have to individually fight to the death? (If the latter scenario is true, then a couple of the underdogs survived — my chin, with only a little strength left, hoisted itself onto my younger son’s face, barely there it was so weak.)
This chin — like the stubbornness, the raging teenage years and the Narcissistic Personality Disorder — was a top reason for me to never breed. My older brother and I both have it. He gets to hide his behind a goatee, and although I will be able to do the same in a couple of years, for now I have to cart this ski slope around under my mouth. As we age, this chin sours and melts into a flapping, droopy, chicken wattle. Eventually, the wattle grows a mouth and loudly calls (often skinnier) people fat.
My brother and I joke that we are saving for a chin lift, a group-discounted package of plastic surgery. Truthfully, I hope he is saving and will treat me (the greediness gene beat the charity out of the giving gene, another point for Sansbury).
However the gentics decided who would dominate, I look at my children and wonder: What genetic defect will pop up like a wicked jack-in-the-box? Will I get a warning, a sign of the looming trait? Whenever my 4-year-old mistakenly calls me Dada, I think, “There it is: early-onset Alzheimer’s.”
Or when my 2-year-old threatens harakiri after spilling one drop of water on his shirt, I fret that he is OCD and I up his dose of Captain Pfizer’s Chewable Emotion-Prevention Tablets (soon available in your water).
How did I get here? When your children are born, you hold them in your hands and look down at their innocent faces and you think: “I’m going to hold you and love you and protect you from every hurt in the world.”
Then you think of all the crap you have passed down to them. And you must say, “Here is my gift to you sweet child: a large nose, 11 toes, hair so thin it is transparent. Middle school, the most torturous time of your life, will build you into a witty conversationalist and a good friend.” Because as Helen Keller said(and she knew):
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
My sweet baby, I have passed down to you the gift of character. I hope you can receive it graciously.
And if not, I guess I can pay for a couple therapy sessions. (Three max.)