Memory and plagiarism



Oliver Sacks writes eloquently about memory and imagination in the February 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, sharing his memory of a war-time event from his childhood and subsequently learning from his brother that he hadn’t lived it but had reconstructed it for himself from the description in a letter. He cites examples of memories enhanced or entirely made by the imagination from everyone from Ronald Reagan to Helen Keller and Samuel Coleridge. False memories are enjoyed with the same vivacity as those with a factual basis. There is no way to tell them apart in our subjective experience of them. Plagiarism is as natural to us as breathing.

Scary stuff, I thought. Reality becomes rocky and insubstantial. All our heralded battles for truth turn into fights that may have already been thrown. Without DNA or a filmed record, we can’t prove a thing.

But Sacks, looks at it from another perspective, and reality becomes more instead of less. I can only quote him:

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge….

Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Here we are, old. Which direction will we take?

“Here I am in my mid-70s, and I am wondering: Is now the time to take a final stab at unfinished business—to accomplish at long last the remaining goals on my lifetime to-do list? Or is now the time to step back, let go of my ambitions, reflect and just live?”

So wrote Daniel Klein in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago. I suspect that it’s not usually  as clear cut as that. I do have one friend whose life is filled with activity. A poet and social activist, he’s also become a fine photographer and editor, a curator, an essayist, and more things than I can name–trying to get it all in before it’s too late.

Klein decides in favor of “friendship and reflection.” He’s happy to go to an island (many of us haven’t got the wherewithal to get there!) and contemplate life and death.

The new old age is the result of medical advances. We have time now to address our bucket lists; we can stay at our jobs and accomplish ambitions that would otherwise be lost to illness or death. Or we can let go and listen, think, wait.

I think most of us will probably do something of both.


Which category were you in?


On occasion, when I drive from place to place in the afternoon in Vermont, I listen in an incidental way to National Public Radio. The other afternoon as I tried to pilot the car through the ruts and snowy trenches of what is almost mud season, except that another blizzard was on its way, I listened to The Story, featuring an interview with a young man who was trying to reduce gun violence in Chicago. The interviewer (Dick) was trying to get the fellow to describe high school students’ motives for acquiring guns. The kid talked about kids trying to figure out who they were in school, and needing to belong to different categories: ladies’ man, athlete, hero, nerd…. “You have to be in some category,” he explained.

The interviewer wasn’t especially interested in that construction, but I was. The secondary school assignation of categories still haunts me after all these decades. Some students were popular; some were squares; some were “cheap.” I know that breakdown varies from place to place and time to time, but it distorted and sometimes still distorts how I see myself and others. Scary to think of the harm it’s done. Hard to believe that schools can’t quash it. They might change the world.

When I get old enough…..

I am now 73 and still working hard at writing, still learning, still trying to form prose that says something and says it well. What gives me courage are other old artists. Take, for example, Louise Bourgeois who declared, “”I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.”

Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, “Absolutely not.” When he asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”

Scarlet runner beans and Fred Webster


It had been a strange day. I looked with no success for scarlet runner bean seeds at Agway. They used to grow to 12 feet in the children’s garden at the Old Stone House, where they sported red flowers and enormous pods with multicolored seeds. Somebody whose name was Billy Currington was singing a country song: “Jesus is great, beer is good, people are crazy.” Now that’s a lyric. I’d stopped by the Old Stone House for the first time in months and someone said that Fred Webster (see my post of May 3, 2010) needed a pacemaker, and that, at age 91, he was thinking about selling everything for $200,000. And it was worth a lot more than that.

I hadn’t seen Fred for a very long time. Now he was 91 years and thinking about selling everything! The report was scary.

The next day I drove to Fred’s farm on a high hill. Clouds were lifting, the world was shining the way it will after spring rains. The Phish stage Fred had saved a few years earlier from the last Phish concert, stood like some fanciful castle on wheels, directly past a scribbled sign a neighbor had put up: “Who shot my turkey?”  Why would anyone shoot the man’s turkey, I wondered, and left with no answers, dismissed the sign’s conundrum. The huge barns, showing a few more years of wear, still standing despite themselves, with a monumental history of farming spilling out the doors, were where they’d always been. The farmhouse looked as it always had, worn, and a little haphazard.


I pulled in and went to the door. On the other side of a screen door turned dark with shadows, Fred was sitting at the kitchen table eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup. His wife, Vivian, was napping in the living room, he explained, giving me one of his sweet hugs. I guess he looked older, but not by much, and not as if he needed a pacemaker. His hair was standing straight up as it sometimes does. Hearing that it was me—she’s always liked me, I think, because she likes anyone who likes Fred a lot—Vivian suggested we all sit in the living room, where a clutter of old things was spread across the walls and all over the floor, and where “Murder, She Wrote” played soundlessly on the TV screen. What’s this about a pacemaker, I asked, as I coped with one of the Reese’s cups  Fred handed me. Apparently, there was no rush, and Fred wasn’t sure he’d ever go for something like that. “But I am going to die someday,” he said. “No. I won’t allow it,” Vivian declared. She explained that a couple of years ago, after a whole rash of tests, the doctor had said to Fred, “As far as I can see, you’re good to go for another twenty years.” She was holding the old man to it.



And, contrary to the alarming report of the day before, the guy who had offered to buy everything for $200,000 and take it all down to Plainfield for another and, I presume, neater agriculture museum, hadn’t shown up the day before. Fred was just as glad because he didn’t want to sell. “Am I wrong?” he asked. “I don’t want to sell anything. It’s not the money. I just can’t do it.”

What Fred really wanted to talk about was a typed manuscript from Jack Lazor, an organic farmer well-known in Vermont. It was a hunk of white paper full of detail about his farming methods and to Fred it was all a delight. A year before Fred had been inducted into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame, and he thought Lazor should be next. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the tine weeder that the man described, because he had a tine weeder. He could show him an old one. I’d never in my life given a thought to tines, so he and Vivian slipped on jackets and we went to see Fred’s tine weeder, dodging muddy puddles, tripping across thresholds, wooden wheels, machinery made lame by time, parts spilling out into the aisles. The metal roof rattled; the walls groaned. The tine weeder was missing a leg, but the tines all seemed to be there. Vivian took a picture of it, then another, with Fred smiling and pointing.

Now, he said, he wanted to show us something else. Vivian and I followed him down one aisle and up another to a veritable patchwork of tines. “Do you see what these are?” he asked, grinning. “They have tines,” I said. Vivian agreed. “Tines.” “These are all hay forks,” he said. Vivian set about taking photographs of hay forks. I didn’t quite get the point, but I was pretty sure Jack Lazor would when he saw them.


We navigated the muddy banks of several ditches that Fred, his son and whoever had dug to divert water from one place to another. A man, his wife and a barking dog had taken over a bit of trailer that had served as a tool shed, and electric wires had been jerry rigged to turn it into a temporary home. I didn’t get the story, but I always come away from Fred’s with more questions than answers. He’s been reading Bacon’s “Vicissitudes,” he said. That’s the kind of writing he really likes to do, not just words about one generation’s tools and then another’s, not just careful descriptions of the evolution of everything from milking stools to tine weeders. He likes wise words about life, especially when they’re funny, and in Fred’s life there are many of those.

I left then. I didn’t stay for tea. I never got around to eating the second Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but it was good to know that Fred Webster’s life is as full to overflowing as ever.

The attempted murder of a tree

On March 2, 1989, Texas Independence Day, a busload of tree lovers made the last stop of their tour at Austin’s Treaty Oak. They were the first to notice that the tree was sick.
The Treaty Oak, believed to be more than six hundred years old, was the stuff of legend. Sixty years before, it had been designated the most perfect specimen of a North American tree.  It had been one of a grove of fourteen oaks that in Native American legend were the launching site for war, and peace, parties. The women of the Tejas tribe drank a tea made from honey and the acorns of oaks to ensure the safety of warriors in battle. It was believed that a meeting between Stephen Austin and local native American leaders negotiated Texas’ first boundary treaty under its branches.
As the other trees expired from development and old age, the Treaty Oak became more and more important. When it was poisoned in 1989, it had a 127-foot spread. The amount of poison administered to the tree was said to have been roughly 25 times the amount needed to kill it. Lab tests showed that the quantity of herbicide used would have been enough to kill 100 trees. Its survival was touch and go. The poisoning of the Treaty Oak became a cause celebre. It even made the front page of the New York Times. Children sent get well cards. Ross Perot spent millions. The culprit who tried to kill the tree (oddly, the act was meant to win him a girl), was sentenced to nine years in prison.


The healing has taken years, and as beautiful as the tree seemed to me last week, it’s not what it once was. But its pruned branches have made wonderful artifacts–gavels, bowls, pens, chairs…. In 1997, the old oak produced its first crop of acorns since the poisoning; they were distributed throughout Texas and beyond. The Treaty Oak has offspring!


My niece marveled that a tree could be so important to a city. So do I. And it makes me think.

We’ve poisoned the earth many times over. Its future is at least as much in doubt as that of the Treaty Oak once was. But somehow its healing seems to remain out of reach. So why this tree? Can we learn anything from it?
They say the tree has come to symbolize the strength of Texas. Its independence. It’s history is glorious, and entwined with the history of the state. The tree has become a symbol that people identify with. Said John Giedraitis, the forester in charge of the Treaty Oak’s treatment: “The tree is an innocent sort of creature. It didn’t do anything. If anything, it’s sort of giving all the time. For someone to take it for their own selfish reason, it really angers people. It’s upsetting to people.”

I remember a few decades ago people used to talk about the earth as Gaia (the name of a primordial earth goddess).  I’m sure some still do. I remember that she’s been called “Mother Earth” in many cultures, including our own. She’s an intimate, “an innocent sort of creature.”


Maybe, it’s time we began to treat her that way again.

Snapshots with the heads on

A few snapshots.

Unlike photographs or portraits they’re quick, casual glances at people. My father usually cut off the subjects’ heads. I promise, at the very least, that I won’t do that.

A few days ago I met a couple who retired into travel, Spanish immersion, writing, and music. Jenna is a historian and writer; Tom is a computer scientist and mathematician. Music was the occasion for our encounter. Our mutual friend, Sally, knew they were looking for a piano player to accompany them on Handel’s sonatas for  recorder and continuo. She knew that I’d said that I was practicing the piano hoping that I would someday be able to play with a group. Just play. Not perform. Sally, being Sally, ignored “someday” and decided that Jenna and Tom were a group.

So we’re going to try.

But aside from that, and even more curious, was Tom’s story of his venture into fiction. He’d never been interested in writing, he said, that is, until his Spanish instructor assigned a 250-word story in Spanish. It was a whole new experience. The flood gates opened and the stories poured out. All in Spanish. He still has no interest in writing in English. Of course, he and Jenna have speculated about why, and it’s fun to guess:

1) In a last life he was a Hispanic poet;

2) Spanish gives him the emotional distance he needs to tap that magic place fiction comes from;

3) Spanish closes the emotional distance so that he can tap that magic place fiction comes from;

4) Tom’s guess—it’s such a romantic language. That may say it all.

The other night I saw Kate for the first time in years. Kate used to sing everything from torch songs to blues to country. She cooks a mean meal in her industrial kitchen and makes jars of jam every year. She weaves. She runs one of the best nurseries in the area and does landscaping besides.

And the other night I discovered she remembered the Latin name for every plant I thought to mention when I and most of the people my age that I know find our nouns dropping out all the time. “Yeah, you know, that guy who founded our country…. name begins with G…. maybe it was George, George who? …. you know …. it’ll come back to me in a minute.”

I was impressed by the landscaping but really…. I don’t know how old Kate is but she’s not that far behind me!

In New York I had lunch and a museum trek with my friend, Nancy. She and her husband Barney have been potting and selling pots for the last two and more decades. How wonderful to grow old potting with someone you love! (I plan to do a post of them sometime soon.)

My friend, Steven Dansky, just celebrated his seventh marriage anniversary with his husband, Barry Safran. They were among the first to be married in Massachusetts. Steve has turned into very daring and very amazing photographer. He’s just finished his first (I think) novel and continues to write essays on gay liberation—the politics and the history. He’s still organizing!

Steve is in a great hurry because the decades are running out and he still has so much to do.


It had been seven years, and a little more, since I’d been in New York City and oh how I’d missed it. It’s a city that’s festooned with surprises. Living there, you sometimes grow tired and forget to look for them. Visiting, especially when so many streets are covered with memories, is something else again. In a way it’s the way it was before I moved to Manhattan in the late sixties—exciting because something is always about to happen. Because it frequently does.

I walked into a Washington Square blossoming with cherry trees and tulips, past the perpetual chess players. Nannies pushed prams with adorable charges; a pigeon-feeding gentleman murmured to the cooing birds perched on his shoulders and arms and taking turns to perch atop his head; NYU students consulted their cellphones and poured over their Cliff’s Notes; tourists posed for each other by the arch. There’s always been music in Washington Square—drummers, guitars, horns, dancers, choirs and choruses. On this day—it was hard to believe—there was a piano and a fellow playing it. Because it was New York, no one but me seemed surprised.

The piano player was busy, pounding out melodies with a flourish on a small beat-up looking instrument with most of its innards showing. A dolly was near the donation bucket. It was a perfect place for a piano—Washington Square between the fountain and the snack cart. But how did it get there? Even small pianos weigh at least 250 pounds.

I had time to listen before I met an old friend for lunch, and so I did and then I talked to him, not something I would usually do, but he was playing a piano after all, and doing it well. The piano needed improvement, I suggested to pianist Colin Huggins. He gave me his business card and advised me to look at his website: he only needed a thousand dollars more to buy a baby grand for the Square.

Colin Huggins, by his own admission, is “the crazy piano guy” and the “World’s Happiest Man.” A look at the Internet reveals that he has pianos at Manhattan Mini Storage in storage units around the city. He wanted an audience so he left his day job playing for the Joffrey Ballet, and began rolling out pianos to several subway stations, Times Square,Washington Square…. He’s on YouTube. Look him up, but if you’re able, go to Washington Square. He may already have that baby grand.

Crazy Piano Guy at Times Square. Photo by aatflicker (Ashkay). Creative Commons.

The surprises didn’t end with the crazy piano guy. I found a Mexican vanilla beer and a splendid Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. I ate Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, Italian, Turkish, and the best of American; I even wandered around Zabar’s. I discovered the largest, grandest white tulip I’ve ever seen in the Riverside Park garden. Found a bookstore on Broadway that should have disappeared in a digital age, but hadn’t. Went to concerts and museums and galleries. Remembered whole lifetimes of people and events with old friends.

Then there was Maira Kalman’s show: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World). I’d never heard of her, much less seen any of her books or art. I wish I knew her. I wish we had drunk tea together, and known the same gardens and dogs. I think I would have learned a lot about life from her. She knows how to ask questions.

From the brochure for the exhibit at The Jewish Museum. Self Portrait (with Pete) by Maira Kalman.

As I went from picture to picture, place to place, I was accompanied by a woman I’d only just met. A talker, a story-teller. And somehow, amazingly, her stories, which started one place and ended at another that was utterly other, were the perfect accompaniment to the exhibit. Like music.

Two days later I bought a book by Kalman, one with a title that promised all sorts of surprises: The Principles of Uncertainty. A two-page sample:



The other day I happened to hear an interview with Betty White. “Are you afraid of dying?” asked the interviewer. “Oh, no,” she responded, and explained that her mother told her when she was a child that death was a surprise, in fact, the greatest surprise of all. Death was like the most remarkable of birthday gifts.

Our frightening neighbor

The other evening I listened to conversation about Mexico and how frightening it’s become. One of the participants had just returned from an artists’ confab at an Arizona ranch close to the border. The fear was so palpable there that they didn’t dare go across. How sad is that.


I haven’t been in Mexico for years, and I don’t claim any special knowledge of the country, but my visits there were fascinating and studded with stories and odd-lot lives. On my first trip, just after college graduation, I stayed with a bunch of people who planned to visit Cuba. That was when the revolution was fresh and new and Castro had only recently become “a bad guy.” We never got there, but we did have a fascinating stay in Mexico in a village on Lake Chapala.


Then, Mexico was a refuge for all sorts of people. For example, two Germans, a brother and sister who had fled there in the years before World War II. He had died sometime earlier, but she still rode through the village on horseback in a great green raincoat. She was Dona Luisa. She had a long braid down her back and she looked startlingly like she belonged, like she had Spanish blood or Indian or both. It was said, but I never saw it, that she had kept her brother’s room exactly as it had been when he died. His grave dominated a dusty burial ground that was mostly made up of nearly illegible rocks, crude wooden crosses and plastic flowers. The stone was engraved: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” and four Lombardy poplars, one on each corner, had long ago lost their symmetry. Pretension, yes, maybe. By the bravado was touching:


There were other ex-pats: an American named Richindollar who actually packed a gun, and a burly, blond middle aged East European—I don’t remember the country, he hadn’t been there for a long time since he was paid a monthly stipend to stay away. My favorite story about this miscreant was about his trip by prison wagon across Spain. Handcuffed to another n’ere do well who was epileptic, he’d learned to roll with his mate’s daily seizures.


Many days a week we’d climb up the hill where a stream tumbled down to the village—past the stones where the women scrubbed their clothes, again past a waterfall, up to a bat cave and back down to the waterfall where we’d shower and eat freshly made tortillas and bananas. Nearly every afternoon there was a thunderstorm. The lake would turn dark and white-capped and the purple water lilies a Japanese ex-pat had planted decades before and left to spread across the shiny surface, would toss and turn like exotic bridal bouquets let loose by the rain.


Our landladies in their store next door where we bought skinny cigarillos for a dime a pack gossiped the day away and we wondered what they said since none of us could quite follow their Spanish. In the evenings, on the plaza people walked arm and arm, especially young girls who always seemed excited and young men who always seemed to be making plans; mariachis played; and politicians made long pointless speeches in front of the cathedral, pointless because then there was only one party and everyone already knew who to vote for.


Mexico was corrupt then too—I suppose it must always have been. A group of us were threatened and led through the cobbled streets at gunpoint by some fellows pretending—or not, to be lawmen. If we paid up, they wouldn’t turn us in for possessing pot. We didn’t; they didn’t.


The son of my dearest friend, a boy of sixteen, decided to hitchhike by himself back to Vancouver at the end of the summer. He was picked up for no particular reason and jailed for a few weeks until the gendarmes figured out that no one of his relatives had the money to pay to get him out. So he was released and sent on his way.


I  learned that summer that the Mexican people are in love with beauty—in their parks, their villages, their cathedrals, their great paintings and delicate crafts, their symphonies and dances, their literature. And there’s a softness there. I doubt it’s gone away since I discovered it, no matter the murderous rout by the drug cartels. Maybe it’s partly in the wonderful round tones of the language, but I remember the passion of an old woman praying in a cathedral, the shyness of a boy who passed a rose to me on a dark bus, the two men who waited patiently for a friend and me to get up from a couch they had set down by a bookstore in a Mexico City plaza. They were moving it from one place to another, and were too polite to ask us to get up and leave.

Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Russ Bowling, 2008. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Too many Americans only know the big cities and the seaside resort towns, and maybe a pyramid or two. They know it’s a poor country, especially because the border towns are so horrifically poor. I’m sure it’s poorer than ever since NAFTA , the drug cartels, the maquiladoras. While it’s too easy to simply blame the U.S. for Mexico’s problems, we should have done so much better by the country, back then when I knew it, and now. How sad it is that we’re their chief suppliers of guns. How sad it is that we’re the drug cartels’ market for drugs. How sad it is that we have to be afraid of our neighbor.

Apollo and Dionysius

Last night I heard a performance of Francis Poulenc’s Gloria at the annual Christmas concert of a very fine local choir called Northsong. I’ve heard the music before and loved it, and listening to it again only deepened my feelings about it, so today I looked up Poulenc on the Internet. I knew he must be a religious man because so many of his works are choral and sacred, but I didn’t know that he grew up the son of a sturdy Catholic bourgeoise and a lively artistic mother who played the piano. I’d never read enough about his life to know that he was homosexual and like many gay artists, especially after he experienced a conversion after the death of a friend, struggled with the conflict between his faithful life and his erotic one. The duality may have energized his art, say some commentators.

Only the other day I read a review of the latest biography of E. M. Forster who, more conventionally perhaps, simply hid his sexual orientation from the public and wrote only one gay novel, which he left unpublished in his own lifetime. (After the extraordinarily ugly persecution of Oscar Wilde for his homoeroticism in the late 19th century, most gay English artists were careful to keep their sexuality to themselves.) Forster believed his writing would have been better had he been able to be open, but Colm Toibin, the New York Times reviewer, believes his one openly gay work (Maurice), to be inferior to his earlier masterful novels:

It may be more true to say that Forster wrote the five books on which his reputation rests because he desperately needed to create characters and situations that would expose his own plight in ways that were subtle and dramatic without being obvious or explicit. His true nature was not only homosexual, it was also wounded, mysterious and filled with sympathy for others, including foreigners and women. Despite his best intentions, he allowed all of himself into the five novels published in his lifetime, and only part of himself into “Maurice.”

Whether or not Poulenc and Forster were aided in their creativity by the tension that dominated their lives, these two artists and many other Europeans were influenced by the theme of Apollo (intellect and reason) versus Dionysius (passion and unreason) that Nietzsche first formulated and that most of us know from the novella, Death in Venice, where the character, a writer who has smothered his own Dionysian nature, is destroyed by it.


The Temple of Delphic Apollo, as it survives, dates only to the fourth century BC, but the foundation is original to an earlier version from the sixth century, which replaces an even older seventh century version. Photo by Wally Goebetz.


I’ve always been fascinated by the Apollo-Dionysius thing, but I found myself wondering whether it’s still relevant today, at least in Western culture, or whether it hasn’t been so changed by who we are now that it’s unrecognizable.

Dionysius has run amok. Not only because the sight and sound of sexuality has become so public, but because private life in nearly every aspect has. Desire, or lust, is also oddly fashionable. Apollo still has his disciples among scientists and some academics, a few writers, and even a very occasional politician. And I’m sure there must be something Apollonian in many of us that objects to some of the Dionysian aspects of our time.

The fact is that duality itself —between the rich and the poor, the secular and the sacred, the good and the evil, whatever—no longer describes anyone’s thinking except in politics where it’s become more and more superficial.

Even vampires today tend to be “mixed bags.”

I don’t think that that’s a good thing or a bad, probably a little of both. I do know that we still respond to the old debates between Apollo and his wayward nemesis. I suspect that the same divide still runs deep in our culture, and that dualism and others will reappear and take hold again in some terribly important way when we least expect it.