Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Injured Ahab

“…as sick men we are the effect of universal mixing, love and chance.”
--Georges Canguilhelm

In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), at one point in the course of Ahab’s relentless hunt for the elusive white whale, the vengeful sea-captain struggles to board a fellow whaling-ship to obtain news of his prey.  

Because this is the first time that Ahab has “stepped on board of any vessel at sea but his own,” the novel’s ever-present narrator Ishmael notes that, in this moment, the Pequod’s commander is “abjectly reduced to a clumsy landsman again; hopelessly eyeing the uncertain changeful height he could hardly hope to attain" (336). 

At David T. Mitchell notes, both as he contemplates this awkward transition and throughout Melville’s novel as a whole, Ahab is repeatedly represented as “a product of his own physiological condition,” the victim of a physical injury that seems to situate him outside of the parameters of what is regarded as the “traditionally able-bodied profession of whaling” (“‘Too Much of a Cripple’: Ahab, Dire Bodies, and the Language of Prosthesis in Moby-Dick.” [Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1, March 1999], 17, 8).  

In the representation of the Pequod’s captain, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson has argued, readers are presented with “both a sublime and a threatening version of the disabled figure,” a “cultural emblem for the restricted self””—in short, a corporeality that “stubbornly resists the willed improvement so fundamental to the American notion of the self” (Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature [New York: Columbia UP, 1997], 45, 46). 

There is no question that stubborn resistance is undoubtedly Ahab’s own attitude toward physical impairment: as critics have frequently noted, like the “crippled beggar” that Ishmael spies on the London docks, Ahab figuratively spends his every waking moment “holding a painted board before him, representing the tragic scene in which he lost his leg” and “ruefully contemplating his own amputation” (221).  

Understandably “irritated” and “exasperated” when, apparently oblivious of his situation, the officers of the Samuel Enderby lower the man-ropes for always-impatient sea-captain to climb, Ahab is only reduced to the status of a clumsy landsman as a result of their failed perception (336).  

In his attempt to board the vessel, Ahab ultimately benefits from an unexpected coincidence.  Like the captain of the Pequod, the captain of the Samuel Enderby has also been maimed by the notorious white whale: from the folds of his jacket-sleeve, the good-natured Captain Boomer thus reveals “a white arm of sperm whale bone, terminating in a wooden head like a mallet” (336).  

The fellow sea-captain readily understands the dilemma facing Ahab and, in a quick improvisation, Boomer orders his men to lower a blubber-hook, at which point Ahab “slid[es] his solitary thigh into the curve of the hook (it was like sitting in the fluke of an anchor, or the crotch of an apple tree), and then giving the word, held himself fast, and at the same time also helped to hoist his own weight, by pulling hand-over-hand upon one of the running parts of the tackle” (337).  

A clumsy landsman no more, Ahab attains the previously uncertain heights after all.

On board the Samuel Enderby, Ahab greets the outstretched mallet-hand of the ivory-armed Captain Boomer with a gesture of solidarity: “Ahab, putting out his ivory leg, and crossing the ivory arm (like two sword-fish blades) cried out in his walrus way, ‘Aye, aye, hearty!  let us shake bones together!—an arm and a leg!—an arm that never can shrink, d’ye see; and a leg that never can run’” (337).  

In this moment of rare camaraderie, after having collectively achieved what he could “hardly hope” to attain on his own, Ahab nevertheless focuses on what his ivory leg—and Captain Boomer’s ivory arm—are unable to do.  

I think the question remains, however, whether the representation of disability and embodiment in Melville’s Moby-Dick is ultimately limited to—and therefore circumscribed by—the narcissism of its famous antagonist.  Is the novel’s entire perspective on disability shaped by the always rueful and frequently vindictive gaze of an individual obsessed with his own injury?  Are all of Moby Dick’s disabled viewed through the lens of the “traditionally able-bodied profession of whaling” and thus regularly reduced to the status of clumsy landsmen?  

Are they all simply products of their physiological condition?

As Samuel Otter has noted, Melville’s literary career is marked by a continued “pursuit of issues attached to bodies: the presence of human physical and cognitive variation, the impulse to interpret human difference, the relationships between the material and the metaphorical, the response to ‘disability,’ the pressures of the ‘normal’" (“Introduction: Melville and Disability,” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2006, p. 9).  

As Otter recognizes, an ongoing meditation on the meanings and representations of “disability” constitutes “a crucial part of [Melville’s] fascination with how meanings are invested in and extracted from human bodies” (10). 

As a result, I believe that the depiction of disability in terms of the bodily prison-house of Ahab’s monomaniacal self-absorption is only one side of the coin of Moby-Dick’s representation of human impairment.  

Interestingly, a review of Moby-Dick that appeared in the London Athenæum on October 25, 1851 characterizes the novel as “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact” whose “style …is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English," while a review appearing in the London Spectator on the same day labels it “a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalism of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad" (Reprinted in Melville, Moby-Dick [New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002], p. 597, 599).  

I believe Melville was in fact interested in what Georges Canguilhelm has identified as “the effect of the very laws of the multiplication of life that characterize our status ‘as living beings’” (278-279), and that his representation of these effects is crucial to his famous novel's narrative style and depiction of character.   

As Robert F. Murphy has suggested in his memoir entitled The Body Silent, when confronted with disabling illness, “[m]y identity has lost its stable moorings and has become contingent on a physical flaw" (105).  One consequence of this experience of physical contingency is a “powerful pull backward into the self”—as Murphy observes, “[o]ur lives are built upon a constant struggle between the need to reach out to others and a contrary urge to fall back into ourselves.  Among the disabled, the inward pull becomes compelling, often irresistible, outlining in stark relief a human propensity that is often perceived only dimly” (109).   

Moreover, as Drew Leder argues in The Absent Body, unlike the (apparently) healthy body, which functions as “a transparency through which we engage the world” (82), “the painful body emerges as an alien presence,” an objectified “other” that both is and is not one’s “self” and that “exerts upon us a telic demand” (73).

It is important to note that, although Ahab’s stubbornly resistant reaction to his injury registers a common stereotype regarding the experience of disability (particularly on the part of the able-bodied), it is nevertheless unusual in the context of the disabled community at large.  As Tobin Siebers has suggested, disability by its very nature entails the necessity of reliance on others—a concept that is perhaps hard to digest in a culture premised upon the purported necessity of self-reliance.   

Even more broadly, in “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies”  Lennard J. Davis has argued that “the category of disability is permeable—anyone can become disabled, and in fact, most people will develop impairments with age" (American Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 3, Autumn 1999, p. 502).  

This permeability is strikingly registered in the many injuries and idiosyncrasies of Moby-Dick’s whalemen.  Although the profession may be, in the American cultural imagination at least, a hallmark of masculine able-bodiedness, in Melville’s novel, it is practiced by men who are frequently missing arms, legs, and toes (Ishmael notes that “[t]oes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men” [324]).  

More often than not, these “isolatoes” literally represent the walking wounded: acknowledging his own “hypos,” Ishmael’s narrative insistently catalogues the various mental and physical injuries or disabilities of those around him (including the ship’s cook with his problematic “knee pans” and the alcoholism of the Pequod’s blacksmith, to name only a few).

If, as Tobin Siebers has suggested, “disabled bodies change the process of representation," then it is possible that Melville’s often odd and at times (wonderfully?) unwieldy novel is meant to register its own kind of literary sea-change in the representation of human embodiment and contingency.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


"There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”  
--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

I've been meaning to blog for a while now about a really interesting article by Carl King, published on June 13th on The Creativity Post, entitled, "10 Myths About Introverts."

King argues that Introverts are not only socially misunderstood, but also culturally devalued.  In a world where extroversion is applauded, people are repeatedly encouraged to "get out," "go out," "sell out"--oh, wait, sorry, I slipped--"promote themselves," "network," and "be noticed."

If you don't do this, or if you can't, it is typically perceived as a problem.  The solution to this inability to "get out," "go out," etc. is to tell the person to "get out," "go out" and, in short, "just do it."

Drawing on Marti Laney's The Introvert Advantage, King notes that Introverts aren't simply people who "fail" at being Extroverts.  Instead, recent science suggests that Introverts may respond differently to the neuro-transmitter Dopamine.  Whereas Extroverts can't get enough of the stuff, Introverts may be more sensitive to it.

As a result, large doses of external stimulation--the kind of interactions Extroverts crave-- may bother Introverts in ways that we haven't fully assessed or appreciated.

I definitely fall into the "Introvert" category.  While I've developed some extroverted tendencies in order to survive, in most cases, I've simply learned how to feign extroversion in order to get people to leave me alone, so that I can be my own introverted self.

Luckily for me, my friends consist of fellow-Introverts (many of whom think I'm just a big social butterfly) or understanding Extroverts.  While my extroverted friends don't always understand my preference for being alone, they clearly recognize that it is in fact something I thrive on and they tend to identify it as a plus.

The guys I've dated are usually thrilled.  Finally, they don't have to worry that the woman they're dating is out flirting and chatting with someone else.  Really.  It's not an issue.  Quite frankly, they're lucky I even agreed to talk to them.  (Occasionally, I've very much regretted it.)

In fact, the only people I've ever met who were critical of my introverted tendencies ended up eventually not making my short list of friends or getting booted as boyfriends.  I don't like being told what to do, and I really don't like being told I should be something other than what I am.

What I find interesting about King's article is the notion that Introverts find happiness--you heard that right, folks, happiness--in solitude.  A friend once told me that she envied my ability to "be alone without ever becoming lonely."  I think that sums up introversion quite nicely.  Introverts are more at ease in smaller groups or singular situations because they crave the opportunity to process stimulation more than the stimulation itself.

I remember once fleeing a Best Buy in mental anguish.  I simply could not shop there.  Every single TV, stereo and computer was on at (in my opinion) high volume.  I am not used to that much noise, and I really couldn't take it.  (I tend to think that big-screen TVs are the bane of human existence.  How big does a TV need to be?  It's a TV, for god's sake, and there's usually nothing on.)

Similarly, I agree with King's claim that Introverts need to recharge and process what they've taken in.  If I have a busy social week--meetings, social interactions, classes, etc.--I often get a bit cranky.  I really don't like being around people all the time, not because I don't like the people, but because I feel like I'm falling behind on my thinking.

It's difficult to explain to someone who craves social interaction, I know, but I find that I only enjoy social interaction if I'm connected to someone I find interesting in a meaningful way.  I like talking to students.  I like talking to colleagues.

But I simply cannot network.  I gave up on it years ago.  To me, if feels like I'm being asked to feign interest in someone so that I can use them to further my own personal agenda.

Really, does that sound like something that's right and true and good?  Why am I required to do it?

I prefer to wait until I have an opportunity to interact with the person about something that actually matters and has substance.  If we're on a committee with a specific task, for example, or if I've heard them present an idea that I find intriguing.  Otherwise, I feel like I'm being asked to be shallow and superficial, and I really don't like that.

It just isn't how I want to define myself.  And to me, self-definition is very important.

That said, though, I don't mind social pleasantries.  They don't make me uncomfortable, although a lot of my more introverted friends find them particularly frustrating or annoying and uncomfortable.  For me, small talk is a kind of social glue--it's a way of showing that I'm willing to be a member of a community.

I particularly like how King reverses the terms of the debate, stating, "there are still plenty of techniques an Extrovert can learn in order to interact with Introverts," in order to show how much we tend to assume that extroversion is the norm with which Introverts must comply.

I think the people I know who are happiest as Extroverts share an important similarity with Introverts: in both cases, the focus is on the quality of the relationships forged, not the quantity.  My extroverted friends don't simply crave shallow or superficial social interactions.  In fact, they're committed to finding deep, meaningful and intimate connections to others, just like Introverts.

They just go about it in very different ways.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


When I was little, I thought my dad was the strongest man in the world because he could lift anything.

I came up with this opening sentence last Sunday, Father's Day, and I planned to write a post about my dad and about how the grief I felt at his loss had seemed to have lifted somewhat this year.  It was the first year since he died that I hadn't actually dreaded the approach of Father's Day, and it was the first year since he died that I actually enjoyed the day.

Truly.  It was a beautiful, perfect, sunny day.

But because I was so busy enjoying it, I didn't get around to writing the post.  So I figured I'd just write it first thing Monday morning. 

As I was sitting down to write it, my kitty, who was 16 years old and had been in a decline for months now, became violently ill.  He recovered from that episode, but it marked a turning point for him and he died, naturally and peacefully, at home with me on Thursday afternoon.  I did not need to have him euthanized.

As I was taking care of him on Thursday morning, I spent a lot of time thinking about the blog post I had meant to write and just never gotten around to doing.  How it was supposed to be about my dad, about what I had learned about strength and about recovering from grief in the six years since his death. 

I thought about the irony of the fact that, once again, life had unexpectedly intervened, and I was once again facing a loss that I knew would hit me hard.

I thought about all the things people say when they don't know what to say, and all the things that people who have never experienced a serious loss think will "help."  I don't question the goodness of anyone's intentions, but I do wish people would think a bit before they speak.  Or maybe just not say anything at all, except, "I'm so sorry."

After all, they could always just listen.  No one says they need to be the ones to do the talking.

One guy I know repeatedly says that people who lost loved ones slowly, due to long-term illness, are "lucky," because "at least they had a chance to say goodbye."  His father died suddenly, when he was quite young, so he assumes that this is "the worst" death that anyone can experience.

I beg to differ.  Quite frankly, if we really need to go about evaluating terrible things and putting them on a continuum of pain (and I'm not sure we do), I think my best friend's experience of losing her 10-year-old son to cancer was probably "the worst" thing anyone can experience.  I have no idea how she has managed to be as strong as she has through it all.

I never respond to the guy's comment (and he's made it more than once) for two reasons.  First, he has clearly never seen anyone seriously, terminally ill.  If he had, he would never use the word "lucky." 


His "goodbye"-scenario is a rosy Hollywood production.  That isn't how people die.

If you care about them, you're constantly trying to balance the (ever-shrinking) hope that what is happening to them will somehow, miraculously, reverse direction (because really, they don't deserve what is happening to them), with the grim reality that bears down on you every single day.

When exactly in all of this would you decide to give up hope and "say goodbye"?  Reality isn't scripted like that. 

You never do it.  Or maybe, you do it constantly, in every moment of every difficult day.

Secondly, I don't respond to him because, if you think it's about who has it "the worst," I think you've missed the point. 

This is the first thing I've learned about grief: if you aren't careful, it can lead to an odd form of extreme selfishness.  It's all too easy to go through life thinking everyone has had it better than you ever did, that you were gypped somehow, in a great, cosmic screw-over.

I've come to realize that, when people talk this way, what they're really telling you about are their own regrets.  My guess is, he didn't fully appreciate his father's presence in his life when he had him, and he never expected him to be taken away.  He assumed there would always be more time--or he simply didn't think about it at all.

That experience isn't uncommon, especially when we're young.  We take it all for granted, because we assume young people don't ever die.  After all, they aren't supposed to. 

But they do, and sometimes for absolutely no reason at all.

This is the second thing I've learned about grief: it doesn't have a reason, and it doesn't need a reason.  The death of someone you loved will never make sense to you, even if you eventually accept it, and there will always be days when you simply can't accept it.

When my dad first died, I used to "apologize" for my grief.  People would often ask me how old he was, and I'd say, "Well, he was 73.  I know that wasn't young."  (Interestingly, nearly everyone under 55 would respond, "Oh, yes, he was pretty old," and every 55 and older would say, "That's not old at all.")

I made this comment to my eye-doctor, at one point, and she gave me a valuable insight (I didn't mean to write that pun, but there it is).  She said, "When it's someone we love, we're never ready."

She said, "My father was 92 years old when he died.  You'd think I'd have seen it coming.  I didn't care.  I was a wreck at his funeral.  When it's someone we love, we're never ready."

That's the third thing I've learned about grief: it doesn't play fair.  People who haven't experienced the loss of someone very ill or elderly think that, logically, you should be ... maybe not "happy," but at least "relieved" by their death.

They were "old" (and in our youth-based American culture, this means they're perceived as unattractive and useless, particularly if they hadn't had a facelift or two and weren't regularly volunteering for Greenpeace and Habitat for Humanity).  They were probably "suffering," in some broad, ill-defined sense of the term-- because, again, in youth-based American culture, the assumption is that to be "old" is to "suffer."

And sometimes, you are a bit relieved, in a way.  There is a sense of sad peace at their passing.  They weren't what they had once been, and in your mind, you know that.

But what the mind knows is very different from what the heart feels.

What people who haven't experienced it don't understand is, grief doesn't play fair.  You don't remember a lost loved one as ill or debilitated.  You remember them at their best, when they were healthy and happy and life was good.  That is what you constantly remember and constantly miss.

Perhaps the cruelest thing about grief is that, after a loved one dies, you realize you'd give anything to have one of their "bad" days back.  Just one. 

The final thing I've learned about grief is, it isn't one thing, ever.  It is a constantly shifting weight.  Sometimes, it is unbearable. 

It's not that it "feels" unbearable.  It is unbearable. 

In those moments, you can't imagine ever being strong enough to lift what has descended upon you.  In my moments of grief, I've often felt an overwhelming need to just lie down.  If I didn't, it's because I wasn't sure I'd be able to get up again.

I get annoyed now when people advise someone who is newly experiencing the raw pain of such sadness to "get up" and "get out," that they shouldn't "mope," and that "time heals all things."

Maybe they just can't do it yet.  This doesn't mean they need a prescription for anti-depressants.  They're supposed to be sad.  They're supposed to be downright devastated, in fact. 

Instead of seeing their incapacity as a mark of weakness, maybe we should see it as a mark of their great capacity for love.

In the end, I believe coping with grief is a question of weightlifting.  You have to figure out how you're going to carry it:  will you spread it across your shoulders like a yoke and try to walk steadily, spilling as little as possible as you go forward?  Will you bend from the knees and lift it in your arms? 

Will you drag it around behind you or push it in front of you, making a terrible racket?  Will you try to unload some of its burden on everyone you meet?

In most cases, other people won't be able to help you all that much. 

It's something you have to learn to balance for yourself, to adjust to the shape of your own life.  As one elderly woman I met once told me, "Well, you're young to have all of this happen to you, my dear, but you need to figure out a way to deal with it.  Because, in life, no one is spared."

On Thursday morning, I thought about the fact that, once again, I was experiencing this strange moment of waiting for an inevitable, terrible sadness.  I think anyone who has kept a death-bed vigil will know what I'm talking about.  You learn a strange kind of patience in that moment.  You learn that nothing--nothing--that seemed important (cars, houses, boyfriends, work, success, money) is as important as this moment of waiting.

The pause when you wait for the weight to descend. 

In that moment, I thought about the blog post I had never written and how foolish it would be to try to write it now. 

But then I thought that maybe I could keep my opening sentence after all.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I've been tending to a sick kitty and visiting with friends, and the week got away from me before I could blog.

One of the things I've talked about more than once is my concern about American consumerism--the focus on "having" over "being," to adopt psychologist Eric Fromm's (very apt) terms.

If we limit ourselves to "having" things that help us to "be," I think we'd be far happier as individuals--and perhaps as a community as well.  In my initial sadness about my feline friend, the impulse to shop myself numb was nearly overwhelming: it doesn't help that so much is readily available at a moment's notice.

Just scroll, scroll, click, and it's on it's way.  So I decided to limit myself to things that would cheer me up in the moment, but also provide some use-value in the future.

When I saw these pretty new wooden knitting needles were available as a modular set, I just had to have them.

They're so beautiful, working with them helps to heal my soul.

Sometimes I take on big project, sometimes a small one.  My mom used to hassle me about "finishing one thing before you start something new," but over time, she realized that I eventually finish what I start.

The reason I start new things is because I like the stimulation of having different projects and processes that I can choose from.  There's no reason to sit and be bored with one project, if you can discipline yourself to come back to it after recharging your brain elsewhere.

So, for example, this blanket project that I began (seriously) in 2008 and that I'm almost finished with.  (Finally.)

I have to finish the edging and clean up the loose ends on the back, and then it's done.  I can hardly believe it myself.

It took time and patience, but it was definitely worth it.  Those are spouting little whales in the grey-blue row, in case you can't tell.  It fits perfectly with my love for all things Rhode Island.


As you've probably noticed if you read my posts regularly (or if you know me), I love making or doing things myself.  I just do.  I don't know why.

When I discovered I would probably "need" a tablecloth, instead of going out and getting one, I decided to see if I could knit with crochet cotton and create one.

I can.  So that's what I'm currently doing.  I'd take a picture of it, but it's big, so it's jammed on a huge circular needle right now.  There's no way I could spread it out without risking having it slide off the needles, and there's simply no way I'm going to risk that.

When I get it done, I'll put up a picture of it.

I also doubled the size of my vegetable and herb garden this year.  I added two more raised beds to the three I already had, so the produce is currently cranking along.   

The tomatoes are looking happy, and I've got carrots, spinach, zucchini and eggplant on the way.  Not pictured are my little herb bed and my pepper plants, since they're still quite small.

But in a few weeks, I'll have basil, dill, thyme and cilantro, and that's never a bad thing. 

As my friends know, I'm notorious for insisting on cooking for people.  Why go out to a restaurant, when I can make it?  That's half the fun.  It always tastes better and costs less.

And then there are the leftovers...

So this past weekend, I made zuppa di fagioli--also known (to non-Italians) as "bean soup."

It tastes good, it smells good, it is good.  In this case, "having" is "being."

Here it is in its first step.

I apologize to the vegetarians out there, but yes, that's bacon in there.

I'm an old-fashioned girl.  One who's not ashamed to admit that she likes bacon.

The greasy, high-fat, high-cholesterol, salt-lick kind.  The kind that everyone tells you not to have anymore, because it's so "bad."

Fifty Shades of Grey is "bad."  Twilight is "bad."  American Idol and Survivor are "bad."  Bacon is just bacon.

I feel happy every time I see this picture, because that's fresh rosemary from my herb garden in there...

It's the little things in life that will always bring you joy.  Seriously.  Large-scale attempts at "happiness" often fail because our expectations are almost always set too high to match the reality of our circumstances.  We have to scale back our efforts, and stop kidding ourselves, I think.

Small, royally amazing things: that's the ticket to a rich, successful life.

I love the mix of colors when you first start cooking something, and the way the colors change and merge to make something appetizing when you're finished.  So here's the finished zuppa in all its delicious glory:

Of course, no meal would be complete without dessert. 

I made a sour cream pound cake, and topped it with some of the fresh cherry jam I made last year.

If you warm up homemade jam, you make... homemade sauce.

I like this picture because that's one of the royally amazing plates my friend gave me several years ago to celebrate the fact that I've aged gracefully for a full forty years.

No small feat, that.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Color of A Voice

"What a crumbly, yellow voice you have..."

I just finished Alexander Luria's short book, The Mind of a Mnemonist.  A "mnemonist" is someone with a remarkable memory: the person can remember an extraordinary number of names, dates, facts, lists, etc., and usually after only a brief exposure to them.

A mnemonist is distinct from someone who exhibits "hyperthymesia" (the premise behind the recent TV show "Unforgettable"), which occurs when a person apparently possesses a remarkable memory for personal and autobiographical details (dates, events, etc.).

In both cases, the individual's recall can span years.  As Luria details, the mnemonist Solomon Shreshevsky (the subject of his case study) was able to recall random lists of words he had been given decades earlier.

The question is, whether individuals with an extraordinary memory possess an "eidetic" (or, as it is more commonly phrased, "photographic") memory, or whether they have simply mastered elaborate mnemonic devices that enable them to remember things to a far greater extent than the rest of us.

(A mnemonic device is using ROY G. BIV to remember the colors of the rainbow or "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" to remember the order of mathematical operations or "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" to remember the notes of the scale).

In the case of Luria's subject, Shreshevsky, the answer would seem to be... all of the above.  He typically visualized the items he needed to remember and over time, he developed elaborate mnemonic devices for remembering them.

Marti Pike, a synesthete, visualizes time as a series of overlapping, three-dimensional spirals. The spiral for hours varies in color along with the time; noon is bright white/yellow, while midnight is black. (Courtesy of The MIT Press. From Wednesday Is Indigo Blue by Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, published by The MIT Press.) Source:
As Luria discovered, Shreshevsky possessed a rare and extreme case of synesthesia.  Synesthetes experience an involuntary sensory or cognitive experience as a result of a prior sensory or cognitive stimulation.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a synesthete.  In Speak, Memory, he describes how certain words seemed to possess a certain color or tone.

In Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds (2001), Patricia Duffy describes her childhood experience of learning how to make an R out of a P: "I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line."

Solomon Shreshevsky appeared to have five-fold synesthesia: the stimulation of one sense provoked a stimulation of all of the others.  The epigraph to this post is a comment Shreshevsky once made to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky during a conversation.

Vygotsky seemed to have a very "crumbly, yellow voice."

In a sense (sorry, couldn't resist the pun), Shreshevsky's synesthesia helps to explain his remarkable memory.  He claimed that he could simply "see" the things he wanted to remember, and he eventually developed elaborate mnemonic devices in order to recall them.  He would simply line items up along a road, visualize the road, and then pick them up.  He would forget an item if he "put" it somewhere and subsequently didn't "see" it.

If this sounds cool, it is, of course, but it wasn't without its drawbacks.  Shreshevsky had a great deal of trouble holding down a job and often struck people as disorganized and not very intelligent.  His imagination was so strong and the secondary sensory experiences so vivid, he would often have trouble distinguishing what was reality. 

And although you might imagine that he would make a wonderful poet or creative writer--imagine the imagery he could create--in fact, his images were so elaborate and detailed that they really only made sense within the context of his own individual mind.  As Luria points out, poetry is imagery in service of a larger idea or concept, and Shreshevsky had a great deal of difficulty with abstract concepts.  

If you told him, "You should weigh your words before you speak," he would picture a scale with words on it and the balance tipping and a person speaking and he could tell you how the scale looked and the heaviness of the words and what the person speaking was wearing... and he couldn't figure out what you were trying to tell him.  

Similarly, he'd have difficulty figuring out the gist of a paragraph because he'd get bogged down in the details.  He'd read my last sentence and picture a paragraph and a bog and imagine the breeze and the smell and get caught up in the image--an image which had nothing, really, to do with the actual (abstract) point being made.

As a performing mnemonist, audiences would give him large tables of unrelated nonsense or numbers to memorize, and Shreshevsky developed an elaborate system for doing so. But when he was given the following table of numbers,

1 2 3 4
2 3 4 5
3 4 5 6
4 5 6 7

he proceeded to concentrate for several minutes and apply his mnemonic devices, in order to remember the sequence and recall it later (Luria, pg. 59).

Shreshevsky was unable to recognize larger patterns that are typically obvious to the rest of us.  As he himself remarked, "If I had been given the letters of the alphabet arranged in a similar order, I wouldn't have noticed their arrangement" (59-60).

He'd have trouble remembering faces, because people's expressions constantly changed.  Words would "bother" him and not make sense, if the sound of the word itself didn't seem to mesh with the sensory impression it gave him. 

And his day-to-day experiences, no matter how basic, were often complicated by his sensory reactions to the simplest things.  Thus, he describes how, in order to avoid feeling the "clanging" that the trolley car made "in his teeth" when he rode it, he decided to buy an ice cream and eat it during the ride, as a distraction.
I walked over to the vender and asked her what kind of ice cream she had.  "Fruit ice cream," she said.  But she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn't bring myself to buy any ice cream after she'd answered that way... .(82)
So, at the end of the day, being an absent-minded professor who can enjoy the occasional ice cream and forget everything else, isn't really so bad after all.

Photo caption & credits: Marti Pike, a synesthete, visualizes time as a series of overlapping, three-dimensional spirals. The spiral for hours varies in color along with the time; noon is bright white/yellow, while midnight is black. (Courtesy of The MIT Press. From Wednesday Is Indigo Blue by Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, published by The MIT Press.) Source:

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dear Abby

Abigail Adams, I mean.

I just finished reading Woody Holton's biography, Abigail Adams, and I really enjoyed it.  I think the difficulty biographers often face is, how to capture a sense of the person's life and how to know when enough is really enough--when you risk overwhelming your reader with the daily details of the subject's existence.

I think Holton achieved an excellent balance because he picked a particularly interesting framework around which to organize his material.  Instead of focusing on Abigail Adams' famous letter of March 31, 1776 enjoining her husband John to "Remember the Ladies" in the drafting of the Constitution, Holton begins by quoting Adams' will, identifying the various bequests she made to her family.

It may seem innocuous and unimportant, but as Holton suggests, her words speak volumes.  Under early American law, married women were governed by the doctrine of "coverture" or "couverture"--in essence, a woman's legal identity was entirely subsumed under that of her husband.

Married women could not own or sell property, they could not enter into legal or financial contracts in their own name, and their money was never their own.  Husband and wife were considered legally "one," and the "one" was embodied in the legal identity of the husband.

So, as Holton points out, for Adams to write her own last will marks an interesting historical moment.  The document has no legal validity, unless her husband chooses to enact it (which John Adams did), yet Abigail Adams not only writes it, but does so with the assumption that she has the right to do what she wants with money that she identifies as "hers" (even though, legally, it isn't).

And where did this money come from?  If you think the Adams family survived on John's salary, guess again.  As Holton points out, Abby Adams was a junk bond dealer

Abigail Adams was an investor with an eye for opportunity, and she didn't mind using her husband's public position to aid their financial affairs.  Over the course of her lifetime, she and her friends and family never paid postage, if they could possibly help it.  One of the perks of John Adams' political offices was "franking".

As a member of the newly-formed Continental Congress, if John signed for a letter, postage was free.  So Abigail regularly instructed friends and family to fold her letters inside a sheet addressed to John.

And since John had a pesky habit of occasionally reading her correspondence (it was addressed to him, after all), she would make up little code signals for her correspondents, if they had news to tell her that she'd rather not have him find out about.

During the Revolution, while her husband was in London and Paris, Adams set up a nice little import business.  She made enormous profits--in some cases, she more than doubled her money--because she saw that, with a war on, merchants would struggle to obtain goods in the colonies.  Her husband could send her merchandise on warships (a safer mode of transport than trading vessels), and that's what he did.

No way anyone was going to be flinging Abigail Adams' tea into Boston Harbor or seizing it en route.  Not if she could help it.

She also bought government securities.  Adams had a keen eye for the bond market and its fluctuations, and she knew when to buy.

No small feat, given that the late-18th-century economies of Britain, France and the U.S. were marked by more boom-and-bust episodes than the current century has been.

In today's market, Adams would probably be considered a forex trader as well.  She took advantage of fluctuations in paper currency, paying debts with paper money, but also trading it in for silver before the currency tanked.

Adams employed a family friend as her agent (since she couldn't enter into financial contracts herself) and when he realized how savvy she was, he followed her advice with his own money as well.

Adams would run her ideas by her husband John, and sometimes he'd agree and sometimes he'd forbid her to do it--in which case, she usually did it anyway.

After all, he was in Paris.  Or London.  Or Amsterdam.  Or Philly.  Not much he could do about it.

Adams kept some of her investment ventures secret from her husband and in some cases, she just pretended she hadn't gotten his letter in time.  She bought large tracts of land in what would become Vermont.  Typically, this was the kind of move John Adams would have favored--he preferred to invest in land, not bonds and securities--but he usually wanted land right around his farm outside of Boston.

He had no idea what anyone would want with acres and acres of land in Vermont.

Abigail Adams' ability to do all of this is accentuated by the fact that, contrary to popular belief, taxes in the newly-independent colonies after the American Revolution were astronomical.

It's an odd irony of American history that the Revolution was fought over Britain's policy of taxation without representation, but by the mid-1780's, the former colonists were having the living shit taxed out of them by their own state governments, courtesy of their own newly-elected representatives (men like John Hancock and Samuel Adams).

Sounds terribly familiar, doesn't it?

So, although many of today's Tea Party Patriots would insist otherwise, the sad historical fact of the matter is, the colonies revolted against England over a tax rate that was far less than the one subsequently imposed by the newly independent state governments they fought so hard to achieve.

Needless to say, this made quite a few Revolutionary War veterans very unhappy.

The new state governments taxed everything: tea, stamps, property--you name it--and because they were now facing an enormous post-war debt and fluctuating currency values (each state had its own independent government and its own currency), taxes skyrocketed.

It became so bad that, in 1786-1787, a group of farmers and citizens in Western Massachusetts revolted against the new state government.  They stormed the courthouses in Northampton, Worcester, and Great Barrington, and attempted to take the armory and courthouses in Springfield.

The movement was known as "Shay's Rebellion."

The protesters wanted relief from the enormous tax burden that had been placed upon them (the state government's way of solving the enormous debt incurred during the Revolution), they wanted to stop feeling the pinch from the newly instituted credit freeze (the result of the post-war economic depression) and they wanted the courts to cease prosecuting individual debtors and print more paper currency instead (as they had done previously).

Sounds terribly familiar, doesn't it?

The Adams family and their friends in Boston were horrified at the actions and assumptions of such rebellious ne'er-do-wells.  Like many of the elite, they felt that taxation was the only way to pay down the debt.

And, of course, stiff taxes would mean that Abigail Adams would see a hefty return on her bond investments.

Ironically, Samuel Adams thought the "traitors" involved in Shay's Rebellion should be executed.  Rebellion looks very different, depending on which side of the gun you're on.

For her part, Abigail Adams' life, as told by Holton, accentuates many of the problems and paradoxes we continue to see in American government today.  Her husband John worried enormously about the influence that investments and "speculation"--what we would today identify as "Wall Street"--might have on the direction of the newly-formed federal government, and he spoke out vehemently against that influence.

And yet, as Holton acknowledges, one of the reasons John Adams did not die massively in debt (as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both did), was because dear Abby invested avidly.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Unchaperoned (The Royal Amazing)

Once again, I've been meaning to blog, but the weather has been too wonderful and I've been having way too much fun to collect my thoughts and write them down.

I have a friend who once came to visit me and as we arranged our day's activities, we suddenly realized we were living like unchaperoned five-year-olds.

We ate cake for breakfast one morning, then pancakes with butter and extra syrup (so basically, cake with butter and syrup), the next.  We went for bike rides, then we went to the beach.  We found awesome seashells.  Then we needed a nap and some quiet time before we went out for pizza.  After that, we got ice cream and stayed up way past our bedtime.

We have a catch-phrase for this kind of living: "the Royal Amazing."

We adopted the term because she and I used to eat at this really great vegetarian restaurant named "The Sunflower House" where the entrees had odd names.  They were listed on the menu in Chinese as well as in English, so we assumed the English was a direct translation.

Since she and I are both language-geeks (but because neither of us knows Chinese) (yet), we often wondered what the names were in the original.  Because translated into English, they were a bit bizarre.  Half the fun of going to the restaurant was reading the lengthy menu for its curious linguistic mingling of the poetic and the mundane.

Case in point: she used to order "The Imperial Wheat Gluten" and I would always get "The Royal Amazing."  We never knew what exactly was in "the Royal Amazing," but I did love it and it was good.

When my dad was dying and I was away in New York, she and I would promise each other that when I got back, we would go out for "some Royal Amazing."  When I returned to New Jersey, we made a plan, met at the restaurant and... it was closed.

In our absence, it had gone out of business.

This pretty much summed up how we felt about the trajectories of our lives at the time.  Her mom had died three months before my dad did, and I recall standing in front of the plate-glass window of "The Sunflower House" and incoherently babbling about how "This is what happens, you have the Royal Amazing in your life and you count on it and then one day, for no reason, it's gone, it's just gone, it's gone and there's no reason for it, and it's never coming back and there's nothing you can do, there's just nothing."

I didn't even know what was in the frickin' Royal Amazing, so I couldn't replicate it myself.  As I told her (admittedly on the verge of tears), "I can't just Google the 'Royal Amazing' and get a recipe.  Nothing's CALLED that.  I think it was just tofu with sweet and sour sauce, but I don't KNOW, and there was something about it that made it good and now I'll never know and I can never have it again."

I wept bitter tears that night. 

Thus began our quest to reinvent (or rediscover) the Royal Amazing.  Two years later, I rented a house on Greenwich Bay in RI and when she arrived, my friend christened the house "the Royal Amazing."  We now apply the phrase to any activities or events that are, well, "Royally Amazing."

The capital letters are intentional, by the way.  Sometimes--rarely, but sometimes-- orthography can capture the very essence of a concept, and this is the case with the Royal Amazing. 

Over time, we've come to use the phrase adjectivally as well.  We typically hesitate to apply it to people unless we've known them for at least a decade, because let's face it, new friends and boyfriends are always a crap-shoot and we've both been betrayed too often to feel comfortable proclaiming just anyone "Royally Amazing."

But life, attentively lived, can have moments of the Royal Amazing.  You have to plan for them, sometimes, and sometimes they just spontaneously emerge.  The trick is to know the Royal Amazing when you see or experience it, because otherwise, it will pass you by.  It's not something that can be explained--it can only be experienced.

So that is my week in review: I've been having the Royal Amazing and living like an unchaperoned five-year-old.

And I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.