Sunday, October 29, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 324: Biomythography - Note 69, The Gifted Have Fallen (Pt. III)

The Gifted Have Fallen

Part Three 

Navy Camp, Day Two: 

In the morning, we rose at our assigned time and kept the appointments on our agendas. For me, that meant breakfast, followed by Navy sports regimens that gave me no lasting memories. Next, we re-joined other sub-groups and toured the computer center. Again, this made almost no impression on me, personally, but my roommate said he was interested in what he called ARPANET. His descriptions sounded okay, especially about the Star Trek game he played when he got computer time, except you had to sit down at a keyboard to do anything. I figured it wasn't for me. I didn't really pay attention to anything more than the enthusiasm of my roommate.

Even then, my new friends pushed my roommate aside as we left the computer center. He was a tall, blonde guy, and nice enough but they didn't like him. He wasn't cool by their standards. 

"Those fuckers," Dave from Boston hissed.

"What, the navy again?" I glanced backwards. The computer room staff had seemed fine. They had acted like our tour was an annoyance in their morning but I thought from their perspective they had it about right. 

"No, the wrestlers." He said it like 'rasslahs.'

"Oh, them." I sighed. Dave had mentioned the rasslahs on our first day. Apparently, a couple hundred of them from a bunch of high schools along the east coast were holding a different camp at the Naval Academy. They were here during the same span of days as our Gifted and Talented program. 

"Didn't you say you wanted to swim?" Dave shook a photocopied program in his fist. He'd gotten his hands on the wrestling camp handouts from a kiosk in one of the naval buildings. 

"Yeah." I shrugged. "That's the only sport I'm good at. And karate, I guess."

"Our camp doesn't get to use the pool because the rasslahs do." He opened the handout and jabbed the marked boxes on the wrestling camp schedule of events. Sure enough, they had reserved the pool. 

I changed the topic to how we could meet at lunch. Our sub-groups were different but everyone had lunch at roughly the same time. Plus we had class together afterwards. I thought that could be funny.

At lunch, I re-discovered how the guys were trying to prove they were brainier than one another and also smarter than the girls whenever they sat in mixed company. How did these guys ever get dates? But after a while I realized, well, maybe they didn't. A bunch of them were my age, a year younger than usual for high school juniors. They had been at a disadvantage on the dating scene. On top of everything else, many of them couldn't drive yet. I couldn't either. I knew what a date-killer relying on parents to drive could be. Maybe these guys had gotten mad at the situation and given up before things even started.

After lunch, Dave and I enjoyed one of our rare classes together. He shook his fist at the wrestling camp banners along the way. On the return trip, he slowed down and grabbed my shoulder. 

"Look," he said. 


"No one is watching. This is our chance." He gestured to the wrestling camp flags and welcoming posters. "Help me take this down."

"Are you serious?" Even as I replied, he was grabbing one side of the main banner. I shrugged and accepted an end of the cloth from him. He sprinted to the other end and ripped it down completely.

"Now we'll burn it." He cackled.

"That's dumb."

"Then let's stuff it in a trash can."

At dinner that night, a Navy cadet stopped by to talk to everyone in our dining hall. He described how someone had vandalized the wrestling camp. They suspected the culprit had come from the Gifted and Talented camp because, well, who else was there? As the young man lectured us, Dave kept laughing and punching me under the table. He was totally not playing it cool. 

But then the cadet swept the crowd with his gaze and described the vandalism. Partway through, Dave and I realized it wasn't us. No one had cared out what we'd done, it seemed. A wrestling coach had found the banner we'd stuffed into the trash can. No big deal. The wrestling camp was mad about much more serious damage. 

After a while of listening to the list of property destruction, Dave whispered, "Holy shit."

There were other vandals in the Gifted and Talented camp. And they were more hardcore than us. 

Navy Camp, Day Three: 

At breakfast, someone older and more serious than a cadet strode in. The other staff in the room saluted him.

"Someone has changed the master password in the Naval Academy computers," he announced. "Those computers are networked to the actual Navy computers. About a third of the Naval Defense Network is down."

He harumphed at his own statement.

"Well, not exactly down. But we can't access our own network. And you know, we'd like to do that."

"Why are you talking to us?" asked one of the girls near the front. 

The officer barely glanced in her direction. 

"The time frame for the master password change is closely associated with the tour this group took yesterday. So I'll tell you what we are going to do. We are going to take your entire group on another tour. We are going to walk through the computer center together. All of us. And I hope someone is going to change the master password back to what it was."

Someone chuckled.

"Yes, my staff thinks it's funny, too. But you know who won't? Anyone at Naval Command. They would want to prosecute whoever did it. Here at the Academy, we would rather treat it was a prank. It was a prank, right?"

His tone insisted that it was going to be a case of high-spirited hijinx and easily corrected, or else. 

"It was your roommate," Dave from Boston whispered to me. 

"No way."

"He went back to the computers after we took you away from him. I saw it. He's rubbish."

"Who the fuck says 'rubbish?'"

At the computer center, a bunch of the cadets who had ignored us during the previous day now stared openly at the collection of high school juniors who had apparently caused them trouble. Deliberately, they all turned their backs. 

"No one is going to see what you do," the officer in charge explained. He also carefully turned his back to us. "But it's still going to get done."

Such was the finality of the officer's tone that we walked the first leg of the tour in silence. After a minute, though, Dave started talking about how he had idears (of all the r's to pronounce, why his accent chose an imaginary one I've no idear) about who done it. I could actually feel the cadets wincing, doing everything but covering their ears as they tried not to overhear him. Fortunately, the other students took a cue from Dave and started chatting, not only about the possible culprit among us but about everything they were doing in the camp. I don't think the computer staff heard from Dave how my roommate had a programming book and diagrams on his dresser (actually, 'dressa'). 

Navy Camp, Day Four: 

In the morning, we ran an abbreviated obstacle course. It was fun. We also reported for a physical, during which a medical corpsman measured me while I was waiting in line, leaning my shoulder against a wall. Since I hadn't been standing straight, I came in at less than 5'5". As a self-conscious teen, I protested and demanded the staff re-measure me. The doctor in charge laughed.

"You're tall enough for the Marines," he said. He swept a white-coated arm around the room and the certificates hung up around the walls. They bore military insignia. "Marines and Navy, that's all we care about. Move along."

At lunch, we sat at the mess benches and I noticed the groupings were different. Dave was no longer hanging out with all of his vandalism buddies. You would think I'd wonder what that was about but, mostly, I didn't. I was more preoccupied with the discovery that I'd offended some of the young women, who I liked and who I wanted to like me back. My problem was that I had tried to come to the defense of my male friends. We had already had a handful of heated arguments over whether women belonged in the military. To me, it was a non-issue because:

 1) They were already in the military
 2) They had been in it for ages
 3) Their presence made it slightly more appealing

There was no point in bickering. It's not like anyone was going to change anyone else's mind. These teens were smart and fairly tough. They had volunteered for a Navy camp. 

Nevertheless, it was apparent that some of the young men thought they could harass young women into changing their minds. My instinct had been to play peacemaker but that got me hated on all sides. About the young men, I found I didn't care. They weren't even fellow vandals. They were rule-followers and seemed to want to join the Navy. I cared about the young women, though. I didn't know precisely what I'd said to them that was wrong but I wanted to fix it. But I still felt I had to defend the idiocies of my male friends. 

At lunch, Dave bragged about our Gifted and Talented harassment of the wrestling camp. One of the girls at our table threatened to report me to my father. She had already told me she was a student at his school. 

By dinner time, I had made a sort of peace. A couple girls smiled at me. We had all together decided to ditch some of the worst young men even though I considered them fellow rebels. For sure, it made our conversation easier. 

Dave cut the women out of our conversation, though, as we picked up our dinner trays. 

"They ain't gonna kiss you," he remarked. 

I sighed. We tossed out the trash and headed for our dorms. 

"You know what?" he said. "We should break into the pool and swim."

"Sure," I replied sarcastically, because this was obviously bullshit. I was used to other teenagers talking about things they couldn't do.

Myself, I spent a lot of time resentfully doing the worst I could with what I'd been ordered to do. A lot of the time, I avoided taking the initiative because that led to fights and punishments and general life hassle. And as someone who had spent a long time doing nothing that I wanted to do, I found people who didn't follow orders and instead did what they wanted to be fascinating.

"Great! I'll get you up at around two in the morning," Dave said. "We'll break in tonight."

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 323: Biomythography - Note 68, The Gifted Have Fallen (Pt. II)

The Gifted Have Fallen

Part Two 

My father gave me a curious look. I set aside the envelope he passed me without glancing up from my book. 

When my eyes got tired of the cheap, pulpy pages, I reached to the style section of the newspaper. From the bottom, I tore a scrap of newspaper to use as a bookmark. I slid it into place and shut the paperback around it. For a moment, I rested my eyes. But then I noticed the envelope to my right, grabbed it, and ripped it open. As I did, I glimpsed the return address, which read Gifted and Talented.

"Ugh." This had to be more unwanted college admissions material. 

Inside the envelope, I found a fancy page with a United States Naval Academy logo at the top. The printing was too good, as if it were all meant for someone else. Along with it, someone had included a computer printout generated by a fancy line printer with multiple colors of ink ribbons. Although the letters were a trifle fuzzy around the edges, they provided blue and black bolded words on the pink card stock. It was kind of cool.

The text was full of weird, formal phrases. Gifted, gifted, gifted, it said. Come visit.

"Why would the navy invite me to spring break camp?" I waved the notice to my parents. "I don't go to camps."

My father put his pencil down from his Washington Post crossword puzzle. My mother ignored us and kept on cleaning pots in the sink. So my father and I contemplated the message together. 

"Did you apply for something?" he wondered.


"Well, this looks real enough." He had worked for the military and later for a federal agency as a civilian, so I supposed he knew what forms the government used for these things. 

The more I re-read the letter, though, the more I became convinced the Navy had made a mistake. They really meant this for someone else, someone gifted and talented and nice and dutiful. Someone who wanted to be in the Navy, probably. I wasn't any of that. Of course, the camp promised a week away from my parents. They even said my parents were forbidden to visit. (They apologized for it but to me it seemed amazingly great, like a fantasy.) I wouldn't have to pay anything to escape my home. And my chances to escape had been rare so far.
"I'm not skipping driver's education," I remembered. That would start at the local public school in the summer. Now that I was sixteen, I wanted the benefits of my four-year-long war of sleeplessness against my parents. I had made them drive me everywhere. I'd made them get up at four in the morning and return home, back and forth, all day for every day I could arrange things on my schedule. Finally, my mother had agreed I should drive. I was determined to make my parents let me take the class.

"This navy camp is free," my father pointed out. "You don't have to wear a uniform. You don't march around. It sounds nice. I could move the driver's ed class."

Wow, my father really hated the military. He hated letting me enroll in driver's ed. I could only guess that he really liked getting something for free. I did, too. 

"The dates don't conflict," my mother pointed out. She could read the notice from four feet away, apparently. She had been glancing in my direction as she worked. 

"Should I go? Maybe it's not real. It could be a scam." Although I didn't assume it was, the offer did seem outlandish. The Navy's description of the camp made it seem too good to be true. 

"They say your invitation is based on your PSAT score," my father murmured. "I don't think anyone not in colleges or military academies can see those."

"It's real," chimed my mother. 

That day, I signed up. The pre-military experience was something I did to myself. It was all for a free vacation, a break from my parents. I didn't foresee how stupid I was going to be. 

Actually, I did have a sense of it. I dreaded my own social stupidity even as I filled out the forms. I anticipated the awfulness of my behavior with a gray-souled, spotty-visioned, hand-sweating feeling of panic. I endured flashes of the same panic, half-days at a time, during the months leading up to the camp. Even so, I didn't anticipate how closely my actions would border upon lethal. I didn't understand what I would do in front of other kids to prove myself cool. Or what I would do for them to be their friend. Neither, I would guess, did the military. 

When spring break came, I packed my bags the day before camp. My vague desire was to take as little as possible with me but the Naval Academy camp had supplied a list of requirements. I met them. The items, such as combs and toothbrushes, have left me nowadays with a vague memory of a backpack and a duffel bag, plus a sense of counting everything twice. The list was a long one. Fortunately, most of my transportation to the Naval Academy, even my arrival and escort through the process, is a blur. 

I must have visited my grandmother - she was five blocks away - but my anticipation of the camp erased my recollections of any other events that day. 

My first clear memory, after a vague sense of meeting other teenagers and standing in lines with them, is of Dave and another, taller young man. The tall one wore his clothes well. He had gotten a reasonably fashionable cut to his hair. The friendlier, more acne-scarred one, though, had scruffy hair and careless clothes.

"Eric? Wicked." He stuck out his hand to shake mine. "I'm Dave."

"Dave, cool." I had no idea what accent he had but it sounded like a bad imitation of British slang from a poor neighborhood. "Where are you from?"



"Where you from?" With his question, he dropped the 'are.'


"Wicked." Every time I would have said something was cool, Dave announced it was wicked. He was not much taller than me, so he was pretty damn short, but he was thin and athletic in his way. His brown hair was thick and his pale skin had freckles.

The taller boy and I made fun of Dave's accent for a while and, to my delight, Dave made fun of us in return. Something about being insulted by him in his ridiculous accent made me laugh. Far from being offended, Dave liked me chuckling at the things he said. 

"You're all right," he decided. It was one of the few sentences he used in which he pronounced an 'r' sound.

Together, because no one stopped us from self-selecting our acquaintences into a gang, we gathered two more young men and endured together what seemed like a many-hours-long afternoon of orientation. The navy announced their schedule for us. They gave handouts. They gave folders with more handouts. The read them to us, although they watched our faces and saw how we felt insulted as they read to us, and they embellished their detailed, long-winded plans. 

Our gang made a lot of comments about the plans. 

“They made a lot of mistakes,” Dave said. 

"Yeah?" I was looking at the schedule. What I saw was a heavy load designed to keep us busy.

“Yeah. They think smart kids are going to listen to them.” Dave paused, mouth slightly open in a cockeyed smile. A couple other boys glanced in his direction as they absorbed the criticism. 

I snorted because I knew what he meant. The military seemed to think that high achievers, if that's what we were, were inclined to follow the rules. They may have even gotten that right in a general way. After all, we had lasted long enough in high school to get good test scores. We had agreed to this camp.  But some of us in this bunch of smart kids had gotten good at eluding and subverting authority.

Kids are kids, smart or not. Bright young men and women who wanted to break the rules tended to get away with more than the average. Dave seemed to be someone good at subverting authorities. Or so I assumed. 

Even at the time, I had the sense that Dave was acting extra badass for us. I'd seen it in myself at times and in other teens, too. We wanted to be admired and liked. As I glanced around at the other young men in our group, I realized we had probably assembled the most rebellious youths in the program. That wasn't saying much. We were, for sure, not as badass as we wanted to be. Already, Dave's background emotional simmer of being slightly angry at everything was making one or two guys nervous. 

My roommate seemed quiet and he was maybe a rule-follower but he was nice. Dave teased him a bit but gave up when he saw it bothered me. He headed off to tease his own roommate.  We all bunked down to rest for the first full day, which included both sports and academics.

Day One: 

My favorite sport was talking to girls. 

I don't remember the actual Navy agenda for the day. What I remember was the girls.  I made a couple snarky comments in the first class.  I had to say them to no one in particular because my new friends weren't in the same classroom. Fortunately, two of the girls in the seats beside me thought I was funny.

It would have been amazing to find rebellious girls among the camp attendees. But when the same girls came to chat with me after the first session, some of my buddies saw what was happening and stepped in to stop it.  It was kind of weird. My new young, male friends were so awkward, I got the impression they didn't even like the idea of talking with the opposite sex.

The girls got that impression, too. They gave me a pitying look and split off for their next activity. 

The same pattern repeated itself all day. I wasn't mad about it. I knew what it was like to be an awkward, teenage guy failing with women. But my gang was full of these guys and they couldn't even realize they were screwing up and fall back to what I considered level zero, which was my behavior when I didn't know what to say to young women: shut up and let them talk. I learned a lot from listening.  But these guys could not resist spouting their opinions even if it led them into making insults or horrible, condescending comments. 

Amazingly, at the group lunch Dave and a couple of his acquaintances amused a few girls with me for half an hour.  But toward the end of our free time, Dave got irritated about something and showed he was particularly good at driving the girls away, too.  He couldn't resist doubling down on his insults. And yet, when he turned to me personally, he relaxed.  He followed me to my next activity and keep cracking jokes until he made me laugh again.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 322: Biomythography - Note 67, The Gifted Have Fallen

Biomythography Note 67

The Gifted Have Fallen
Part One

In the autumn when I was fifteen, I got a plain white envelope in the mail. It was addressed to me, personally, and according to the return stamp in the upper left, the contents came from the University of Connecticut.

When I opened the packet, I discovered a small yellow slip inside. With my left hand, I pulled it out, puzzled over it for a moment, and noticed there was more. I dug into the envelope again and extracted one regular-sized, typewritten page. I unfolded it and read the University of Connecticut logo at the top.

"Another college?" my mother said. I was at a seat by the dining room table. My parents were cleaning up the dining room and kitchen. They seemed to be preparing to cook dinner although I hadn't asked. "It seems early."

This was the third university, I thought, and I was only a junior in high school. I hadn't applied anywhere. I didn't want to go to college. I was done with school. I desperately wanted to end it, to be completely done and free.

After I skimmed through, I paused to reflect on how I'd basically understood nothing on the paper. I didn't want to go to school anyhow and the letter wasn’t telling me what I expected. I thought I'd hear about the campus. This note was different. It basically said, now, now, now.

I checked the yellow slip. It had one of my breaststroke times on it, not my best one but my most recent. The writing marks of the digits were blue. I realized this was the middle page of a triplicate carbon copy. Someone had made a decision based on this. They'd sent me part of the triplicate as an explanation.

With my left hand, I raised the letter once more and looked at it more seriously. I could tell by the first paragraph this was a recruiting message. The University of Connecticut was offering me a $2000 swimming scholarship. They didn’t mention the cost of tuition or room and board at the University. They just said I needed to decide now. I needed to join right away.

“They want me to attend this semester?” I turned the page. The back was blank. I flipped it over to read again. Yes, the essential point was definitely that the college needed a breaststroker for their men’s relay team. If I applied to the University of Connecticut now, they would accept me for the next term. I'd start swimming as soon as I got there.

Someone leaned over my right shoulder to look at the letter. From the nice smell and the padded sleeve of her white blouse, I knew it was my mother.

"Does Connecticut have a university?” I asked her. She frowned at the short paragraphs in the recruitment letter. “Is it a real place?"

"It might be," she said. She gave me a thoughtful look. Then she directed her gaze across the room to my father. Her uncertainty led me to a new line of inquiry.

"Does every state have a university?" I called to him.

"Maybe." He raised his eyebrows. After a moment, he made a decision and nodded. “Yes, probably. I'm pretty sure there's a university in South Dakota. That means every state has got one.”

At the time, I didn't follow his reasoning. Nowadays, that sentence makes sense.

In 1978, we couldn't look things up except by driving to a library and grabbing a bunch of college guides, which we weren't allowed to check out and take home. Plus we were all discovering, bit by bit, we had been taught a lot of traditional wisdom that wasn't true. We had doubts, generally, and always saw reasons to do further reading. But my father's logic was good. It seemed like a weird concept. But the University of Connecticut was probably real. 

As an aside, despite how I insisted to my parents that I didn't want to go to school, both of them were sure I was headed for college anyway. They were paying for me to go to a private prep school, after all, where I was doing well enough, in their view, to skip a bunch of required college classes wherever I went. That was the view of some of my teachers. It was the view coming back from a few placement tests I had taken. I seemed to be the only one who disagreed. I was a shitty student. And college was a shitty idea.

I didn't want to see a classroom ever again. On the other hand, if I accepted a place at University of Connecticut, I could leave home. That had some appeal.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"I think you're fifteen," my mother said. Her cheeks flushed as she realized I was considering it. Her scowled deepened.

"Now, Ann." My father, who I despised, tried to intervene. "He's going to be young when he goes to college anyway."

"He's going to be seventeen, Bob. Not fifteen."

My parents ignored me during their argument. They went on about college for a while and it gave me time to think. Although I hated school, at this point I hated swimming even more. I liked the other kids in the pool, of course. But the mindless laps and the boredom of actual swimming wore me down. These days, I worked out with the National Training Group in Rockville. There, my separation from the girls in the supposedly faster male-only lanes removed the one element to practice that broke up the tedium and made the hard slog through the pain seem bearable.

Also, out of spite I didn’t want to come in on my dad’s side. 

"The girls in Connecticut wouldn’t like me anyhow," I rationalized.

"They'll be nineteen." My mother turned on me. She didn't want to call me unattractive but she was happy to point out the fairly obvious social challenges of going to college immediately. 

"So?" I wanted to contradict her even if it meant turning back against my own point. "I'll be sixteen in a few months."

"They will turn twenty." My mother folded her arms. 

I had to shrug. Probably women that old wouldn't even look in my direction. 

"At least I could see them," I responded. "I'm not allowed to see the girls here." 

That was an exaggeration. We lived surrounded by farms and forests. Our isolation was so effective that any level of hyperbole about it felt true.

"I've driven you on two dates," my mother snapped. 

My mouth opened. I closed it. We seemed to be headed down a conversational road I hadn't meant to drive onto. My mother might win the argument even though I felt completely right. 

There were girls here, not far from me by car. I mostly wasn’t allowed to see them - although I suppose my mother did help me out by driving, sometimes - and they were my age. They sent me letters. I met young women on swim teams and through my lifegaurding jobs. I had gotten a dozen love notes from Mary, who had wanted to date me last summer (although my mom had refused to help out, then), and one from Jeannie, who still made my heart and head ache. And some of the girls, even at school, didn’t hate me completely, maybe. I was still trying to figure it out.

"But Ann," my father said, "it's a scholarship."

"He got one. He'll get more," my mother retorted. 

My mother ended up being wrong, though. No more swimming scholarships arrived. That may have been because I hated swimming and stopped improving. I didn't have the foresight, though, to point out that was the direction I was headed. The argument of 'I am determined to suck' does not inspire parents much, anyway. I'm not sure anything I could said would have carried much weight. 

"We can't turn down free offers," my father warned. "The next one that comes in, we should take it."

We didn't know we would get another, decidedly non-athletic offer a couple months later. For better or worse, the notice would come from the United States Navy. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 321: Biomythography - Note 66, Wrapped Up

Biomythography Note 66

Wrapped Up

From different sides of the small room, my wife and I leaned over the guest bed at my parents' house. Diane was judging the angles on a hardcover book she needed to wrap in gold paper. I was wrapping a shirt box in shiny, white paper with pink sparkles in it. 

When I finished taping the last corner, I turned the present over. I grabbed the red spool of ribbon and spun it out. With a measured eye, I pulled the coils to about three quarters the length of my outstretched arms and tested my judgement by wrapping it, corner to corner, around the box. It came out right to within an inch. I cut it, taped it, and moved next to unraveling a ribbon length for a bow. 

Beside me, my wife rustled through the box of bows, store bought and hand-made. She seemed to be looking for anything the color blue. She pulled out two of the bows I had made last year. We had cut them from the packages and saved them or maybe my mother had done it. After all, we were taking from my mother's collection of materials. 

Diane pulled out another bow. This one was larger, better made with heavier ribbon. It was a deep blue that almost matched the ribbon she was using. 

"Does this look good?" she asked. 

If I remembered right, I'd made the large one, too. I doubted myself as soon as I had the thought. The fat loops looked awfully neat and careful. Plenty of times, that was me. But this time, maybe it had been my mother's work.

My wife and I had spent three years wrapping presents together. We'd gone into our joint tasks with different approaches. As children, we had learned contrasting styles of folding and variant choices of decorating. But we were starting to develop a system we agreed on. 

While I finished making a couple smaller, red bows, Diane taped her choice to the top of her gift and moved on to her next package to wrap. She finished fast and slapped a pre-made bow on it. Done. She stood next to me, hands on hips while I finished the shirt box. 

"Where does your family get these bows?" she asked me. 

For a moment, I didn't know what to say. For years, she had worked in the same room as me as I'd made them. This time, she had stood four feet away. Her focus hadn't been on what I was doing but I took her peripheral vision and her general awareness for granted. Surely, in some of these years together, she had looked up as I coiled the final decoration. 

"Uh, I just made this." I poked the red bow. 

"You made it?"

"Yeah." The red ribbon bounced under my fingertip again.

"Your family makes bows?"

This led to a long conversation about exactly how my mother taught me. Basically, she demonstrated how to a) grab a length of ribbon, b) weave it back and forth in a line, each time shaving off about a fifth of the previous length, c) make a neat loop for the center, and d) tape it all together. Several times, as I showed Diane, we stopped for her to gush, "This is why I never see them in the store!"

Less than a month later, we had to wrap gifts for a birthday. We were working in our master bedroom in our townhouse. Diane finished wrapping a DVD. She reached into a gift bag we used to hold reusable gift bows.

"Where did you get ..." she began. She shook her head at her thoughts. "Oh right."

She turned to a cardboard box near her feet. Her right hand rummaged through it. Then she rose and handed me a spool of ribbon.

"Can you make me a bow?"


Where I was instructed by my mother, Diane got guidance from her father.  

Don Thornhill showed Diane how to make efficient use of wrapping paper and ribbon. He taught forming creases and folds. He didn't come at the chore from the culture of poverty. Rather, he simply liked to see jobs done well. For Diane, being efficient had a moral component, too. Using less of everything is better for the environment. 

Diane didn't recognize my family bows because she had learned two other kinds. One was a type I didn't see much because it requires cloth ribbon. The strips of cloth come from grosgrain, organza, cotton, or  satin. We never had any of those when I was growing up. After Diane and I married, I laid my eyes on cloth ribbons for the first time when Diane bought rolls of them. She made a few of what she calls "floral shop" bows.

She also made bows in a manner her father had taught. Those, I found fascinating. With a deft flick of her arm and wrist, she used the edge of a shear on a narrow ribbon to make it curl. It was like giving the ribbon a perm. The resulting bow looked disorganized but festive. 

This process works only on the narrowest of ribbons, however.  As you might guess, I had only ever gotten the cheapest sort of ribbon, which is the slick-surfaced, plasticized stuff made from acetate. It's not the right consistency and, in any case, too thick for this type of bow.

Sadly, our family doesn't put ribbons and bows on presents anymore. I suppose bow-making skills will be lost in the next generation. I'm not sure if this is similar to losing hoof-trimming skills because the family no longer owns a horse. Some people do still give nicely-wrapped gifts, after all, just not us.


In a world of so many possessions, the specialness of a seasonal gift has faded in comparison to all the other purchases. My grandmother felt her grandchildren were unreasonable to feel disappointed by getting the gift of socks. When she was young and got two or three hand-me-downs per year at most, a new pair of anything seemed special to her. She was happy even with a hand-me-down that she'd been eyeing for a while. In her era, there was nothing ironic about wrapping up clean underwear with a ribbon and bow.

In the course of her life, my grandmother made sure her wrapping paper, boxes, ribbons, and bows saw as many as twenty special occasions with her family. Sometimes they reappeared as a complete set and made Lois or my mother exclaim, "Oh, I remember this."

My mother passed down the tradition of re-use, at least for a while. She taught me to make bows for our gifts. When she was young, she regarded store-bought bows as a luxury. 

She never got as tense as my grandmother, though, when her kids unwrapped presents. 

"Don't tear it! Don't tear it!" Grandma Adele would bark. "Save the paper. Save the bow. How about the ribbon? Something that long is worth putting back on the spool."

Sometimes she would comment on the ornate bows.

"Isn't that a nice one?" she would say as she held it up for approval. "Ann, I suppose you made it. Can I keep it?"

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 320: Biomythography - Note 65, Memory is Treacherous

Biomythography 65

Memory is Treacherous

This is a cliche but it's also the truth. Everyone has to deal with it. Our ability to recall events forms us. It isn't the only thing giving us identity but it plays a vital role. And it's flawed. 

Here I am, writing a book that's basically a series of events from my memory. The work has made me speculate about the other autobiographies I've read. I've loved the real-life accounts of Benjamin Franklin, Audre Lorde, Richard Feynman, Frederick Douglas, Jenny Lawson, Trevor Noah, and Agatha Christie among others. I'm sure they are mostly spot on with reality. The authors relied on human memory, though, and they can at best relate their point of view. They have committed errors in their books. Audre Lorde owned up to hers; she used the subtitle 'biomythography' to underline how she was telling stories about her past and, in the process of making the stories coherent, she had to fill in blanks. Of course, she remembered parts of what people said but she needed to infer some dialogue, too. 

Diarists have an advantage, here, but I have not been a diarist. Occasionally, I have written about an incident immediately after it happened or I have managed to put down notes when a distant memory floods back with authority. Otherwise, I depend on calling up each reminiscence on demand.

I corroborate my memories by asking witnesses. I refer to photographs and other evidence. I work to sift the too-often-remembered incidents from others, to view them with suspicion, and set them aside. On the occasions I decided to tell those remembered scenes anyway, I tried to verify the details.

"This can't be when it happened," Diane told me after reading an incident I recalled from when we were four years into our parenthood. "You already had your master's degree when our daughter was born. This had to be when you were at the NIH, not at grad school."

With help from friends willing to read my drafts, I make corrections. I verify details. 

Sometimes the process is easy. Everyone involved remembers the same broad sweep of events. Sometimes verification is impossible. The only people who could confirm a memory are dead. Or they are alive but report no recollection. There's nothing in their archive of memories that corresponds to mine.

Not every moment that makes an impression on us does the same for others. 

"Well, that totally sounds like me," Tucker said about a conversation that changed my adolescence. "I remember splitting wood a bunch of times. I recall you being there. But I have nothing beyond that. I used to talk the way you described."

"So you think it's right?"

"Maybe, yeah." He shrugged. He added, as he wanted to avoid offense, "Probably. I just can't swear to it."

My accounts of life are as close to the truth as I can get while still making coherent stories of them. Life doesn't actually arrive in episode form. As I've progressed through my life's incidents, I've censored episodes, too. That's made me realize how often other writers must do it. You have to pick and choose your memories to tell. Some of them are embarrassing. (How old was I when I wet my pants by refusing to stop playing table tennis?) Some are repetitive. (Did I learn this same life lesson about asking girls out on dates six times?) Other matters would shame people to no point. (Do we need another book about family violence? Every family has some.) 

Although I hope each personal adventure forms part of a narrative whole, I know that's not true to life either. (See the above about self-censoring, episodes, and more.) 

Humans have a tendency to add to our memories each time we relate them to ourselves. We layer on made-up details as we try to make sense out of our memory fragments. At a basic level, it's likely most memories don't make much sense in their raw form. We interpret them in the act of remembering. 

That's one way we fool ourselves. We want things to make sense when, sometimes, they don't. Worse, we catch ourselves interpreting the past as if we were the same person now as we were years ago. We wonder, 'how could I have been so stupid' when the answer is we were twelve, not fifty-two or thirty-two. Our minds were different in different years. Our past selves are, in many essential ways, other people. 

Sometimes I have a sense of the differences. But I'm sure I have less self-perception than I'd like. Such awareness is a skill that requires practice, even for masters of it, and awareness has human limits. A few pieces of my writing in this collection, in fact, are about improvements in awareness and judgement.

So of course they're wrong, at least in some respects. I'm trying to use what awareness and judgement I have. For making sense of the past and the future, memories are mostly what we have. They're not all, though. They're not everything.