August 19, 2014

Dagwood's Dog

Crosswords have been a part of my routine since my days at Georgetown, when a group of us would work them at Teehan's over coffee and doughnuts. (And yes, we did them in ink. That's how we nerds roll.) Yesterday's puzzle had a clue: Dagwood's dog. The answer came to me instantly, without thinking about it. It struck me how bizarre that was--the ability to recall a minor detail from a comic strip that I hadn't read in decades, this from the same guy often seen wandering aimlessly around the house in search of whatever it was he had forgotten he was looking for in the first place. Can't tell you what I had for dinner two nights ago, but ask me the name of  Dagwood's dog and I'm all over it.

Memory, like most brain functions, is defined and mapped but not really understood. You can look at all the images of synapses and neural networks you want, but you can't hold a memory in your hand. You can't weigh it on a scale or run it though a mass spectrometer. We understand the physical process of memory formation, but I don't think anyone truly understands how electrical pulses and chemicals are transformed into the sound of a song playing in your head or the smell of the yellow raincoat you wore in kindergarten.

Researchers say there are distinctly different types of memory, although how they define those categories depends upon who you are asking. Most models show three stages. We stick our head out the door and feel that it's a bit chilly. That sensory memory is moved into short-term memory, so we don't forget why we went looking for a sweater. Seasons worth of sticking your head out the door are stored in long-term memory. We remember the seasons differently than we remember the dates of the Civil War or how to change the oil in the car. Not all of it works seamlessly. That's why we forget things.

I have come to understand that forgetting is just as important as remembering. When I came home from Vietnam my brain was filled with memories of the sights and sounds and smells of the war. I could hear the artillery and the mini-guns and the B-52 strikes. I could smell the odors of thousands of years of human sweat. I could taste the fear. Eventually, time washed the memories away, just as the waves on a beach smooth away the sand castles we build. If I wasn't able to forget all that, I would be trapped in the war forever.

My goal became to remember as little as possible. The past and the future were ghosts I rarely summoned up. I yearned to live in the eternal present, the way animals seemed to do. Think about it, can you be happier than a dog? Yes, they have their labors and sorrows--nothing that lives is immune to fear or hunger or is not granted the grace of feeling pleasure, no matter how rudimentary--but for the most part they seem to live in the now. I know that is over-simplifying, but that's what it was all about, getting back to the simple life.

I was told once that pain has three components: remembering the pain you felt, thinking about the pain you were going to feel, and the actual pain. Eliminate the first two and you cut the pain down to manageable size. Works for me.

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