Tag Archives: memory

Real Plastic Snow, and Other Holiday Traditions


It was November when we stepped off a very long flight from Houston, Texas. When, I managed to get my bearings, my first thought was… Brrrrrr and then, Um, I thought they always said this was a desert.

To say that the weather was dreary was a tad understated. It was raining, and while Houston had included me wearing shorts and t-shirt sleeves, I was really wishing at this point that we hadn’t packed away winter clothing. Seriously… I swear they said it was a desert. However, my excitement about a new adventure almost overrode the jetlag and general psychological dissonance that Saudi Arabia was not sunny with palm trees and sand dunes like all the artwork I’d seen in the bibles and the Tales of the Arabian Nights floating around various family abodes in my youth. Aside from the shock that it just didn’t look the way I expected, I suppose it answered pretty well for an adventure. It looked in all other ways very different than where we’d started the journey.

It was beige. I don’t mean a little bit here and there. I mean it was varying degrees of a tan color that embraced buildings and surrounding land. It was also flat. Coming from mid-Atlantic United States and the Appalachian territory, I was more used to hills and green. This was another clue that we were no longer in Kansas… or in our case Tennessee.

We crossed the wet tarmac with spots of standing water… I swear they said desert… and made our way into the immigration and customs hall. I don’t recall a whole lot else. I possibly wrenched a neck muscle trying to take everything in, but for the most part, it was all a blur. Once we were through the technicalities of visas and luggage search for contraband, we made our way to receiving where our employee liaison met us and escorted us to our temporary lodgings. It was called the Babtain Building. I think it was originally built to encourage the Bedouin to come to the town/city and forgo their nomadic lifestyle. It went over about as you might imagine. The indigenous tribes of nomads were quite pleased with life as it was (thank you very much) and the very nice accommodations remained empty. This is how we came to be living in what would probably cost in the 4-digit pricetag in any city in the United States: Fully furnished with a full bath, huge tub, marble floors, full kitchen and two bedrooms with very high ceilings… and completely alien. The fixtures were European (and the bathroom included a bidet). I might also say that the elevator was an adventure in itself, since it frequently wanted to stop between floors. I thought it was a hoot. My parents were quite as impressed. Additionally, we were smack in the middle of Al Khobar. Talk about your culture shock. Our guide did take us around to local markets and out to eat at what was soon to become one of my favorite restaurants, The Gulf Royal Chinese Restaurant (home of the best hot and sour soup, EVER).

Returning home, I was excited. This was an adventure to me. The company had provided a box of basic supplies to start us off until we could do some shopping (though, to this day, I always wondered if the Campbell’s Cream of Asparagus soup was some sort of hazing ritual). I was exhausted and despite the jetlag, I found myself falling into bed… only to wake up to the sounds of what I knew to be crying. My mum. Unused to the marble and amazing carrying power of sound through the apartment, she thought she had escaped to cry in the solitude of the amazing bathroom. But I heard. I didn’t understand why she was crying, but I listened from my bed. To be honest, I didn’t even have a clue how to address this issue. Years later, I finally found out what prompted the tears. My mother thought she would never be able to navigate this alien world and find food and manage to keep us from famine and pestilence. I blame it on the jetlag and the immense amounts of Dramamine that was required to keep her from puking on the plane.

The next day, the cure for all my mum’s ills presented in a trip to the commissary (post exchange). The Dhahran Ladies Group managed to dispel all the woes and terrors my mother managed to concoct in her mind by the astoundingly western market. We were saved. There were shelves stocked with food items that had labels… in English. I know it sounds silly, but this was a serious fear of hers. After a couple of decades, she could go downtown and shop in the souk without blinking, but that first week, surrounded by tan landscape, unfamiliar smells (not all of them pleasant), and foreign fixtures, my dear mother who had never left the United States was suffering from some acute traumatic issues.

As it was, we managed to get through the end of November and Thanksgiving without any of the imagined concerns of dysentery or starvation. However… the month of December loomed with additional concerns. During orientation, we had been drilled on the customs of this new country we were calling home. We were informed of their religious laws and the fact that as a theocracy, there was no separation of church and state. Additionally, we had been told that anything that hinted at non-Islamic faith could get us into trouble ranging from deportation to execution.

Prior to the move, our family had a full calendar at Christmas. Aside from cantatas and choral shows, there were family gatherings. Christmas was a constant flow of lights and family and friends from mid-December through New Year’s. Now, we were in a country that we had been told might throw us in jail for a “Merry Christmas.” Queue the waterworks again. I heard mum in the night. This time, I had figured it out. We had packed away all the ornaments collected and crafted for years. There would be no smell of evergreen filling the home. In fact, I could read her thoughts, “We aren’t even going to have a tree!” Queue more involuntary ocular leakage.

Again, I’ve got to give it up to the Dhahran Ladies Group. First, they dispelled the horror stories pretty vehemently. While, our host country was not big on evangelism, they were not opposed to celebration of our Christmas holiday. In fact, in the main camp, people decorated much as people in the states did. There were tours of houses in the camp and their decorations. At night, for the houses lit up, many of the Saudis would bring their families and drive around looking at the lights. So… no jail time for having a little holiday cheer. Good to know.

But we still did not have a tree, much less ornaments to put on a tree if we had one. Queue the tear ducts. It was a rather depressing time. However, that is when we heard a rumor about a miracle worker and procurer of rare articles, Mr. Al Swami. That was the name. I’m not kidding. I never knew whether that was his real name or not. It was the name of the store. The best I can describe it is a cross between Hallmark and the convenience stores with tourist crap packing the shelves. It was a curiosity of Al Khobar that you might find Legos and Waterford crystal side by side in any given establishment. Well, the rumor was that you might be able to go to Al Swami’s and find, not a Christmas tree, but a Holiday tree. In my head, I had this scenario of sidling up to a swarthy man and saying “Psssst… know where I might get a… *looks around*… holiday tree?” As it happens… that is sorta what it worked out to be. My mother’s heart sank when the man looked at her with pity and shook his head. We were in danger of a flood… when, all of a sudden, the miracle occurred. Someone came from the back and it seems that a customer had returned shrubbery just that afternoon. Christmas… I mean Holiday… was saved! We were in possession of a lovely 4-foot fake tree. While there, we also managed to obtain some white fairy lights and a few ornaments. For whatever reason, it seems we also came away with something labeled “Real Plastic Snow.” Yes, we bought it for the comedic value (and I have it to this very day… yellowed through the years, which makes it even funnier than it was originally).

Our tree traditionally had been filled with colorful lights (those hot ones that blink and make patterns on the ceiling… and fire hazards), memento ornaments, handmade ornaments, and wrapped in gold garland, icicles (probably giving us lead poisoning), and popcorn and cranberry chains. It was a homey tree. It had tradition and memory on every limb. It had a star made of cardboard and aluminum foil, and a wreath made of computer punch cards sprayed gold hung on our door. It was a tree that spoke of lean pockets, but rich hearts.

Now, that was gone; packed away in a storage facility somewhere in the U.S. We had a short tree with no attachments to the past. Since there was no way to replicate our traditional tree, we elected to go a completely different route. We purchased ornaments in white and gold. It would be tasteful and generic, but it would work. We had managed to find cassette tapes of holiday music (very likely pirated). The little tree looked almost classy with the white and gold. One of our finds during the mad dash for holiday spirit was some needlework ornaments. Mum and I worked on the tiny little canvases and their intricate stitchery framed in brassy-looking plastic frames. It was a far cry from clothes pin toy soldiers and painted wooden animals, but it was hand-done and something to tie tradition to this new tree. It was our first Christmas in Dhahran. Through the years, the little gold and white tree gained new ornaments (always keeping to the gold and white theme). Soon, we ran out of room, and after moving into camp and having more space, we found a larger “holiday tree” that became the new gold and white tree in the main entertaining area of the house. The original fake evergreen moved into the den upstairs where it started collecting a new plethora of mementos from travel, friends, and family. Eventually, even those overcrowded the small, well-loved holiday symbol. It was packed away to possibly be a gift for another family that may arrive in kingdom without a “holiday tree” too close to the season. However, the old friend found a more important purpose in 1990.

That Autumn changed our lives in many ways, but most of you may remember it as Operation Desert Shield (see, I told you it was supposed to be a desert). I worked with the 85th Evac Hospital and 28th Combat Support, Candlelight Base, and the Desert DOGs with the military to provide support and MWR efforts during that and the Storm and Farewell that followed. During that holiday season, our little tree got a new life. We dressed it up in the finest, and it traveled into the field (sometimes even by Apache helicopter). It brought a symbol of spirit and warmth to the men and women of our armed services standing between “Iraq and a Hard Place” (as we sometimes said). We carried the tree to every base and encampment we could. We may not have been able to send those soldiers, Marines, and sailors back to family and home, but we could bring a touch of it to them. Not bad for a little tree that someone returned to a shop in downtown Al Khobar so many years ago.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may all of you have a Prosperous New Year!

Confessions of the Over-utilized, Queen of the List-makers

I have a confession. I have a touch of the obsessive-compulsive traits. Most of the people who know me are now screaming out, “A touch?!?” Yes, a touch. I know that it is just a touch because I don’t break out in hives walking in my own very messy house. I can actually reside with the man I married who never seems to notice the clutter that to me looks like an audition for an episode of Hoarders. Also, as a psychologist, I know I don’t actually meet the criteria. I don’t have rigid rituals or counting or irrational unbidden thoughts of doom if I don’t complete those rituals.
So, I don’t have the full blown disorder, and while I am a control freak of the highest honor, I am not going to melt down if someone goes through the house making every picture crooked. No, that is not a challenge! However, in the last year or so, I have developed at least one ritual that intrigues and even concerns me a bit, if I’m completely honest with myself.

I’ve started making lists. I don’t mean the shopping list, or the going-to-the-store-don’t-want-to-forget-the-one-thing-I-actually-needed list. I mean lists for tasks, lists for packing, lists for work, for after work, for vacation, lists for the day, the week, the next trip, and the next six months. Yeah, I admit it. I’m a little worried. At one point, it was genuinely just a way for me to make sure I didn’t forget to do important things, especially during the health crisis of the last year. However… it has become something more.

It may be that my life has quite literally developed way more irons in the fire than any one person can technically manage. On any given day, I have too many tasks, too many things to worry about, and way too many places I’m supposed to be at any given time. I know this. And, it most definitely calls to mind other articles I’ve read and advice from other people about simplifying my life and learning to say “No,” but that might be a bit advanced for me at this point. The overall outcome to the plate spinning and balls in the air is that I’m always afraid that they are going to all come crashing to the ground in a gloriously, unholy mess. The result is that I get anxious, very anxious… occasionally finding myself holding my breath without realizing it. I do all the normal, healthy things for this. I use my belly breathing techniques that I use with trauma victims and clients with anxiety. I use the yoga and mindfulness techniques that I have learned from Mary NurrieStearns (awesome lady, by the way). I focus on my breathing and the sensation of my feet on the floor and my ass in my chair… and it works… for approximately 10 minutes. It isn’t that the techniques aren’t good. It is that my brain is ruminating and still processing all the things that I need to do, and it is in a muddle and swirling around, and very unlike the clouds passing (Another Mary technique), they buzz around in my head like a swarm of angry yellow jackets.

So, I succumb to what has become my most reliable coping mechanism. I start making lists. Like magic, the anxiety dissipates. Now, in this world of technology, smart phones, personal planners, smart watches, electronic assistants (Siri hates me), wearable technology, and every other means of keeping us on time for our very busy lives, you would probably think that I’ve got it all on my phone ready to notify me of every upcoming meeting and missed appointment. Nope. Not this time.

Our electronic babysitters are actually contributing factors in my occasionally overwhelming angst. My phone pings, my computer pings, my alarms go off… hell, the car even yells at me for seatbelts and fuel. The point being? I fluctuate between tuning out the pings, beeps, pongs, and boits… OR I jump out of my hide for every blessed one of them. Either way, it isn’t particularly helpful to my anxiety levels, stress, or me actually not forgetting any of my obligations. There is also something just amazingly therapeutic to writing out a list of things that have to be done and crossing them off… sometimes like Zoro with a rapier! It helps to write my tasks out where I can see them. It takes them out of the buzzing cloud in my head and makes them physically present in the world in front of me. I can actually look at them and assign different priorities or deadlines. When I actually do the task, I can cross it out, or I can erase it on a dry erase. (But I have to tell you, there is something much more satisfying about crossing it out.) My typical habit is to start out the week with a list of tasks. Some of them are actually tasks that I do every single week, and technically, I shouldn’t need to write them down to remember them. They are almost habit, but I put them on the list first thing on Monday morning anyway. Throughout the week I cross accomplished ones off, and others get added as fires crop up to be addressed in my work/life balance. When I get to the end of the week and there are a few tasks still there, they move to the top of the list for the next week and so it goes.

Maybe it isn’t so bad. So far, I haven’t gotten into the quagmire of ruminating and circling the same tasks that rotate from week to week without ever being crossed off. It works for me… so far. It helps me stave off the overwhelming urge to run away and join the circus… so far. It hasn’t let me forget anything really important… so far.

So far… so good. I guess I will go ahead and accept my coronation as Queen of the List-Makers.


A Good Memory is Unpardonable

We met at nine, we met at eight, I was on time, no, you were late
Ah, yes, I remember it well
We dined with friends, we dined alone, a tenor sang, a baritone
Ah, yes, I remember it well
That dazzling April moon, there was none that night
And the month was June, that’s right, that’s right
It warms my heart to know that you remember still the way you do
Ah, yes, I remember it well
How often I’ve thought of that Friday, Monday night
When we had our last rendezvous
And somehow I foolishly wondered if you might
By some chance be thinking of it too?
That carriage ride, you walked me home
You lost a glove, aha, it was a comb
Ah, yes, I remember it well
That brilliant sky, we had some rain
Those Russian songs from sunny Spain
Ah, yes, I remember it well
You wore a gown of gold, I was all in blue
Am I getting old? Oh, no, not you
How strong you were, how young and gay
A prince of love in every way
Ah, yes, I remember it well
~Frederic Loewe, Gigi (1958)

Many people say that we are the sum of our experiences. What makes us who we are as individuals are all the myriad of joys, sorrows, traumas, and enjoyments to which we have been exposed through the years of our existence in the world. From this perspective, it seems that our personality and the core of who we are is more about the sum of our memories.

So, what happens when our memories start to fade? Do we lose who we are with the loss of each experience recorded? Is it possible to change the true being of a person merely by wiping the memory slate and giving them new memories, even newly created ones? Sounds like something out of a science fiction horror show, doesn’t it?

Lately, I’ve been giving the concept of memory and identity a lot of thought. In part, I believe it is because my own memory has been slipping a bit. Additionally, working with people who have varying types of dementia or other brain injury or illness that impacts cognition and recall has made me aware of the differences. I was watching a program on the Science channel recently that talked about memory being part of what makes us who we are. It made me think about personality changes that occur in people with dementia and fictional accounts of people with amnesia who create whole new lives for themselves. What about the ethical dilemmas of punishing someone for their past when they don’t remember it?

More interesting to me was also the social impact of memory. There have been studies that show that memory and recall are heavily influenced by the social impact of peer groups. The details of your own recall can be influenced and even overwritten by the approbation of your peers. It is true. People who were shown a picture of a little boy in a cowboy hat eating ice cream were more likely to get details wrong (for example saying that the boy was not wearing a hat) if they were informed that the majority of their peers answered with the wrong answer. What was even more astounding was that the information that was overwritten by peer pressure was enduring and later the same people got the answer wrong again even when not influenced by the fake social pressure.

So, um… why do we even care about this? Well, it means that details and facts in our memories may not be accurate. They may be just what someone else wants us to recall. Scary, right? It actually started me thinking about social interaction and popularity from the aspect of whether memory agrees with that of the peers around you.

Are people who succumb to the memory peer pressure seen as more agreeable and pleasant than those who might question the details recalled by their peer group? Think about it. So, everyone is talking about some event or occurrence and each witness to the event (as they say on all the cop shows) recalls things differently due to their individual perspective. Listening to the group reminisce, eventually all the stories start to drift towards agreement in detail. All tales resolve to the norm… and that norm is defined as what? That is probably set by the person with the most stock in the story or the highest charisma. Everyone else starts matching their impressions to that person. It is a human evolved characteristic that insured congruence in social groups and structure.

Now, what about the one person in the group who has eidetic memory? Yeah, it is rare, but for the purposes of this hypothetical, we’ll say there is one in every group. They listen to everyone and think, “That’s not what happened?” While everyone else in the group would swear that they recalled the same details as their peers, this one person knows that the details are not correct. Their memory isn’t being socially rewritten. This individual has a choice. They can sit quietly with their psychic dissonance, or they can contradict the group recall. Socially adept individuals will accept the psychic dissonance and let the group continue blithely on with their incorrect assumptions. However, if there is significant repercussions to the accuracy of the recall or if the dissonance is too uncomfortable, the individual will speak up and create a conflict of information. If they have enough charisma, people may accept their details or may even overwrite the incorrect memory encoding, but if not, the person becomes “that guy” or “that gal”. They may be seen as odd or even unpleasant, a troll. They may be ostracized for non-conformity with the consensus of their peer group.

Even in this age of relishing the non-conformist spirit, the truth is that most social groups do not want a nay-sayer. They like for everyone to get along and hold the same opinions. Contradiction breeds contempt and discord. Thus, having too accurate a memory, specifically one that disagrees with the majority, results in social distortion among peers. Perhaps this is the real reason the “nerds” were ostracized in school. Accurate recall is remarkably helpful for making excellent marks in school, but it tends to be awkward when the mean girls know you remember every incident of their rule infractions, remembered precisely when they said something less than erudite, or possibly even recalled a heinous wardrobe malfunction. No one likes being reminded of or knowing that people remember their mistakes or humiliations. The mirror of their imperfections is unlikely to garner affection or esteem.

It is possible that as more and more of our lives are captured digitally and immortalized on the internet that having accurate recall is less of a social blunder, but it is often wiser socially to observe Jane Austen and know that a good memory is unpardonable to the preservation of good rapport in amicable society.

Hi-jacked In to technology

Life Before Computers

This is the way the world ends and the machines take over.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need a complete intervention and detoxification from the technology of our society. However, I fear the damage is already done and irreversible. Not that I have gone completely Borg or anything. I’m still pretty old school, enough to the point that I still have a wall calendar and a desk planner. It hurts me a little, tiny bit to kill trees for these small reminders of being mere mortal and human, but there it is. In many other ways, I have become so completely integrated with the electronics in my life that I fail to notice how dependent I have become.

This blatantly terrifies me, by the way. It isn’t that I believe we are destined to become jacked into a virtual reality meant to absorb our neural energy for the powering of our electronic overlords, society beholden to and at the mercy of Skynet, a collective of cyborg beings assimilating other species to enhance our own, helplessly clinical and isolated from normal human experience by extreme fear of contagion or violence, or a cowering mass of biological beings unable to be trusted with their own safety and must have robotic overlords adhering to the three laws (Extra points for any of you who caught all the references). I’m not quite sold on the apocalyptic futures painted in science fiction (though I have to admit that Phillip K. Dicks actually spooks me a bit). I’m just completely appalled that my brain has gone soft and squishy in my dependence on the tools we have been provided to make life easier and more efficient, resulting in my brain’s inability to remember or think for itself, it seems.

Once upon a time (in truth, it doesn’t seem all that long ago), I think I had a pretty phenomenal recall ability, especially when it came to numbers; but in general, I could remember almost anything I saw, and definitely anything I heard. I have been known to freak people out, be called a “walking phone book”, encouraged to apply for a spot on Jeopardy, be considered an encyclopedia of worthless facts, and to never forget special days (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). I never had to write something down. I never forgot appointments. It came in pretty handy. I always knew any phone digits I needed to call, and I was a whiz at games like Simon where long patterns had to be recalled. It was useful in school, too, but the older I got, the less rote memorization was required and critical thinking was allegedly encouraged (I have my doubts on that, but THAT would be a topic for another day). The point is, I never developed the skills or mnemonic techniques to serve as backup or trigger recall.

Now, I haven’t a clue what day of the week, time of the day, what I’ve eaten, IF I’ve eaten, or what my name is on any given day. It is a pathetic travesty of the once impressive memory that resided somewhere (so neurobiologists suspect) within my temporal lobes and hippocampus. If I do not have my collection of electronic babysitters around me to tell me what time it is, when I have an appointment, and social media to remind me it is someone’s birthday, I’m libel to just run around perpetually clueless and miss anything and everything of importance.

I heard someone say that all of these labor saving and efficiency improving devices free up our brain from the tedium of every day existence so that we can ponder the more significant philosophical and deeper meanings of our purpose and development of human kind upon the planet. Um… BAH!!! Who knew that Angry Birds and Candy Crush were such lofty concepts. I’ve got any number of silicon chipped helpers dancing around trying to tell me everything from my next appointment to my next bathroom break and my mind is still chasing itself in circles, unable to properly focus on anything of importance. I refer to this as “the shiny squirrels that dance in my office to distract me.” The other occupation of my mind is usually frantic, scrambling panic that I have forgotten something important and assuming that my electronic guardians have maliciously mislaid the appointment slip, event reminder, or outlook calendar item.

Today was the classic example. The schedule was completely packed, and by this, I mean truly packed to the point I think I scheduled a bathroom break sometime tonight before bed… and that was as soon as I could squeeze it in (see what I did there?). Somewhere between meeting number three and conference call number eight, I looked at the calendar to see the fast approach of February on the horizon. My poor temporal lobes that sadly believe they still hold some sway in my life triggered the anxiety reflex that indicated there was something important I’d forgotten. This time, I was pretty certain it was a medical appointment . “Quick, look at your electronic pacifier to see when that appointment is!!!” And obeying the original overlords of my neuroticism, I checked my “smart phone” calendar. In a side note, apparently the phones are getting smarter and conversely I appear to be losing intellect daily. So, checking my appendage, I find that there are no appointments on the calendar for the next month. My natural distrust of the machines reared its head, and I began to panic, assuming the phone had eaten the appointment and I hadn’t the first clue when the appointment might be. I found an old, lint-encrusted appointment card from last year with the office number, and shamefully called the number, ready to throw myself on the mercy of the receptionist who would probably know what an idiot I had been.

The extraordinarily kind lady on the other end of the line did not ridicule me for being clueless. She verified my identity as per federal law, and politely informed me that contrary to my mistaken assumptions, my appointment was not until the following month. She really was very sweet as she slowly and clearly gave me the date and time. Thankfully, due to the nature of this particular doctor’s office, they are used to people having cognitive lapses (chemo brain) and take it all in stride. Bless all beneficent forces that allowed the exchange to be telephonic so that my mortification and blushing shame were invisible to my conversational companion. After hanging up, I went back to my technological tether, and sure enough, there was the appointment, all safe and sound. It was my brain that failed on this occasion, not the technology.

Perhaps, it isn’t so far-fetched that we, as humans, become completely dependent on the faster processing, greater logic, and tighter precision of the mechanical and technological tools of our society. Perhaps we are not so good on our own. However, to avoid the inevitable atrophy of my brain, I will endeavor to keep my mental faculties sharp and clear by exposure to knowledge and practice of intellectual exercise. To that end, I should go find one of those websites that claims to exercise the brain using games (instead of using the brain on the normal activities of life to keep it sharp). So glad that my adherence to electronics is freeing up my mind for the more important facets of life! Ironic that the electronics that free us from the mundane cognitive functions have fostered the dependency further to technology to sharpen the wits that we should be exercising on deeper thoughts, complex theories, higher functions, and personal principles. Thank heavens for the humor that allows us to laugh at our foibles and appreciate the ridiculousness of using technology based stimuli to undo the intellectual lassitude encouraged by same.