Monday, April 25, 2011

The Soul Intro

Is there a real me? If not, who is my soul?

In one of Oliver Sacks’ most famous clinical stories, he describes, Jimmie, a patient whose memory was stuck decades in the past.  Every few minutes, his memory would wash itself clean, leaving intact the old recollections of youth and early adulthood, all the way up through his time in the Navy and World War II, to about 1945.  He could describe in great detail all the events of his before that point, but everything after had trickled through the sieve of memory.  After Jimmie tells Oliver Sacks that he is 19, and it is Forty-Five, Sacks relates in The Lost Mariner:

            “Looking at the grey-haired man before me, I had an impulse for which I have never forgiven myself-it was, or would have been the height of cruelty had there been any possibility of Jimmie’s remembering it.
            ‘Here,’ I said and thrust a mirror toward him.  ‘Look in the mirror and tell me what you see.  Is that a nineteen-year-old looking out from the mirror?’
            He suddenly turned ashen and gripped the sides of the chair.  ‘Jesus Christ,’ he whispered.  “Christ, what’s going on?  What’s happened to me?  Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy?  Is this a joke?’- and he became frantic, panicked.’

Has Jimmie lat his soul?  Or is his true self still there, evidenced by his old memories?  But what does that say about his new experiences?  Is he still himself?  What about other cases, where people lose everything every few minutes, but also have lost their long-term memory?  Who they were is gone…or is it?

Writers and philosophers and doctors have talked about memory as who we are.  Bunuel said that “memory is what makes up our lives.”  In Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he equates death with the complete loss of memory, and each thing we forget as a small death.  Rushdie said, “We tell ourselves into being,” suggesting that our idea of who and what we are is a story we tell ourselves.  This is very different from the old idea of the soul, a bodyless consciousness that fills up this mortal coil and leaves it when the shell decays.  What if we learn things, then create an idea of who we are, where we end and other things begin, based on our senses.  What if when we forget these things, we are forgetting a part of the story we tell ourselves, and thus, letting our soul leak out with our memory?  What if the soul is not separate from the body at all, but an amazing creation from our organic hardware?

            First let me say, that I don’t have an answer.  I don’t want to get in a heated debate with anyone who thinks this is false.  There is no proof and will most likely never be.  If I know something is true, hey, let’s argue.  If I believe something is true, then I am using the weapon of a feeling, an opinion, to fight another feeling.  To me this is silly.  But I do believe these beliefs should be debated.  It keeps us honest.

I simply want to follow this train of thought and see where it goes.  A few stops along the way:

Is forgetting a small version of death?

Are we simply the story we tell ourselves?

What else does brain damage say about the soul, as well as good and evil?

 See you next week!

As always, any comments are welcomed, weather you disagree, think I messed up some facts, or are feeling bored, please feel free to let me know.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dennis Blunden & The Say Hey Kid

The first time I saw someone famous I felt a rush like I’d never experienced.  My heart beat faster, my temperature rose.  This could have been because I was in the same room as one of my heroes, but it was only the actor who played Dennis Blunden, the heavy math whiz on the 80’s high school sitcom Head of The Class.  My feeling of elatedness could be explained by being only about 10 or 11, except for the fact that the giddiness, staring then looking away, and speaking in a hushed voice were characteristics shared by both of my parents.
Is that Dennis Blunden?
I think.  Yes that’s him!
His real name is Dan something.
What’s he doing here?
Quiet, he’s just trying to eat some food.
What’s he eating?
Who’s that girl?
He looks so much better than on the show.
Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s Dennis Blunden.
Do you think he hears us?
Quiet!  Let’s not ruin his date.

Smiles stretched across our faces, except for my younger brother, who just stared, wide-eyed and open mouthed, at a man he had only seen shrunken within the square screen of our television.  He was too young to be excited like we were, to feel the power of being close to someone famous, to worry about them seeing you looking.  He was trapped in the initial feeling of awe, as if he had just seen a dog talk or a piece of paper stand up and walk away.  His awe made me even more aware of the fact that my parents and I were acting almost exactly the same, as if there were only 2 stages to seeing celebrities: Complete Awe, and Teenage Girl Gossiping.  If you have never imagined your parents as teenage girls, it is a strange experience.  Now throw yourself in the mix and imagine you’re sitting across from Dave Coulier or Jaleel White.

Celebrity sightings seemed to come more often when the family was together.  Maybe we created some kind of gravitational pull hitherto unknown in the universe.  Except for the fact that we almost never saw anyone famous.  We lived in San Francisco, not Hollywood, and we ate at nearby restaurants, not the hip ones in Chinatown or Northbeach.  The fact that we ever saw anyone famous was kind of amazing.

Our next big celebrity sighting was Willie Mays.  If you don’t know the first thing about baseball, he’s up there with Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.  If you don’t know them then I’ll say he’s up there with the best of the best.  Abrahams and Zucker, or Lennon and MacCartney or Lonely Island and Turquoise Jeep.  There, now that my plugs for a google search are out of the way I’ll get back to the story.

Willie Mays was an all around great hitter and fielder, who once caught a ball while running in the other direction.  He played for the Giants in New York, and came with them for the move to San Francisco late in his career.  Candlestick Park is a huge, pitcher-friendly place, and many speculated that Mays would have broke Aaron’s homerun record had the Giants stayed in New York.  Even if he did, Barry “The Cream The Clear” Bonds broke all of their records, as well as my faith in baseball.

Anyway, so the family and some friends are at a game at Candlestick in the 90’s.  We aren’t sitting with the rest of the crowd, braving the bitter cold, as we normally would have.  Instead we have box seats.  Between the upper and lower decks of most sports stadiums, is a row of square rooms.  Facing the field, instead of a wall, is a large window.  Also, between some of the boxes are windows instead of walls.  I’m not sure why this is.  Maybe so that one group of rich people can wave to another, or after a homerun they can do an air high five, from opposite sides of the glass, like when a prisoner’s wife visits him in jail.

I don’t remember much of that game.  I don’t remember who won.  I do remember opening the small part of the window that did open, and yelling “Daaaaarryl” to Darryl Strawberry.  The other thing I remember was that in the middle of the game, my Dad taps me on the shoulder.

“Illy Ays,” he says out of the corner of his mouth, as if people were listening.


“Ex Or.  Illy Ays.”  Then he gestured with his eyes, a movement so small I barely saw it.  I leaned forward and looked through the glass.  Next door to, amid a large group of Giants fans watching the game, was the Greatest Giant to ever live.  I felt my pulse quicken and I looked up at my father, who had an excitement in his eye I had never seen before.

“Don’t stare,” he said, suddenly recovering his consonants.  I immediately thought of my brother, the starer.  Would he run up to the glass so close he fogged it up.  Would Willie Mays roll his eyes and look at me as if to say “What a couple of stupid brothers?”  I couldn’t let that happen.

I turned back toward the game.  “Ike.  On’t are.”

“What?” he turned toward me.

“Ook at a  ase all ame!  On’t ook at me!”  I accidently said me.


“I ed…”

“What, you’re an idiot?  Okay, Dan.”  He was the only little brother in the world who also picked on me.  I turned toward him.

“Listen asshole, Willie Mays is over there and I won’t let you mess this up for me.”

“Where?”  He stood up, ran up to the glass facing the field and started looking everywhere.  “Is he sitting down there?  Is he buying a malt?  Does he get a real spoon instead of the little flat piece of wood?  Is he playing left field?”

The hitter hit a foul ball.  I jumped and cheered for it as if it were a homerun, then pulled my brother back to his seat.  I leaned close to his ear.  “Don’t look!  He’s next door.  Don’t look!  Willie Mays is right next…”  He was already looking.  I didn’t look to see if Willie was looking, because then I would seem to be connected to my brother, the strarer, and he’s hate us both.  I kept looking straight ahead while attempting to kick my brother sideways.  “Games’ up front, buddy.  Games’ up front.”

Mike turned and faced front.  Amazingly, he seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation.  “It’s Willie Mays!” he whispered excitedly.

“I know!” I whispered happily back, the two of us sharing in the excitement for the first time.

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” I replied

“Listen up.”  My father’s voice was barely a whisper, and his was leaning into his pack at his feet.  He picked up a pair of binoculars and pretended to clean the lenses.  “Here’s what you do.  You discreetly watch and when he leaves, probably a little before the game ends, you go out and politely ask for an autograph.”  My father returned the binos to the backpack and looked at us.  “7th Inning Stretch!” he yelled, then winked.

We had our tickets ready.  We had our pens.  We waited.  When the moment came, when Willie and his old black man bodyguard stood up and went towards the back door, we were ready.  We looked at each other, nodded to our father, and went unto the breach.  By the time we came out of our box, they were already standing at the handicap-only elevator, and looking back and forth.

“Mr. Mays, Mr. Mays!”  We repeated, as instructed.  I don’t have an image of them as we approached, but I have a strange memory of looking to the side to see my brother, bobbing and weaving, standing tall and scrunching down, dodging imaginary bodyguards, calling “Mr. Mays, Mr. Mays!”

His older bodyguard stood a little in front, but he didn’t block us.  Mike handed Mr. Mays his ticket.  As Willie signed it the elevator arrived.  I offered my ticket.  “Mr. Mays has signed enough for today.”  And then they vanished into the handicapped elevator.  “Mr. Mays has signed enough for today,” as if he had been sitting there for hours, accommodating hundreds of people, and not just my little brother.  A sinking feeling filled my guts.  I looked and Mike and forced a smile.  He looked at me with such pity that I felt a little better.  It took years for me to get over missing that autograph by a hairsbreadth, but now my brother’s signed ticket doesn’t mean a whole lot to either of us, except a memento of one of our adventures together.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Follow the Circle Down. Where Would You Be?

Here is a little essay I wrote on Townes Van Zandt.  It is not all-encompassing, but an introduction to his life and music.  The next few weeks I'll be writing about artists and scientists and people I have met who experience the world vastly different than most other people.  This could be because of brain damage, a disease, or simply the way their brains are wired.  The more I learn about these cases, the more I ask, Who is the real me?  Does a real me even exist?  And if not, what does this say about the soul...

Please leave comments if there is anything you'd like to discuss, and if you enjoyed it, felt bored, etc...

Shame that it’s not enough
Shame that it is a shame
                                    - Townes Van Zandt, The Highway Kind

Trying to sum of Townes Van Zandt in words is like looking at a mountain reflected in a lake and trying to figure out what it’s all about.  You might get an idea of what it looks like, the same as if you looked directly toward its peak, but you wouldn’t know how the plants smell, what the trees in the wind sounded like, or know the view from the top.  You stare into the reflection and try to figure all this out, and falling leaf sending out ripples reminding you that you’re merely looking at a pool of water.

I’d say Townes battled depression, alcoholism and drugs for most of his life, but these characteristics were so woven into the fabric of his existence that battled feels like the wrong word.  These things poured into him just as music did, weaving a rich and strong and intricate texture that was frayed at the edges.  I think of him often, not because of his struggles, but the staggering poetry of his music. Yet, if he were a simple, happy man, or if he were alive today, would I look for so much in his songs?

Townes, who grew up in Texas, Montana and Colorado, came from a wealthy oil family.  He started playing guitar at 12, after receiving one for Christmas and seeing Elvis Presley on television.  He did well in school and studied among the mountains of the University of Colorado at Boulder.  It was during these years that he was diagnosed with manic depression, and his binge drinking became more pronounced.  I try to imagine him not as a young version of one of my favorite singers, but the strange heir to a rich, powerful family fortune.  His illness was attacked with the best that western medicine had to offer, insulin shock therapy. 

Electroconvulsive Therapy first came to be in the 1930’s.  Researches found that epileptics rarely suffered from psychosis, and vice versa.  Rather than splitting hairs about the difference between correlation (two things are connected in that they are caused by a third thing) and causality (one causes the other), it was assumed that inducing seizures in psychotic people could cure them.  Even reading accounts of this procedure, it is difficult to imagine the horror experienced.  Being strapped down to a stretcher, wheeled into the ECT room, and consciously watching the doctors as they silently attach electrodes to your head, then a drug is administered into your blood.  You awaken later, with no memory of what happened, only a strange soreness in your body, mysterious bruises, and a headache.  You have no conscious memory of going to the ECT room, but some primitive part of your brain fills you with fear when you are wheeled there again.

It was a few years later that the Italian psychiatrist Cerletti began to use electrical currents, which were amazingly much safer than the metazol or insulin induced seizures.  These early versions of ECT were dangerous and often caused death.  Over time, the procedure has become much safer, and shown to be effective with people suffering from depression, though its’ effect on psychotics, the original purpose of the procedure, has been shown to be ineffective.

In the 60’s, mood stabilizers had yet to be discovered.  And ECT hadn’t yet given muscle relaxers and barbiturates to calm the body before inducing dangerous seizures that could cause fractures and dislocations.  ECT has been shown to be very effect with unipolar depression (a cycle which only involves the sad, dark state of depression), but this is not the case with manic depression (a cycle that involves the low state of depression and the high, frenetic, productive, energized state of mania).  Shock therapy did not have the stigma it does today.  Like most suffering inflicted on minorities for the bulk of history, the only ones who don’t like them are the ones experiencing them.  His family probably thought they were doing what was best for him.  Years later, his mother regretted her decision more than anything else.

I don’t know if the insulin induced seizures helped his depression.  I do know that he lost most of his long term memory from the process, and that songs began to come to him, fully formed, in the middle of the night.  I imagine him sleeping in his trailer in the middle of the woods, no running water, but a flood of words and music braided together, stirring him from sleep, pulling his hands like a puppeteer toward his guitar.  Did these songs come from the same cocooned, mysterious place that caused him to reach for the bottle and the needle?  Before he lost himself to the lighting in his mind, he played guitar and he drank.  Losing his memory seemed to cast spotlights on the strongest parts of his life, his music, his addiction, and his loneliness.  Or was his memory hollowed out by currents of electricity, and then filled with a new kind of music and poetry?
On The Highway Kind, he says

My days they are the highway kind
They only come to leave
But the leaving I don’t mind
It’s the coming that I crave
Pour the sun upon the ground
Stand and throw a shadow
And watch it grow into a night
A fill the spinning sky

He takes the image of the highway, the long road of the past before automobiles, and twists it into each day of his life.  Without a past or future he is alone on the road, making up the world as he goes alone.  His depression, his shadow, cover the world and makes it into night.  The evocative image of pouring the sun into the ground may be an attempt to control the spinning sky, time passing, and the earth that turns without us perceiving it.

The attempt to make sense of one’s life by living it in ever moving solitude gives way to an even deeper study of depression.

Shame that it’s not enough
Shame that it is a shame
Follow the circle down
Where would you be

One of the defining characteristics of depression and anxiety is the awareness of one’s strange and painful feelings, and the shame from having them.  I don’t just obsess about cleaning the house, but I know my cleaning is excessive and I feel badly about it.  I have these strange urges I can’t control.  As far as I know, this guilt for being himself is never stated so clearly again, but may be opaquely present, hidden behind the canvas of his sad stories and epics.

To Live Is To Fly, counterpoints the beauty of life with the trappings of the human condition.

We all got holes to fill
And them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own

The meaning in life becomes filling the painful holes that we feel.  Perhaps he knew this through his art, but it may be the comparison of himself before and after the ECT.  Is our life made up of filling these holes, wherever they originated?  Is everything we see in life, what we call reality, created by the filter of our consciousness.  I am reminded of a quote by the author Ana├»s Nin at the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum in San Francisco.  "We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are."

This brings to mind Franz Kafka, a kindred spirit of Townes who had the holes of tuberculosis and being a Jew in Europe fall like a storm onto his life.  His characters often explored the reality of their perception, or, their perceived reality.  He wrote stories about dogs, mice, moles, and most famously in The Metamorphosis, a cockroach, possibly to show that, like my friend Tom says, “We are all silly animals running around, trying to make sense of things.”  That is to say, a mole lives a moles life (blind, underground, listening for vibrations that warn of an intruder), a dog a dog’s life (seeing birds and flying dogs), and a human a human’s.  We either all are something special in the universe, or none of us are.

In the song Marie, Townes’ focused on the castaways again, this time the homelss.  The song begins

I Stood in line and left my name
Took about six hours or so
Well, the man just grinned like it was all a game
Said they’d let me know

This casts the image of one of Kakfa’s mysterious clerks who are always in the way, a piece of the inconceivable bureaucracy of the government, of life, that makes us feel small and powerless.  The man’s grin stretches long and wide in my mind, and is filled with sharp triangular teeth that fit between each other lke the monster of Where The Wild Things Are.  It is no surprise when, later in the song

Well the man’s still grinning says he lost my file
I gotta stand in line again

Perhaps the most poignant line is when the unnamed narrator imagines a happily ever after with his girl

Maybe me and Marie can find a burned-out van
And do a little settling down

Does he mean create a home or have some privacy when making love?  Can we, the audience of relatively comfortable people with homes imagine not just having a burned out van as a home, but not having it and wishing for it?

Perhaps his most famous song, Pancho and Lefty, counterpoints the story of the well known Mexican revolutionary general with that of a regular guy, the kind of person we don’t write stories about.  He doesn’t have a big exciting life and death, but a life that continues on into old age.

Pancho needs your breaks it’s true
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
now he’s growing old

We see the world in wide grand strokes, certain people stand out in history just as a large tree is more noticeable than the air all around it.  Yet the life we are most aware of I our own, a life we bend over backward to give meaning, and look for this mirrored in the great mena dn women of the world, even as we ignore those most like ourselves, the Leftys who blow through life.

Steve Earle called Townes “a real good teacher and a real bad role model.”  He also famously said “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”  Townes responded, ”I’ve met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don’t think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table.”  Though privately Earle’s quote embarrassed Townes, and Earle later recanted, telling the New York Times, "Did I ever believe that Townes was better than Bob Dylan? No.”  Still, Earle’s words are filled with the adoration of a young man speaking of his hero, except lacking the romance, the sheen of perfection with which we immerse those we admire.  Townes made great music but was also a rambling man, plagued by alcohol and heroin.  Maybe the drink was the only thing that kept him alive though all those years after his mind was set alight.  When his surgery after a bad fall, he had to stop drinking.  After the surgery he was so plagued by the DT’s, the shakes an alcoholic has when deprived of alcohol, that his wife gave him a flask of vodka.  By the time he was home he was acting like himself again, talking and smiling.  He smoked a joint with a friend, had a few Tylenol PMs, and watched television.  Soon after, his old heart attacked him, as if he had held his breath too long under water and his lungs finally gave up.  He died on the couch, found by his youngest son.

Steve Earle has a great version of Marie, which doesn’t feel as overwhelmingly heavy.

Steve’s tribute to Townes written after his death.

Another of my favorites: My Proud Mountains

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Introduction to My Philosophy

I have decided to take note of my philosophy.  This is not because I believe it to be amazingly original.  In fact, it draws from many sources, most notably neuroscience, cognitive therapy, Buddhist principals of mindfulness, physics, Nietzsche, the fiction of Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Sebald, the music of Guthrie, Dylan and Van Zandt.  Many of these ideas are not wholly, or even partially my own, coming from many deep conversations with my close friends, my fiance, and my family.  Finally, as the largest inspiration and altogether life changing experience, I must note my time working with children and adults with Autism and other developmental differences.  All of these have shown me that there is no one right and true way to look at the world, and if there is, we as humans don't know it.

But never fear!  If you are one to believe the word of God lies within one or more of the sacred texts of the earth, there will still be ideas and stories of interest to you, and possibly much of how we view the world is the same.  Our nation has become polarized by religion and political parties, highlighting what separates us rather than what binds us.

This book will also not be a new age synthesis of everything, a synchronistic view of the world, or a hippy-layman mentioning ideas that interest him.  Everything mentioned has been researched, discussed and double checked.  That said, this book will not be merely a love letter to science at the experience of the magic in the world.  In many ways, science is as much as belief system as religion, but it governs itself very differently.  The more I learn of the sciences that attempt to explain things, the more amazing our world seems, and the more our ignorance becomes injustice.

(this and the next blogs may be published someday, but will all most likely undergo revisions)