Tuesday, April 27, 2021

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Brain

I'm not sure what a "Deligetful Salad" is ...

Growing up, when we took road-trips to visit grandparents or when we needed to take visitors out for dinner, Dad would take us to cafeterias, like Davis Brothers and Piccadilly. Invariably one of us kids would wind up with more on our tray than we could finish eating. Mom would say, "Your eyes were bigger than your stomach!" She would claim that she put little on her tray because she knew she could finish off what we couldn't.

I remembered this because I eat information and I've been putting way too much of it on my tray. I frequently use Instapaper to grab interesting articles on the web for reading at a later time. My inventory at the moment is about 300 articles waiting for me to read. This inventory has grown like it has because I seldom go back to read what I save. I wanted to read these articles when I first saw them; I just didn't have the time or the gumption (or attention span?) to read each one as I came across it. So basically my eyes are bigger than my brain.

We already know (see this post) I have a similar problem with reading books. And with e-books for my Kindle it's like finding online articles to save using Instapaper. In each case, it's a matter of "out of sight, out of mind." If I don't look in my electronic pantries, I don't realize all the articles or books I've stored for future consumption.

Self-discipline is overrated.

Memes and Antimemes: Mental Contortions

Mind-bending stories

There are many popular movies and books known for bending the mind of the viewer or reader. Movies like Memento (2000), Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Looper (2012) are just a few examples. Many of the storylines for these movies are built on notions of memory and time. Some, like The Matrix (1999) and Inception, deal with layers of reality nested like Russian dolls. In The Matrix, you may discover you've been living in a simulation. In Inception, you may discover you've been living in someone else's dream. In movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you find yourself encountering mysteries of epic proportions.

Reading the sci-fi novel There is No Antimemetic Division by author "qntm" (yes, that is his/her nom de plume) is like turning your brain inside out. This mind-bending goes beyond mental yoga. It falls in the category of mental contortionism.


We all know what a meme is. We've all shared the frustration of being unable to rid our conscious thoughts of a meme. Sometimes it's a tune or jingle -- an "earworm." If an earworm sticks to my brain like a remora to a shark, I have a "treatment" that sometimes works: I sing the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner with each line reversed:

See you can say oh  
Light early dawn's the by
Hailed we proudly so what 
Gleaming last twilight's the at

An antimeme, as imagined by qntm, does the opposite to us. If a meme is something you can't get out of your head, then an antimeme is something you can't keep in your head. You hear an antimeme and there is instantly no way to recall or recover its content. You read an antimeme and not only have no recollection of what you've read, you don't even realize you were reading something.

The premise of There is No Antimemetic Division is antimemes can be sentient and monstrous and, in general, dangerous. They can sometimes be fought -- but then you can't remember what it was you were fighting. They have been around us for millions of years, effectively invisible because as soon as you see one you instantly forget what you've seen. They can drive a person mad.

Wisdom tooth extraction and drug-induced amnesia

Encountering an antimeme results in selective amnesia. When I had my wisdom teeth removed by a dental student at the Medical University of S. Carolina, I was given an IV of Demerol and Valium. I was told this was an amnesiac mixture (not unlike, in effect, what you receive for "twilight sleep" before certain medical procedures). I would be able to respond to questions or instructions ("are you feeling any pain? can you open your mouth a little bit more?") but have no ability to recall any discomfort. In one moment I could feel a tooth coming out, but in the next moment, I would immediately forget it. The drug mixture they gave me acted like an antimeme.

Well, whaddya know!

An antimeme messes with what you think you know. It's a fifty-dollar word -- epistemological -- problem. Epistemology is one of the pillars of philosophy. It concerns knowledge -- what it is, where does it come from, what does it mean to know something.

There is No Antimemetic Division is an epistemologic nightmare for its characters. We often say "you don't know what you don't know." But in this novel there are things you do know but you don't know that you know them. What you think is real is incompletely real. What you experience is an inadequate representation of reality. The mental health of several characters in this mind-bending novel suffer from epistemological panic attacks when they come to realize that, somehow, their knowledge is dangerously incomplete.

But sentient antimemes are more than just a threat to our mental health. They are also an existential threat to the world, threatening life as we know it (or think we know it). For this reason, the Antimemetics Division (which the title of the book says does not exist) is charged with trying to rid the world of antimemes, much like Ghostbusters (1984) did with ghosts, or Men in Black (1997) with aliens. But there is nothing comedic about the tricky business of trying to fight something you can't recall or understand.

The verdict ...

There is No Antimemetic Division is not an easy read. You not only have to allow your mind to bend -- you also have to hold your mind in a twisted position as you follow the course of the story. Picking up again where you left off after you set the book aside requires getting back into that twisted position. In the end, your brain will feel comfortably stretched, but grateful to return to "normal."

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Deep Geographic Memory, Bagpipes, and Electronic Music

MacDuffee Clan Society Tartan (modern)
This past weekend I attended the graveside service of a dear cousin of mine. Just before the service began, a bagpiper approached playing a solemn tune. When the service was finished, he departed the same way he had come, slowly crossing a rise in the cemetery, signifying the departure of my cousin from this earthly life. We were moved by the occasion, and we were moved by the music.

I was reminded of heritage, and music. I was reminded of writing, and our sense of place on this planet.

Geographic Memory

Cherokee linguist Tom Belt is a descendant of the Native Americans who left their homelands in the Southeast U.S., forced to follow the "Trail of Tears" and relocate in Oklahoma in the 1830s. Robert Moor, in his book On Trails: An Exploration, explains that as a child in Oklahoma, Tom Belt would fantasize, while playing war games on the prairie, "that he was in a land of mountain slopes, soaring trees, and murmuring brooks." It wasn't until Belt moved to North Carolina at the age of forty that he realized this was the landscape he had been imagining. It's like a "sense of deep geographic memory," writes Moor. And while it "may seem mystical ... it isn't--or at least, isn't entirely--because the landscape is 'encoded' directly into the [Cherokee] language."

Scots-Irish Heritage

I believe this would resonate with Sharyn McCrumb, award-winning author of a number of historic novels set in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. I was fortunate to hear Sharyn speak at the first Lost State Writers Conference in the foothills of the Appalachians in 1998. Many of us in the audience were descendants of the Scots-Irish who came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we have roots in the Appalachians. Sharyn said that our Scots-Irish heritage has followed us in our music, our writing, and especially our choice of where to live, for the Appalachians closely resemble the Scottish Highlands. While my McDuffee ancestors were not Highlanders (they came from the island of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland), surely some of my ancestors were Highlanders.

Bagpipes, Drones, and Electric Guitar

Scots-Irish heritage following us in our music?! And not just music played on a hammered dulcimer. Take the bagpipes, for instance. The Great Highland bagpipe. When I was somewhat taller and older than a wee lad, I really wanted an electric guitar effect (similar to a "fuzz box" or a "wah-wah pedal") that would allow me to create a drone on the electric guitar. As far as I know, it wasn't until advances in digital signal processing made it possible that one could purchase and use a drone effect. (Or, use what is called a "pad" on a synthesizer.) And I wonder, did my desire to create a drone on a guitar arise from what Robert Moor referred to as a "sense of deep geographic memory"?

The Drive Home

Not long after my cousin's graveside service, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, I got back in my car and headed home to Ohio. There is something I've not yet put my finger on that causes me to feel like "I'm in the right place" when I'm in Tennessee. It could be topography, natural history, or the fact I was born there. Though I never really lived much in Tennessee, I consider it home. This is something I will have to explore.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Wilderness and Italian Gardens

Our backyard, partly by design and partly by serendipity, transitions from a typical suburban lawn to sixty-three acres of maturing forest, Dudley Woods Park, along Gregory Creek, a tributary of the Great Miami River in southwest Ohio.

Years after downsizing to a condo in 2006, we had decided it was time to take the unusual step of upsizing ("right-sizing"). In late 2020, we moved into a new home that borders Dudley Woods. The backyard is fenced, and for the first time, our small dog (Scooter) has a place to run and play. (He pretends to be the dog on the Mighty Dog commercial.) 

Nature close at-hand

We have a great view of the forest, including spectacular fall colors, active wildlife (red and gray squirrels, rabbits), and pleasantly-noisy birds (chickadees, flickers, robins, cardinals). Once the leaves fell last autumn, we could see a number of dreys where the squirrels lived. Then, when the ubiquitous honeysuckle lost its leaves and we were treated to some significant snowfall, we could watch deer approach the fence that separates the yard from the woods. As one deer pawed at the snow, I thought it might be looking for something to nibble on. Instead, it was simply clearing a little spot to bed down and rest. There is a prominent boulder beside a nearby trail in the park that displays deep grooves where bucks have been rubbing the velvet off their antlers for probably years. Paths through the park have led us to cedars, hackberry, honey locust, black cherry, and osage-orange, as well as giant sycamores along Gregory Creek.

Transition from suburban lawn to wilderness

Okay, so maybe "wilderness" is a bit of poetic license. (Okay, it's an exaggeration. Humor me.) 

Our backyard is divided, from one side to the other, by a natural, descending swale that drains surface water from our neighbor's yard and ours. It's not enough to cause any erosion, but we learned, once we moved in, how difficult it was to mow, and how it stayed wet most of the time. (If we were to follow it into the woods, no doubt it would empty into Gregory Creek.) And we hired a landscaper to create an artificial "creek bed" in the swale to help control the drainage. A small garden-bridge lets us conveniently cross the swale and get the lawnmower to the other side. Sometimes Scooter will use the bridge, but sometimes he will run and leap the swale without slowing down.

Something the landscaper said stuck with me. The part of the yard on the other side of the swale is -- esthetically -- a transition zone from our grassy yard to the forest behind us. The trees in the transition zone have not leafed out yet, so I've only identified a beech tree so far, but I believe several of the saplings are sugar maples. Beneath the trees, grass and moss cover most of the ground, with a sprinkling of bright red elf cups (a fungus) and early-blooming wildflowers like cut-leaved toothwort. Thankfully, our fence restrains the honeysuckle (for now).

Italian Gardens?

I have trouble remembering the locations of the light switches in our house, but my brain did remind me of a book that discusses transitions between carefully manicured, designed arrangements of plants (in this case, Italian gardens) and the not-as-random-as-you-think "arrangements" of plants and trees in an area of wilderness. The Wildest Place on Earth: Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness, by John Hanson Mitchell, is not your typical book on gardens or wilderness. The best summary of this interesting book can be found in a Barnes & Noble review on Goodreads. Mitchell, writes the reviewer, uses "Italian garden design as a framework for exploring the meaning of wildness. This is not as much of a stretch as you might imagine. Over the centuries, Italian gardens have always incorporated wild spaces as part of the overall design. It is the balance of order and disorder, of control and freedom that gives these gardens their special qualities." I highly recommend Mitchell's book for anyone who likes novel juxtapositions of concepts.

Though our yard is no Italian garden, our "transition zone" is something I'm sure Mitchell would appreciate.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Music, Soundtracks, and Accompaniment for an Apocalypse

Pleasant surprises

We all know the power that music has to evoke emotions. Several months ago, as I was driving home at the end of a long day, a colorful sunset lit the sky. I felt enraptured as I listened to "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" from The Planets, by Gustav Holst. My favorite part of "Jupiter" comes as a surprise (see "Rock Music and the Element of Surprise"): a slower-tempo segment of grandeur sandwiched in between frivolity. I have no idea why Holst composed "Jupiter" the way he did. The segment I so appreciate was later turned into a tune used for the hymn "I Vow to Thee My Country," a patriotic piece particularly appreciated by the British and performed (for example) at the funeral of Winston Churchill.

The power of spectacular soundtracks

Like many people, I appreciate spectacular soundtracks for movies. I remember, when I was a boy, repeatedly resetting the needle on my father's turntable as I listened to his LP for How the West Was Won (1962), long before I was able to actually see the movie for myself. By that point, I had already pictured much of the story from the titles and musical dynamics of the tracks on the LP.

But I can't begin to express what I felt, at age 13, when I heard, for the first time, Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, used in both the opening sequence and the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I had to purchase the LP  for the soundtrack so I could listen to this piece again and again. And, feel the sadness behind the Adagio from Khachaturian's Gayane Ballet Suite #3, another piece from the soundtrack for 2001. This soundtrack was just as much an act of genius as the visuals of the movie, given how the skillful use of these pieces helped to convey the vastness and mystery of space.

Inspiration for writing

For both inspiration and pure enjoyment, while I was writing my Civil War stories (MISSING IN ACTION, 1863, and Battlefront and Homefront), I must have listened to the soundtrack of Gettysburg (1993) hundreds of times. While writing fantasy I've listened to Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov, to put me in an inspired state of mind.

Endings, and an apocalypse

But some of the most moving of orchestral pieces are those used at the climax of movies. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, like Khachaturian's Adagio from Gayane, is a slow and sad composition. Barber's Adagio was famously used for the pathos of the final scene in Platoon (1986). 

And I cannot think of the sci-fi movie, Knowing (2009), without pondering the apocalyptic conclusion to the movie. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the movie, devastation runs rampant as the world comes to an end. The power of this ending is a result of two things. First, there is neither dialogue nor voiceover. And second, the first part of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, opus 92, II. Allegretto is used to communicate the depths of despair as both the movie and life on earth comes to an end.