Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Me and My Little Brain

By Cornelia Read

I have a condition I like to think of as "sticky brain." I never know where my car keys are, unless they are physically attached to me, but I remember small bits of trivia I read eons ago.

I was reminded of this in the Dallas Fort Worth airport this past Friday, when I bought a copy of Vanity Fair (as The New Yorker is apparently banned throughout DFW) with which to pass the time on my way back to San Francisco following the extra-fabulous Texas Library Association Conference.

There was a profile of Doris Day in my magazine, which was pretty much the only thing I wanted to read since it was The "Green" Issue, and who really gives a crap what Madonna thinks about global warming?

Here is something I already knew about Doris Day: once a week, she slathers herself from head to toe in Vaseline and then puts on footie pajamas and sleeps in it. I think I read that in the National Enquirer when I was about twelve.

The Vanity Fair article said (paraphrasing here, as I left the magazine on the plane), "once a week, Doris Day rubs herself down with Vaseline before she goes to sleep.

This makes her maid unhappy as she also sleeps with several dogs in the bed, and it's a big hairy mess in the morning."

And I thought to myself, "oh great, now I'm going to have that image stuck in my head for the rest of my life."

Here's another thing I remember from eons ago--a beauty tip from Brooke Shields, who claimed that after she brushed her teeth, she went on to brush her lips, to make them soft. That one was probably from Seventeen, back in the day. Oddly enough, it's a factoid I've found about 80% of women in my age cohort also remember.

I remember odd little lines and giblets from books I've read, too--for some reason especially well from those old Scholastic paperbacks they used to stock my elementary-school shelves with.

Here's one that always comes to mind whenever I'm faced with riding in a crowded car: an explanation given about how many people fit into a certain wagon when the crowd wants to ride into town together, from a book about an East Coast girl who spends her summer on an old West fort: "Six if you're particular, but eight if you're sociable."

This is why I love my friend Ariel: I told her about that phrase one day, and said, "I don't remember the name of the book, but it had a yellow cover with a really ugly Fifties illustration."

And Ariel looked at me and replied, "Blue Ribbons for Meg."

So at least I have the comfort of knowing I am not the only person in the world to suffer from the Scholastic variant of Sticky Brain.

But I don't just remember thing's I've read, I remember things OTHER people have read. Like the paragraph about how Shackleton's crew spent so much time playing cards in their tents in the Antarctic after the Endurance was trapped in the ice that they couldn't read the faces, anymore, and were finally forced to clean them off with blubber so they could continue their games.

I heard a boyfriend of my mother's read that bit out loud from a book one evening in Aspen, in 1972. I didn't remember it was Shackleton, I only remembered the cards and the blubber, until I randomly read the same book myself about five years ago.

It was during that Aspen trip that I also heard the guy read a paragraph from a novel in which some dude was racing across the snowy outback of Russia in a sleigh, but the wolves were gaining on him so he threw his chick-of-the-moment over the side. To my astonishment, I ran across that exact passage about twenty years later in a Flashman novel.

The strangest occurence of this was the morning I first took the SATs, when I realized the passage we'd been set for the reading comprehension portion of the test was a page a stepfather of mine (mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my vaccine post) had read aloud at the breakfast table about five years earlier from a book about the health benefits of wheat bran.

It was about Victorian-era British orphans who were healthier than their wealthier parented counterparts because they weren't fed white bread, which was more expensive than the whole-wheat version at the time.

My Aunt Julie once asked me, "Cornelia, how do you remember all this shit?" and I told her I figured the part of my brain that was supposed to be devoted to remembering where my car keys are had instead been programmed as an extra trivia receptacle.

In school, this condition (the car-keys part) extended to pens and binder paper and textbooks, in that I never remembered where they were, either. Like I had some sort of negative electrical charge which made essential academic supplies jump away from my body at random intervals, a dozen or so times an hour.

After everyone I knew got sick of lending me pencils and paper and what-have-you in class, I fell back on a tried-and-true method of studying: just remember what the teacher said, because I was never, ever going to have the implements necessary for writing it down, and besides which I'd then lose the piece of paper.

It actually worked okay, though Judith Goldiner once got really pissed at me in chemistry class when everyone else was getting their binders out, and I just sat there, which prompted her to say "yeah, you and your photogenic memory."

Q. What did the signers of the Declaration
of Independence all have in common?
A. They remembered to bring pens.

Apparently, several years after I'd moved on to college, there was another girl in Mrs. Laupheimer's AP American history class one day who had forgotten her pen and paper.

Mrs. Laupheimer looked at her, it was later reported to me, and said, "There was only one kid who could do that, and her name is Nicky Read, and she's already graduated. Borrow something."

And I have another weird thing that happens in my head--well, okay, several, but let's just say this one is the second-most striking weird thing to me.

It happens when my "front" brain is engaged in some mundane task--say, driving a route I'm familiar with. I get these weird chunks of language that just emerge from the fog. Verbal images, lines of dialogue, little jokes, &c.

I remember one, specifically, that I ended up using in A Field of Darkness... I was driving back home from dropping my daughter off at school and was just passing the Claremont Hotel on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, in my husband's old Benz wagon with the broken radio.

I'd been thinking vaguely about heredity and weirdness amongst my ancestral strain, and suddenly got this word-image plopped into my head from God knows where, which summed up the practice of moneyed WASPs inter-breeding with Eurotrash in the Hamptons as being likely to produce "Dobermans with the Hapsburg lip."

Which is exactly the sort of darkly twisted semantical fillip that most appeals to me.

What's started happening lately, however, is that I get entire paragraphs, usually things that are the start of a short story. The strangest thing about this is that I'm not trying to work on any short stories, I'm trying to work on a novel. But these whole little worlds appear in my head in one stroke--with voice and place and premise locked into them--like involuntarily tuning into some crazy radio show in my head.

They just start to spin out and add to themselves, and I do my best to remember a key phrase so that I can write down the bones of them later.

Here is one from Saturday, which emerged as I was waiting for the light to change under the elevated BART rails down on MLK, on my way to Rae's house:

We killed Santa on the nineteenth day.

Trust me, you would’ve done the same. I mean, you’ve got eight reindeer and five elves and one morbidly obese self-important prick of a management type stranded on a desert fucking island two hundred miles off Tierra del Fuego… which one would YOU take out?

If nothing else, we figured we’d get more meals out of his ass than ours. God knows it hadn’t actually fit down a chimney since 1952. Elves haul your crap down the damn things, and elves haul your cookies and milk back up them, too. You’d think he’d give us a taste.

And don’t give me any shit about how reindeer don’t eat meat. Like you’d know. How the hell do you think our guys fly? They’re carnivorous, that’s how they goddamn fly. With a double row of pointy-ass teeth to use for ripping flesh. No meat, no altitude.

Santa’d run us and the boys into the ground that Christmas, literally. Doubling back twice to the Cote D’Ivoire, because he screwed up the list? We barely made landfall that last time over the Atlantic.

You should’ve heard him screaming when we jumped him: “
Off Dancer! Off Prancer! Jesus H. CHRIST, that’s my bad leg…”

Yeah, that *was* your bad leg…

Fat fuck had it coming.

Okay now, seriously, how weird is THAT?

I mean, I kind of like it, as short story openings go, but it's still seriously freaky to have some psycho elf dictating the Piers-Paul-Read-Alive mashup with The Night Before Christmas to you as you're driving, you know?

I'm hoping this is just an advanced case of Writerly Neurochemistry, not some brain tumor possessed by the shade of Roald Dahl.

Anybody else get this kind of unprompted brainwave weirdness? If so, please share...

p.s. This week's Snack o' Thought:


  1. BLUE RIBBONS FOR MEG. Thank you, lovely!

    Brady Bunch episode with special guest Davy Jones, as Marcia gives him a kiss on one cheek: "How 'bout one on the flip side, eh?"

    Also, frighteningly, I may have completely made that up.

  2. In high school I was in this class ("Advanced History," and I seemed the only person who found that course title ironical or punny) taught by a very dedicated but eccentric woman who craved to be our local version of Mr Chips (except clad always in flowing purple or magenta dresses and pilgrim shoes). Many (most?) folks stuggled to keep head above water in her class, yet I was always making 99s and 100s on her tests despite never taking notes -- never.

    This seemed to irk the hell out of her. "How the hell do you study for tests if you never take notes?"

    (She was fond of using PG grade profanity in order to make it seem as if we were mature.)

    "Why do I need notes if I can just remember it?"

    As for the whole "tuning into some crazy radio show in my head,"... DUDE-- inside my head it's like I'm getting a half dozen weird cable channels (in stereo) from another country. Someone will drop some ref or odd phrase, and I can literally **see** the flash cards trip by as the mental hyperlinks leapfrog near-instantly down a damned rabbit hole of weird non sequitir connections.

    Here's a question: as a child, were you a rabid reader? Did you consume pretty much all printed matter? In elementary school for three or four years straight I won the award for having read the most books. By fourth grade, I'd literally read every non-fiction title on the shelves. (That's what forced me to try some of that made-up fiction shit...)

    I have a weird theory (as usual) that dumping all that factual info into the brain early on created a sort of memetic critical mass: the brain tries to contextualize new information and store in in a sort of weblike ordering and filing system, and I wonder if it's not possible to load in SO much "stuff" that pretty much all of it winds up connected to other stuff, often in a monkey's fist of analogies and metaphors, so that no matter which "link" your thoughts go down, there's always a hundred obliquely connected memes branching from and to that bit of info.

    Weird stuff.

    And your Santa story reminded me of Barthelme's "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby":

    -- http://www.jessamyn.com/barth/colby.html --

    Yes, that was a compliment. Get over it.

  3. I can usually remember or predict where things are - uncanny at times - but my recall is shit. I can only remember things through repetition. And since I live with he of the photographic memory, who likes to watch endless repeats of his favourite movies (who doesn't?), I can now quote verbatim from both his movies and mine. :-D Books are a little more difficult. I may remember the title, but not the author, or vice versa. Maybe that's why I review books, it makes my retention that bit more adhesive.

    I know what you mean, Miss C., about the instant paragraphs popping to mind. I remember Bob driving us home from the weekly trip up to the post office, and I had a whole short story start unfolding in my mind, complete with opening paragraphs, etc. I held fast to those words and bolted out of the car and into the house, mumbling about having to get to my computer. Took me two hours, but I got it all in one hit, typing like the blue blazes. Sometimes this is triggered by something you see or overhear, or in this instance by theorizing a simple 'what if' question. :-D

    A new agey supposition, is that your spirit-guide is a literate type who isn't above giving you a slap upside the creativity now and then. :-D

    Oh, I loved my Scholastic books and the Book club ordering system in Grade school. They kept me sane, and I bought and read them by the dozen. :-D Faves still include: 'The Forgotten Door' by Alexander Key, 'Bettina's Secret', 'Lyrico', 'The Snow Ghosts', 'Blitz: The Story of a Horse', 'The Missing Persons League', 'Stranger From the Depths', etc. And those are the majority of the ones I have replaced. Big accident with my kids books when my parents moved house and states many years ago.

    PS: My Bob has a memory much like yours. Hopefully you'll get to meet him at Bouchercon. Look for the older long haired rock-star type. :-D

  4. Rebecca--"Mom... Dad... Greg's been *smoking*..."

    Brett--mon semblable, mon frere. I read everything in my grammar school and middle school libraries, so much so that I was reduced to reading the WWII-era National Geographic pamphlets about the countries of the world, near the end.

    Marianne--STRANGER FROM THE DEPTHS!! I love that book so much that I bought a copy off Alibris as an Xmas present for my daughter and niece to share.

  5. Huh? Nicky? Did I read correctly or do I need more coffee?

  6. That was my nickname in boarding school, after I got sick to the teeth of being called Corny, as a child.

  7. p.s. Brett, had I been Colby, I would've held out for Ives's Fourth Symphony. Or perhaps an Allman Brothers medley.

  8. I have the same total recall of mostly useless information. My husband calls me "The Mind of Minutiae." Whole blocks of dialogue, mostly from Mel Brooks movies, huge chunks of crime statistics to the point my captain thinks I'm making it up as I go along, but I can't remember people's names. It was better when I worked at the library - I'd get their card with the name, look at their face, and pretty soon the association stuck. Once I left the library, the skill atrophied. Now, It's lucky almost everyone in my world wears a name tag on their uniform.

  9. Love, love, love the Santa story ;-)

    And yes, I have brainwave weirdness....it not only includes phrases from books, TV, and film, but song lyrics. I especially enjoy it when they pop into my head during vile corporate meetings.

  10. Ren-Woman: Is there a situation in life for which there is lacking a chunk of appropriate Mel Brooks dialogue? I think not. ("Put. The Candle. Back.")

    Rae: I totally forgot about song lyrics. And exactly. The song lyric that occurred to me when I saw that chunk of essay about wheat bran on the SATs was "All Right Now," which has been a lucky anthem for me ever since.

  11. love the comic. It got me thinking though....do you think that, if starter husbands had full knowledge that that's what they were, they would behave any better???? Hmmm.

  12. Dear Nicky,

    Please finish up the short story--you had me so frightened at first that it was non-fiction that I saw myself firing the elves and having placement bureaus vette new ones. Reindeer, as are little children, are very good with mustard.


  13. Some good memories here, Nicky. And wasn't it Curley in OF MICE AND MEN who put vaseline in a glove and wore it so that his hand would be soft for his new wife?

    I'm also reminded of the newlyweds who didn't know vaseline from putty.... (All of their windows fell out.)

    Sometimes I'm referred to as a walking encyclopedia of petty and useless information. Not sure if it's meant as a compliment or....

    Tom, T.O.

  14. I'm not sure what to do with the short story, now that Santa's dead. It seems like the rest would be backstory, unless it becomes the chronicle of how the elves and the carnivorous reindeer take over the TriLateral Commission or something, which is a bit paranoid even for me. (totally agree about the mustard, BTW).

    And Tom, it was indeed Curley, though I always confuse him with Candy until I Google it. I love the windows story.

    Sophie, I think when we start referring to them as our "first husbands," they either get a clue or they get billed for child support. At least in Cornelia's Islamic Republic.

  15. I have yet to find a situation for which Mel Brooks is not appropriate. Do I need help? "Oh....all I can get." Unfortunately, I work with people who were born after Men in Tights came out, and as such, have no friggin' clue what I'm talking about. I get the same eye-roll from the nephews, as in, "Auntie is SOOO old..."

  16. I'm thinking those nephews need a little Mel indoctrination--perhaps a boxed set of "Complete Brooks" DVDs for the holidays?

    Co-workers are tougher... not sure how to tackle them.

  17. Many of the things you describe happen to me all the time (particularly where odd words or phrases will get stuck in my head, like there's a three-year-old living in there who thinks they're absolutely fascinating, and I can't get them out), but of course, at the moment I can not think of a single example.

    Someday, perhaps months from now, one will occur to me and I will come back here and leave a comment that no one will read, but I will feel better.

  18. One word for you: tempura. Every time I read your blog, I think of the elderly Japanese waitress in Syracuse who always sang that out like it was Wagner or something, when she put the plate on our table.

    That's probably not an example you were thinking of, but my interior three year old digs it.

  19. It's probably best not to tackle my co-workers. They're all armed, and carry handcuffs. It would look bad to have the crime analyst in custody.

    My interior person is much older than I am, and much more rational. He usually manifests himself when I'm in the middle of a PMS rant, and says very calmly, "why are you yelling? this doesn't usually piss you off." He's also the voice that tells me I'm about to iron my thumb at zero dark thirty in the morning, and then tells me to take the iron OFF my thumb after I've already burned the hell out of it. I hate him sometimes.

  20. Okay, now I'm going to be mentally singing "Tempura: The Opera" every time I go for my dinners. Imaginary earworm!

    By the way, I'm kind of thinking of a Lord of the Flies type thing for your story. Reindeer head on a pole, anyone?

  21. Blue Ribbon for Meg! I love that book! Do you remember Scholastic's Three Loves Has Sandy about a tomboy who gets the cute new guy from the West because she's not angling for him? The bit that always stuck in my mind was that if you could carry off an unusual color or cut or style, you should wear that. This passed for philosophy back in the day. Maybe it is.

    I totally know what you mean about channeling. With me it's like I hear words and phrases bubbling up from some deeply buried spring. But I have to listen or they float away. It also happens to me when I'm doing public speaking. Those are always the best descriptions, arguments, etc.

    And you have to finish fat Santa!

  22. You're not alone. Not only can I retain where the car keys are but I can retain scraps and bits of mundane conversations from like 20 or 30 years ago. Not only that but I can tell you what the temperature was like or what smells were happening at the time of that conversation.

    I get tons of dialogue coming at me in the midst of routine tasks. What's even worse, I find myself saying it out loud. I'll see the beginnings of some story like it's a vision. I wonder if they've done any studies of the writerly brain.

  23. C, funny you should mention that episode:

    Me, at night, to my 3-year old: What was the best part of your day, honey? (IE our standard day-closer question)

    3 year-old: Watchin' that Brady smokin'.

    Mind you, we had had ICE CREAM and PONY RIDES and BIRTHDAY PRESENTS that day, or some such.

  24. So that explains
    Late this morning
    About the middle of the night
    Two dead boys got up to fight
    Back to back they faced each other
    Drew their swords and shot one another.

    A deaf policeman heard the noise
    And came to arrest the two dead boys
    If you don't believe this story is
    Ask the blind man - he saw it too.

    Memory Lane - a very crowded avenue.
    Judy Hamburger