I Don’t Forget You

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click to hear: I don’t forget you

Russia Hotel, Tzaghkadzor, Armenia.  The guests line up for the nice buffet breakfast. Queuing up is not such a strong tradition in Armenia, and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. “Sorry, were you next?” “Voch-eench,”–“it’s OK, whatever.” “Voch-eench” is a kindly, assertive caption to a small favor. The closest translation may be “forget-about-it.”

Tell me about it–I’m wired to forget no less than most folks I know. There is some comfort in a handful of neuroscience papers attesting that my brain has a dedicated, calorie-consuming, forgetting system, somehow promoting my survival. So it’s not just entropy: every day, on some sub-conscious bridgehead in your brain, without so much as a “Let it be so,” a switch gets thrown, another memory is jettisoned. image image

Emotions, especially strong, negative ones, have a way of tying a double-knot on memories. Perhaps the trickiest memories our forgetting system has to deal with are the ones laced with fear. In neurology, we get to meet people whose forgetting system has gone haywire tangling with fear-laden memories. These are people with Conversion Disorders–apparently neurologic incapacities that are based in “psychological problems.” Back around 1880, the French neurologist Charcot couldn’t show Freud where the brain lesion was in patients with “hysteria,” which seems to have been a similar condition. Like twins separated at birth, the two parted ways, and left two schools in their wake: neurology and psychiatry. We neurologists still commemorate that historical split by drawing an imaginary line around Conversion disorders, saying “that’s not neurological, that’s mental, that’s a case for Freud”–we somehow forget that Conversion Disorder is still a brain disorder.

People with Conversion Disorder are not fools, and they are not lying. In a contest between some horrific memory (or in some cases, some dreadful prospect), and forgetting, their brains are simply unable to announce a winner. The inner waffling short-circuits volition, self-control. The prescription: remember history, what you dread, lest it repeat itself, ever biting back.

History can be a difficult topic in Armenia. After a month here, it’s clear that the citizens don’t forget the massacres and atrocities to which their hundreds of thousands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, were subjected in 1915, just a few generations ago. Next door, in Turkey, denial of this genocide is wired into national policy. Meanwhile, an increasing number of vocal Turks are challenging this systematic forgetting.

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke that for some people, denial is a river in Egypt. How to paddle up that river with the deny-er? As a neurologist, I tread lightly, and try not to confront my patent’s denial too forcefully: some deep instinct to forget is at work. We neurologists are all over the place in how effectively we respond to the blunt inconsistencies of patients with Conversion Disorder: we disdain, we lose trust, we dismiss, we condescend, we stumble. We somewhere wish that memory was all-or-nothing, forgetting the kaleidoscopic, incremental thing that it is.

Perhaps some day the writing of history will be a joint venture, and the authors will reconcile their varying needs to forget, to remember, to celebrate love, to reckon with dread. Such collaboration doesn’t come easily. One neurologist had a suggestion for how to help the person with Conversion Disorder: gently point out inconsistencies. “Look, you moved your leg just now, when you couldn’t move it before!” As though we could guide reconstruction, support bridge-building back to integrity. But even with the best intentions, we often lose these patients, having again, 130 years since Charcot, failed to find the lesion in our clinical laboratory. We see their anger as they walk out the door, feeling misunderstood, judged. A sad little microcosm of misunderstanding, we make. Forget the damn lesion, Charcot.

Once, I heard someone’s intelligence complimented with the backhand: “that guy forgot more than I ever knew.” I am still working on my forgetting skills. They lack a certain … je ne sais crois.

Sides’chun for now!

Song: I don’t forget you (recorded at Russia Hotel, Tzaghkadzor, 2/22/13.)

New Vibrations

As a newer, if temporary, citizen of Armenia, I now clean my windows with Barf. And so would you, seeing it is clear, and blue, and issues reassuringly in a cleansing spray once you squeeze the toggle. A truly Windex-ical odor emanates. image
I think Shakespeare was wrong when he said “a bottle of Windex by any other name would smell …” … like this. For when I Barf my windows, packaging counts, and the rest of my brain bullies my visual cortex, telling it to check for streaks of partially-digested cellulose and … I won’t go there. It would be rude to divert your phoneme-deciphering cortex towards your own Barf-associations! But when you come to Armenia, my Barf is your Barf!

This is a lexical universe with few parallels. By accident, some words bear a sympathetic resonance. The mellifluous yoga teacher, says “shad lav” (how could you say very good any better than that?) in her mellifluous tones. After a long, muscle-searing routine she says “park-ek.” We all go prone. I think “yes, park it.” In this way a growing posse of words have run their semantic wagons down my cerebral tracks often enough for me to wave at the driver as they pass by–at medical interviews, on the sidewalk, at dance class, broadcasts, and as I strain to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations on the pretext of increasing my cultural competence. Here, I want all the neuro-plasticity I can get. And not only the phonemes, but even the figures that represent them, that I would use to understand Armenia, its doctors, and families, the relationships between them, are taking ahold of my synapses. This is a semaphore rooted in a very different soil.

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I’ve heard of “smart homes,” and “smart buildings,” but until I moved to Parpetsy Street, I never considered having a conversation with one. Our top floor apartment speaks to us in a litany of tones that suggest a mysterious sophistication; Dana has learned to respond to our apartment’s various phonemes, uttered from the pipes that are its circulatory and digestive system. With circadian regularity, somewhere between 10 and 11PM, our little building shudders its palate like it was clearing its throat, then enters into soaring hoots like a baby humpback. Most of its sentences wrap up with a plaintive staccato of stuttering valves. Dana has a way with languages: she goes and turns the faucet on, then off again … quiet. We & the building thus re-gain mutual acceptance. Such is our marriage to our Yerevantsi home.

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Could you repeat that please?

There was a joke around Dana’s house–the platoon got to know each other’s jokes so well, that each joke had a number. Just say “73” and everyone would laugh. Once, some poor schmuck said “37,” and couldn’t get a laugh. “Whatsamatter?” he whined. “You didn’t tell it right!” I still chuckle at that joke, which is the point: we can’t (most of us) tickle ourselves, because our brains automatically anticipate our intention, and attenuate the self-directed tickle, the “joke” we would tell ourselves (cynical little hypothesizing neurons!). Yet we can get around those little sensory attenuators using phonemes, and crack ourselves up with the same joke over & over again. At least I can. You still there?

bye for now,
and sides’chun,
Peter

A Little Test of Time

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My dad used to joke that death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down, but I think it’s pomegranate. God was in a sensuous mood when he created this fruit. Big, intense red, vaguely irregular in profile, at first blush, the pomegranate will tell you a lot of things besides just slow down. To cut through it is to meet a few dozen minor disagreements, as your blade makes its way around the chaotic fascia. Now hold the halves in your hands, and regard the cloven surfaces: you have just driven a bulldozer through a hillside favela. Now, it is time to address those shiny red seeds, dressed to kill. This is no time for speeches. I surrender all dignity, using my teeth to deliver the seeds from their natural habitat.

Having spent several afternoons in Yerevan pediatric clinics, I have tried to slow down, an intention supported by the consideration that I understand approximately every 11th word of the conversation. To get to one clinic, I take one of the walkways up the hill that surrounds the city’s heart, and salute Mother Armenia, who watches over Yerevan, holding a sword like it was an M-16.

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A 6 year old boy with speech delay sits by his mother through a 25 minute interview about his epilepsy. Normally he is pretty hyperactive at appointments, yet today he is somehow unusually quiet. He and I are joined in a silent movie, for the talk is going over our heads. Not a bad way to relate to someone though, to be restricted to their actions rather than their words.

Back home, I will often introduce the notion of “Theory of Mind”–what autistic individuals lack–by asking a student to picture a silent film: see how the players anticipate each other’s action, as though they are judging each other’s intention. Barring slapstick comedy, where bodies become things, we inevitably participate in the pleasant contagion of mind-theorizing, because our survival depends on the slow, iterative process of matching utterances to actions, of deducing what’s on the minds of our co-habitants. For this reason, I doubt that “If lions could speak, we could not understand them.” This is a jaunty, mistaken aphorism if I ever heard one, and if I get the chance to converse with a lion, I’m sure not taking Wittgenstein’s word on the prospects for successful communication.

The boy finally gets up, walks to the door, exits into the busy hallway outside of the exam room, closes the door. The interview continues without missing a beat. In a minute or so he returns, closing the door, his hand grasping the doorknob with exquisite deliberation. Two minutes later, he does the same round trip, and again both the physician and parents continue, mindful, accepting of these little tests of time.

On my return home, I see Mother Armenia again, but this time she can’t anticipate my approach. I’ve got your back, Mother. How nice to be seen, then unseen; to slow down, to witness actions before hearing words.

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Early Milestones

The Flight
I flew over and through Europe without inwardly casting a single aspersive stereotype on these nice people. With a 10 hour stop in Vienna, I took comfort from the incisive air at the Music Museum. It’s true I did (silently) sneer at the 8th grader interactives, though I did learn, if I can believe the museum, that my hearing cuts out at ~12’500 Hertz (Heinrich happened to be German). Over at the massive Kunsthistoriches museum, I peered for a few hours at the endless gilt-framed images of satyrs, saints, breasts, and swords rising up the 40 foot walls, and appreciated the egg-white patina on an impossible bunch of Flowers (in your dreams, Durer).

Although the train ticket lady failed to point out that there are TWO train lines to the city ( I had to pay twice), and even though the museum ticket guy forgot to give me the barcode stub that gets you through the seeing-eye entry gate, I didn’t take their inattentiveness as Austrian disdain, as I once might have, but more as a kind of cultural shyness too easily mistaken as carelessness.

You know how traveling can bring that too-useful mental faculty of picture-completion right into the footlights. For example, your brain trips over itself to form an impression of what Austrians are like from  8 hours in Vienna. “Ah,” the brain says, “behold the Austrian, 1 part snippy hotelier, one part brawny museum guard of nerdly bearing, and one part Euro-groover wanna-be with cigarette!” I just tell my brain to shut up when it pulls that kind of stuff. I’m starting to get a grip on my inner shoddy puppet-maker.  

Yerevan
As of this first posting, I’ve passed several milestones of Yerevantsi citizenship: a second, 2-hour Armenian lesson with the wonderful Anahid (everbody is a “the” in this language–these folks are the definite article). Then, to the supermarket for some chocolate cookies, some chocolate milk, and a few other items (Dana hopped over to France my first week here for an International Comix Convention, which I consider to be pretty decent competition). So the cash register lady says, “do you have forty drams?” 

I like how the folks in the stores love to know to address me in english before I have said anything, even though I wear quite a fitting uniform for the streets of Yerevan: blue jeans, black loafers, black nylon jacket, and I’m a little bald (at least in my dreams). (When she was explaining Armenians to me, Dana used to say that all the men are either bald or have curly hair, which like many true things, is about 70% true). It’s OK if I fit their stereotype of an english-speaking person, I just want to know what the tell is. Is it my height, my facial bones, or the way I wander the store, studying everything as though I was a near-sighted entomologist?

Then, guitar-shopping, to replace the one I didn’t bring on the plane. (My oud fit nice & snug on the overhead rack, and I didn’t even have to execute my “indignant musician” scene with the cabin crew.) (Anyway, it needs some work) The people at Forte Music allow me to come, & strum, and go. I thank them for their patience: “Shnoor hagalyum tzer hamberatyunes.” I’ll have to check that with Anahid, but I said it with a smile, and they didn’t flinch. After a few visits to their nice store I have settled on a guitar–not even the most expensive one, which makes me feel very discerning.

But that’s not all- I went to the phone fixer, David, at “i-fix,” (Building #10, Tumanyan; addresses go by building–you find the building, after that you’re on your own), one of the hundreds of little computer stores of Yerevan, only this one is right next to the big authorized Apple retailer (Building #8, Tumanyan, which also contains some government offices). For a mere 10,000 Armenian drams ($25), David delivered my beloved iphone from jail, un-locking it without disturbing a bit of its memory! I have escaped from the digital grip of the multi-nationals (er, AT&T), hidden in the south Caucasus!  Then, Ermine, the Viva Cell lady on North Street, had me sign a contract that I COULDN’T READ IF I TRIED (this is a kind of obverse milestone), and sold me a Sim-card which fits nicely into the hitherto un-explored marsupial pouch of my iphone, so I can call Aram, and Offik, and Biayna, and Anahid, and Seda, and Raffi, and all the other friends I’m going to make!
Sidesuchun for now (that’s “bye for now!”)!