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GP 7 February 2007: UnZipping Memories

Eatin’ in Eaton.  Our “High on the Hog” musings last week brought out all the carnivores, each with a wicked tale of indulgence that made the Seven Deadly Sins pale by comparison.  We liked best Chuck Wheat’s memoir of pig heaven: 

Remember the line from The Producers—where Mostel is cadging money out of one particular biddy (was it the delicious Estelle Winwood?) by playing “the contessa and the chauffeur?”  As I recall, they sit behind each other on folding chairs as he pretends to drive, leaning from side to side while he goes “vroom, vroom” until she leans up from her chair and says: “Marcello, you pig.  Stop the car.”  They leer and we laugh. 

Preble County, Ohio, just northwest of Middletown holds an annual pigfest in the town of Eaton.  The sponsors call it “Porkfest,” officially, but no one else does.  I loved it: a typical country fair plus pig races, displays of kids’ models of pigsties and other porky stuff, sows, boars and piglets dressed up in tutus or other costumes, the quintessential little town parade with every fire truck and big farm combine in the region, sometimes a Congressman strumming his uke while sitting atop a van, guys in fezzes driving tiny cars, floats from every kind of organization, high school bands plus always one from a Big Ten university, squads of tiny tykes with Olive Oyl legs shaking their pom poms and advertising Neva Jean’s School of Ballet and Baton Twirling, bevies of high school age corn-fed beauties (and they were!  Lovely; not fat but by no means anorexic) competing for the annual Pig Queen crown by publicly orating on “What pork means to me.”  And of course a day of pigging out on pork.  Barbecued chops, sausage, ham, bacon—plus all the typical country side dishes including 3-bean salad, and at least three kinds of fruit pie.  They’d stamp your hand your first trip through the line so you’d get seconds, thirds, etc., without having to pay again.  And the eating went on for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I got so carried away one year that I dressed up in a pair of bib overalls to go, wearing a straw hat with a big red button saying: “I love pigs."” My corporate comrades saw me and grinned, and my wife was appalled.  Maybe that’s why in m’dotage I don’t mind looking porcine.  Oh yes, Eaton also has an official appointed functionary:  its Town Clown.  Now that's a worthy ambition! 

Chuck’s a marvelous writer who’s mostly laid his pen aside.  Lazing today on the Virginia shore, he feels he no longer has to write about sloth.  Now he can simply enjoy it.  But the mention of pork, patronizing remarks about our fighting men or about our suffering manufacturing economy, a story about real trout stream fishing—all of these awaken his memories and his pen. That’s half of creativity—getting memory to come out of the closet. 

Flubber Flubbed.  Good memories, it turns out, are integral to happiness: their absence makes people uneasy and depressed.  One of our drivers in Dallas always told us that the duty of a good parent is to leave his offspring with good memories.  Then most everything else will take of itself. 

But, of course, there’s a host of memories out there that are simply nightmares that won’t go away.  Such is “The Flubber Fiasco,” which, you can be sure, has provided uneasy, restless sleep to the Hassenfeld family and Hasbro executives for more than 40 years.  All the various Flubber movies and Flubber souvenirs made fortunes aplenty for Hollywood and the toy industry in the latter half of the 20th century.  Except, that is, for one iteration of Flubber.  When Son of Flubber came out in the 1960s, Hasbro turned out a toy to capitalize on its popularity.  The company sold millions, but then had to do a recall when it was discovered to be mildly toxic.  What to do with the remains. 

First they were sent to the dump, but Hasbro had to take them back when the Mayor of Providence said they would not burn properly in the town incinerator.  Then they were dumped in Narragansett Bay.  But they floated around, and stiff fees had to be paid to the Coast Guard and fishermen to haul them in.  Finally they were buried beside a company warehouse.  But even today, hear tell, on a hot summer day Flubber remains ooze up through cracks in the parking lot pavement.  Flubbers gone awry, like all bad memories, just keep oozing to the surface. 

Forgotten and Remembered.  At any one time, neuroscientists, psychologists, and others are in debate about one aspect of memory or another.  Currently the moguls of memorydom are debating whether repression of memories (and the shrinks are usually talking about bad memories) occurs because the brain is hardwired to put bad memories on ice, well separated from the conscious mind, or whether such heavy-duty forgetting is an acquired habit picked up from a repressive society.  Most recently the Times discussed this duel in “A Study of Memory Looks at Fact and Fiction,” February 3, 2007.  Drs. Harrison Pope and James Hudson of Harvard come out against the wired brain, having authored several papers on repression.  Dr. David Spiegel out at Stanford, on the other hand, is more enamored of the connection between trauma and deep forgetfulness.  Ross Cheit at Brown maintains a Recovered Memory website and believes our ability to bury bad experiences goes beyond normal forgetfulness, suspecting a deep suppression mechanism. 

Repression.  The workings of the brain and the nervous system comprise the last great frontier in science, and nobody has gotten over the border.  There’s no clear conclusion here about the nature of repression, and the brain scientists are still sort of making it up as they go along.  We expect everybody is a little bit right.  There is a lot of normal forgetting going on, but some jamais vu (‘never seen’ extreme forgetfulness) goes beyond the ordinary.  Culture does urge us to tamp down a lot of stuff that happened before.  But there’s no reason not to suspect that the brain, in an act of self preservation, cannot short-circuit in order to ward off powerful, destructive encounters and memories.  Nor, we believe, should we just speculate that bad memories get put in a safe: probably lots of good stuff goes there as well.  Nonetheless, the current orthodoxy tends to deny the existence of repressed memories.  And Freud himself later had troubles with his own ideas about repression. 

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud pictured the ongoing conflict between the instinctual energies of the individual and the suffocating claims of society.  We subscribe to his observation.  Society is not about to let man get off the reservation, but psychic health demands that he try.  Some days man is in the saddle, free to act, think, and dream.  On others society rules, turning men into robots. 

Wish I Could Be There.  In his recent memoir, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, composer Allan Shawn helps us understand that repression, however it works, is of more than academic interest.  Shawn comes from a talented, troubled family.  His father William Shawn was longtime editor of the New Yorker, his brother Wallace is a playwright and amusing actor.  His sister Mary is institutionalized and autistic.  It’s fairly clear that the bemusing, somewhat removed Wallace has a screw, or at least a bolt, loose.  Allan is out front about his mass of phobias and the ways that they have gotten in the way of living.  At several times, he just wasn’t there: he was present and unaccounted for.  As the perceptive reviewer Mitchiko Kakutani makes clear in the Times (January 30, 2007), the repressive spirit of the Shawn household only exacerbated his family’s proclivities for phobias and worse: 

In addition, the Shawn household, with its emphasis on discretion and denial, seems to have been an “incubating environment” for future phobias, a petri dish of unspoken emotions.  The author’s father carried on a four-decade extramarital affair, and his reticence about his complicated double life (“it wasn’t uncommon for him to eat, or at least, attend four or even five meals a day to accommodate all the important people in his life”) created an atmosphere in which secrecy and repression flourished. 

In Search of Lost Time.  No one better explores the power of remembrance and the theme of memories recaptured than Marcel Proust.  In one of the most celebrated episodes in all of fiction, Proust partakes of a madeleine cookie which takes him back to childhood and opens up a flood of memories and sensations.  Proust believed that memory, the past, his rarified existence, even his asthma were integral to his creativity.  Literature is similarly strewn with examples of authors who were awakened by their intimations of the past.  To what extent, we may ask, is creativity all about overcoming repression and unlocking memory.  Part of our freedom is our ability to escape the present. 

The Nation in Gridlock.  These are not creative times in these United States.  Our leaders in Washington are still running on Cold-War ideas, even though terrorism, pandemics, and other quandaries have so altered the geopolitical battlefield that we look like we are playing a comedic Waltz of the Torreadors, the world no longer playing by our rules.  Businesses, bereft of ideas, are relying on cost-cutting, consolidation, and micromarketing to combat global competition, instead of brand new ideas and totally different products and services.  After a pause, R & D expenditures are finally recovering, but there is no assurance that will lead anywhere.  Our major drug firms, with outsized research expenditures, are not generating any new blockbusters, and their research pipelines have sprung a leak.  Neither big government nor big business is doing well.  They are caught in a time warp. 

Every day we can read about new merger and acquisition events driven by a flawed tax policy and by the appetite of investment bankers for gargantuan fees. This tendency distracts businesses away from the main chance, strategic alliances, that one of our colleagues talked about in “Free Association.”  We’re acting out outmoded ideas, frozen in the past. 

We are at a time in America where our leaders have an appetite for bad thinking.  The mistakes are not petty, and they come from all sides.  We are magnificently off course.  When we are committing such walloping whoppers, one can only wonder whether there is something in the air.  Are the atmospherics such that it’s just too hard to think straight? 

Baumol Seems Right.  We don’t hear much about William Baumol in the everyday press, but he’s the economic thinker who seems to have the right view of our predicament.  After 9/11, he was the fellow who worried that a risk-averse, play-it-safe cloud would descend on the land, exacting an economic price from us much worse than the fallout from the predations of terrorists.  That seems to have happened.  We’re tripping over each other trying to prevent untoward things from happening. See “The Danger of Playing It Safe.”  The brakes are on, and we don’t have the pedal on the medal. 

He thinks, as well, that a “touch of madness” goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship, something needed to get past our present drought of ideas.  The challenge is to unlock creativity, fueled by memories and madness, in order to get past our present psychologically repressive, anti-risk mentality.  But the times favor mental rigidity, even in our universities that would rather be politically correct than mentally agile. 

Is it possible that we suffer from self-imposed repression brought on by a fearful quest for security?  The trouble with minds in lockdown is that one is not just obliterating the past, but denying the present, and the future, as well.  We rely on our Cold-War programming, since we cannot rewrite our psyche’s software to meet the present circumstance. 

Nantucket Memories.  Almost into Sconset Village, on the road that comes over from Nantucket Town, past the airfield, and after Tom Nevers, you will find a boat 500 feet to the side, deserted, called Memories.  That’s what Nantucket is now, memories, because the island has lost its benign despot, Walter Beinecke, Jr., and the nouveau money crowd has turned a summer place into anxious cluster of cocktail parties.  Everybody of the old school has moved away.  Time and again in the 1990s one would meet old duffers on the plane who said this was their last trip to the island, because the place had become unmoored. 

On the Internet one finds that all sorts of people have preserved Nantucket in the closet of their minds.  One visitor has put her memories in a Golden Basket.  Ms. Alice Beers has idyllic thoughts about Sconset, which date back to the Spanish American War, in “Memories of Old Sconset.”  The memories have become much more important than the island itself. 

For Nantucket, and elsewhere, we need memories to fill in the blanks and stir the blood. 

P.S.  Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, who has spent a lot of her career looking at malfunctions of the brain, has now given herself over to the study of genius.  She got started on this in The Creating Brain.  She started out to be an English professor, so she must feel that she is coming full circle.  We suspect she will discover that the brain of the genius does lots of spontaneous rewiring.  She’s out in Iowa, next to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

P.P.S.  The Hassenfeld brothers have long been at the helm of Hasbro.  Last we looked, they had not made an agile adjustment to the world of electronic games and interactive media.  Copious cost-cutting has kept it going. 

P.P.P.S.  Our friend Tom Davenport’s Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning will soon be in the bookstores, and it’s worth a read.  Massive amounts of data are available today about virtually any problem we want to tackle.  Davenport samples the vast array of business applications where geeks are teasing insights from the glut of data through the use of mathematics and computers.  Though not emphasized here, government decision-making and operations will have to tune in to analytics to handle terrorism, pandemics such as AIDS, and a host of other immensely huge global challenges.  As we said above, they will not submit to Cold-War techniques.  On a global playing field, we are required to freely associate a 1,000,000 bits of knowledge from all about the globe, buttressing our intuition with an array of analytic tools.  Globalism requires a new epistemology and a whole new psychology. 

P.P.P.P.S.  In “What’s the Trouble?” New Yorker, January 29, 2007, pp. 36-41, the physician and fine medical writer Jerome Groopman looks at the medical decision-making process.  Necessarily, heuristics or mental shortcuts come into play, so that doctors on the line came up with quick diagnoses and reactions for life threatening situations.  Oft as not, this works out very well, but sometimes not.  Doctors, as he points out, make bad decisions when they too often reach a course of action based on what is usually true, or based on experiences with patients they have just seen, or based on considerations arising from their familiarity with or fondness for the patient.  Doctors, like politicians and businesspeople, have to deal with large amounts of data and somehow apply what they know in practical ways.  But distortions in the reasoning process, brought on by their brains’ unconscious wiring, can lead them astray.  Very aptly, Groopman looks further into physicians’ heads in How Doctors Think, due out in March.  We’re clear that Groopman knows all the symptoms of diseased thinking.  We don’t know whether he grasps the cure. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  One consequence of a risk-adverse, low-imagination mentality is that you are always responding to the wrong risks.  The Becker-Posner Blog, for instance, deals with our blinders about bird flu, which, apparently is a very real threat.  “There is also a psychological or cognitive impediment—an ‘imagination cost’—to thinking seriously about risks with which there is little recent experience.  Wishful thinking plays a role too.  There is the inverse Chicken Little problem: the illogical reaction that because the swine-flu pandemic never materialized, no flu pandemic will ever materialize.  Another example of wishful thinking is the argument that most people afflicted by the Spanish flu in the 1918-1919 pandemic died not of flu, but of bacterial diseases such as pneumonia that the flu made them more vulnerable to.  But, first, it is far from clear that ‘most’ died of such diseases, and, second, the current strain of avian flu appears to be more lethal than the Spanish flu.  Only about 1 percent of Spanish flu victims died, whereas 50 percent of known human victims of the current avian flu have died.”

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