The Forgotten Places In Between

Growing up my family moved a lot, a whole lot.  I attended three different first grade schools.  I also went to three different schools for the seventh grade.  I was lucky enough to stay in one school for grades sixth, ninth and twelfth.   All the others I attended two different schools each year.  But it’s a freaky mathematical problem of memory to tell you the total number of schools I attended.  For example, the third seventh grade school was also the first eighth grade school.  I just can’t remember all the overlaps.  For many years I was sure I went to two ninth grade schools, but I can only remember one now, so I only count the one.  If I live long enough, I wonder if I will forget them all, except the school of my last memory?

I’ve lost a school somewhere.  I know I lived in South Carolina twice, I just can’t remember when in my early timeline the first time was.  I can’t even remember if I went to school or not at the time.  I don’t remember going to school, which might means it was before I was five, but then we might have only stayed there during a summer.  It’s just forgotten.  I hate that my memory is as holey as Swiss cheese.

The lost memories I miss the most at the moment are the forgotten streets between favorite place memories.  Often I can remember two places but for the life of me I can’t remember how I got between those two places, even when I traveled those forgotten streets hundreds of times.  The haziness hurts.  I often have dreams of losing my way to places.  In real life I’ve always had a great sense of direction, loved maps, and never had trouble getting around.  But I’m always lost traveling between my memories.

For example, my last school was Miami Killian Senior High.  I started there sometime in the eleventh grade, but I’m not sure when, but probably sometime in early 1968.  My family had moved from Coconut Grove, where I was attending Coral Cables Senior High, to live in South Miami Heights.  I have a vague memory the address might have been 1234x South West 188th Street.

Now here’s one of my in between memory problem.  Each day, for over a year, I went to school at Miami Killian, then went to work at the Kwik-Chek back in the Coconut Grove, then drove back home to South Miami Heights at night.  That’s a lot of driving.  I don’t remember owning a car, not until later.  I remember borrowing my parent’s cars sometimes.  I remember hitch-hiking sometimes.  I remember riding the buses sometimes.  I remember getting rides sometimes from my parents or friends.  But I don’t remember going between those three places, and the routes I took.  I’ve forgotten all the places in between being at home, being at school and being at work.

In the forty-five years since, all those in between memories have been erased.  I wasn’t paying attention, so I don’t remember when.  I do know about fifteen years ago going back to Miami and getting my old pal Connell to drive me around to all those locations, my house, school and work.  This was thirty years after the fact.  Everything looked different, if not unrecognizable.  For the life of me, I couldn’t have found my way between any of those three locations on my own.  And I had driven them hundreds of times in the distant past.  I had walked along those street hitch-hiking, or waiting on buses.  Those streets should have been burned into my mind.

I’ve been thinking about this for years.  It bugs me I can’t remember how I got between memories.  It bugs me that my memories are like little fluffy clouds separated by a mysterious void.

Think about it.  How many in between places can you remember?  I’m guessing you lucky folks who grew up and lived one place your whole life, that you didn’t forget the in between places.  But maybe not.  Let me know.

I still have a lot of memories.  Places where I lived.  Places where I worked.  Homes of friends and families.  Schools, libraries, favorite places to shop or eat.  But here’s the thing – I’ve forgotten all the places in between.  And in a few cases, I’ve forgotten some of the the places too.  That a primary location has melded in with the forgotten in between places.

I’ve always been fascinated by the brain, the mind and memories.  We can think of ourselves as a computer and we’re born with a hard drive of limited capacity.  That old saying that we only use 5% of our brain is pure bullshit.  We fill our brains pretty damn fast, and somewhere inside of our heads are subroutines to delete old memories to make room for new ones.  I don’t think it’s ever a conscious decision about what we get to keep.  What’s strange is the mental mechanism is not perfectly efficient.  How often has an old memory popped up, one you haven’t thought about in decades?  We’re lucky to have those little surprised memories, because somehow they’ve been saved from the memory munching recycling program.

Sometimes I fantasize about being a robot that can control and manage all its memories.  But even robots would have limited storage space to save daily experiences.  That’s the difference between robots and people.  We aren’t told when a memory is going to be thrown away, but a robot will have to decide for itself.  I guess when we’re sleeping, when we’re dreaming, our brain decides what to overwrite.  Think of all those thousands and thousands of 9 to 5 work hours, of zillions of dish washing hours, or times mowing lawns, or studying algebra.  Our subconscious mind finds so much we do easy to forget, and I’m glad of that.  Who’d want to remember everything?

So why does it trouble me that my soul has thrown out all the brain recordings of going between places?  Why do I ache to remember them so much?  I’m a linear person and just want to remember my life as one long path.  Instead it’s a jumble of puzzle pieces.  

What if our brains, or even robot brains, worked like DVRs, and recorded over the oldest memories first.  We’d all slowly forget our earliest years and we’d have a constantly growing stretch of amnesia to ponder.

No, we have selective forgetfulness.  And evidently, a choice space to erase are the memories of traveling between our strongest memories.  So in the end, all we have left is isolated islands of strong memories.  And, we don’t even get to keep all of them.  Even my essential memories of places I cherish most, are being eroded by my dreaming mind’s memory mulcher.

Damn analog mind.

It’s a good thing we’re evolving digital minds.  Robots will have different memory management than we do.  They will be able to compress and store their memories more efficiently, and even off-load them for long term storage.  Can you imagine being a robot and replaying a day from a century ago?  Right now, it would be nice to load up a memory of my trip to school one morning back in 1968, then play the trip from school to work, and then from work to home.  I made those trips hundreds of times, it would be nice to remember some of them, even one of them.


The mind is a marvelous thing.  Like the old adage, ask and receive, a memory has just floated to the surface as I wrote this blog.

I even remember the road’s name, Old Cutler Road.  I remember driving home in the dark after work, after 10pm and listening to “Hey Jude” on the AM radio.  I remember singing along and banging my hands on the steering wheel.  “Hey Jude” came out August 26, 1968.  I remember the windows being down and muggy cool air blowing over me.  I remember being dirty and sweaty from work, and the air cooling it clean. 

My last job every night at the Kwik Chek was to sweep and mop the floor, and then burn outdated food in the incinerator.  I’d always buy two 16 ounce Cokes to drink on the way home because I was so thirsty.  I always guzzled the first one as I left the building, and then nurse the second one on the ride home.  I love the drive home, going through old Coconut Grove, driving through mostly dark back roads, sometimes smelling the ocean by Matheson Hammock in the distance. 

I loved listening to the radio, because 1968 was a great time for music.  I’d constantly switch between WQAM and WFUN.  My mind was very active on the drive.  I was always hyper after getting off work.  I was sixteen and thinking about a girl name Nancy Morris that I went out with some.  But I also thought about my friend Connell who worked at the Kwik Chek too.  But these imagined thoughts are just speculation.  I have no memory of thinking anything particular.  But I do remember I loved being alone driving through the darkness, with the radio cranked, blasting out “Hey Jude” and drinking my Coco Cola.

Thank you subconscious, thanks for saving that one memory.  In case you recycle that space, I have it here.


JWH 3/8/13

Am I Losing My Memory?

This morning I got the idea of writing an essay about how there are generations of popular writers in all genres.  I had been looking at lists of bestselling science fiction books on the web and I was surprised by how most of the authors were unknown to me.  Obviously a newer generation has supplanted all the popular writers I once knew.

I figured at any given time there are a cadre of top writers whose names come to mind when people think of science fiction writers.  Because I’m 61, I’m tied to the past, and think of SF writers long dead, and maybe forgotten, or never known to new readers.


Think of it this way, the stars of Hollywood in the 1930s would be much different from the stars of the 1950s or the 1990s.  That people would think of the rock stars or baseball stars of the 1960s as a different generation or group than those of the 1980s.

I grew up reading science fiction in the 1960s, and Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were the SF stars of that era.  Who are the science fiction writing stars of the 2010s?

Now here’s where I lose my memory.  I thought of writing an essay about how Heinlein rose to fame and then show how his fame diminished over time.  I got some ideas about how to start the essay and decided to check on some facts I knew I had written about before.  Then I found:  “The Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and The Fading of the Final Frontier” by James Wallace Harris.  That’s me.

I had completely forgotten I had written that essay.  Not only that, but when I reread the essay it covered ideas I wanted to write in the essay I was imagining.  What’s even scarier is I think the earlier essay had some better ideas that really impressed me.  They didn’t even seem like my ideas.  I had forgotten this essay so well that I could admire the writing like it was written by someone else.  That feels weird.

Now is this common for writers to forget what they’ve written?  Or am I suffering a side-effect of getting old?

I had already written the title for the new essay, “The Rise and Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and His Vision of Science Fiction.”  Very similar to the earlier title.  Now, it was going to be a different slant.  I wanted to capture the flavor of science fiction that Heinlein and others created and show how that’s changed.  1950s and 1960s SF feels very different from 2000s and 2010s science fiction.  That was going to be a lot of work, and I wasn’t sure how I could do it.

If I had unlimited time, I would describe how Heinlein saw space travel in the 1950s, and compare it to how science fiction writers in the 2010s see space travel.  I may have had that idea before.  I don’t remember.  I think of ideas to write about all day long, and forget them just as fast.  But that was true in my teens so I don’t think it’s an age issue.

Memory is such a weird thing.  Back in the 1960s I swear my best friend Connell bought a book Birds of Britain by John D. Green, now a collector’s item.  It was a photo book of British girls during the Mod era.  Today Connell swears he doesn’t remember ever seeing such a book.  Just now I watched an episode of The Twilight Zone about three astronauts coming back from space and how each of them slowly disappears from people’s memories.  Reading my own essay that I had forgotten felt like being in The Twilight Zone.

For all I know I could have written this essay before.

The public is forgetting my favorite writers.  I forget my own writing.  Memories are fleeting.  They’ve always have been.

JWH – 1/29/13

How Good is Your Visual Memory?

I recently read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks and I can’t stop thinking about it.  Sacks is professor of neurology and psychiatry that writes about medical oddities relating to cognition.  The Mind’s Eye is about all aspects of vision and how it impacts the brain, our behavior and our perception of reality.

I’ve always assumed I was an average person, with average abilities, so that I was smarter than some, but dumber than others.  That I was stronger than some, and weaker than others.  I’ve always assumed I fit comfortably in the middle of the bell curve of what it means to be human, and thus assumed what I see and feel is pretty much what other people see and feel.  Reading Oliver Sacks proves that assumption completely wrong.


We all see the world drastically different, both at a physical level and at a conceptual level.  People aren’t a homogenous species.  If you’ve watched the recent Olympics you know what physical extremes exists.  Reading Oliver Sacks will illustrate the cognitive extremes.

Even in the snug middle of the bell curve, we’re all very different.  In the last chapter of The Mind’s Eye, Sacks writes about blindness and talked about his essay on John Hull, author of Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness.  Hull wrote about losing his sight, and slowly forgetting all visual memories until years later he reached what he called “deep blindness.”   Hull blew my mind, when he wrote that he felt deep blindness was a richer state of mind. 

In his essay on Hull, Sacks seem to imply this was how blindness worked in general.  Later he was surprised by all the letters he got from blind people explaining how their blindness had not worked that way.  He soon learned there was an array of human responses to going blind.

From this Sacks wrote about visual memory.  Sacks himself discovered he himself had poor visual memory when he took a lizard skeleton to his mother and she visually memorized it by turning it 360 degrees, stopping each 30 degrees to memorize that view.  She was a surgeon and had expected her son to be a surgeon too, but when she realized he didn’t have her visual memory, she told Sacks he shouldn’t go into surgery.  I suggest you find a copy of The Mind’s Eye and read the whole chapter rather than me paraphrasing it all, because it has an astounding amount of information about visual memory to contemplate.  Especially the stories about blind people who still feel they live in a visual world – an artificial reality inside their heads.

Like Sacks I have poor visual memory. Sometimes when I listen to music with my eyes closed, I’ll have flashes of visual scenes, but I have no control over them, and they last so little time I can’t study their details.  People with great visual memory can study their mind’s image and draw them.  A stunning example is Stephen Wiltshire, who draws Rome from one helicopter ride.  (See other videos here.)

If I was to go blind, I assume my experience would be pretty much like John Hull, and I’d eventually forget my visual memories and end up in deep blindness.  But thinking about this, I wondered if I couldn’t exercise my visual memory, like doing push-ups to make my arms stronger, and develop my visual memory.  After I read the last chapter in The Mind’s Eye I started paying more attention to visual details and became fixated on a church steeple I see on my drive to work, atop Audubon Baptist Church.  I drive by a 8:25 in the morning when the sun is behind me and there is no shadows, and again at 1:55 when I’m returning from lunch, and it does have shadows.

The first time I noticed this steeple after reading the book, I tried to memorize as much as I could when I was at the light near the church.  The steeple sits on a peaked A-shape roof.  The steeple has four parts, a square based with one round window per side, an eight-sided level above that with large rectangular windows, an even smaller level above that with wooden shudders, again eight sides I think, and a tall steeple that comes to a very sharp point.

When I got back to work the first time I tried to draw it from memory.  But I didn’t have any visual memory.  I remember the peaked roof, the four sided box, an eight-sided box on top of it, and another eight-sided box on it, and then the steeple, so I tried to draw those geometric shapes.  It was a terrible drawing because I tried to draw all the sides.  The next time I drove by I studied it again and realized, duh!, that I only see one side of things, and only a portion of the geometric shapes, and from a certain angle.  I had started my drawing with an 3d octagon wire shape, and that’s a conceptual view, not a visual view.  So if I’m looking from the side, I’ll see one side of the 4 sides, and 3 sides of the 8 sides, and essentially a very long triangle.

To test my memory just now I found a picture of the church on the web and it’s nothing like what I remember seeing.  For some reason I remember the church as having wood siding, and it’s brick.  I did remember the wooden slates on the third level, but I didn’t remember the tall windows of the second layer.  I’m no Stephen Wiltshire.

I remember having a much better visual memory when I was young and smoked pot.  Oliver Sacks said he experimented with large dosages of amphetamines when he was young and for a few weeks could draw quite well, especially from his visual memory.  After he stopped taking the drugs he lost all ability to draw.  The poet W. H. Auden took Benzedrine to write poetry, because it helped him to concentrate intensely on detailed verbal imagery.  I assume drugs in each case helps tune out larger reality so we can zoom in on a single tiny aspect, which helps the brain focus.  But can visual memory be enhanced without drugs?

I’m pretty sure it can because of my experiment with looking at the church steeple.  If I studied that steeple every day, and tried to draw it every day, and checked my errors every day, I’d learn about seeing and drawing, but I don’t know if I would have a better visual memory.  Many of the blind people Oliver Sacks wrote about, have extremely detailed inner worlds.  They know they aren’t accurate compared to the outer world they can’t see, but they are very functional models and maps that help them live and work in reality.  One blind man even re-shingled his own roof, freaking out his neighbors because he worked at night.  Another could design machinery with his inner sight.

I think when I have flashes of visual memory it’s more like dream memory.  I have very vivid dreams, but sometimes I’ll have microsecond flashes of dream memory when I’m awake.  When I took drugs when I was a kid, some of those memory flashes would last seconds.  I remember one of flying over the Golden Gate bridge, as if I was a bird, or riding in a helicopter.  Often my flash memories are visions from great heights – and I can’t explain that.  A person with good visual memory could retain those images in their mind.  I can’t.  My memory of them are more like wordy descriptions, which probably explains why I write rather than paint.

I’ve always been impressed by 19th century scientific drawings.  Drawing was an important skill to a scientist.  I don’t know if this meant they had good visual memory, or just a good eye for detail.  And that makes me wonder if I developed an eye for detail would that enhance my visual memory?

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctionsmoon-drawing

I’ve always wondered if painters had to paint 100% of what they put on canvas while observing their subjects, or did they paint some of their pictures from memory.  Often when I look at photographs I think I remember in great detail, I’m shocked to find my memories are either wrong or just fuzzy smudges at best.  People with perfect visual memories are often autistic.  Temple Grandin, a famous autistic person, profiled by Oliver Sacks and featured in the wonderful HBO movie of the same name, thinks in visual imagery.  I’ve many times wondered if animals, who don’t have our language skills, think in pictures too.

To be honest, I believe I have a poor visual memory because I go through life not paying attention to visual reality.  My life is books and words.  I think in concepts.  And I wondered if John Hull felt deep blindness was more rewarding because it allowed him to focus more intensely on concepts.  Now, I have no desire to go blind, but I can imagine after reading Sacks, that blindness isn’t the sensory depravation I once thought it was.

Also, I wonder if I can improve my current abilities.  The cliché is your hearing and touch senses improve if you go blind, but do you have to go blind to improve your other senses?  Can one enhance all our senses, or is their a limitation in brain processing?  Because I’m getting older and my memory is failing, I pay attention to all that advice about improving memory.  I started playing Words with Friends.  I used to be terrible at Scrabble, but now I keep 6-8 Words with Friends games going and I can now beat people that used to always stomp me.

I’m confident if I got some drawing books and practiced, or even took some drawing classes, I could improve my drawing skills, but I also wonder if those skills would translate into better visual memory?  Is that a physical limitation – you either have it or you don’t?

How good is your visual memory?  Post a comment.

JWH – 8/11/12 

Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen

I’m going to review Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen in a strange way – by the way the Kristen Iversen taught me to write.  I took her Forms of Creative Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction Workshop back in 2003, and even then she was telling the class she was working on a book about Rocky Flats, a secret government site near where she grew up, that built nuclear bomb triggers.  I haven’t seen Iversen in all those years but I’ve been waiting for her book.  And it was worth the wait – it’s a disturbing story about seeking the truth – the best kind.

I discovered Full Body Burden was out when my sister-in-law, Natalie Parker-Lawrence, a more recent student of Iversen’s creative nonfiction classes, told me a month ago.  Natalie was so excited about Full Body Burden that she convinced our nonfiction book club to make it our book of the month.  It’s a great book and now I want to convince others to read it, but to review it requires my own personal story.


I had never heard of Creative Nonfiction before taking Iversen’s class.  On our first day of class she had us write 10 minutes about the first memory that came to mind, in a quick in-class writing assignment.  I wrote about fishing on a seawall in Biscayne Bay in Miami when I was 12, while staying with my grandmother.  My grandmother managed an old apartment building populated mostly by retired people and I had found an old fishing tackle box in an apartment I helped clean out.  In the fishing box was a switch-blade knife which I wrote about for my memory exercise.

Now here’s the thing about what I’m writing now.  I can’t accurately remember the exact assignment or words Kristen told us that day.  Nor can I remember exactly what I wrote, nor when I was writing the exercise, was I sure of my memories of that night on the seawall and the knife.  Kristen was using various kinds of writing exercises, memoir, personal essay, travel, etc., to teach us about creative nonfiction.  And there’s a real problem trying to distinguish creative nonfiction from regular nonfiction as a separate genre. 

Creative nonfiction goes beyond reporting the cold facts.  It makes them personal, but it risks the appearance of being subjective about objective reporting.  It pushes the limits of truthful accuracy, to tell the story in such a way, that feels even more true.  I still argue with my sister-in-law Natalie, who got her MFA in Creative Nonfiction about what exactly is creative nonfiction.  I’m a MFA dropout, so I have less authority, but I’m going to give you my take as part of this essay.

I don’t believe a story can be called creative nonfiction unless the story is pushing the boundaries of narrative techniques, otherwise it’s merely nonfiction, the old kind we’ve always been used to.  To understand creative nonfiction, think In Cold Blood by Truman Capote or The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, or more recently The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

My hard-to-put-into-words definition of creative nonfiction I acquired from Kristen Iversen is based on how the narrative is told, and I latched onto one particular technique as the defining style of creative nonfiction writing – and that’s when the author puts themselves into the story, and they reveal how they came to write the story as the story is being told.  I’m sure this is an extremely limited definition of creative nonfiction, but it just so happens to be how Full Body Burden is written.

Full Body Burden is a real bargain of a book, because you get two books in one.  First is Kirsten’s memoir of growing up and coming to terms with her alcoholic and distant father, and second, its the history of Rocky Flats, a dirty little skeleton in our government’s closet.  Either story is outstanding on its own.  Each is a compelling read.  Because Kristen grew up next door to Rocky Flats it might seem natural to tell the two stories together, and it totally is.  But in the old days of reporting a story like Rocky Flats, writers worked very hard to be impartial observers.   One of the revealing truths about creative nonfiction is learning that writers aren’t impartial, and letting the reader see our biases is very creative.

I love a category of story writing called meta-fiction.  Meta-fiction is fiction about fiction.  It’s recursive and self-conscious of its own techniques of telling the story.  I consider the best creative nonfiction to be meta-nonfiction.  One of the great themes of Full Body Burden is the impact of plutonium on our environment, and whether or not Rocky Flats is causing a rise of cancer and other strange diseases to the people who live near the plant.  Kristen can’t be impartial, because she and her three siblings all have strange diseases and cancers.

Iversen weaves her own personal biography into the history of Rocky Flats.  She even worked at Rocky Flats.  She interviews people that worked there, or so I would assume.  In every creative nonfiction narrative, how does the author get the information they state in the sentences they write?

This is one aspect of Full Body Burden where I wanted more, and this might be unfair to mention in this book review.  I still need to express it because writing this review explains why.  I wanted the full meta-nonfiction treatment.  Kristen is very open and revealing about her personal life, and she talks about becoming a writing teacher while all the events go on in this book, but she doesn’t tell us how she interviewed the people and how the book was written while the other two stories were unfolding.

We know why she wrote Full Body Burden because Rocky Flats is the biggest story in her life.  We know why she’s in the book, because if she had grown up in New York City or Miami as a different person, Kristen Iversen of Colorado would be a perfect person to interview for the story.  She’s actually a good character to tie the story around.  But I wished Iversen had gone one layer deeper.  She’s a fantastic writing teacher, so I wished she had covered how a writer writes about such a great story.  Of course she might have assumed most people aren’t interested in the mechanics of writing.

We know she worked on the story for 12 years.  That’s got to be fascinating by itself.  Am I asking too much by wishing I had gotten three books in one?   I do have Iverson’s Creative NonFiction textbook, Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.  If you’ve never heard the term “Creative Nonfiction” and read Full Body Burden and fall in love with it, you might want to pick up this book to understand why Full Body Burden is so good.

In class we often discussed how to be factual in nonfiction, how to tell the truth, when our memories, and the memories of the people we interview, are so vague.  Do we really know what we’re writing is true and factual?  How often in recent years have we heard about writers getting into trouble for fudging facts?  Because of Iversen’s lectures, the whole time I was reading Full Body Burden I kept thinking how did she get the quotes she gave.  How did she recall her family memories.  How did she know about what her sister was doing when she was on a date.  Did she remember what her sister told her at the time, or did she interview her sister decades later?  To many readers, this might be too tedious, but because I was Iversen’s student, I wanted to know.  But like I said, this is my own hang-up, but it’s a fascinating aspect of creative nonfiction, where telling the story becomes part of the story.

Iversen brings page after page of startling facts about how our government lied to us.  How it covered up its lies.  Most of the story is about the operation of Rocky Flats and  sinister dangers the Department of Energy (DOE) allowed to be inflicted on the citizens of Colorado.  The other story, and just as gripping to me, is how Iversen reveals a steady stream of deeply personal facts.  Her own coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s was so revealing that if the Rocky Flats story hadn’t been included, I would still consider Full Body Burden a great read.

Now again, I must reveal my own personal connection to justify that appraisal.  Kristen reveals how her father was emotional distant, about his decades of alcoholism and how it affected her mother and herself, how her dad almost killed her and her siblings in a drunk driving accident, how her lawyer father was regularly in trouble with the law for drunk driving and fighting with cops, how he ended up living alone driving a cab.   My parents were alcoholics.  My mother almost killed me and my sister in a drunk driving accident.  My father was distant and hard to know, worked all the time, and never made much contact when he was home.  My father also had run ins with the cops and ended up living alone driving a cab.

Not only do I have personal overlaps with Kristen’s story, I also have some overlaps with the plutonium story.  I was born in 1951 the year Rocky Flats was planned and conceived.  The year the Iversens moved to Colorado to live next to Rocky Flats, my family moved to New Ellenton, South Carolina to live near the Savanna River Site, another nuclear weapons site run by the DOE.  We also were told everything was safe there, but years later I learned that wasn’t true.  Growing up I was very pro-science, but in the mid-1970s I turned anti-nuke, attended lectures, joined No-Nuke groups, and read books on the dangers of living with nuclear power plants and weapon manufacturing.

It will take decades, if not centuries to learn all the consequences of our experiments with nuclear weapons and energy production.  Full Body Burden is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg, but it’s ever so scary.  Growing up I was told plutonium was among the most deadliest substances known, but from Full Body Burden we learn that potentially over a ton of it is missing and maybe spread around the Denver area, with similar radioactive pollution happening to many other sites around the country.  And all these sites still have huge stockpiles of radioactive waste that we just can’t deal with properly.

Full Body Burden is about the U.S. government covering up its mistakes with the justification of national security.  However, how many Americans will die from being nuked by their own government? Rocky Flats was a kind of dirty bomb.  So why isn’t this on national news?  That’s a good and tough question.  The insidiousness of plutonium is very hard to quantify.  I assume if data miners comb the medical records in America and compared them to all the people living near nuclear processing plants, they would eventually find statistical correlations that would show the impact of this poison, but for now the stories are all hearsay.

Full Body Burden is convincing evidence, but its like the legal cases Iversen reports on, not conclusive evidence.  Why aren’t there millions of cases of cancer directly linked to plutonium released around processing plants in America and the rest of the world?  Why isn’t Denver a hot zone?  Why aren’t people living near Rocky Flats all wearing dosimeters?

Well it’s all part of our huge experiment with impacting the environment.  How hot can we make it?  How much radiation can we add?  How many poisons can we add to the fish tank we all live in?  How many species can we push to extinction?  Just how much of the Earth can we trash before it all collapses?

If I didn’t have these overlapping experiences and beliefs would I love Full Body Burden as much as I do?  I don’t know.  It’s all about being creative nonfiction reader.  Not only do we need to know how the writer involved themselves in the story, we need to know what we the reader brings to the story when we read it.  I’m trying to be honest about why I liked this book.  If you’re coming from a different headspace you might not like this book at all.  On the other hand, the reviews have been pretty outstanding, just look at the quotes at Amazon.

Now there’s another aspect of creative nonfiction I should mention that makes it a more appealing read.  One of the techniques of creative nonfiction is to use writing techniques novelists use to write fiction.  This has gotten more pervasive in nonfiction writing as creative nonfiction techniques have spread to general nonfiction writing.  Look at this sample page:

Full Body Burden Sample 1 

It looks and reads like a novel.  For nonfiction, writing like this makes the story more gripping and appealing to read even though it’s presenting a lot of facts.  This is why The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are such wonderful books to read – they use the same creative nonfiction techniques.  All three of these women spent over a decade writing their books.  They could have used the same material to write novels, or journalistic, just the facts, nonfiction books.  Do you see what I mean when I say telling the story becomes part of the story?

Rebecca Skloot and Isabel Wilkerson each have websites that tell more about how they wrote their stories and this is very fascinating to me.  Not only can you read and watch videos about how the books were written, but you can follow along with reports of their successes.  Kristen Iversen also has such a web site and I expect it to grow as Full Body Burden becomes a huge success.  These three women have written the best books I’ve read in recent years, and strangely two of them, Skloot and Iversen, worked at the same English Department at the University of Memphis for awhile, teaching creative nonfiction.  Many people do not believe the creative nonfiction is a separate genre, but their success seems to prove otherwise.

JWH – 7/30/12

Throwing Away the Past

Have you ever found a pair of ticket stubs to a concert you went to a quarter-century ago when cleaning out an old drawer?  You hold in your hand proof that you were somewhere in the past at a certain time, and even what building, row and seat, and what you heard for a few hours.  Do you save the ticket stubs or toss them?  Maybe you could jot the info down in a journal, or make an entry into Facebook Timeline.  If you don’t, you’re throwing the past away.

I often throw my past away, and sometimes I regret it.  Saving the past takes work.  I turned 60 last year and my memory is in decline, so I often wish I had validation for lost memories.  But saving the past often feels like hoarding, and hoarding scares me because the weight of past can become paralyzing.  Some folks bury themselves in the past long before they die.

1939-05 - Dad at Homestead FL

Most people don’t have eidetic memories.  Have you ever wondered how biographers could write gigantic biographies of people who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago?  George Washington and Abraham Lincoln left big historical trails to follow, but most people leave few clues to piece together.  My father died when I was 19 and it took me years to realize that I knew nothing about him.  I had memories and a handful of photos, which I thought was all I needed, but when I finally got around to examining those memories I realized I had zip, nada, nothing.  I have no idea what was going on inside his head.  Like, what was he thinking on his graduation day in the photo above?  What did he hope to get out of life?

Recently I threw out decades of credit card bills, medical statements, receipts on big purchases, bank statements.  I knew if I wanted to I could recreate at least my spending and medical history with those clues, but in the end, I chose to throw them all away.

Who are we?  Are we what we think?  Are we what we own?  Are we what we did?  Are we what we love?  Are we what we hate?  I’m not a believer in the afterlife, but I wonder what it would be like, because if we went some place new do we throw out who we were on Earth?  Memories of my Dad are defined by Camel cigarettes and Seagram 7 bottles.  If my Dad can’t have his cigs and booze, can he be my Dad in heaven?  Or do they have bars and ashtrays on the other side?

And is that how the young man in the photo above expected to be remembered?  By his bad dying habits?

There was a period in my life where I fanatically collect LPs.  I had over a thousand of them.  Collecting and listening to music is what made my life good and meaningful.  I eventually sold or gave them all alway.  I only have one LP now.  Last year I had a fit of nostalgia for an album I heard in 1971 called Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blues Magoos.  It was never reprinted on CD.  I ordered a used copy off the internet and a friend gave me a turntable and I played that album a couple of times.   What I heard was not what I remembered from forty years ago.

It takes a great effort to recapture the past once you throw it away.  I know many people who never throw anything a way.  I knew a guy who claimed he had every book he ever bought and read.  I know that’s not true because he lent me a book and I never gave it back, and I’m sure I’m not the first.  I have a piece of his past – sorry about that Bob.  But is it a piece that matters?  And which pieces do?

Does the past matter?  I can go long periods of time without thinking about the past, but boy do I hate it when a memory pops up and I can’t place when and where I was.  It bums me out that I can’t remember one face or name from kindergarten through third grade.  I do remember returning to Lake Forest Elementary in my fourth grade year and meeting a girl name Helen and how it upset her that I didn’t remember knowing her from when we went to second grade together.  I can remember a few people from 5th and 6th grade.  That’s pitiful, ain’t it?  In all my K-12 years I can barely remember and name more than a dozen classmates.  Where did all those people go, I spent years with them.

Religious people agonize over being reborn after death – they just don’t want to let go, they’re just afraid of dying.  But I think we die every day, every moment, I think we’re constantly throwing away the past.  We’re new people every day.  We go to sleep every night and our brains housecleans the day’s memories and throws out most of them.  If we kept all our memories we’d be like hoarders buried under piles of useless crap.

But each night, and maybe not every night, the old noggin decides to keep a few bits of the past, so there’s a precedence for keeping some stuff.  I wish I had kept a diary and took more photographs throughout my life.  A case could be made that we should each be our own biographer, and maybe that’s the right amount of past to keep, what we could keep in one big book.  Our brains aren’t very good with details, so we should jot the important ones down and take a few snaps to document our lives.

Now here’s my wish.  I wish The Library of Congress would create a national digital archive where we could store our memoires, like a permanent blogging site that historians can depend on for mining memories about all of us.  I know most of our autobiographies will go unread, but they’d be there.  I’d love to read my father’s thoughts, and his father’s, and his father’s father, and so on.

There are things we do want to remember.  Most of the past we throw away, but maybe we should start throwing away a little less.

JWH – 3/16/12