Reflection 33: Memory Stick

December 5, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

I’m in the middle of transferring JPG files from my desktop to my laptop. I’ve got them in my memory stick. I am hurrying so to be ready to meet Diane who’s going to drive me to the ophthalmologist in Ellsworth. . . . Rinnggg goes the phone. Diane wants to know can we meet fifteen minutes earlier than we said? Sure, I tell her. Click. Now where was I? Transferring files. Memory stick. Which is . . . where? I go to my desktop. Not there. I go to my laptop in the other room. Not there. Recheck the desktop. Nope. Recheck the laptop. Nope. Around the phone? Nope. Dining room table? Nope. Scour my apartment. Nope. Almost time to go. I’m getting frazzled. I sit and think, picturing the memory stick. Small, black, with a neck strap, also black. My wall-to-wall carpet is midnight blue. That’s got to be it. I look under my desktop—Eureka! The memory stick isn’t in the USB port, so I figure I’d already copied the files. I paste them onto my laptop and I’m out the door.


That phone call and change in concentration cleared what I was doing from working memory (which holds onto details just long enough to get the job done). The thread broken, I couldn’t remember what I was doing or where I was when the phone rang. Whatever I’d been doing was on the verge of consciousness, but I couldn’t bring it back, so had to reconstruct it. Both computers were on, so I must have been using them to . . . Ah! Transfer those pesky JPGs. I must have put the memory stick on my lap to do something else, and when I jumped for the phone, it fell on the rug.  


Consciousness can be fragile unless you really concentrate. And even then there’s no guarantee you can resuscitate it once it’s gone. How many hours have I spent looking for my glasses? Which is why I wear them on a cord around my neck. People tell me they keep losing their cordless phones and have to look all through the house. I’ve finally learned to outsmart my forgetfulness by keeping a car key on my belt. Actually, two keys just to make sure one of them works. I still remember that sinking feeling when I’d leave the library at 11:00 p.m.—and find my keys in the ignition of a locked car in a cold parking garage. I’ve misplaced so many gloves that I’ve often worn a mixed pair, or only one. As a photographer, I’ve spent weeks looking for misplaced or misfiled negatives. I’d print them, and then they’d float off to negative heaven, never to be seen again.


I was a still photographer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the 1950s. In those days we used 4×5 film in Speed Graphics. You know, with black bellows, a sheet of ground glass in the focal plane, wire viewfinders, and shutters that had to be cocked before every shot. And flashbulbs, because the lenses were so slow. I often had to work fast at the leading edge of my concentration. I’d get poised to make an exposure. Have I cocked the shutter? Turned the film holder (it held two sheets of film, one on each side). Pulled the slide? Put in a new flashbulb? I’d done it all a thousand times, but I couldn’t be sure if I’d done it or not this time unless I checked at the last moment. I’d trained myself to perform the full routine automatically as soon as I’d made an exposure. But I did it all unconsciously so I never remembered that I had.


I recall one occasion when consciousness failed me in a very public way. I was assigned to photograph a brigadier (one-star) general speaking to a brigade. He was at a podium on a stage, so I clambered up on the stage with him. I double-checked everything, but when I came to release the shutter, I hit the flashbulb-eject button instead. The bulb duly shot through the air, landed at the general’s feet—and exploded. I stood my ground, retrieved the kaput bulb, put in a new one, and got my picture on the second try.


Being a professional means going through specific operations so often that you don’t have to think about them. You turn them into unconscious routines. And then you have to run through a checklist to make sure you remembered every detail. Or you hand the jobs off to an assistant, who you yell at when they leave out a step.


Now I’m putting eye drops in both eyes after cataract surgery. I’m strictly an amateur when it comes to remembering which drops go in which eye, and where I am in the sequence. Two different sets of little plastic bottles, four bottles in one set, three in the other. One drop from each bottle at four different times every day, in two different eyes. Twenty-eight drops a day for five days, then twenty-four drops until the bottles are empty. I finally learned to keep a tally sheet to fill out every time I put a drop in one eye. My mind isn’t big enough to hold all those details, especially when it can focus on only one drop at a time.


In many respects, consciousness is a real challenge. Routines need checking, interruptions need to be dealt with, crib-sheets and reminders have to be worked out so we don’t lose our place. Regarding multitasking, for me consciousness divided is no consciousness at all. Put differently, I am the perennial donkey between two haystacks. If I can turn the choice into a sequence, then I’m O.K.


Annoying as a leaky consciousness can be, a consciousness that never leaked at all could be far worse. Aleksandr R. Luria wrote a book, The Mind of a Mnemonist, about one S. who could forget almost nothing he saw. His mind was filled with trivia which he could not erase. If he could form an image of something, it was with him forever, cluttering his mind. He remembered every cockroach he saw as a child, and every shape that reminded him of a cockroach. He was not able to generalize them into “cockroaches” or “cockroach-like shapes.” Instead of forming concepts, he retained each specific instance in great detail. Everything was particular—and particularly haunting. In such a case, forgetting would be a blessing.


I have no complaints about my somewhat shopworn consciousness with all its defects. It was given me to explore, and I am doing just that. I don’t have to sail for foreign lands to find excitement. My voyage of inner discovery is rewarding enough. I’ve been at it for twenty-eight years. I’ve never had more fun in my life.




2 Responses to “Reflection 33: Memory Stick”

  1. Laura said

    Oh my goodness, I see so many of my students in you. Did you do your homework? Yes. Well, where is it? In the backpack? No. Oh, now I remember–on the thing next to the thing in the kitchen. Must our minds be such fragile things? I wonder if we remember the feelings we have about experiences and stuff we can remember them better?

  2. Steve Perrin said

    Laura, my mind is subject to all kinds of distractions and disruptions. Can I trust my own consciousness to be straight with the world? I don’t think so. That’s why I’m writing this blog. It’s an exercise in mind management (which sounds terrible, like mind control, but it’s me trying to make sense out of my own mind, which is O.K.) Kids often game the system, using forgetfulness as an excuse when they could have a backup system to prevent it–a check list on the back of the door: lunch?, homework?, mittens?, etc.

    I think childhood is given us so we can learn how imperfect we are and so work out strategies for taking care of our priorities. Teacher priorities are not the same as student priorities, so each side has to come to terms with the other to figure out how to do what needs to be done. It only takes 18 years or so, not a lifetime. Be not of faint heart.

    –Steve from Planet Earth

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