Saturday, December 24, 2011

Walter Mosley, Game Six, the Seven Sins of Memory, and Mother Loss

[Cardinals players react to David Freese's game-winning home run in Game Six]

Yesterday we threw a party. I had long wanted to watch Game Six (click for the box score) of the 2011 World Series (best game ever) as art rather than as an adrenaline-pumping, jumping-off-a-cliff, heart-wrenching event, or what it had been on October 27. So we broke out the World Series box of DVDs, an early present for the kids (believe that if you will!), and began our trip down memory lane. Soon it proved to have as many trips and falls as memories, and the afternoon became an exercise in trying to remember what had happened when. When Diane broke out the thread from our then-live Facebook feed (off the Cardinals Hui) and began reading back my reactions to the game then as we watched it now, which is now then, things got complicated.

It didn't help that the live feed in Hawai`i had been knocked off the air for at least half an hour during Game Six, leaving us to scramble to find the game on the radio, but none of us could remember which innings were those we had not seen. It didn't help that we remembered certain heart-stopping events: Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal failing to catch a ball in short left field; David Freese missing a routine pop-up, which ended up rolling off the top of his red cap; the Rangers' pitcher missing first base with his foot, even as he caught the ball. But we simply could not remember where in the game's narrative they occurred. An inning would begin and we would say, "oh this is when really bad stuff happens," and then the inning would end happily enough. An earlier inning would have started and we would have forgotten, say, that Lance Berkman hit a home run. We were like a jury that knows a crime was committed, even that the principals were there, but can't for the life of them figure out what really happened or if the defendant is guilty or not.

"I know what you said now," Diane would report from her Facebook thread. "But I can't say!" (There were kids in the room.)

She continued: "this is where my boss wrote to say he assumed I was watching the Cardinals (lose)."

"This is when Sangha started slamming doors downstairs."

"And now you're saying you can't pick Radhika up from soccer because the game is still going."

I've always thought communal readings of poetry were best, because so many minds come to the poems from various points in the time-space-line that meaning accrues. The same process helped us put together what we had seen a mere two months ago. The suspense that had built up during the game on 10/27, especially at moments when the Cardinals were down two runs with two outs and two strikes on the batter (they are the only team to come back twice from such deficits), transposed into suspense over what we remembered and how well we remembered it.

Then the last innings unfolded. We remembered those better. David Freese's triple, Lance Berkman's hit, David Freese's walk-off home run, those we could summon up without the video, the conversation, the Facebook thread. Suspense over. The Cardinals pushed the Series to seven, we felt good about the states of our memory, and my husband declared that if we put the DVD of Game Seven in tomorrow, he thought the Cardinals had a pretty good chance of winning.

David Schacter is a psychology researcher, professor, writer who has had a lot to say about what happened yesterday afternoon. I've been reading his books, first The Seven Sins of Memory (2001), in which he categorizes our typical memory problems (like tip of the tongue syndrome, absent-mindedness, lack of name recall and many more), then explains how these sins are actually advantages. Many of those advantages seem to have to do with hunting and gathering, but still. I'm now reading his earlier book, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past (1996), which should help me remember some of the material better. In order to remember, he claims, we need to create complicated contexts around the information we want to remember, or we need to feel emotional pulls to those moments that stick. Names are hard to remember, because they are context-free; we remember someone's story, if not their name, but we do not remember their name while forgetting their history. Our brains erase events we don't need to remember (if we're lucky, we remember the crucial events) but leave traces of what did matter. And so, Freese's "idiot play," as he called it later, remains in our minds, but without the sense of what inning we were in, except that his error occurred somewhere in the middle of the game. And his walk-off homerun is seared into our memories, even though the fact that there was a 3-2 count on him was remembered only by 12-year old Sangha. Diane said, "I thought he just walked up there and hit it out right away!"

As Cardinals fans, this mattered deeply to Diane and me. Why should it matter to anyone else? Pull the google map lever a bit and consider that a lifetime of watching baseball games becomes an anchor to autobiography. My former colleagues Arnie and Phil sat behind Bryant and me at a Cardinals-Padres game at Aloha Stadium in 1998 and told each other their stories by way of which games they had seen, and when. Arnie, as Arnold Edelstein, later wrote a review-essay in Biography about the autobiographical nature of being a baseball fan, about the way the dry numbers in a baseball encyclopedia evoke memories for him of his father's death. See Biography, Volume 14, Number 3, Summer 1991, pp. 272-275 (Review). Pull the lever out further and further, and you get to the point where memory and autobiography begin to fail; you get to dementia, where I spent years, obsessively watching my mother lose hers. You get to the place Walter Mosley began from when he composed the marvelous novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (2010). Famous for his detectives, Mosley has written a book in which the primary search is for memory. A significant part of the plot involves the fantasy of recovering lost memories--a pact with the devil for memory, but also for quicker death--but that's not the part of the book that I will remember, if my emotions have anything to say about it.

Ptolemy Grey is 91 years old. He still lives on his own in an apartment full of his past (read trash, read disordered papers, read hoard), full of present day insects and rodents, without a working toilet or bath, and in a mind inhabited by the paranoias, fears, and confusions of dementia. Mosley taps into the horrible poetry of this condition; Grey's internal monologues are beautiful, even as they make us fear for his safety. Grey turns help away, gets attacked regularly by a drug addict, lives in a stew of time that is at once the misprisioned present and a wash of past events that enter his frame like a tide, and then fall back. (These monologues reminded me of ways the depressive mind confronts the world, also in a wash of memories and fears and blind-alleys.) He tries to stay in the present by playing his radio loudly, but dares not turn any knobs lest he lose the stream and not be able to recover it. These sounds he sets against the babbling of his uncontrollable memories:

"So his memory became like secrets held away from his own mind. But these secrets were noisy things; they babbled and muttered behind the door, and so if he listened closely he might catch a snatch of something he once knew well" (12).

Ptolemy is a time-traveler with no need for a time-machine; his brain's disorder gives him a free, if often, terrifying ride through the past-as-present. That Ptolemy is an old African American man means that his memories are often traumatic; his childhood mentor was lynched, a little girl burned to death in a house. History has not been kind. His memories, as we say, are "bad." And his present includes the death by drive-by shooting of his great-nephew, Reggie, the man who cared for him and his failing memory.

The only way to solve the mysteries in the book is to give Ptolemy back his memory, if only for a time. As in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, there's gold involved, a real treasure that Ptolemy must shelter from rapacious relatives and entrust to the young woman who comes like an angel to save him. This makes for exciting reading, but Ptolemy himself is less interesting as a cogent character. The tragedy of the book's ending (layered within the comedy of its certitude, its completion) brings back the poetry of Mosley writing Alzheimer's through Ptolemy, whose memories are again as grey as his matter, as his memories:

"He held out his hand and the girl who reminded him of birds singing took it into hers just like he thought she would. He signed and maybe she asked a question. The music became a sky and the words the man on the television was saying turned into the ground under his feet. One was blue and the other brown, but he was not sure which was which. Everything glittered and now and again, when he looked around, things were different. Another room. A new taste. The girl always returned. And the door that was shut against his forgotten life was itself forgotten and there were feelings but they were far away." (277)

Walter Mosley talks about his mother's dementia here, and how it influenced his writing. Or watch:

Mosley's description of the person with Alzheimer's in this clip is compelling because it does not separate that person from the rest of us, but shows how the loss of memory is a shared experience. Failing to remember Game Six is not dementia, but falls on the continuum between total recall (itself a fiction) and total lack thereof. Hence, Mosley: "My experience of people in dementia is that a lot of their personality, a lot of their knowledge, a lot of their experience is still there but there’s not a direct connection that they can just reach out and get it and then bring it back. There’s a word, they know there’s a word, but they don’t remember what that is. There’s a word that describes something. There’s a thing that they have to do, there’s something that’s very important. It’s almost there within the range of their mind and they have to sit there and go through a really convoluted process of thought and memory to try to retain that—to regain it. And sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t." The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a beautiful, tender portrait of dementia. One of the best I've read.

Toward the end of our party yesterday, I remembered two Cardinals games I watched on television in Washington, DC in June. I was in Virginia because my mother was dying--she died on June 14, 2011--and, oddly enough, the Cardinals were also in Washington to play the Nationals. On the night my mother died, friends took me home with them and I asked them to turn on the Cardinals game. They did. The Cardinals were ahead, but not for long. They must have put Ryan Franklin in to save the game, and they ended up losing in a rout. No, I call up the box score and it was Batista that night who took the fall. (For a very different rendering of that evening, see this post.) The next night I visited Kyle Semmel and Pia Moller in Bethesda. We watched another game. The Cardinals lost again. Losing and loss drove on twin rails those two days, though I encountered a couple who loved the Cardinals on the Metro trains both coming and going on that second evening. Only in September, when I went to a game in Philadelphia, did the Cardinals win for me in person--though they did so after Al Filreis drove us away from the stadium. They won that game in 11, after blowing a lead with two outs in the 9th. It was a foreshadowing, even as those earlier games had seemed a foreshortening, a kick in the stomach after the far far more significant mother-loss.

Note: In trawling the web for images of David Freese, I found this audio of his game winning home run off the BBC. The sonic dissonance is delightful.

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