Someday, The Shiny Scythe of Extincteration will take a mighty and broad swing through the air, decisive and final, and I shall die. This particular combination of human molecules will leave the planet for good, and with any luck will not be replaced by some infant who grows up to play that super-annoying sub-bass-drenched hip-hop out of his or her jetpack speakers. I will be sad to go, I assume. There are things I will really hate giving up for eternal unconsciousness: the feel of the sun on my face, laughing, my kids’ faces, delicious creamy warm coffee, and watching dogs bark and “run” while they dream. Maybe the hardest thing is knowing, as the Scythe looms, that you are going to Miss Stuff Happening and Knowing More About Stuff That Is. I have such a curiosity about so many things, and it is going to be hard to be cut from the game before some of those answers are figured out. I don’t give a crap about the existence of God (ain’t gonna happen), if there are alien toenails on Jupiter (I’m not a Star Wars geek), or how to provide fresh water and healthy food for billions of needy people (answer: population-clearing plague or crunchy delicious alien toenails).

What I so so so so want to know more about is THE BRAIN.

Oh, I LOVE the brain. I not only love it, I think it is so cool and sexy and fascinating and awesome that I would marry it, or at least fawn over it at a romantic restaurant. The brain is where it’s at, baby; there’s your key to err thin right there. It’s the most powerful thing in the world, and when we can begin to unlock what is IN THERE, well, oh mah goodness. I believe this completely: that someday science-type people will know so much more about how the brain truly functions on every kind of level, and all will benefit in such an immense way that you can’t even KNOW, MAN. It’s all IN THERE. But now, in 2009, we are like chimps poking at a pile of dung with a stick, or that’s the way it will seem someday. The brain remains for the most part a total mystery, some mass of tissue and fluid and electricity that does things somehow, and if you prod certain areas with a small electric charge you can get people to wink.


I love reading and learning about my pal, the brain. The brain is really THE MAN, and reading and learning about the feet or the liver or even the eyeball is just not anywhere near as cool. I have questions. If I live another 50 years, maybe a few of them might get answered, maybe not. Stupid time. I have a particular interest in the study of memory, for quite a few reasons. I am fascinated by the idea that everything you have seen, done, experienced, felt, or thought about is probably stored in the brain, OMG, it’s all IN THERE! It’s like your own personal Netflix of your existence, except for the most part you have lost your account password and cannot get your movie of 1983 on demand.

And of course speaking of movies and memory, everyone has seen Rainman, and has heard about the phenomenon of the autistic savant who can recall voluminous amounts of dates and facts and figures with no study or effort put into such ability. Some piece of the wiring is off, differs, and another piece is freed, and we get this, although its use is of little value to both society and the savant. It is interesting only to the neurologist as a small window into what is possible.

I myself, in some small assumably-non-autistic capacity, have a quirk with my memory, it seems. It is both a great gift and a difficulty. Over the course of any given day, for all of my life, many times a day I am yanked back into my past by my brain. Something – a sound, a smell, a texture, a voice – or sometimes nothing definable at all, triggers the Time Machine, and I am instantly transported to someplace I have already been. I don’t know if that is so unusual; what seems to be the difference is the level, the depth, the amount of detail there. I can be sitting here, in my computer chair, and with no warning I am somewhere else, even if just for a few seconds. It is very nearly as complete and rich as the very reality of this minute, and then it is gone, something like a dream, just with no bizarre flying tigers or anything like that. It can be extremely jarring, and sometimes upsetting, for both the instantaneous and uncontrolled nature of the journey, and that it is a constant reminder of what was, and what is utterly gone.

But, for those few seconds or moments, it can be exhilarating and so exciting, and a confirmation somehow that everything you have ever done stays with you, has gone into making up the you that sits on the computer chair. The smallest most insignificant details were all registered, never lost after all. I can see and feel the texture of the Big Red Chair, the rough bumpy threads of the slipcover, the bright yellow color of the foam if you unzip the cover on the bottom right corner. I can run my finger along the smooth walnut of the bookcases, gathering soft gray dust, and I can read the titles on the spines of the books, in order. I can look out the window and see my dog in his pen, his shiny large metal water bowl tipped over by his huge paw, water making a thin river flowing in a concrete crack. I can see my mother watering the hanging plants with a forest-green metal can with a long swooping spout. She seems so tall. The gray-green linoleum squares of the floor feel cool, slick, and smooth under my feet, and the grandfather clock ticks away loudly, evenly.

This is from 1964 or possibly earlier. We moved to a new house the following year. When I tell my mother these details, she doesn’t say anything for a long time. When she does, her voice sounds a little choked up, wavering: “You were just a baby.”

There are a few people in the world, a literal handful, who have this quirk only with far, far greater accuracy and detail. A woman in California, Jill Price, seems to recall every single detail of her life – what she wore, ate, where she went, what day of the week any event fell – on demand. Her problem is that she cannot stop the movies from playing:

"I don't look back at the past with any distance. It's more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It's like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there's no stop button."

I can just almost grasp what she is saying, almost am able to feel how incredibly paralyzing it must be for her. Current brain research assumes that we have to throw memories away, as to not overload the brain. But maybe it is not quite that – maybe they are all there somewhere, for all of us, and every so often something goes wrong, or right, and the flood of the past washes over the conscious mind. For someone like Jill Price, I would think the future would be a burden; more to add to the flood of information, more to keep her from living in the present at all.

For the most part, I feel very lucky. I will take the discomfort of Time Machine jetlag for the small comforts of being able to feel the softness of a pink baby blanket, the shape and grind of a metal bar underneath my knees as I hang upside-down on a jungle gym, the criss-cross pattern of my dad’s brown stereo speaker grills, and that it didn’t all just disappear into the fog, lost forever. It is all there. When the mighty Scythe comes, it goes with me, but if I am lucky I can write and describe it as much as I can, and then it goes to you.