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My Imaginative Memory

When I was twelve or thirteen, one of my older sisters started collecting the Diaries of Anais Nin, and I started reading one (eventually read them all).  I was fascinated and started keeping a journal of my own.  Through my teens, I wrote fairly regularly, although there were stretches of weeks or even months, when I wrote nothing.

At some point in my early twenties, I suppose when I was moving from one place to another and boxing up journals, I was leafing through them and was stunned to find not only descriptions of things that I had completely forgotten, but descriptions of things that I thought I remembered, but for which my memory was very clearly false.  It was tremendously unsettling because up to that point I'd assumed, as most people do, that my memory was generally reliable.

By then, my journal writing had settled into a pretty steady pattern.  For decades now, there are not more than a dozen days in any given year that I don't write something (although in the years when I was courting Lynn, most of that writing went into letters to her).  And I keep a rough daily log of where I've been, who I've had meetings with at work, what restaurants I've eaten in.  When Lynn asks, as we're getting ready to return to a city we visited years ago, "And what was that restaurant we ate in our first night?" I can find out.  And I'm always amused, and sometimes astonished, to see the ways in which my memory has diverged from the evidence of the written record.

Elizabeth Loftus has done the most accessible work on the fallibility of memory.  Her research shows repeatedly how unreliable memory is, and how much of what we think we remember is internally constructed.  The fact is, we have no internal way of distinguishing between true and false memories.  They feel exactly the same.  Eventually one learns to assume that all of what we think we remember is inaccurate in some degree.

Most people believe that their memories get worse as they get older.  That's not as true as they think it is.  Over time we just accumulate increasing evidence of how poor and unreliable our memories have always been.

Unfortunately, most people don't know this.  The most negative impact, of course, is the reliance on eyewitness testimony in criminal trials, even though it has been shown again and again that for any given event, the testimony of eyewitnesses will invariably diverge, often very significantly.  But on a very personal level it affects our very sense of who we are, if we believe that our sense of self is an accumulation of our memories.

The Ethics of Healthcare

"The design of a healthcare system is a moral issue."

So said T.R. Reid near the end of his keynote address at the MCMLA meeting in Breckenridge last week.

And, "Without the moral commitment, you end up with America's healthcare system."

Reid's presentation style is very relaxed.  He brings a light touch, and a finely tuned sense of humor, even when dealing with very weighty issues.  Still, when he contemplated the fundamental unfairness of the American system, his righteous indignation and frustration showed through.

He said that he undertook the writing of his new book to answer one question:  "How is it that every industrialized country provides better healthcare for all of its citizens and spends half as much as we do?"  He says he thinks he nailed that one.

But as he did his research, he realized the more important question was why do they?  And he thinks he figured that one out as well.  But then it leads to the most pressing question of them all -- why doesn't the United States?  Why is it that the richest country in the world fails so miserably to provide what every other nation considers to be one of the fundamental responsibilities of a civilized society?  He said he's still trying to puzzle that one out.

And he's not particularly hopeful that we'll achieve any significant improvement in the current round.  He believes that Congress lacks the political will.  We'll continue stumbling along through the paradox of having the capacity to provide the best healthcare in the world, while failing on every measure to actually do so.  What does it say about us as a nation that we are willing to tolerate an infant mortality rate that puts us just behind Cuba and only slightly ahead of Croatia?

It might be easier to deal with if we were at least having a debate about the real issues.  But we're not.  What passes for debate in this country (particularly on this issue) is sloganeering designed to make political points.  Actual facts aren't that hard to find.  Reid had a very good op-ed in the Washington Post a month ago in which he dismissed the major myths that are fueling that most emotional of the anti-healthcare reform screeds.  But in an era when most people get their news from cable tv or talk radio, serious attention to actual facts takes too much time and is too boring.  It doesn't provide the cathartic release of frustration and anger that people seem to want.

Reid emphasized several times that if we, as a nation, choose to provide universal healthcare and contain costs, we certainly can do it, without falling prey to the horrors of socialized medicine or rationed healthcare that are used to scare people away.  The fundamental question is whether or not we believe that we have a collective responsibility to take care of each other.  The answer is clear -- we, in this "Christian" nation, believe that we do not.  This is the paradox that puzzles T.R. Reid.


When Idie asked how many years we'd been married, I teased, "How old is your restaurant?"

"Um, fourteen, we think?"

"Our marriage is just six weeks older than your restaurant."

The Hot and Hot Fish Club would be one of our favorite restaurants even if we didn't almost share an anniversary date, but the coincidence of its opening just weeks after I moved here has always made us feel particularly affectionate toward it and Chris & Idie.  It's always near the top of our list for a place to take visitors, or if we want to do something special for ourselves.

A few years after they opened, they participated in a charity action at which most of the leading chefs in town offered something special -- dinner at your house for twelve of your closest friends, for example.  What Chris & Idie put up was four seasonal tasting dinners for two.   We were able to get it, and over the course of the next year, about every three months, I'd call Chris and we'd talk about what he was fixing that was particularly suited to that season, and then he'd put together a seven course menu for us, with paired wines.  Each meal was spectacular -- and the fact that it was all prepaid, so that we never had to look at a bill, made it even more fun.

At the last of the four, we were chatting with Chris and I was bemoaning the fact that we'd come to the end of it, and joking that I'd like to take out another year's subscription.  He shrugged and said, "I'd be happy to do it anytime.  Just give me a call."  And we did.  Many times.

Given our travel schedule in the fall, we're just as likely to be in some other city on our wedding anniversary as we are to be home, so when I realized that we'd be in Birmingham this year, and that it was a Saturday night,  a tasting menu at Hot and Hot seemed like the perfect thing to do.  And just to make it a little extra special, I booked a suite for us at the Hotel Highland so we could walk to the restaurant and not have to worry about driving home afterwards.

Bill, the sous chef, was in charge and after asking us if there was anything in particular we were interested in, and hearing that we wanted to leave it entirely up to him, he came up with this menu (bear in mind that each course is half or less than half the size of the normal portion):

  • Tomato Soup with Cream and Truffled Grilled Cheese
  • Hot and Hot Tomato Salad with Applewood Smoked Bacon, Fresh Peas, Corn, Fried Okra and Chive Aioli
  • Cauliflower and Chestnut Gratin with Herb Breadcrumbs and Truffle Oil
  • Grilled Mississippi Shrimp with Local Golden Kiwi and Shaved Fennel Salad
  • Garganelli Pasta and Homemade Guanciale with Wild Mushrooms, Parmesan Cheese and Truffle Oil
  • Charcuterie plate with Pickled Veal Tongue and Homemade Souse Meat
  • Hickory Grilled Beef Tournedos on Blue Cheese Potato Gratin, Chef's Garden Spinach and Wild Mushroom Jus
  • Cheese plate of Thomasville Tomme from Sweet Grass Dairy, with Persimmon & Toasted Walnuts
  • Trio of Sorbet with Homemade Cookies

John did a spectacular job of matching the wines to each course.  We sat at the chef's counter where we could watch the cooks put it all together.    It's an amazing show.

The new cookbook is just out, so we bought a copy, and Idie inscribed it for us.   When we finally waddled back to the hotel three hours after arriving at the restaurant, we sat on the couch and leafed through.   Wonderful pictures and stories, and the recipes of some of the dishes we'd eaten that very evening. 

It was a truly splendid anniversary.   May we, and the Hot and Hot Fish Club, have many, many more.

Les Soeurs des Montagnes

Arielle greets us at the door, face beaming, eyes bright under the frame of wiry gray hair.  "Hallo," she says, in her thick French accent, reaching out to take our hands in hers.   A few steps behind her, MariJo peeks out with what we mistake for shyness.  "Bon Soir!" she calls. 

"Bon soir," we say, amused and delighted by the effusiveness of the greeting, and I ask if we can book a table for about an hour from now.  

"But of course!" says Arielle, and writes my name in her book.  "Voila! We'll see you again about 7:00."

In doing my restaurant research before heading out to Breckenridge, I'd put Le Petit Paris at the top of my list.  The reviews were pretty good, and since a nice Parisian bistro is my favorite type of restaurant, I'm always on the lookout for another one to add to my collection.  Lynn and I had gone out for dinner with friends the night before, so on our last night in Breckenridge we were looking for something a little intimate, casual and romantic, and this seemed to fit the bill.

As we walked back out onto the street, we were both grinning.  "I have a good feeling about this," I said.

We did a bit more strolling along Main Street, the sun out now after the earlier snow showers, lighting up the last bits of day.  We stopped at the Crown Tavern for a whisky, sitting in comfy chairs by the fireplace, talking about how fine and fun the conference had been.   Great speakers, superb location, wonderful friends.  We'd had a fine time the night before singing and playing until late.

Back at Le Petit Paris, Arielle led us to a comfortable corner table and we embarked on one of the most delightful dining experiences we've ever had.  The food & wine were superb, the place itself wonderfully cozy and completely Parisian, but les soeurs themselves were what lifted it into another plane.

Arielle is the elder -- sixty next year, as she told us several times -- the owner of the place, three years now in Colorado, having gone through hope, betrayal, misery, wonder and redemption to get to the place she is now.   MariJo (which we choose to believe is diminutive for Marie Josephine), of the long blond ponytail, slender in blue jeans and her crisp white waiter's shirt, is a fountain of smiles and gentle laughter, emphasizing that we have all of the time in the world.

Over the course of the next couple of hours we have a remarkable meal and gentle, funny, serious, deep conversation with each of the sisters, conversation that never seems intrusive, never gets in the way of the romantic intimacy of the evening that Lynn and I are having, but that tugs us gently into their world.  MariJo helps me with my french, particularly the tricky tongue action necessary to get "grenouilles" just right.  We hear from Arielle about the circumstances that led to the restaurant being shuttered for three months last year, and how it was the community that rallied round her to fix things and get her back up and running when she thought all was lost.  " I do this now for the people of Breckenridge."

We discover that MariJo, for all of her astonishing beauty, is quite the natural comedienne, and when she falls into an imitation of a Colorado redneck or a Parisian FN, putting her hands on her hips and puffing out her cheeks in indignation we're ready to fall out of our chairs with laughter.  She's telling us that, having lived all of her life in Paris, she was a little nervous about coming out to small town Colorado.  "As soon as I open my mouth," she tells us, confidentially, "they can tell I'm not from around here."  But everyone has been fabulous.  Yes, there are those small-minded people, but you find them everywhere and there aren't enough of them to let it worry you.  She takes her doggies out for walks in the mountains and thinks she's moved to someplace very much like heaven.

We talk with Arielle about wine, and find that, like Lynn, she doesn't care for white wines, believes that you can find the right red wines to go with anything, and that she spends a lot of time picking out just the right wines for her restaurant.  "I'm no sommelier," she says several times (she says everything several times), "But I pay attention to wine."

MariJo does the desserts and is rhapsodic when describing them.  Often, I skip dessert, but I knew that in this place I didn't dare -- her disappointment would've been heartbreaking.  When we ask her to help us select, she asks us many, many questions before she chooses for us.  There is no shyness about her when she brings them out.  She knows they're fabulous.

Eventually, after coffee and cognac, we've about run out of reasons to stay, although we would if we could.  They come with us to the door, and we kiss on both cheeks and can't quite let the conversation go.  It is inconceivable to me that we won't see them again.

Finally, we're on the street, strolling back to the lodge.    Did we just have dinner in a restaurant?  No, Arielle and MariJo just took us in for a few hours.

Colleagues and Mountains

Each MLA Chapter has its own, very distinctive, personality that informs the tone of its annual conference.  There are superficial similarities -- everybody has a keynote address, usually there are contributed papers, there's a business meeting at some point.  But the intangible essence of what the members go to the conference for and what they hope to get out of it can be strikingly different.  Lynn sees this more acutely than most, since she generally gets to at least three or four different chapter meetings each fall. 

Midcontinental, which covers the largest geographic area but has fewer members than most chapters, prides itself on its informality and its frontier spirit.  These people cherish the mountains and the high plains.  For some of these librarians, this is the one time of the year that they get to hang out with colleagues, and the relaxed meeting schedule reflects that, with long breaks and plenty of unscheduled time.

Which is not to imply that the program is an afterthought.  This year, in particular, the program committee's done a superb job, with a real heavy-hitter as the keynote speaker this morning (which is why I'm up and getting ready to hit the shower even though it was close to two in the morning by the time we finally got to bed after the late drive in from Denver).  T.R. Reid is one of the most knowledgeable and sensible writers on the state of healthcare in America today.  If the angry mobs at the Town Hall meetings would stop shouting themselves blue in the face and take a few minutes to pay attention to some of the facts that he is so good at presenting, we might be actually having a sensible debate about what we should be doing as a nation.  Sigh.

Anyway, it'll be a real treat to hear him speak and to spend some time in the company of a small, but passionately dedicated group of colleagues.  With mountains as a backdrop.  And snow!

Breckenridge Again

Lisa says the snow in Breckenridge is beautiful.  She sent a picture. 

Snow and yellow trees

I'm plenty eager to get out of the swamp that Alabama has turned into these past couple of weeks.  Endless rain, temperatures in the mid-eighties.  The sun struggles to clear a bit of sky every afternoon but the thick gray clouds are too much for it.  We get up every morning to look out the window and see if the lake is splashing over the dock yet.

Twenty-one years ago tomorrow I was at NLM presenting the results of our evaluation of MEDLINE on CD-ROM -- a radically new concept at the time.  It was there that I first spoke about the "inept, but satisfied, end-user."  I flew straight from DC to Colorado and while sitting on a panel just a couple of days later, heard the woman sitting next to me use the same phrase, which she'd heard "just last week at NLM."  It apparently escaped her that she'd heard it from me.

That's when I figured I'd better write it up.  The brief essay appeared in Medical Reference Services Quarterly the following spring and has by far the most citations in Web of Science of anything else I've ever written.  In Australia a couple of weeks ago, Diane mentioned that she still uses the essay in the classes she teaches.  I'm proud of it, and amused.  Who'd've imagined that tossed-off phrase would have such staying power?

I'd flown over the Appalachians a few times by then, but I'd never seen the Rockies.  In the van on the way from the Denver airport I was quiet, just watching the scenery.  My first morning in Breckenridge, when I first opened my eyes, I looked out the window to see the mountains touched by the dawn light.  And I lay there, for a long time, without moving, as the light crept up the hills, changing the colors from purple to orange to gold.  I hadn't known until that very moment that "purple mountains majesty" wasn't a poetic image.  Just a literal description.

It was my second MCMLA meeting and I was beginning to make some of the friendships that have lasted now for decades.  That was the year I met MEY on the dance floor.   I was wearing a shiny green sharkskin suit and red deck shoes.  It is fortunate that few pictures survive from those days.

As far as I knew at the time, I was quite happily married.  And yet it was only seven years later that Lynn and I got married at an MCMLA welcome reception (we were even listed in the program).  In twenty-two years I've only missed one meeting, choosing to go to Brazil for the ICML congress in 2005.  Last year we had to leave Cody early, when the call came about Lynn's mom, but I still count it as having been there.

It's the perfect blend of professional and personal.  A few years ago, when I got to the registration table, I found there'd been some kind of a mixup and they'd never received my payment.  The woman at the desk gave me the registration packet anyway,  saying, "Oh, nevermind.  We know you're here every year."   Of course.

Getting It Right

The MEDLIB-L discussion list has been tremendously valuable over the years, particularly for solo librarians.   But it's frustrating as well, and probably spreads as much misinformation as enlightenment.   Case in point, last week:

A question is posted to the list wondering if it is true that if physicians provide their personal copies of journals to the library, "we can't add them to our catalog, bind them, etc."  I'd written a JMLA editorial years ago on the topic, so I responded by referencing that, and pointed out that once a gift has been made to the library (assuming the gift is legitimate), the library can treat that material the same way that it treats material acquired in any other fashion (we've had that point verified by University counsel several times).

Later in the day, the original poster put up a summary thanking people for the many replies received and including this nugget:

Gifts should not be lended, or included in SERHOLD, Docline or other consortial list.  (even here there is some disagreement, with some asserting that gifts are the library's and should be used how we see fit, and others asserting that it would violate copyright to provide materials that we don't in fact own)

This isn't a matter of disagreement.  Somebody is wrong.

So I posted a polite follow-up, asking for more discussion from the people who feel that gifts should not be lent.  I really wanted to know what some people thought the copyright issues were.  I think they're wrong, but I thought it would be useful to get some kind of explanation for that view.

Alas.  There were two subsequent posts, both agreeing with what I'd said.  Nothing from whoever it might've been whose replies to the original request had resulted in the item in the summary.  Presumably, those whoevers would've seen my follow-up, but for whatever reasons, chose not to respond, either to the list or to me individually.   I assume they weren't very confident about the veracity of their answers.

So the original question remains unanswered, but the summary now sits there in the list archives.  I can forsee the question coming up again, when some librarian is having a conversation with colleagues about how to handle gifts.   "It's okay to accept them, but it's a copyright violation to lend them.  I saw that on MEDLIB-L."

Folklore.   We base way too many of our policy decisions on library folklore.

Josie on Saturday

She was unaccountably shy when we stopped at the guitar store.  I needed to pick up a couple of sets of strings for the trip to Colorado next week and she stayed right close to me, took my hand even when we were in the store, and when I took her into the acoustic guitar room she giggled uncontrollably as if we'd just come face to face with one of her music heroes.  I took her into the drum room.  (I wanted to see if there was some new percussion toy I needed to get for Tambourine Grrl.  There wasn't).  I showed her that she could tap on the congas and bongos and she went around the room doing that, with a silly wondrous grin on her face.  She fell in love with a full drum kit that was decked out in a sparkly metallic green sheen.  Duke would've loved it too.  I bought her pink and purple guitar picks on our way out of the store.

This was on the way home from Bottega.   It's my favorite place to take her for lunch on a Saturday.  Very low key and kid friendly, despite being one of the finest restaurants in the southeast.  They seat us at the banquette and bring a basket of crayons so that she can color on the sheet of butcher paper that tops the table.  I always order the mac n' cheese for her and hope that it comes before she has entirely filled up on the bread and olive oil.  She'd eaten all but three pieces before I stopped her and told her to wait.  "You're going to fill yourself up and you won't have any room left for the mac n' cheese!"  So she waited and actually ate about a third of her serving.  Then she told me she was done.  I told her to eat one more.  She did.  Then she finished off the rest of the bread.  I ordered a carpaccio to go for Marian.

Back to her house then, to play until her Mom came home.  She put on a princess outfit (she has several, of course -- this time she wore her Belle dress because she remembers that's my favorite), and we fixed lunch for Pooh, Tigger, Mickey and Gymbo.  Then we napped.

Travel Reading

It's not a Kindle, but a Library of America volume with five novels in it makes a pretty good travel book.   I've been carrying one of the Philip K. Dick issues.  I started Martian Time-Slip on the way to Australia and have finished that, along with Dr. Bloodmoney and Now Wait For Last Year in the couple of weeks since.  I'm saving Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly for the flights to Colorado and Germany.  PDK is good reading for flights that cross several time zones.  You're feeling kind of dislocated in time and space anyway, which is essentially what his novels do to you.  They start to make a deliciously uncomfortable sort of sense.

When I was going through my separation and then divorce from Sandy, I would travel with lots of books.  "Transitional objects" my friend called them.  The most ridiculous was a trip to San Francisco just after I'd moved out and was setting up my bachelor apartment on Compton.  As I recall, I brought fourteen books with me and bought another half dozen during the trip.  Some novels, several volumes of Rilke and Neruda, Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching.  The first thing I'd do when I checked in to a hotel room was find a spot for my shelf of books.  I knew that it was kind of crazy behavior, but when one's life is tumbling head over heels it sometimes requires crazy behavior to stay sane.  The books anchored me to the things that I believed were most important about my life.  The physicality of the objects themselves mattered.

Nowadays, the first thing I do in a hotel room is find a spot to set up my iPod speakers and get music going.   But I still have a couple of books and a journal or two that I need to find a good spot for.  It's a way of saying that for the next day or three or five, this place is mine.

No News Is Good News

I've banned myself from listening to the news.

My habit has been to put on music in the morning when I get up to write (I've got the iPod on shuffle at the moment -- the Pretenders just came up).  At 7:30 when I pour a bowl of cereal before my shower, I switch to NPR, and continue listening on my drive to work.  More NPR on the drive home, and then, while I'm fixing dinner, maybe watch a bit of MSNBC or CNN on the little TV on the kitchen counter.

It's not doing anything for me.

I could almost believe that Joe Wilson's outburst was calculated to divert the discussion from the specifics of Obama's speech to a raised voices argument about whether or not Wilson should be censured or praised.  Obama gave a good speech, with the clearest statement he's yet made about what he believes should be in the healthcare bill.  There's plenty to discuss there, and, indeed, plenty to criticize if you're a small government conservative.  But that would still require some reasoned thought, and what's the fun in that?  Wilson cleverly hijacked at least half of the news time that could have been devoted to those discussions.  And then the House had to go through the senseless move of censuring him, thus keeping the vitriol boiling for another couple of days.  Anybody want to talk healthcare?  Nah, that's too complicated, let's talk about Joe Wilson and whether he's an idiot or a hero.

Then Jimmy Carter lifts the tarp off the elephant in the room and points out that racism is fueling much of the most hostile responses to the President.  This seems to me to be quite obviously and unremarkably true and I still (almost) wish he hadn't said it.  Now you've got Limbaugh using that as a launching pad for his line that in "Obama's America" it's alright for black kids to beat up white kids on the schoolbus.  And then news commentators take Limbaugh seriously as a political analyst.  Ai-yi-yi!

The notion that Limbaugh (and rising star Beck) actually speak for the Republican Party or have any interest in improving its standing is laughable.  They're entertainers.  Limbaugh has always been very clear about that.  His objective is ratings, pure and simple.  If he bothered to vote in the last election, I would imagine that he voted for Obama.  Certainly having Obama in the White House is far more in his self-interest than McCain/Palin would've been.

Finally I faced the fact that I wasn't learning anything from listening to the news.   It was just depressing me.   I don't really think that the inability of most members of the public to think clearly is getting any worse, but social media and the 24-hour news cycle have certainly made it much easier to demonstrate one's complete lack of critical thinking than ever before.  And I don't think our politicians are more venal, obnoxious, self-serving, lying and craven than in the past.  Wilson himself barely holds a candle to some of his more illustrious predecessors in South Carolina.  But I don't really need to hear about them anymore. 

So I'm loading up the CD Changer in the car -- Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, the RH Factor, Hendrix, Alejandro Escovedo, Bob Geldof & Bill Frisell.  I'll be a happier man when I get home.