A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, November 29, 2008

It's All in My Head

I can't imagine driving a car. That fierce and constant calculus of velocity, distance, and direction, which the ordinary brain does more deftly than any computer, is beyond me.

But on the other hand, just a few weeks ago I thought I'd never be able to read again. When I woke up that morning and the clock said 26 and Julian Barnes had become Ian Barnes, it wasn't that there was a blot or a blur in front of the 7 or the Jul-. It was as if my brain was telling me they weren't there. Later, lying on a gurney in a hallway at Stanford Hospital, I would watch people going by in a hall that crossed the one I was in. They would walk in from the right and then at a certain point simply vanish, as in some cheesy movie special effect. And other people would appear from the left out of sheer nothingness.

My brain was simply incapable of processing some of the information it was receiving. But it was doing the best it could. I think Julian became Ian because my brain knew Ian was a proper name. But Barnes didn't become Nes, because it knew that to be a nonsensical name.

Things got worse over the next few days, which I spent in a very nice private room in the ground floor isolation ward while they made sure I didn't have tuberculosis (another story for another day). It had a big window opening onto an enclosed garden. But I couldn't make sense of what was outside, couldn't distinguish trees from walls, shrubs from flowers; it was a mass of green with dots of colors that I toook to be blossoms. Later, I moved to a third-floor ward in which occasionally you could hear the hum of an engine starting up. It was the Medevac helicopter, which landed on the roof nearby. Visitors told me that from my window they could see the chopper taking off. But I never brought it into view. Maybe my brain thought it wasn't worth seeing.

As for reading, I developed a kind of dyslexia: Words refused to shape themselves into coherent syllables. Letters swapped places. The name "MERYL" was written on a dry-erase board on the wall -- presumably the name of a supervising nurse, not the actress. But my brain kept rearranging and substituting the letters. "Meryl" became "Merlyn" became "Merry." Was it simply trying out variations to see what worked?

Nor was watching TV any better. Profoundly bored, I wound up listening to a classical music station when I wasn't sleeping. But classical music on the radio is "easy listening" for office workers: classical Muzak. After several days of Baroque jangle I gave up. I don't care if I never hear Vivaldi again.

Finally, a few days after I left the hospital for the rehab facility, an occupational therapist put a book in front of me and asked me to try to read it. Maybe several weeks of ennui had persuaded my brain that this was a good thing to do, because the words took shape and stayed in place.

They say that when one part of the brain is injured, the other parts try to compensate, to work around the crippled part, to form new neural pathways or something. I believe it now. I haven't regained my sight completely. Occasionally someone will speak to me on my left and I'll have to search for the speaker. I look at cartoons on the Internet and don't get the joke -- the new pathway in my brain hasn't developed a sense of humor, perhaps.

Most embarrassing, I seem to have lost the easy automatic approach to familiar tasks: I put my shoes on the wrong feet. I have to be careful pulling a polo shirt over my head lest it go on inside-out or wrong-side front. I've been known to make several attempts at this before succeeding. Yet there are tasks -- like tying my shoelaces -- that are as automatic as they've been since I learned them many decades ago.
Some day, a long while from now, maybe I'll try driving. But I can't think about that now.