Love and Other Challenges

Remembering, Imagining,
and Dreaming

Michael: I'm curious about your memory for visual things. As your eyesight has dimmed and blurred, does that affect your recall of things you used to see vividly? Like, can you summon up an image of my face that's better than what you see now when you look at me?

Joel: I think I should take the Fifth on that. But seriously, yes. I have in my memory a whole archive of visual images of you upon which I draw when thinking of you or even in your presence, to clarify the flesh-colored blur that is all I can see lately. Some of these images are from real life, where I conjure up for myself how you looked, say, sitting across from me at the 24th Street hash house where we used to meet for breakfast, or talking to me as you bent over a woodworking project in your studio. But then it gets like nested Russian dolls, like the facing mirrors in old-fashioned barber shops: I also may draw on the last time I saw the pictures I took of you, framing my shots with difficulty, on the beach at Venice three or four summers ago.
Michael: Can you say more about the facing mirrors and nested Russian dolls? Are you saying that the different images you have from different points in time somehow compete with each other?

Joel: It isn't that the various images available in my mind compete with each other for credibility. Of course, time is changing our features, and no remembered image can be counted on for accuracy any more than a snapshot in a family album can. Which brings me back to the sense I get of layers and levels of image memory, of a kind of doubling. It's ironic. For instance, if I'm trying to remember how you looked on a hike at Pt. Reyes once, I may, without much deliberation, call to mind one of the photographs I took that day, instead of the moment just before or after. So it's a remembered image that itself is a mediated and fixed version of the real thing, which is receding faster from memory than the photograph is. Maybe because I've seen the photo several times, the live event only once.

Michael: You have to rely rather heavily on aspects of your memory. It's harder for you to skip around as you read (listening to a tape or your computer's screen reader), so it's more important to remember the essentials of the text as you go. Similarly, misplacing something can turn into much more of an ordeal for you. Do you think your memory has improved as sight has diminished?
Joel: I wouldn't say my memory has literally improved, though I do use it more conscientiously than when I could see well. Many believe when someone loses their sight, memory and other faculties become enhanced. I think this notion is a hopeful idealization of blindness inspired equally by compassion and subconscious fear of going blind, oneself. But sighted actors memorize copious scripts, and they're not all Homers or Miltons. Still, I must admit that I know where nearly everything in my apartment is, and I do indeed recall salient facts and passages from my "reading," often verbatim. But I always have enjoyed vivid, fairly accurate retention of past events, conversations, sights, and sounds. I use it more now than ever, of necessity, but I doubt there have been dramatic alterations in my brain's neurochemistry or neurocircuitry. Just bursts of frequent, intensive activity in memory areas.
Michael: I know that music and literature are two of your greatest passions. How do you keep track of where CDs and books are, or remember what's inside them, without being able to read titles or thumb through pages? Have you developed any tricks or technologies to help catalogue and remember all that visual information?
Joel: I periodically have friends straighten my bookshelves, just on principle. As Henry Grunwald, former Time executive and US Ambassador, afflicted with macular degeneration, says in his memoir, "Twilight," the books in my living room aren't just furniture now, but they aren't what they used to be, either. Music is something else, though. Whereas I don't often wish to reread a printed book or a passage of one, or at least can stomach not being able to, I really need to know where my CD's are. I don't read Braille, or I might label every CD with Braille Dymo tape. I posed my problem to a couple of blind Internet mailing lists, and got innovative ideas for everything from shelving strategies to powerful database programs that list title and track information when you insert a music disc in your CD-ROM drive. Not sure what I'll do, yet.
Michael: What about visual imagining? If you meet someone new, do you create a detailed picture of their face? Or if you listen to a novel on tape, can you easily visualize the scenes as they are described?
Joel: The answer to the second question is easier. Having experienced the world with unimpaired vision until middle age, I form mental images of descriptive prose as well and as readily as ever. My imagination is informed by rich, durable visual memory of things. Meeting people is quite different. It's only in the last two or three years that I've been unable to see someone's face as much more than a shadow or, under bright light, a flesh-colored blur. For the people I've met during this period, including some who are good friends now, I try hard to conjure up some sort of features, but all I manage, and that very fleetingly, is something like a crude police sketch. Sometimes I ask someone I trust to describe someone for me, and I plug key elements--sensual mouth, intelligent eyes, whatever--into the sketch to give it some specificity.
Michael: When I think about you, or if somebody says your name, an image of your face washes across the little screen inside my head, along with a kind of muted echo of the sound of your voice and maybe some flashes of little scenes, like the Cuban restaurant where we last got together. When you're thinking about one of your newer friends whose face you've never seen, what is the immediate qualitative experience for you? I'm guessing that you carry some sense of the person that's unique to them and is more immediate and visceral than your police sketch.
Joel: Ah, the internal audio-visual department. Hard-wired to memory, ready at a millisecond's notice. Seriously, as I still see, though with a muted, kaleidoscopic fragmentation, I pick up a lot of visual clues about a person. Physique, body language, clothing style and fit, and more. I even catch the face if I look away, though I can't claim to have "seen" it in the normal sense. So when I think of people more recently become part of my life, I have your same experience but perhaps with the person's voice a bit more prominent in the mix, along with those other faintly-seen details. In my imagination, I reflexively strain to picture the face, but of course draw something from a shadow to that police sketch, depending on my creative energy level, if you'll pardon the expression. I was thinking the Yiddish "coyach," meaning, roughly, "strength of spirit for coping."
Michael: I want to change the subject a bit, yet it seems close to memory and imagination: I'm talking about dreaming. Are your dreams still as clearly visual as before?
Joel: As always, I have dreams where I can't see very clearly, but more in the way we all may dream of running from danger but being unable to make much progress. Other times, at least as I recall, I see people and scenes as I used to, with normal detail and color. And now, added to the mix since my vision has been deteriorating, are dreams like the recent one where I was driving along a familiar stretch of the Hollywood Freeway, just like old times. The dashboard and the roadway looked nearly as foggy, faded, and blurred as they would in reality. I realized I had no driver's license, and that it would be a miracle if I made it another quarter mile without crashing, and wondered how on earth I'd gotten into the situation, and woke up with relief.
Michael: Yow, that sounds terrifying. When you've just had one of the other kind of dreams, one that is visually clear and detailed, and suddenly wake up with such vivid images right there in front of you, it must be a strange experience.

Joel: Strange, you bet. The archetypal rude awakening. I don't experience surprise, since the true state of my vision floods back into consciousness instantaneously and undeniably. What I do feel is a poignant sense of reinflicted loss, of repeated disillusionment. It's like that Bruce Connor film loop of the JFK assassination, "Report." The President and First Lady emerge from Air Force One, pose for the cameras at the top of the roll-up stairway, smiling, waving. Then the open Lincoln glides through Dealy Plaza, the President is hit, he slumps, the Secret Service swarms, and then Jack and Jackie are in the plane's doorway, smiling and waving. Over and over again. Worst is when I dream of love. Clearly seeing eyes, and lips, then emerging from the dream to lose not just the wish-fulfillment of romance but the prospect of seeing its physical, actual face, ever again.


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