Category Archives: Silly but True

Absent-Minded Professors

Most of us know somebody, often male, who can’t seem to remember details about things he has done or where he is supposed to be or people he has met and so on, but can effortlessly remember the physics or chemistry or math or economics required to explain some problem at hand — even though those courses were completed several decades ago. Men of this ilk can be extremely annoying to a wife who naturally assumes that if he really cared about her he would remember that they met at a particular restaurant, and would know that April 23rd is their anniversary without having to look it up, or — horrors — be reminded on the 24th.

I am travelling today, and over Skype I gave my son a laptop tour of my friend Magdalena’s house. “Nicholas and I painted this room together a few years ago,” Magdalena told him as we entered her living room.

After a short pause, I heard myself say “We did?”  Good thing she’s not my wife.

It turns out that it is possible to have lousy episodic memory but great semantic memory. Really, Magdalena — I’m not making this up. Episodic memory is memory about events — having met someone, having been somewhere, needing to be somewhere, etc. Semantic memory is about concepts. If tomorrow you explain to somebody the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory, you are using your semantic memory to do so. If you add that you read it in some guy’s blog, you are using your episodic memory. And if you explain this to your wife to justify having forgotten her birthday, you are using wishful thinking.

Fleeting Moments of Glory

(a true story)

As an eleven-year-old boy, I loved comic books.  Oh, and Star Trek — I wished I were a Vulcan. I wanted super powers and, more importantly, to be important to something, to matter.

Well, our neighbors had a swimming pool, and one summer they told us we could use it while they were gone on vacation. Way cool — I was over there several times a week. But one day in particular will always be indelibly imprinted on my brain.

The day was warm, and the water was refreshing. I had just popped up in the shallow end of the pool when all of a sudden I heard splashing in the deep end.

It was my mother, slapping at the water on one side and then the other. “What is she doing?” I wondered. And then Doh! — I remembered that while my mother could swim, she wasn’t particularly good at it. She must have panicked and was now flailing about wildly, right in the middle of the deepest part of the pool. Why was she even in the deep end?

Fortunately, I knew enough not to just swim over to try to help her — a drowning person will take you down with them unless you are very careful. My mother weighed way more than I did; I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

So instead I pushed through the water toward the side of the pool. I was in a hurry, and that water felt like molasses, resisting me every inch of the way. Finally I reached the edge; I hopped out, ran up the side of the pool to the ladder in the deep end, and got in again.

Hanging onto the ladder, I reached out as far as I could. She was way out there, splashing frantically, gasping — I wasn’t sure I could reach her. I held out my hand, trying to get it underneath hers as she slapped at the water again and again. Then, success! I caught the tips of her fingers with the tips of my own, then lifted and slowly pulled her over to the side, careful not to lose that hold on those fingertips, guiding her hands to the safety of the pool edge.

For almost a minute she just held on to the edge of the pool, coughing and gasping. She had indeed taken in some water. That’s when it hit me: I had saved her life. Nobody else had heard her distress. If I hadn’t intervened, she couldn’t have lasted much longer, and would never have made it to safety on her own. There was no question — she would have died in short order.

Whoa — I had saved a life! How many people can truly say that they have saved a life, that because of their actions somebody who surely would have died did not die after all. I felt a rush of emotion — I, who generally felt that I hardly mattered to anyone, suddenly felt that I was a hero, that I had instantly and unexpectedly been granted membership, in a small but incredibly important way, to an elite circle of distinguished individuals. In my young mind it almost seemed that Batman and Spiderman were looking over at me with approval. “Good save, kid,” Spiderman said in my mind, folding his arms across his muscular chest and looking down at us.

I was a hero. At age eleven I had really, truly saved a life. Man!

Swelling with pride, I waited in the water with my mother as she coughed out all of the water in her lungs. Then, finally, I could tell she was about to say something. I couldn’t wait to hear it.

Slowly she turned to me and uttered, between coughs, those seven words that I will never, ever forget:





“What  took  you  so  GOD – DAMNED  LONG !?!”


The Boredom Hymn of the Repugnant

I frequently review books, and often find that they studiously avoid the use of charts, tables, or formulas, even when such devices would make the text much clearer. I’ve seen paragraphs that were essentially the rows and columns of some unseen table, written out in English prose — horrible. No doubt the publisher advised against any hint of mathematics so as not to scare off potential buyers. I can’t help but wonder whether the alleged aversion is exaggerated in the minds of publishers, to the detriment of readers everywhere.

Anyway, my annoyance with books written for these hypothetical chartophobes inspired me to hijack the tune to The Battle Hymn of the Republic (“Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory …”) in order to create a song for all those imaginary potential buyers the publishers don’t want to scare off. Sing it, please, to these fine instrumentals:

The Boredom Hymn of the Repugnant

Mine eyes have just glazed over
‘Cause this book contains a graph.
How dare they put this in here,
In high school I sucked at math.
I want constant entertainment,
Not some complicated task.
In truth I’m a moron.

Sorry, moron did we LOSE ya?
Oh, we didn’t mean to LOSE ya.
No, we can’t afford to LOSE ya,
So we’ll dumb the book down.

Oh, my parents blamed my teachers
For my lack of aptitude,
While my teachers cursed my parents
When I was bored, asleep, or rude.
Books just can’t hold my attention,
‘Less there’s some babe in there nude.
In truth I’m a moron.

Sorry, moron did we LOSE ya?
Oh, we didn’t mean to LOSE ya.
No, we can’t afford to LOSE ya,
So we’ll dumb the book down.

Just kidding. Mostly.

Childhood Pranks

I was talking with my brother-in-law recently about childhood pranks. Some kids get a kick out of doing real harm — hmmm.

That got me thinking about the few pranks I had pulled as a child. The worst I remember (of course you never know when selective memory is kicking in) was on my sister Linda, when I was probably about ten years old. The whole family was watching TV, and she was up front, in a big black wooden rocking chair. Occasionally she jumped up to adjust the volume on the TV, and it seemed to me that she was just backing up and plopping down in the chair without turning around to look or feeling for the arm, that she was just retracing her steps backwards.

I felt a need to verify that hypothesis. So quick as a bunny I pulled the rocking chair back 3 feet — on the carpet it made very little noise. Sure enough, she took two steps back and sat down in the chair that was no longer there. Landed right on her tailbone — ouch! Everyone else, including our parents, just sat there and watched the whole thing with a chuckle. The weird thing is that while part of the draw was the prank aspect, I was really very curious — it seemed like an interesting experiment. I’m pretty sure Linda didn’t see it that way.

That was probably the highlight of my scientific career.