The Boy in the Picture

100_8036

The Boy (there is not really a ten foot trout jumping up the waterfall.) My boy added that.

On the wall of my bedroom is a picture. It was given to me by my Mother who took it, had it enlarged, and had it framed. It is on the wall where I see it first thing in the morning when I swing my feet to the floor and stand up.

The picture is of a boy. The boy sits on a rock looking at a waterfall. Because I know a bit of the history of the picture I know that the rock and the waterfall and the boy are in Yellowstone National Park. The boy faces away, always, with his back turned to the camera. He is pensive, silent. It is clear to me that he doesn’t know about the camera. He is oblivious to everything around him but the waterfall. Waterfalls can do that.

The boy is a teenager. He is thin and gangly but not slouchy. He sits up straight (as his mother undoubtedly told him to) because he is a good boy. He is a good boy and he is a smart boy but his clothing reveals that he is not a “cool” boy. Here in the middle of a forest in the middle of a national park in the middle of the Summer he is wearing a button down shirt and blue jeans. His “cool” brother is undoubtedly clad in shorts and a t-shirt.

The boy sits on the rock watching the water flow down through the canyon and he holds his jacket folded in his lap. He is calm, you might say serene. He seems at ease here in a way that he is not anywhere else. Being here in nature, watching the simple, eternal cycle of water evaporating up and running back down gives him a respite from the ceaseless barrage of teenage thoughts and the endless interior monolog in his head. Here on this rock he can forget about the compulsion to behave and to do well and to study hard and to achieve great things. In this place he can stop the flow of hormone-driven nonsense that colors his view of the world and the other people in it; girls, jocks, bullies, teachers, adults. I think the boy on the rock, in that moment, wishes he could stop the relentless flow of time and sit there, if not forever, then at least a little bit longer.

I wake up every morning and I look at the boy sitting on the rock. There are times I wish I could talk to him. I wish I could tell him a few things that I know about the world but he doesn’t. I wish I could make his life easier. What would I tell him? I would tell him that a lot of the things he worries about just aren’t going to matter in a few years. I would tell him that some of the people in his life that he trusts or admires will let him down or hurt him. I would tell him what moves to make and perhaps what moves not to make in this great chess game called life. I would like to save him some grief. I would like to help him find more joy.

Mostly I would like to offer him some valuable knowledge that he will otherwise acquire through pain and embarrassment. There is so much a teenage boy thinks he knows that just isn’t so. His certitude primes him for disappointment and mistakes. He needs somebody who has experienced the world to help him navigate this perplexing place. But he won’t listen. He won’t hear it even though he is a good boy. He didn’t listen to his Mom or his Dad. He had to make the mistakes on his own. He is a silly stubborn boy!

All of us grizzled and jaded adults want to talk to the boy in the picture. We have seen suffering and we want to save him from it. We have tasted defeat and we want to rig the game in his favor. We have felt heartache and we want to help him dodge it. We want to trim the gristle off of life for him so he can enjoy the steak. But life is a marbled piece of meat. The good times and the bad times are inextricably intertwined. The people who give us the most pain are capable, at times, of giving us the most joy. Decisions which were clearly mistakes teach us something of value, even if it’s only the mundane lesson not to touch a hot stove a second time.

And if we could talk to the boy in the picture would we really know what to tell him? Have we learned anything true from our own experience? Would we tell him how to avoid our fate? As I lie in this bed snuggled against my wife, the absolute joy of my life, or stand silent in the hallway in the middle of the night listening to the most profoundly wonderful sound I will ever hear, my children’s breathing, I’m not so sure. Would I dare lead the boy away from a path which might be difficult but which will ultimately bring him to the warm place next to his soul mate, a woman who loves him and understands him and forgives him? Would I dare divert him even one degree from the true course that leads here, to this quiet hallway, to this bed?

When I consider, from the vantage point of age, what I would like to teach this boy about the world, I am troubled by a fleeting thought. What if the truth of the matter is this; I wish I didn’t know some of the things he doesn’t know. Sometimes I wish the boy could untell me things. I wish he could unteach me some of the bitter lessons I learned along the way. I wish he could teach me instead to trust people again. I wish he could help me forget all those things I know about the cruelty and greed and pettiness of other people. I wish he could teach me the pleasure of sitting on a rock.

The boy in the picture never changes. He is fifteen years old forever and there is no way I will ever teach him anything. But there may be, just possibly, a way for him to teach me a few things by his serene example. Maybe if I study the picture I can unlearn the cynicism and sarcasm that separates me sometimes from the ones I love. Maybe I can learn to forgive the people in my life who have let me down or disappointed me. Maybe I can learn, from the boy in the picture, how to just sit on a rock sometimes and let the world flow around me like a waterfall.

by: Dustin Joy

Memory

I have sometimes heard people say, “I will remember that if I live to be 100.” It’s one of those statements that breeze out the mouth and disappear into the air without meaning much. Or, somebody might say, “I will never forget the time …..” Again, the listener, with no prior investment in the story may or may not retain it for five minutes. But it is doubtless the teller does remember, with a vividness that the original event may have lacked.

We all remember things that, indeed, we will remember if we live to be 100. Some are remembered because of their novelty, or due to some physical impact which left us shaken, or elated, or ….. name your emotion. Strong ones are remembered. This, according to the Fundamentals of Instructing, a flight instructor’s handbook, is called the Law of Effect. We remember those things which, for us, have a strong emotional impact, usually pleasant, but nearly as often unpleasant.

We also remember things which are vivid. Flight instructors call this phenomenon the Law of Intensity. A student learns more easily how to fly an airplane by flying an airplane than by an equivalent period of time reading a book about flying an airplane.

The Law of Primacy is another which effects our learning and remembering. It says, “Things learned first create a strong impression in the mind that is difficult to erase. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time.” This, too, is common sense. We see it in ourselves daily as we continue to do a thing incorrectly despite understanding our error. After all, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

We remember things well which are nearest us in time. This is the Law of Recency. It is elementary that one remembers a magazine article that one read yesterday better than the details of a book read last August. Memory, to be sure, is a volatile substance and it tends to evaporate and diminish with time.

That is all well and good and we are all familiar with these phenomena. Having said that, however, one is compelled to observe that not all memory is like that. There are indeed episodes in our lives that we will remember with incredible detail until we die and nobody, not even the almighty and intrepid flight instructor, can explain why. There seem to be outliers, memories that stay with us no matter when they happened, no matter what they consist of. One assumes that they follow the Laws of Learning in some complicated way that is not clear. It can only be said that the particular anecdote in question flips a switch in the mind that all the others have not. Some very vivid memories fade with time. Others, which seem to have less import, are retained throughout life.

When I was seven I broke my finger. Actually my good friend struck the blow which broke it with a little shovel as we were digging together in a sand pile. I retain the scar to this day. This experience should live prominently among the memories of my childhood. Why? Well, for one thing, it was presumably painful. Not only would the initial blow have hurt but there were complications with setting the bone. After weeks in a pseudo-cast the bone was not healing properly and had to be reset with a metal pin protruding from the end of my finger. All this would seem significantly vivid and emotional to trigger the Laws of Intensity and Effect. But I remember very little of the experience and much of the detail I do remember may have been supplied by my parents. I don’t remember getting chopped by a shovel and I don’t remember two hospitalizations. Granted, they are there in the little gray cells, but they are foggy, shrouded, and patchy. Oddly, though, I remember in great detail a trifling episode which happened concurrently involving my third grader teacher.

Mrs. Spence had sent me to the office with a note of some kind, not concerning me. Instead of delivering the note promptly, I got sidetracked and spent considerable time talking to my second grade teacher, Mrs. Pinger, in the library. When I did not return with the expected response Mrs. Spence came looking for me. I will always remember the words she used when she finally found me. She said, “Mr. Joy, I have a bone to pick with you.” There are a number of theories I have developed to explain the retention of this meaningless experience for forty years:

1. I had never been addressed as Mr. Joy before, it was a novelty.

2. I had never heard the term “bone to pick” before. Perhaps I took it to be a more menacing phrase than it actually is and remembered the incident with fear.

3. It may have been the first time I got “in trouble” with a teacher. Perhaps the reproach of an authority figure, whose approval I sought was traumatic enough to etch the incident in my memory.

4. Perhaps my undeveloped social sense had for the first time recognized a crack in the previously monolithic world of adults. I definitely understood that Mrs. Spense was not only angry at me, but also at Mrs. Pinger. This may have constituted a remarkable discovery.

All these theories contain possibilities, but none seems more substantial than having your finger mashed by a spade and being put to sleep in an operating room. Certainly the event meant nothing to anyone else. Mrs. Spense, if she remembered me even, would never recall the incident in the hundred years that I will retain it.

If you think I’m exaggerating a bit, consider this. My Grandmother often related to me the story of an insult she fancied had been made against her by a teacher in high school. That would have been about 1935. Until dementia overtook her in her nineties she could describe in exacting detail the stitches her home economics teacher made her cut out of a garment she was sewing. That was almost eighty years ago. People who can’t remember their own blood type will have such incidents seared into their memories until they shuffle off this mortal coil. Sometimes these trivial incidents are all that are left for an Alzheimer’s patient when even the names of their loved ones have faded.

Memory is a fickle student. Try as I might I cannot retain certain facts that would serve me well in my career. Yet I’m sure that on my deathbed I will be able to sing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Neuroscientists tell us that it is possible to train the memory for improved performance. Techniques exist to organize information in the mind for recall of facts, figures, and even faces. The resilience of Gilligan’s theme song tells us that this can happen naturally. If one person could demonstrate the focus required to replace the cobwebs and augment the trivia of daily life with useful and pertinent information he or she would be the literal King of the World. In the meantime, “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…”

Postscript: I am very interested in these memory conundrums. I would be interested in your experience, also. Please feel free to share in the comments section of this article any odd experiences you might have had with memory (insignificant incidents which were burned into your psyche, or vivid and impactful events which didn’t make the cut.) And, if you want, speculate why this might be. Thanks for reading.