Bad Idea: the Day I Shot Somebody

Ideas can transform our world.

Combination-Set-Traditional-Archery-White-Pigskin-Longbow-Recurve-Bow-6-Bamboo-Arrows-30-80LBS-CB2T5For example, my step-brother and I once concocted a horrible idea that almost killed someone. At eleven years old, we had received bow and arrow sets for Christmas. Impatient to shoot these beautiful fiberglass recurves, we yearned for New England’s waist deep snow to melt. When the spring thaw finally arrived, we ran out onto our soggy lawn on a Saturday morning, set up hay bales as a backstop, and took aim at paper targets.

Our endless winter wait had come to a close! Taking turns, we loosed our arrows at the bullseye. Back and forth from stance to target, we shot and then plucked our arrows from the hay bales. We quickly learned one of the truths of archery: lobbing arrows at a target is very… boring.

“How far do you think I can shoot this baby?” I asked.

Matthew’s eyes brightened. “I don’t know,” he said.

A bad idea was born.

I leaned back and let an arrow fly high over a knoll toward the shuttered grange hall’s green. That arrow arced through the spring blue with what seemed single-minded focus and disappeared over the hill.

It was captivating. It was better than measly target shooting. It was glorious!

“I’m going to run out to see where they’re landing!” Matthew said.

My bad idea had just gotten somewhat worse; now at least one person definitely stood downrange. Semi-sheltered by an awning, Matthew watched from the doorway of a nearby preschool.

“Ready?” I yelled.

He nodded. I pulled back, aimed high, and was about to release when, because of the steep angle and my poor technique, the arrow fell from its rest atop my hand. The string slipped from my fingers, the bow twanged, and that arrow leapt up at an odd slant.

Bad-IdeaMurphy’s Law states: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. I’ve come to learn that bad ideas are particularly susceptible to this law.

I watched as that arrow blazed through the sky toward our neighborhood preschool. Of the innumerable paths that arrow could have taken, it fell in a perfect and unbelievable beeline toward my stepbrother. Like a center fielder – like a center fielder who does NOT want to catch an incoming pop fly – he danced to his right, he danced to his left. I watched with dread as that arrow seemed to target him like a heat-seeking missile.

It struck my step-brother dead center, and he fell back into the entryway of the school. Horrorstricken, I threw down that blasted bow and ran to find out if it I had killed him. As I sprinted, I could see only Matthew’s legs splayed out over the preschool’s steps. When I arrived, wide-eyed and panicked, he groaned, sat up, and lifted his shirt. A welt rose where the arrow had been denied entry to a lung by one of his skinny ribs.

Bad ideas sometimes seem to have a life of their own, and they can do unbelievable harm. In this particular case, I was lucky that my bad idea did relatively little damage. History, though, brims over with examples of horrible ideas and beliefs stripping people of dignity, life, liberty, and happiness. Nazism, religious crusades and terrorism, the divine right of kings, communism, and the inferiority of women come to mind, to name only a few. These bad ideas reduce human flourishing.

BN-GL677_bkrvmo_FR_20150115131932In his book, The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer explores the theory that bad ideas are on the wane. He presents evidence that we live in an ever more moral world. He shows that overall global violence has fallen, political freedoms have proliferated, gender equality is on the rise, and laws gradually improve to treat people more fairly and justly. Thanks to the Enlightenment and to scientific thought, Shermer argues, good ideas are thriving, ideas like democracy, separation of church and state, regulated free markets, egalitarianism, human rights, the scientific method, literacy and public education.

Despite evidence of an upward trend, good ideas don’t always come easily. Often they must battle regressive notions grounded in ignorance, tradition, superstition, sanctity, or self-service. Just this morning I read a story about two albino children in Africa whose arms were cut off for use in potions, because of a misguided belief that their flesh carries special powers.

Shermer writes, “In the long run, it is the force of ideas even more than the force of arms that marshal moral advancement, as notions such as slavery gradually inch by degrees from morally good to acceptable to questionable; to unacceptable to immoral to illegal; and finally they shift altogether from unthinkable to utterly unthought of.”

Thanks to many thinkers and many years of progress throughout history, I can now take aim along the range of reason, science, and kindness.

3364936c3eb87987c64904c89a81b2c3

Originally published September 2015 in the Moab Sun News.

Advertisements

Busted Brains, Broken Backs, and Hungry Bears: the Anatomy of Luck

A ventilator breathed for the 14-year-old boy in the bed next to mine at Massachusetts General Hospital’s intensive-care unit. Jared had been celebrating the Fourth of July with his family at the beach. It was a perfect summer day on Cape Cod – sunny and hot. He’d run through the water to dive into the waves like so many have done in our oceans. But his angle wasn’t right. Or a swell pushed him off balance. Or the Atlantic tide had created an irregular dune beneath the water. Whatever the cause, Jared’s forehead connected with the sandy bottom. His skinny teen body followed, bent his neck back, and severed his spinal cord.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this. Probably saved my life. Unfortunately, Jared had nothing to protect his spine.

On the same summer afternoon that Jared’s paltry weight broke his neck, I’d been hit head-on by a car doing thirty miles per hour. My bicycle and I shattered against two tons of steel and tempered glass.

Jared, my neighbor in Mass-General’s ICU, was paralyzed from the neck down. I don’t know if he’s alive 15 years later. If so, he is still paralyzed. Meanwhile, after a couple months of physical and speech therapy following my accident, I went to college as planned. I got back on my bicycle. I held books in my hands and wrote papers and embarked on the rest of my life.

How did I escape Jared’s fate?

I have no reasonable explanation. I have nothing to credit with my good fortune and Jared’s rotten break.

Not just this once either. I own a vast catalog of moments when the universe didn’t crush me. Like that day I plummeted headfirst through a hatch in our three-story treehouse and walked away unscathed. Like that time I accidentally shot my step-brother with a bow and arrow, but the arrow was denied entry to a lung by one skinny rib. Like the fall I took rock climbing when my belayer had only just grabbed the rope again after getting stabbed with cactus spines that had been hitchhiking on the rope. The list goes on and on.

I’m not alone. I imagine that, like me, you’ve fortuitously dodged some bullets in your day. And some you haven’t.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

As time passes, I more deeply understand how we’re at the whim of forces beyond our control. Everything – motorists passing on the highways and meteorites plummeting toward Earth and freak irregularities of beach sand – it all unfolds here with a complexity that defies pat comprehension.

Still, many people claim to understand and pretend to be masters of fate. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, said, “People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have.”  Lucky people say these things as if hard work and good sense are a recipe for serendipity. Tell that to Sudanese children born into abject poverty, disease, and malnutrition. Explain sensible acts to homeless families in LA who own zero resources – financial or scholarly. Expect more from women subjugated by ISIS in a land from which there is no escape. Criticize that eighteen-year-old for poor judgement when he contracted a rare and fatal brain cancer. The award for supreme arrogance goes to Earl Wilson, who said, “Success is simply a matter of luck. Ask any failure.” The blindness required to make such a statement is also just another product of happenstance. Mr. Wilson simply hasn’t had the opportunity or insight to see that the clockwork of the universe does not hinge on our petty desires as we scurry around in search of food, money, and love.

A friend of mine recently wrote: “I’m not a big fan of the term ‘luck.’” I share his discomfort with the notion of fate or destiny. And I also acknowledge that people everywhere should make good choices. However, I just don’t know what else to call this thing that keeps us alive… for now.

The more one delves without prejudice into the causes of life’s twists and turns, the more random they seem. Accident and serendipity are doled out with perfect irregularity, which provides a somewhat irksome explanation as to why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Solace might be found, I suppose, in the idea that strokes of misfortune aren’t aimed with malicious intent. But by the same token, we must also acknowledge that no credit or praise is due when a lucky break falls into our lap.

I happen to agree completely with Larry King on this point, who said, “Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.”

bear

My close encounter with a hungry Black bear last summer in British Columbia left me at a loss to explain why the bear chose to pursue three other people instead of me.

It’s easy to kid ourselves. After all, a strong illusion holds my world together. It’s the illusion of control. I choose this. I allow that. I plan this. I expect that. I think of my life as a clock, and I am the time-keeper. Every now and then, though, when a rock falls nearby at the crag or when a bear steps from behind a boulder to stare at me hungrily or when my phone rings in the middle of the night, I remember that I am but a small boat on a wild and changeable sea.

That collision with an automobile pushed me right to the edge. In the end, I walked away with a shattered helmet, a few deficits of memory, and a jaw that’s a little cockeyed. Even fifteen years after getting crushed by that car, I still have only one story to tell. It is a story of luck — in every sense, good and bad. It is the same story that moves my fingers on this keyboard and recently broke my friend’s back and engineered your remarkable eyes. We are pinballs in a crazy game of life, whether we want to believe it or not.

For the time being, I’m going to embrace the one thing that makes more sense to me with each turn of this planet: gratitude. We live on a tsunami of happenstance. Riding this crest, I will dissolve into appreciation, because anxiety about things outside my control only robs these days of their terrifying and precious beauty.

Forget fear. I will run. I will breathe. I will laugh. And cry. I will take chances and love people and be awestruck by the tree outside my window and my wife’s perfect smile. I will appreciate every goddamn moment given to me by this savage universe. I will do these things until my luck runs out. And I will do it all with the hope that a kind destiny favors my path and yours.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

IMG_3801

Reaching to the Other Side

I remember.

Hospital BedWhen I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”

Duly warned, my friends and family waited.

Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”

Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.

But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?

A hand in mine.

Hand in HandI remember that human contact as if it were the first experience of my life. Somebody was holding my hand, and I gave three squeezes, a coded message of words I cannot forget.

I. Love. You.

When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.

I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.

I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”

Bill Moyers talked with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Bill Moyers’ interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.

In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.

Found here.

A good example of the irrational tribal mind. Found here.

I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.

So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.

As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:

I. Love. You.

I love you America. I love you fellow American.

Never STOP Loving

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)

A Story of Honor

Gear

Yesterday, 22-year-old Zach Taylor, a graduate of Grand County High School and student at the University of Utah, died in a rappelling accident. Zach’s kind father happens to be a volunteer for the mentoring program I oversee. I know nothing about the circumstances of Zach’s death, except what his mother shared in a public Facebook update:

“I had the most amazing day with my son, Zach Taylor on Saturday. It was just the two of us, and our dog Ubu, going on an adventure. I didn’t realize it would be part of a goodbye. He died yesterday while hiking and rappelling with friends, doing what he loved to do most. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I call him, unabashedly, my favorite child. And his siblings handled my favoritism well, because they admitted that he, too, was their favorite sibling. Zach was pure energy. May he continue to be so in this next life as well.”

Many people decry risky pursuits as selfish (such as canyoneering deep in the backcountry). Yet Zach’s mother handles the circumstances with utter understanding. In fact, her online elegy flies in the face of a recent blog post by Steve Casimiro. In this post, Steve wrote:

“‘Hey, Glenn,’ I said to my partner. ‘If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.’ He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.

“Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.

“Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.”

Meanwhile, Zach’s mother seems to take solace from the fact that her son died doing something he loved, even if that act resulted in disaster, possibly from a mistake. And why shouldn’t she? Naturally, life is preferable, but isn’t it better that her son died in a climbing accident rather than from, say, a random dose of food poisoning? He died in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wild canyons of adventure. Regardless of whether the accident was preventable or not, Zach was doing something he loved, probably riding high.

CanyonEvery adventurer who knowingly (but not recklessly) risks the ultimate cost has earned my respect. So too have hobbyists of mellower pursuits. They have all chosen causes that transcend the mundane requirements of life through bowling and playing music… or mountains and big waves and dirt bikes and BASE jumping and riding horses, because life would otherwise mean too little. I honor their selection of the right tools to make meaning for themselves. I honor them by calling death untimely but not tragedy. Sad? Yes. Are we bereft of good people like Zach? Yes. But I will not dishonor my friend’s big life choice that put her forever under an avalanche in the Himalaya or Michael Reardon’s soloing pursuit that put him under the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Their decisions did not end in senseless deaths. No, they resulted in lives powerfully lived, albeit shorter than most.

I salute also those who recognize in others the primacy of instinct. Apparently Zach always loved to climb. His mother, still perfectly unapologetic about her son’s native spirit, went on to share a Facebook link to this story of his childhood:

“A couple of months into school I was asked to visit with his teacher. It seems that Zach was getting in trouble for climbing. He climbed the fences. He climbed the walls. He climbed onto the roof. He climbed onto the top of the swingset. He climbed onto the top of the slide where you’re not supposed to climb.

“The teacher told me all of this very emphatically with a scowl and furrowed brows. I nodded, listened. Inside I was thinking how incredibly adventurous my son was and was giving him a mental high five. Perhaps reading my thoughts, she decided to scold me like she had been scolding him, ‘Don’t you know how dangerous that could be? He could fall!’

“I said I would talk with him. And I did.

“‘Don’t climb at school.’

“And then I bought him a membership at a local climbing gym.”

I’m glad Zach’s mother hasn’t dishonored her son by labeling his passions selfish. Every pursuit (and every act) is fundamentally selfish, unless it happens to coincidentally benefit others. It’s nobody’s fault that some hobbies are more dangerous than others. I can blame nobody for the fact that beach volleyball doesn’t tickle me. And therefore, I allow others to chart their crazy courses as best they can without my passing judgment on the roots of their desire.

While some may argue about what is or isn’t an acceptable level of risk, I hope the people who love Zach will do his memory the courtesy of recognizing his decisions as central to the tenets of the person he was. I will celebrate the life he lived even though I didn’t know him.

BoulderingAnd if I die rock climbing or mountain biking or on an adventure, I hope my family and friends take comfort from the idea that I died doing something I loved. It will require a big mistake or an act of god to snuff out this life – which, by the way, could also occur on the interstate – because I do want to live. I am careful out there, by my definition of the word. I want to climb and laugh and hug another day. But if some hazard, whether objective or subjective, takes me out, please be consoled by the fact that it happened when I was seeking that which makes life meaningful.

If I die from botulism, though, feel free to call it tragedy.

So yes. I ask you, those whom I love, to take care while in pursuit of your dreams. I want to share in future adventures. I want to hear about the meaning you’ve made using the tools and variables at your disposal. And I hope you will forgive me if I judge your life well lived regardless of how it might end but rather by the light of your inspiration.

Mountain

AMNESIA Goes to Court

The woman’s insurance company respectfully informed me that I still owed $2,650 in damages. My head shattered the Nissan Pathfinder’s windshield, my bike scratched the body panels, and my torso tore off a side-view mirror. Somebody had to pay for this. “We are looking to you for full reimbursement of the Net Loss. Very truly yours, Greg McDonnell, Claims Representative.”

Their letterhead assured me of a commitment to excellence: “Insurance that starts with you.”

The letter came just a few weeks after I started eating again. My jawbone had healed. My short-term memory had improved so I could remember a little bit of what happened in the previous day. I was creating new memories and beginning to understand just how much I had forgotten from the last two years of high school; college classes were tough.

The letter went into the trash where their other claims had vanished.

Some people decry our overly litigious society. I’m one of them. I recently read about an accused murderer suing two of his former hostages after being shot when they escaped and informed police of his whereabouts. A lady sued Universal Studios after being too scared in their haunted house.

However, the lawsuit is a bulwark against corporate turpitude and lawbreaking by individuals, and many claims merit attention. For example, U.S. states won a multi-billion-dollar settlement from cigarette makers. Countless individuals have been favored over corporations and other individuals for illegal behavior. Going to court isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s the only gesture that will be understood and the only recourse in seeking justice.

Witnesses said the sound of impact was memorable.

A new letter said the insurance company would seek damages to its client’s automobile in court.

I didn’t know what to do. I went to the person I most trusted at the university, my professor of religious history who had taken me under his wing. Professor Stein welcomed me warmly to his office, sat down in an old, stuffed chair, and held the letter out to read. His great beard wobbled as his lips sped silently over the words. I gave him the police report too. While he read, I studied his observant Jewish attire, the tassels from the tzitzit worn under his black jacket, a black hat on the coat rack.

“This is absurd,” he said, waving the letter. “She hit you!”

“What should I do?”

“I will contact a friend about this. The best lawyer in Vermont. We’ll see what he says.”

Countersuit was what he said. We met in one of the tallest buildings in downtown Burlington, right next to the courthouse. James Rivlin reviewed the accident report and explained that I could sue the driver.

“What are your goals for this lawsuit?” he asked.

“I don’t want to pay for the damage to the car. And I suppose her insurance company should get the message that this is wrong. Originally I just wanted to move on with my life, to put the whole thing behind me. But now that they’ve dragged me back into this crap…”

“If you sue for the maximum liability coverage, only her insurance company will have to pay. The driver won’t have to pay anything. For her policy, that’s three hundred thousand dollars. It’s a good case, and Professor Stein is a friend. We can do the work pro bono.”

“Um. Okay.”

Once the process was set in motion, it gained its own momentum. I occasionally stopped by the Rivlin offices to work with an investigator, Brian Stone. He wrote everything down with a gold mechanical pencil. Everything. Whenever he made a mistake, he paused and erased and rewrote. Other than the occasional meeting, I didn’t have much to do. My lawyers collected documents from police. They scheduled and carried out depositions.

Yay for helmets.

Later, the insurance company’s lawyers deposed me in a long interview in a Boston high-rise, during which I mostly said, “I don’t remember,” or answered yes or no without embellishment. My lawyers patted me on the back when we left. “I wish every client gave such concise answers,” Brian said. But it was only the truth. I didn’t remember anything about the accident. All else was merely conjecture.

During a grueling two-day evaluation in Brookline, a psychiatrist ran me through a gauntlet of tests. Math problems, puzzles, reciting lists of words from memory. A computer screen threw colors at me, and I had to press the spacebar when it blinked green. I drew charts from memory.

Several weeks later, her ten-page report arrived.

“Daniel’s rate of processing visually-presented material is impaired… He scored below the 1st percentile in comparison to others of his age and education…  Daniel was also impaired in his performance of the ACT, an aurally-presented task that is quite sensitive to difficulties with working memory, divided attention, and speed of processing… His subjective complaints of ongoing memory problems are therefore borne out not only by his inability to recall specific information from events occurring before and after his accident, but also by scores on formal memory tests that reflect a level of performance that is inconsistent with, and significantly lower than, premorbid ability.”

After getting fixed, this bike went on to carry me around Burlington and Yosemite National Park. Then my best friend Jed bought it from me. After a couple years of use, he passed it on to my brother, who owns it to this day.

And in the conclusion, she wrote: “The pattern of results suggests that Daniel may have sustained a blow to the left fronto-temporal region, affecting his working memory for verbally-presented material, followed by a more posterior blow to his right temporo-occipital-parietal area, affecting visual information processing and encoding. Reduced finger tapping with the right dominant hand also raises the likelihood of involvement of the right motor cortex.”

     Lower than expected.

     Deficits.

     Diminished. 

      <1st percentile.

      Poor performance. 

     More errors than expected.

     Impaired. 

     Impaired. 

     Impaired.

What price tag can be put on the inner workings of the mind? What value do our memories have? Would $300,000 make things better? Would I recoup full function even if I won a million dollars in court?

Of course, the answer was no.

The final line of the report wasn’t cheerful. “Since these deficits are still apparent over a year post-injury and given the severity of the injury initially, prognosis for a full recovery to premorbid levels of functioning is guarded.”

The court date drew near. I borrowed a sport coat and tie from my father. My mother bought me two pairs of pants and two shirts. I borrowed my stepfather’s shoes, which were a little tight but polished to a sheen. So familiar were they with my running clothes and beat up college wardrobe, Brian and James breathed real sighs of relief when I arrived at the courtroom in a mélange of borrowed attire.

“Dan is entirely realistic in his expectations. I have never had the impression that a large financial recovery is of great importance to him.”
–James Rivlin, Esq.

The defendant hadn’t shown up for the jury selection, but the insurance company’s lawyers were there.

Potential jury members filed in, a gloomy group of individuals who cast me sidelong, unfriendly looks. Who could blame them? They were torn out of their regular lives to judge a case that existed only because of an insurance company’s greed. After some preliminaries, the judge asked to talk with us in her chambers.

Thus began the arbitration. “Surely you can come to a settlement without going to trial,” she said. Judge Carter was a stately, gray-haired woman with a no-nonsense, penetrating gaze. She told us the insurance company was prepared to pay fifty thousand dollars to settle. My lawyers said no. Judge Carter went away to talk with the defendant’s attorneys in another room. I sat uncomfortably at the conference table, waiting in silence for their counter offer. Brian looked through some documentation. James gazed off to some other time and place. He said, “You’ll get a third of whatever they offer. One third will go to your health insurance company, and a third will cover our fee.”

The judge came back. “Sixty thousand.”

James looked at me. He looked at the judge. She looked at me. I shrugged.

“I think we can get more,” James said. He talked with the judge about our case. I spoke up a little, but I mostly let the attorneys do the spinning.

“You look healthy. You sound healthy,” the judge said to me.

“As Mr. Rivlin mentioned, I have memory problems.”

“A panoramic radiograph showed a horizontal, minimally displaced though well positioned, compound fracture at the inferior aspect of the vertical ramus.”
–Oral surgeon

“Okay.”

“And I had my jaw wired shut for five weeks. I couldn’t eat for more than a month.”

“There! See his pain and suffering! We should be going for more money!” James cried, as if my broken jaw were the real tragedy.

The judge went away.

She came back. “Ninety thousand. It’s their final offer.”

“A moment with our client please.” When Judge Carter was gone, Mr. Rivlin said, “What do you think, Daniel? Ninety thousand. We could get nothing if we go to court.”

“Or we could get more,” Brian pointed out.

“Let’s be done with it,” I said.

A month later a check arrived for $28,865.97. I’d never seen so much money in one note. I bought a used car. I spent thousands on travel and adventure and climbing equipment, determined to use the insurance company’s money to build up a new reservoir of memories. For three months I traveled across the country with my wife-to-be. We went to New Zealand and Thailand and Laos. Three years later, I backpacked across Europe with the last of my funds, and when they were gone, I kept going, never the same again.

But when are we ever the same?

AMNESIA: Memory as Identity

At eight years old, I was fascinated by the movie Regarding Henry. It stars Harrison Ford. His character suffers a traumatic brain injury from a gunshot wound. Henry has to piece his life back together, but the viewer knows he will never be the same, and in his case, that’s a good thing. He was a bastard before the mugging. Henry’s forgotten who he was and his memory’s been wiped clean. It’s a story of redemption through head trauma.

Never did I expect to go through a similar experience – in reverse. When you don’t start as a backstabbing, adulterous, mean guy and end up an angel, it’s a little harder to make meaning from the challenges of recreating yourself. When there’s no predetermined plot arc showing you the way to go, it feels a lot like being cut adrift.

Who am I?

I’m a collection of memories housed in a brain with unique wiring. But what happens when the structure gets jostled? What happens when some of the memories are dislodged and the wiring rerouted?

Am I the same person?

You could say we change every day, since we’re making new memories every day. And that’s true – to an extent. It’s a gentle change, though, a glacial shift hardly noticeable because the pace is typically so bloody slow.

An oncoming car connecting with a noggin at more than thirty miles per hour – that’s a recipe for fast change.

College.

I took only three classes, which earned me my first embarrassing C-level grades. My jaw had just been released from its metal prison, so I was eating again. I went to the dining hall and ran into a pretty girl from Proctor Academy, the prep school I attended in central New Hampshire. I guess that’s where we had known each other. She said, “Dan! Oh, it’s good to see you!” She grabbed me in a long, tight hug, and I smelled flowers in her hair.

“It’s good to– good to see you too,” I stammered.

“How’s running going? Are you on the team?”

“No, I’m not. Uh, how are you?”

“Great. I had a great summer. Field hockey is going well. How’s your mom? Here, do you want to stand in line with me?”

“Um, no. Sorry. I have to go meet someone.”

I ran away. I still don’t know who that nice girl was. She knew all about me, and I didn’t even recognize her. Not one bit. She didn’t even look familiar.

Believe me, this isn’t the only time it happened. A guy at the dorm mailroom reached out the window and grabbed my hand. “Dan! Hey, man, how are you?”

“I’m good. Sorry, gotta run to class.”

After these first two encounters and more, I began to understand how important memory is, not just for keeping track of your life, but for having an identity. What does it mean when you can’t remember somebody? It can only mean that you don’t care about them, that you don’t value them as a person and a contact. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth. I couldn’t bring myself to say:

“I’m sorry. When I was bicycling this summer, a car hit me. I have retrograde amnesia. Can you help me remember how we know each other?”

It’s a simple explanation – plausible and pitiable. But what if I had brought myself to say this? It would have been an admission that my memories of this person were gone. If one half of an equation disappears, the solution is meaningless. If someone doesn’t remember who you are, what’s the point? You can never go back. You can’t ever have the same relationship that you once did.

How much effort would you want to invest in an idiot without a single scrap of memory about all the time you spent together?

These were the easy encounters. Harder was learning from my mother that Jed, my best friend, spoke about me during his salutatorian speech. No, I didn’t remember graduation. Apparently among other things, Jed spoke about how after twelve years as best friends, we had grown even closer during our semester of travel with Mountain Classroom. No, I didn’t remember Mountain Classroom.

Harder was holding up the relationship I had with a girlfriend of three years. I didn’t feel as close to her. I didn’t remember so many of the things she remembered. I didn’t seem to value the same stuff as the old version of myself, partly because I couldn’t remember what I was like before the accident and partly because what I could remember seemed so foreign.

No, I didn’t remember her birthday.

No, I didn’t daydream about getting married.

No, I didn’t want to have kids.

No, I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.

As my brain healed, as I rose up out of a trauma-induced depression, I began to inventory the things in my life – my values and assumptions and principles. I held each one up for examination.

When your memories have been chopped up and destroyed, so that the people you knew look like strangers and those you remember are disappointed by what they see, there’s only one direction. Forward.

To what would I say yes? This is where my new plot line began. It’s not as flashy or redeeming as Henry’s. I haven’t solved a mystery or rebuilt a family. I said goodbye to my lost past and accepted that a new life lay ahead. That was the key to healing, the door to a new life: acceptance. Maybe this is a different plot line than I was supposed to have, but I like it. I’ve accepted the new me. Without this bit of personal redemption, I don’t think everything else could seem so damn beautiful to me.

AMNESIA

When I was eighteen years old, my life broke cleanly in two.

My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember.

An orange Cannondale racing bicycle delivered me to a fracture on the island of Martha’s Vineyard on the Fourth of July, 1999. An oncoming Nissan Pathfinder, driven by a sixteen-year-old with a carload of friends, turned across my path. Police present at the scene estimated my speed at the moment of impact above thirty miles per hour.

Much later I saw a photo of the car. It showed a windshield broken as if struck by a bowling ball. My head made that spider web of cracks. My body broke off the side mirror. My bike, cracked in two, scratched the side panels as momentum carried me along and dumped me on the pavement. The medics reported that I was combative. They cut off my backpack, detatched me from my clipless pedals, injected a sedative, and loaded me into a helicopter bound for Massachusetts General Hospital on the mainland.

I don’t remember a thing about the accident. Those three words became like a mantra.

I don’t remember… what happened.

I don’t remember… why I’m in the hospital.

I don’t remember… the last two years of my life.

Memory isn’t just one operation. It’s complex, broken up into different types and processes, and our imperfect knowledge about memory comes from studying people like me – people with amnesia – and also people with degenerative brain disorders.

The doctors warned my parents, and they warned my girlfriend. He might be different when he wakes. Brain trauma can change a person, especially cases so serious. He might be mean. Disagreeable. You might never again speak with the same person.

I woke after three days, aching and stupid. I asked why I was in the hospital so many times that the question feels like the shadow of a real memory. My family worried over me in the ICU as I slowly advanced through stages of near-infantile confusion to the capacity of a ten-year-old.

Two weeks later, the torture began.

They moved me to a rehabilitation center. Every day demonstrated the futility of my efforts.

“Say these numbers back to me: five, three, eight, six.”

“Um. Did you say five?”

Occupational therapy and speech therapy were like the rack and the iron maiden to my pulverized brain. Those wonderful, dedicated, talented women would clap me in irons daily to inflict pain. I hated failure. I hated myself. I hated the rehab center. I hated the ache in my jaw provoked by the meat served on cafeteria trays. Say, wasn’t I vegetarian before, you know, before all this?

“If you ate one red M&M and then one blue M&M, what was the color of the first M&M?”

“I don’t know.”

Denise, my occupational therapist, asked me to write down my meals. She wanted a full report on what I ate for breakfast, what I found for snacks in the trove my family brought during their visits. I forgot to write down what I was supposed to write down to remember. And this was my life. My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember. The notepad traveled around in my pocket like a piece of lint – useless and ignored and when found tossed aside because “What was this for?”

Getting lost in the rehab center was standard operating procedure. I didn’t know where my room was. I didn’t know where the PT facility was. Hey, they had a pool in here?

Then one day I saw the red cover and the black spiral of my notepad and an explosion of memory speared my mind. This was for writing, writing down something about food.

The explosions, those shocking moments when a series of neurons connect and fire together, they started happening more often. Pudding, chicken, and cereal. Soup, hotdogs, and iced tea.  Food began to fill up the pages of my memory journal. Then Denise stopped going easy on me. The torture escalated.

“What did you do in physical therapy today?”

“I don’t remember.”

“When did you last speak with your mother or father?”

I gazed out the window and wondered which day of the week it was. It looked like summer.

After a few weeks, they let me move home with my parents and continue therapy as an outpatient. Everything at home told me about something I had forgotten. I was supposed to go to college next month. I had been training to join the cross-country running team. Dozens of get-well cards said they were sorry. Photos surrounded me that I couldn’t place, places stared at me that I couldn’t name, names were gone like the future that was supposed to be waiting for me. Gone.

It wasn’t nice to be home.

Major depressive disorder is a frequent complication of [traumatic brain injury] that exerts a deleterious effect on the recovery process and psychosocial outcome of patients with brain injuries. (Jorge, Richardo, et al. Article.)

The weirdest part was looking at the photos. Not only did I not remember where and when many of them were taken, but I didn’t know that person in my body. Who was that? It wasn’t me. My parents confirmed it. My girlfriend agreed. So did the people who, evidently, were my friends. I was different. A different person. “I liked the old Dan better,” my father said.

My jaw, they discovered, was broken. “Wire it shut,” they said and wire it shut they did. For the next five weeks, I would drink calories through a straw, waste away to skin and bones because sucking is no way to eat.

At that time, I wanted nothing more than to go back, to return to my life and return to a personality everybody liked better, whatever it was. But I was off trail, standing in a wilderness that didn’t look familiar. There was no way to retrace my path, no landmarks or features showing me the way back.

That was the break. The fracture that split my life in two.

And life, as they say, went on. For me. For others. Proof arrived in the mail six weeks after the accident.

Please remit payment within four weeks after receiving this notification. You owe $2,650 in damages to our client’s Nissan Pathfinder.

Continue reading