It’s a small, small town: Jury Duty, Ex-Husbands and Transactive Memory

Anecdote about life in a small world  town:

I was on jury duty recently (I get called up every 2 years, religiously) and I was chosen to be on a 6-person jury for one of those very sad cases of ongoing, alcohol-fueled  domestic abuse where the woman in the relationship was fighting against losing her breadwinning boyfriend despite the court’s paternalistic good intentions (I clearly have mixed feelings about all this, but that’s another posting–first I’d like to investigate what services were provided for them both after the fact).

Anyway, we jurors were locked in a room together, deliberating, and as juries go, we were quite diverse in terms of ages, backgrounds, and geography (our rural county covers a very large geographic area).  But before we began the eldest man on the jury started to share a few stories about me and my 8+ long years ago ex husband (whose name he said, much to my shameful delight, with a bit of a sneer): it seems he was one of the main post office workers in the downtown branch where private mailboxes are located, and where, as in any smallish town, everyone is seen.  Luckily, he stuck to fairly innocuous stories to share with everyone, but still, this was one of the more interesting small town encounters I’ve had since I moved here (from Brooklyn, NY–with its own small town-ish believe it or not).

Why bring this up now? Well, I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” now (yes, a few years behind the curve, I know, but you should see the pile of books next to my bed) and just finished the chapter where he discusses what he calls “transactive memory”: basically, the theory that we humans practice distributed memory by sharing memory space with those we are in relationship with in some way. For example, I don’t bother remembering how to reprogram the VCR after a power outage because my s.o. remembers it just fine.  And I don’t both trying to remember every detail of my 2nd grade choral recital because mom has those details stored in her own deep, detailed memory.

Now I did not at all remember this post office worker, so I was a little concerned about his detailed memory of me and my ex. So I e-mailed the ex to confirm both the stories and that this man wasn’t an alien, and yes, the ex remembered even more stories about our connections to the postal worker. The e-mail conversations were brief, but polite (even friendly) and thus I regained some of my lost memory of that time in my life.

Gladwell does point out that one reason (of very, very many) that divorce is so emotionally devastating is the loss of that transactive memory.

Just one of those ideas I hadn’t articulated for myself yet, even many years after that divorce. 

This posting also responds to Today’s Word in Journalism on Small Minds (not Towns) about people who discuss ideas, events and people: I believe I touched on all three in this posting. So what does that make me?

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Kindness, Cookies, and Recent Reads

  • This was sent to me today: A heart-warming holiday sort of story out of Eugene, Oregon (famous for Prefontaine, Bowerman and Phil Knight, as well as Animal House and rain—oh, yes, and Ducks): the Random Acts of Kindness Club is booted out of the mall for being, well, kind.
  • My partner made a batch of Sybil Vane’s pumpkin chocolate chip cookies (you can get the recipe here) and they were delicious.  I highly recommend them!
  • Finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on teaching and “withitness”–the almost un-teachable quality of a good teacher (and frankly, a good communicator in general): “Most Likely To Succeed”.  Having worked as a mentor with and evaluator of new instructors for the last 15 years, I’ve always struggled to explain this concept to struggling teachers.  “Withitness” is simply the understanding that the students’ learning process is more important than the material itself.  I could live without the football analogy he starts and ends the essay with,  however.  I see this with my students, too: there are certain “triggers”–words or topics–that make some readers shut down before they even get to the meat of an essay (or book).  To me the triggers are sports and obscure political references, clearly because those are weak spots in my knowledge-base, and, as a result of my ignorance,  they simply bore me as topics of interest.  Now, give me a food, popular culture, shopping, literary or sexual allusion and I’m right with you.
  • I also just finished Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves a series of beautifully told, interconnected tales about a community with a painful past.  The link is to Michiko Kakutani’s thoughtful review of the novel.  The effect of reading the novel is incredibly powerful: as I read the novel, the connections between the characters were slowly revealed—and of course those graceful revelations (graceful because I only recognized them in retrospect)  just sucked me in and made for several sleepless nights as I had to keep reading.  This is definitely one of her best works in years.