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Sense Memory: The Smell of Smoke

Have you ever been transported by a smell?  Taken to a different time and place via the aroma of a favorite meal or a whiff of fresh-cut grass?  Then you have experienced sense memory*, a wonderful and powerful association forged between your olfactory senses and your hippocampus. 

The idea of involuntary memory has received plenty of treatment in the field of neuroscience, but it first found popularity in the writing of Marcel Proust, who in his semi-autobiographical opus In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past described the experience of being transported to his childhood from the tasting of a madeleine. 

Sense memory has always been an interesting phenomenon for me, because I had experienced it even before I tried to tackle Proust, autobiography, and memory in grad school.  For me, there are a variety of smells that trigger a wave of nostalgia or bring into focus a fuzzy memory.  But by far the strongest is the smell of cigarette smoke.  

Now, the effect is not felt every time I am standing next to a smoker or even when I puff the occasional butt.  In fact, it almost has to happen in a very casual way, a small whiff catching me by surprise as I walk down the street.  It also helps when the weather is that perfect temperature to delicately augment the smell of burnt tobacco. 

When that perfect combination of warm air and exhaled smoke wafts past my nostrils, I immediately think of the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey, where I spent many summer weeks as a child.  A myriad of associations flash through me in that one instant.  I can see the lights of the carnival rides, hear the clack of footsteps on the boards and the soft hiss of the ocean.  I am momentarily in the state of being at the shore. 

Wildwood Boardwalk, NJ Copyright L.RobThose initial sensory associations then give way to broader connections, as a whole stack of memories branch off from that primary moment.  I think about specific times at the boardwalk, like when a $20 bill just blew right onto my feet and I felt like the luckiest boy in the world, or holidays at my uncle's house, where he would always light up an after-meal Marlboro, or maybe an afternoon in high school, where friends would sneak a puff in the parking lot before catching their ride. 

This entire process, both the primary sensory reaction as well as the cascading associated memories, amazes me with its power and unpredictability.  On the whole, I consider my memory to be somewhat poor.  Ask me to recite a quote word-for-word or tell you the exact date of a shared experience, and I falter.  But with this type of sensory stimulus, I experience a clarity of memory unlike anything else. 

I have no doubt that the emotional or nostalgic ties to these sensory memories make them more accessible than if I try to concentrate on hard data.  And that's fine by me.  I'd rather be able to feel the delight of a child on vacation than know exactly when that vacation occurred. 

Have you experienced sense memory in a similar way?  What triggered it? 

*Sense memory is also sometimes called affective memory, and is associated with a school of method acting.


TV Guilty Pleasures 

I watch a lot of television.  I’ve always had an affinity for the “idiot-box,” which puts out a constant stream of comedy, drama, and a warped version of “reality.”  Now, between my current unemployment and my long-established status as a night owl, my TV intake can sometimes hit 4-5 hours per day.  I know, I’m not proud.   

I tend to be in the camp of critics who proclaim that we are in a new golden age of television, and I think many lists of the best television series of all time will soon be rewritten yet again.  But amidst the cable renaissance led by shows like Damages and Breaking Bad, there’s still plenty of fodder for the masses.

So, without further justification, here is my personal list of television shows I regularly watch but would not normally admit in polite company.  

Ax Men | History


  • Animation of possible deadly accidents on the mountain
  • Constant admonishing of Rygaard’s two greenhorns
  • Toothless wonder D.J. Jeremiah of Browning Logging
  • Shelby the Swampman.  ‘Nuff said.


  • Highlights the precarious and long-storied industry of logging as well as modern conservation concerns.
  • Roots family relationships and company rivalries on the backbone of pride and hard work.


American Pickers | History


  • Back road hillbillies and their rusty gold.
  • Homoerotic overtones of Mike and Frank’s relationship.
  • Constant making fun of assistant Danielle. 


  • Respectful portrayal of both avid collectors and borderline hoarders.
  • Glimpse into American treasures of the past, including fun facts about items that forged the popular culture of this country and confirms they “don’t make ‘em like they used to.”


Dinner: Impossible | Food Network


  • British Chef Robert Irvine yelling his head off for an hour. 
  • Ridiculous themed challenges.


  • Highlights teamwork in the name of a good cause under tough circumstances.
  • Sous chefs George and Dave working their asses off while giving common cooking tips.


Spartacus: Blood and Sand | Starz


  • Sam Raimi adds his campy take on the Roman drama, complete with 300-style bloodshed.
  • Completely gratuitous nudity and sex.


  • Complex character development and purposeful plot twists with rewarding reveals.
  • Completely gratuitous nudity and sex.




  • Typical procedural with inexplicable coincidences and unrealistic time management.
  • Mark Harmon’s character name – Leroy Jethro Gibbs. 


  • Great team chemistry with supporting cast.
  • Excellent balance between crime of the week and overarching story arcs.

Well, there you have it.  A glimpse into the dark corners of my DVR.  Some reality, some drama, mostly man-centric.  I can at least breathe a sigh of relief that there is no Jersey Shore or Rock of Love lurking in there.  My geeky tendencies instead lead me to the History, Discovery, Food Network, and National Geographic channels.  If I’m going to lose hours of my life to the time-suck of the boob tube, I should get at least some trivial knowledge from it. 

One of the major problems about television is the passive nature of the medium.  We sit like blobs as the images wash over us.  Thankfully, new shows are inspiring us to engage with the art, as water coolers and message boards light up with talk of the latest episodes of the top shows out there.  And while for every LOST there are five Happy Towns, there is ample evidence that the TV renaissance is here to stay.

What are some of your TV guilty pleasures? 


Michael Chabon: Manhood For Amateurs

Michael Chabon

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son


October 6, 2009

Perhaps it was a mistake to approach Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son as an autobiography.  I have a passion for memoirs and autobiographies, and I was excited to read one by an author whose fiction I admire and enjoy.  But in Manhood for Amateurs, Chabon does not depict himself as intimately as he does his characters, instead crafting a world of broad nostalgia, lamenting the death of imagination and the freedom of childhood. 

This problem of personal depth largely stems from the structure of the work.  It is presented in essay format, grouped nicely into ten sections with thematic commonalities.  None of the pieces are more than ten pages, indicative of the fact that all but one of the 39 essays were previously published in various magazines and newspapers.  This type of work does not easily lend itself to introspection. 

But while Manhood for Amateurs sometimes reads like an alternative parenting guide, with essays covering the “drug talk” and the “sex talk,” it also has plenty of insights into what it means to be part of a family.  Chabon’s view of fatherhood is summed up in the opening essay, “The Loser’s Club” – “A father is a man who fails every day.”  I think that is a perfect philosophy for anyone who wants to be a great Dad.  Many of the essays highlight Chabon’s close relationship with his four children, but I would rather hear more about the absent father whose affection is likened to a “tentative abruptness, like someone used to automatic transmission learning how to drive a stick shift.” 

My favorite essay is “The Story of Our Story,” which expertly weaves three episodes of Chabon’s life into an ode to brotherhood.  While recalling the births of his son and his nephew along with two nestled childhood incidents of getting lost, Chabon gets to the heart of what it means to have a brother, saying that the day of his brother’s birth was when his “story truly began.  Until my brother was born, I had no one to tell it to.”  Framing that discovery with the gladness that both his two sons and his brother’s two sons would get to experience that same special bond was really touching, and I called my brother soon after reading that piece. 

So while Manhood for Amateurs does not bloodily filet the personal pain of a man’s life, it gracefully touches on the successes and failures that come with being a man.  There are some good references to Chabon’s fiction writing, some funny passages about being a geeky loner, and a heartfelt longing for a time when “The Wilderness of Childhood” was alive and well.  Chabon might not give us a lens into his soul, but he gives us a long look at the habits and practices of a man who loves his family.

2.5 / 4 Stars

Recommended for: Fans of Chabon, New Fathers


What Does Pink Floyd Mean Today?

When news broke this week that Roger Waters would be touring behind The Wall in Fall 2010, I was grateful that I’d get one more chance to finally see the work of Pink Floyd performed live.  For a band that was born of the 1960s and came to define the 1970s, to witness The Wall in its 30th Anniversary year would be something very special indeed.

Pink Floyd is one of those iconic bands that will influence people of every generation for a hundred years.  Every music-lover has that memory when they first embraced the band’s massive, progressive sound. 

For me, it was the summer of 1995.  I was 12 years old, hanging out in my friend’s basement, where we spent a lot of time going through his dad’s LPs.  One day, my friend pulled out that iconic black cover with the prism, and I knew my life was going to change.  The Dark Side of the Moon was my only Pink Floyd record for a few years, and it keeps a special place in the sun-soaked days of summer youth, playing continuously on my Walkman as I mowed the lawn of my house in suburban Philadelphia.  I marveled with glee as the famed Wizard of Oz sync up really did work. 

It was years before I could comprehend that this music was actually made by human beings, and not some space-age robots.  The first time I really understood the fact that this was a real band that played live was at a high school party where the film Pulse was playing in the background.  I was absorbed by the songs I had internalized and amazed by the appropriately grand stage show.  Seeing the words actually come out of the mouths of David Gilmour and Roger Waters recontextualized the power of the band.

The Wall was a great soundtrack throughout high school, with its dark totalitarian themes and lost protagonist.  Many a night ended with the guitar solo of “Comfortably Numb” in my head.  It wasn’t until college that I really took a dive into the catalogue, starting with nearest cousins Wish You Were Here and Animals.  Those four albums, released over a short six years from 1973 – 1979, would be enough to secure the band’s place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where I recently saw the permanent exhibition representing the stage show and film of The Wall

There is a before and after to those golden years of production, from the psychedelic origins of Syd Barrett and 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to the Gilmour-led prog-rock of A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and The Division Bell (1994).  There are some excellent tracks on these under appreciated latter albums.  I can remember being home on Christmas holiday, the candles in the window casting soft light into my bedroom as “On the Turning Away” or “Take It Back” pulsed into my consciousness. 

I guess that’s what I take away most from my ongoing love affair with Pink Floyd’s canon, the seasonal associations and memories of home, where I first learned to appreciate the beauty of their grand sounds and themes.  Every time I listen to a Pink Floyd album, like driving home for Thanksgiving last year, a new layer is added to those experiences, and music written 30 years ago now spans a decade and a half of my life. 

It’s inspiring to realize that people all over the world have Pink Floyd experiences similar to mine.  Music lovers from England to America and every other country have been touched by their art as well as their idealism.  The final time all four members of Pink Floyd played together was in London in 2005 for the Live 8 concert, standing up to be counted in the fight against poverty.

On this tour, Roger Waters will perform The Wall more times than it has ever been, and it is appropriate that this is the piece of rock theater that remains relevant, that will rekindle old fans and birth new ones.  The message is one that transcends the ages, as does the music.  And that may be the final word on Pink Floyd, that while their art captures specific moments in time, it is also timeless.   

What are some of your favorite Pink Floyd moments?


Why Don't My Friends Tweet?

There’s a situation I’ve been mulling for quite some time now, and it has come into sharp relief as I’ve been working on this blog the past couple months.  My friends don’t Tweet

Now, this realization doesn’t apply only to Twitter and it doesn’t apply to many people I know.  What I’ve been pondering is the fact that my best friends, the people I talk to weekly, go the bar with, take road trips with, do not use social media nearly as much as I do.  They don’t tweet, don’t comment on blogs, and don’t use Foursquare.  I asked myself, “Why?” 

I thought about how their lifestyles and personalities affected their use of social media.  Here are some characteristics that stood out:

Relationship Status

Do single people tweet more?  Many of the persons in question are in committed relationships, on the doorstep of marriage even.  Love is a beautiful thing, but it takes a lot of work.  Perhaps the energy it takes to have a relationship takes away the desire or at least the free time to communicate on the web.  It makes sense that a close personal relationship takes preference to engaging with media or people on a further circle of friendship. 

Type of Employment

Certain professions are inherently more geared to using social media.  Friends of mine who work in PR or Journalism have much more readily embraced social media, because in many cases their personality is intertwined with their product.  Friends who work in finance or education may not have as much professional incentive to venture into the social realm online. 

Comfort Level with Tech

Partially tied in with employment, the degree of technological savvy is also a determining factor in using social media.  None of my close friends are programmers or engineers, nor do they rely on specialized computer programs for their jobs or hobbies.  Without an innate interest in the technology itself, social media can seem like an extraneous tool that cramps one’s lifestyle instead of enhancing it. 

These categories offer an interesting look into the social media habits of people ages 25-30.  There are always additional factors, however.  Two of my best friends have actively shunned the use of social media for the past five years, ostensibly for the distaste of being associated with the status quo.  One only acquiesced recently because his professional life demanded it. 

Now, while my small focus group is not on Twitter,, or YouTube, almost every one of them is on Facebook.  That remains the king of the Internet, and their level of engagement on that site far outweighs any other.  A large chunk of the hits on this blog are directed from Facebook.  Google also garners plenty of attention, with GChat effectively replacing the IM platforms of old like AIM or Messenger, although Buzz has failed to fill any perceived need.

So what did I take away from this admittedly unscientific study?  That as much as social technology begs users to engage with the media they consume, the act remains largely passive.  As much as online profiles allow for narcissism, they also encourage voyeurism.  My group of friends, my generation, has not fully taken advantage of the avenues of communication available on the Internet.  Perhaps that is a good thing, though, as concerns about privacy become more relevant, and so much time in front of a screen can be a bit dehumanizing.  While I will continue to urge my close friends to learn about and have fun using social media, I’m quite happy to keep them close the old-fashioned way.   

Follow me @adamrmcgrath