The Meaning of Memories

What is your favorite sound? Mine is a train whistle in the distance. As a kid, I used to lie awake at night, hearing it in the distance, hauntingly beautiful, like the mating call of an ancient and extinct species of giant bird or mythical airborne whale. My second favorite is the sound of Canada Geese honking to each other as they fly. My third favorite is the sound Mourning Doves make, sitting on our roof outside our window. Each of these sounds evokes an entire world of memories for me, and seems somehow fraught with meaning. The older I grow, the greater grows the power of simple sensory memories to move me. For example, the smell of an old, well-worn book. To me it evokes the aroma of my father’s study. My father’s study was ringed with wall-to-wall (and nearly floor-to-ceiling) bookshelves, handmade by my mother, in their early penniless years together, from plain pine boards with tacked-on molding edges and stained a dark walnut. Those shelves held volumes and volumes, some of them books my father had brought over from Europe during the war when he fled the Nazis, many others treasures he had gradually accrued during his first few decades in his new homeland. They were books about music, about Palestrina and Schütz and Bach and Handel and Haydn, about composition and conducting. Many more were about art, Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo and Leonardo, or philosophy, or history. There were volumes of Thomas Mann (no relation, but my father’s favorite nonetheless) and Nabokov. I didn’t understand any of them. I was only a kid. But I’ll...

Saying Yes

They say dogs understand a good deal more of the words we speak than we realize. Our intrepid seven-pound poodle Ben understands a lot. For example, if we don’t want him to know we’re traveling in a few days, we have to watch our language carefully and not use the words “suitcase,” “pack,” “airport,” or other incendiary terms. Not even in casual conversation. If we do, he knows it, and suddenly we have an anxious dog on our hands. (He doesn’t love it when we leave and wishes we would just stay home. Preferably forever.) Of all the hundreds of words of ours that he knows, there is one he not only understands but has learned to speak clearly himself. Here’s how it works: Ben comes downstairs to my lower-floor office, stops in front of my desk, and gives me the Look. The Look says, “I am communicating something right now, and I need you to get what it is.” “Hey, Ben,” I say. “What’s up. Do you need to pee?” The Look continues. “Want to go for a walk?” No response. “Mom getting ready to go out to the store?” He is patient. The Look continues. “You hungry?” At that he immediately drops the Look, takes a careful step backwards, then emphatically nods his head with a big shake, like a horse whinnying, and makes a big “Schnufff!!” He only says this when I get the answer exactly right. Anything else, even something close-but-no-cigar, and I just get the Look. The Schnuff!! only happens when he is saying, “Exactly! Precisely! You got it on the nose!” So smart,...

Milk, Flour, Eggs

My friend Charles Carroll is a world-class executive chef who has been part of eight Culinary Olympic teams and won more than eighty national and international awards. Nobody knows how recipes work better than Chef Charles. But it doesn’t stop there: a popular speaker on championship thinking and personal greatness, Chef Charles also happens to have uniquely keen insights into the ingredients of what makes a successful life. Here’s what he says: Milk, butter, sugar, flour, eggs. With just these five ingredients, you can make hundreds of different recipes … maybe thousands. The exact same five ingredients can give you a dense biscuit or a light, fluffy croissant. Slightly vary the amounts, the order in which you add them, the method by which you handle them, or the baking temperature, and you can produce a myriad of different wonderful delights. It’s much the same with life. We all have essentially the same kinds of challenges in our lives; how we handle them will dictate very different end results. So what are the milk, butter, sugar, flour, and eggs of a life? Or, let’s simplify that. Butter is made from milk. Sugar and flour are both starches. So let’s reduce the five to three: Milk, flour, eggs. Sigmund Freud was once asked what a normal person should be able to do well in order to lead a full and happy life. If the questioner expected a complex journey into the depths of the human psyche, he was disappointed, because the good doctor came back with a three-word reply: “Lieben und arbeiten.” Love and work. Milk and flour. Work isn’t just...