Inside the Warp Bubble

If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!

~Dr. Beverly Crusher

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about memory, since even before my daughter fell off her horse, concussed herself, and forgot everything from our family’s new truck to the very existence of one of her managers at work. (Interestingly, she remembered the code to our entry gate and the plot of Battlestar Galactica through the last episode viewed.)

Memory is our most important link to personal history, and studies indicate that it’s a lot more subjective and less reliable than we’d like to think. My own childhood memories are vivid but disjointed, with baffling gaps in the continuum. Often I recall some isolated incident and wonder, “Gosh, what happened next?” or, “What happened beforehand? How did that situation even come about?” I also “remember” some things that couldn’t possibly have happened, like the time I walked in on the Easter Bunny playing my grandfather’s piano. That can’t be right, can it? Maybe these memories are based on dreams that I confused for fact or even stories I heard about other people; I don’t know. Sometimes I try to fact-check with family members, but they are generally at least as confused as I am, and they can’t explain the Easter Bunny thing AT ALL.

Even within its limited capacity for usefulness, memory can let us down, and we can only do so much to correct it. The past doesn’t exist as a thing we can see or touch, like some incredibly detailed bas relief timeline stored in space somewhere, or even a computer file we can access. It’s immutable but invisible; once it happens it can never be changed and never be perfectly recalled. That’s why we use physical memory markers. We write things down, we take pictures, we hold onto objects as evidence. We even store memories in other people, which is one reason why the end of a relationship is so painful and disorienting.

But memory markers, like memory itself, have their limits. Even a high-quality video records an event only from a certain visual point of view. It doesn’t capture smell or touch or the emotional state you were in that day or the exact thoughts running through your head or that pain in your ankle or what the ambient temperature was. And like all markers it can be altered, lost, or destroyed.

Sometimes we don’t want to remember things anymore, so we get rid of our markers. We throw out old photos, letters, and journals; we purge old files. Once our markers are gone or destroyed, does that mean the thing never happened? Of course not. It doesn’t even make the memory itself go away. Michel de Montaigne said, “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”

Sometimes our markers get lost. A marker is a material thing and subject to decay or destruction, as fragile as memory itself in its own way.

Years ago the kids and I spent Thanksgiving with my grandmother. She’d been having issues with dementia for a while, but I hadn’t realized how bad things had gotten until that visit. At one point I said something to one of the kids about the time Uncle Kevin refused to eat his spinach when he was a boy.

There was a pause, and my grandmother said, “Who?”

“Uncle Kevin,” I repeated.

She looked puzzled. “Kevin who?”

“Kevin Siddall,” I replied. “My brother.” Another pause; another quizzical look. “The younger boy. He died when Anna was a baby.” My tone was calm but my heart was wrung at having to describe my brother to my own grandmother, having to convince her that there had been such a person as Kevin Siddall. It was a rough holiday.

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Dr. Crusher ends up caught in a sort of parallel universe where people keep vanishing from the Enterprise. (Turns out the whole thing is caused by some experiment with a warp bubble being performed in Engineering by her teenage son, which just figures.) The creepy thing is that the people who are left on the ship can’t remember that the people who have vanished were ever there at all.

It’s fitting that the first person to disappear from the ship is Dr. Quaice, an old friend and mentor of Dr. Crusher’s whom she welcomes on board at the beginning of the episode. Dr. Quaice is recently widowed and about to retire to his home planet. He has lived long enough to experience a lot of loss and is pensive now at the thought of leaving behind his remaining Starfleet friends and associates. Dr. Crusher, who lost her husband after only a few years of marriage, understands his melancholy. He says, “You know what the worst part of growing old is? So many of the people you’ve known all your life are gone; and you realize you didn’t take the time to appreciate them while you still could.”

remember me quaice

Later, Dr. Crusher goes to see Dr. Quaice again and finds his quarters empty and unused. She asks the computer where he is, and the computer says there is no Dr. Quaice on board.

She tells Lieutenant Worf, who agrees to order a search but claims he never knew of Dr. Quaice’s arrival, though as Chief of Security he’s supposed to be informed of all planned guests. Captain Picard says Dr. Quaice’s visit is news to him as well, but Dr. Crusher insists she submitted her request and got it approved weeks ago. O’Brien doesn’t remember beaming Dr. Quaice aboard; Data checks Starfleet records but can find no evidence that he ever existed.

Then six members of Dr. Crusher’s medical staff vanish. Picard asks if they were associates of Dr. Quaice; he can’t remember that they ever worked on the Enterprise.

The disappearances continue. The rest of the medical staff vanishes; sickbay is emptied of patients. Crusher informs Riker and Data, who tell her she never had a staff. When Dr. Crusher asks Data if it makes any sense for her to be the sole medical officer on a ship of 1000, he informs her that there are only 230 people on board—crew members only, no families.

The loneliness of Crusher’s situation is truly poignant. She knows what she knows, but as far as the rest of the crew is concerned, the names of the missing are only so many nonsense syllables. Numbers are against her: she is only one against many, and even the ship’s computer says she’s wrong.

More and more crew members disappear, with the computer keeping up with their diminishing numbers at each stage. Finally it’s down to just Crusher and Picard. The captain has no recollection of his vanished crew and thinks it’s perfectly reasonable for Crusher and himself to roam the galaxy alone in the flagship of the Federation. Crusher desperately tries to revive his memory with a speech that begins as a rant and ends as a lament.

Will Riker, your First Officer! He’s…he’s very good at playing poker, loves to cook; he—he listens to jazz music, plays the trombone….Commander Data, the android who sits at Ops. Dreams of being human. Never gets the punch line of a joke….Deanna Troi, your ship’s counselor, half-Betazoid, loves chocolate; the arrival of her mother makes you shudder. O’Brien, Geordi, Worf. Wesley, my son! They all have been the living, breathing heart of this crew for over three years! They deserve more than to be shrugged off, brushed aside, just pinched out of existence like that. They all do. They deserve so much more.

Finally Picard vanishes too. Crusher is all alone on the Enterprise with just the ship’s computer to talk to, and the computer isn’t making any sense. Crusher tries to reason with the automated voice.

Crusher: What is the primary mission of the starship Enterprise?

Computer: To explore the galaxy.

Crusher: Do I have the necessary skills to complete that mission alone?

Computer: Negative.

Crusher: Then why am I the only crew member?

Computer: [makes error noises]

Crusher: Aha, got you there!

Computer: That information is not available.

Imagine catching a computer in faulty logic, and the computer just blows you off! Loneliness doesn’t get much worse than that.

Crusher decides to set course for Tau Alpha C to get help from The Traveler or his people—but there is no Tau Alpha C. The entire planet has vanished. The universe itself is now closing in.

She says to the computer, “Here’s a question you shouldn’t be able to answer: Computer, what is the nature of the universe?” The computer replies, “The universe is a spheroid region, 705 meters in diameter.”

Finally Crusher understands. Her “universe” is actually contained within the warp bubble Wesley created earlier—and the warp bubble is collapsing.

By now the Enterprise is being destroyed, crushed by the shrinking boundaries of the false universe. Eventually, with The Traveler helping Wesley back in the real universe and Crusher figuring things out at her end, Crusher returns home through a combination of “seeing beyond the numbers” and jumping through a sucking vortex thing.

remember me wesley traveler


remember me crusher vortexI love Crusher’s courage in this episode, her refusal to believe she’s wrong though everyone is against her, and her ruthlessly logical problem-solving in the face of an existential nightmare. I love her faith that the people she’s lost existed and mattered, and her determination not to forget them.

What a terrifying thing it would be to have your circle of people diminish and diminish and diminish, until all that’s left is you, alone in space with only a computer to talk to.

remember me crusher alone

Sometimes I feel as if the universe is closing in on me. People and animals and pictures and belongings keep vanishing. I wish I could make them come back. Maybe I’m actually trapped inside a collapsing warp bubble, and the real universe is out there somewhere. It would explain a lot.

Safe and sound in the correct universe once again, Crusher asks Picard how many people are on board the Enterprise. “One thousand fourteen, including your guest, Dr. Quaice,” he replies. “Is there something wrong with that count?”

“No,” she replies. “That’s the exact number there should be.”

Memory May Falter, But Truth Never Dies

I was tidying the kitchen last Monday evening when Greg came inside and told me Emilie had hit her head and was acting disoriented. They’d been riding horses, and she’d taken a fall.

I took a quick look inside my trusty self-care book, which for years has been helping me diagnose the family and determine when to seek medical attention and when to shake it off. The entry for head injuries said if the person still seemed confused after the first few minutes, go to the doctor.

I went outside and met Emilie at the yard gate. Her back was covered with dirt and leaves from her fall. She was walking okay, but she was crying, and yes, she was definitely confused, and the confusion did last longer than a few minutes.

As it turned out, it lasted a lot longer than that. When Greg first told me about the accident I assumed it had just happened, but later I learned that after her fall Emilie had gotten back on Pippin and kept riding. She’d seemed fine, and Greg hadn’t realized anything was wrong until she started asking questions like “What horse is this that I’m riding?” and “Where did that red truck come from?” The horse had been hers since October, and we’d bought the truck about a week ago. Altogether, her confusion lasted for hours. In some ways she’s not over it yet.

I took her inside to the office and sat her down on the sofa, figuring that would be the safest place in case she suddenly collapsed. She logged onto Facebook, hoping it would help her remember things.

It didn’t. It just confused her more than ever. Almost nothing in her feed was familiar. I tried to help. Look, see Claire’s pictures? She went to South Carolina for the weekend, remember? No, Emilie did not remember that—but now that I’d mentioned the trip, she demanded details. I repeated the few I knew, all of which I’d heard from Emilie herself.

She scrolled rapidly through her feed. She said she didn’t remember any of it, but she also said, repeatedly and forlornly, “All of this happened a long time ago.”

She asked again (and again, and again) about the horse. Who was he? His name was Pippin, I said, and he was hers. He used to be named Movie Star, and she first saw him years ago at Full Circle Equestrian Center where she used to work. She remembered him as Movie Star but not as her own horse. What happened to Casey, her mare? Well…Casey died back in October. What?! (Fresh tears.) How did she die? We’re not sure what it was. She got sick with something and we had to put her down. Where did the red truck come from? We bought it. Why? Because Daniel was in a wreck last month when the roads were iced over, and the Suburban got totaled. Is he okay? Yes. Where is he? Where’s Anna?

Her questions formed a sort of loop. It was a lot like talking to someone with dementia. She asked if all our animals were okay. I said yes and hoped she wouldn’t ask by name after any pets that she couldn’t remember had died. She asked about family—her brother and sister, a grandmother, a cousin, a relative’s baby—and a few friends. That was about it. Then she asked about them all again.

I asked questions too. Did she remember going on a walk last Friday with Daniel and a friend and some of the dogs? No. Did she remember Christmas? No. Thanksgiving? No.

But mostly she did the asking. Some of the answers were wrenching, as with Casey, and they had to be given over and over because after five minutes she would ask again. It was tempting to say, “We’ll talk about that later,” but it wouldn’t have been fair. In her place I would want honest answers, even if they hurt; I would be desperate to know what was real so I could hold onto it. After a while she started repeating the answers I gave her—by rote, in my exact words, like she was memorizing a lesson.

The text message threads on her phone distressed her. Who was this guy, and why was he texting her? I told her he was a manager from work, and he’d texted to let her know her register drawer had checked out okay at the end of the night, but she was still suspicious. Eventually she deleted the thread. It seemed to make her feel better.

We drove to the hospital in the mysterious red truck. The questions continued. Did we still have the black kitten with the grey neck? Yes, we did. (His neck fur had been shaved off following an accident, and his light undercoat was growing in faster than his black outer coat. She didn’t remember his name, but she remembered this quirk of his appearance.)

She was self-aware enough to know her mind wasn’t working properly. Was it normal to forget things this way? Probably. Would she remember eventually? Maybe.

As we walked to the ER entrance, Emilie suddenly said, “Anna says my hair looks dorky this way,” and began to cry. We assured her that her hair looked lovely and hustled her inside.

The admitting nurse asked a lot of questions too. Did Emilie know her name? Yes. Her birthday? Sort of. Her weight? Absolutely. Day of the month? No. Day of the week? No. She cried. Someone fitted her with a neck brace as a precaution. She looked small and sad and helpless sitting there with the pulse detector on her finger.

Anna showed up almost immediately. Emilie saw her and talked to her, but later, seeing her again after returning from a CAT scan, Emilie asked, “When did you get here?” Anna reminded her that she’d been there all along and said she didn’t really think her hair looked dorky that way.

There’s a scene in Memento where Leonard Shelby, who is suffering from anterograde amnesia, finds himself running. He asks himself, “Okay, so what am I doing?” He sees Dodd also running and thinks, “Oh, I’m chasing this guy.” Then Dodd shoots at Leonard, and Leonard thinks, “No…he’s chasing me.”

Pictured: not Emilie.

Pictured: not Emilie.

Memory is a fragile thing. Without it, nothing in our lives has context or meaning. We don’t know whether that guy is chasing us or we are chasing him. We are something like the blind man of Bethsaida whom Jesus healed in two stages. After healing him in part, Jesus asked him if he saw anything, and he replied, “I see men as trees, walking” (Mark 8:23, 24). Without memory, we see, but we don’t understand.

memento teddy

Memory is also dangerously subjective. As Leonard Shelby says, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

Almost everyone has had exasperating experiences dealing with people who have been divorced a long time and tell wildly different versions of events that happened years earlier. Sometimes they mean to deceive, but not always; it’s natural to paint yourself in as flattering a light as possible and ascribe evil actions and motives to someone who’s hurt you. Anger, betrayal, shame, bitterness, and any other strong emotions along for the ride all color our recollections and the language we use to narrate them; and this narration, rather than what actually happened, is what our memory records. Some details get left out; others get exaggerated. Over time the distortion increases. The other person doesn’t correct any inaccuracies in the story because the other person isn’t there.

This is the best example I know of the distortion of memory, but not the only one. Years ago I was involved in a situation in which two different parties, both of whom I respected and loved, gave very different accounts of something that had gone down. Both parties seemed sincere, but their stories, with all the value judgments and imputed motives and so on, could not in all respects both be true.

It was a hard time. These were good, beloved friends whose integrity I’d trusted for years, and having their words at odds was foundation-shaking. I was studying Latin at the time, and I remember taking comfort in Seneca’s words, “Veritas numquam perit”: Truth never dies. The truth exists, and it matters. We see in part; our knowledge is hampered by our own imperfect memories and by the unreliable recollections of others, which are sometimes our only source of information. But God knows the truth in its entirety, and he will not forget or lie.

Emilie’s memory is still a little faulty, even about things that have happened since her injury. A few times she’s forgotten things I’ve told her immediately after I’ve said them, and one day she nearly gave the indoor cats an unneeded Second Breakfast because she couldn’t remember feeding them the first time. Even after I said she’d already fed them, and reminded her of how she’d told them they’d have to share a dish, and showed her which dish it was, she didn’t really remember; she was just taking my word for it. But she is young and strong, and her concussion is a minor one. Given time, rest, and no additional head trauma, she should heal fine. I’m thankful the accident wasn’t worse, and appreciative of the chance to see inside her mind a bit–things that were important to her, things that were preying on her. There were a few surprises.

I’m also grateful that the truth is in safekeeping with the only mind in the universe that can be fully trusted.

Remember me, O LORD, with the favor that thou bearest unto thy people; O visit me with thy salvation.

Psalm 106:4