Winter blossoms, understanding false memories, and lively ballet

by Rob Tiller

After an auspicious Groundhog Day, the weather turned cold, and we started really wishing for spring. Fortunately, our dear houseplants are keeping our spirits up. Sally recently agreed to adopt her mom’s amaryllis bulb, which needed more sun than Diane had ready access to. It’s been getting taller (see photo from last week’s post), and this week it bloomed spectacularly. I got these photos looking west when the sun had just risen.

It was a tough week for Brian Williams, who was suspended from reading the network news for recounting a harrowing war story that didn’t exactly happen, at least to him. I do not know the man, and have no knowledge as to whether he intentionally lied.

But I do know it’s entirely possible that he had a false memory that he mistook for a true one. This has happened to me, and it’s probably happened to you. Plenty of research has established that human memory is highly fallible, and some memory errors are dramatic. Thousands of people “remember” being abducted by aliens (which I’m fairly confident didn’t happen). Quack therapists have persuaded many unfortunates to “remember” childhood sexual abuse that never occurred. And some crime victims “remember” and identify their attackers with apparent certainty, after a bit of police coaching, though DNA evidence shows the attacker was someone else.

Celebrating the downfall of those with disproportionate luck as to wealth and good looks is of course good fun, and there was great schadenfreude in the land over Williams’s I’m-kind-of-a-hero story. But there were a few voices in his defense pointing out some of what we’re learning about our memory imperfections and other mental challenges. The Times had a a useful quick summary.
There was also a good article in Slate by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons that gave some practical suggestions for reducing the likelihood that you will make the kind of mistake Williams may have made, such as checking your facts when you really need to get the fact right. By coincidence, I’d just listened to interviews with these same guys on You Are Not so Smart, a podcast focused on the science of our systematic shortcomings, like memory glitches and unconscious bias.

We like to imagine ourselves as powerful and perfect, but it’s much more useful to be aware of where we are prone to error and delusion. Understanding our cognitive weaknesses can help us avoid some mistakes and make better decisions. Also, understanding that we are all fallible might make us a little more humble and a little less judgemental.


One of the great thing about ballet is that, though mannered, it also has a kind of emotional directness. It doesn’t need much in the way of narrative to involve us. As humans, we are just naturally interested in the physical aspects of other humans. Within the safe zone of the theatre, we are privileged to gaze at the beautiful dancers, as they share themselves and bring us to life.

On Saturday night, we saw the Carolina Ballet do a program with works by Robert Weiss and George Balanchine. Jan Burkhard and Nikolai Smirnov were dazzling in Tarantella. Balanchine’s take on gypsy dancers is light, but also intense, and the dancers seemed to push to their limits. Balanchine’s famous Four Temperaments was more austere, with the dancers in basic black and white and inwardly focused, but it was equally stimulating. Cecilia Iliesiu as Choleric was particularly fine – commanding and regal.

I also really liked the two new Weiss ballets. The Double is a duet of two women, not identical but nearly, moving closely in synch in shadows. Alicia Fabry and Alyssa Pilger were beautifully paired, and entrancing. Weiss’s Grosse Fuge, to Beethoven’s famous and strange late work, had a large cast and high kinetic energy.