I’m writing this up here as an act of fundamental laziness, to spare myself the effort of relating the tale to dozens of people dozens of different ways, only to realize several weeks down the line that there’s someone I rather embarrassingly forgot to tell. “Wait, I didn’t…? Oh. No, I guess I didn’t.” This is a doubly vexed question when memory itself is the issue.
So: last night around 7:30 I was in my cubicle, juggling several balls at once. Ramping up on Python. Getting familiar with Ian Baird’s superb Changes.app. Working on getting diffutils support, including support for Changes, integrated into my Bazaar installation. Cleaning up and synchronizing a couple of shell scripts using some of the aforementioned tools.
It began with a story, or rather the ghost of one. Something tickled the edge of a narrative, but I couldn’t pull any specifics into the light. I had the notion that it was something I’d run across in the Jargon File, but the harder I tried to call up any details, the more they fled from me. After a bit of effort, I wasn’t even sure if it was something real or something I’d imagined. Anyone who knows me halfway well knows that this is not exactly typical.
I closed my eyes and put my head in my hands, laughing ruefully. “Okay,” I thought. “I’m more tired than I realized. Maybe it’s time to go home.” I looked up again, and noticed something odd: All the song titles in my iTunes window were wrong. I’d been listening to Zoë Keating and Apocalyptica in heavy rotation for most of the day, but none of the track names looked right.
My first thought was that my instance of iTunes had somehow corrupted its own library data, randomly mixing title and track. Only I realized with growing bewilderment that I couldn’t recall what the right titles were supposed to be. “Hey, that’s not ‘Legions (War)’, that’s, um… hang on a sec. And that Apocalyptica cover of Metallica isn’t ‘One’, it’s… okay, what the fuck is going on here?”
I started to feel as though I was re-enacting a classic science-fiction scenario, the one in which the character has slipped into a parallel universe, one with an alternate timeline. “You’re in a dimension where everything is the same — except for song titles!” But I wasn’t laughing quite so much anymore. I was confused and a little bit frightened.
I think I was beginning to realize what was actually happening. If déjà vu is the gut-level conviction that you’ve seen something before, even while the rational part of your brain is in a position to prove that you could not possibly have done so, then this was its exact opposite — a bedrock certainty that things you know you’ve been looking at all day are unfamiliar and alien.
Something, I’m not sure what, prompted me to lie down on the floor for a while. When I got up and stood aimlessly by the entry to my cubicle, I realized something else: with two exceptions, both friends I’ve known since long before I started at my current job, I could not recall the names of anyone in my row.
I could recall everything else about them: appearance, character, mannerisms, responsibilities. I could clearly picture their faces. I just could not, for the life of me, think of what to call them. Just as well that they’d all gone home, I supposed. I decided that it was high time for me to follow suit.
On my way out the door, I called my friend Will, who is one of those all-too-rare geeks with a really solid work-life balance in general, and a fascination with human cognition in particular. I thought I was calling him to relay an anecdote: “Hey, this just happened — isn’t it trippy?”
I’m not sure what I was expecting his reaction to be, but what I actually got was forceful and emphatic, amounting, in essence, to: “You will call 911, and you will call it now. If I don’t hear back from you in five minutes that the paramedics are on the way, I will escalate.”
Um, okay. I did as instructed, and then called him back. While the paramedics converged upon me, I learned that something similar had once befallen his mother, and turned out to be a minor stroke. That made his brutally no-nonsense attitude a little less unsettling, or at least less baffling.
The paramedics arrived, and ran me through a quick battery of checks. My pupils were not unevenly or excessively dilated. I could touch the tip of my nose with the finger of either hand while my eyes were closed. My grip with both hands was firm. A stroke seemed unlikely. Meanwhile my memory seemed to be returning: I was able to recall my car’s license plate number. (It would have been interesting to see if I could recall its nickname, “Pru”, short for “Prudence”, since whatever had happened to me seemed so acutely specific to proper names, but it didn’t occur to me at the time to try.)
With some reservations, the paramedics declared me fit to leave for the emergency room under my own power, and I did so, opting for the one at O’Connor Hospital. After the obligatory wait, which actually wasn’t too unreasonable, I was shown to a room, where after another brief wait I described what I’d experienced to a Dr. Brian Saavedra, who scheduled a quick CT scan of my head. I was wheeled off to Diagnostic Imaging, moved through the scanning process with efficient professionalism, then wheeled back to Room 20.
A short while later, Dr. Saavedra poked his head back through the curtain. “Well, we found something we weren’t expecting,” he said almost bashfully. “There’s a four-centimeter lesion on the left side of your brain.” I followed him to one of the display terminals where, sure enough, I could see an asymmetry, a region of differing brightness, close to the left side of my skull. Shortly thereafter I was introduced to my new neurosurgeon, Dr. Jason Lifshutz of Stanford, who expressed a strong preference for more detailed diagnostic imagery as soon as possible. The best way to obtain it, he said, was to keep me there overnight, and proceed to Imaging in the morning.
This seemed reasonable to me, so I assented. I was scheduled for an overnight stay, with CT scans of my torso and MRI of my brain to follow. I left what was intended to be a brief but coherent summary of the situation on the voice mail of my father the pathologist, gathered my belongings together, and was carted to my new room on the fifth floor. Once I’d settled in, the attending nurse asked me if I wanted to sign my valuables — laptop and cell phone, primarily — into security. I asked if she recommended that I do so; she did. With my things stowed, there was little to do besides go to sleep and see what arrived with the morning.