It started as a day like any other, but by 4:00 p.m., my day had become a nightmare. It started with my youngest daughter losing her tooth. She’d been wiggling this tooth for weeks until it was hanging on by a microscopically thin bit of gum, but still she wouldn’t give it the final pull. Well, that morning a piece of toast finally did the trick, and she proudly showed off the new gap in her mouth while making big plans for the tooth fairy’s visit later that evening. There is nothing like a tooth falling out to remind you of the fleeting nature of childhood, and as I looked at my daughter’s gap-toothed, innocent smile, I made a small promise to myself to enjoy this brief moment in time before her life gets complicated with homework, and puberty, and driving, and…oh god, I had better stop before I give myself a coronary. But what I mean is that she’s just this perfect being right now, and I couldn’t ask for anything more in life than to have somehow been tangentially involved in bringing this amazing human into the world.
Later that day, we decided to go visit grandpa for his birthday, so I piled both of my little girls in the car and headed down to Fullerton. After some lunch we headed off to a park that I had grown up loving for its long, uninterrupted sidewalks cutting through rolling grass hills. I hopped on my skateboard, and the girls donned helmets and set off on their three-wheeled scooters. The day couldn’t have been more perfect.
After about a half hour, I was sitting on the grass watching the girls navigate a little hill and having a great time. My youngest, with her new missing-tooth smile, was cruising along when all of a sudden she started wobbling and fell to the ground with a pretty good whump. I ran to her, expecting a few minutes of tears, and the purchase of a medicinal ice cream cone. But she was really shaken up, and crying hard. I took her over to the picnic table, removed her helmet, and asked her where it hurt. She pointed to the left side of her head, near the crown. She kept saying, “I want to go home!” Still pretty normal for a six year old. I hugged her and whispered to her that it would be all right.
Then, she popped her head up from my neck and said, “Daddy, my tooth is missing!”
“What?” “My tooth, it’s not there, where is it?” she cried. “Honey, you lost it at breakfast, remember?” “I did? How?” I told her the story, punctuated with another unbelieving question, “Don’t you remember?” She shook her head, started crying again, and said, “I want to go home!” I held her again, trying to make sense of what had just occurred. As I was assuring myself that it had just slipped her mind for a second, she popped her head back up again and said, “Daddy, my tooth is missing!”
At this point I started thinking something was really wrong. My father was now walking towards us, and my daughter spotted him and said, “Daddy, what is grandpa doing here?” And then more disconcerting, “Daddy, where are we?”
Within twenty minutes we were at the emergency room of St. Jude hospital, where I was born. My daughter had rediscovered her tooth was missing about a dozen times on the drive there, and could clearly hold no new thought in her memory bank. She was completely confused, and at one point even asked what her older sister was doing here with us, as if she had forgotten that we had brought her along.
I kept trying to rationalize the situation. She was not going very fast, she was wearing a helmet, and there was no blood or even a bump. And yet every five minutes or so, she would move her tongue to the space in her teeth, and have a completely spontaneous new reaction to her missing tooth. It was terrifying.
They held us in the hospital for two hours without doing anything, the ER doctor assuring me that most kids get their memory back within that time period. But after two hours there had been no improvement. My poor wife, who had skipped the trip to get some work done, was beside herself on the phone, waiting for results. When I called her and let her know that the doctor wanted to do a CAT scan, she helplessly agreed that we ought to trust the doctor.
I wore the big lead apron and stayed in the room while they put my daughter through the ring that radiates her brain. The technician hid safely in another room to operate the machine, and I couldn’t help wondering if radiating my daughter’s brain was the right decision. After the scan, we sat in another room for an inordinately long time waiting for the results. I was feeling so anxious and scared of the scenarios that kept popping into my head: That my daughter would be affected for the rest of her life. That she would have no short-term memory. That she wouldn’t be herself.
As we waited for the results, I kept checking on her. She had already forgotten the CAT scan experience all together. I paced. I told myself that the reason it was taking so long is that they were deciding on how to proceed with a brain operation. I learned that I would be terrible in a foxhole, because I have no patience for a situation that does not have parameters.
Finally the doctor came in the room, and told us that there was no bleeding, and that she would regain all of her normal functioning. She may never remember the incident, or all the details of the day, but otherwise she would be fine. I almost cried right then. When I told my daughter that we could go home, she perked up measurably. And seemingly miraculously, her memory started coming back as we drove home.
My wife was waiting for us on the front porch, and we had a group hug that lasted a long time. Later, as I was putting my daughter to bed, I looked at her and said, “Do you know how you lost your tooth?” “Of course, daddy, I bit down on a piece of toast and it came out!” Well, I lost it then. Tears of relief poured down my face, and I hugged her so hard. Never has a lost tooth meant so much to me.
The brain is obviously one of the most mysterious organs in our body, and after that harrowing experience, I took a greater interest in the effect of concussions, reading up on traumatic brain injury. It turns out that someone who has had a concussion is six times more likely to have another one than someone who has never had one. And beyond memory loss, there are a myriad of awful repercussions including double vision, mood swings, loss of empathy, decreased motor function and of course, paralysis. No, I am not making my daughter wear a helmet 24/7, but considering the intricacies and delicate nature of our whole wiring system, maybe we all should – and this comes from somebody who grew up riding motorcycles, skateboarding in empty swimming pools, and engaging in semi-competitive balcony trampolining. But my god, when I saw what a small bump it took to shut down part of my daughter’s brain for the day, I had to marvel at how lucky I’ve been, given my 40 years of carelessness with my skull.
One person who I would nominate for extra-cautious brain protection is this month’s subject, Jon Brion. I have never witnessed a more facile, unique, and complex brain in all my travels (and I have photographed seven presidents, Carl Sagan, Buzz Aldrin and Steve Jobs). I first witnessed the odd greatness of Jon Brion at a club in West Los Angeles, called the Alligator Lounge. He was developing what would become his unique musical night at Club Largo, but the show ideas were still in their infancy. Jon was exhibiting all his characteristic Jon-isms: noodling with weird vintage gear, toy pianos, music boxes, and archaic echo devices. He was changing styles mid song, turning a Led Zeppelin tune into a stride piano romp. He was taking requests from the audience, and zeroing in on the oddest offerings. And the audience was loving it-we were really caught up in this moment. There was one especially drunk patron, who I think was named Aldon, who claimed that if Jon could play his particular favorite song, he would buy everyone in the club a drink. Aldon, it should be mentioned, had his shirt off when he said this, and was clearly caught up in his own moment. Well, I was new to this whole experience but even I could tell you at that moment that you weren’t going to stump this mad scientist up on the stage. Jon played his song, and then made absolutely sure that the bar received Aldon’s credit card. Jon stopped the show long enough for us all to toast Aldon with our free drink, and instantly, we were not a club full of strangers, but we had somehow turned into our own little community, bonded together by this beautiful creature on stage and this drunken one in the audience.
Well, Jon and I became friends, because I was not going to go through life without knowing this man. As we got to know each other, I realized that I was in the presence of a very special and unique brain.
Let me explain by example: I’m a big fan of the late pianist Glenn Gould, and one night at my house I was playing Jon a recording of Gould’s rendition of Beethoven’s Sonata #13 in E-flat Major. It is a beautiful little piece, and about a minute and a half in, the piece deconstructs in a way that sounds like the melody is written on glass that is shattered and fragmented upon itself in the most beautiful, confusing way. Try as I might, I could never quite imagine how it was being played.
Now Jon, who is not a classically trained pianist or a Beethoven aficionado, sat forward and listened intently. When it had finished, I started trying to explain the confusion I felt whenever I heard the piece. Jon held up his hand to silence me. “Play it again”. I started the record again, and he zeroed in on the speakers, his eyes dancing in their sockets. As the piece was finishing, he began nodding his head, and he turned to me and said, “It’s easy. He’s just breaking each eighth note into thirds and alternating his left and right hands.” Then Jon got up from the couch and walked over to my piano. And I swear to you, he started playing the piece, note perfect, by ear, as if he was in a concert hall. When he got to the fragmented part, something snapped in my head. I just couldn’t process that he was doing this, with no music, having never heard the piece before that night. I ran through several feelings, including disbelief, envy, admiration, and bewilderment. Who was this creature sitting at my piano?
Jon finished the song unceremoniously and bit back into the apple he was eating as if he had not just blown my mind forever. That, dear readers, is an example of a brain that should be insured by Lloyd’s of London. I have been fascinated ever since about my beautiful, strange friend Jon Brion, and I think when you read his interview, you will be too. And remember folks, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and an even worse thing to slam on the pavement.
– Sam Jones, February 2015