Forgetfulness

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I’m surprised I even remembered to write. I did tie a string around my finger. Figuratively, that is. It would look rather silly if I had walked around with a string tied around my finger just so I remember to write about how the world looks when you’re endlessly forgetting things. I am doing that, forgetting things. I think most people are but I can’t be sure. People around me seem to know what happened in their past to a degree that amazes me. I can’t figure out how they do it. Me, I sit here thinking what I did an hour ago and sometimes, through distraction or just a genetic crappy memory, I can’t put two things together and. . . . Where was I again?

Oh yeah, memory. Don’t think it’s all bad, this lack of a good long-term memory. They say those that remember the least are the most happy. Well that’s somewhat true. I don’t remember the least. There are old people that remember a hell of a less than I do. Those people have diseases eating away their brain, taking what was once a densely folded interesting space, and turning it into a smooth nothingness, like what happens to a beautifully jagged rock after it falls in the river for a few years. All the edges that made it something to look at are smoothed away and all you can do is skim it across the river and then watch it sink. You wouldn’t take that rock home and put it on your shelf so you can remind yourself how interesting geology is. No, that rock is for skimming and sinking. So it is with those with their brains slowly smoothing over. I don’t have that. It’s not that bad. It’s not clinical or anything. It’s more subtle.

Life is better with a bad memory. That’s for sure. When something bad happens to me it happens over and over again throughout that day. The memory is dreadful. I’ll think about it constantly and wonder why the fuck I did that bad thing, or maybe, why was that bad thing done to me. It’ll be with me that entire day, and I’ll fret and scream and gnash my teeth. The thing is that by the next day, that gnashing has turned to a tight clench, and by the day after that, I forget why my jaw was sore unless someone or reminds me.

It’s like the other day. I did something stupid at work. I had written ‘later’ instead of ‘earlier’ on a mail I sent a few months ago. I was careless. They figured it out when I sent another mail around with the correct word, and they called me on it. At first I couldn’t believe I would do something that stupid. I mean clearly it should have been earlier. It’s in the damn original paper, and I read that paper and understood and explained it so many times that it’s burned into my brain the way only useless stuff that I read too much is—until I flush it, that is, and I hadn’t flushed this yet. But at the time I must have been careless or thinking about other things like, boy, I can’t wait until this last mail is sent so I can go on a long, long vacation where I can’t even see the end from where I’m sitting, until the end comes and hits me across the face and I’m sitting here complaining about something that happened so long after that end that I forget that there was ever a beginning. So I was sitting there thinking of the beginning when I wrote that mail with the moronic mistake. And then they call me on it a few months later, and I have to live through days of thinking what a moron I am.

And then I start talking to the wife about Plan B. What if they let me go? What if they find out I’m a fraud? I mean, I have a family and everything now. I have dogs and a kid and a mortgage and responsibilities. I can’t just go with Plan B and figure it out as I go along. Life doesn’t work like that. You don’t just throw away a good job and financial stability just because you’re moronic. Or maybe you do. I hear people do it all the time. They store their money in a sock drawer and when the drawer is full they pull the pin, quit their job, cash out their drawer, and head out to the golden yonder. They live like that for a few years before the sack is empty and then start over again. It must be nice to be that carefree, to not think about a 401k or an IRA or retirement or children’s education or overpriced house or too-fancy-to-drive automobiles. It must be nice to throw that all aside and point your nose to the future and cut through the wind.

But I’m not like that. I don’t have those aspirations. I only have these bad memories. My childhood friends tell me that my childhood was interesting, that we lived in an exciting neighborhood where bullies and hoodlums and mythical creatures hung around the crowded streets, and we had run-ins with all of them. It’s always fun to hear these stories because I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know this world that they grew up in. My world was simpler, less remarkable. I have a set of fifteen or so memories that make up that childhood world. The rest have either been flushed or are hidden away, waiting for the right trigger to entertain me again. The fifteen that I remember have all been remembered so many times that I doubt their accuracy anymore.

That’s how memory works, if you didn’t know. Each time you remember a memory, you rerecord it back into your brain slightly differently. The best memories are the ones you don’t think of too often because every time you rerun a memory tape, your brain overwrites the original memory with the new recording that just played in your conscious mind. And in case you haven’t realized, that brain of yours loves to tell stories. It takes perfectly serviceable and correct memories and begins to elaborate, to add a dragon where perhaps there was only a poodle, or a pair of samurai mimes where you could have sworn there was a pole. It then weaves those extraneous details into the broad strokes of the original memory until what you have left—well at least what I have left—is either a whitewash of a memory, or such an elaborate fiction that there should be psychology classes dedicated to dissecting its underlying messages.

Not that it’s all bad all the time. I got through school pretty well after I figured out how to do it, school that is. I have this technique where I slither into the mind of teachers and professors and figure out what they want me to say on the test. The secret: they just want to hear what they’ve been telling us throughout the year. And that something isn’t always in the textbook, at least not the way they may want to hear it. You just need to jot it down and memorize it and then regurgitate it for them on their exams or essays. Don’t elaborate on this part. They don’t want you making up stuff. That’s for the other parts of the questions that they didn’t talk about. They want you to regurgitate the stuff they earnestly tried to put into your brains throughout the school year, and then apply your creativity to that second part of the question. You then apply parts A and B (remembering not to change part A in any way), and voila: the perfect exam. It’s really simple once you figure it out, and it seems to work everywhere. Your memory for what they said lives in your notes, and you just have to memorize it for right before the exams, and it only has to last for that one day of exams. Once you’re done, swish, flush it away. For take-home essays or open-book exams it’s even easier since you can skip the memorization and just go right to the regurgitating and small shake of creativity.

Those classes don’t really require memory. Not in the sense of having remembered something you’ve lived through. Rote memorization is different because it’s usually not your thoughts you’re remembering. It’s someone else’s that you have to regurgitate. I’m not saying it doesn’t make you a better person to have those thoughts tucked away in your brain. Likely other people’s thoughts are better than your own. It’s just that it’s not your memories in the way that the car trip to Chicago when you were eight years old and spent the trip in the back of a green station wagon with your sisters sliding around the oversized wagon part, which was made even larger by your parents pulling down the second row of seats so you had nothing but a flat space piled high with blankets and pillows and too many dog-eared books to count. Those are the real memories.

Good memories do last longer than the painful ones. For me they quickly lose their details and end up all curvy and abstract: I did well in school; I received awards; I achieved stuff at work; my daughter was beautiful when she was born. Thankfully I have photographs and sometimes, if I’m lucky, I have a collection of words—like these—that remind me that I did have that experience or thought, and perhaps it was worthwhile and worth remembering. At least that’s what I like to keep reminding myself.