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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Mixed-Blessing Of Memory

Sure You Do

I have a good memory. Okay, better than good. All right,  Let me say outright: it's pretty damn good.
Not that I am boasting or anything. And no,  I don't feel endowed with a "specialness" or that I've been stamped by the creator to be recognized by those looking for the chosen one.

It's a quirky trait not unlike sweating a lot. In fact, and ironically, I am a phenomenal sweater, too: During a typical two hour college wrestling practice, I normally lost about twelve pounds, and once, at a tournament, I lost seven pounds in less than an hour to make weight.

Aside from the ephemeral asset to wrestling  or maybe a natural cleansing of my pores, the propensity to sweat a lot really sucks. When I was younger, I sweated profusely only when working out. Now, even on a cold February morning, I am mindful when I get up from seats to make that I have not left a puddle. 

I am no more inclined to boast about my memory than I am my overactive sweat glands. And don't get me wrong, I can see the benefits of it. Perhaps it is sacrilege to toss away one's blessings, but a good memory can be an unwieldy thing; one as socially cumbersome as the onset of a sweating attack in a tuxedo as I usher guests to their seats.

On the bright side,  having a good memory affords me the opportunity to say for this piece: "Not for nothing...", as in: Not for nothing, I have a good memory, bro.

I've always wanted to say that.

"A good memory is a gift," someone once said.

Yeah well, next time I want socks.


When I was 15, I worked in the ticket booth at an amusement park Water Slide. Every day wallets, watches and IDs were found and were then housed in the small booth's lost-and-found. In between ticket sales, I would sift through the IDs that were bundled and rubber-banded.

Around Christmastime that subsequent winter, my father was telling me about a former student who had visited from college. He had a complicated Vietnamese name (H sounding like a W, and ao like ow) and not familiar with such names or never seeing it written on a paper assignment or anything, it took a moment:

"Do you spell that...?" I asked.
"Yes." My father answered.
"He lives at 18 Booth Street in Dorchester." I told him.
"Well, I know he lives in Dorchester..." He replied, going to the cabinet and pulling down the yearbook.

That was his address. And the photo, not unlike the unsmiling one of him before the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicle background I had seen over the summer, was definitely the same person.

And most of my great moments of memory are like that...and then, gone; along with some strange looks.

Of course, there are those moments at reunions and such where I've remembers names, dates, events, etc. and the person shakes their head.

And while it's had some social benefit, it's largely played out as a party game, not unlike a friend who had mastered reciting the fifty states in under five seconds- interesting...entertaining...but odd.

On one of my first forays into the party scene during my senior year of high school, my friends and I drove to a nearby college to hangout with a cousin during a football game.

Tailgating and tickled by the buzzed from a few beers, I approached some alumni football players. I recited back to a group their various statistics; one I recalled from the team program some five years earlier, his favorite movie- "Animal House" (though, one could have guessed that: I think "Animal House" was the favorite movie of most college linebackers in 1986).

" I like this kid." One of the giants said and patted my shoulder.

Yes! It's finally worked out ! The curse has brought me social acclaim and acceptance!

You see, like the Christopher Walken Sketch from SNL where his character has the foresight of the man in "The Dead Zone", but now only for petty and irrelevant things (" will buy a bag of will be very bitter..."), my memory seldom came to my rescue in areas where you most certainly would think it would, namely: school.

You would imagine that if I could recall the complete line-up, records, predictions and quotes from the local paper for 1982 wrestling match between Norwood and Dedham High Schools- teams I had nothing to do with- you'd think that in the three months we covered the Periodic Table in Chemistry, I could have recalled the atomic weight of a even a few of the elements?

A few of these formulas in geometry and algebra should make sense, right?

No: I was a not-so-solid C student.

Yes, memory is quite a different thing from analysis, but you'd hope that by the way I sorted the facts and could on cue employ them that with a little homework I'd have aced it...?

Ooops. Right there: little homework.

That's what was missing! But sit down and go over things? Is that what people do to get the finer points?  Man, I guess I'm no good at the finer points.

A friend once said that I was like Rain Man...except that I "never helped anyone win in poker or get laid".

But good news: Today, I can recall most every symbol from the periodic table when I play Trivial Pursuit.

Is it too late for me to get credit for that?


Countless movies depict a girlfriend opening a present from her side-burned, droop-eyed boyfriend as a success when she exclaims:

"You remembered!"

He was listening during her seemingly insignificant "I don't know why I'm telling you this..." moment and remembered that she loved  Bullseye caramels.

John Cusack remembers lines from Ione Skye's commencement address  and he's a dear.  I do the same and I'm a creep.

That said...

Some years back I was getting my haircut by a woman (and really there was no romantic motivation here) whose name I read off the Board Approved Certificate hanging on the wall struck me as familiar.

" Were you born on September 28th, 1974?" I asked.
She stopped clipping and looked me in the then, then at the certificate. Seeing that there was no mention of it, she asked: "How'd you know that?"

"Oh, I remember I had it in my police notebook...I used to be a cop and I went on a call to Bobby Fowler's house..."


"Oh man," I said, "That's...nine years ago...when I first got on."

My stylist excused herself and pulling one of her neighboring girlfriends away from a dye-job, proceeded to have a whispering session, wherein she said, I imagine: 1. Would it be bad if I left in the middle of this haircut? and 2. Should I call the cops?

Aside the point that it wasn't the most tactful thing to reference a decade-old domestic situation that was probably embarrassing and hurtful, what was I hoping to get from it? A pat on my should like from the football players?

(Incidentally, I don't think the football players outside of a tailgate party in their 20's want to be beholden to some stranger who remembers their freshman nickname; I don't think they want a buddy who does such things).

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, locking somebody in a cradle a la wrestling often doesn't get you any points, and it is not going to submit them. Simply: it's worth shit. But in wrestling, it's a sign of overpowering your opponent with mite and skill. Sometimes in the middle of training, tired, I can't help but take the open cradle even though it has no value in the current context...and I kinda look like an asshole.

Similarly, recalling the hairstylist's birthday was out-of-place. And the look of "you're creepy" might be well-deserved. Sure, as a woman who I know first-hand had at least one domestic altercation with a partner who remembers little of anything that hasn't occurred in the last five minutes, I want to say that creeps are like sharks- yes, the prospect of encountering one is overwhelmingly frightening, but the instances so rare.

Stick to worrying about your live-in boyfriend who is an out-and-out lunatic with NO MEMORY.

But how can I? If I was not in the moment and could ask something so stupid, how could I fault her for finding my question more like a cyber-stalker than a customer?

Another misuse of memory was when I bumped into playwright David Mamet and, as he examined a new model of BMW convertible parked outside a bakery, I approached him and though, he was not at all closed off, offered Ricky Roma's first line from "Glengarry Glen Ross":

"All train compartments smell vaguely of shit."

Mamet shrugged and deadpanned: "You're telling me." He then went on to tell me, a nobody in police pants on my way to work, about his current project- a Terence Rattigan play "The Winslow Boy", which he later adapted and made into a movie.

Here I am hoping to become a writer and meet one of my favorites who would have probably answered any question I had about the process or his project, and I'm gaped-mouth, smiling at my own clever recollection.

What I wanted at that time, honestly, was to be thought special: I wanted, in a moment of fantasy, for Mamet, not only to like me, invite me out for a beer to talk shop, but I wanted him to bestow his greatness on me by virtue of my specialness and hand me a Pulitzer Prize for Special Identity.

Like a friend who upon meeting a famous film actor grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels and a took a gulletless ten-second swig.

Is that what the nameless do, we show off our eccentric talents like it's Community Auditons

And besides these moments that evoke latent shivers of embarrassment, memory has not always made me the most pleasant be or be around.

With no science background (RE: Supra; "C" in Chemistry), I can only speculate that the endorphins that the body normally produces for the average person when they experience a trauma also, like percocet, make the mind a little dull and thus, forgetful.

Good news: They forget the bad and traumatic.

Perhaps those with great memories lack such endorphins and they not only remember the incident vividly but experience the pain of it, as well.

"How can one forgive when still writhing in pain," the Theologian asked. And yes: How can you forgive when you remember the decades old transgression like it was yesterday?

As for others...

And you know, sometimes those who don't quite recall their childhood nicknames or where you last saw them (maybe their guest that night is now an ex, and the incident a "dark moment"), are doing it with some deliberation; moving on is the best course...

Being a walking photo album and scrapbook is not always endearing...

I appreciate a photo album as much as the next guy, but I clearly don't want photos that make me look fat or remind me that I looked like a girl in fifth grade. I'm sure others have the same standards with what they choose to recall.

By asserting what I remember of their life, I am dictating the pages of their albums.


Schools have done their damnedest to hammer home how unimportant remembering anything is...especially, in the inner-city.

In the process of everyone coming together as a village to raise a child, it's clear that some information is best learned at home, e.g.,  your address.

Of a sample of 120 8th graders at a Boston Public School, almost half could not pass the "envelope test":  What goes on the outside of envelope to your house?

-Your mother and/or father's name
-Street, House Number, Unit number
-Zip Code

In defense of an educational approach that discourages "rote" memory, educators claim to foster "deeper thinking and questioning."

I find it ponderous that educated people could believe that a child with no interest in  (and a capacity to block out the meaningfulness of) that number on the place where they live will be "intellectually curious."...Oh yeah, and for those of you gathering air to say "But Einstein couldn't ride a bike or perform menial tasks": Shove it up your ass.

During an eighth grader's presentation on The Constitution, where they spoke of "Freedom of Speech", I asked: "What amendment is that?"

I was chided by a colleague for emphasizing memory, "They can look that up later," She firmly told me.

You mean a student who is encouraged to not ask what amendment Freedom is Speech is during an assignment entitled "The Amendments" will take time out from playing "Call of Duty IV" to google Freedom of Speech?

The fear of urban educators could be well-intentioned: Rote memory will create robots with no independent thought.

Doug Bruce, the subject of the 2003 documentary "Unknown White Male" provided a different view of memory.

Bruce, who suddenly finds himself (or is found) on a NYC subway with no recollection of who he is or where he lives or, for that matter, anything, attempts to piece together his life and relationship after being hit with retrograde amnesia.

Bruce, who was in 30's, had retired from a very successful career in finance, and pursue, again, with great success, a career as a photographer.

His amnesia had impacted a part of his long-term memory. Memory is broken down into three types: Short term ( ex: a present conversation), Sensory (ex: sounds and smells; hot and cold items) and Long term. And from that long term memory are three parts: Semantic ( ex:the president's name, word meanings), Procedural (ex:How to ride a bike or perform tasks) and episodic (ex:Your high school prom).

Bruce's amnesia impacted his episodic long-term memory alone. He quickly regained his skills working a camera and analyzing the market, but couldn't recall any event from his life.

According to the thinking of many educators, this is no great loss to the person. One's skill-set and their education is their person.

Bruce's family feels differently. His humor has changed, they say. He's a different emotional animal. He doesn't have the same interpersonal effects or momentary values. And at times, he seems to have a robotic way about him.

This observation suggests that it is important to make mental note and remember things as they happen. Bruce has been informed of his history- from most minute detail- and yet, they don't register the same way; they're not emotional, but historical. One recalling how they got a scar on their elbow, rather than being told how they got  it, will be a more textured emotional being.

If the concern be not turning us into robots, educators need to consider the damage done to those, even the well-educated or "highly skilled", with no interest in or memory of their experiences.


As evidenced by their hilarious distortion of their pasts, the rich and famous don't appreciate that which suggests they were anything else than ultra-achieving super- beings we all know them to be.

Sean "Puffy" Combs insists that he was champion in the 100 meter dash on the indoor track team in high school. An interviewer informed Combs that High School Indoor Track has no 100 Meter Dash, just a 55 meter.

Combs joked that he was so fast he chose to run the extra forty-five meters and still won.

Truth be told, I wish I had a little more of that: the ability to strike out and forget about it before he sat back down on the bench.

The problem with an unshakeable memory is that it puts faith only in what has happened. Not just the memory itself, but it's ramifications echo in the current and, unfortunately, the future.

A philosopher once wrote that " A man who can't forget will never amount to anything."

Thankfully, I can't remember who the hell that was.

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