Once upon a time, before thumb drives and smart phones, people actually had to remember things. Do you remember that? No? Look it up on your smart phone; I’ll wait. The ancient Greeks and Romans sometimes used a technique called the Method of Loci (i.e., places). It’s more commonly called a memory palace. The idea behind a memory palace—an idea stolen by the movie Inception—is that you create in your mind some sort of reality, like a house or museum or row of shops—or a palace. When you want to remember something, you “store” it in a particular place in this mindscape. For example, you may remember your locker combination by “storing” it inside the disgustingly pink vase on the mantel over the fireplace in the living room of your mind mansion. It is the combination of the item and its virtual surroundings that create a memory connection for you. It’s kind of like a mnemonic only in space rather than via words or sounds.
I have such an odd memory. I remember things that I read or write extremely well, and I have a historian’s command of the irrelevant detail. But when it comes to my personal life, my memory is such an odd jumble. I can’t really compare it with someone else’s memory, of course, having experienced only my own, but it is so fragmentary, so impressionistic. My oldest memories are all just a few seconds long, if that: my mother outside the house trying to use a broom to keep water from the basement, rolling a Hot Wheel down a table (I don’t know if our house was completely level), pedaling a Big-Wheel-like contraption around my grandmother’s store/house, seeing something weird (a bat?) flying around in my bedroom, being in the back seat of our car when my parents spelled the word “i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m.” Things like that. Concrete or sequential memories are much rarer. I do remember one, perhaps because I learned a lesson. I remember watching “I Love Lucy” on television, then us turning off the tv and going somewhere. When I got back, I turned the tv on to finish watching “I Love Lucy” only to discover some other program was on. That was when I discovered that when you turned the tv set off, tv programs kept going. Well, they used to, my young on-demand, streaming darlings, they used to.
That is what you might expect for memories of someone 3-4 years old, but the thing is, that is the way all my memories are. That is the way my high school memories are—momentary, fragmentary, mixed up. That is the way my college memories are. Oh, I remember more things, but what is amazing to me is how much I have not remembered—whereas I can tell you with certainly the most obscure details about World War II, something I never came close to experiencing. In some respects I know more about the world I did not live in than the world I lived in. That’s reality giving me an atomic wedgie, that is. Continue reading