Imperfect Memories

As anyone who regularly reads my posts knows, I have an obsession about memories.  This post is about remembering a NPR radio show about remembering.  It’s even more complicated than that, because it’s about finding that radio show from This American Life for a second time.  My friend Connell called me up a few weeks ago and started telling me about a show he heard on NPR – but after a little bit I interrupted, “Hey, I heard that show years ago and I tell people about it all the time!”

Connell told me where to find the show but I promptly forgot after getting off the phone.  Now three weeks later I remembered and called him back and he patched up my leaking memory.  It didn’t take long to go through the back shows and find “Ich…bin…ein…Mophead” by Alex Blumberg, from 03-07-08.  It took a little Googling around and I found the episode where I first heard the show on 03-23-01.   The Internet is such a wonderful auxiliary memory – still imperfect, but retains data much better than my old noggin.

I highly recommend that you take the time to go listen to this show – use the 2008 link because it’s the second story in the lineup, and the first story is great too, about a seventh grade girl going back to the fifth grade and realizing how much she has forgotten and wisely noting how much she will forget in the future.

Our memories are so imperfect, so untrustworthy, but so loved and trusted.  Alex Blumberg’s story is about being nine and having a memorable babysitter.  Twenty years later he talks to his mom and sister about her and finally decides he wants to talk to the babysitter herself.  After a lot of amateur detective work he hires a professional private eye and he finds Susan, his old babysitter, and they have a three hour phone conversation reconciling memories.

I tell people about this story all the time, so it was fun to hear it again, especially since I was able to learn how much I had remembered correctly, and how much I had forgotten.  Our minds are like sieves – we just can’t hold memory details worth a damn.  The moral of this story I got right – that different people remember things differently, and even when we remember something significant to our lives, other people won’t remember that significance.  The story is also about reconnecting with long lost friends, and I think that’s something we’d all like to do.

This month I was also asked to join Facebook by my friend Dario that I met while at Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2002.  I did join and also got connected with other people from the workshop, as well as getting people I haven’t talk to in years asking me to be friends again.  I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do on Facebook – a technology up to now I considered for young people, but it is neat.  Facebook found three people from my high school class of 1969 at Miami-Killian.  Sadly, I remembered none of these people.  Even more sadly, I could have known them and have forgotten.

We meet so many people in our lives, and many of them we think about from time to time.  There’s a reason we forget people, so I’m not sure if maintaining acquaintances through Facebook is good or not.  But like Alex Blumberg I would like to track some people down and ask them their view of past memories.  Even in his piece about Susan he realized that Susan worried she had affected him badly in some way and was hesitant to recall old memories.

I remember my babysitter from when I was nine years old.  I don’t remember her name.  I don’t remember what she looks like.  I have only sketchy memories of what she did while taking care of me and my sister.  She sometimes dumped us on her parents, and mostly she spent her time with us hanging out with her boyfriend.  The last time I saw her was when she ran out of our house bawling hysterically and jumping into her two-seat sports car to zoom home.  She had been wailing because I had punched her in the face.

I suppose I should get a private detective and find her and apologize, maybe even see if I had inflicted any permanent psychological memories on her.  She probably even gave up her career in babysitting because of me.  However, I still feel justified in my action.  She had kept my sister, who was seven, and I, out all day at the beach in Hollywood Florida while she spent time with her young beau.  We were burned to a crisp, cranky, and hungry, and it was time for The Flintstones.  Our fight was over The Flintstones.  She wanted us to come back over to her house and hang out with her and her boyfriend, I wanted to see the cartoon.  When I dug in my heels, she leaned over and put her screaming face a little to close to mine, just close enough for a good poke in the kisser.  She should have known better to get to close to a wild brat.

If I was going to call someone from my lost memories I think it would be Charlotte Travis my 12th grade English teacher.  I owe her a big thanks.  Every week she’d tell me about a classic novel that I would go to the library, check out and read for the next week.  Then we’d talk about it on Fridays after class.  She got me to read books other than science fiction.  Miss Travis treated us kids as adults and gave us a lot of good advice.  She was the kind of teacher that all teachers should be – inspirational.

If Facebook was a perfect technology and I could see listings of all my classmates from first grade to twelfth with the teachers – how many would I really want to talk with?  And what would I say?  I don’t know, but it would be cool tech.  It would help if Facebook collected photos to prompt our memories.  Here’s a good idea for that company to really get some some attention.  Borrow, buy or steal all the high school annuals and grade school photos and put them online.  Everyone with any kind of large group shot should register their photos with Facebook and ask viewers to help attach names to faces.

Another thing Facebook could do is to allow more school networks, including options for all classes back to Kindergarten.  Not everyone lived in one place and graduated together with their childhood friends in the 12th grade.  For every academic year you should be able to register up to three schools.  I say three because I went to three first grades and three seventh grades.  If anyone went to more schools in one year they should put in their own request.  Then allow people to attach class photos to those years and schools.

Another good idea for Facebook is allow people to register neighborhood streets and years, and encourage people to register photos of them too.  I’d love to see photos from Maine Avenue at Homestead Air Force Base for 1962 and 1963 and Air Base Elementary for 1961/62 and 1962/63 academic years.  Hurricane Andrew blew away Maine Avenue, and all that is there left of my cherished neighborhood is a mown field and decaying asphalt.  (At least, that’s how it looked the last time I saw it.)

Our memories are imperfect.  They are fleeting.  We baby boomers are getting old – so chances of finding people who can collaborate and corroborate memories are disappearing.  Most people can’t afford detectives, so Facebook may be a wonderful tool.  Then again, maybe we like living with our faulty memories.  Maybe they are good enough.


One thought on “Imperfect Memories”

  1. I love NPR!!!!

    Speaking of memories, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier has some really interesting theories/ideas regarding memory. It is a book whose end I was bitterly disappointed with, but the rest of the book had me enthralled. I recommend it with reservations, as you can see in my review:

    If you plan on reading it, I won’t discuss the ideas with you. If you do not, I’ll share a bit more.

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