Tricks of Memory
October 26, 2008
I was corresponding with a college friend who wrote the single best line I ever read in my school newspaper, The Tech. He was writing about the old Burton House dormitory, as a member of Burton in Exile, just before the students returned to campus and their newly remodeled home. He was praising the now-disappeared facility:
The carpets, when wet, smelled dankly of old beer.
I really do think that line was why I became a journalist. I had occasion to write him last week, and he wrote back with his favorite line of mine. It came from the annual parody issue of the paper, The Daily Reamer:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and I think it was Barnes in the Sunday Times that said: "What a fine movie this isn't." And certainly, he could have said it no better than I.
It is funny what we remember, no? I barely recalled my line that stuck with him; I don't know if he could have quoted his own line about the carpet.
Which proves again a contention I have made numerous times before: any incident in life with two participants will produce at least two wildly different memories. As Tom Lehrer once said, life is like a sewer, you get out of it what you put into it. And so, what we remember of an occasion is an amalgam of what actually happened, how we felt that day, about that person, about that event, and, of course, everything else that happened in our lives up to that point. Not to mention that our memory of it, unless inscribed almost instantly in a journal or publication, is a product of everything that happened since.
And, having once been a journal keeper (mostly in my freshman year of MIT), what I found when I went back is a giant mound of trivia. The events that I still tell of today, the ones that I consider epochal and have polished into cherished anecdotes, either make no appearance in the contemporaneous journal, or a barely recognizable one. I am sure, for example, that my freshman advisor told me I needed to quit the newspaper, or else I was in the "twilight of a mediocre academic career." He was right, of course, but I thought so little of the incident at the time that I did not record it. Does that mean I made it up? I don't think so, even though, when I called him in 1985 (14 years after the fact) he wasn't completely certain he'd said it. "It sounds like something I'd say," was as far as he would go.
Clark Smith remembers, to this day, me saying, as I succumbed to yet another temptation to skip class, "Wish-wash, Wish-wash. I don't know whether to sleep in a bed or a bowl." A momentary bon mot from 1970, but it stuck with him for decades. I hope I really did say it; it sounds kind of clever, in a self-deprecating way, don't you think?
This, of course, is the advantage of being a writer. If you can hold onto a copy of what you're written (or if you're lucky enough to have gone to MIT, where all the archives are on the Internet), the words last forever, and if you begin to doubt what you wrote, you can go back and look again.
You know, at one point I was sure there was a point in this essay somewhere. Now I'm not so sure...