Tag Archives: Memory

This is Where Everything Changed

Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory painting by Salvador Dali

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. (Image/dalipaintings.net)

It was unexpected.

It really was.

This is where everything changed.

That’s where I met my wife.

That’s my old apartment.

Whoa. Look at all these new buildings.

Whoa. Our freshman-year dorm is still using the same furniture.

Whoa. They banned tobacco on campus, and we used to smoke right there and there and over there.

The Taco Bell with the drive-thru we used to walk through four or five deep at 3 a.m. is gone, as well as the neighboring corner gas station where we used to buy cigarettes and cheap beer. In its place is a large new commercial development with nice restaurants, a huge Barnes & Noble campus book store, and a Starbucks.

It wasn’t the memories that shook me up, though there are plenty to go around.

It’s the time.

While I was looking over there, the world kept changing over here.

People were walking in and out of new buildings that weren’t supposed to be there. They either didn’t know the buildings weren’t supposed to be there, or had already adjusted.

Things were the same.

And things were different.

We live here in this place. And in other places the hands on the clock keep moving, and everyone living there keeps flipping calendar pages, and younger people move in and make choices and then more things change.

Things always change.

I was just a college student back before the world changed. Just a kid from a small town an hour and a half’s drive from campus.

I didn’t know where I was. A place teeming with knowledge and resources. A vast library. Thought leaders. Curious minds about that, and this, and other things.

I didn’t ask very many to share knowledge with me. When they tried to share it in classes I sometimes attended, I mostly thought about the fun things I was going to do later.

Maybe if I’d read more books and asked more questions and thought more deeply back when I was a student there, I wouldn’t have felt the shock.

Maybe I’d have known better.

Some of my friends from college still live near the city.

One is married with three kids. I’ve known his wife for years, but I’d never met his children.

Here’s this guy I have all of these memories with. And then—bam!—my entire worldview of him changes with an overnight stay at his home.

Three girls, ages 12, 9, and 5. Kind and beautiful, all of them.

The 5-year-old is magic and missing her two front teeth, and I wanted to clone her so I could have one, but don’t tell the 9-year-old because she’s great too, and knows many things about a couple of make-your-own-lip-syncing-music-video apps she thought I needed to have.

I told the sisters I was too shy to make lip-syncing videos, which probably sounded like a lie since their father and I were consuming beer and tequila the night before and seemed presumably less shy.

One of my friends corrected me: “You’re not shy. You’re self-conscious.”

Hmmm. True.

But back over here are these little people who, to me, didn’t even exist five seconds earlier, but now they do, and I love them, but probably not enough to make lip-syncing music videos to share on their favorite apps.

I was 18 when I went to college, but since I could barely remember the first four years of my life, it’s kind of like being 14.

And now 14 more years have passed.

I don’t know where the time and memories go. Like something we drop into a bottomless pit to eventually forget a little bit how things look and feel as they fall further and further away.

Walking through the center of campus on a hot, summer day, there were very few people around. Some incoming freshmen and their parents visiting for orientation. I took photos of this and that. I stopped in various places to sit and soak it in.

All of the familiarity to reacquaint myself with.

And all of the strange and new to get to know.

I would never have stopped to read an inscription back when I was a student there. In the center of campus was a small monument displaying the university seal. On the side was a quote from the university president back in the 1930s when the campus first opened.

I don’t have the quote.

But it talked about the students. It talked about me.

How this place was supposed to help students go on to do things in this world. Something about light. About hope. About truth.

After all of my wasted time and personal failings, what would the collective brain trust think about me?

Proud? Embarrassed? Indifferent?

I don’t think they’d care. I don’t think it would matter if they did. These are just the things I think about.

Because I’m not shy. Just self-conscious.

But not so much then. Not in that different time and place and life all those years ago.

Whoa. That’s where we used to throw the best keg parties.

Whoa. Our favorite old bars are now someone’s favorite new bars.

Whoa. That’s where I used to write with a pen and a notebook.

This is where I dreamed about tomorrow.

This is where yesterday became today.

This is where everything changed.

It really was.

It was unexpected.

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In the Trailer Park with Elise and a Deaf Man

Woman piano player

(Image/Mike Kemp)

I lived in an Iowa trailer park.

Mom always called it a “mobile home,” and fondly remembers it as being “the nicest one in the neighborhood.”

I have no idea whether that’s true. Little kids don’t think about things like that.

I’d sit atop my favorite blanket spread out in the living room and play with my Star Wars and He-Man toys. I was 3 years old.

My mother sat on the bench in front of our upright piano—probably our finest possession—playing beautifully, despite the handicap of having small hands consistent with her short stature.

I’m sure my mother played many things on the piano.

But I only remember one: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, a common choice of beginning pianists. I didn’t know the name of the piece until I was in my 20s. This version is gorgeous:

Near as I can tell, this is my oldest memory.

What are our lives, if not a collection of memories? And if this is my oldest one, what must it be worth?

Save the things we cherish today—right this second—what could be worth more?

I cried and begged my mom not to make me take naps, staring and poking at the bottom of the top bunk which no one ever slept in.

I sobbed when she threw away my blanket because the stitching had come undone on the binding.

I developed anger issues when my parents later divorced and mom moved us 500 miles to Ohio.

But there is no amount of sadness, anger or pain that can erase those moments with mom at the piano.

Everything was—really and truly—okay.

I didn’t worry about what people thought of me, or how to make more money, or whether I’ll ever meet a girl who will like me, and who I like back.

I was just there. Just being. Pure and innocent and totally content.

With my mom who would make it okay. With my dad who would come home from work later and play Star Wars with me.

And with this piece of music. Magic.

Just a footnote on the list of Beethoven’s best work. One he chose not to publish for the final 17 years of his life.

Maybe he thought it was shitty. Maybe he thought it would never matter to anyone.

I wonder what he’d think of that score being an endearing and enduring memory of some random stranger on the other side of the world more than 200 years after writing it.

He probably wouldn’t care.

But I’d like to believe the implications would make him feel good about his impact on the world.

Beethoven is famous for being deaf.

He wrote some of the world’s most influential musical pieces between age 30 and his death at 56, totally unable to hear any of it.

What’s the equivalent of that? A fragrance maker who can’t smell? A photographer who can’t see? A choreographer who can’t walk?

The story of Beethoven’s accomplishments in music following his hearing loss (which happened gradually—he wasn’t completely deaf until around age 30) is the ultimate retort for anyone offering excuses for why they can’t achieve success in their life pursuits.

He was shy. Socially awkward. Ill-tempered. And had, according to various biographies, an “unfortunate physical appearance.”

Women apparently didn’t want to have sex with, or marry, him.

The lonely genius.

So he poured himself into his art, producing many of the world’s most famous symphonies, which are still heard today—more than two centuries later.

A deaf man wrote music that people absolutely adore 200 years later. I don’t have an adjective for how astounding that is.

Even though Beethoven never married, he still had feelings. A love letter he never sent to a married woman named Antonie Brentano was found after his death.

Für Elise is linked to a couple different women, but there’s no direct evidence he was in love with them.

Beethoven’s loneliness is worth contemplating. Here’s a man so famous that every classically educated person on the planet has heard of him. He was admired and beloved while still alive despite being a prickly cock to most in his life.

We all know somebody like that. Except the one we know is a retired electrician or factory worker, and not very many people will remember them after they die because they didn’t leave behind anything of value.

They didn’t leave behind anything beautiful.

Not like this. This ode to Elise.

Beethoven was dead 40 years before ANOTHER guy named Ludwig found Für Elise and published it.

This musical composition is an afterthought.

If any hardcore classical music fans read this, they’ll probably think the score is low-level bullshit compared to Beethoven’s—and his genius German musical predecessors, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—most influential work.

You know how popular albums always have three or four songs everyone knows, surrounded by songs most people have never heard or care to?

It’s super-common for my favorite songs to be among those lesser-known titles. It’s either because I have amazing taste that most plebs could never understand, or because I’m the trailer-park rube who likes crappy things that will never be popular.

Both are possible.

I can listen to Für Elise on repeat for hours, as I have through this entire writing.

I don’t know how the world hears it. Maybe people think it’s silly that I don’t prefer Beethoven’s 5th or 9th symphonies.

Maybe dudes who lived in Iowa trailer parks can’t tell the difference between good and great.

I only know this:

My mother didn’t play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 while He-Man was riding Battle Cat, or while Luke was lightsaber-fighting Vader back when the good guys always won.

She didn’t play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 back then. Before the whole world changed, and everything went from safe and perfect to something else. To something unsteady.

But mom did play Für Elise 33 years ago, and it was beautiful. And even now, when it’s playing, it’s almost like nothing bad could ever happen.

It’s almost as if everything is going to be okay no matter what.

Maybe because it is.

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The False Memories

brain-memory

And there she was.

My gorgeous ex-wife, on the floor with our son, doting over something he’d put together.

“Hey mom! Look at this!”

So excited, my little five-year-old.

He was smiling. She was smiling. I was smiling.

It felt good—having us all together.

Later, there was dinner. The usual chit-chat. Just like it used to be.

At night, with our son sound asleep, we curled up next to one another on the couch. It didn’t feel foreign. Just the same as it ever was. Like a time warp.

Not like when it was bad. Like when it was good.

The sitting became holding.

The holding became touching.

The touching became kissing.

The kissing became sex.

And I liked it.

Whoa.

We Don’t Remember Everything

You see it when investigators question eye witnesses.

People remember men of different heights. Wearing different color shirts. Driving different types of cars.

In some instances, it’s because we smoked too much pot in college. I always joke that that’s my problem when I exhibit forgetfulness.

But this isn’t about remembering someone’s birthday, or to run that errand, or that you have a test at school tomorrow, or whatever.

It’s about memories you feel certain about. Sometimes they’re wrong.

Researchers proved this by interviewing people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory—you know—the kind of people who remember what they had for breakfast and what song was playing on their drive to work on some arbitrary date 15 years ago.

Even THEY get it wrong—human beings with the most-gifted and powerful memories on Earth. Things they are really sure about, too.

There was a fascinating piece in The Atlantic last month about it. One of the memory researchers quoted in the article said that all memories are colored by bits of life experience.

“When people recall, they are reconstructing,” the professor said. “It doesn’t mean it’s totally false. It means that they’re telling a story about themselves and they’re integrating things they really do remember in detail, with things that are generally true.”

I was fascinated.

It relates to the stories I tell on this blog.

It relates to my memories from my marriage. Were the good times as good as I remember? Were the bad times as bad?

It relates to my ex-wife’s memories about our marriage.

As writers, I think we owe it to anyone reading to be as honest as possible. When telling old stories, we risk getting things wrong. I am committed to getting it as close to the truth as my brain is capable of delivering.

But I am, inevitably, fallible and mistake-prone.

That affects my work here. That affects my human relationships.

And it affects my subconscious.

What Dreams May Come

I don’t remember dreams very much anymore. Most of my life, I’ve woke up in the middle of the night or in the morning on the heels of some pretty vivid dreams.

I remember the frightening ones.

I remember the sad ones.

I remember the sex-laden ones.

They actually have an effect on me. Mentally. Emotionally. Physically.

My dream about my ex-wife in the early morning hours today was shocking to me.

It was the first time I’d had any sort of dream like that about her.

I wish I knew what it meant—that it didn’t feel bizarre. That I liked that she liked me. That it all felt, just, happy.

But I don’t get too caught up in the specifics. Especially when it comes to dreams.

It’s probably weirder that I hadn’t dreamed about my ex-wife up to this point than it is weird that I did this morning.

Dream interpretation is almost never literal.

My subconscious, like my totally conscious self, probably just likes human connection.

It’s not that fun sitting around by myself all the time when my son isn’t home.

It’s not that fun never having sex with anyone. Ever.

It’s not that fun cooking for one and eating alone.

I woke up.

No one was in bed with me. My room was still disheveled. My life still kind of sucked.

I opened the blinds.

No birds chirping.

Just a bunch of snow. A bunch of gray. A bunch of cold.

The winter of my discontent.

Perhaps Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day said it best: “I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold. It’s gonna be gray. And it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”

But then my son ran in.

And I’m apparently “the best dad in all of the Americas,” as he’s learned that Central and South America are places, too.

I love you, son.

I got a blog-comment notification on my phone. Someone said something ridiculously kind about my writing.

That always makes me feel good.

Thank you.

My mother is visiting today until the weekend. To see her grandson. To help make her sad son’s holiday just a little brighter.

Thank you, mom.

I read a blog post. A gorgeous, smart, hilarious young woman watches and listens as her friends are always being chased by men, but she feels like the perpetual bridesmaid.

It’s not just me.

It’s never just me. And it is always us. All of us.

Battling sadness, anger, fear, stress, shame. Together.

I’m not alone.

You’re not alone.

Let’s never forget it.

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