Recently I've read two books touching on the subject of human memory, written by two colleagues in the Harvard psychology department: The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel L. Schacter and Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Their aims are different, but both Daniels emphasize the same point: the memories our brains retrieve often seem like complete pictures--all the important details laid out in basically the same pattern as we experienced them--but in reality our memories are little more than puzzles with most of the pieces missing. Because our brains lack the storage capacity to hold the massive amount of detail that would be necessary to truly record an experience, they instead store the barest fragments of events. Thus, each and every time we think we are retrieving a mental image from the past, we are actually rebuilding the memory from scratch, using the associative connections between stored fragments to make a rough approximation of the total picture. We also tend to fill in the many gaps of the past with our present perceptions, feelings, and assumptions, which is why it is so easy to alter someone's recollection of an event through suggestion.
I don't know about you, but learning how sketchy memory can be even on the best of days makes me want to take more pictures, write in my journal, and otherwise fill my life with objects rich in associative meaning. If we are the sum of our memories, and if memory is a mere will o' the wisp, then I understand better why objects of sentimental value are so treasured and so comforting. They are stakes that help us nail down the edges of our past as it erodes, irretrievably, into obscurity and oblivion.
Some of my most vivid memories are inseparable from the music I was listening to at the time--indeed, in most cases it is my memory of the music that precedes and effects the other associated images and feelings. Music has a particular capacity to absorb rich meanings and sentiments--certainly that is one of the reasons why we sing for pure joy. What follows are five sketches from my past, double-woven into the musical cues that have preserved them.
1. Bavaria, Germany, Summer 1992
Song: "To Be With You" by Mr. Big
In middle school and early high school I fought a courageous, doomed battle with German grammar so that I could participate in our high school's foreign exchange program with a school in Eichstatt, a small town in Bavaria. It was a memorable trip: we saw pieces of the Berlin Wall, Neuschwanstein Castle and the Dachau concentration camp; I lived in a converted water tower and slept across the street from a brothel; I got hit in the leg by a riot water cannon, danced with a German barmaid, and ruined a souvenir t-shirt in an East German washing machine. However, my most persistant memory of that trip was made up of these fragments: I am on a tour bus cruising through the Bavarian Alps. Laid across the armrests on both sides of the aisle there is a large, flat book, on which I am learning to play Hearts and Egyptian Ratscrew with my classmates. So engrossed are we in the game, that we all but ignore our view of the rare, green mountains we will never see again. The soundtrack to this happy, teenage moment was a dumb, catchy little song that went like this:
Even by a conservative estimate, I must have heard that song fifteen times on that trip and have never forgotten it. It took me years to figure out that this song was not sung by Bon Jovi, although now that I see the music video for the first time I understand that it could have been an easy mistake to make. What the song lacked in quality it now makes up in nostalgia, and you can't beat that high voice and long, glorious hair.
2. Evanston, Illinois, Summer 1993
Song: "Fantastic Dream" by Alphaville
I spent the next summer at Northwestern University in a film and television screenwriting program that my mom helped me to land. Aside from daily classes and projects, I was basically on my own for the first time in my life, but I had no car and was required to stay within a certain number of blocks surrounding the campus. When I wasn't watching three films a day in Northwestern's not insubstantial film library, spent a lot of time walking to and from my first Barnes & Noble, and as I walked I listened to a mix-tape my friend Steve had made for me years ago. This was when I first discovered how a Walkman could create a soundtrack for your life, and repetition has made every song a classic: "99 Luftballons" by Nena, "Dizzy" and "Fall Down" by Throwing Muses, and three greats from Alphaville: "Afternoons in Utopia," the all-instrumental "Patricia's Park," and this anthem of stirring idealism:
3. Itu, Sao Paulo, 1996
Song: "Na Rua, Na Chuva, Na Fazenda" by Kid Abelha
During my missionary tour of duty, I heard this song all over the state of Sao Paulo, but remember it best in the small town of Itu, home of the giant phone booth:(As a tourism stunt, Itu touts itself as the Home of Large Things). Walking from the city square into the dusty dirt roads of rural Brazil, I heard Paula Toller sing in my ear, in her smooth, smooth voice, about throwing your hands to the sky for the sheer joy of companionship. I was still a young man, far from home, and this song was my company.
4. Traveling South Between Orem and Provo, New Year's Eve, 2001
Song: The Echoing Green's cover of "Accidentally 4th Street (Gloria)"
Back in town for my sister-in-law's wedding in Salt Lake, I was given the job of picking up the rental car and driving it back to BYU campus. On the radio, Barb Thomas of KENZ was taking requests and someone chose the Echoing Green's effervescent remix of this classic from Figures on a Beach. I might have been wearing a tux. I might have been swerving the car to the beat. I was back in my old haunts and happy to be alive.
Incidentally, although I was only able to find the original for this post, I have to say that I much prefer the happier, peppier remix.
5. Starr Hill, Charlottesville, Virginia, Spring 2005
Song: "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder
One of the best things I ever did in law school was to join the Libel Show Band as part of the horn section. We played all the greats: Soul Man, Mustang Sally, Glory Days, a ska cover of Take On Me, and the chopbusting licks of Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke. Tully, the bandleader, was so talented, and the band rocked so hard, that after the Libel Show had its three-night run we actually booked a gig at the Starr Hill venue and played for the 3L graduation party. To round out the set, we added Land Down Under, Stacy's Mom, and the apotheosis of funk, Superstition. Law school was definitely a bright spot in my life, and this song puts me right back there:
Honorable Mention: A One Bedroom Apartment in Provo, Early 1999
Song: "Love You Madly" by Cake
Whenever I think about the earliest days of our marriage, I remember K. and I turning on this song and dancing barefoot in our living room. This only merits an honorable mention in my list of crystalized recollections because, in spite of the vividness of this memory, K. and I got married in late 1998 and the song wasn't released until 2001. That says something about the malleability of memories, but it also says something about the song, which so effectively captures in my mind the restless excitement of loving someone with new and complete abandon. As befitting the first flush of love, the lyrics are all enthusiastically awkward, but I like it because I've been there. The best line says that "When I kiss your lips I want to sink down to the bottom of the sea"--I don't know what they're saying, but I know what it means.
So, for all of you who made it to the end of this lengthy post (thank you both for your fortitude), what are your "memory songs," the ones that take you back? Enquiring minds want to know.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
At Rehoboth Beach the tourists are still one month away. Sage and I walk barefoot across the boardwalk to the bathroom where she puts in my hand nine pebbles, one by one, each a treasure. Later she will drop them all for the sake of a broken bit of crab shell, but for now I guard them outside, leaning against the rail, looking at the red tanker hanging there to the left, out on the horizon. The sun warms my arms from the wind's chill. I wait. I will remember this moment. Today I am thirty-two years old.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Happy Birthday, Dad! We were all thinking of you yesterday but didn't manage to get everyone rounded up for filming until this morning. Today we will play some Wagner and Dvorak in your honor. We're all looking forward to seeing you and Mom in about a month. Love, your son and his hangers-on.