Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thanks for the Memory

You, it appears, have a quirky memory. In yesterday's New York Times op-ed section, the economist Paul Krugman got off a nice rejoinder about lunatic Republicans, using the trope There's no sanity clause. This took you back immediately to a moment at least sixty years in the past, from an old Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera, in which Chico and Groucho were in the midst of a riff on contracts. During the course of the riff, Chico uttered the line, "Everybody knows there's no sanity clause." Krugman's deft, Christmas-day use of the pun was effective; many of the news and opinion bloggers you follow caught it, remarking on its originality. You even Twittered one of them with the citation.


Twice during a prolonged afternoon lunch conversation with Barnaby Conrad and Sandy Vanocer, you were transported back to events you'd witnessed or had read about in order to supply a slight correction to the record, an unintentional role you played as historian. True to form, Conrad commented on this trick memory of yours. Even though Sandy's reminiscences of his past as a newsman were interesting and vivid, you were drawn into the on-going debate within you about the nature of memory, particularly the awareness that your memory of an event is tinged with the colors you impart and may well differ from the memory of another who experienced the same event. Sometimes the difference of the memory resides within the nuance of a particular word. You, for instance, always thought of David Brinkley's voice as wry and amused. Sandy, who knew Brinkley personally and worked with him considered his voice dry and bordering on incredulous. Other times, although the memory comes to you wrapped in more than one sense, say visual and aural, or visual and smell, you wonder if the memory took place or that you are remembering your invention of it, life, as it were, lived as though you had wished rather than as it actually happened. And then there is the not inconsiderable use of that word "actually." Actually means really, or existing as a matter of fact. Compare actual with fictional. Did it happen or did you invent it? Much of your writing life has been focused on invention, in some measure because you felt that not enough of note was happening to you in real life, thus your need to invent it. Possibly because you were not satisfied with the outcome of things in your real life, you sought to rearrange the furniture of events to better suit your sense of self. Possibly.

Can you trust your memory? With some exceptions, the answer is yes, particularly if the memory is of a formula, a mantra, a fact that can be easily checked against two or more sources. Can memory in general be trusted? Well, that depends, and thus does a boundary line emerge between fact and fiction, between participation in an event and self-interest. That wasn't your idea, someone tells you, that was my idea, in a grand sense taking possession of the memory. You experience a squeeze of irritation, knowing it was in fact your idea, in effect wrenching the memory back from an individual who has been suddenly transported from the ranks of family, friend, lover to opponent in the Monopoly game of memory. Then an interior voice speaks to you, Screw it. Let him/her have the memory. You know the truth. Thus in one mighty concession, you have become bigger, more humane in your own eyes, a tower of empathy. You know with rigid certainty that you would never give a woman a gardenia. More likely you would have given roses or camellias but never gardenias. Of all the flowers you know and admire, the gardenia is so far down on the list that you would not even think of it much less give it. If she wants to remember gardenias, be my guest. Thus you are delivered to the nobility of allowing her memory of an event to vibrate reality for her. But you know better; you know the truth and of course, storyteller that you are, you live in the memory of truth.

So then, all the stories you tell of yourself are true? Well, you have a point there. Although he had no say in the mentorship, you have taken the memories of being mentored by Mark Twain, and he has indirectly whispered in your ear that making yourself the butt of a story can work wonders with an audience, even more so than making yourself the hero. In fact, making yourself even slightly heroic tends to heat up the room with the boredom factor. The eyes begin to roll upward, the yawns, at first stifled, tend to break through, and there, you've done it again, you've committed the act of boring an audience.

What emerges in any discussion of memory is the literary equivalent and mixed metaphor of the political football, moved up and down the grid at will and whim, one major truth being that we cling to memories as the dear and defining gifts that they are, incredulous that anyone would think to take them away from us or supplant them with their own.

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