The Memory Stick of Life, and Why it is Important to Me this Very Minute*

artcharliehiking.jpgOne night on the way to visit my father, I heard about a crime that was allegedly committed by a twenty-year-old man. My first reaction was to be upset: it was none of our business how old he was, or even that it was a “he” and not a “she.” I remembered my reaction when my Department Head, still getting used to having a female in the group, addressed a memo to “Gentlemen and Barb.” Why not “White, US-born People and the Person from India” or “People with Glasses or Contact Lenses and People Without?” Those identifiers were irrelevant.

Slide1But then I got a vision of a knurled** stick, with one bump for each of those 20 years. The stick stretched behind the young man from the present to his birth.

That he had twenty beads on his stick telegraphed a lot to me:

  • that he is still somewhat inexperienced and has probably only been out of the house a few years,
  • that the most important few years of his formation as a grown-up may have been the past five or so years—not the same five years I grew up in, and
  • that he probably carries age-specific attitudes toward risk and the future that differ from mine.

And so, I thought, it was fair that I was told his age. And for similar reasons, I suppose, his gender.

This discussion may seem pedantic, like something a person with nothing else to do might create. But there is a point; please bear with it. And realize I’m no memory scientist; apologies to people who are and who probably have advanced conceptual models on all of this. This model is helping me through a tough period, as you will read at the end.

Arriving at Dad’s, I started to wonder about those knurls. Dad has 93. Is his stick longer than that of the twenty-year-old? Does Dad have more memories or just more annual cycles? What is the vertical axis here? Below I’ve repeated the “memory stick” for the 20-year old, and added two versions for dad. The first shows Dad’s years with his years at the same scale as the young person’s, and the second shows Dad’s compressed, so Dad has the same total “length” of memory.

Slide2Slide3I would think that all of us have a memory that is fully furnished by our experiences—that is, we may all have different-sized refrigerators of memory, but all of our refrigerators are full. In that case, the more proper comparison of a 20- and a 93-year old’s memory might be to have the weight of the stick. I can’t do that properly with my graphics (I would want to make the same area of color), but I can approximate it by making the sticks the same length. Here I will add a 5-year old and a 60-year old, too. I’m saying I think whoever we are, we have as many memories as we can imagine. We have no voids that are waiting to fill.

But these graphs still must not be correct. I would think that the horizontal axis, the relative lengths that different years feel like, should not be even. Some stretches on a personal timeline will feel like they fly by; others will drag. For example, my undergraduate years seemed many years longer than the four years that they were. One of my brothers (who is the subject near the bottom of this essay) says that the summer between kindergarten and first grade was so much longer than the summer between school years in high school. A 20-year old might have lived his or her 20 years in what would feel like 30 or 40 to a much older person. And so maybe these memory sticks ought to be depicted more like this, with “longer” years and “shorter” years.

slide4.gifAnd last, I began to wonder how our perceptions of our past years change over time. Here are Dad’s (hypothetical) memories of his 93 years, today. I’m using the linear time scale to simplify.


Memories2When he was 60, would his memory stick look like the segment one would depict for him today (in pink and then blue (the upper stick)? Of course not. It may look more like the bottom graph: with more intense, numerous, vital, and/or accurate memories in the most recent years, declining toward the past (the lower stick).

We change our perceptions of the past.

Dad and I sketched out some of these profiles. But he was disturbed: the measure on the vertical axis needed to be more precise, and there had to be a way to measure it. The same was true of the horizontal axis. My opinion was that the measures were conceptual. Even so, he insisted, the values one would graph would depend on how the questions were asked. “Would your measures be of my memories the first time you asked me or after I scratched my head for a while or looked in my files?”

“Or in a photo album?” I added. “Any of those,” I answered. “That’s a detail.”

“Details are what’s hard,” he answered.

~ ~ ~

How many memories can I have? Does my almanac of memories get so full that I have to fade some memories out to put new ones in? What happens to those memories if I don’t flip back to them from time to time? And when I do flip back to them, I’m certainly not refreshing them accurately—I am refreshing them from my new, older, more experienced perspective. And probably from my most recent biases.

And so Dad and I talked on. For a few nights.

Our first problem with memories was that the past does not exist. Relics of the past—memories, photos on his magnetic picture board, the bookshelf of his reprints—give evidence that we existed before but there is no past itself. Which puts memories in a unique position as our personal and all-important collection of mementos about where we have come from.

It is true that we remember a series of things that have happened and ways we felt about them, but we applied an enormous selective factor in which parts of the stream of events we commit to memory.

“And every time we reproduce the past, we make errors,” Dad said. And so even the past, that all-important personal collection of mementos that we coddle, is subjective, not constant. As much as I know there is an objective truth of what occurred, that truth is not entirely relevant for human relations and personal narratives because we don’t have tools that can capture it. No cameras, no printing presses. It happened; its instants are gone, and the traces cannot be accurately read.

Our second problem with memories was that the present does not exist either. The present is on the leading edge of the past, and our thoughts and actions in this present moment are informed by our personal collection of memories. But the present is too fleeting to have any existence at all. And yet, the only time that we can actually make our observations and inferences is in this fleeting present.

Our third problem is that there is no future. Yes, there will be a time that is coming, and it is called the future, but like wishes and hopes, the future does not exist. We conceptualize the future—in the present, in our minds. We conceptualize our personal future based on inferences—however incorrect and mutable they are—from our personal past. As Dad said, “Putting the future together is a job. We have to identify relevant memories from things that have happened, relate them to each other in a sequence, and then extrapolate based on weighting factors that we chose.” Well put, Dad!

~ ~ ~

Oh dear. But then these abstractions became real. Very real. I thought they were real enough when Dad and I discussed them less than a month ago, but in the past several weeks, my outrageously healthy brother became ill. Medical people have given him a poor prognosis for having much future at all. Months? A year? More? No one can know. The future does not exist.

My beloved brother has a stick with knurls of memories. (I have two beloved brothers—that is a fact, and in the present that can be documented. But here I discuss the one who became ill—in the recent past, which can be documented only by relicts like the hospital records and discarded hospital debris. And he is still living, like all of us, at the front of his stick. He is still reforming memories as he looks toward earlier years. He is still projecting his next moves and thoughts forward, as all of us do. His stick is weighty. It always was. It always will be.)

I speak for myself now. Dad is at his place of dwelling, where I will visit him tomorrow, in the future–at least right now, I project that I will.

I am very sad. I projected forward with all of my family. I projected forward from a stick of my own. Part of my stick involves collaborative memories. Part of my present involves collaborative hopes drawn from my past and the past of the people in my community with whom I interact. Lacking this brother, to whom I am very close, I would be lacking, indeed.

But I get solace knowing that the past gives perspectives on the future. Even though my recollections will lack fidelity that more viewpoints could converge on (and now I repeat the words of my dad), “I have been enormously fortunate for having lived today. For having been’’—and Dad will spread out his hands, indicating the room, the floor, the sky, or the trees around him, “here.” That is true today, and is likely to be true tomorrow–the future.

There are many days ahead. An infinite number.

Our fourth problem is that all of our sticks will end before infinity gets closer. But like the other problems, it only points out the limitations of my mind.

But Brother, at this interface of the past and present, I will go against logic.  I will demonstrate many limitations, and I will say, “I wish and I hope for a shared future with you for knurls (or knurlets) to come.”

*You might also want to see Brothers Tell Lies but Speak the Truth

**Knurls are what the ridges on the edge of a dime are called.

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