Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Memory, Letters, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Last week I went to a reading and book-signing for Public Apology: In Which a Man Grapples with a Lifetime of Regret, One Incident at a Time, by Dave Bry, based on his popular series of columns at The Awl.

I'm getting less cautious about concealing my identity here. It doesn't seem to matter much anymore. None of the big-time mommy bloggers has been assassinated yet. Of course, their characters have been. *rimshot* But I'm still not going to put it all out there. Let those who wish to stalk me or steal my identity do a little digging before they complete the picture.

I went to preschool with Dave Bry. He was born in December of the same year as me, so we were in the same preschool class but then were in different classes thereafter because of the vagaries of school district cutoffs. We played together a lot, I remember. He was a really nice, really smart little boy with a huge nimbus of red curly hair.

The school was held in the first floor of a big white mansion on a large lot--the owner had converted the first floor to make a school and lived on the upper floors, I believe. I remember once there were pink and white tissue-paper petals all over the front lawn with its sweeping drive, and a bunch of us were picking them up and putting them in our pockets. They were from Mrs. Nye's daughter's wedding the previous weekend. When we played outside, one of the things we played in was an actual motor boat in the back yard. The glass was broken in several of the dials on the dashboard, but we liked to just sit and steer and pretend. Inside the house, there was a woodworking table with clamps and real little saws, and some boards with nails in them across which one could stretch colored rubber bands to make designs.

The best thing was a huge wooden pyramid. You could go into the carpeted interior and press buttons on a panel, and big numbers on the exterior of the pyramid would light up. That was sort of odd, because it required one person to stay outside and confirm that yes, "7" is lighting up when you press 7. I remember playing elevator inside with Dave Bry. Maybe once, maybe dozens of times, who knows? I remember that Dave--David, as he was known then--used to chew on his 70s brown striped turtlenecks, and his chin was always red and chapped as a result.

I remember all those very specific and in some cases vivid things from when I was three, and four; and I remember being in fifth grade, the second year of the Gifted and Talented program in our town, and that Dave Bry was one of the new fourth graders in the program and I hadn't seen him since preschool since we lived on different sides of town...and that although we continued in the same schools for the next eight years, I have no further memories of him. And I don't think he has any of me, because he couldn't come up with something personal to write in my book. Which I DO NOT MIND, by the way--no need to apologize, Dave. I mention it because at the reading, during the Q&A, people kept commenting on his amazing memory, and it is impressive.

When asked how he could remember the things he writes about in his apologies in such detail, Dave had an excellent answer. First of all, he pointed out, we don't really know how accurate those details are. Memory, however vivid, can play you false. He wrote a great piece for The Daily Beast on just this subject. But the real answer, and the one that especially interests me, is this: Dave said (and I can't quote exactly because I didn't take notes or tape it, but I'm going to put my paraphrased approximation in quotes because it gets awkward otherwise) "Well, these are all stories that I've been telling people, and telling myself, for a long time. I guess not everyone does this, but I kind of imagine my life as if it's a movie, and I remember events like this, as if they were scenes in a movie." In one of the book passages he read aloud he made reference to conceiving of his life as a novel.

I have always done that, too, and my friends--especially my friends from high school--always want to know how I can remember so many details from 25 years ago and more. I think that's why. Not only have I always viewed my life as a narrative--most often a movie--but it has a soundtrack, or at least a desired soundtrack. I remember thinking that if one particular guy ever deigned to kiss me "Maybe I'm Amazed" should be playing as we faded into the clinch. On good days I often felt as if I were in a montage set to The Pretenders' "Don't Get Me Wrong." In some ways I think it's been harmful, expecting my life to conform to an artistic form; but I'm quite sure that it helps ensure a rich memory.

I was about to theorize about the odd vampire-in-the-mirror absence that Dave Bry and I have from each other's self-cinematized lives,* but then I remembered the other impetus for this post: Jim at CoolDad Music wrote about a mutual friend of ours finding a box of old letters. Letters are (were?) not only stories we tell others, but stories we tell ourselves, in that we are usually alone as we write them. Those of us who enjoy narrating our existence work those stories into a memorable groove, like an oft-sung song or a familiar route to work or school. Jim, though only portions of our circles intersected in high school, is a definite presence in the movie of my life. I don't know if he has a movie of his life, but he is another one with a lot of memories, so I hope he can produce a movie to uphold my theory.

I wonder--and I am well aware I am not the first, the thousandth, or even the millionth person to wonder this, and wonder it aloud--how memory will change as we narrate ourselves from moment to moment and in 140-character increments. There was a moment in the mid-90s when I welcomed email because it seemed to be saving the letter-writing art from the threat of the telephone. Now, though, there is not only less and less emailing, but less and less phone conversation, and more and more checking in via text, Twitter, or spirit realm. Whither the movies of our lives?

*part of it, of course, is the school-year difference.


Leslie said...

I am one who is often left astounded at your ability for recall and it makes sense that you remember it in the form of a movie. Unfortunately for me, I can't remember movies very well either and often find myself renting the same ones over and over, forgetting that I'd seen them before and not quite remembering what is going to come next in the movie, but that I know I've seen it before so that when I see a scene for a second or third time, I say, "Oh, yes! Now I remember". And for songs, I have very poor recall of lyrics, but I can hum along to almost anything I've heard. So I guess all I'm blathering about is that my memory stinks! :D

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this. I think I view my life as a long rock concert, each moment with its own song. Maybe a radio show.

MomVee said...


I think that accurately reflects our respective relationships with music, too. For you it's more of an entrée, for me a side dish.