Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ninety-Four: Part Five: Wherein I Reveal That I Am Brilliant And That My Memory Does Its Own Thing.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part five; find the table of contents here.

There is a reason that I rarely, very rarely, look up and connect with old friends, and that reason is because no matter how we would like to be remembered, no matter what impression we think we made on the people we knew when we were younger, the actual impression we left is one that is both unexpected and embarrassing. There is no doubt in my mind that each person who meets someone from their past, someone from high school, goes through this, thinking that the person-from-their-past will remember them as that funny guy who made that one joke in Math class, but the person-from-their-past instead remembers them as the kid who wet his pants in church.

Not that I'm speaking of anyone in particular.

The rule -- we are only remembered for the things we hope others will forget -- is why I don't feel too badly about the two things that pop into mind first when I think of Rip, my roommate for four months in Washington, D.C. For each person I met in 1994, -- each person that I remember, that is, for I've forgotten many of the people that I met and there may be people who I have forgotten about forgetting, people who flitted in and out of my memory so fast that there may be nothing of them left there, nothing of them shaping me today -- for each person I remember meeting as I traveled to Washington and then Morocco that year, I can dig up one or two salient facts, one or two things that I remember most about them.

About Jawad, I remember that he wore glasses that were too large for him and he was too skinny.

About Nick, I remember he wore baseball caps almost everywhere and that he had large teeth.

About Rene, I remember that he would hunch over as he sat in front of the computer, and he looked at me for too long before beginning to speak.

About Hanan, I remember that she had large eyes, and that she kissed me in Milwaukee.

About Rip, I remember above all that he was hairy, and that he had a strange way of pronouncing the word "Dragon." I should be sorry that those are the first two things that spring to mind when I think of Rip, but I'm not, because how can I help what I think when I think? I don't have any control of the images my mind stores, of the associations my mind creates. I try, at times, to control what I remember and what I think, through a few conscious methods.

I heard once that we need to hear, see, or read something seven times before we remember it. I don't, stupidly enough, remember the source of that information. But I remember the information itself, and so I've cultivated the habit of listening in class (1), writing down the important information (2)... and then hoping that the other five times would fall into place, maybe as I talked with other people in the commons or complained about how much homework I had. Because truthfully, I never got to (7) when studying. Even in law school, I would listen (1) and write it down (2) and then when exam time came, I would read my notes (3) and make an outline (4) that I always intended to then review before the exam itself, but I never really got around to it. You can see, too, that even then, my plans wouldn't have gotten me to (7) -- reviewing the outline was only (5).

While I didn't apply the seven-times-remembering trick to the art of acquiring knowledge, I do it sometimes still to try to remember things, like the names of songs that I want to buy when I get to my computer. I'll hear a song on the radio and will repeat the name to myself seven, or more, times, in the hope that when I get home I will remember the name of the song. Instead, I usually remember saying the name but don't remember the name I was saying.

I also tried associations, trying to remember names by associating the name of the person with something about them, but that failed miserably time after time, most notably when I tried to remember the name of a man I used to talk to, when I still smoked, while I smoked outside my office. He told me his name, and I listened and looked at his glasses and mentally I used the trick, thinking his name to myself and associating it with his glasses, saying it in my mind over and over: name- glasses, name-glasses, name-glasses, and you can tell how well it worked because to this day, years later, I can remember doing that, and I can remember, in fact, exactly how his glasses looked (rather large, rounded on the bottom and almost-perfectly-straight across the top, medium thickness, a mottled brown) but I cannot remember his name. Also, because I was trying so hard to remember his name, I missed his conversation that day.

If conscious efforts to remember things don't work for me, then leaving things up to my subconscious is bound to be even more haphazard, and I had no choice but to do that when I met Rip because I was bewildered more than ever. I was hauling my things into the tiny dorm room we'd share for four months or so, a room where our beds were separated by only about three feet, a room that was maybe 20 by 10.

I'd shared a room for a great deal of my life with my brothers, one or the other at a time, beginning at age 10 when my sister Katie was born and Matt and I had to move into a room together because Bill was older and got his own room and Katie was a girl and got her own room. Later, after Bill moved out and Matt moved into Bill's room and Bill moved back in, I shared a room with Bill because it wasn't fair to make Matt move out of his room in favor of Bill. (I was given the choice, when Bill moved back in, of having Bill and Matt share a room while I, as the oldest-kid-who-did-not-move-out-and-back would have my own room, but I liked my room and had lived in it since we'd moved into that house and didn't want to move into Bill's/Matt's room, so I opted to share with Bill.)

When you share a room with a family member, it's fairly easy to get along, or not get along, as the case may be. When you share a room with a brother, you can agree to leave your Star Wars figures on the dresser and you can divide up the room pretty evenly and you can argue about whether the light should be on or off and you can pull the door away from your younger brother Matt while he's leaning the bunk bed ladder up against it so he can reach the high shelf in the closet, making him fall down with his knuckles underneath the ladder so that he starts yelling and you get in trouble, and you can have your older brother Bill take all your cassette tapes and throw out the little cardboard inserts that have the band names and album names and songs on them, cardboard inserts that are necessary for you to know the lyrics to the songs, and necessary for you to be able to identify the cassette tape while it sits on the shelf, so that without them you have twenty or thirty blank plastic cases that you have to pull off the shelf to see what cassette is in there, you can have your brother do that because he thought it made your cassette tapes look neater (and you can punch your brother in the chest for doing that, punch him in the chest even though you want to punch him in the face, but you never punch in the face because the unwritten rule of brother fights, the rule that older brother would break twice, including one time when he breaks your nose, is that you never hit in the face)

You can have all of that happen and still get along pretty well because with family members, not much is expected of you other than, maybe, that you don't hit in the face.

It's different when you live with a stranger. I found that out when I shared a dorm room, in 1987, with my first-ever stranger roommate, Dave, and I found that out, again, because I'd mostly forgotten about Dave, when I moved into the dorm with Rip and wondered, as I entered the room, whether I should take the left or right side of the room, and wondered, too, if I'd get along with my roommate.

I stopped wondering that pretty quickly, because Rip began talking pretty quickly, introducing himself, talking a lot, telling me who he was, where he was from, what he was doing here, and all kinds of other information, including mentioning "Dragon," who I would eventually learn is a woman Rip knew, a woman he always called "The Dragon Lady" or more often, simply "Dragon."

I don't believe I ever met Dragon. I have a picture of her in my mind, though. I picture "Dragon" as an old-style Japanese geisha with a sly, almost-evil look on her face, and her hair done up in one of those buns only the buns are held together by thin daggers. Also, I imagine that she has a sword. If I did meet Dragon, she did not look like that, because I certainly would have remembered meeting a female samurai. Or almost certainly would have remembered that. Who knows, with me? Maybe I'd have only remembered it if there was also a song I liked playing in the background. Then I'd remember at least the song. I remember music really well, including remembering the entire "Toys-R-Us" song from the commercials when I was a kid.

I introduced myself to Rip, I'm sure, and told him about me -- I would have told him boring stuff, mostly, my age and where I was from and a little about my family, and things like that. I also told him that I was going to be working for, as I recall now, some sort of research group or local politician.

The point of the study program in Washington was to intern somewhere, to work for a government office or something in D.C., and learn about the ins and outs of government that way, find out what really made it work and get valuable first-hand experience in something. We would take a class or two while we were there, but we were expected to spend forty hours a week working (for no pay) at some office or another. The group that set up this program took care of matching each student up with their job or internship or opportunity and everyone was told what they were going to be doing in advance, so as we talked in the dorm rooms and people walked by and moved in and laughed and high-fived and complained and got each other in headlocks and wrestled, they also compared what jobs they were going to have: I'm going to work for a senator, I'll be working for a policy research group, I'll be at the State Department, I'll be at the embassy. There was an art to saying it, too -- whoever spoke first generally felt that they had the upper hand, a really good job, and the listener then put in their own job either quickly, because they had a good job that they thought was better, after which each would pause for a second and try to determine who won that round; or the listener would know their own job was inferior, and would hesitate, and say something like oh, that's cool, I'll be, you know, working at the Department of Agriculture. It was something like the card game "War," only with internships.

Rip's job, as a staffer at a Senate office, ranked pretty high. My original job, the internship I was supposed to be having, the one I'd anticipated for a month or so and thought about and no doubt wrote about in the red notebook, was not so good. I hadn't cared much when I found out about it because it was an internship in Washington, D.C. As someone who was studying political science, who loved politics, that was enough for me. As someone who had, from a young age, been told that he was smart, that he was a genius, that he was going to be president someday, going to Washington D.C. to work at any job was my trip to Hollywood: it was the beginning of a journey that no doubt would end at the White House. From my lowly internship to the Presidency -- someday, it would be recorded and mentioned that way, a Ken Burns photo-montage documentary showing sepia-toned shots of Trinity College while a voice-over intoned that he knew, even then, as he hauled his cardboard box out of the cab's trunk and tipped the driver, that it wouldn't be the last time he'd see the White House, and that eventually, he would be residing there.

I was actually one of those kids who was told how smart he was, who was told that he was a role model for his brothers, who was held up (academically, at least) as someone who his brothers should try to be more like, who was told that Someday you will be president, and I believed it, all of it. I believed that I was smart, that I was brilliant. I had a t-shirt when I was a kid, a t-shirt that had those press-on letters, bought at a store next to Spencer's Gifts at Brookfield Square Mall, with the letters, gleaming silver metallic reflective letters, spelling out "The Great Brain," a shirt I'd had made after I read all the "Great Brain" books and earned the nickname for myself. I assumed that I was brilliant, believed it, knew it, and have never stopped knowing and believing that. I was told I was brilliant, and I was, and I was told that I was going to be president, and I had no doubt that I would do that, too. Doubt never crept into my mind, even though I'd also been told that I was so brilliant that I was going to be a doctor, and I was not a doctor, not by a longshot, had not made even the slightest progress towards becoming a doctor, unless "progress" includes enrolling at the UW-Madison in 1987 as a "pre-med" student, signing up for 13 credits including calculcus and chemistry, then getting a 17 out of 100 on the calculus midterm despite copious amounts of time spent studying and having to drop the class, then also starting to skip chemistry classes because they were early in the morning, skipping so often that I had to read 17 chapters in one night for the final exam, a final exam I needed to get an "A" on simply to pass the class... if "progress" towards becoming a doctor can be defined as those actions, then, yes, I made some progress towards that goal before deciding that calculus, and chemistry, and pre-med, and doctoring, were not for me.

That failure -- a word I rarely use in relation to my own efforts-- failure to become a doctor did not cause me any doubt or hesitation as I went to Washington. It never entered my mind that because people had been wrong about my doctorization, they could be wrong, too, about my presidentialization.

So when I introduced myself to Rip, and to the others who were headlocking and laughing and already breaking out beer, and told him whatever lowly internship job it was that I was headed to, I didn't hesitate the way the lower-ranking person was supposed to. I just told him what I'd be doing. There was no shame in it, after all (even though Rip, I still recall, did hesitate, then, and cocked his head, maybe curious why I wasn't a little hesitant to name that as my job), no shame because it was the first step on the ladder, and the last step on the ladder was the presidency.

I don't recall now, either, fifteen years later, where I was originally going to work in Washington, what my internship was supposed to be. I recall others thinking it was not so hot, and that it wouldn't have been a very good internship. I recall others saying, too, that it was lucky for me that in the end I didn't get that internship, after all. But I didn't think that I was lucky, at all, when about a half-hour after moving in, while I talked with Rip and just before we met Carlos, a woman from the program came in and said that she had at last found me and that she had some bad news and I didn't have an internship after all.

"What?" I asked her. I recall looking at my dresser, where I'd already taped up some pictures, at my stereo which I'd set up and put a cassette tape into (explaining to Rip, as I did so, why none of my tapes had cardboard inserts.)

"We're sorry. We didn't confirm it. So you don't have an internship."

I looked around again, and at Rip, who very carefully turned his Dragon-knowing, Senator-interning (and very hairy) back towards me, giving me what privacy he could in the tiny dorm room. I looked back at my dresser and wondered if I needed to pack my things up again, and whether I should have maybe kept that cab driver around.

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