Friday, January 09, 2009

Ninety-Four: Part Four: Wherein I muse about memory and turning forty and also, eventually, introduce you to Rip.

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 four; find the table of contents here.

As I write this, I have just turned forty, more or less. Some people like to know the exact time of the day they were born, counting how old they are from, say, two p.m. I don’t do that, because it’s difficult to remember the exact moment of my birth. I’m sure Mom told me, sometime, when I was born, but I haven’t stored that information anywhere where I can access it easily. It may be true that everything we ever experience is stored somewhere in our minds – I believe it – but that’s only valuable to know, or valuable in and of itself, if I can then get to that information and get to it when I need it, like on my actual birthday. What good is having information in my head if I can’t remember it now, when I’m talking about figuring out the exact moment I turn forty, and instead get that information at some unknown time in the future, driving along listening to a song and suddenly it will pop into my head – 6:17 a.m.—but I won’t, any longer, remember why it was I was trying to remember when I was born.

Figuring out the exact moment when I was born might not be easy, either, because the time reported may not be accurate. I know that because of the birth of our twins, Mr F and Mr Bunches. They were born 10 minutes apart. I know they were born ten minutes apart, because I was there, in the delivery room, watching the splendidly horrifying exciting trauma of their birth and scarcely breathing, and I know that there was an incredible length of time between when Mr F came out and Mr Bunches came out, a length of time that the resident who had the job of standing near me and observing told me was ten minutes, ten minutes that I verified because I recall the doctor or a nurse or someone calling out the times that they were born. But on their birth certificates, the ten minute difference is not reflected. The hospital got the time of Mr Bunches’ birth wrong, and we didn’t correct it.

That and when people figure out exactly how old they are, they never count in leap years and leap hours and leap seconds. I sat down yesterday and figured out that at midnight, or 12:00:01, on January 9, 2009, my 40th birthday, I would be 1,261,440,000 seconds old… but that figure doesn’t take into account leap years, with their extra day. There’ve been 8 leap years in my life time so far, so that adds 86,400 seconds alone. Having figured that out, I am 86,400 seconds older, instantaneously, than I was a few moments ago when I did the first calculation. And I’m actually even older, because of leap hours and leap seconds.

But I am also younger, because while I have been alive forty years now, I do not remember forty years. If I add up all of my memories and thoughts right now, I could maybe come up with 15 or 16 years of memories, figuring that by trying to imagine them in serial format, one after the other after the other with no intervening gaps, taking my first and earliest memory – standing on a chair in our kitchen showing my Dad the tiny die-cast model airplane I’d bought at Drew’s with my allowance that day – and putting it first, and then taking the very next memory I can think of, that of sitting in the stands at Nixon Park near the big baseball field, watching my older brother Bill take part in the “Raindrops” baseball league All-Star game, him getting to play under the lights in front of a crowd, while I sat in the stands and wondered if I would ever play in an All-Star game (not yet, not yet even though I’m forty) and also tried out various methods of folding my hands in my lap, seeing which looked more manly and tough, and so on, one after the other: high school graduation in my red robe followed by the time I went rollerblading on the college campus at night on to the morning of my wedding day… and all the way up to today, it would fill maybe 15 or 16 years of time, so I am younger than my age, which is a pleasant way of looking at an unpleasant idea, the unpleasant idea being that I cannot remember even one-half of the things I’ve done in my life.

Which is all a way of leading into this: I don’t remember if I went to Washington, D.C., in 1994, before or after my birthday. I think, now, looking back, that it was before my birthday, that I was in Washington D.C. before I turned twenty-five, but my memory is suspect, as you can see, and as I know myself, and memory that centers on my birthday is more suspect than usual, because I have never made a big deal of my birthday. My birthday, falling as it does a little more than two weeks after Christmas, has always gotten lost in the shuffle. It is too close to Christmas to make people want to celebrate it comfortably. They are celebrated-out. They have drunk egg nog and shopped and sang and exchanged presents and decorated and gotten together and updated each other on their lives and exclaimed about how the others look and received exclamations about how they look and by the time January 9 rolls around, they are tired and looking for excuses to not go outside tonight and take down the Christmas decorations on the house, and they do not want to wrap a present, eat a cake, or sing.

Nor do I. I’ve never liked celebrating my birthday, and have never minded when people do not celebrate it with me or for me. Why should I celebrate my birthday? I didn’t do anything worth remarking about on that day. So when people have decided that the weather is too bad to come over on my birthday, leaving me to eat my share of the lasagna and birthday cake I prepared myself for myself and others and to watch TV while I do that, I’m okay with that. When people forget to get me a present, and give me a handwritten card with a “Jawa” action figure taped to it, a “Jawa” Star Wars Action Figure that until earlier that evening they had been the owner of, but then they realized that they had not gotten me anything for my birthday and so they made up a card and taped the Jawa to it and gave it to me while tearfully apologizing for forgetting my birthday, as my brother Matt did one year when I was about 10 – there’s that shakiness of memory again – I don’t mind, and I appreciate the gesture, and I still appreciate it even when a few months later on the Jawa’s ownership is reclaimed by default and I no longer have it.

My birthdays all blend together into days that I and others do not really want to make a big deal of, mostly, and so it doesn’t surprise me, fifteen years later, that I can’t recall if I was in Washington, D.C., on my birthday, if I arrived there before or after my twenty-fifth birthday. Instead, what I recall is meeting my roommate, Rip.

Rip was his nickname. Randolph was his real name. I met Rip when I went up to my dorm room and he was either there already or he arrived shortly thereafter. Rip was one of the first people to do something that I found more and more prevalent among my social contacts as life went on, and what Rip did then, and what more people do more and more now, is this: They talk about things as though I know everything about those things that they do.

I’ve noticed this a lot more lately, but I first noticed it with Rip as he introduced himself and then began talking about his life. It works like this: people will talk to me and make a comment in an offhanded manner which comment suggests that I know what the commenter knows, too – an inside joke or a reference to another person or event or time, a reference that is made in shorthand as though the speaker believes, for some reason, that I am “in” on the reference or joke even though I’m not.

If you’ve ever been sitting in a group of people that you have recently joined,you know the feeling I’m discussing, because at some point that group of people will make a cryptic reference and they will all laugh or chuckle or shake their heads or do something, a reaction caused by their knowledge of what the word “waterfall” means to them, or how the nachos tasted that other time, knowledge that you do not have. That situation is bearable. I can handle that.

What I have difficulty handling, and what worries me, is when people behave as though I do know about the waterfall, as though I have tasted those other nachos, even though I haven’t. More and more in my life, people do this to me, and it is starting to frighten me. I will be talking to someone in my office, and they will say something like “Just like Sullivan,” and shake their heads. I am left to try to interpret their head shake – is it rueful? Humorous? Sad?—and to try to figure out who is Sullivan? And also to try to determine who or what is being just like Sullivan? And ultimately, I am left to try to mimic, exactly, their headshake and say something like “Yes, just like Sullivan.”

That worries me, concerns me, because I don’t know if I once knew who Sullivan was and what Sullivan had done that would make people shake their heads to learn that someone or something else was just like Sullivan, if I once knew that but have now forgotten it or misplaced it the way I forgot or misplaced much of my life, the way I cannot now remember whether the list of resolutions I made one year, resolutions that included “Go skydiving” and “Do the Polar Bear Jump,” resolutions which I completed in their entirety, were on a list captioned “Twenty-five things to do before I am twenty-six,” or on a list captioned, instead, “Twenty-five things to do before I am twenty-five. I’m sure, now, looking back, that there were twenty-five things to do (or am I?) but I’m not sure if I was going to do those twenty-five things before I turned twenty-five, or before I turned twenty-six.

I do know that I did them. But I worry that I cannot remember things like that and I worry that I am more and more misplacing memories and losing them, that as my life gets longer it is getting shorter because although I am experiencing things, I cannot remember them, so the more I do the less I remember and when I am eighty years old, I worry, I will only remember about ten years of my life, so what good will it do me to live eight decades if I remember living only one?

Those are the kinds of thoughts that are prompted by turning forty one day, and trying on that day, to remember whether I was already twenty-five when I met Rip or whether I had yet to turn twenty-five when I first met Rip, whether I was maybe only twenty-four when Rip first introduced himself to me by telling me that he was from New Hampshire, that he was going to be interning with New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg that semester, that he was majoring in rhetoric, and that he felt sure that Dragon would do something or other upon learning what it was he was doing or going to do in Washington, D.C.

Facing that verbal onslaught – to be expected from someone who majored in rhetoric, I guess – all I could say was “Who’s Dragon?” and wonder whether it was good, or bad, to be rooming with someone who knew someone named “Dragon.”

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