Friday, July 03, 2009

Part Sixteen: Wherein The Hope Diamond Puts A Scare Into Me About How Good My Memory Might Be.

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. Click here for the table of contents and links to the previous fifteen entries.

There are maybe five specific days that stick out in my mind while I was in Washington, D.C. I should probably get to them, and discuss them, because my memory of that time in Washington isn't, as it turns out, so great. I have vivid memories of the time I spent in Morocco that year, 1994, and those memories are engraved in my brain and seemingly indelible (although we'll see how true that is when I get that far), and by contrast, the memories of Washington seem hazy and blurred together and faint. I recall things, like meeting the son of the Shah of Iran, but not details of those things. I recall more specifically eating a very hot seed in the Thai noodle soup that I ate at lunch one day with our boss, Frank.

Eating lunch with Frank at the Thai place nearby led, briefly, to my liking Thai food, a liking I indulged exactly three other times: Once on my own at the same D.C. Thai place not far from where I interned, and once in Madison, when I was in law school and met briefly with a girl named Julianna who had gone on the Morocco trip with the rest of our group and who lived in Madison. When I got to Madison for law school, I'd gotten in touch with her, and we'd met to eat Thai food at the restaurant that was across from my studio apartment.

I have a good recollection of what the dish tasted like, and looked like: It was a white, ceramic, long, vaguely-banana-shaped soup dish, with thick noodles in it and some meat (I think it was chicken, because the broth was chicken-soup-colored) and some carrots. I liked the noodles.

The third time I ever ate Thai food wasn't probably "real" Thai food: a few years back (probably six now, making it more than a few) Sweetie and I went out to lunch to a Noodles & Company restaurant. That was during the period when we had a little -- a very little-- spendable cash, something that's always been in short supply in our life, and we were trying to get out to eat more, because "getting out to eat more" seemed the kind of things that adults, or at least adults who have some cash and are hungry, did.

Sweetie and I are not "going out to eat" people. We tend to, mostly for financial reasons, save "going out to eat" for special occasions -- although "special occasions" include "those times that we don't feel like cooking," and "those times that we're just in the mood for pizza," and, most recently, "those times that we think we're going to have lasagna as the dinner for Middle's graduation party, but then we overcook it and it's inedible and we feel terrible so we instead go and get a lot of pizzas, and then spend the week eating leftover, and very-tough-to-chew, lasagna for lunch."

("Going out to eat" in that paragraph includes "Not so much going out and eating as going out and getting food and bringing it back to our house to eat," which we've done a lot more of since we realized that it's cruel to others to inflict our wild Babies! on them during dinner time at a restaurant.)

But for a while, there, Sweetie and I tried to get out to eat more, both with each other and with the kids, and one of the places we went was "Noodles and Company," which seemed a pretty swanky place to eat to us -- very Yuppie, what with the exotic noodle dishes we imagined they'd have. (Noodles & Company is upscale if you, like Sweetie and me, generally consider "McDonald's" to be a night out. We are not fancy people.)

At Noodles and Company, I had the "Thai Peanut Noodles." Sweetie had macaroni and cheese. I don't really have a memory of what the Thai Peanut Noodles tasted like, but every now and then I'm tempted to buy some Thai peanut sauce at the grocery store and mix it in with my Ramen noodles for some low-budget, microwavable nostalgia.

I do remember eating the hot seed that Frank dared me to eat. We had spicy Thai soup that day in D.C., and the spiciness came from some tiny seeds in the soup, one of which Frank dared me to eat.

I can't resist a dare. If you ever meet me, try not to take advantage of that; don't dare me to do something stupid because I will. I will not back away from a challenge, ever in my life, ever again, and I won't do that because of Spearfish Falls.

Spearfish Falls is in South Dakota. We visited South Dakota on a family vacation as a kid, before my sister was born. It was Mom and Dad, and Bill, Matt and me, all traveling in our Plymouth on a driving vacation to South Dakota. Along the way, we ate at a pizza place, we squabbled about whose legs were touching whose legs, we saw panhandling donkeys and milling buffaloes and Wall Drug and got food poisoning from bad mayonnaise, and also visited Spearfish Falls, where my mom wanted to take a picture of us boys standing in the stream.

We walked into the stream, to about knee level, and tried to smile while Mom did whatever it was she needed to do with the camera. Judging by the length of time it took, Mom had to invent and then build a camera. During that time, we stood knee-deep (and barefoot) in the stream just a little ways down from Spearfish Falls.

Spearfish Falls is a cold stream.

Very cold.

Very very cold.

As the seconds ticked by like hours, we began to ask Mom to hurry and invent the camera or whatever. Then we began to complain. Then we began to cry, at which point Mom snapped the picture. (So, somewhere, there is a picture of three teary-eyed boys with blue feet trying desperately to look happy and feel their toes).

After Mom finally let us out of the stream, she chided us for being pups-- "It's not that cold," Mom said, "You've got to be tougher than that." She wasn't upset with us, I felt, so much as disappointed, but Mom's disappointment carried a lot of weight with it.

I vowed to myself that if I could ever go back to Spearfish Falls, I'd stand in that river for as long as it took to show Mom -- and South Dakota, and now you -- that I was not a pup, that I could take it, that I could take anything, and as we drove further across South Dakota, further away from Spearfish Falls and towards food poisoning and Mount Rushmore, I vowed, further, that I'd never let anything defeat me again.

Which is why I ate the seed that Frank dared me to eat, some kind of hot pepper seed or something, that Frank said would burn my mouth and I couldn't handle it, and that others at the lunch, Ed and whoever, said I shouldn't eat because I couldn't take it, and they told Frank not to let me eat it, all of which led to me remembering Spearfish Falls (sometimes my feet still feel the icy water) and popping the seed into my mouth.

It wasn't so bad, except that I think I burnt my tongue, and my eyes watered, and I got the sniffles, and I couldn't really taste much for a day or so, and the beer that Frank had us drink with lunch didn't really help things at all, but even if I'd known, in advance, that it would do that, I'd have still eaten the seed. If it had been on fire, I probably would have eaten the seed.

It's interesting, to me, to think what sticks in my mind, then, and why it sticks in my mind. I remember each of the three Thai meals I've had, in my lifetime, because I remember the seed that I ate at the first Thai meal, which then makes me remember that Thai meal and the subsequent two Thai meals, and cemented in my mind the taste of a Thai noodle and the shape of the Thai noodle dish... and I remember all those things because my Mom thought, when I was little, that I should have more of a tolerance for cold water than I had.

Let me emphasize: that water was God awful cold. If that water had emanated from a spring on Pluto, it could not have been more cold.

Not many of my experiences in D.C. were marked by something like a burnt tongue to force them into my brain and make them stay there; those days were, like most days are now (and always have been) largely the same and largely devoid of impact. Thinking back, I'm both surprised and not surprised at how little I actually remember of my life. School days all run together, work days all run together, offices all run together, with nothing to separate them or differentiate them at all.

I wonder, as I write this, whether I could sit down and write down all the days I remember in my life, and if I did that, did write down each specific day I could recall, what would it add up to? Would there be 365 of them? More? Less?

Do I remember even 1/40 of my life?

And is that important? Or is the fact that I did those things, even if I can't consciously remember them the important thing? If I don't remember them, does it matter if I did them?

I remember, like I said, in addition to those days I've already recounted, about five specific whole days from D.C., and they are:

The day I rollerbladed to Alexandria
The day I met Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The day we went to Gettysburg.
The day Rip and I bummed around the National Mall.
The day I went to the Holocaust Museum.

Beyond those specific days, I remember doing specific things, like the time I saw the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian. Or I thought I remembered that. What I remember about seeing the Hope Diamond is this: I remember seeing a disappointing, cloudy blob. I'd expected something spectacular. Most of my Giant-Diamonds-In-Museums-Experience comes from things like The Great Muppet Caper, and so I thought there would be a diamond the size of my head. The Hope Diamond that I remember was about the size of maybe a quarter and looked like a blob of goo.

And I am totally convinced of that. I have a memory, lodged in my mind, of seeing the Hope Diamond, on a wall mount, looking disappointing and gooey, and not at all spectacular. To show that memory, I went and Googled, just now, the words "Hope Diamond," and I got this:

I've never... never seen that. That's not the Hope Diamond I remember. That does look like a diamond Charles Grodin would try to steal with Miss Piggy's unwitting help -- but the Hope Diamond in my memory was way way less spectacular.

So what did I see, and why does my memory, when I think Hope Diamond, call up a plaque on the wall of the Smithsonian with a blob of cloudy rock on it, instead of that thing up there?

And do I remember anything at all, period, then? Now I can't even be sure that my memory of anything is accurate, at all. I'm sitting here trying to remember things in Washington, D.C., and I can't be sure that I'm remembering what actually happened, period. Maybe I misremembered it all? Maybe I'm substituting memories? Is something crossed in my brain?

But I definitely feel like I remember things -- like the rollerblading day. I can still remember carrying my rollerblades down to the front of the dorms, lacing them up. I can remember clipping my clunky Walkman onto my waistband, making sure I had my wallet and my cigarettes and lighter (I still hadn't quit smoking -- but by this point, about April, I was down 8 pounds, having lost 8 of the 10 pounds I vowed to lose) in my pocket, and setting out.

I recall, distinctly, rollerblading down towards the Capitol, which always seemed farther away than it actually was. When I'd take the Metro to the Capitol, it seemed the Capitol was miles and miles away. But I was only about a mile from it, if that -- a mile from the National Mall and the Capitol and the White House. I used to live closer to the President than I now live to my office.

I remember getting to Capitol Hill, and I even remember the song I was listening to as I got to the building itself and paused to consider where to go next. It was "88 Lines About 44 Women:"

A song I'd taped off the radio. I remember listening to my bootleg technopop and deciding to head for National Airport, using as my reasoning for that there's a path that goes there.

I remember the sun shining down, and the way the grass seemed green for the first time that spring. There's a day, every spring, wherever you live, that the grass finally becomes green, and it always, in my life, happens just one day. Winter comes and snow falls and then winter ends and snow melts and the grass is trampled and brown and mushy and soggy and footprint marked and junky... until one day it stands tall and soft and tickly and green, so green, a green that exists only in grass on that first day of green, a lush green that exists for only a short period of time and a good thing, that is, because it makes it all the more appreciable since it is short-lived... that was the color of the grass that day.

There was a slight wind, and a smell of water on the wind from the Potomac. I remember that, too.

I remember the planes landing, at National Airport, as I rollerbladed around the airport on the bike path I shared with bikers and joggers and walkers and other rollerbladers. The planes were low -- they seemed lower than they were. Any plane that's not a mile up in the sky seems too close, doesn't it? But these weren't scary close. They were interesting close; I was able to see planes, for the first time, that were close and landing and large and loud and I'd never seen them like that before.

I remember going on from National Airport to Alexandria, Virginia, which seems like it should be too far away to rollerblade -- how can I rollerblade across state lines? But the state line is imaginary and nothing in D.C. is very far from anything else, and I ended up in historic Alexandria, Virginia, where, rollerblades on, I saw the church where George Washington had once gone. I ate an ice cream cone at a Ben & Jerry's shop, sitting with my rollerblades stretched out in front of me and looking at the old building.

I watched a man play the water glasses -- he had them filled with water and played a song on them by rubbing his fingers around the edges -- and I went to the waterfront and looked at boats.

And then I rollerbladed back to my dorm, back past the church and the airport and the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and the Capitol, back to the steps of the dorms where I sat and had a cigarette while I listened to my tape, and then I took my rollerblades off and went upstairs.

I remember all that, like it happened yesterday. I can see that in my head, the whole day, with a soundtrack from my Walkman and almost no talking from me or to me, just sun and grass and people and sights and musical waterglasses and large airplanes and historic sites and monuments and statues... all day long.

I remember that, and I can hear the water glasses, feel the sun on my neck as I skated along, taste the ice cream.

I don't know why that day stuck in my memory. But I'd rather have that there than a million Hope Diamonds.

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