Jun 19, 2006

like tears in rain

I have always known that I have a poor memory. When people claim I am smart I attribute it entirely to my poor memory. I was never smart until I realized I had zero capacity to retain information. I suffered through charitable B's and C's in grade school. Math was my worst subject because there is technically an infinite amount of material to memorize if you don't understand what's going on. Once you realize you can't remember equations or facts very well then you try to compensate by innately understanding whatever you are trying to learn. While people were scribbling notes in high school and college I used to just listen; hoping that I could understand the overarching fundamentals of any given topic. Often I rederived equations during tests from first principles. This is why I studied engineering and physics in college and not history or biology. This is why math became my best subject.

This last weekend I attended the wedding of an old friend from my Ph.D. days. The effect of this weekend was for my lack of memory to reassert itself in my mind. I stopped by to see my graduate advisor at Stanford and also spent the wedding day talking with friends from that period. Effectively seeing people and places I hadn't visited for over a decade.

It was a jarring experience. When I visited my advisor I discovered that he didn't retain an office in the building he used to reside. He was now in the mechanical engineering building. I had attended at least one class in that building. But how you got there from the chemical engineering building, what that building looked like, and what classes I had taken there escaped my grasp. I wandered around aimlessly on campus. I'd take a left or a right turn expecting to walk upon a certain setting that didn't exist in reality. Typically my mind had shortcutted the actuals. There were more filler buildings and pathways than I had remembered. Places I had walked by hundreds of times had become more condensed in my mind. Possibly because I had never really spent the energy to be aware of my surroundings.

I came away from that visit slightly disoriented about what had actually occurred in my 4 years at the school. Who had I known, what classes had I taken, what extracurricular activities had I done? Names came back but not necessarily the faces. Faces but not names. Trips I had taken started to form in my mind but I had no clue who I had taken them with. Chronologically, events had no foundation. I visited Point Reyes once but with who and when? And did we also go to see the big redwood trees during that time or was it some other trip? I tried to put it out of my mind, slightly frustrated with my lack of recollection. I did drink quite heavily during this period but not all the time. It wasn't an excuse nor would it be completely comforting if that was the source.

The following day was the wedding and I knew there would be a few people I knew quite closely from that period. I had a certain amount of trepidation. When I arrived I wanted to stand back from the crowd so I could scan faces and allow myself time to reconstruct events and names around those people. In general everyone was quite recognizable. A few more grays and wrinkles perhaps but nothing too drastic that stopped me from identifying a face as someone from my past. But again names and events that I had experience with these people were less than forthcoming. What exactly happened during those four years where I spent practically every weekend in the city or in Berkeley? The groom I had met at a Stanford pre-acceptance dinner. But we never exchanged information and luckily he spotted me a year or so later walking by a bar he was in. I don't even remember who I was with at the time. And even now as I think and type about this event I remember other faceless people surrounding that event. But everything is hazy.

At the same time I suddenly wondered why had I lost touch with these people? All but the groom at least. And even with him, there were vast swaths of time when we didn't stay in touch. It's fairly inexcusable and maddening at the same time. But oddly many of these people had failed to keep a strong connection with each other even though the geographical limitations were much less imposing than mine; many stayed in the Bay Area. Life changes. People take on new jobs and new friends and new hobbies and new spouses. There was clearly a strong connection between everyone. Conversations weren't stiff or contrived. The attraction that originally existed was still in force. But clearly people's lives had moved on. The spheres of their lives intersected a little less often.

Why didn't I keep in touch? I've moved around a lot in my life. On average I'm in a new city every 4 years - St. Paul, Paris, St. Paul, London, St. Paul, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, New York. Only recently have I more actively spent energy keeping in touch with people. For example, when I left San Francisco I have almost no recollection of saying goodbye to people. I graduated, I accepted a job, and I was off. I don't think there was a big goodbye party for everyone. I can't recall the last time I saw the groom from that period. I actually do recall my flight out but only because it was slightly traumatic with a crying girlfriend left at the gate (maybe some trauma is good in life for this very reason). But I don't have any internal feelings of loss or sadness from this end of an important part of my life. I'm sure I didn't give this girlfriend the kind of explanation or compassion she deserved. I metaphorically walked quickly out the door. That of course wasn't true when I left Seattle. Maybe it's maturity. No one teaches you how to say goodbye and keep in touch. There's no class for that. Maybe I was too excited about the opportunities I was about to undertake. Maybe now these opportunities seem quite small in the scheme of things. A new job does not equal a friendship and it never will. But back then it seemed like it did.

And then again my mind wandered to people who weren't at the wedding but I had spent a lot of time with. Ex-girlfriends, drinking buddies, peripheral acquaintances, etc. What has happened to them? What things did I do with those people? Why didn't I stay in touch? It was both nostalgically saddening and energizing at the same time. Am I going to look back in 10 years and wander what I was doing in New York? Who I was hanging out with? Maybe I better do something about this.

This is good mid-life crisis shit. You can see where this fear stems from. I'm 80 years old at some point and I don't have many friends and huge chunks of my life never happened. I might have well have lived for 20 years because the other 60 are lost. That is why I say this kind of experience is energizing. This 'anti-flashback' clearly gives me some incentive to be a little more observant and careful in nurturing moments and friendships. You tend to get up off your duff with this kind of realization.

I'm also glad that I'm now armed with two pieces of technology - a digital camera and the modern day blog. Let me explain. I have one picture of my mother when she was about 2 or 3 years old. One of my father when he was around 8. I have about maybe 100 pictures max of myself up to about age 10. I have thousands of pictures of my 1.5 year old daughter. There is no blog or written material of my mom. No blog of my dad. My blog started in 2000 or so and wasn't particularly documentary in its content or prolific until 2 years ago. Even then, it's not event driven. My daughter's blog has hundreds of entries detailing where we went, with who, when, and what we did including the day she was born and the day she was conceived (no picture of that event thankfully; just the resort we were at and later a pregnancy test strip).

I can't imagine on some level the experience my daughter will have when she is 80 years old. Presuming I can interest her in using a digital camera and a blog to journal her life on some frequent basis, she will not have a pang for lost moments. In fact she'll have the joy of possibly reading about a moment that she has no memory of ever penning. And then on another level I can't imagine what my days in San Francisco would be like if I had a digital camera and a blog back then. And would that have spurred me to keep more in touch with people when I wandered back and read a post about some party on some odd weekend. "Maybe I should give so and so a call?", I might have told myself. Or what if all my friends had kept blogs? Even if we didn't communicate directly I would know the big events happening in their lives. It's certainly one way I keep in touch now. But these recordings do not exist. This was all not meant to be.

So perhaps tomorrow I'll carry my camera around a little more frequently. Maybe I'll blog a little more often. And maybe I won't have to write this piece again in 10 years after I have forgotten that I wrote it today.


docrpm said...

while i may forget the specifics of those events in the same way you do, i remember the things that ultimately matter: that you are an important person in my life, and always will be; that others fill the same role, albeit in different ways.

my memory fails me regularly when it comes to specifics, but it is always crystal clear when it comes to overriding emotions and relationships.

Chookster said...

True. It was almost like I had never left. I'm at least glad others have poor memories too.

Jeff Petrin said...

Greetings from someone you knew during your school days in St. Paul. Funny you should touch upon this theme as I have had similar feelings over the past year and looked Tony and Steve up as a result. Found your blog through the other Tony from the neighborhood. Great stuff. Viva Le Tour next week! Regards, Jeff

Chookster said...

This must be the age to start reminiscing huh? Jeff good to hear from you. You're another soul where I have trouble thinking what things we did together. What are you up to now? Still in Minnesota? Married? Kids? Etc.? Do you have a blog I can read to catch up? I take it you got a hold of Steve. Man I need to call that guy. We haven't spoken in a year at least!