Past Tense, Present Tense
Pop culture treats memory like a video camera, something the brain stores in full, and even if people don’t remember every detail, it’s still there in the brain, waiting to be recovered. But science tells us this isn’t the case. Our brains don’t keep every detail, just short-hand notes of what’s happening to us, dots that we later connect to create memories. It’s connecting these dots that leads us to misremembering things, creating false memories, and losing or blocking out memories. Memories can be a tricky business.
For many, many years, I’ve listened to Billy Joel’s Glass Houses for a specific flavor of inspiration. I’m not a fan of Billy Joel’s music for the most part, but I remember hanging out with my best friend in 3rd grade at his house, listening to Glass Houses while we read comics and wrote and drew our own crude comics. Back then, I was a much more innocent artist and writer. I wasn’t at all hung up on being “original.” I didn’t worry whether or not my stories sucked. Although I was creating them for a potential audience (because comics were sold to be read by lots of people, obviously), I was still making them based solely and purely on what excited me. So when I’m trying to bring that frame of mind back, Glass Houses is one of my go-tos.
Except a few years ago, I noticed that Glass Houses came out in the spring of 1980. I was in 3rd grade from the fall of 1978 to the spring of 1979, and after that we moved from New York to Iowa. There’s no way I could have listened to that album at my friend’s house. But even knowing that, my memory insists we listened to that album there and then, and when I listen to Glass Houses, it still brings me back to that time.
Memory is a funny thing.
I was going through old journals last year and found one from 15 years ago. There’s a string of entries in it that talk about a woman I would see at the coffee shop I used as a hangout back then. I thought she was super cute and looked like the kind of artsy person I would want to get to know. Over the course of the journal entries, I start talking with the woman, I develop a big crush on her, she tells me she doesn’t really date anyone, we start hanging out outside of the coffee shop, and I vent about painful, unrequited crushage in my journal.
Not only had I not thought of her in years, I didn’t remember this experience. At. All. Seeing her name in my journal didn’t ring any bells. I couldn’t picture her in my head, couldn’t recall her face, her voice, the color of her hair. It was like reading a story written by someone else.
Memory is a slippery beast.
My brother and I were recently commiserating about some of the emotional abuse from our father that we endured. My brother said, “God, remember how he used to…”–and I hadn’t remembered it, hadn’t thought of it in almost 35 years, not until he brought it up. I never thought of myself as someone who blocks out unpleasant memories. Considering how much time and energy I’ve spent in my life replaying uncomfortable and traumatic memories, I figured I remembered every shitty thing. Nope. Not this time, at least.
When I hit puberty and my body started developing the way hormonal teen bodies usually develop, my dad would…well, show me off to his friends. When my brother and I were staying with our dad during school vacations, when he had friends over, he would call me into the room, have me take my shirt off, and show his friends, “Look how Josh is developing muscles! He’s growing up!”
To this day, I’m uncomfortable when I’m shirtless, even when I’m home alone. No matter how hot and humid it gets, I’m ashamed to be topless. (I once got thrown out of a public swimming pool because I refused to take my T-shirt off.) I never really thought about what caused this particular anxiety, but now that my brother has brought that memory back, I’ve got a pretty solid idea of where this comes from.
Memory is a tricky business.