Pessimism is everywhere, even beyond glasses and water at 50% capacity. One of the most pessimistic things you can say is that you must know history or be doomed to repeat it. Or that no matter our efforts against it, we always become our parents. A mountain biker knows that if you don’t want to hit the rock, or ride off the cliff, you have to ignore them both and focus on the gap.
I knew that airplanes live in hangers months before I ever saw a hanger, or an airplane. My son does too. It was the only way to get food into his mouth when he was first eating solids.
“bbbrrrrroooommm airplane coming in for a landing! Open the HANGAR!!!!” They even make small toy airplanes with a spoon mounted to the propeller shaft. He didn’t know what an airplane was then, but now, a year later, he does. He also feeds himself. Most of the time.
There are a number of tricks you can use to get a child to open up and take a bite off a spoon. The word yummy and an exaggerated gourmand look can work sometimes. But humans are able at an alarmingly early age to parse the contextual complexity of that word, and it doesn’t work more than one or two times in a row.
The best trick is the airplane, even before they’ve seen the soaring machine flying in the sky, or ridden in one and looked back at their tiny city below. Kids have blocks, and cars and animals. Parents make the noises, pantomime the kinetics, and enact the behavior of these things with toys. So babies get used to associating objects with abstractions. But at what point does it become clear to them that a toy car represents the thing in the driveway? When you think about it, 6 months is pretty early to expect a human to understand the difference between a toy car, and a toy dinosaur. Yet the airplane/spoon trick still works. Even though they don’t know what’s going on.
Funny thing happened the first time I pulled out the airplane[spoon] to hanger[mouth] solid food feeding trick. I made the greatest airplane noise. Moved it around his head through the air in hypnotizing arcs. Radioed the tower to get the hangar doors open and brought her in for a feather soft landing and delivered the payload. His mouth closed, and for a second we changed places and I was him. I could taste the butternut squash melange. I was in the high chair. I could feel the velcro from the plastic bib itching my neck. I looked up and saw a giant hand and a giant arm and the giant face and head of my dad loading the cargo hold for another run.
How Memory Works
Memory is a tricky thing. Jonah Lehrer dug deep into the biochemistry of memory in a recent article in Wired Magazine called The Forgetting Pill. The main focus of the article is in research around the use of chemicals and therapy to destroy memory. Particularly memories that cause problems like those that exacerbate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition in which one’s memories of war torment them to the extent that daily life becomes extremely difficult.
None of that applies to me. I have done some stupid things in my life that I wished at the time I could forget, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. What I would rather have is the opposite. The ability to access memory data the way computers look up tables in a database. What is interesting is the fact that scientists who study memory believe that memories are in constant flux and regeneration. That every time you recall a memory, it gets re-written. It gets reaffirmed. They call that reconsolidation. Here’s how Lehrer describes it in Wired Magazine:
“I can recall vividly the party for my eighth birthday. I can almost taste the Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake and summon the thrill of tearing wrapping paper off boxes of Legos. This memory is embedded deep in my brain as a circuit of connected cells that I will likely have forever. Yet the science of reconsolidation suggests that the memory is less stable and trustworthy than it appears. Whenever I remember the party, I re-create the memory and alter its map of neural connections. Some details are reinforced—my current hunger makes me focus on the ice cream—while others get erased, like the face of a friend whose name I can no longer conjure. The memory is less like a movie, a permanent emulsion of chemicals on celluloid, and more like a play—subtly different each time it’s performed. In my brain, a network of cells is constantly being reconsolidated, rewritten, remade. That two-letter prefix changes everything.”
If you don’t recall something, it’ll disintegrate like Marty and his brother in the polaroid. But when your brain puts it back together, it does so in light of your new experience and how your present brain, sees, processes and thinks about the past in context of the now.
I can see my dad’s moustached face, with brown hair longer than he’s had it in 20 years (not a hint of silver), bringing the spoon in for a landing. I can remember trying to chew food and swallow it while smiling and laughing. But when I remember that, I also remember the image of Bugs Bunny flying the bomber, the sight of a 737 sitting on the tarmac outside the terminal, and knowing that a hangar is like a garage for airplanes, and that airplanes communicate to the tower via two-way radios, and a whole litany of facts and images about airplanes and food that have nothing to do with that first time my dad pulled that trick.
But my son feeds himself now. And once he got the hang of it, around 15 months old, he’s wanted nothing to do with being fed. He knows what an airplane is, but he wouldn’t know a hanger from a hole in the ground. (That’s not true. He can accurately identify holes in the ground)
So my memory of being fed has got to be about the same vintage. from when I was 6 months to about a year and a half old, when I wouldn’t have had any idea what any of those things were or how they worked. I guess what happened is that I remembered the airplane, and the hanger, and when those words and objects popped up in my life I remembered the breakfast, and the memory got rewritten with the new information.
Not a bug
The idea that memory is faulty is a powerful one. We tend to think that eye-witnesses being valid has more usefulness in our lives than it really does. If every memory was static and never changed, then remembering things you don’t fully understand would be useless. I’d still be remembering the airplane and the hanger and to this day wondering what the hell my dad was even talking about.
Memory being rewritten isn’t a flaw, or even a coping mechanism, which the Wired article focuses on. It is how we make sense of the world. Memory didn’t evolve as a tool to lend order to our legal system and fill bookstores with reading material. Those things are just byproducts of society. Memory evolved to help us survive by linking facts to memories, and turning observations into understanding. It’s how we learn.
But I was going to say before I fumbled all that science about memories, that I should prefer some boy force me to relive the past, from time to time, to re-reconsolidate the details. It’s a kind of fact checking of my as-yet unwritten memoir. Before I just had a memory. One that I witnessed in the second person when my sisters came of age. Then experienced as the second person. Now I know the approximate date, what details must have been real and what was added later on to make them relevant to the little boy who experienced it, remembered it and witnessed it.
It happens all the time. When I’m gripping his hand as we cross the street remembering the vice like grip my dad inflicted on my wrist–feeling the urgency that gave it strength. When I see my boy screaming with joy as he flies up into the air and back to my arms. Teaching him to spit when he falls on his face and comes up with a mouth full of dirt while remembering that feeling of safety and comfort and health transferred by a simple hug.
And the more I keep on ignoring the past, and not trying to avoid becoming my dad, the more things like this will happen.