good memory, bad memory

From my dad I inherited terrible eyesight, a love of idly reading menus, and a prodigious memory. These are all related. Both of us are the weird blend of bookish people who love people. Dad’s preferred way of interacting with the world was to study it until he’d practically memorized it. He thought that if he just learned enough, everything would snap into place.

He wanted to know what was going at school because he cared about me, and the way he tried to figure out was by avidly reading my yearbooks over and over. At after-school pickup, I’d hop into the backseat of his white Camry. Instead of driving us home, he’d furrow his brow and scan the exceedingly youthful crowd. “Hey, there are the Brauns twins,” he’d say, pointing at some girls neither of us had ever met before. “Looks like Sarah just lost her first tooth. Their brother Ross should be a 5th grader now. He had Mrs. Tate last year.”

In high school, I played and loved quiz bowl (basically team trivia). It turned all of human endeavor from an imposing, unscalable wall into something clearly marked and orderly, laid out like a colorful beginner’s route at a climbing gym. Just slip your hand here and give yourself a boost. You’ll see vantage points you never could’ve dreamt of. To this day it is hard to daunt me with a museum or profession that I feel I can’t find a secure handhold into. I liked it enough to try out for Jeopardy, their annual college tournament, right after high school graduation. When I was selected, they mentioned I was the youngest contestant they’d ever had on college Jeopardy.

That summer, between my Jeopardy audition and preparing to enter college, I was a bundle of nerves. I worried that growing up in unsophisticated South Carolina meant I’d somehow mess up, not know the things that everyone instinctively knew about college. I wanted badly to “do” college “right” and so inhaled all the information available to me. I’d stay up late reading the Facebook group for our incoming freshman class, where kids confidently, baselessly posted about which dorms were the good ones and what classes to skip. I hovered over profile photos and noticed hometowns, memorizing without trying. Even then, I suspected an awful lot of it was just noise. But I didn’t know what was important, what the real handholds were, and so I clung to absolutely everything. 

My first days on campus, someone would come introduce herself. “Hi, I’m Alyssa, from—” And I’d say, “Yes! I know. From Cincinnati. Your big brother came here too. You were trying to decide between majoring in Sociology and Molecular Biology. Have you decided?” A look of utter confusion before she’d back away slowly. Regurgitating information had always been how I related to the world, how I showed I’d been interested enough to pay attention. Classes and contests only rewarded and reinforced the habit. And the friends who’d known me for years accepted it as caring and thoughtful. But in this new context, surrounded by strangers, it didn’t work. Instead of signaling my care, it now scared people. Caused altitude sickness. No one was impressed with my ability to scale such great heights. Instead, they wondered how on earth I’d found my way up there. 

I had my Jeopardy tapings the first semester of college. All the contestants were put up in the same hotel. We congregated in the lobby freshly showered and nervous (I wonder if the crew permanently associates the smell of that hotel shampoo with adrenaline). On the shuttle over to the filming lot, the other kids started chatting. “Remember when that English teacher from Texas won 8 shows in 2006?” “Yeah! Her final wager on day 3 was insane.” Whoa, I thought, I’m way out of my depth here. Then, a split second later: Wait – this isn’t real. None of those details matter? They talked about past shows as if they were plotted, as if the story arcs had meaning, but it was clear to me that it was all just noise. Just the random story of what three nervous contestants happened to dredge up on a random day. 

That more than anything was what got me to stop clinging. I learned to stifle my memory, holding my tongue, pretending not to know details I’d gleaned from months-ago throwaway conversations. I asked about stuff I already knew. It is scary, not doing the thing you are best at, and just trusting. I was convinced this would distance me, but instead, I made some of my closest friends in this practiced nonchalant not-knowing.  

What does it look like when a good memory pretends to forget?

Sure, having someone forget your name can be annoying. But there’s also a joy to not being known in the first place. In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker describes how nice it can be to be at a party where no one knows you. You have total freedom to confess to the more tentative, emerging parts of yourself, without your aunt or sophomore year roommate saying, “Hey, but you always hated Biology.” There’s a relief being freed from having to be your own archetype for a night: not being the funny one or the creative one or the one who always overreacts. There’s a real danger in being too confident that you really know a person. You can climb up a dead end, a now non-existent path, and get yourself stuck. 

In my meditation group, we agreed that our memories had gotten worse the more seriously we practiced. Your brain is constantly clamoring for you to memorize and hoard information, anything that might help you survive. Mindfulness encourages the understanding that the world as you see it is subjective and fleeting. You start paying attention to the act of noticing while placing less faith in any individual thing you happen to notice. It casts a comforting, protective fuzziness.

I’d gone from pretending to forget, to appreciating the virtues of forgetting in the abstract. But the second it turned real, my hard-earned peace dissolved. I moved across the country and found it harder to stay in touch with people. One of my close friends had a terrible week: pulled her groin and discovered fleas in her bed. She called uncharacteristically late Eastern time, asking how she’d get through this, her panic palpable. But the next time we talked, by text, I completely forgot and didn’t ask about either affliction. When I finally realized my lapse, it hurt my very core. Past me would never have forgotten this. Could never have forgotten. 

What does it look like when a formerly good memory actually does start to forget?

This lapse was still weighing on me when I saw my friend Charlie. He records absolutely everything in a journal app. He can say to the minute when I arrived or left our last hangout. We got Indian food at his favorite restaurant, Pakwan, and then wandered out to find a bar that wasn’t too loud. He said, “Last time we saw each other, you taught me why everywhere is getting so noisy.” He had written down that tiny detail! And could probably reconstruct our entire conversation. I hadn’t and couldn’t. All I could say about the last time is that it’d been nice. 

Flustered, I went home and downloaded the journal app he uses, starting to laboriously record everything I’d done or thought that day. My fingers paused mid-tap. I thought about pre-college me, hunched over the Facebook group on screen, hunting futilely for a sturdy handhold into college. Was I now pendulum swinging back towards remembering absolutely everything but nothing of importance?

I thought about one of my favorite instances of Charlie’s external memory. He hosted a party to celebrate his 100th time eating Pakwan. He had catering (his most ordered dishes), trivia about his visits (most frequent dining companion; most frequent day of the week), and classic party games (pin the chili pepper on the Pakwan logo). He wasn’t just dumping trivia flatly at his friends’ feet (“You’re from Cincinnati. Your brother came here too.”) Instead, he took his consolidated trivia and evolved it. Fearlessly carved out new footholds and routes and invited his friends on up.

I’m starting to see time and again that the easiest things to know are rarely the things you need to know. Here’s the thing about trivia: it’s brittle. Change makes it worse. It seems comfortingly solid and permanent, but records can be broken. Geraldine Ferraro was the only female US Presidential or Vice Presidential nominee by a major party, until she wasn’t. I was the youngest ever contestant on college Jeopardy. I might still be, or I might’ve been dislodged.

Here’s the thing about Facebook and yearbooks. They present the tantalizing possibility of order amongst messy humanity. Flip through the glossy pages, scroll enough, and you might just get it, they seem to promise. But it’s an illusion. They’re just snapshots in time. Facebook asks what’s on your mind, that most changeable of things. My dad knew whether you were missing teeth the day of your kindergarten photo, but he didn’t know how you made me feel, whether you ever shoved me off the swings or shared your Fruit Gushers, even the good flavors.

Here’s the thing about people: they change and that’s the best part. They’re terrible time capsules because something’s different every time you see them. You can’t climb up the same path and expect to ever see exactly the same thing. Turns out, you don’t need to remember everything (middle names, number of siblings, what dorm). Just the important stuff. What counts as important is always shifting. You’ll mess up, most likely by forgetting (unless you are my dad or past me). All you can do listen hard, never assume, have trust. That’s all the advice I have to give.

Sometimes my memory does rear its former head. I’ll jump into a Lyft, and the driver’ll remark on how he’s still not used to the weather here. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Latvia. A little country. Not very famous.” I won every school geography bee from 5th to 8th grade, so the capital city slips in without effort. “Riga!” I exclaim. He visibly relaxes, feeling seen in a city and a life that doesn’t always care about where he has been and what all he’s experienced. His face becomes a topography of delight. It’s all the permission he needs to zoom off, telling me about his two young daughters in their faraway home and everything he misses.

Sure, I will still worry. I’ll fret over being the best possible friend, party guest, fellow human. I’ll keep prodding, looking for the exact edge of knowledge that’s comforting, unobtrusive, maintainable. But tonight I have nailed it. The little handhold I spotted let me clamber into a shared space for just the two of us. A quiet ledge for us to rest on for a time.