How many individual things are we able to remember at once–without resorting to unholy trickery, that is? At any given time, the experts will tell you, we can keep between five and nine things in mind, on average. That’s another interesting piece of trivia to tuck away, but it’s actually not what I’m talking about. I mean what is the sum total of things that we can know? Is there an end to it? We must assume there is an upper limit, owing to the brain’s finite mass. And if a brain is like my attic then we must also assume that, as it reaches maximum capacity, it’s not so much the size of the object you’re trying to stuff up there, but the shape of it as well. Any new thought, in other words, would have to be able to fit in among the other notions, in form as well as size. It follows then that at some point you can only accept certain types of information, which, considering my elders, is just about as accurate a theory as any other I’ve been able to devise.
Regardless, the reason this thought is occupying so much of my mind is due to a list that I can’t forget. Because I am a slothful creature by nature, I’ve always clustered tasks–those things that must get done–into as short a time as possible, the better to have done with them. As I run my internal audit, which usually happens while I’m in the shower, I string together an unwieldy list of activities that I’ll try to maintain by repeating them like a mantra. “Marinate the tempeh, add memory to the Palm, necklace for sister… Marinate the tempeh,” and so on. Invariably, when the list grows too long, errors begin to creep in. Words cannibalize themselves, and I am subject to involuntary spoonerism episodes. This must be what dementia is like.
The sheer bulk of information necessitates that I pare back to bare essentials. “Marinate, memory, necklace,” et cetera. These optimized lists are much more manageable, and sometimes they’re even catchy. But that’s the problem, see. If they’re too catchy then the lists can bridge the gap between short term memory and long term memory, and suddenly I find myself weaving these one-time lists–agendas shortly to become obsolete–into the very tapestry that makes me who I am.
Let me give you the quintessential example. “Key, money, watch, belt, pencil.” It’s been engraved in my memory for more than 20 years, long outliving its usefulness. Those were the things I needed to remember before leaving the house for school, the things that would provide me self-sufficiency, and thus a sense of security. Every morning for five years I would run that list through my head before I left the house, but when school ended for good, and I made my way into the world as a free man, my synaptic pathways dedicated to this little ritual failed to atrophy.
Even now there are times when, as I’m leaving for work, that indelible phrase will flit through my head, just as natural as you please. It’s become an aberration, a constant reminder that when a certain invisible threshold is crossed the simplest notion can be forever committed to memory. It’s like ancient burial grounds that can never be built upon.
How much other useless information am I carrying around? These aren’t sepia-toned snippets of nostalgia like the time Ronnie’s pants were ripped off when he was swinging across the creek and we all saw his underwear was purple. These memories are like corn kernels caught between your molars, never to be dislodged. Is it necessary for me to remember that the Solar System’s planets are in “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza pies” order? Will I ever have cause to summon the cover of Roberta Flack’s album “Killing Me Softly” (1973)? Because I can do that if I need to, just as easily as if I were still looking up at it on the shelf of my parents’ record console as I did when I was but a wean. Roberta Flack, still sitting at that damned piano. My educated mother. Don’t forget your keys. They’re all in my head, taking up space, and who knows what new knowledge I’ll have to pass up on because of it.