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Memory hole

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The Observer, as you may have gleaned from this column, is fascinated with memory: what we remember, what we forget and why. That big computer sitting up on your shoulders has a hugemongous hard drive, as the kids might say, but it ain't infinite. Therefore, the vast majority of stuff you see and experience and hate and love just simply gets tossed over the side, like a frigate dumping its spittoons and chamber pots mid-ocean.

The Observer teaches memoir from time to time out at the college, and we tell people that what stays is what your brain decides is useful — either what it comes to believe will bring you more joy, avoid pain or keep your behind out of a similar crack in the future. Such is the reason memory exists, and such an engine is the brain, always crunching numbers and making judgment calls, even now, even as you read this, saying in pops and zips of electricity: "Will this article be useful to me in a day or a week or 10 years, or is better forgotten?" To be honest, it's probably the latter, Dear Reader. We're in the newspaper bidness. We deal in ink, friend, and long ago came to grips with the fact that today's journalistic brilliance is tomorrow's bird cage liner.

The trick with a memory, we tell folks, is to figure out why something mattered enough that your brain said "better clear some shelf space for this one." Even with the most seemingly innocuous and forgettable memory, The Observer believes: if that kind of calculation was made, that shelf was cleared, that moment stitched in electric blue neuron spark, it was not done so flippantly.

What does it mean for Yours Truly, then, that our earliest memory is a line of city buses outside a hospital, The Observer's mother wheeling into the parking lot in her boat-sized Pontiac, our Auntie in the shotgun seat? Plain old excitement, probably, even at 3 years old. Or the time we wiped out our bicycle in a driveway at 14, The Boy Observer headed downhill through the wind, the lovely tug of gravity, and then our sure tires going out from under us, a shout, impact on hard stones, head whacked hard enough that we saw stars, not quite like in the cartoons, but close. Then at 9, and our father emerging from a brush pile with a gleaming, tar-black snake wrapped around his wrist and forearm, head of the beast pinched between his thumb and forefinger. Standing on a roof at age 12, Main Street, Little Rock, waiting for Pa to finish a patch job behind us, and seeing two homeless men begin to argue and then fight in front of the liquor store across the street, one of them eventually breaking a beer bottle and brandishing it, the only time before or since we've seen that move outside of the movies. At 37, just eaten one of the best meals of our life – catfish at Georgetown One Stop – and having to hold the seat up with a knee while taking a leak in the restaurant's tiny, whomperjawed bathroom. At 22, on a road trip from Memphis to New Orleans with the girl who would be our wife, crossing the Mississippi on the ferry at New Roads in the dusk. Age 24, rising in the dark in our small campus apartment near the University of Iowa the night The Observer learned Spouse was pregnant, leaving her there sleeping, putting on the heaviest coat we've ever owned and trudging through the chilly night to a nearby park with an Indian mound in the center, which we scaled and, there, lay on our back, considering Midwestern stars and fate. Then 25 and the sound of our son's first cry, which made his old man weep for joy, at which point Spouse's hated, bedside-mannerless obstetrician, who should have been a podiatrist, kicked The Proud Father right the hell out of the delivery room.

More confounding, though, are other memories, most of them just flashes: pressing a cantaloupe to the nose at an ancient edition of the Little Rock Farmer's Market; cutting through the rain in a pickup truck on the way back from Memphis; seeing a girl in a Taco Bell in Benton at 16, a blonde in a sweatshirt that said "Ohio State"; the vanilla bean smell of Jackson Cookie Co. in North Little Rock; our first sight of the Atlanta skyline. A hundred more. Why do they stay?

The Observer doesn't know, or even if we should wonder about such things. As we often tell people, the mind is a trickster, concealing from you what you won't see or aren't ready to know. Sounds crazy, but we've seen just that sort of thing enough to believe in it. Sometimes it's better just to leave it at that.


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