Friday, March 12, 2010

Forgot to Remember

Our brains collect pop-culture trivia. Some of it is neatly organized in our memory, some ends up in the cerebral equivalent of a junk drawer. For every poem or sit-com episode recalled in loving detail long after the fact, there are songs and films that left impressions but, due to a lack of re-exposure and the passing of time, swirl in the subconscious like torn pages from old magazines with smudged ink and yellowed pages.

These half-remembered items sometimes gain an inflated significance. The mere fact that you remember only part of a particular story or song, and not the name of the artist responsible for its creation, let alone the name of the work itself, puts a little shine on that memory.

That afternoon when you were little and your mother brought you with her to run errands -- was that song you heard on her car radio really so special? No, it was just “Fancy Pants” by Al Hirt. And though the song is plenty entertaining on its own merits, your desire to find it again, to learn if it would captivate you with the same intensity, owes more to the situation in which you first experienced it than the song itself.

Still, these things matter: the songs, books, movies, and other entertainments. They matter precisely because of our tenuous ability to hold all of them in our heads. We may not retain all the relevant data, but what little we do remember keeps the associated sensations alive, and that’s the vital part.

In our age of “all information, all the time, anytime, whenever you want it, wherever you need it” it’s easier than ever to complete any puzzle our memories present. That’s a curse, of course, because without those knots to untie we lose some of the tiny challenges that our minds crave. Novelty and discovery weaken as the work involved in the latter becomes too easy, and the frequency of the former decreases.

The next time a pop-culture phantom haunts your memory -- some half-remembered scene from a mostly forgotten movie, or the loose melody of a long-ago hit song -- let it rattle around a while before searching for an answer. It’s a tiny little mystery, but most of us need all we can get.