Entries: June 2005


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.

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The turbulent tides of high school were a shock to the system after a languorous summer spell. I had meant to prepare myself by visualizing just how different life would be there, in contrast to the easily-mastered halls of the lesser junior high across the way. But it didn’t strike me just how lost I would feel until I found myself, textbooks in hand, wandering through a maze of twisty little passages. The few friends I’d cultivated at the previous school seemed scattered to the winds, so when I spotted Robbie Osberg sitting alone at one of the lunch tables I hurried over.

Robbie wasn’t one of the main characters from the small group I considered friends, but then neither was I. We were the background characters—the ones who took part in other peoples’ stories—serving only to round out the group, to give it that stable cohesion. So naturally I asked Robbie if he’d managed to spot one of the primaries. “Hey,” I said. “Man, this place is big. I haven’t even seen Jeff or Ari or Mike. Have you?”

“Oh no you don’t,” Robbie said. “That’s it.” And he proceeded to gather his books and tray and slide them around to the next table, his back to me.

I was dumbfounded. He had reacted as if I were covered in the blood of his parents, certainly not the kind of greeting one might expect after a three month absence. He was joking, that was it. I picked up my books and sat down across from him. “So… did you have a good vacation?” Cautiously.

“I’m not talking to you,” he said, and ate his tater tots with joyless eyes.

A girl at the next table flicked a glance toward us, then instantly looked away. Now I was frustrated, and a little scared. Had I done something to him and forgotten about it? Had I disparaged him in some way without realizing it? Or had I allowed for a lapse of some kind? But no, that wasn’t possible. Robbie and I had barely had a relationship of our own. We’d simply been part of the same group, and had always been friendly toward one another. So why such a violent reaction? “What’s going on, Robbie?”

He only shook his head dismissively, rolling his eyes.

“Are you mad at me?” I asked. “Because I haven’t seen you since last year, so…” Nothing out of him. He’d put up a wall a foot thick, and I was on the outside. I tried one final time: “Are you okay?” Still no response. I might just as well have been talking to myself.

Resigned for the moment, I slid my tray down to an empty spot and pondered on this unexpected turn of events. At least that gave me something to focus on—this mystery—other than being merely lost in a new school. Now I was more than an anonymous nobody. I was loathed, and for no reason, which meant that it could be for any reason. For every reason. To be the object of loathing is to be someone important. I looked around at the other students. Here sits the despised one, I thought. They had no idea. But it wasn’t right to revel in this, was it? And though my imagination was more than up to the task, I wondered at the truth of the matter. There must be a reason for Robbie to treat me so rudely. Was he treating the rest of the group in similar fashion? I doubted it. As I methodically chewed my beef jerky strips I almost didn’t notice as Robbie took his things and left without a word. Maybe his parents had died, and he decided he didn’t like people anymore. Still, he could have at least said something other than, “I’m not talking to you.” To you, he had said.

The fact that I can’t just let things rest, I’ve been told, is not one of my more endearing traits. But what choice did I have? Should I be content to be the bad guy in someone else’s fantasy? Not if I meant to retain any dignity at all.

I actively sought Robbie out from that day on. We shared no classes, but our paths crossed several times during the day, and when I saw him passing I would greet him loudly, “Hi, Robbie!” He would look up automatically, then turn away with a sneer when he saw who it was. So I resolved to give Robbie Osberg a reason to hate me.

I said hello to him every single day without fail, and when he changed his route, I changed mine in turn. I greeted him relentlessly, and when he stopped responding I resorted to trickery. As the months went on I practiced subtly adjusting my voice, lowering the pitch, slowing the cadence. “Hey, ahh, Robert Osberg?” Just to force him to confront his enemy. If only for a moment.

A month or so after that I turned a corner to see him talking to Ari in the hall near the lockers—proof positive that I had been singled out among our former group as an object of scorn. And somehow that gave me all the justification I needed. I tried a different tact that day. “Hey, Ari,” I said.

“Hey,” said Ari.

“Hey, are you in the science fair this year?” I asked him. Robbie was shaking his head like he’d caught me playing dirty. While Ari yammered something about his science fair entry, Robbie was pressing his back against the wall just to get as far from me as he could. That’s right, I thought. Squirm you little randomly-blaming weasel. I was, finally, an enemy to be reckoned with.

But the truth of the matter was that being written off for no apparent reason was a real let down, and being the aggressor took a lot of energy. And frankly, the novelty had begun to wear off. Occasionally I would see Robbie in the hall and not say anything, and it was a relief. I was no longer concerned so much about settling for false accusation. It’s true that when people hate you, at least you know they still care. But somewhere along the way I’d stopped caring altogether. That was the real loss.

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