Tag Archives: memory

Two of these things are true and one is a lie

It is memory that counts, that controls the rich mastery of the story, impels it along 

– Jorge Semprun

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you would have (hopefully) detected a thread running through the posts, although admittedly a thread barely visible to the naked eye.

Basically, the theme of this blog is the dance of memory and how, as I go about my life, I am simultaneously adding to my store of memories while drawing upon that store to make sense of, and enrich, my experience. I’ve been particularly honing in on my experience of the arts.

But in this post I want to look at memory front-on. I want to confront memory with its disingenuous nature because what’s really fascinating is how fragile and unstable memories are. Professor Elizabeth Loftus is a psychologist whose expertise lies in investigating the fallibility of memories. She would likely turn Jorge Semprun’s statement around and say that it is the story that controls memory; that our memories are not objective facts but stories we have created around events.

A case in point: not long ago, a friend mentioned in passing “that time I saved T.” T. was a former housemate of mine and the incident my friend was referring to occurred about 15 years ago. My story and my friend’s matched in that we both remembered that T. had stopped breathing. What differed in our memories was who and what started T. breathing again.

So this is my memory, or rather my ‘story’ of what happened. I would love to be able to draw this because it is such a vivid visual story for me. I’d also like to colour-code the drawing according to what I would swear happened and what I think I have since made up about this incident. Unfortunately, the person who could draw this memory is my friend who has proved to be manifestly unreliable in the remembering department. Of course, you’ll have to trust me on that.

“That time I saved T.”

My friend said he had saved my former housemate by walking her around the backyard. It’s true that after  T., had stopped breathing, my friend and another housemate had walked T. around the backyard. But ‘if memory serves me correctly’ this was after I had revived T. by administering first aid in the form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. This was the first and only time I’ve done this, so if this didn’t happen I won’t have time to write anything else in my life because I have to go back and question everything that I think happened. I’m still stunned that my friend had completely forgotten about me giving T. mouth-to-mouth as he had watched me do it. Or at least, that’s what I remember.

My friend had come over in the afternoon and I was making us some tea in the kitchen when one of my housemates rushed in and asked me to come quickly. “T. has stopped breathing.” T. was lying on her bed. I recall my first thought being that she was a pretty shade of eggshell blue that complemented the shade of her hair. With her red hair trailing behind her on the pillow, I thought that T. looked like that famous painting of Ophelia. But whether I truly had these thoughts at that time, or have added them since, I don’t know.

At that point, time slowed down and everything I did seemed to have an air of great deliberation.  It was like a video I saw once, of a monk walking through the streets of Tokyo (or was it New York?) He walked incredibly slowly among the rush of people, placing the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other. It seemed time slowed to this pace. But I also recall thinking that I had to act quickly, or T. would either die or be brain-damaged from lack of oxygen.

I had learned mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in Year 8, when I was 13 years old. It was taught as part of PE – physical education. It is physical, I’ll grant that. There’s no getting around the physicality of planting your mouth on someone you don’t find attractive and breathing your breath into them. It seems to me now that as I went through the steps one by one – the checking for breathing, making sure the airway was clear, pinching the nostrils – I also recalled the smell of the dummy we had “resuscitated” all those years before and the giggling of fellow 13-year-old girls as we “kissed” its rubber face. But did I really? I have no idea.

It seems I remembered the PE teacher’s shiny polyester shorts, his squat, muscular legs and boyish haircut. I also seem to recall his determinedly serious demeanour and repressed impatience with the dumb giggling of 13-year-olds. Is any of that true? I don’t know.

I do know that after I exhaled into T.’s lungs a couple of times, she started to breathe of her own accord and I felt relieved. I seem to also remember a sense of surprise and of hiding that surprise from my friend and my other housemate but most of all, from T. After all, who needed to know that until that point I didn’t know I remembered how to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? Did T. really need to see my look of surprise that she was breathing?  And did I really feel this surprise at the time and hide it? I don’t know.

I do know that at the moment when T. began breathing, my focus widened and I became aware again of the others in the room – including my friend, who I think had been leaning against the frame of the door, watching me go through the steps of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I asked the two of them to get T. up and moving, while I called the emergency number to cancel the ambulance.

Cue my friend’s memory story, which starts here.

Meanwhile, back in my memory story, what happened next was that I went back to the kitchen and sat at the table while my friend and my other housemate walked T. around the backyard. I started to shake, as the adrenalin surging through my system no longer found an outlet in action, my brain began to compute what had just happened and my imagination caught a glimpse of the other potential outcome.

When my friend said “…that time when I saved T.”, I couldn’t help but find the disparity between our memories funny, albeit in a slightly discombobulating way. It was a concrete example of the fluidity of memory. At least I could rely on my memory for the basic outline of the incident, I thought. But then maybe at that very moment my friend was thinking: “I can’t believe she thinks she gave T. mouth-to-mouth. She’s probably elaborating on some distant memory of first aid she learned at school…”

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Life beyond The Beatles

Ever had one of those moments when you can actually feel the muscles in your face trying to rearrange themselves into “Neutral Expression”?

I had one of those moments this week when I went out for coffee with someone I don’t normally go out for coffee with. As we don’t know each other that well, it took me by surprise when my coffee buddy said: “I haven’t really listened to any new music in about 20 years.”

I think I laughed a little nervously, before checking his face to see if he was serious. Then came my face rearranging, as I tried to remove “Incredulity”, “Bafflement” and the worst: “Compassion”. But really, it reminded me of one time when I met a guy who looked like Jarvis Cocker and my friend said to him “You look like Jarvis Cocker” and I said “Don’t ask me. I don’t know who Jarvis Cocker is.” The guy who looked like Jarvis Cocker said: “You know, the guy from Pulp.” I said: “Sorry but I lost a decade somewhere, the decade of one-word BritPop bands.” And he said: “What happened to you? Were you in jail?”

But back to Neutral Expression. I also remembered a recent conversation with a friend who’d said that the Rolling Stones should be banned for a while – “say, ten years” – as should The Beatles and Shakespeare. Put them on the bench. Make room on the team for new blood…and other sporting metaphors. I think I had one of those face rearranging moments then, too. Trust me, trying to get to ‘Neutral Expression’ from ‘Oh my god, he’s Chairman Mao’ is no small feat. But after what seemed a long period of consideration, the idea had appeal – especially if it was me who got to decide who would be banned.

As music is so tied up with memory, it’s also linked to nostalgia – the yearning for a golden past that may or may not have really existed. Let’s face it, it’s not for nothing there are radio stations whose sole output is “classic hits”. When you’re in your 40s, the music from your 20s, that time of your life when everything was shiny and new, begins to exert a special pull. Nostalgia calls seductively from memory’s cobwebbed corridor: “Trust me, nothing’s as good as it was back then. Why don’t you lie down there in the snow for a while?…Just rest your eyes…”

Don’t you sometimes wonder if Beethoven and Bach and Schubert would be laughing their heads off if they heard that orchestras are still compulsively playing music  composed more than 200 years ago, while contemporary composers can barely get a look-in?

I admire those people who remain open to the new in music while getting older – people like the late John Peel, who continued to introduce new bands to the world through his BBC radio show right up until his death  (although it’s apt to note that Peel’s headstone is inscribed with lyrics from his favourite song ‘Teenage Kicks’, a song from his youth: ‘Teenage dreams, so hard to beat’). In Melbourne, RRR’s Stephen Walker is another radio presenter whose musical rolling stone has gathered no moss. This week I made some new musical discoveries courtesy of the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, who was generously sharing on his website songs he liked from albums released so far this year.

I’m not saying the music of Bach and Beethoven is no good. Or that I don’t understand the enduring appeal of a song like the Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ (I’m not crazy.) I’m just saying not to take Nostalgia’s word for it. Get out there and see a band you’ve never heard before.  Merrily wander along the goat tracks of Internet music websites, blogs and radio stations. Listen to radio stations that play new stuff. (The music of Cass McCombs had escaped my notice until this week when I heard, on community radio station PBS, County Line a divine song from McCombs’ new album.)

If your musical taste is in danger of calcifying, your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to make yourself a ‘mix tape’ for the new millennium – no Beatles, nor Stones; no Blur, nor Pulp.

Wake up from your Golden Slumbers. Get up out of the snow – and explore. Meanwhile, just for old times’ sake…and because I missed it the first time…

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