Last night, to celebrate her triumphant visit to our class, Steve Kuusisto and I took the Self-Styled Siren herself, Farran Smith Nehme, out for dinner at an excellent Thai restaurant in Armory Square called Lemon Grass that I was surprised was still there after all the time that had passed since the last time I’d eaten there, which must have been at least a dozen years ago now. I’ve been told by people who work in the restaurant biz that restaurants, even excellent restaurants, have an average life of five years. Of course, you’re reaching that average by averaging all the places that close in a month with those that have been in business since 1908. Here’s hoping Lemon Grass is one of those places destined to be in business a hundred years from now. But here’s the thing.
Even though I know I ate at Lemon Grass once upon a time I don’t have a tangible memory of it. I recall it. That is, I can call up images from that night. The décor was different, I think. Lighter tones, a more minimalist feel. I think there were silvery accents in the windows. I’d expect my memory to be fuzzy after twelve years. But I’d also have expected that being back would have jogged a few things loose in my head. Who was with us, for instance. Who was with me. I’m just assuming the blonde was there because I’m not an adventurous diner-out and wouldn’t have gone unless she dragged me. But was she? Was that the case, she’d talked me into going despite my desire to make due with a pizza somewhere? Were we with friends? Were we there before or after a movie? What was the movie? Did I enjoy the meal? What day of the week was it? What time of year? What was the weather? I can’t tell you.
Like I said. Expected.
And, again, like I said, I know I ate there once and only the one time. The question is, how do I know this without actually remembering it?
And this was part of a larger experience. I drove us there from the university without having to think about what route to take. And when we entered the neighborhood and Steve, who has lived in Syracuse for two years now said I should turn right at the next corner, I said, again without thinking, nope, it’s a block farther on and to the left. Armory Square is a part of town I visited often. Although I know I only ate at Lemon Grass once, there were several other restaurants I know we went to regularly. It’s also where the science museum is and when the boys were little we practically lived there.
I know all this. I knew it all last night. But I didn’t remember any of it. I recalled it. It was a robot’s memory, an accessing of files disengaged from feelings and emotional associations, with no cross-referencing.
This is how it’s been everywhere I’ve gone in Syracuse since I started going back up there to teach in January. And I think this is weird because, for those of you who don’t know, we called Syracuse home for all of the last decade of the 20th Century and the first thirty-third of the 21st. You’d think the place would have left an impression. And it did. I have many detailed and evocative memories of our life there.
It’s just that none of them travel with me back up there.
I drive down streets I know I drove down regularly back then, pass through neighborhoods I used to know---and still seem to know, that is I can find my through them without getting lost---like the back of my hand, eat at places I know I ate at any number of times, shop at stores that took a lot of my money over the course of twelve years, and I recall it all and remember none of it.
This has even happened when I’ve visited our old friends Chris the Cop and his wife and their no longer little daughters at the house I helped them move into way back when. No, I don’t mean I don’t remember Mr and Mrs the Cop and the girls the Cop. I have many fond memories of good times together, movies seen, dinners eaten (Were they with us at Lemon Grass?), a wedding attended, two babies born. But those memories aren’t attached to this house and so far haven’t been re-triggered the times I’ve stopped in and stayed over since January. For all the house evokes, my first visit back might as well have been my first visit ever.
What I’m getting at is that my memories of Syracuse aren’t proving to be attached to Syracuse.
This isn’t important or sense-of-self-shakingly disturbing. It just makes me curious about how my mind and my memory work.
Summer before last, I was down in the city for a lecture by Alan Alda at the Paley Center for Media. (Hat tip M.A. Peel.) Alda has lately made it something of a mission to help teach scientists how to talk about science in ways that help the general lay public better understand science and what scientists are up to, in effect, to help teach the scientists to be better teachers. One of the things he touched on was how to present ideas so that the audience not only understands them but remembers them, which required him to talk a little bit about how memory works.
People tend to have the most vivid memories of events that have a strong emotion attached, Alda said, and he related a story a neuroscientist had told him. It was probably a just-so story the neuroscientist liked to use to emphasize a point, but it went like this:
In pre-literary cultures, when people were having a public event that they wanted remembered, that is, they wanted to makes sure that the importance of the event and whatever it said about their culture, customs, laws, morality, history, and collective wisdom was passed down to their unborn grandchildren, they would make sure the event was witnessed by an especially attentive seven year old boy. And when the event was over, they would take that little boy, carry him down to the river, and throw him in.
Here Alda paused for one of his trademark mischievous grins.
“Of course, they fished him out,” he said. “But he never forgot that day.”
Terror isn’t a preferred mnemonic device, but you get the point. We’re more likely to remember something if we were feeling strongly at the moment our future memories of it are embedded.
Which would imply I didn’t feel anything or much of anything while I was in Syracuse.
That’s not at all true though.
I have memories of times in Syracuse that can make me cry, laugh out loud, scream with rage, beat my head against a wall, or fill me with a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction, solace, contentment, or peace. But, again, like I said, those feelings don’t travel with me to Syracuse. They stay here at home because, the way it works, they are attached to my life here.
It’s been almost exactly a decade since we moved from there to here, but that ten year absence doesn’t present itself as a gap in time during which it was natural for memories to fade. It’s a bend in the flow of my life’s stream. The river jumped course in November 2003 and it’s carried along with it (away from Syracuse and down to here) all my most vivid memories because they stayed in the canoe I’ve been paddling all along.
There are other places I used to live or spend great deals of time where, when I go back, I can’t take a step without being overwhelmed with memories and their attendant strong feelings, Boston, Cape Cod, New York City, the areas around the Old Mannion and Blonde Family homesteads. Part of this is due to my having loved and my still loving those places as places. I have strong feelings about the landscapes, the streetscapes, the seascapes, many of the buildings and houses, the weather, the ways people come and go which don’t change even as the people themselves change because they are directed by those landscapes, streetscapes, seascapes, and the weather and those strong feelings are due to the fact that the scenery and the weather and the movement of the people are beautiful and dramatic and bursting with life.
There are pretty spots in and around Syracuse and you can have some truly nice days in the summer and early fall, but it’s really not a handsome city or a particularly vital one and the weather is terrible.
It’s a hard place to develop any affection for as a place, never mind love.
But the important difference, the difference I’m feeling, is that when I go back to other places it’s not that I’m there on a visit. I’m there because the course of my life in the present has carried me there. It’s not so much that they are places I love but that going to any one of them isn’t a matter of going some place else. Here and there are all the same place. The river of my life flows through them still.
I think I need to put this another way.
My time Syracuse ended ten years ago, but my life in Syracuse didn’t end then, it continued here. My life there wasn’t defined by the place but by my experiences in the place and those experiences were tied to other experiences before we lived there and continued after we left.
This would explain something. Puttering about town doesn’t trigger emotion-filled memories of past putterings about town. But walking into the classroom every Tuesday triggers emotion-filled memories of…Indiana.
Being back in the classroom as an old man flashes me back to my first days in front of a classroom as young man. My students now bring back vivid images of my students then. I listen to myself talk in class and I can hear myself talking then. I hobble in leaning on my cane and I get the urge to do something I did from time to time back then, make a standing leap onto the table to make a point. (I was doing that before Robin Williams did it in Dead Poet’s Society, by the way.) I take this to show that my return to Syracuse is going to be defined in my memories by my experiences teaching and so those memories will connect back to my previous experiences in Syracuse as a teacher which didn’t occur in Syracuse but well out of town and I’d bet if I ever re-visit those schools I will be floored by the rush of remembered emotions.
What’s more, I suspect that the reason I haven’t been floored by any such rush while puttering about town is that so far I haven’t gone places connected with the dominant experience of my time there which is part of the dominant experience of my time here, our raising of our sons.
And I’ve held something back. I have been floored like that, once---once so far---when I went to Wegman’s, the supermarket where we shopped regularly, for the first time since 2003.
Not the whole place. One aisle. The bakery aisle.
The rest of the store I recalled the way I recalled the route to Lemon Grass. I found my way around without even thinking about it, recognizing everything without feeling anything much about it. And then I meandered into the bakery aisle and past the counter where we ordered and picked up what must have amounted to over forty birthday cakes by the time we left town and I came close to weeping.
And, given that experience, you can probably guess that there’s one neighborhood in Syracuse I have been deliberately and carefully avoiding because I’m terrified I will drown in the flood of memories.