By Jason Ropp
In a childhood development class I took in college I learned about retention rates — how much we remember. The professor said that if students sit and listen carefully they will retain only 10 percent of whatever the teacher labored over and meticulously presented. This made sense to me. This is why those gimmicky shows like “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” work so well — and why they should probably change their name to, “Did You Bother to Remember Something You Learned 30 Years Ago Better Than This Kid Who Just Did a Report on It?”
There are tricks to improving memory, like group interaction and visualization. Being a guitar teacher, I wish it were a matter of saying something once: “Here kid, the quarter note gets one beat.” We would spend most of our time working on things like hand placement or memorizing Hendrix licks. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that Hey kid, the quarter note gets one beat, will be repeated, demonstrated, and quizzed 75 times over the next six months — at which point I will still be greeted with blank stares every time I ask.
This is both maddening and job security.
But then there are information and events that need no tricks, an event that leaves an immovable reminder. Sometimes it’s traumatic — the kind of scar you might not brag about — perhaps a failed art on wrists that get covered with long sleeves. Other times it’s nostalgic like the raised white lines on the knuckles of little boys, a mark of manhood shown to every girl who will listen, “Yeah, I’ve got a pocket knife.” But either way they stay with us at the forefront.
And then there are also memories more like midnight campfire conversation that lulls in and out of consciousness, free of awkward impatience with silence — no worries about a reasonable bedtime since no one sleeps well while tent camping anyway.
Campfires are social magic. Long talkers who do so because they are afraid of being alone when the conversation ends can finally sit and stare at coals, trusting that if conversation does end that everyone will stay anyway, entertained by dancing orange and guarded by surrounding black.
And so with fat mouths like myself, enamored with electrons hopping from one spectrum to the next, patiently and silently ruminating on some idea or another — the quiet ones find their voice, or rather just room to speak what I perceive to be prophecy, but is really just good editing. After months and years of being interrupted by my machine gun nest of untested (read: unthoughtful) opinions, they’ve carefully itemized their strongest ideas. And since this moment of listening ears may very well be their last, they might as well offer their dying words. And dying words are usually beautiful, if only because of the sacredness of scarcity.
In the same way, good memories know how to sit and wait until they are desperately needed — bringing themselves to the surface rather than being recalled by will. And the best memories don’t come out of hibernation until they are absolutely sure that they won’t be intruded upon by a text message or some silly conjuring of nostalgia for the sake of an interesting blog post.
But when you catch a whiff of that musty attic smell, you sneeze up a picture of yourself, sleeping in an upstairs room in Oklahoma at your cousins’ house. Or rather pretending to be asleep because you know there is something notable and grown up about sleeping in as long as you want. For whatever reason, it is a skill you consider noteworthy. And noteworthy skills are important when it comes to the cousins you are staying with, particularly if there are both boy and girl cousins involved.
Boy cousins on one hand are continually showing off to each other, talking about all the cars they are going to fix up. It becomes a competition of aspiration really. Because when you are a kid you still haven’t learned that most people don’t actually end up doing even half of the things they say they are going to. Instead of that book they were going to write, they got distracted by their wife walking by in a towel, and so all that imagination was directed toward making love, which resulted in the world’s most predictable surprise. But kids don’t know this and so they experience the joy of a ’68 Camaro and then the envy of the fact that their cousin’s ’68 Camaro has a 1200-cubic-inch engine and a 15-inch subwoofer that thumps as they drive on the Autobahn at 175 mph, after they had it shipped over there on their speedboat. You don’t have to worry about getting speeding tickets on the Autobahn. It was cheaper this way.
But girl cousins, they are different. They are both family and the first girls that you find irresistibly beautiful, though not in any erotic sense. In fact it is because of that taboo that we are free to find them beautiful without being severely self conscious. No one is going to tease you for wanting to spend all day with girl cousins. Nor are they, or you, suspicious about your intentions. So even a chubby boy finds acceptance and friendship with girls who would otherwise find him awkward and embarrassing to be seen with. And your parents, they let you stay up talking late into the night, not afraid like they will be when you finally blurt that you have this girl you want to go to the movies with.
In fact, girl cousins serve as a sort of testing ground for boys who are terrified of being rejected. Because family is family, and so the bond is there and permanent. There is no accepting or rejecting to be done; someone else has arranged the terms of relationship for you. And so freed of relational decision making, you become your best self that a kid can and know that a female your age loves you for or in spite of it.
And all of it comes to you in a flash as the correct proportion of mold and dirt hit your olfactory.