Tag Archives: memory

102. Story of a cell

At one point I was just a single cell, one little Cheerio in this vast and lonely bowl of milk. Floating about. Doing nothing of much significance until an act of reproduction cast me out of that bowl and into this warm, dark place where one Cheerio became two, became ten, became thousands, became an infant.

For a while there, I had no idea how lucky I was, this body of cooperating cells. I was a magic trick walking. A miracle of nature. We all start out as snowflakes at the center of our own universe. Gradually, conformity settles in. Society has its way with you. At some point you realize we’re all just variations of the same human. We move from a life of fantasy to facts as people start offering you explanations for things, scientific or religious. People tell you that all of this was written long before we came along. Or maybe it’s pure chaos. Either way, we all end up in debt.

I liked being a kid. It was rewarding. It was me, me, me. And toys. People made the big decisions for me. My religion was Saturday morning cartoons; the answer to life was found wrapped in plastic in the bottom of a cereal box. My biggest responsibility was school, which I endured begrudgingly. There was always a mental disconnect from public school, like a loveless relationship endured for the sake of a good lay.

English was the only subject that I found comfort in. Words made sense. Words made magic. I began writing at a young age and even though it was total nonsense and grammatically atrocious, it felt right. All those stories in my head suddenly found somewhere to land. It would be writing that kept me grounded during the mindfuck that is the process of growing up.

Growing up…

I never had conflicts with my family. Adults always seemed to know best, so I listened. I was quiet, observant, private, polite. I listened to advice. I followed most of the rules. Looked both ways, all that. Should’ve brushed better. Steered clear of peer pressure by deftly navigating the tributaries of the social stream, never quite allied with any one group. Neutral, passive, calm.

I view the world with a pair of big blue eyes that can’t quite fathom the depth of the universe, but I take comfort in the unknown. I still feel like a wide-eyed infant blindly grasping at fuzzy, colorful things.

I like myself this way but it comes at the consequence of feeling inconsequential. I prefer to stand ringside with a notepad and a camera, which means I rarely feel or want to feel like the center of attention. I shy away from compliments. I’m no good at giving them, either.

What blows my mind is how different and identical our lives are. Even if I feel different, I know that I’m not. The tiny infinite moments that make our experiences unique and the grand motions that make us all the same. You can only be so special, you can only be so human.

I didn’t feel like a real person until I passed the age that my father was when I was born, which was six years ago. I didn’t feel like myself until the winter of 2009, when I sat in a windowsill, drank a lot of wine, and listened to a lot of Modest Mouse.

College went by fast and I’m not exactly sure what happened there or what the point was. It was a blur of coffeeshops, all-nighters, sexual tension, and invincibility. I learned a valuable lesson or two, but hell if I know what they were.

Then there was a musician, a dog, and two cats. And then there was none.

I like (midtown) Sacramento. It’s always been a “starter city,” a sort of stepping stone between graduation and The Big City, wherever in the world The Big City may be. Most Californians look to San Francisco for a fulfilling urban experience, as do I, but after a semester in Istanbul I’ve realized that The Big City could be anywhere. Except Paris. Paris is too cliche for a writer.

There have been women but I’m no closer to reaching or understanding the pinnacle that is true love. Sadly, your faith in such a thing begins to wane far too early. There have been many fulfilling friendships along the way. I miss people more than I admit.

Now I’m here, 26 years old. What was once a little Cheerio has now passed the quarter-life mark. Who woulda thought? Some little particle of stardust turned into a living, breathing human being. Me. And there’s you, reading this, an equally valuable evolution of microscopic magic.

I guess the point of this thought is to pay attention to your growth. To be happy that you’re here. To think back on influences and decisions, to wonder where it will all lead, to find meaning in the messiness. Life is a chance for you to turn a single cell into a story. Otherwise, we might as well have stayed in the milk.

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89. Grammar

I teach English someday. In other country. Like yours, maybe. We will learned to write good. Have fun, grammar always, yes. Good grammar makes good student happy grade. I teach English at classroom for the making of great. Students ears fill over from learning so much things.

Okay, enough of that. It’s more difficult to write a grammatically incorrect sentence than I imagined, with some knee-jerk reaction always reaching for that DELETE key when I mix tenses or forget an apostrophe. Grammar affects every little part of a sentence. You can’t write without grammar. It astonishes me, then, when people say we ought to avoid teaching it.

Now, that doesn’t mean they want absolute chaos.

The best part about English being the lingua franca is that people from all countries can use it as a tool for communication across borders. I can go to Turkey and have a conversation with a simit vendor about the weather, if I wanted, because we share a common language. A business woman from India can vacation in South Africa and have a long conversation about digital cameras with a French photo-blogger. If they want.

So when a teacher or researcher advocates steering clear of explicit grammar instruction, it’s not because they want to dismantle the English language. They’re simply leaning more toward the function of English as a tool, as a means of communication. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to make enough sense to convey meaning. You can mispronounce things. You can forget your plural markers. You can mix verb tenses. It’s all gravy so long as you’ve expressed what you meant to express and, perhaps with a bit of negotiation, your listener has understood.

But I like grammar.

I think we let grammar frighten ourselves at an early age, like some kind of monster under the bed. We get through present, past, and future tense and then someone mentions the perfect tense and we freak out. Don’t get me started on the panic sweat that erupts on most of our foreheads when we’re asked if we should use “who” or “whom.”

And who the F came up with gerunds?

I think we need to make grammar explicit. I think we need students to know, early, that grammar is like the earth. The mountains are like nouns. People are like verbs. Animals are prepositions. Oceans are conjunctions. Trees can be demonstrative pronouns. Teach them that without grammar, there would be no language. Without the ingredients of the earth, we’d have no life.

Now, I’m still new at this ESL teaching thing, but I’m pretty sure if you start the kids at a young age without a fear of grammar, then laying out the foundation for them will be the most beneficial.

Arguments can be made, by the innatists like Chomsky, that all you need to do is use English around language learners and they’ll acquire the rules deductively. Imagine a student like a sponge, only instead of soaking up water they’re soaking up articles and relative clauses.

And maybe that really works. Who knows? The point is, you probably know less about your language than a ten-year-old kid in South Korea.

I find it amazing that we develop our language ability at such a young age that we don’t even remember acquiring it. This magical, wonderful tool, given to us, free of charge, with hardly any effort at all. So when we grow up and some of us decide to teach English as a career, we realize that we know jack-squat about the development process we undertook, as if Dumbledore came to our crib and uttered, “Englishium Speakiorus!” and so it was.

Next time you write a sentence, ask yourself, “How do I know this?”

You’d be surprised how many things you know, but hardly understand.

86. Favorites

Guest Thought from Jerry Carvalho

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We all have favorites: favorite movies, favorite songs, favorite foods, even favorite people. No one really knows why or how we choose our favorites. We could choose our favorites based on a smell, a touch, a fond memory, or a similarity to our own perceived condition. It does not really matter how or why we choose our favorites, it is just important that we have them because they help define who we are. When times are good we seek out new experiences with the hope of developing new favorites. Somehow, we hope that these new favorites will make us more popular, more hip, better people. However, when times are bad or stressful we always revert back to the comfort and familiarity of our good, old favorites.

85. Nostalgia

Guest Thought from Kelsey Taylor

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Nostalgic is one of those things that most people like to be; 90’s kids make Facebook groups or start forums where they talk about the awesome TV shows they used to watch and how they are infinitely better than Anything That Ever Was And Will Be.  “You kids don’t know what you’re missing!” they say. “Your childhood did not involve Robert Munsch or Pokémon and therefore is not as good as mine.”

Everyone has an image of an old relative or the grumpy old man on the porch who is convinced that they lived in the “good old days”, and that  society is on a downward spiral.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be,” they say.

People like to talk about what they’re nostalgic about, but don’t really think about why it can be a problem.

The middle-aged guy who can’t stop talking about how high school or university were the best years of his life: what about everything else?  Maybe you’re married.  Maybe you have kids, and if you do I’m sure they are an important part of your life.  You might not, but I’m sure you have friends and other people who are important to you.  You might have a job, and if you don’t like your job I’m sure you have some sort of hobby.  You probably read a newspaper, have opinions, and care about things.  Or did you write off the rest of your life when you graduated?

People will talk about how “chivalry is dead,” but forget that there was a feminist movement that started in between then and now.  Sometimes we get the sense that “old-fashioned” things are more sophisticated, and a lot of this gets ascribed to our conceptions of what is romantic, for example.

Nostalgia is looking at the past through tinted glasses, remembering everything that was good but forgetting the things that weren’t so great.  Or, they might’ve worked for you, but maybe some people or groups weren’t having the best time.  We also have new inventions, new books, new senses of humour, new ways of understanding the world.  The present is pretty awesome; we shouldn’t be viewing it through a lens of the past.

Remembering our past is an entirely different thing, though.  Things that remind us of the past give us a good feeling, and that’s not a bad thing.  That song that reminds you of drunk nights in university, that time you studied abroad, your wedding, whatever, might make you smile because it is linked to a good memory.  Maybe you have an inside joke with an old friend, and it will make you laugh to yourself while you’re taking the bus to work.  You get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the act of remembering, and we generally call this “nostalgia”.  These memories and associations are part of what construct our individual narratives.  They are part of our identity.  We are the culmination of our life experiences: my personality was certainly shaped, in part, by the fact that I was obsessed with Pokémon as a child or that I know all the actions to “Stop” by the Spice Girls.  …Somehow.

The difference, I think, is when we make value judgements about the past.  Nostalgia in the abstract is fine – and the things we choose to emphasize and remember make up who we are.  Our past definitely influences our present.

We just have to remember that everyone has experiences, and we shouldn’t let our past define our present so much that we forget to live now.

61. Packing

United Airlines has given me a cheeky little challenge: fit all of the contents of your first year abroad into one checked bag equal to or less than 60 pounds.

I have decided to take the bastards up on their unreasonable challenge with my own bit of insolence. I’ll be damned if they charge me another $200 overage fee.

I am packing all of my belongings in a single duffle bag (a massive one with wheels and secret compartments) that is ¼ the size of the suitcase I brought to Korea. Also, a standard carry on, a backpack, and one medium-sized box of stuff to ship home that is big enough to hold four bulky sweaters and my knitting bag.

That may sound like a lot, but trust me it’s not. Go ahead and try to fit all your belongings into the same containers.

So, I’m selling and giving away a lot of stuff. My favorite pair of big tall suede boots that have seen me through two winters faithfully, the one pair of shoes I managed to buy in Korea that actually fit but still didn’t fit that well, the first sweater I knitted myself, the assortment of cheap bags I’ve mindlessly collected, and countless other articles of clothing and jewelry that just didn’t make the cut. Everything must pass the “Will I need this back home?” test.

I’ve enjoyed the purging. Obviously, since I’ve started packing a month and a half early, I’m excited about rolling pants and sweaters into little tubes and seeing how many I can cram into a duffle. Oh, and going home. Definitely excited about going home.

I’ve had a few homecomings before this. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve dismantled and purged and started over a handful of times. I’ve left behind favorite lamps, coveted jars of exotic spices, disloyal boyfriends, a few different egos and self identities, the best sectional couch I’ve ever owned.

But I’ve never had a homecoming after a year abroad. My instinct is to just throw everything away and start from scratch. It’s easier that way. But I’ve also been on the backlash of that a few times. Oh, those leggings you had in your drawer for three years and didn’t have a use for until now that you’ve found this dress that they would look perfect with? Yeah, well they’re gone. And I mean, whatever. They’re just leggings. But this line of thinking can get you into trouble with bigger things if you aren’t careful. Before you know it it’s like, ‘Oh, sense of creativity and childish wonderment! Did you really need that?’

When I was first in Korea I bought these two plain t-shirts in the ajumma section of E-mart. They were super cheap and made me laugh at a time when I wasn’t do much else but crying. They both have cats on them. One says “Lovely cat friends,” on it, but the “s” in “friends” is sorta blocked out because there’s a breast pocket sewn haphazardly over it. The second says “I have a great pressure of work today,” and has a cat peaking up out of the breast pocket, looking very calm and un-pressured. The shirts were a great comic relief for my impression of Korea so far. They’ve been in the “definitely do not leave behind” pile for a few weeks now, but tonight as I was packing I needed just a few more inches to be able to fit in the souvenirs and the shirts came out of the bag and saw their way to the corner of the room with the other rejects. Am I really going to walk around in California with these ridiculous t-shirts? Sure, they are cute and silly but do I need them? Will other people get the joke?

But then my mom’s voice came into my head, because whenever I am trying to reason with myself I use the voice my mom used to use with me when I was a kid. The voice said, “Now Jenny, do you really want to get rid of these shirts? If you keep getting rid of stuff, you’ll have nothing to remember Korea by and you know how you tend to forget things so easily.” Oh man. I had a point.

So I rolled them back up and stuffed them in the carry on. Because when you’re packing up your life, you should hold on to the things you love.

47. Back to school

Guest Thought from Cheryl Carvalho

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When my daughter was a little girl I remember she loved back-to-school shopping. We’d acquire armloads of bags teeming with fresh supplies for the coming year. New shoes with spotless soles begged to be scuffed by a game of tag on the playground. Colorful, waxy crayons sharpened to perfection and lined up like soldiers in their box anxious to become treasured art. But maybe it was the empty notebooks that really got to her. The blank pages beckoned to be scribbled upon as she itched to spill her many thoughts. We’d remove tags, tear off stickers and stuff her pencil box with blunt scissors and hope. Hope for good grades & decent cafeteria food. Hope for nice teachers and to fit in with the cool people. This ritual of buying hope and new pencils has a beguiling fragrance with the power to bring a grown adult like myself back in time to Mrs. Walker’s 3rd grade class. The memory of Joe Flint stealing my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup still stings. We played on outdoor equipment that would make today’s moms gasp in horror. The year wore on and my crayons wore down. The broken ones could be found next to the crumpled homework at the bottom of my locker.

12. Forgetting

I don’t know when the fear started, but I’ve always been weary of growing old and forgetting my life. Seems rather normal, actually, and for whatever reason I’m expecting the forgetting to start after I turn seventy, if not sooner. Already I freak out a little when I forget the names of old friends or memories I shared with them. It makes me feel uneasy, to think I can live my one and only life on this planet and forget parts of it, basically clipping out parts of a movie reel, regardless of their emotional value. Seems like a waste.

Hence, the incessant blogging. I’ve been chronicling my life since 2010, writing it down mostly for the sake of maintaining a record of it, like a journal but more like a time-capsule with images, songs, and written things. These are the only mid-twenties I’ll ever know and to think I’d one day forget they ever happened, well I just can’t let that happen. When I’m old and bored, I want to have these written histories of my life available for review, the good and the bad stuff, so I can lay out my stiff joints on the lawn and read about my past.

Anyway, the point is, I don’t think we’re meant to remember everything forever.

Even writing it down, it’s not the same as the memory itself. I might read these words again in fifty years and ponder fondly on the thoughts and behavior of my youth, but there will be a detachment, a disconnect between my future self and my present self. I mean, you look at a picture of yourself as a small child and you think, “Who the hell was that kid?” Reading them is not the same as remembering them which is not the same as experiencing them, but second to a video recording, a blog is the closest thing I can think that captures at least the essence of what it means to be where you are right now. Because we will forget, eventually, and we will be curious about our past.

We have to forget things. It’s natural. Life is long and full of adventures, faces, stories and numbers. We have to remember to set alarms and attend meetings and see the dentist. We need room for names, addresses, and directions. We can’t remember all of our childhood friends. We’re not supposed to remember anything before fourth grade, in my opinion, and this comes from the guy who’s afraid to forget. Our brains move through life like forests. Some trees have to fall to feed the ecosystem.

In conclusion: I’m jealous of people with great memories.

But what I really wanted to say was… Wait… What was I talking about?