We have been spending time each day now preparing for our written Ecuador citizenship tests that we will have to take later this year. This involves working on our Spanish, in addition to trying to cram some information into our old, tired brains. As I struggle to try and memorize the names of Ecuadorian Presidents and their accomplishments, the provinces and their capitals, major geographic features, dates of holidays, and random cultural facts, I find myself thinking about both the persistence, and the perversity, of memory.
Studying for tests is nothing new for me. Long after school was over, the nature of my career as a computer and network professional meant that I had to take periodic certification tests to maintain my credentials, and to keep up with new technology. This usually meant reading some incredibly boring textbook or software procedure manual, and remembering a lot of obscure information I would likely never need again once the test was over.
It is true that having to do this now in a different language presents a new set of challenges, but it still comes down to what you can remember.
Memory, however, can be quite the bitch-kitty. It seems to work in completely senseless and arbitrary ways.
Have you ever thought about all of the totally useless information you have stored in your brain? Let me give you an example.
There’s an otterly fantastic place,
Waiting for you in otterspace,
So come with us, in our ottermobiles,
There’s an ottermatic shift on the steering wheel,
Otter Pops! Otter Pops! In a box, there’s 24!
That, friends and neighbors, was pulled effortlessly out of my memory, off the top of my head. A quick look on Wikipedia tells me that I dredged this up from the commercials for the frozen treats “Otter Pops” that ran in 1970. So why does my brain think that I need a 47 year-old jingle in long term storage? Do I really still need to remember “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species” from 5th grade Biology class? Do I need complete recall of George Carlin’s first few albums, several Firesign Theater opuses, and a shitload of Monty Python routines?
Well, maybe I do need the Monty Python stuff.
The majority of what I have stuck in my brain is related to songs or music. I have the full lyrics and tunes of the rock operas Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar, should anyone care to ask. I could recite lyrics, side comments, and sound effects to Frank Zappa songs by the dozens. There are thousands of tunes that I could start in my head, and let them playback in full. And that retrieval is a little strange too – how exactly does that work? Especially since if I am consciously trying to recall the lyrics to say, Gypsy’s Tramps and Thieves and I can’t quite remember how the second verse starts, I just have to start it up, and wait for Cher to start singing, and here it comes:
Picked up a boy just south of Mobile,
Gave him a ride, filled him with a hot meal.
I was was 16 he was 21.
Rode with us to Memphis,
And poppa would’ve shot him if he knew what he’d done.
A quick check online tells me this is spot-on, and has been kept sacrosanct in my noggin’ since 1971.
Random recall is also strangely and perversely persistent. The best example of this is when a song suddenly bursts into your head for no apparent reason. I don’t know why just earlier this week, while walking down Malecón here in Ecuador, I was suddenly treated to an interior playback of chorus of The Tennessee Birdwalk:
Oh remember me my darling, when spring is in the air,
The bald-headed birds, are whispering everywhere,
You’ll see them walkin’ southward in their dirty underwear,
That’s the Tennessee Bird Walk.
Hmm, just found out that that song was also a 1970 release. Maybe I should be re-thinking what was going on for me when I was 12 or 13 …
Getting back to retrieval, there is also this odd phenomenon called muscle memory. Usually you experience this in things like riding a bike after a long time, when your body seems to remember the sensations and how to control things, or if you pick up a bowling bowl after years away from the alleys and somehow roll a perfect strike. I’ve experienced this in an even odder way, when playing music.
I’ve been onstage, we’re about to start a song, I know that I’m supposed to kick it off with my bass, but I can’t for the life of me remember how it starts. Not a clue. But what has worked on several occasions is to relax, count it off, and just let my hands do it. Every time, they went right to the correct notes, and that is enough then to remind me how it goes, and we are off and running.
But how weird is that?
Anyway, you see where I am going with this. I have all of this information memorized and stored, some with no conscious effort on my part. I can recall it on purpose, start a playback from a partial memory, get random memory bombs, or even just watch my hands to see what they know. And yet the stuff that I want to, or even need to learn, has to be inserted with a crowbar and a hammer. Trying to retrieve the correct verb forms for ser , or the date the current Ecuadorian constitution was signed, or the President who put forward the Carta Negra, all seem as elusive and hard to grab onto as a greased pig.
Just doesn’t seem fair, somehow.
Ah well, enough complaining, time to get back to trying to fit more information into my memory. Okay, maybe one last complaint:
How come I’m having so much trouble memorizing the Ecuador National Anthem, but I can’t stop thinking the damn song the garbage truck plays?
Sacar la, sacar la, sacar la!
Would that I could ….