grafitto popular in the 60s said something like: “Time is nature’s
way of insuring that everything doesn’t happen at once.” If that’s
true (and who’s foolish enough to argue with a truism?) then what
part of nature’s plan is memory?
Or to ask a more important question - why do we remember what we do?
Why is it we can remember worthless trivia about celebrities while
important things (sometimes life-saving things) go right through our
brains like hot knives go through that yellow stuff you put on toast?
Sometime in the mid 1970s (when everyone was convinced that the world
would soon be coming to an end) Trivial Pursuit appeared. This was
a board game that allowed the players to shamelessly (nay, proudly)
expose all the scrapings of the barrel bottoms of their memories.
The game was probably the brainchild of “professional students” sitting
around the student union making tomato soup from hot water and catsup.
Don’t laugh - it was pretty good. For those who don’t remember professional
students, they were an subgroup (now extinct) that existed when college
tuition was low enough to permit their existence.
Trivial Pursuit (not to be confused with the short-lived feminine
facial hair removal product called Trivial Hirsute) caught on with
an entire generation of Americans. This generation drank deep from
the font of all things trivial - in other words - they had watched
a lot of television in their youth. Did Trivial Pursuit disappear
with other frivolities of the 70s? - not on your life. It has lived-long
and prospered; spawning new editions for new generations that overvalue
worthless facts. It’s even been broken down into various decades.
For some reason cowboy’s horse’s names seemed to be 20% of the
questions of TP’s first edition. Why did the clean slates of healthy
pink brain cells record that Buttermilk was Dale Evans horse. Did
children think that they might fall down a mineshaft and need to call
Dale’s horse? No. The real reason was that remembering Buttermilk
- or Topper or Diablo - was much easier than remembering 7 x 9 is
(whatever it is) and that Buttermilk wouldn’t be on the test.
Unlike that stuff
that Will Rodgers said to buy because they weren’t making more of
it - memories are made all the time. Everyday. Memories are essential
for learning. Some things we learn the first time and some things
we have to have beaten into our heads. Take hot skillet handles for
instance - or sleeping dogs - or Chinese mustard. Mustard in Chinese
restaurants should not be used on hot dogs and NEVER slathered on
egg rolls like one would do with weak “American-style” mustard. We
interviewed several people at the Texas State School for the Blind
and each one agreed that the “Chinese mustard lesson” was one that
they’ll long remember.
Editors note: Chinese mustard headaches register 7.2 on Moe’s Scale
of Headaches. For comparison - an “ice-cream headache” is a mere 5.6.
Little Things Called Mnemonic Devices
A mnemonic device
is a trick to aid in remembering. A fine example (because it’s the
only one I can remember) for a mnemonic device is “HOMES.” To most
of us they are things that the homeless are without. But for the millions
of people (especially ship captains) whose lives depend on knowing
the names of the Great Lakes, remembering HOMES will enable them to
recall (almost) instantly that the lakes are Huron, Ontario, Michigan,
Erie and Superior. (Unless they need them in order in which case the
words to remember would be OEHMS. (East to west) or SMHEO (west to
It’s great to have mnemonic devices - and it would be even greater
if there was one to help us remember how to spell mnemonic. It’s the
only English word to have a silent em - and I hope it stays that way.
You might notice that the word vacuum is unique as well. It’s the
only word in English with double u’s. And if you don’t already have
enough to remember you may also want to remember that vacuums are
pneumatic - not mnemonic.
A few years ago there was a brave attempt to make mnemonic a household
word (like vacuum). It was the title of a sci-fi movie where the hero
was named “Johnny Mnemonic.” It was probably a good laugh in Hollywood,
after Johnny Guitar, Johnny Eager and Johnny Dangerously but it proved
to be quite forgettable with the public despite some fine facial grimacing
by the popular actor what’s-his-name.
While some devices like HOMES are acronyms, others are rhymes. One
of the more famous maritime rhymes is: “Red sky at morning- sailor
take warning! Red sky at night - let’s go out for a bite.” Or should
that be “sailor’s delight? I didn’t say it was famous for making sense.
And then there’s the one rhyme every boy scout remembers (besides
the old man from Nantucket). Identifying the poisonous Coral snake
from the harmless Scarlet King snake can be stressful - even to snake
parents. While both have colorful bands of red, black and yellow,
identification is made simple by remembering which bands touch. “Red
and Black - friend of Jack.” “Red and Yellow - let’s get the hell
out of here!” Well, that’s how I remember it, anyway.
and memory loss is fast becoming a non-joking matter. Like LSD “flashbacks",
millions of baby boomers are complaining about experiencing involuntary
hesitation when answering questions. Many boomers laugh it off as
“thoughts passing through dead cells.” But it shouldn’t be too long
before the “Trivial Generation” starts inappropriately blurting out
“Buttermilk!, Shemp! and Jan Murray! ” to answer simple questions
like the time of day.
A troubling memory-related phenomenon that everyone has experienced
from time to time is a jingle or song that keeps replaying over and
over in one’s mind. The most annoying example I can think of is “That’s
the Way (un-huh, un-huh) I Like It” by K. C. and the Sunshine Band.
This is called (un-huh, un-huh) an “ear worm” (un-huh, un-huh). And
the reason (un-huh, un-huh) for the constant replaying in our mind
is that we’re unconsciously waiting (un-huh, un-huh) for the song
to end. “Please God, (un-huh, un-huh) make it end!” Experts say that
we merely have to play the song to completion, and our brains will
close the book on that particular tune and then we can move on to
something else - like maybe Barry Manilow’s Copa Cabana.
© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't