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Home / Reality Or Lack Of It  /
Can You Remember What's Down Memory Lane?
memory lane

The longer you live, the more compressed the past becomes


Every year, around New Year's Eve, I make my brain run through an exercise. How many prior New Year's Eves can I remember? The advancing of a year's number on January 1 is, we all know, an arbitrary distinction. Other cultures have a different system to designate the date and, therefore, a different New Year's Day. Today is 12 Yi-Chou 4712 (the 12th month)  on the Chinese calendar and 11 Shevat 5775 (11th month) on the Jewish one.  The Chinese New Year occurs next month. The Jewish New Year was about four months ago.

A twelve-month calendar is common across most cultures, and once the full number of days in their particular year pass, the cycle begins again with one added to the previous year.   Increasingly, the Gregorian calendar is observed around the world while the alternate calendars are employed to observe specific cultural holidays.   

It doesn't really matter how we categorize our time. A year can be referred to as 2015 or, in Thailand, 2558.  Same difference.  Some of us don't recall incidents by calendar years anyway. We do so by chronological years. We remember when we were 8 years old. If our birthday falls on June 1, then the year we were 8 straddles two different calendar years, effectively running from June 1 of one year to May 31 of the next.  

I started running my New Year's reminisces to stop one year from mindlessly blending into the next.   I repeat the exercise every year so that the older memories don't fade.   December 31 represents some kind of symbolic marker for the entire year.   Could I remember at least one event from a particular year, the last day of the old and the coming of the new? But December 31 needn't be the chosen date. I could have instead used my birthday or some other date of meaning, like a wedding anniversary.

For New Year's Eves, the furthest back I could go was the year I turned 11. My parents were having a dinner party, and my brother and I were in the family room watching reruns of Get Smart on videotape. I can even remember the exact episodes. There are some blurrier memories from a year or two or three before this where I jumped on my bed at the stroke of midnight, a tradition my sister told me about and meant to bring good luck.   I think it was a perversion of a Danish custom where people leap off chairs as a symbolic gesture of jumping into the new year.  I don't count this bed jumping as a New Year's Eve remembrance because I can't state precisely when it happened.   

As far as birthdays go, I can remember as far back as my sixth, when my parents hosted a birthday party for me at a local old-fashioned ice cream parlor named Barnhill's. We have silent Super 8 movies to go along with those memories.   

How far back something occurred is just one factor in how well I remember it. Why is it I can remember a birthday when I was a little kid, yet I can't remember what I did on my birthdays in the years 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004, all much more recent years?  I can recite what I did on New Year's Eve 1979 and 1989 but can barely recall what I did on New Year's Eve 1999. There is a simple explanation. When I didn't do anything special to mark the day, there was nothing worthwhile to remember.  

This New Year's Eve I decided to embark on a different exercise. Rather than try to remember what I was doing on a given year's New Year's Eve or on my birthday, I'd try to see if I could recall any number of incidents from a particular year for the purposes of distinguishing one year from the stack of all others. That was the whole purpose of doing the New Year's Eve remembrances in the first place. 

I performed the exercise as follows:

memories Because I'm a year guy -- I categorize my memories as happening in a particular year vs happening when I was a certain age -- years were my memory delineation marker.  I wrote down every single year I've been alive to see if I could place valid memories in each year. Others performing this exercise might prefer using as a marker all the various ages they've been up to this point. 

memories I tried to summon at least three memories from each year, the more the better. If I had a number of memories sprouting from one experience -- say, my first one-month trip to Japan in 2004 or a 5-month relationship with an Australian-Indian girl in Africa in 1997 -- I'd write this down as one memory, as the purpose of this exercise is to try to recall as many different incidents from a given year. In certain cases, like 2006, in which I spent almost the entire year in Australia, I partitioned memories by location.  A month in South Australia would count as one memory, my time in the Northern Territory as another, and so on.

memories  I only counted a memory as valid if I truly remembered it and could assign the exact year it happened, fair enough since I was categorizing my memories by year.   My sister mentions an incident where my brother and I ran around the house naked as little kids when guests came over. She can't state exactly when it happened, and besides, I don't remember any of it. For all I know, the way she remembers it is exaggerated.   Maybe we were running around in our underwear, not completely nude. This is not a valid memory. Something happening "when I was in college" or "when I was 17 or 18" doesn't count. I have to be able to place the memory into a proper age or year.  

The only exception to this rule for me was the first four years of my life. Up until the age of four, we lived in a different house in a different town, and I have several memories associated with that time. That far back, I can't be specific if something happened when I was 2 or 3. As it's impossible to get corroboration on the exact year for such treasured memories from so far back in time, a time when most people have no conscious memories, I decided to count them anyway, arbitrarily assigning the memory to one of the two possible years. If you decide to perform this exercise, I would cut you more slack.   If something happened before age 6 and you can accurately pinpoint the memory within a two year range (1985-87 or ages 3-5), I'd let you count the memory as valid for one of the three years.  After age 6 however, once you would have started primary school, you'd have to remember the exact year or age in order to count it.  

memories  "Cheating" was permitted. Cheating counts as looking at old photographs, movies, or journals to jog the memory. That's what they're for, right?  To preserve and strengthen your memories.  I have a lot of old pictures with the year stamped on the front or back, and I kept written journals as far back as age 9.  In 1987, after getting my first PC, I started keeping an online journal for most years. It was permissible for me to reflect on these aids to bring memories to the surface, but I could only count the incident as a valid memory if I truly remembered it. I was re-reading some journal entries of mine from 2005 in which I wrote about a Hispanic lady in my yoga class who was hitting on me. This incident obviously took place or I wouldn't have written about it, but since I cannot remember any of it, I didn't count it.   A photograph of you sitting on your mother's lap when you were 1� doesn't count unless you really remember being there.

I spent an entire weekend performing this exercise and, amazingly, was able to write at least three valid memories for every year from age 2 to the present.  The very early years were definitely helped by me having lived in another locale. That other location helps me tag any memories experienced there with specific years. For instance, I remember watching a particular cartoon on TV when I was but a toddler. I had almost forgotten this cartoon completely until I saw it again at a 3-week summer camp I attended when I was 11.  Because I remember first watching this cartoon at our old house, I had to have seen it during its original telecast. A quick search on IMDB reveals that this production originally aired on TV when I was 2�. Even if I happened to catch it on a rerun six months or a year after it was first telecast, I can still limit the memory to two possible years. Had this viewing occurred at the home we lived in after I was 4 on any number of repeat telecasts, I would not be able give this memory an exact year and, hence, could not count it.  

The hardest years to recall were not, as one might assume, the very early years. They were four of the worst years of my life, from 2000 to 2003, so I've likely tried to repress them. I was forced to open up my online journal files from those years and pore through dozens and dozens of entries to bring back valid memories. It wasn't simply a case of whether a memory was bad or good as to how well I could recall it. I can easily recall the sickness and death of my grandfather when I was 15, a very bad memory. It was the first death I'd ever experienced of a loved one in my immediate family. Whether I could easily bring back a year or not depended more on whether that year was filled with unusual happenings, good or bad. If a year were uniformly mediocre or even uniformly average, the year blended into the background like a boring co-worker who never says anything of note. 

It helped that I took some interesting trips, even during the bad years. I can remember my first trip to Puerto Vallarta (Mexico) in April 2000 and my one-month long trip to the Yucatan a year later. The trips were high points for those years. I found that trips were one of the treasured memories I hadn't let fade. I could recall all the family and solo trips I'd ever taken from age six onwards. For some of the child years, I was able to mark off three memories for a year just by writing down three different trips I'd gone on.   Travel obviously made a great impression on me at a young age.

A fascinating insight to doing this exercise is to see your life in the big picture. Whole years of your life distill down to just three or four memories. Try as you might, you can't bring up more. Part of this, I expect, is by necessity. The longer you're alive, the more memories you gather, and it's just not realistic you can remember 1980 as vividly or the same way from the vantage point of 2010 as you could when it was 1981 and 1980 was considered "last year."  We mentally box the years "childhood" or "elementary school" or "college" into a single compartment.   But just as I can't remember some birthdays and New Year's Eves from but ten years ago, I think a greater reason memories evaporate is because we never took the time to make them in the first place. We didn't go out of our way to attend our child's school play when he was 9, bother to record it. or truly be present if we attended it to really remember it decades later.   I expect most people walking down Memory Lane will forget entire side streets.   A decade will boil down to just three memories. 

After having experienced some real low points in the early 2000's, I made a conscious effort, first with New Year's Eves, then with my birthdays, to proactively create at least two memories each year I could easily recall down the line.   After meeting and moving in with my girlfriend (now wife) in 2007, it has become much easier for me to recall numerous memories from each year thereafter without having to use aids to do so.  In fact, if you siphoned off the best memories from the years 1998-2004, the seven complete and mostly crappy years I lived in Los Angeles, and compiled them into one "greatest hits" year, this greatest hits compilation would still pale in comparison to any randomly selected year from 2006 onwards.  

You're alive now. Do yourself a favor. Live a life worth remembering. This doesn't mean you have to live a rock star's stereotypical dream party life of fancy meals, drugs, and multiple sex partners.   A highfalutin lifestyle won't magically make life more memorable over the long haul. If you indulged in extreme behavior all the time to the point it started to become normal for you, one year would still blend into the next. You need to deviate from your routine, do something different.   Vacation in a different place or with different people if you go back to the same place every year. Embark on a new project. Participate in the serious milestones of friends and loved ones.  Take an interest in your child's life. I regret I didn't for the first five years I was acquainted with my stepson. Nothing makes the passing of the years more apparent than watching a child grow up, all too quickly, before your very eyes.  

Memory Lane is a wonderful place to retreat to if you invest the time to build valuable memory real estate.  Get off autopilot mode and start doing it before you forget! 


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