Friday, September 26, 2008

memories that hang by a thread

As we get older, our brain pushes out older memories for newer ones. Sometimes that's not such a bad thing, like when someone from high school reminds you of a pretentious thing you said when you were 15 and you have no recollection of it whatsoever. Therefore it never happened. I savor this kind of small victory.

But there are other times when you have only the thinnest strand of a memory still trapped in your head, like an image from a movie or a TV show or a music video, but the image isn't enough to help you identify where it came from, even in the Internet age, where information on seemingly everything is available whenever you want it.

In January I mentioned that I'm glad to go into a grocery store these days, hear a song I haven't heard before on the PA, and not be able to identify it even if I write down a line or two and then look up the lyrics on Google when I get home. (Some people, of course, can access the Internet on their phones or PDAs and would be able to identify the song right away. But I don't want that much Internet in my life.) It's nice to not know. And yet a part of me still wants to know, especially if I want to hear the song again.

I remember a video that came on MTV in the summer of '87 that featured some sort of jungle setting, though the jungle was created on a soundstage and was meant to look fake. That summer I looked for the cassette that featured the song while I was with my grandfather in a music store in Douglas, Georgia, where my grandparents used to live. But that's all I remembered about the song—not the title, not the artist's name, not even a basic melody. Just a vague image from the video and a vague recollection of the location where I briefly considered buying the entire album so I could have that song. (I'm sure I just wanted to buy something that day, no matter what. That allowance money/spoiled-grandchild money was burning a hole in my pocket.)

On April 23 Dave Steed helped me solve this minor mystery in his Popdose series called Bottom Feeders, where he meticulously tracks down every song that peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1980s below #40. On that day he featured a song by Jon Astley (no relation to Rick) called "Jane's Getting Serious." I thought I hadn't remembered anything about the melody of that mystery song from 21 years ago, but something clicked when I listened to Astley's minor hit. I love how the brain works that way.

Now that I had the title, I started looking for the video for "Jane's Getting Serious" on YouTube. It wasn't there, but I did find a sentence or two on another site about it being set in a jungle, which made sense in terms of "Me Tarzan, you Jane." It took 21 years, but I'd finally identified the Song With No Name. And a few months ago the video showed up on YouTube:

Another vague image that's never left my memory comes from even earlier in my life—I was probably four or five when I saw a TV show in which milk was poured on a person's head while he was sitting at a kitchen table. I thought maybe it came from the TV series based on the film The Paper Chase, though I wasn't sure why. Memories get jumbled over the years, especially the ones from the first years in which your long-term memory is active.

About a month ago a rerun of Eight Is Enough came on Me TV, and at the end of the episode ("Triangles," 9/28/77) Tommy Bradford (Willie Aames) made a sarcastic comment about money to his sister Mary (Lani O'Grady), who retaliated not by yelling at him for ripping her off but by kissing him softly on the cheek, then opening the refrigerator and pouring a carton of milk on his head. Tommy didn't seem that confused by the out-of-nowhere kiss, nor did he get mad at Mary for dousing him with milk. Tommy wasn't the brightest Bradford.

But as soon as Mary kissed him on the cheek, something in my head clicked once again. I didn't know what was about to happen, but I was glued to the screen. Once the milk hit Tommy's head, another minor memory mystery was solved.

Me TV's sister station, Me Too, ran an Our Gang short recently that I remember very strongly from childhood, one in which Jackie Cooper gets caught trying to play pranks on his new teacher, Miss Crabtree. She tells him and his co-conspirators to go home and explain to their parents what they did, but right before they exit, the rest of the class is given cake and ice cream. As Jackie sits in the schoolyard crying, ashamed at what he was planning to do to his lovely, sweet new teacher, she brings him a plate of cake and ice cream.

Once again, I was glued to the screen, even though my memories of
"Teacher's Pet" from Little Rascals reruns in the 1980s have never been vague like the other two examples I mentioned. I was just glad to see it again for the first time in many years. It's a tearjerker for the kindergarten set.

I also have a vague memory of where I put my wallet yesterday, but you probably don't want to hear about that.


  1. I loved this piece, so I hope you take this in the right spirit, but when I read your last sentence, something clicked and I immediately thought: Andy Rooney!

    (No, I do not think Andy Rooney took your wallet yesterday.)

  2. Eighty years from now, when I'm as old as Andy Rooney, I'm sure I'll be talking just like him. By the way, they should call e-mail "z-mail," because most of it puts me to sleep!