When It Comes to Memories, Worse is Better.
I have a shitty memory. And when I say that I have a shitty memory, I don’t mean that I have trouble remembering things. I mean that I remember the shitty things best.
It’s not that I don’t have plenty of good memories to draw upon.
I had an amazing childhood that was filled with loving parents, baseball trophies, summer camp and lifelong friendships.
I have wonderful memories of knee-buckling first kisses. Crazy nights doing things that I shouldn’t have but were far too fun to pass up. And I can fondly recall running aside my son as I let go of the bike and he pedaled away successfully for the first time with no training wheels.
I can’t say that about my other son’s first ride. I think there was a new business pitch or something going on. I was stuck at the office. Maybe they Face-Timed me? I don’t really remember.
But the fact remains, that I do have many wonderful memories.
They’re just not the ones I remember the best.
The ones that are the worst are the ones I remember the best.
For example, here’s my earliest memory.
It’s incredibly vivid to me.
So much so that there are smells and tastes that I can still associate with it when I think of it. It’s remarkable to me how clearly I can visualize this first early memory.
I’m sitting on the lawn in front of my house. No one can say for sure how old I was but the best guess is three or four.
I’m sitting on the lawn in front of my house and I’m crying. I’m not sad. But my eyes are burning and causing tears to run down my cheeks. My throat is burning as well and as I write this, I have an acrid taste in my mouth that I can only conjure when I relive this incredibly vivid, early memory.
I’m sitting on the lawn in front of my house crying, with my eyes and throat burning and an acrid taste in my mouth as I watch my father working on the driveway.
My father is pouring acid on the driveway. The wind has shifted in an unfortunate direction and the fumes are what’s causing my eyes and throat to burn. As I breathe them in, they coat my mouth with a distinctively bitter chemical taste.
My father is pouring the acid onto the driveway because he’s trying to remove the swastika that was spray-painted onto it the previous evening.
That’s my first memory.
He succeeded in removing the bulk of it but a faint stain remained for years. I used to color in the missing sides with a piece of charcoal and we’d use it to play games of four square on.
Sometimes my mom would yell out the window, “Stop playing on the swastika!”
I’m just kidding. She didn’t really do that but I couldn’t resist the relatively unique comedic opportunity.
The four square part and everything else though is completely true.
My next memory is being pulled out of the fountain at Sharpstown Mall. Again, no specific age can be identified but I know that I was wearing white patent leather shoes and you can really only be so old and wear white patent leather shoes. Man, did I hate those white patent leather shoes.
My parents were inside a store and my older sister and I had stepped out to look at the fountain. I couldn’t believe all those shiny copper pennies were just sitting in there. It looked like a small fortune to me. I remember thinking that I’d be rich if I could get all of those pennies out of there. So naturally, I went to work.
I was really raking it in. My pockets were becoming filled with wet pennies. I could feel my underwear start to get wet and beads of water rolling down my thighs. This penny collecting business was tough work, but the returns were excellent.
I got greedy though.
As I stood on my tippy toes, trying to reach a nickel from one of the top tiers of the fountain, I slipped and fell in.
It wasn’t my fault. Those damn white patent leather shoes had zero traction.
I remember my parents hustling me out of there extremely quickly. They each had a firm hand on one of my arms and were none too pleased to be the parents of the stupidest kid at Sharpstown Mall that day.
As they wrangled me to the car, like some sort of stubborn calf, I intentionally dragged my feet along the gravel in the parking lot scuffing my white patent leather shoes to high hell. Man, I really hated those white patent leather shoes.
I played a lot of football growing up.
It’s fairly hard not to in Texas.
But I remember one game more than any other. In fact, I remember one play more than any other. The play is called a Power I Right 42- Lead. That means I’m behind the quarterback. Right next to me is the guy who’s going to block. And behind me is the tailback, who hopefully everyone assumes will be getting the ball.
They’ll be wrong, however. I’ll be the one getting the ball.
I remember lining up in the backfield and I remember looking over at the guy lined up next to me. He’d be shooting straight ahead, hopefully creating a gap and I’d be getting the ball and running straight up his ass.
It’s the kind of play you run in a short yardage situation. All we needed was a lousy three yards for a first down.
I can remember the quarterback calling the play.
Football is 99% physics and the equation you rely on most is mass x acceleration = force. Your mass is what it is. We all work with what we’ve been given. You want more, hit the weight room. You want less, stop eating. But acceleration is an undetermined variable. The faster you fire off the ball the more of it you’ll have.
People say defense wins football games. Those people are wrong. Force wins football games. Which makes acceleration the key to victory.
The grinds, grunts and crunching sounds immediately fill the air around you as you explode forward into a maelstrom of quickly collapsing holes and alleys. The ball is tucked into your gut by the quarterback and you hold on tight as you hit the line of scrimmage and the arms start to grab you and try to rip the ball out of your hands.
All you can think of is three yards. Just three damn yards is all you need.
I remember feeling my feet flying out from underneath me almost as soon as I got the ball. A foot’s been tripped up and the vehicle in which I’m traveling suddenly begins to spin wildly out of control.
The body has internal mechanisms for handling these situations. Different systems rapidly fire. Limbs twist and weight is shifted to try and regain balance. A last, desperate attempt to maintain an upright position is deployed. The left arm reaches for the earth as the right leg cartwheels skyward.
Believe it or not, those three yards are still possible. Your force is still carrying you forward but friction and gravity are now weighing heavily upon the original equation.
And then… Pop!
Somethings really, really wrong
We’ve had a catastrophic systems failure. Lights are flashing and buzzers are going off all over the damned place. The headsets are filled with static.
“Houston, we have a problem.”
“Tower, requesting immediate permission to land!”
“Attention all units. Standby for emergency protocol!”
One of my hobbies is woodworking. It relaxes me. I’ve been at it for years.
I have a table saw, a couple of routers, and all kinds of tools and drills and nail guns and shit. I love it.
You learn a lot about joints in woodworking. There are many different kinds. The simplest joint is called a butt joint. One board butted up perpendicular to the other. Hammer in a few nails or drive home a couple of screws and you got yourself a butt joint. Simple as pie.
It gets fancier from there. You've got your mortise and tenon joints, dowel joints, box joints, dovetail finger joints, lap joints, bridle joints—it goes on and on. There’s lots of joints in woodworking.
But one joint that you’ll really never see in any sort of woodworking project is a ball and socket joint. And the reason for that is, despite the incredibly useful range of motion it gives our shoulders and hips—dependability wise, ball and socket joints are fairly shitty.
It’s why the hip replacement business is so lucrative. And why baseball pitchers make so much money when they’re not on the disabled list. It’s not the elbow that ends most pitching careers. It’s the shoulder. That shitty ball and socket joint gets harder and harder to rotate each year.
It was this iffy nature of the ball and socket joint that I got to know first-hand while I was at the bottom of the pile, in the twisted wreckage of a failed Power I Right 42- Lead, with a dislocated shoulder and the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life coursing its way through every nerve in my body.
I start shouting for help.
Football players have a code of honor.
We do a lot of mean things to each other out on the field. And some of the meanest of those things get done to the people who happen to be on the bottom of piles like the one I was in. It’s just part of the game.
However, every football player knows that if you start hearing someone scream for help like a God damned damsel in distress leaning out the window of a runaway train, you get the fuck off that pile as quickly as possible.
The refs come over first.
A seasoned football ref can quickly tell the difference between someone who’s caught a stinger and had the wind knocked out of them and someone who’s got a bone that’s currently in a place that it shouldn’t be.
They immediately start waving over the coaches. And the coaches immediately start waving over the trainer.
The first thing you want to do with a major injury during a football game is attempt a bit of good old fashioned grid-iron triage.
“Son, we need to get that arm back where it belongs. You just relax while we pull.”
That did not work. It did however increase the pain, which was impressive because I didn’t think it could get much worse.
The next place you go is to the sideline. After all, busted shoulder or no busted shoulder, there’s a football game that still needs to be played and that requires removing from the field any players who can no longer use all four of their limbs.
You lie on the bench and watch your friends wince as they look down on you from the stands. It hurts bad. But you don’t cry. You can’t fucking cry in a Texas high school football game. So, you bite down on your mouthpiece and your buddies kneel down next to you.
They’re there because they love you but they’re also there because they know you’re done. Your season is over. Plus, it's senior year so this is it. They’re also there to be thankful it’s you and not them.
The next place you go, if your shoulder insists on remaining at large, is to the locker room.
The trainer’s room is in the back. In Texas high school football, the trainer is almost considered to be a doctor. I have no idea what the training is for becoming a trainer but I'm fairly sure it doesn’t involve medical school.
Never-the-less, I’ll tell you what—when you suddenly find yourself with a wacky humerus that’s gone rogue on you and taken a stroll down into your ribcage, a Texas high school football trainer is the person you want by your side.
The first thing he did was get me lying face down on top of the table. He positioned me closest to one side so that my injured arm could dangle. It was the first time I felt anything close to being comfortable since the quarterback handed me that football.
He took a knee down next to me and said that we were just going to calm ourselves down a bit and hold hands for a while. And that’s exactly what we did. He held my hand and told me to relax.
“Relax your muscles.”
“Just let it go.”
He was really calm about it and that made me calm. He held onto my hand and I did what he told me to do.
I breathed in.
I breathed out.
I relaxed my muscles.
And I just let it go.
The weight of his hand holding onto mine did the rest of the work.
The feeling of going from having a bone that is dislocated to suddenly having one that isn’t is truly one of the most fantastic feelings in the world.
It really is.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of dislocating a bone and then having it placed back into its proper position, you’re missing out. It’s positively delightful. You go from a terrible, awful, really weird bone-in-the-wrong-place kind of pain to instant relief. It’s fantastic. It’s as if all of your problems have just been solved.
The sound, however, is God awful though.
The good news is that it didn’t end up being my last game. I wasn’t done. It wasn’t over for me just yet.
There was an option.
I can only describe it as a contraption. It looked like something from a Houdini exhibit or a turn of the century mental hospital.
The bulk of it was constructed out of this very heavy, stiff canvas-like material that went around your chest with straps, buckles, laces and snaps. A sleeve fitted over one shoulder and with more straps, buckles, laces and snaps secured your entire upper arm tightly to the piece around your chest.
I have no idea where they found this thing but after the hour or so that it took the trainer to help you get it on, you could go out and play a football game without dislocating your shoulder.
I wore that stinking straight jacket for the last four games of the season. I couldn’t lift my left arm above my waistline but I could block and I was able to finish my senior year.
As I said before, I have lots of good memories.
But the way in which I remember them is much different than the bad ones. Good memories appear more as flashes in my mind when I reach for them. They’re beautiful snap shots and wonderful frozen moments. Good memories are like a picture book or someone’s feed on social media. I stare at them and think back with great fondness . But they’re really just still frames.
It’s the shitty memories that are vivid as hell.
I can still taste the fumes coming off that driveway as I watch my father frantically trying to remove the swastika. But I can’t do much more than lovingly recall the look on my son’s face as I ran alongside him for his first successful bike ride.
It gives me tremendous pleasure to think back on it but I can’t hear it like I can hear the pop of that shoulder falling back into place as I held that trainer’s hand and just let it go.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Why do I have such clear recollection of the bad moments in my life and such a hazy recollection of the good ones?
It turns out, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me.
According to Dr. Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University, many studies suggest that we are more likely to remember negative experiences over positive experiences. And research suggests that there’s an excellent reason for it.
It helps us survive.
Our ancestors undoubtedly saw plenty of amazing sunsets and beautiful flowers. I can only imagine how dazzling and clear the night-time sky must have been. But what you really needed to remember most was where the lions were that ate your buddy Steve two days ago. Or if you ate a particular kind of berry, like your Aunt Pam did last year, you’d spend the last few hours of your life on the floor of your cave in agonizing pain and unfathomable intestinal distress.
So, to help us survive, our brains prioritized the bad things that happened to us. They record them in high def with surround sound and crystal clear resolution so we can really hold onto them. It’s why people can remember exactly what they were doing when JFK was assassinated or 9/11 happened.
As Eddie Vedder would say, “ It’s evolution, baby.”
And just to make this whole mess at least a little bit advertising related, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s also why people remember bad experiences with a brand more than they remember the good ones.
You could love Pizza Hut your whole life, but you get one with a bad pepperoni and you’ll be looking for the first brand you can find that can out-pizza the Hut.
In a consumer society such as ours, a bad brand experience is just like that lion hiding in the bushes that ate Steve. It’s fun to think back on all the good times you had with him, but your brain feels it’s much more important to remember exactly which bush the lion was hiding behind and how many times you barfed after eating at Pizza Hut.
So, I’ll hold on to the smell of muriatic acid, the memory of those horrible white patent leather shoes and the knowledge of how shitty ball and socket joints are for as long as I have to.
I’ll keep diligently taking pictures of the good times so that I can revisit those whenever I need to.
And I’ll continue trying to understand why being a human being is such a remarkably disorienting but none-the-less fascinating scientific experiment to be a part of.
I honestly can’t wait to see if it works.
But one thing I know for sure, is that I wasn’t given the placebo.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you again real soon.