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Texas | Columns | They Shoe Horses, Don't They?

Remembering Memory

“Thanks for the Whatchamacallits.” - Bob Hope

by Brewster Hudspeth

A 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.

Learning Lessons

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.

Those Crazy 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 east).

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.

Memory 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
July 19, 2004 column
"They shoe horses, don't they?"

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