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Sunday, August 14, 2011

On the shores of the Memory Banks

By Hugh Gilmore

             January 28 issue, 2008. The world of the Internet is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
            I was minding my own business yesterday, editing and fact-checking the novel I've recently "finished," when I noticed I may have committed two anachronisms.
             The one first appeared in reference to a country flea market filled with very odd people. The narrator says, "This is where Twin Peaks meets Deliverance." A funny line, if you ask me, almost Jim-Harrisian in its mordant incisiveness. However, the story is set in 1985 and Twin Peaks did not come on television until 1990. (Deliverance was 1972). I substituted The Twilight Zone for Twin Peaks. It's okay, but I'm still searching.
            The second (possible) anachronism is this: the lead detective has just given a piece of information to an evasive suspect and said, "There, does that get your memory bank stirring?"
            I wondered. "Memory bank" is a computer term. Few people in 1985 owned a personal computer and computer-use terms were not part of everyday lingo.
            I hoped to get a quick answer by Googling "History of the term 'memory bank.'" The results upended my day. Google should warn its users, "Caution! Searching here may lead you to memories you're not ready for." 
            I can only compare that idea to the seven boxes of my mother's memorabilia I'm storing for our family. More than three years have passed since our mother died, and no one is ready yet to open a storage carton and find, for example, the huge, sentimental Valentines my father sent her every year. We all need more time beforehand to brace ourselves for that.
            Yesterday, however, I accidentally came face-to-face — in an instant! — with memories that disturbed the placid day I'd set out to have. Two of the first four Google results for "Memory Bank" that came up were linked to web pages maintained by an old friend. I haven't talked to him in years. We'd been friends back in Ann Arbor, the site of the novel I was fact-checking, during an exhilarating, but troubled, time of my life.
             I couldn't resist. Reading the blog and following the links, I stopped working, caught almost in a trance, pleased to see — at least from what the blog reveals — that he's doing well. I spent the rest of the morning at those sites.
            He and I had been newly-bachelored buddies when we taught together in the Anthropology Department at the University of Michigan. He grew up in Manchester, England. I'm a Philadelphia native. We both had one-year "Visiting" appointments that were renewed a few times. We palled around for two years before his time ran out.
            The day I knew we would be friends was a Sunday when he invited me to come over and watch football and have a beer. While we were talking, he said in his Mancunian way, only half-joking, "Well, what's it all about, then? What would you say was a happy life?"
            I decided to test him by saying something I actually meant. I said, in effect, that my end-of-life fantasy would be to go up on a mountain as an old man and sit, looking out over a beautiful valley while I listened to my son, my only child (then), sitting nearby playing a violin. Corny maybe, but true. And naive, as we shall see.
            He responded at once, and with great enthusiasm, "That's what it's all about, isn't it? Cheating death?" 
            Well, I'd never thought of my personal vision that way, and maybe I wouldn't put it that way, but I felt great pleasure from hearing another man talk out loud about something personal for a change. Two years of animated conversation, laughter, and mutual sympathy followed. Both of us were going through divorces, re-dating, enduring university politics, missing our children, and trying to earn a living in a truly weird occupation.
            The last time I saw him, I visited him during his one-year stint at McGill University. He'd just published a book, The political economy of West-African agriculture. (SIC on the lower-case) He inscribed it; "For Hugh/who also knows/why we must try/to cheat death/K/May 1982/Montreal."

            I know the words exactly because, after seeing him on a YouTube clip, I stopped browsing the Internet and took his book down and reread his inscription. After that, my Saturday was ruined by wonder and memory. Instead of having a satisfied work conscience I had a muddled will. Should I e-mail? telephone? say what? ruin the tranquility of his day too?
            Don't forget, before you give me easy advice, that whenever I talk to a long-lost friend, I must lead him or her through the news that I've lost my first-born son, whom they knew, the boy who'd play the violin for me when I was the old man on the mountain. That is painful news to tell and painful for a friend to hear.

            I said that it had been a strangely coincidental day and it got stranger. Still dizzy from such keywords as "Twin Peaks," "The Twilight Zone," "anachronism," "memory bank," and "cheat death," I was off to the opera, something new I'm trying to learn about this year. And what was the opera yesterday?
            Orfeo et Euridice. Of course.  I spent the afternoon watching and listening to the classic tale of how Orpheus cheated death with his songs. The experience was transporting.
            Going to an opera by myself makes me feel like I am standing alone on the banks of the Mississippi. The grand flow, T.S. Eliot's "brown god," mesmerizes and lifts me away. My attention comes and goes. Once in a while something magical and strange floats by and I watch raptly. Then the great, sublime flow resumes, the great in-between, and my mind wanders, all the time feeling as I do in the woods or in a marsh or on the shore of an ocean — that I'm in the presence of something vast and grander than myself that I can draw strength from.
            In short, perspective on scenes from my life, and when, and how, and why they happened as they did.
            I know. You want to know if I've hit that e-mail "Send" button yet. Soon. That "cheating death" stuff makes me nervous. It takes a while to get used to our former selves when we run into them. That's one of the unmentioned dangers of the Internet. Your past, like the Jabberwock, waits to bite you.



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