Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My Mind Plays Tricks on Me

Normally I think I have a pretty good memory. This isn’t surprising. I come from a line of people with super-human powers of recall. Last year, for example, I overheard my parents reminiscing about what exactly they’d once been served for dinner at a friend’s house. They talked about it as if it had happened a few months before, but actually, this dinner party took place before I was born.

Another example: This past Christmas, my grandmother gave my father a picture of himself taken when my father was about three years old. Even my dad wasn’t sure where it was shot, but my grandmother remembered not only the location (suburban Virginia), but also what my father was looking at when the picture was snapped (a toy boat in the water).

So it always comes as a shock to me when I discover that I’ve remembered something wrong. A few days ago I realized that I’d done it again. Last week I blogged about my memories of the living room of an apartment in France I’d stayed in one summer. I clearly remembered a light gray carpet. But a photo I have shows that the carpet isn’t gray at all.

It’s a minor detail, of course, an insignificant part of a place I was a long time ago. What bothers me is the fact that I was so sure I did know. I had what seemed like a crystal-clear memory of the room, but it turns out I made some of it up. That’s a little alarming.

How often does this happen? It’s hard to know. My friend Sarah remembers a time when we were in China together and I did bicycle tricks for an appreciative audience of gawking locals, reasoning that they were going to stare anyway, so I might as well give them something to look at.

I remember the bike sideshow, too, but in my memory, Sarah’s the one doing tricks.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I would be disturbed to discover that I’d made up not just an image, but also an entire scene and sold myself on it. On the other hand, I love Sarah’s version, because it makes me sound so much more hammy and brave than I really am.

There are no photographs from that day (although the locals may still be talking about it), so we’ll never know who’s the brave one and who’s the imaginative one.

I guess that’s why writers keep notebooks.

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