I have a horrible memory. It doesn’t matter what kind — short-term, long-term, mid-term, whatever. If I can see it, hear it, or feel it, I can forget it. And probably already have.
My forgetting forte is names. I have a shot at remembering a new name after maybe the sixth or seventh time hearing it. And that’s if it’s already familiar, or highly unusual. So if you’d like me to call you by name any time in the first month after we meet, I’d strongly suggest you have it legally changed beforehand to ‘Charlie’. Or ‘Guinness’. Or maybe ‘Dikembe’; I’d probably remember meeting a ‘Dikembe’. Probably.
“Unfortunately, as I found out, ‘crutches’ are for people who need just a little help. And it turns out my memory isn’t so much ‘lame’ as it is ‘entirely legless’.”
Of course, having a crap memory was no help at all in school. An awful lot of classes involve memorizing long lists of facts or stringing the right combination of words together to pass a test, and that’s frankly not up my alley. Nor is it down my street, across my lane, or over my thoroughfare. Remembery is simply not a strong suit.
It’s not like I don’t have any skills, mind you. I can spell, mostly. I can add. On a good day, I can read a map, juggle three balls, and balance a spoon on my nose.
(Not at the same time, of course. I said I had skills; I never claimed to be Krusty the freaking Clown.)
Anyway, back in school I figured I needed a crutch to help with my porous memory. So I tried learning mnemonics — little tricks and systems to make remembering easier. Unfortunately, as I found out, ‘crutches’ are for people who need just a little help. And it turns out my memory isn’t so much ‘lame’ as it is ‘entirely legless’. Witness a few of my more spectacular mnemonic failings:
Before they’d let me touch a triangle or pound out ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on the recorder, my elementary school music teachers demanded that I learn something about reading music. And the first lesson, listing the notes on a treble clef graph, was:
Every Good Boy Does Fine
At least, that’s how I tried to learn it. I’ve since heard that good boys also ‘deserve favor’, ‘deserve fudge’, ‘drink Fanta’, and ‘diddle flamingoes’.
(Okay, I made that last one up. But sadly, only recently. If I’d thought of that back when I was nine, I might’ve gotten less frowny faces for music on my report cards.
Whichever version you focus on, it seems like a pretty simple way to remember E-G-B-D-F. Or so you would think. But this is coming from a guy who forgets what he’s doing in the middle of putting on socks, and has to replay the events of the morning to determine whether he’s just put one on, or only just taken one off. There’s no such thing as a ‘simple’ mnemonic; not in my head.
The biggest trouble is, there are parts of my brain too smart for their own good. When I sat down for my music test, I remembered the ditty just fine… but then I started to question it.
“Which is more proper — Every good boy? Or Any good boy?”
“Surely they don’t teach us sexist study aids. I bet it was: Every good child does fine.”
“And shouldn’t it be ‘…does well‘? Is there a ‘W’ note I’ve forgotten about?”
By the time my head stopped spinning, I had no idea what the hell I was trying to remember. I think I finally gave up and wrote my answers on a scale labeled using: All Dogs Go To Heaven. You’ll notice that ‘helpful’ hint doesn’t even have the ‘F’ from the original.
But my grade sure did.
By junior high school, I’d completely forgotten (see?!?) the trauma of old mnemonics. So I barely resisted when our nerdy trig teacher handed us ‘SOH-CAH-TOA’ as a way to remember how the various sine functions worked.
(You want to know what it means? Then you can look it up, like I just did. You should know by now that it didn’t actually stick.)
I think I might’ve had a shot with this trick — only the teacher introduced it by pretending it was the name of a beautiful Indian princess. Which lodged it firmly in the ‘What do I remember about Native Americans?‘ part of my brain, and not the ‘What in god’s name do I do with a hypotenuse?‘ part.
So when I actually needed one of those functions, I could never figure out what the hell the formula was. It turns out ‘HIA-WA-THA’ is no help in this case. Ditto ‘POCA-HON-TAS’. Or the other Native American names I could conjure at that age: ‘TON-TO’, ‘CHIEF WA-HOO’ and ‘LAND-O-LAKES-CHICK’.
Maybe if I’d answered my trig quizzes in smoke signal form, I wouldn’t have had to repeat that class. Ouch.
To be fair, I did okay in most bio classes; that was even a big part of my major in college. But that’s because biology involves more thinking about processes and pathways than memorizing lots of little factlets all over the place.
At least, it does when you’re not talking about amino acids.
As bad as my memory is, I can vividly recall the dreary, sinking feeling in the days leading up to my amino acid test. There are twenty amino acids — twenty! — and I knew I had no shot at remembering them all with no help. So I decided to give mnemonics another try. Or a first try; who knows if I remembered ever using them before? Like a steel sieve, my mind is.
It took a couple of days, but I finally came up with a memory aid for the one-letter codes representing each amino acid. And I recited it over and over, making absolutely certain I could pound it into by brain for the test. It went like this:
Amish Carriages Deliver Eggplants From Green Houses In Knoxville, Leaving Many Northern People Quietly Regretting Scrapping Throwback Vegetable Wagons, Yes?
It was a work of art. It practically sang to me as I recited it over and over to study. It was long — but no longer than it had to be. It told a story, consistent enough even to allow me to work out some of the words if I couldn’t remember the whole thing. It was absolutely brilliant.
Not as brilliant as coming up with a more manageable ditty to remember the six letters that weren’t represented, perhaps. Because that would have taken one hell of a lot less time. And I thought of that, after I’d devised the text above. But once you’ve begun painting a masterwork, you can hardly go back. So I stuck to my story, and spent days cramming my mnemonic for the big test.
When the day finally came, I knew I was prepared. I was absolutely certain that my memory wouldn’t fail me, that there was no way that I could forget my memory trick.
Turns out I was right. I remembered my little story verbatim, from start to finish, and copied down all twenty amino acid codes without a single slip or error.
The bad news is that the test actually asked other things about those amino acids. Obscure, trivial things like: What are their names? How are they formed and used? And list a few of the properties of each that we’ve gone over in class during the last three months.
Well, gee. I didn’t remember any of that. I kind of thought with the ‘Amish eggplant story’, I wouldn’t need to know any of that. What a gyp.
And that’s how mnemonics — or really, my own memory — failed me miserably for the third time. Or possibly the three hundredth time; with recall like mine, it’s hard to know for sure. All I can hope for now is to forget the few humiliating episodes I do have left, like the ones I just listed. If my memory is going to be bad, why does it have to be badly selective, too?Permalink | No Comments