Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Virtue of Amnesia

Thomas Wolfe once wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again, the title alluding to a universal truth that you can’t recover the past. (Interesting side note: the book was published after Mr. Wolfe’s death so it might just as well have been titled I Can’t Go Home Ever.) This knowledge of an irrevocable past produces in us a degree of melancholy when we think back on particular happy moments that have long since passed. However, we quickly come to our senses and realize how liberating it is that we’ll never have to relive thousands upon thousands of experiences we suffered through originally in years gone by.

I would imagine my oldest brother is pretty happy that he’ll never have to wear a corduroy suit that our mom made for him for his graduation from Junior High School. (He’s not completely blameless in this matter – he willingly went along with mom’s foray into haute couture, which is French for “one arm of the suit is slightly longer than the other”.) Locking myself – on accident, of course – in the bathroom of a Greyhound bus at the age of four isn’t something that necessarily gets me misty eyed. Neither does having my other brother sitting on my chest and pinning my arms to the ground while he would let a big loogie drip from his mouth in a spider-web-like string and dangle over my face before sucking it back up. (Sometimes he’d just spit and let it spread over my face while I couldn’t move.)

My sister Kim, I would be willing to bet, isn’t rushing to relive the moment when she was learning to drive and my two brothers, along with their host of friends, sat in the backseat and laughed like hyenas each time she cut a corner too close or applied the brakes a tad too hard. (The braking would later be immortalized by the term “Kim stop”, which we still use today, and can be re-created by violently throwing your upper torso forward and hitting your head on your hand as if it’s the dashboard or seat in front of you.) Those were good times for us (the brothers), but I’m happy not to be sitting in the back of a 1975 Chevrolet Kingswood station wagon without a seat belt and my sister behind the wheel again.

This sanity-saving knowledge of the past is further enhanced by our ability to forget odds and ends that are either emotionally crippling or, more importantly, embarrassingly incriminating. The former is usually a result of the mind protecting itself, while the latter is the result of denial – a denial that you were once immature, foolish, and even carefree. When your son or daughter comes home with a note from the principal informing you that your child has been engaging in shenanigans frowned upon by civil society (i.e. lighting a girl’s ponytail on fire with a Bunsen burner in Chemistry class or pasting a photo of the Social Studies teacher’s head on the torso of a donkey), you conveniently forget that you laughed until you nearly peed your pants when you had devised and executed a plan to mix a laxative into the brownies in the Teachers’ Lounge and then put plastic wrap over the toilets in the Teachers’ Bathroom. You have to forget about that or else the world would go to Hell in a hand basket because rather than disciplining your child you’d be comparing notes and trying to figure out how to pull a better prank and not get caught the next time.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me: no good can come from reliving the past. It’s best that we look to the future and try to forget about those uglier moments of days gone by – like acid-wash jeans, leisure suits, and the Mullet.

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