Musings on The Persistence of Memory (Which Is Also The Name of a Painting I Might Have Done!)

July 21, 2011


It’s the strangest feeling.  When someone gives you credit for something you really don’t think you did, but really wish you had.

Salinger's people are pretty litigious, so let me just clarify: I'm pretty sure I did not write this book.

Does this happen to everyone?  I’d think so.  I’m not talking about plagiarism, or even failing to correct false credit for anything on a grand scale (“Hey, Byron, I really loved your novel The Catcher in the Rye!”  “Um… Yes, thank you.”  “Oh, and that cloned sheep?  Top notch!”), but little things.  The other day, someone thanked me for introducing him to The Beta Band many years ago, making sure to point out that I was in to them even before they were featured in the movie High Fidelity.  Awesome indie cred… but I’m pretty sure unwarranted.  So is it worth correcting?  Surely this is the most harmless, most victimless of lies-by-omission, barring anything but the most extreme circumstance.

I wrote this one.

Janet: “Please, Bill, come back inside the building!  Don’t jump!”

Bill: “My life is meaningless!”

Janet: “That’s not true!  You’ve had lots of impact on the people around you!”

Bill: “Well… I guess I did introduce Gary to the Beta Band.”

Gary: “No you didn’t.  Byron did.  I mentioned it the other day and he confirmed it.”

Another example: once, years ago in a cheap apartment, my roommates and I had a coffee table propped up with a Sartre book.  Someone asked why we had Sartre propping up the table, and someone else replied, “Because we couldn’t find any Camus.”  I thought this was a pretty damn cool response, and then a couple years later, the friend who I believe made the response recounted the anecdote, only adamant that it had been me slinging out the existentialist bon mots.  What do you do in that situation?  No memory is perfect so I certainly may have said it, but it’s like several parts of my brain arguing over the correct course of action.

Brain, Part A: “Hm.  That doesn’t sound right.  Well, okay.  No point turning a throw-away compliment in to a whole conversation.  Let’s just ride with it.”

Brain, Part B: “Damn right, ride with it!  The world is just a teeny bit cooler if I did/said that.  Hahaha!  Me!”

Brain, Part C: “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  This is a lie.  We’re lying right now.  Lying is bad for the body and leads to more lies.  Why don’t we just claim we invented the Internet now that we’ve decided to be big, fat liars of lies.”

Brain, Part D: “I know C is a bit of a sanctimonious ass, but I think we need to at least acknowledge that that doesn’t jive with our memory.  You know?  Put it out there.”

"This brain ain't big enough for both of us, Ego!" "Oh yeah? Well, I've had it with your goody-goody ways, subconscious!"

Brain, Part B: “Shut it, poindexters!”

Then there’s a brawl.  A synapstic, brain-lobe brawl.

Of course, there’s a flip-side.  It’s not all people giving you credit for cool things.  There’s also people remembering things that you didn’t do that you don’t want associated with you.  I’m not talking about gossip or rumor or negative misunderstandings here, but actual memories that they believe are positive, but which you want no part of.  It’s startling how often this happens.

I had someone contact me on facebook a while back.  They said that they still remembered how I showed them how to snort a condom up their nose and pull it out of their mouth back in college.

Okay.  Where to start.

Obviously, I never did this.  This is not a question of my memory’s accuracy; I have never done this, and I know that to be true because if I had I would still be rinsing my mouth and nasal passages with salt water.  Also because, back then, I had enough trouble working condoms in their basic, pragmatic application, so the idea that I could do tricks with them is, frankly, absurd.

The fact that this person believes that I not only found this trick hilarious and enthralling, but that this was my go-to party trick – instead of my actual go-to party trick (sitting in the corner and brooding) – suggests we were, shall we say, not close.  If not for a couple other personal details the person conveyed, I’d have suggested that we didn’t know each other at all.  But the person is conveying it in a positive way.  So what about in this case?  Do I grind the interaction to a halt now that I don’t even want to be credited with the action?  I don’t mean that I kill their positive association by demanding that what they’re saying is insane, and they clearly don’t know me at all, and I find them and their defective memory/brain abhorrent; but even saying, “Ummmmmm… I’m pretty sure that wasn’t me.”  Then they insist it was, and then I have to get more insistent that it wasn’t…

Finally, it’s interesting how rock-solid these memories can be.  When that former roommate and I recounted the Sartre/coffee table incident (forever to be known as Sartrecoffeetablenocamusgate), I absolutely knew, 100%, that he said it.  Still do.  Not a doubt in my mind.  And he knew, and presumably knows, 100%, that I had said it.  Now this is not a historically momentous joke, we’re not fighting over who said “Clothes make the man.  Naked people have no influence on society,” or even, “Well, I simply must slip out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini”, but it’s funny just how positive we both were about the source of those lines.  Positive.

Oh man, this takes me back.

I suppose there’s simply no way to reconcile this, but it seems to me that there’s really only one obvious solution: to simply default to whichever memory, no matter how outlandish, gives me the credit for the most great things.  Simple, clean, efficient.  I quote someone like Groucho Marx or Ben Franklin, but the listener doesn’t think I’m quoting?  Mine now!  You come over for dinner and get the impression I made every single thing?  Well, my wife is now laaaaazzzy.  A hallucinating junkie believes I’m George Washington?  Guess what – looks like I led America to victory over England.

Oh, those quotes above were by Mark Twain and Robert Benchley, respectively.  But if you accidentally give me credit, I’ll understand.  Or at least most of my brain will.

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Site in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, but sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

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13 Comments on “Musings on The Persistence of Memory (Which Is Also The Name of a Painting I Might Have Done!)”

  1. Albert Berg Says:

    This sounds like a great seed for a story. Two friends remembering a shared experience with key facts subtly different, and when they start to peel back the layers…
    Probably been done before. Then again what hasn’t?
    The fact that memory is so insubstantial and yet something we trust so implicitly has been a thought that’s been bouncing around my head quite a bit recently. At least I THINK it has.


  2. stevebetz Says:

    As a scientist, there can sometimes be egghead bragging rights (and sometimes even monetary gain) for people that come up with ideas. I remember at my last job, I had an idea for a new program and got it off the ground. A year in, I was talking to my VP who said they wanted to give a different scientist a bonus for coming up and starting the program. I said — errr, that was me. He looked at me like I had three heads, saying that he didn’t remember it that way. I had to go find the email/presentation trail to prove it and he still looked like he thought I was faking it.


  3. gojulesgo Says:

    Fantastic post! I’m always completely unnerved when childhood friends start reminiscing and I have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s not like I was drunk. Which is what I attribute everything to now.

    Anyway, love the post, and you’re right – this does happen all the time. At least, I think it does. I can’t quite remember.


  4. Blogdramedy Says:

    Short answer. It’s called getting old. 🙂


  5. truthspew Says:

    The condom thing is a neat trick.

    Years ago I learned how easy it was to tie a cherry stem in a knot with my tongue. Yeah, great dexterity there.


  6. Wazeau Says:

    It is not just memory which takes a dive the older you get. Wait till the words you hear coming out of your mouth do not match the words you are saying in your brain. Then you have to immediately correct yourself! Out loud! Even though it was just yourself (or, even worse, your cat) you were talking to!


  7. Walter Says:

    Robert Benchley? I thought it was Dorothy Parker. The other day I was at a friends house and she was showing me her collection of my art work. I pointed out a small painting I thought was cool but said that it wasn’t mine. She looked at me like I was insane. No argument there. It was mine. I just didn’t remember painting it. Now where is that gin?


    • Byron MacLymont Says:

      I spent more time stubbornly trying to figure out the source of that joke than practically the whole rest of the post. It’s attributed to, among others, Mae West, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, Sean Connery/James Bond, Benchley… the irony, of course, being that with the exception of Parker, their all actors who played characters who would have said the words someone else wrote, not the source of the actual quote.

      I went with Benchley because I could confirm the line, from the film “The Major and The Minor,” even though he actually says, “You must slip out of that coat and into a dry martini.”

      Why, one might reasonably ask, not just use a different line? Because the contention over the source of it fits so nicely with the theme, and I do loves me the symmetry.


  8. Walter Says:

    Let’s go with Robert Benchley. He was cool. Or you could give it to Myrna Loy & William Powell. Great. Now I want to wear hats and have a martini. This post has seriously messed with my head. I hope I didn’t go to college with you.


  9. Maria Says:

    Highly relate-able and easily transcribed. I’ve argued that it wasn’t me as I have NO memory of the event/comment in question to the point the other person becomes offended. Learned a long time ago to object once and then feign memory and accept the compliment.


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