After about a year and a half, a person's age is no longer expressed in months, except to the extent that it facilitates picking out clothing — which matters very little, since at 18 months anything you wear you will outgrow in a matter of weeks.

I don't remember anything much about being 18 months old, although I do know this much: it was 582 months ago. Which means that yes, this is my six hundredth month, the end of Year 50, the completion of half a frigging century already, and while I can't say I'm taking it badly, I can't say I'm exactly wild about the prospect either.

One thing I wanted to do this month was to get some sort of grip on my earliest memory while it's still nominally within reach. (Memories do fade, and, as my siblings will testify, sometimes I've filled in the gaps with things which bear only slight resemblance to actual fact, or to their own memories, whichever happen to be less inaccurate.) And the first thing I can remember is being at the foot of the long stairway in my grandfather's house in Texas, screaming my head off — because a few seconds before, I was at the head of said stairway. Did I fall from the top, did I trip while trying to walk down, did I roll? I don't know. But I remember looking up and wondering why the ceiling was so far, far away all of a sudden. Doesn't sound like an 18-month memory to me, but it's perhaps plausible for a two-year-old who reads at a three-year-old level. And here's the rub: for all I know, it may not have happened at all. That kind of fall has a good chance of being fatal, and last time I looked, I wasn't dead. Not entirely, anyway.

It seems to me that whatever is in the back of my head from those glorious days of yesteryear has been revised and edited and revised once more, to the extent that I'm distrustful of anything I seem to recall from the 1950s unless there is some form of independent evidence. I know that I ran into the conjunction of two walls when I was about five or six; the scar, no longer concealed by hair, is still faintly visible. Whether this was in fact due to getting overly worked up over an episode of Rawhide is debatable. (That Eastwood fellow, well, he was rowdy, if you know what I mean.) And I know that I took a spill into a rural cesspool which was, alas, far from empty; I contracted scarlet fever from exposure to the contents, and I contracted chills, which developed into pneumonia, from being hosed down to get those contents off of me. To this day I wonder if this one-two punch, accompanied by truly heinous fever (for some reason, the figure 105.6 sticks in my mind, and I know it's not a radio-station frequency), caused me some form of brain damage: by most accounts, I didn't become truly morose until after it had happened.

Way back in Vent #226, I cited a notion by the late musicologist and audiophile Edward Tatnall Canby, who proposed that the length of one's perceived memories is a constant, that as you get older the years get closer and closer together. It would certainly explain why so much of my life seems a blur; things are running together like watercolors in the rain, and restoring the correct hues requires more talent than I can claim. Further, it's been said that there is a finite amount of memory locations available to any given brain; to add a new item, an old one must be removed. I tend to doubt this one, but who really knows how the brain works? We have only the sketchiest of blueprints, and it's not like we can build one on our own.

Or maybe it's like this. All the memories are there, intact and theoretically available; what we lack — what I lack, anyway — is the ability to process more than a precious few at any given time. It would certainly explain how it is that something I haven't thought about in years can suddenly force itself to the head of the line, triggered by God knows what.

This experience is probably not too dissimilar from what other people around this age go through. But I wonder just how much I may have lost and won't be able to recover. The last seven years of my life are fairly extensively documented, to the extent of 50 megabytes or so of disk space at this Web site. If only I could say the same for the first forty-three.

The Vent

#363
1 November 2003

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