Everything There Is To Say About Mnemonics


Remembering things used to be a great pastime. It’s obsolete these days. We only need to remember things anymore while we’re recording special “live” episodes of our podcasts. And that just if we feel rude checking our phones in front of the audience except to check our notes. For the rest of us it’s an affectation, like learning how long division works or how to spell “carburetor”. But it can be a fun one. Please remember I think there’s a swell video game to be made out of drawing time zone boundaries. I’m not trustworthy in judgements of “fun”. I could be coaxed into stopping at a roadside attraction promising the state’s third-most-average ball of twine. That even before finding out whether they have miniature golf.

There is only one sure way to remember a thing. That’s for it to be the lyrics you’re pretty sure you heard wrong from a song you can’t get out of your head. And you’re not sure you have the melody right either. It’s great and reliable but there’s almost no way to pick what you remember. It’ll never help you remember, like, what model your car’s engine is long enough to get something from the auto parts store. It’ll just leave you asking your musically inclined friends, “what’s that song I heard in the 80s or early 90s that’s like, `dahdah dah dah dah, chipmunks and kangaroos dahdah’?” while they back away, through the wall if need be. You can try hooking some phrase you want to remember up to a song you like, but that just ruins the song for you. You’ll be in the middle of humming this book title about the French and Indian War you wanted from the library and realize that you’re Ray Davies and you’ve gone way off script performing “Waterloo Sunset” on live TV. It’s humiliating.

Which comes to the next great way to remember a thing: feel humiliated by it. You can have many things to ponder in life, but the last will be that weird, involuntary, somehow squeaking-bark laugh that your second-grade teacher emitted when you said “molecule” like that. Again, great reliability, lousy selection. Who needs to remember wrong ways to say words, anyway? Again, only podcasters doing the part of the show where they respond defensively to their e-mails. Many of us got to be this many years old without ever having to say “unguent” out loud and that’s not evidence of a mis-spent life, all right?

Next to humiliation is stories, though. The average person can remember over twelve stories, which gives us plenty to talk about again while on a long car ride. We can make up stories about stuff we want to remember and then we’ll never get it out of our heads again, so make sure you get this right. Here, it helps if the stories are dumb. This way every time it works you feel humiliated something that stupid helped you, strengthening the memory.

For example, the highway near me is flanked by a one-way northbound service road and a one-way southbound service road. One of these is Homer. One of these is Hosmer. This is a mistake. Hosmer is a road several blocks away from all this. The other of the service roads is Howard. Which one goes north and which one goes south? It would be great if Hosmer went south, since it’s got that ‘s’ in there, but Hosmer has no part in this. Stop remembering Hosmer already.

But then I had a great idea: that prominent ‘m’ in Homer is the clue. If I can just remember “it’s called Homer because it runs morth” I would never get that stupid idea out of my head. And now good luck you getting it out either. There’s only two problems. One is, isn’t Morth the name of Jonathan Winters’s character on the last season of Mork and Mindy? Second, why am I trying to remember which one is Homer and which is Hosmer anyway? What problem in my life will that ever solve?

So if anyone has an idea how I can remember that I’m not responsible for Homer or Hosmer streets and don’t need to know which one runs which way, please write in care of this address. Thank you.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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