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Last week, in preparation for Memorial Day, the Urban Man went looking for memory. I'm no expert in the subject. I mean, memory is something I generally outsource, like gardening or car repair. I've turned history over to the History Channel and Ken Burns. I've turned personal recollection over to my email archive and a little store of photos located on a flash drive. As for mere information, well, Mr. Google now remembers everything for me.
At this point, I figure it's not my job to recall anything at all.
Of course, digital mass storage may not be precisely the same thing as memory. 2400 years ago, Plato warned that some essential quality of the human mind might be lost even with the written word—that contrary to expectations, books might actually represent a subtle excuse for…forgetting.
Me, I have to admit that as more and more gets recorded, uploaded, and globally indexed, we really do seem to remember less ourselves. Despite all our giddy terabytes, we seem to recall fewer old friends, bring to mind fewer ex-lovers, and dwell on fewer tremendous moments from the past. We just don't have the time to remember, like, fallen heroes.
When I read old novels, it does seem like the characters knew less but remembered more. And of course, we know of many places on earth where that's still true: where folks seem to recall every lost relative, every dead-end tradition and every unfinished grudge. Now and then they want to kill us for some crime we ourselves no longer recall.
If only we could explain to them that memory has become an archaic handicap. That the past belongs in museums and video archives. That forgetting is the key not just to happiness, but a successful consumer economy. For example, Memorial Day is a great idea, but if we were to put aside our barbecues and boom boxes and actually remember all those who died to make this rich, loud, and unlimited life possible…then this life might become impossible. We might become reflective and overwhelmed. We might sing old songs. Hold long ceremonies. Recall tedious commitments. Weep for all we have lost and all we have gained.
Still, last Thursday, as the Urban Man went zipping down L.A.'s Sepulveda Boulevard in my mid-sized automobile, radio blasting, future plans soaring, I happened to spot the long rows of white headstones flashing by in the big veteran's cemetery near Wilshire. And suddenly, I thought, "Why not try it the old-fashioned way?"
So I doubled back to the entrance, and soon I found myself stepping uncertainly along the lawns and down among the countless monuments.
I'd like to tell you it was a peaceful place, but like so much of life here, the cemetery is dominated by a roaring freeway. Even among the stones, you can't escape the noise of people tearing forward to the next big thing.
Still, each was engraved with a name and probably, beneath the grassy earth rested no mere digital image, no mere Facebook page, no mere obit or bio or textbook or re-enactment or docudrama or social history, but the remains of an actual departed soul. I was there and they were there, and I tried to make that genuine connection which would prove I actually, well, had not forgotten.
For a half hour, I hesitated among the 86,000-odd stones. And at last, not knowing what else to do, I memorized a few at random, let's see: William L. Holmes, U.S. Navy, Korea; Victor Went, U.S. Navy, Korea; George F. Smith, corporal, World War II. I'm sure each has a history recorded…somewhere. But for now, it seemed like they just wanted me to recall their names.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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