To Bottle a Memory

A Brown Bucket List

“Young man, you keep your nose clean.”

My friend Mike shifted uncomfortably on the hard plastic seat. The old lady with frizzy, grey hair sitting next to him glared.

“You hear me? Stay away from that nasty stuff,” she said, shaking her finger right under his nose.

Mike, fidgeting even more now, nodded, his head nearly touching the ceiling as the bus hit a speed breaker.

We were on-board RIPTA bus No. 60, and because there were no four adjacent empty seats, we had scattered: Kevin and I were sitting in the front, a row apart; Mike and Philip were sitting in the back row. Between Mike and Philip sat the old lady, who—as she had informed the whole bus a while back—was a reformed drug addict.

“Trust me, that stuff will kill you,” she said, giving Mike another glare.

“Looks like Mike is making new friends,” Kevin whispered to me. I laughed and looked out of the window as the bus drove past small Rhode Island towns: shops with hand-painted wooden signs, green and red canopies, two-story houses with U.S. flags fluttering from jaunty angles, the walls painted pink, blue, and white. We passed a small theater. Now showing: Deadpool, 19:00 & 22:00.

Philip, who had been quiet up until then, asked the old lady, “Have you watched Deadpool yet?”

She turned towards him, “What was that? Speak up, will you.”

“Uh sure, sorry.” Philip repeated the question, louder.

A sudden smile made the old lady’s wrinkles disappear: “Watched it first day, first show. I love superhero movies.”

“Oh cool, me too,” Philip said. “Did you also see the last Avengers?”

Mike relaxed visibly at this topic shift: his face became less red. He caught Kevin and me looking and shook his head. That cracked us up again.

As the bus rattled along I-95, the only sounds were those of Mike, Philip, and the old lady talking superheroes at the top of their voices and of Kevin and me discussing summer plans in hushed voices. All the other passengers were staring at their iPhones, their white earbuds dangling from their ears. When we were almost at the end of the bus route, Mike got into trouble again. He found himself on the wrong side of the Marvel versus D.C. comics debate, and the criticism was harsh: “Young man, those aren’t real superheroes.” Philip kept quiet, but I could see a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. The cold sea breeze rushing in from the window had made my face numb; otherwise, it would have ached from the laughter.

* * *

A lined sheet of paper, folded into a small square. I unfold it. Once, twice, thrice. I smooth out the wrinkles and place it on my desk. White paper on dark mahogany. On the top of the sheet, the legend: senior-year bucket list. Just below, the first item on the list: visit Newport with friends.

* * *

“We should have taken an Uber,” Mike said, walking ahead with both hands in his jean pockets. “It wouldn’t have cost that much, split four ways.”

“But then you wouldn’t have learned about the dangers of drugs,” Kevin said, winking at me and Philip.

“I don’t know why she picked on me,” said Mike as he waited for us to catch up. We were on the unpaved part of the cliff walk, balancing on uneven grey stones. The waves crashed below us. I was doing the worst: sometimes getting down on my hands and knees to hop from one stone to the next—like Gollum, I thought, as I finally caught up with the rest.

“I mean, I haven’t even smoked weed,” Mike said.

“I thought it was kind of cool how we managed to find something to talk about in superheroes. Like how universal something like that is,” Philip said.

“Can we take an Uber back?” Mike said.

“No,” Kevin and I said in unison.

Even Mike laughed at that.

We then walked along the proper, paved cliff walk. There was a white fence on one side, and the green lawns of the Newport mansions on the other side. I had seen photos of the mansions, but they looked much bigger up close. As the others walked ahead, Mike lecturing on the economics of outsourcing, I took a tentative step onto the lawn of the closest mansion. Although I knew that the Newport Preservation Society owned most of the mansions, I still half-expected a mastiff to come running out or a warning gunshot to sound. But all was quiet. I took another step. Mike’s voice seemed muffled and far. I started walking towards the greystone mansion.

* * *

The floors are wooden, polished. Weak sunlight slowly filters in from the clerestory windows—it is a cloudy day outside. But the room is well-lit: a giant chandelier hangs from the ceiling and the light that refracts and reflects from its crystal faces fills the room, illuminating everything—the leather chairs, the marble busts, the Persian carpet.  

Take off your muddy shoes. We don’t want to leave a trace here. And trust me: this place is impressionable.

* * *

I learned about the art of memory from Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein. Foer, a journalist, was initially covering the U.S. memory championship, but later decided to take part in the next memory championship himself. He enlisted the support of  European memory champion Ed Cooke and began training in the art of memory.

The ars memoriae is an ancient mnemonic technique that involves mentally walking through a building and associating facts with rooms or objects in the building to remember in the form of vivid images.

This method seemed elaborate and strange when I first read about it. I was skeptical. But I used it once to remember some facts for a history quiz and it worked—well. Curious, I dug deeper and found some scientific basis for the method: our brains have evolved to excel at remembering places and images. Recent studies using fMRI machines showed that practitioners of ars memoriae harness this geo-spatial recall to better remember facts.

However, ars memoriae is an archaic name. Today most people call these elaborate mnemonic-constructions Memory Palaces.

* * *

Your hand rests on the brass knob, and you can see your blurred reflection in the polished metal. You look at me; I nod. You turn the knob and open the door. Inside, a Viking longship. You notice the watertight shell with overlapping wooden panels forming ridges. You notice the planks like ribs. You notice the mast set in keelson. You notice the large rectangular sails made of unwashed wool—unwashed because sheep oil is a natural water repellant. These details matter; Professor Conant gives tough quizzes.

* * *

My favorite passage in Moonwalking with Einstein, however, has nothing to do with memory palaces. Foer, while discussing the passing of time and its relation to memory, makes an observation about how we perceive time, which is eerily similar to a passage that the novelist E.M. Forster wrote nearly a century ago in his Aspects of The Novel. However, since Forster said it better, it’s his words that I’ve included here:

“There seems something else in life besides time, something which may conveniently be called ‘value’, something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles.”

While Foer doesn’t use the same terminology as Forster, his insight about our perception of time is the same. Foer, however, goes one step further and makes a bold claim:

“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it…If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it is so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible…Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perceptions of our lives.”

When I read this passage, in the spring semester of my junior year, I panicked. For the past two and a half years, I had been living like a clockwork soldier, and I was afraid that my only memories of Brown would be of late nights in the Sunlab, each night collapsing into the other, a confused remembrance of my everyday routine. However, the idea of time being stretchable, like pizza dough, seemed to have some promise. I still had a year and a couple of months at Brown left, so feeling hopeful, I tore out a piece of paper and started writing my bucket list.

* * *

“You must be wondering why I brought you all here,” I said.

Kevin, Philip, and Mike, who were all sitting on a low-slung stone wall near the cliff walk, looked confused.

“What do you mean?” Philip asked.

“I thought Philip brought us here,” Kevin said.

“I thought I brought myself here,” Mike said.

“Ah, yes, the illusion of choice,” I said.

Mike threw a pebble at me, and it bounced off my shoulder.

“Explain yourself, young Tushar,” Mike said.

So I told them everything: about the memory palaces, Foer’s theory of stretchable time, and my fears of having no recollection of my years at Brown. It sounded less crazy than I thought it would, and I even got some nods of understanding along the way.

When I was finished, Philip raised his hand, as if asking a question in class.

“So this trip, by that theory, is helping you expand your memory?” he said.

“Uh yeah, I guess you can say that,” I said.

“Wait, so…,” Philip started.

“So that is why you wanted us to come along,” Kevin said, faking an expression of shocked enlightenment.

“We are just props in Tushar’s memory palace,” Mike said.

“Yeah, like waiters or something,” Philip said.

I looked at them sitting on the wall—trying to suppress their grins and look offended at the same time. I stooped to pick up a handful of pebbles and threw them, just as the red and green RIPTA bus pulled up and blocked the sea and the mansions from view.

* * *

You close the door on the Viking ship. You are about to leave, your mud-encrusted shoes in your hand, but I gesture for you to wait. There is one more room you need to see. Its door is identical to the first door, painted white with a gleaming brass knob, but when you step in, you realize that this room is much smaller, that there are no windows. The room is empty except for a wooden cabinet. You open it. Inside are rows and rows of propped-up glass bottles, the kind used to store ship models. Most of them are empty, but a few are filled. You pick up one, and there seems to be a swirling mist inside. I take out my handkerchief and rub the glass. The mist clears, and you see four boys sitting on a stone wall, laughing, the green sea in the background.

When dealing with something as nebulous and unreliable as human memory, it is comforting to have a place of retreat, somewhere you can always go, where you can always find what you are looking for. My memory palace was never meant to just help me with history quizzes. It was meant to store the memories important to me, to bottle them, and hide them in the wooden cabinet in neat rows, with labels. Standing before the cabinet, in my memory palace, I’m reminded why I started my bucket list—and this monthly column——by the distant sound of the crashing sea bucket list. Because I know that time—the relentless time of minutes and hours—will march on, and I want to steal something from time itself.