Tag Archives: Memories

Into the Memory Box

16 Apr

When I walked into my childhood bedroom a couple of months ago, I found a plastic box sitting on my desk. The box held a scattered assortment of things my mom had found around the house: souvenirs from family trips, commemorative pins, jewelry I used to wear as a kid.


Many of the things in that box felt pleasantly relevant today. A bracelet from my first trip to Paris, when I fell in love with the city and the language. The baton necklace isn’t something I’d actually wear today, but I still proudly call myself a baton twirler—and even taught a baton class at work last week. The cable car necklace, a souvenir from a family trip to San Francisco, is even more special now that I’ve lived in SF for 5 years.

But then we get to the gold necklace on the left, the one that looks like half a heart. That’s part of a classic friendship necklace, the kind that’s broken in two to symbolize everlasting friendship. Except…I have no idea who had the other half.

There’s something funny about that. At some point in time, I considered someone important enough to split a friendship necklace with them, declaring our everlasting friendship. And yet here we are, probably 20 years later, and I haven’t a clue who had the other half.

To be fair, those things weren’t exclusive relationships. I split friendship necklaces and bracelets with many people over the years…often at the same time. This necklace wasn’t like a written decree to ONLY be best friends with that one person, despite what “best” technically implies. I had several “best” friends, some “bester than others.” Even as a (word obsessed) kid, I found the fact that you could have more than 1 “best” friend a tad confusing. But I called lots of people my best friend back then.

So back to our mystery: who had the other half? My life swirled around over the years from school to school, hobby to hobby. I can think of many candidates for the other half, but nothing’s confirmed. Odds are that I’m not close to that person anymore, since my world changed so much over the years, and mostly shifted away from people I knew as a kid.

When I was really young, I accepted that friendships broke, and you moved on. You switched classes or changed levels at ballet or moved, and that’s just how things went. But as I got older, I resisted the idea of friendships that end. These days, I’m terrible at letting go of friendships. I hate the fact that someone who mattered so incredibly much to you at one point in life, could matter very little later on. It hurts to think about people who defined certain years of my memories, but no longer pop up in my world today. It pains me when someone drifts away, and I feel so incredibly bad when I’m the one who drifts away, too.  I want to keep all the people I like close, in my life, as much as I can.

But that’s just not how life works. I’ve gotten a little better over the years at accepting this truth about friendship: not all friendships last forever. The right people will stay in your life, and both sides have to put in effort and energy and care for that to happen. You have to invest in the relationships that mean the most and work the best. And you have to accept that sometimes, you’re just not someone else’s “friend priority” when they do their own round of investing and working and prioritizing.

I still treasure memories of people who meant something in the past, even if they’re not around now. I’m grateful for whoever had the other half of this necklace, because even if I can’t place who it is, I know they must have been important to me at a particular time in my life. I’m grateful that back then, they meant enough to me for us to declare ourselves BFFs, believing we’d be there for each other through thick and thin. Even if that didn’t last, maybe the true purpose of the necklace was the support it gave us at the time. Sometimes you just don’t end up BFFs, despite buying jewelry about it. Still, it’s nice to know that at some point, I felt so strongly about someone being meaningful that we should wear symbols of that friendship. And it’s nice to know that when I was young and needed that friendship, someone was there for me to wear the matching half.


That’s The Way It Is

5 Feb

When I first started learning French, I wanted to translate everything. Signs, menus, conversations: all were fair game. French opened up a whole new world. Suddenly, I had two ways to express what was on my mind. If I didn’t like saying it in English… how about French? I was fascinated by the nuances of languages, their vocabularies, their way of expressing things. It boggled my mind that two people could look at the same object and think there were two different answers to explain what it was.

I started listening to music in other languages, studying the lyrics so I could sing along. I also translated English songs into French just to see if I could. Then I’d sing along to the English version with my invented French lyrics. Were my translations accurate? Probably not. But man, did I feel cool.

I’d sort of forgotten about my personal translation service until the other day when Celine Dion’s “That’s the way it is” came onto the radio. That was one of my go-to songs for language practice back in the day, because Celine had recorded versions in both English and French. I never loved the actual music, but I loved having two sets of lyrics to play with. I studied the French lyrics to learn new vocabulary and get a better feel for translation. Whenever I heard the song I’d sing along in French, feeling like I had a secret language.

Now that I remember those old habits, I think I’ll start again. It’s been hard to maintain my French as a “grown up” with a full-time job that has nothing to do with foreign languages. Every year I say I’ll get better at practicing, but I’ve never made it happen. I’ll read a few books in French every year, but just haven’t committed the time I should to keep those skills strong.

So, I’m calling it now: I’m going to restart that personal translation service. I’ll start translating signs and lyrics in my head again, just to get back in the habit of thinking in another language. Maybe eventually I’ll set a goal for reading, and then for speaking. But the easy things to start, for sure. Because life gets busy–that’s just the way it is.

Mapping Memories

7 Aug

It started with a sports bar.

A few weeks ago I was rounding a corner in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, rushing to meet some friends for dinner. As I looked up at the bar across the street, a wave of memories came crashing over me. Back when I lived in Chicago, I’d gone to that bar for a university alumni event. Seeing the bar again reminded me how happy I’d been to attend that event, how nice it’d been to see old friends and how good it felt to meet more alums.

The same sort of memory “flash” happened again the next day, when I passed a French bistro downtown. My thoughts flashed back to getting late night snacks there after a networking event, with people I’d just met that night, and never saw again.

Sometimes when I walk around a city, memories ripple through my brain in a series of bits and pieces. It’s small moments that I suddenly remember, prompted by a physical sight that takes me back to another time. Some of the memories are monumental; I think of my boyfriend whenever I pass the bar where had our first drink. But most of these “flashes” are made up of non-monumental moments. They’re those experiences you sort of forget about over time, but reflect on fondly when they float to your brain’s surface. They fill in the gaps between milestones and big life changes. They make up most of our day-to-day lives, and collectively form most of our life stories.

I’ve been wanting to create a “Memory Map” for a while to chronicle these sorts of moments. The things that make me smile, make me reflect, make me think back to a different point in my life. I’ll probably start with a map of San Francisco, since it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my post-college days. Perhaps over time I’ll do the same for other places I’ve lived, and places I’ve visited. I love keeping track of different pieces of my life: it provides a good mix of nostalgia, reflection and general Type A geekery. And it just sounds so satisfying to draw all over a physical map, to “formally” associate spaces with thoughts, memories with markers.


When History Gets Personal

13 Jul

Like so many others, I’ve been swept up in “Hamilton“-fever. I’ve listened to the musical’s soundtrack on repeat, I’ve watched video after video of its cast, I’ve fawned over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s thought-provoking Tweets and speeches. I could sing much of the soundtrack for you at this point – though I guarantee you don’t want to hear me sing. I’ve read the show’s plot synopsis too, trying to envision what action accompanies the show’s masterful lyrics. But the other day, as I queued up the soundtrack yet again, I started wondering about the characters’ real-life stories, beyond the musical numbers and creative license of a Broadway show.

I started by Googling the Schuyler sisters, who comprise the female protagonists in “Hamilton the Musical” (and also sing one of my favorite songs from the show). Eliza Schuyler became Hamilton’s wife, so I figured I’d start there. Googling inevitably took me to Wikipedia, where I pored over Eliza’s biography. The story of how Eliza met Alexander caught my eye – but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t the details of their courtship, or hard-won approval that I found interesting. Instead, it was where they met: Morristown, New Jersey.

Eliza Marriage.pngYou see, I spent time in Morristown too. I stayed there for a few months in 2010 to do a consulting project a couple towns over. In my personal history, Morristown is another marker on my “memory map”: a place I have summarized to represent a particular moment in time. When I think about Morristown, I remember the friend I made on that project, our attempts to get (good) pizza delivered to the client site, my first ever Tres Leches cake from a nearby restaurant. I think about the assignment I was on and what I gleaned from it. I never got to explore Morristown beyond my day-to-day life, so my associations with the town are purely personal, and relate to my own experiences.

But isn’t it sort of mind-boggling to think about all the things that happen at any given spot? 230 years prior to my discovery of Morristown’s best Tres Leches cake, Eliza Hamilton discovered her future husband in that very same town. Long before I made a new friend on my work assignment, Eliza befriended Martha Washington just a flew blocks over. Like Alexander, I was sent to Morristown for work. But my client’s technology didn’t even exist during Alexander’s lifetime!

I’ve always been fascinated by the way personal memory, collective memory and “history” overlap. It boggles my mind to think about all the things that have happened at a particular site. Not just the monumental moments, but the things that make up “normal” people’s personal histories.  Reading about Morristown reminded me of the many layers that make up every physical location we see. For every “history marker,” there are plenty more things that happened in that place, that mattered to someone, who maybe just wasn’t famous.

Think of all the mysteries that lie beneath the surface everywhere we step. What else happened there before now? Who else crossed that point? Who do we “share” that spot with? And in 200 years, will it be an important place for someone else’s story?


Whatever Happened to Predictability?

19 Mar

If you want a giggle, go Yelp the “Full House” house. It currently sits at 3.5 Yelp stars- not so good for a “local flavor” entry.

fulllllI don’t remember how I ended up on this Yelp page. Like all good internet rabbit holes, I must have searched something, then just kept clicking away. I tend to get sucked into things like forums, because they provide such interesting insight into human behavior. I see Yelp as a sort of a social experiment where we can learn about people’s biases, preferences, and perceptions.

fullhouse_house_01The “Full House” house, or FHH as I am going to call it, is featured in the opening credits to the original “Full House” show. It’s where we’re told the main characters of the show “lived” throughout the show’s run. It’s not actually where the show was shot, of course, because that’s just how TV works. But it’s become closely tied to our memories of the show, and many a San Francisco tourist sets out to find it. The show’s opening also includes shots of Alamo Square, a park nearby that host beautiful Victorian homes known as the “Painted Ladies.” So a lot of people think the FHH is IN Alamo Square, which it isn’t- it’s a 20 minute walk away. Many Yelp reviews point this out so that future inspired tourists don’t make the same mistake of going to Alamo Square to see the FHH.

As I scanned through the FHH Yelp reviews, I saw 2 key perspectives:

  1. You owe your childhood self a trip to see the FHH. It is a must-do if you’re in SF.
  2. It’s too disappointing to visit the FHH because it doesn’t look like it did on the show. Plus, its location away from the Painted Ladies is a disappointment in itself.

Now, let’s unpack that a bit. First off: you “owe” yourself a trip to see this house, because nostalgia is a powerful thing. We all know the Full House characters aren’t real people, and that nobody we’d recognize has ever lived in this home. Yet, nostalgia for seeing this house within a specific media context is enough to make it relevant. This is why pop culture-themed tours thrive: Sex and the City themed tours in NYC, Lord of the Rings tours in New Zealand. Even though we know movies and shows aren’t “real,” they feel real to us. So we seek out experiences that remind us of the emotion and joy we feel. Visiting the FHH is supposed to give us pleasure, let us reminisce, and make us feel happy about a childhood icon.

But- it can also be disappointing to chase this nostalgia. As many reviewers have noted, the house doesn’t look like it did in those opening credits many years ago. The current owners have repainted it. Plus, they’ve put up trees that sort of block the view. So when you’re trying to peep on the house, it’s harder than you’d expect- and it doesn’t look “right” anyway.

The Yelp reviews span a range of tones. Some reviewers are totally self-aware that they’re dissing someone’s private home for not matching their own hopes. Others seem genuinely upset that the owners have changed the house. And some are just annoyed at the house’s location on a “boring” street rather than in the iconic Alamo Square.

What is this, exactly? Is it entitlement? Or just sadness that memories don’t sync with reality? This happens a lot with nostalgia. You have these built-up memories of how something used to be/taste/feel, and you treasure those memories with passion. So when you re-encounter those memories years later, if it doesn’t match what you thought you’d feel- you feel let down. We’re seeing lots of reboots and sequels these days- but many of them flop, when they don’t match expectations for what they should look like, based on pop culture memories.

In reality, the current FHH owners don’t owe our nostalgia anything. They must have realized what they were getting themselves into when they bought this house- and hey, maybe they painted it gray to deter people from wanting to bother. I’m sure they were the least happy campers when the “Fuller House” series was announced! But at the end of the day, we don’t have a right to be mad at them. The people writing these negative Yelp reviews are simply encountering what happens when reality doesn’t match memory.

So as the Full House theme song alludes- predictability isn’t always a given. And when we latch on too hard to “how things were,” we get a bit flustered by how things are today. And while the FHH has a measly 3.5 stars, the Mrs. Doubtfire House has 5- because it still looks “as it did in the movie.”

Craving a City

14 Feb

Sometimes I wake up craving a city. I get out of bed, and imagine that when I walk out the door, I’ll find myself someplace other than San Francisco. Sometimes I’m in a Chicago mood. Other times it’s Madrid. Just last week, it was Arkansas.

I’m not entirely sure what drives these “cravings.” I’ve lived a good number of places by now, and each one does remind me of a particular stage of my life. I’ve also been a business traveler for so many years- and the first few years, I was on the road every week, headed to the same place for months at a time. So those places factor into my city cravings, too. They make it messier, in fact, since I never really lived there, but went there so often. I have no roots in those places, but I do have a bond. Sometimes I find it hard to grasp that my story ties to so many places, and that my life has been such a web of locations, projects, people. I suppose it’s common in today’s world, but at times I wonder what it’d be like to live in 1 place your entire life, and leave only for vacation.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I thought feeling like I should be in Chicago made a lot of sense. After all, I’d just spent a few years there, and I barely had any friends here yet. So I’d regularly miss Chicago, miss my friends, and feel like I was in the wrong place. I’d expect to walk outside my building and see the bricks of Lincoln Park, the curve of Lakeshore Drive, the grandeur of downtown Chicago. Instead I’d walk outside to light gray sidewalks, the ascent of the Fillmore hill, the elaborate Queen Anne homes. I’d get on the 45-Union to go to work, rather than the 134-Stockton/Lasalle Express. I’d walk up to a 4-story office building, rather than a skyscraper kissing the Chicago sky.

Nostalgia is a simple explanation for these “cravings.” And it can be triggered by people, moods, weather. Whenever the weather hits a specific shade of crisp, it takes me back to St. Louis, and to my first true “fall” season, the first fall I spent away from Southern California where the seasons blend together.

And yet- it’s more than nostalgia, I think. I can easily wish to be back on 2012’s vacation to Hawaii, but that’s longing, not a feeling of belonging. When I wake up with city cravings, I feel like I’m in the wrong place- that I was meant to be somewhere else that day. The Arkansas example is a good one. Back in 2010, I spent several months commuting to/from Bentonville, Arkansas every week for a consulting project. I certainly didn’t lay roots there- we stayed in a hotel each Monday to Thursday, and flew back home Thursday nights. And yet, thinking about Bentonville takes me to a specific mindset and feeling. When I woke up last week and imagined I’d be stepping into the lobby of the Aloft Bentonville rather than my San Francisco home- it surprised me a great deal. For some reason, I just felt like I was supposed to be in Arkansas that day.

Every city has its own rhythm and flavor. When you walk through its streets, you feel a certain way. The building blocks of a city combine to produce something excitingly distinct: the architecture, people, tastes, smells. The way the air feels. The way the people interact. And when you spend time in one of these places, it sticks with you. Something about that experience seeps into your soul, hooks into your psyche. And once it’s there, it’s there. To be uncovered someday, perhaps by a sign, a memory, a mood.

A look at some of the places I’ve called home:


The Mighty Pen

15 Nov

Packing to move earlier this year gave me an insightful trip down memory lane. Digging through belongings, deciding what to keep- it makes you think a lot about your past and your priorities. I loved seeing old photos, souvenirs, and the like. But even the smallest, most ordinary-seeming things can inspire reflection. This time, it was a bag of pens.

20150902_092440As I cleaned out the drawers of a dresser I wasn’t keeping, I found myself overwhelmed by stacks of paper and bags of pens. When I say “bag of pens,” I mean a giant Ziploc bag stuffed with them. Probably 50 pens of the ordinary sort, plus a selection of Sharpies and some pencils in there for good measure. Some of the pens brought back specific memories, like the ones from hotels, or the one shaped like a baton, or the one I remember buying as a Disneyland souvenir back in the day.Most the pens were rather generic, though: significant for what they represented, but not that significant in themselves.

I’ve always been a writer- ever since I could write, I was scribbling short stories and poems on every piece of paper I could find. My childhood desk is still filled with the remnants of this hobby- little bits and pieces of poems, song lyrics, and reflections on life at a tender age. My current room has some of these scraps, too, but it’s a mix of travel journals and college publications rather than the fiction and poems of my youth. Over time, I’ve shifted more toward non-fiction writing in general. And I’ve also shifted toward more writing on my computer. Though I still use a pen to write the first draft of many blog posts and work presentations, ultimately everything ends up captured on this little machine, in a digital font, preserved for what we believe to be eternity- or at least until the next technology breaks through.

The bag of pens made me smile, though, for a number of reasons. I vividly remember how proud I felt when my elementary school teachers let us use pens instead of pencils. Pencils felt so juvenile: a pen felt more confident, wiser, more mature. Pencils, with their built-in erasers, suggested that you didn’t fully know what you were doing. I loved the way it felt to write with a pen, gliding over the surface of a piece of paper. It felt more real to me, more hearty, if that makes sense.

But, without its built-in eraser, it sure was messy.  A pen means messy paper, ideas crossed out with lines rather than cleanly erased. It means starting over on a new sheet of paper if your pen-scribed thoughts need to be shared with anyone else. It means trying to write as neatly as possible, so the ink doesn’t run and blur out what you’re trying to say. My personal writings from childhood are a mess of lines and crossed out words, especially the poems. I might have whipped out the White-Out or used a new sheet of paper for schoolwork, but personal writings gave me freedom to be messy.

A shift to computers meant even more editing and even more drafts. It just isn’t the same feeling, though. I switch between handwritten drafts and computer drafts these days, depending on my mood. I’m still that person who whips out a notebook and a pen on the bus, scribbling down whatever came over my mind. And I’m that person who carries a notebook in her bag when she travels to capture in-the-moment insights and ideas. But did I really need that entire bag of ~50 pens?

I ditched most of the pens when I moved. The baton pen made it, as did the Disneyland Minnie ears. A few of the “boring” pens made it, too, but only a few. The bulk of those pens never saw the light of my new apartment.

Let’s not pretend, though- in a few years’ time, I’ll likely have a whole new bag of pens, “meaningful” and “boring” alike. I think it’s just part of being a writer, and the feeling of inspiration I grab a pen in my hand, ready to tackle another blank page.

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