Memory

One of the items in Alexis Madrigal’s Five Intriguing Things newsletters last week was the article “All You Have Eaten: On Keeping a Perfect Record” by Rachel Khong.

It’s about NASA’s first “Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation” (HI-SEAS) project, which is an attempt to simulate some of the conditions astronauts would expect on a mission to Mars. Eight people spent four months isolated in a special habitat 2,500 meters up the slopes of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. One of the goals of the project was to observe how the subjects dealt with a limited diet during that time.

Rachel Khong juxtaposes the project with her own experience of keeping a detailed food diary:

For breakfast on January 2, 2008, I ate oatmeal with pumpkin seeds and brown sugar and drank a cup of green tea.

I know because it’s the first entry in a food log I still keep today. I began it as an experiment in food as a mnemonic device. The idea was this: I’d write something objective every day that would cue my memories into the future—they’d serve as compasses by which to remember moments.

[...]

What I’d like to have is a perfect record of every day. I’ve long been obsessed with this impossibility, that every day be perfectly productive and perfectly remembered. What I remember from January 2, 2008 is that after eating the oatmeal I went to the post office, where an old woman was arguing with a postal worker about postage—she thought what she’d affixed to her envelope was enough and he didn’t.

I can see the appeal. I don’t think I have the persistence to keep a food log that consistently for so long, but I’ve certainly been enjoying the more frequent, more mundane “breakfast blogging” I’ve been doing this year. (I think I’ve written more this year already than in the last three years combined.) Just the act of writing things down fixes and emphasizes things in my mind. What’s mundane to everyone else is a bookmark for me, a chalk mark on the pavement of memory lane. Without these little hints, the past lose resolution over time. Entire weeks and months become compressed into a daily average — get the kids ready for school, go to work, make dinner — until the point where I can’t even be certain I’m really the one who lived through them.

But whenever I examine it, the mundane turns out not to be so minute after all. Almost every time I sit down to write one of my “mixed media” posts, I think I’ll just pop down a simple bulleted list, only to end up north of five hundred words an hour or two later; in the process stumbling over a dozen fleeting moments that had already begun to fade.

So: expect this to continue.