Just thinking

The mind is a terrible thing to fill with trivia, old song lyrics

Wednesday February 27, 2013 2:47 PM

Regrets? I have a few, but then again, the only regret that's made a real difference in my life is my failure to control early-onset brain clutter.

Had I nipped the tendency to let that clutter collect, I might have filled my head with brilliant scientific theories or stunning sonatas for violin and piano instead of, say, snippets of Frank Sinatra songs. I don't even like Frank Sinatra. If I'd fought back when his songs first became ear worms, I might have had room for mathematical concepts to move in and make themselves at home. They might even have reproduced.

Instead, the concepts paused on what amounts to my brain's doorstep, got a glimpse of the chaos within -- the tangled mess of song lyrics, stacked-up memories and pointless fragments of information whose use-by dates were long past -- and decided they'd get better play in someone else's head. Someone who understood early on that remembering every verse of This old man, he played one does not count as mathematical computation.

I never grasped the idea that the brain is a finite space, the cranial equivalent of a rented storage pod. I thought I could save it all -- memories of the childhood television shows Sky King and Circus Boy, of church camp songs ("The Lord said to Noah, 'There's gonna be a floody, floody ...' "), a whole series that could be labeled "amateur but hilarious cat videos," starring my childhood cat, Blanche, names of games my sister and I made up (Dead Horse, Laugh, Smile and Kill the Other Person and, if that's not disturbing enough, an amusing little entertainment called Let's Touch Tongues) and, well, you get the idea. My brain was packed with detritus before I so much as learned cursive. No wonder I couldn't cram in a few laws of cosmic expansion.

I reflected on this personal tragedy only this morning, when I dressed in gray corduroys and a red sweater. Now, when Einstein dressed in gray corduroys and a red sweater, he probably thought about statistical mechanics or quantum field theory. When Stephen Hawking dresses in gray corduroys and a red sweater, he probably thinks about cosmology and black holes.

What did I think about? I thought about my junior high school alma mater. The school colors were red and gray, and the song included the lines, Red and gray forever! Bolich on to fame!

Of course, even as a junior high school student, I thought it was ridiculous to sing about forever when we all knew it was red and gray only until we moved on to the high school, taking our allegiance with us. Granted, it would verge on the cynical to sing, Red and gray for three years, then you couldn't pay us to sing this sappy song. But doesn't honesty have any place in the writing of alma maters?

This line of thought took me well down the road to work, and I had yet to consider quantum theory or black holes. But that's how it's always been. My head is packed with this stuff: the recipe for homemade play dough, the words to Louie, Louie, the rules to the neighborhood games Colored Eggs and Mother, May I?

The other day I put clean sheets on the bed while thinking about Betty MacDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle taught children to enjoy making beds by pretending a witch was coming to inspect the finished work for wrinkles and messy corners. It got the bed made -- and made extremely well, since I didn't want the witch to freak out -- but I was further than ever from my Pulitzer Prize for physics.

It's probably too late, I realize. I might haul out the equivalent of several Dumpsters full of useless mind junk, but could I replace the junk with string theory and symphonies at this point? And -- I'm being honest here -- do I really want to? I wouldn't mind storing away a few substantial facts, and a large body of musical knowledge or an understanding of impressionism is always pleasantly disarming, but if it means giving up entire passages of Winnie-the-Pooh, the rules to Uncle Wiggly and the rest of the song about Noah ("Elephants and kangaroosies, roosies ..."), well, I think I'll pass.

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