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It was Sherwood 3587, in case you’re wondering

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory. – Albert Schweitzer


You do remember who Albert Schweitzer was, don’t you? No, he wasn’t your high school biology teacher. 

Sandra’s been giving me a hard time about my not stopping at the ATM when we needed some cash. You see, we were on our way to this restaurant in town that doesn’t accept cards and who has cash anymore? But I rode right by the ATM twice without stopping. Twice. So I decided that was a sign unto us that we should ride six miles in the country to another restaurant.


You have to be careful of the signs you choose to recognize. Once we got there, we realized that this establishment didn’t take cards, either. 


Anyway, I was able to steer the car into the ATM once we returned to Liberty, although it was almost past our bedtime and the sidewalks were being rolled up all over town. And we did manage to get something to eat.


What is it with this memory thing, anyway? 


The brain can be defined as the mass of nerve tissue in the cranium of vertebrate animals in charge of remembering thousands of the least significant details and, occasionally, something of importance. 


For instance, I can easily remember what bus I rode in school. Bus number 76. Sandra says she rode bus number 11 and her friend Martha rode bus number 58. We often have invigorating conversations like this, by the way. 


Now what about these numbers would cause us to remember them so many years later? It’s not like we’re about to rush out to the bus parking lot and be faced with the prospect of finding our bus or missing a ride home. 


I can even remember the phone number we had at home when I was a kid. Sherwood 3587. But can I remember my cell phone number?


 I can see myself on “Jeopardy.” The answer is “The bus you rode in grammar school.” “What is bus number 76?” I answer. And for bonus points, I tell them that Glenn Frickey drove it. Want another driver? Garland Dark. I could be a millionaire if there was just a market for useless information. 


Why does our brain pull tricks on us like this? If I needed to remember this stuff, I’d have written it down somewhere. Not that I would know where I put it, mind you. What I need to know is where I put the nozzle to the hose. 


The reason we remember such useless information lies in how the brain stores information. It may be helpful to think of the brain as a supermarket, with everything you need handily displayed on rows of shelves. To retrieve this information, all you have to do is to go to the right aisle, find the information and take it to the checkout counter where the brain will process it.


Let’s say you need you car keys. The brain sends the clerk in charge of keys, eye glasses, dentures and umbrellas out to the key aisle. The clerk, who makes minimum wage working part-time in the brain and who has several other interests more important than brain work, two of them being his smart phone and his hair, comes back with the keys you lost in 1975. At the same time, he’s texting the area of the brain in charge of “times in the past you look stupid” and you’re suddenly struck with the memory of the green leisure suit you wore to the job interview. 


This explains why you are 10 minutes late for work, looking for your car keys and this vision of 1975 comes to you. The winning lottery numbers won’t come to you, but you can remember where you left the keys to the 1970 Plymouth 38 years ago. 


The brain is also choosy about what information it lets in. It lets a lot of things go by if it’s not interested in them. You could call this culling action the ability to separate what it considers the wheat from the chaff. 


Some of the things the brain considers chaff is information on how to make great sums of money with very little effort; how to play the stock market; understanding algebra; predicting the weather; names of long lost friends; PIN numbers and passwords; dates of birthdays and anniversaries; and understanding women.


Some of the things the brain considers important enough to save are the words to songs sang by the Temptations; names of second grade teachers; your address in junior high school; names of all the parents of girls you dated; how much you paid for your first car; the price of gas in 1969; every TV show you watched when you were 9; every line in “Cool Hand Luke”; and the scores of every UNC basketball victory over Duke, including the 2006 game on Duke’s senior night. 


Scientists will tell you that the brain is made up of a complicated series of interconnected vacuum tubes, some of which blow out at random and others which develop loose connections. 


For instance, you could be riding to the ATM but the brain is only thinking of a cheeseburger, mustard, slaw and chili. The tube linked to money has completely blown out, causing you to ride right by your destination on a wild goose chase. 


But on the way, you remember where you left your car keys.