ARA: The way my mind works

The hardest Presidents to remember were Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce, which sounds like a law firm

CHRIS: Ooo, what does the infinity symbol symbolize?

Gee, I thought it was a sidewards eight.

Good on you with the presidents’ thing. The three presidents in one year has happened twice and three in two years but more than one year happened once (by my count using, none of which I knew before the discussion came up.

Three in one year was 1841 and 1881, that’s correct. Hadn’t thought about three in two years, but that would be 1849-1850, with Polk, Taylor and Fillmore.

Which brings me to my next question: how do you learn so many random things? Did you, for example, set out to memorize all the presidents and the years? Or does your brain do that “naturally”?

After minutes of self-psychoanalysis, this is what I’ve concluded

1) As a child, I had the foolish notion that should know all the knowable things in the universe.

2) To that end, I used to read encyclopedias – the Americana as a child – dictionaries, and especially the World Almanac, which I have received for Christmas almost every year since I was nine or ten.

3) Realizing at some point that “all the knowable things in the universe” a) was impossible to know and b) was not interesting to me, I tended to concentrate on things like sports (Willie Mays hit .211 in his last season, with the New York Mets), and American history and politics.

4) My specific interest in Presidents, and the Constitution, now that I think about it, probably came from the trauma of the assassination of JFK. “Oh, no, what happens now?” Oh, they have a contingency plan for that! (I’m not sure I could have told you we HAD a Vice-President on November 21, 1963, when I was 10 and a half, let alone that Lyndon Johnson was that guy.)

5) Even more specifically, when JFK was killed, there were all these coincidences with Lincoln that showed up in the newspaper – oh, I used to read the newspaper even then:
a) Lincoln was elected in 1860, JFK in 1960
b) both had Vice-Presidents named Johnson
c) Lincoln reportedly had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy a secretary named Lincoln (I never confirmed that, BTW)

6) This got me thinking about all those previous “accidental Presidents,” starting with Tyler, then Fillmore, A. Johnson, Arthur, T. Roosevelt, Coolidge, and Truman. So it was a small step to get all their dates in order. The hardest ones to remember were Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce, which sounds like a law firm. My daughter tests me regularly with weird stuff like “Who’s the 27th President?” I don’t know, but I remember Cleveland was the 22nd AND the 24th, so I get to Taft soon enough.

7) It seemed a natural progression to start reading the Constitution. (Sidebar: I got to talk to another Chinese delegation at work on the 5th of July. I just happened to come across a box of booklets with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that I found while sorting things in the attic, so I gave them copies. I also gave a copy to a guy on the bus I know in the context of what the Supreme Court’s June decision on the Defense of Marriage Act did, and did not do.)

8) Of course, the interpretation of the Constitution came from the Supreme Court, and in the 1960s, the Court was dealing with a lot of significant issues involving freedom of the press, the rights of defendants in criminal trials, and civil rights. I could not have cited, e.g. New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) or Gideon v. Wainwright (1962) or Loving v. Virginia (1967), but I believe I was more aware of their implication than most of my classmates at the time. (Hey, speaking of Taft, which I did a couple of paragraphs back, did you know he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? Or that he’s the guy pictured?)

9) Conversely, there are plenty of things I DON’T know, starting with the makes and models of automobiles. I recognized a ’66 Ford Mustang recently, but in general, cars have two doors or four and are cars or those larger things (SUVs, minivans). All midsize silver-gray cars look the same to me.


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