Here’s a crackpot theory

Here’s a crackpot theory


Ever wonder why something that worked well today can trigger the memory of a time when the same kind of situation turned into an occasion for fear and loathing?

Or is it just me? Don’t answer that. But I wonder what a psychologist would say. Or would I be better off with a psychiatrist?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, here’s an example: The other day I was visiting some friends who live on the fifth floor, so we took the elevator, which worked just fine. It was an Otis. But I immediately found myself thinking back to my scariest elevator rides ever.

It was August of 1990. I was taking a three-week course in Moscow and staying in a dormitory. The Soviet Union was on its last legs then, and lots of things didn’t work. We were told on Day 1, for instance, that there would be no hot water during our stay. This was explained by the all-purpose expression “remont,” which was supposed to mean that something was under repair (of which there often was no evidence at all) but which really meant only that the “remont” signs had been posted.

At the neighborhood cinema, for example, some concrete tiles had been falling from the ceiling, but the only evidence of “remont” was that someone had stacked the fallen tiles neatly in a corner, which didn’t seem to reduce the chance of a fatal incident one little bit. (And this was in a country with a space station.)

Anyway, back to the elevators. Not only did they bounce when you got in, but at times people would get stuck inside until the “babushka” (grandmother) on duty could summon help. And they made a terrifying clanking-chain noise — not the kind of clanking-chain noise that says, “Don’t worry, this is some kind of safety mechanism working,” but the kind of clanking-chain noise that was heard in “Bride of Frankenstein” when they were hoisting Elsa Lanchester out of a vat of electrolytic fluid, or something, with sparks crackling.

Which was bad enough. But you also had to endure these elevator trips in the dark — all the way up to the 16th floor and all the way back down — because, when the Soviet Union was falling apart, consumer goods were always in short supply, so people would steal the light bulbs out of the elevators. I later found two more buildings where the elevators were pitch black inside. (Next time you’re on an elevator with total strangers, imagine doing it in total darkness as well.)

Another example: When I start my car today, technology lets me drive right away — which reminds me of times when I practically froze while waiting for a car to warm up.

But why does a recent experience that was positive (the elevator worked well, the car started right up) so readily bring to mind a related experience that was negative? Well, maybe I just see a dark cloud around every silver lining.

But here’s another theory: Maybe it’s because, the older we get, the greater the portion of our life that’s in the past, so there are more memories available. The ratio of yesterday to today increases.

Assuming that most of us don’t remember much of our first four years, up to that age we live entirely in the present. At age 10, six of our 10 years — 60 percent of our lifetime — exists only in memory; at age 30 it’s 26 years, or 87 percent. And by the time we reach 65, 94 percent of our conscious life is in the past.

Well, that’s a point to ponder.

Reach Glenn Richter at


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