Do you ever stop to think about the associations you make between otherwise unrelated concepts? For example, every pediatrician’s waiting room I’ve ever been in has had a fish tank. You know the one. It usually about four year old height and covered in finger prints, nose smears, lick marks, and more germs than the bathroom floor. Whenever I sit in a doctor’s waiting room I think of fish tanks. Now that I’m an adult, I am disappointed at the lack of entertainment in the gynecologist’s office. Hey, we get bored too. Come on Entertain us.
My point is that there is nothing inherently related about fish tanks and doctor’s offices except for the pattern of my own experiences. Each of us lives a unique life, with unique combinations of experiences, and thus we all have very different associations. If we have a similar enough background to another person, some of our patterns might overlap, causing us to share some of our associations. This is often what makes us feel like we “click” with another person.
I was wondering the other day how early in life do we form these permanent associations? Obviously at some point, we stop updating out patterns and an association becomes a part of our identity. It doesn’t matter how many fish tanks I see outside waiting rooms (in fact I have one in my house right now) or how many waiting rooms I find sorely lacking a tank, I will always associate the two. It’s just part of how I see the world. When does that happen?
What if the association is completely at odds with the rest of the world’s understanding of the two concepts? For example, people who find inanimate objects sexually appealing, like shoes or cheese graters. Maybe that’s a little too extreme, but I bet those sorts of patterns accidentally emerge all the time.
My three year old associates cemeteries with parades. Two oppositely emotionally charged concepts that he’s melded together into one defining experience. He is young and fortunate enough to have absolutely no idea about death, but last summer we took him to the Fourth of July parade and the best place to watch was from the local cemetery. Creepy, I know. He was very confused why I wouldn’t walk over certain parts of the ground. Explain that to a two year old.
Now every time we drive past the cemetery where we watched the parade he tells me about how he sat on the grass and watched the fire trucks go by and how one of them sprayed him with water. He has a great memory. I’m not sure he’ll ever forget that day. But the other day we drove past a different cemetery (for a small town, we seem to have a lot of cemeteries) and he said “Mommy, that’s a cem-a-tory. That’s where people watch parades”. Well, it actually happened that there was a funeral procession parked along the street beside the cemetery. It looked exactly like a parade. The world’s most depressing parade, but a parade nonetheless.
I was driving and not in the mood to explain about funerals, graves, and death to a three year old so I simply agreed with him, “Yes, honey. Parades”, and let it go. But it got me to thinking. We will probably go back to that same spot to watch the Fourth of July parade again this year, and the next, and the next. I certainly hope no one close to him dies in the next few…decades. So he should have no other reason to attend a gathering at a cemetery in the meantime. I can’t imagine he’ll be attending a lot of preschooler séances.
At what point will his association between cemeteries and parades become a permanent part of his world view? What will people think of him if, as an adult, every time he attends a wake he gets giddy and starts lighting off sparklers? Will he become one of those weird guys who hangs out at cemeteries hoping to get laid like Will Ferrell’s character in Wedding Crashers?
Should we find a different, slightly worse but significantly less creepy, location from which to watch the parade this year? Just in case. Or maybe one more year would be ok, as long as it isn’t three or four parades in a row. I never realized raising healthy, well adjusted, not creepy sparkler-lighting, funeral-crashing weirdos, was such hard work.
These are the questions that haunt me as I lay awake at night, wrestling with insomnia, listening to the hum of the fish tank and feeling like I’m stuck in a waiting room.