John Phipps: Forgettable Muscle Memories

11:03AM Sep 16, 2019
John Phipps
What do you get when you cross the intellect of an engineer, the heart of a farmer and the charm of a TV commentator? The ever-witty John Phipps.
( Lindsey Benne )

I was waiting in the loading bay at our fertilizer dealer while chemicals were pumped into a nurse tank. A young (under 60) worker walked to the edge of the loading platform and to my horror, jumped off its roughly 5' height from a standing position onto concrete below. Amazingly he did not scream in agony.

I did. Sympathetic pain shot through my ankles, knees, hips and back, along with other unpleasant jolts. The only time I jump off anything these days is our diving board. The reason is muscle memory. It is popularly thought this term describes the automatic recall of coordination learned by repetitive movements. What is less recognized is muscles also recall with accuracy excruciating sensations of our physical mishaps, especially those initiated by profoundly stupid judgment. It’s also why many of us never click on “hilarious” internet injury-videos as well. If we see it, we feel it.

Misdirected Maneuvers

Thanks to muscle memory, farmers often reach in a completely wrong direction for a control used on a machine they haven’t owned for decades. It might be the biggest reason for brand loyalty. We could be indifferent to the actual machine but have discovered on unfamiliar equipment we end up in the ditch flailing around for a hydraulic control or transmission shifter. Similarly, watch an Apple user’s mouse try to close a window on a Windows computer. Better the devil your muscles know.

You’d think these embarrassments would be just another “old guy” failing, but I’m amazed to watch newbie alumni athletes discover the memories their muscles cherish might not be all that accurate. Maybe we really couldn’t touch the rim in our day or hit a curve ball ... or any other pitch.

Vestigial Abilities

Perversely, the muscle memories that seem to endure most clearly for me involve sadly dated activities. For example, I can still launch a scoopful of grain with the finesse that preserves a compact outline of the shovel until it lands. I remember struggling to master that delicate wrist movement in small oats bins about the size of a modern closet and flare-bed wagons.

I have a group of muscles that can tie a full Windsor knot with my brain completely absent. I can set a tight sickle rivet or dig a posthole for a crooked hedge post, and should I ever run into a 1950 GMC two-ton, I can start that rascal with one foot on the clutch and the second manipulating the accelerator and starter simultaneously.

There is nothing wrong with my muscle memory. It’s their choice of memories that is the problem. And that saying about you never forget how to ride a bike? Trust me — you can forget.