Omar Shehata

My favorite Memory Palace Episodes

From Omar's notebook.

The Memory Palace is one of my favorite podcasts, and one of my favorite pieces of media ever. It's short stories from history, sometimes tragic, sometimes inspiring, always beautiful.

Here I've collected a few of my favorite episodes & I try to reflect on why it resonates so much with me. The Memory Palace is best enjoyed by jumping in without any prior knowledge, so check out the episodes below before reading the notes.

The Ballad of Captain Dwight

This is a story of a young boy, Ed Dwight, who goes on to almost become the first black astronaut. I've listened to this one at least a dozen times. Everything about it feels so well done. I love the cadence, and the rollercoaster of emotions: the start from nothing, the great ambition & potential, the fall from grace, and then starting all over again.

I love how carefully chosen every word feels, like most Memory Palace episodes. When Ed talks about how he got into pilot training, he says realized he wanted to do it, and he just applied and got it. Nate goes on to say:

If you talk to Ed Dwight this happens a lot. The story tends to go too far too fast. And rockets from an impulse, or a dream that Ed had of doing something, to Ed doing that thing.

And memory, like your side mirror, tends to compress distance.

The choice of words here feels so apt in a story about flying planes & rockets. But I also love this part because I want to have this kind of life, where I go from an impulse of something I want to do, to doing it. Hearing about others having the life I want, and how they got there, inspires me a lot, and makes those dreams feel very real and concrete.

But that's actually not what Nate is saying here. He's saying that Ed often remembers things this way, but there's a lot more steps that had to happen in between the dream & its fulfillment. And I think perhaps this is one thing that helps Ed leap forward: minimizing the obstacles and amplifying the successes in his memory. This reminds me of the core idea in The Truth of Feeling, The Truth of Fact by Ted Chiang, about how our imperfect memories give us agency over our identities. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

The other part about this story that resonates so much with me is how Nate describes what happens when Ed's career ends abruptly when JFK is shot.

So what do you do next? What do you do when you were once this close to the moon. To being one of history's undeniables. A name for the ages. A statue. A monument.

Sometimes you go back to the start.

I empathize with this so intensely. It feels unfair. You were smart. You worked hard. You even had the luck you needed to be in the right place at the right time. But now it's all gone. Taken away. What do you do?

Ed "goes back to the start" to pursue his other childhood passion, drawing & art. He learns to work with metal. A friend commissions Ed to create a monument. Ed says "that's not the kind of sculpture I make". The friend replies "well here's a book!".

And again, this is exactly the kind of attitude I want to foster in myself. I often stop trying if it feels like the situation is unfair. But nothing about Ed's life was fair. Yet he kept moving forward, and he's had an amazing life, and he's happy.

No Summer

I love this one because it feels so otherworldly. I would have thought it was fiction if I didn't know these episodes were all true. A year where summer never came? I'd never heard of anything like that. I couldn't even imagine what could possibly cause that. And neither could anyone that year.

Nate does such an incredible job transporting you back to that time and place. He lingers on the description of this bizarre experience as I keep wondering, "what the hell is happening?" This is exactly what everyone in the world was wondering that year. It took decades for people to figure it out.

The sunsets were this red that was just wrong. That same red that flares sometimes at the edge of the horizon for just that moment, just as the sun slides away. That red was everywhere, the whole of the western sky, for hours before nightfall.

It was beautiful, but it was all wrong.

It almost sounds like being on another planet. I've always wondered what sunsets look like on other worlds. Imagine waking up one day to such a foreign horizon. How long would it last? Would it ever go back to normal? They didn't know:

Farmers [...] turned over their fields yet again, hoping this crop would take. Hoping, that last night's killing frost would be the last one. That July would be better. That August would be better. That it better be.

The other part I love about this episode is hearing about the permanent effects this had on the world on individuals like the invention of the first bicycle because the inventor couldn't afford a horse due to rising food prices, and Mary Shelley writing Frankstein because it was so dark, cold, and gloomy and there was nothing else to do. In addition to the global tragedies of mass migration, starvation, and disease. And all those that died where the volcano erupted, and whose lands were poisoned and no longer livable.

Final thoughts

To summarize some of the themes here about why The Memory Palace resonates so much with me: