Here’s my memory device for walking out the door for work each morning, “I must climb K2 promptly,” or “I-glasses, climate preparation (umbrella and/or coat), two sets of keys (home and school) and phone.” The “must” is just “must.” I need those things.
CLIMB is also an aid to memory. I need my Cup (because I want to be environmentally responsible), my Lunch (because I’ll be hungry later), my Implement (because, if I have to grade, I’d like my fountain pen), my Macs (because the school gave me a laptop and an iPad and expects I’ll use them), and my Books (because teaching with an unannotated text is a nightmare).
Still I occasionally forget things. No memory device reminds me to use my memory device.
Most of my life I’ve been overwrought, obsessed with the next moment, worried about outcomes, hypersensitive to others’ perceptions, and devoted to displaying tranquility I didn’t really feel.
I’ve always wanted to care less. But aging, it turns out, has made me careless instead, subject to sudden slippery patches set to throw me on my ass when I least expect.
As the brain ages, it becomes less plastic, and memories that used to reach deep roots into gray matter sit instead on the cortex, as lichen might. Recollections and procedures that once imprinted without notice require willful storage, conscious clinging, attention.
You can drive home from work without remembering making a turn, and you might be able to play a song on the piano without deliberately hitting a key. If you want to remember your sister-in-law’s brother’s face or the name of that actor who was on “Saturday Night Live” and appeared with that other guy who’s in a lot of Will Farrell movies that was sort of a parody of the Man in Black singer… well, good luck with that.
Having an IMDb app doesn’t help. Then you don’t have to remember anything. And can’t.
Before class, a knot of students crammed for a quiz the next period, and I mentioned my morning memory aids. As they listened, their faces formed expressions they might make if I’d said I’d be missing class the next day for hernia surgery—a mixture of pity, embarrassment, and horror.
The universe gets a little strange when you move from reality to a code to represent reality.
It reminds me of a joke I once heard:
A group of friends get together every Thursday night to drink beer and talk, and, being old, old friends, they get to know one another’s stories so well they take to numbering them.
“17,” one says, and the others laugh and say, “That’s a good one.”
“38,” says another and they chuckle and say, “Wow, haven’t heard that one in a while!”
Steve, the youngest of the group, listens from the sidelines, not sure what to offer, but finally decides to join in.
“68!” he shouts, and their faces drop. They fall silent.
“Some people just can’t tell a story,” someone says, and the others shake their heads.
The absent-minded professor is a cliché. I’m not a professor but people generously forgive my lapses by saying my mind dwells on bigger things. Sometimes, I am lost in ruminations about the chapter I’ll teach that day or about some scholar’s thoughts about a mysterious moment or character.
Sometimes I’m juggling five balls too many and close my eyes.
The average high school book-bag weighs 20 pounds, and mine is about that. It may not seem like much in the abstract, but lifting it from the floor to your back is athletic. Carrying it evokes a soldier’s life, humping through the heat with all necessaries for an indefinite time forward.
How much is just-in-case? How much is schlepped back and forth untouched, the detritus at the bottom of a toolbox or truck bed, burdens of neglect?
It seems so much easier to be prepared materially than to be prepared psychologically or emotionally. The book-bag stands for readiness.
When I was young, a respected doctor in my hometown developed premature Alzheimer’s and periodically escaped his home and wandered the neighborhood.
Grown-ups alerted us to look out for him. Nothing scared me more than the possibility of encountering him. The news sent me inside. So I never met him on his walkabouts, but my brother once told me how the doctor’s son, my brother’s friend, guided his father home.
Just the brief description haunted me. I imagined the scene. A son leading his father and whispering reassurances and consolations that broke over his dad’s mind like the lightest ripples on a lake shore.
Now I wonder what clues he recognized in blocks they walked together, what things spoke the code he’d lost and said he was in places he knew.