Sunday, April 19, 2009

Memory Lapses

An essay written for Springhouse.

The other day I read an essay called “If Memory Doesn’t Serve” by the contemporary writer Ian Frazier.[1] He writes that he confuses certain names in his memory. For instance, he thinks “Roger Moore,” the James Bond actor, when he means “Michael Moore,” the activist filmmaker, partly because Michael Moore once made a film called Roger and Me about the CEO of GM, Roger Smith. Frazier says that he confuses actors Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, and also Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban. He knows the difference between these people but admits that, when we’re adults, the memory is less sharp than when we were younger. Yet our memories are increasingly filled with miscellaneous information.

We all have similar memory lapses. (Frazier writes that he’s sometimes introduced as “Ian Fleming,” the James Bond author who died years ago.) Corresponding with an editor recently, I referred to the poet Robinson Jeffers but I wrote “Richard Jeffries,” who was a 19th century nature writer. I don’t confuse Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, but I do confuse Parker and several other actors: Sarah Michelle Geller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Juliette Lewis, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I know the difference, but I don’t follow movie stars closely and I have to think a moment who’s who. Similarly Colin Firth, Clive Owen, and Colin Farrell. Wait … Which one was in Girl with a Pearl Earring? … No, not him, he was in King Arthur with Keira Knightley …

Speaking of … Briefly I confused Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, and Giada DeLaurentiis. I sorted out those folks, though. Whew! I’d been perplexed why Natalie Portman was on Everyday Italian. But I still become confused which of these 1980s sitcoms is which: Family Ties, Family Matters, Full House, Facts of Life, and Growing Pains. Which one had Michael J. Fox? ... which one featured "Urkle"?...

When I was in high school and college in the 1970s, several musical groups went by three-part names. There was the Marshall Tucker Band, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Pure Prairie League, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Black Oak Arkansas, Ten Years After, and a few others. (I'm leaving out Grand Funk Railroad because they were a favorite and I didn't confuse them with other groups.) A song comes on the Seventies radio station…. Okay, which of those groups is this one?... I’m stumped for a while, as I am with some of the soft-rock acts of the same era, like England Dan and John Ford Coley, Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, and Air Supply. Who did Don’t Pull Your Love? Who sang Love Is the Answer? Give me a minute …

My daughter used to love a cereal, Kellogg’s® Honey Nut Clusters®, which features a cartoon squirrel on the box. When she was little, she referred to the brand as “Squirrel Cereal.” So one day I shopped our local Walgreen’s and realized I needed to buy cereal and other grocery-type items. As I scanned the shelves, a clerk asked me if I needed assistance. I froze, and then I laughed and explained to the clerk that my daughter wanted a certain brand but I couldn’t remember the actual name. All I could remember was “Squirrel Cereal.” Fortunately I spotted a box on the shelves, saving me a little dignity.

Tomorrow I’ll stand in front of twenty undergraduates and, for fifty minutes, talk to them about the Civil War. I do this without notes and without much previous review. I’m no expert on the war, but I’ve done this lecture enough times that the facts return to mind right away. So …why do I have to daily place my car keys in the same location, religiously, or else I’ll lose them?

Speaking of students, one time I greeted a student as she came into class. “Hi, Robin!” I said. She looked at me and said, “Professor, I’m not Robin, I’m ….” (Here we go again, I’ve forgotten her name!) I realized that “Robin” was the young woman who sat beside her. Ever afterward I can picture Robin and … Not-Robin. More importantly, now I’m always a little careful when I call on students, especially early in the semester; do I have their names right? (I’ve fifty to seventy students each semester, so the process of names-learning takes a little time.)

The memory lapses that infuriate me are the times when I remember to do something, but at an inopportune time to write myself a note. Hey, I gotta write that person a letter … but at the moment, I’m tooling down the interstate and everyone is speeding along, and I don’t dare take my eyes off the road … maybe I should buy myself a tape recorder… or it’s three in the morning and I’m too sleepy to get up … or I do get up and write myself a note, but I can’t read what I’d written while half-asleep. Remember to [illegible] Tuesday!!!

Another thing that I do, a common lapse: I’m in one room, and then I go into a room to retrieve something. But once there, I’ve forgotten what I came for. I have to return to the other room to remember. I suppose that’s a good way to get exercise.

My cat wanders into the kitchen. What goes on in her brain? How much does she remember? Does she remember her first family, who gave her up for adoption nearly ten years ago? She knows us, for sure, and she knows what the sound of a can opener means, even though we’ve not fed her canned food for a long time. Maybe cats remember very little, or a lot. They certainly don’t have much on their to-do lists. Sleeping, licking, eating, sleeping … was I supposed to sleep on the sofa before I slept on the recliner, or vice versa? I suppose the upside of faulty memory is the richness of our lives that includes many interests and experiences, even those they become jumbled in our minds.

Not only that, but what a relief we feel when the ol’ memory clicks into place! That misremembered fact, that forgotten location, bring such happiness when they come to mind! Now I can drive to work safely. Now I can call that person by her correct name, and watch movies without confusion. I know I’m not senile after all. I can eat my squirrel cereal in peace.

[1] Ian Frazier, “If Memory Doesn’t Serve,” in Susan Orlean, ed., The Best American Essays, 2005 (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), pp. 56-61.

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