If Memory Doesn't Serve

Sarah Jessica Parker or Sarah Michelle Gellar? Ashanti or Beyoncé? All will come clear on the Day of Reckoning
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Among the cruelest tricks life plays is the way it puts the complicated part at the end, when the brain is declining into simplicity, and the simple part at the beginning, when the brain is fresh and has memory power to spare. As a boy I had only a few things to keep track of. There was one place, the small town where I lived; two pro sports, baseball and football; three TV channels; four sequential seasons, as yet unmixed by global warming; five kids in my neighborhood to play with; and so on. In no category did the number of entries go much above a dozen or two. I didn't meet people and have to remember their names, because everybody I ran into I already knew. With my extra, leftover memory I preserved pointless conversations, nonsense phrases my brother made up, remarks by adults they later claimed they hadn't said, and incidental data such as the farthest point up our street from which it was possible to run and still catch the school bus.

Since then my memory has been required to hold gigantically much more, the bulk of it so dull. Feats of adult remembering often conform to the "negative Disneyland" rule of grown-up pleasures: that is, it is fun, of a sort, suddenly to remember where you left the registration stickers for your car, but only in comparison to the trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles you would have to make if you didn't. I sometimes nearly crumble in self-pity at the mnemonic brain-busters life hands me. An example: A few years ago the friends my young son usually played with were Joshua, Rhys, and Julian. No memory problems there—each interesting and lively boy easily matched with his name in my mind. The mothers of the boys, however, were (respectively) Georgeanne, Geraldine, and Gabrielle. To a person whose days of high-detail remembering are gone, those are essentially the same name. When greeting someone, it is not enough to know that her name begins with a G. I held this unfair complicatedness against each of them and acted put-upon and odd around them.

Does anyone remember the name of Russ Nixon, catcher for the Cleveland Indians in 1958? Once I spent lonely hours trying to remember it, and when morning came and I could call a friend who knew, I understood what had happened. My friend spoke and the name emerged, good as new, from the later Nixon overlays that had hidden it. The brain has only so many slots, and by the time you reach fifty they have become cluttered and full. I'm sure most of us have a small place in our brains containing the following four items:

1. H. G. Wells
2. George Orwell
3. Orson Welles
4. Orson Bean

They cluster together through some unknown law of the synapses. The first two are easy to confuse because both are thirties-era, English, and science-fictiony (The Time Machine, Nineteen Eighty-four). The second and third blend because George Orwell and Orson Welles, as names, sound like made-up, roman-à-clef versions of each other. Also, Welles did a famous hoax radio broadcast of Wells's War of the Worlds, a confusing event in itself. And then you have Orson Bean, who is in there probably just to round out the conjugation, or through one of those comic mishaps he used to get into in his roles as an actor. Sometimes when I have a spare moment I take each name out, consider it, link it to the proper person, recall each one's face and biography, and then put all the names back in place in my mind. I believe this is a basically healthy exercise, like flossing.

Then, if I'm feeling like it, or if I'm still lying awake, I run through a few more calisthenics to keep myself sharp. AA is not the same as Triple A—a fact I learn and relearn at car-rental counters when I ask for an AA discount. Michael Moore, the activist author and documentary filmmaker, once made a movie called Roger and Me, partly about Roger Smith, then the president of General Motors. Consequently, it is quite natural to slip up and refer to Michael Moore as Roger Moore. The two are different, however; Roger Moore is a suave-seeming English movie actor who used to play James Bond, a couple of James Bonds ago. And speaking of that, I am me, and not James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, the late English intelligence officer and author of spy thrillers. Twice now while I've been on book tours the person introducing me to the audience at a reading has said, "And now, please join me in welcoming Ian Fleming." After the second time I took to carrying a copy of Goldfinger, just to be ready, but so far it hasn't happened again.

Jamie Bassett was my son's third-grade teacher; Diana Tackett was my daughter's second-grade teacher. Kathy York was my daughter's third-grade teacher; Drury Thorp was my son's second-grade teacher. (Drury Thorp is related to the humorist Robert Benchley, who still has his own slot in my mind.) Ashanti is not the same as Beyoncé; the former is a popular singer who recently appeared on the cover of a New York newspaper carrying a handbag printed with a greatly enlarged photograph of her own face; the latter is a popular singer who has won several Grammy Awards and who performed the national anthem at the most recent Super Bowl—the Janet Jackson one. Russell Means and Dennis Banks were both leaders of the American Indian Movement back in the seventies; I am prone to refer to either or both as Russell Banks, who is neither, but a well-known novelist. Victor Klemperer, the German writer, kept a detailed two-volume journal of his days in Berlin during World War II, and has been called "the great diarist of the Holocaust"; Werner Klemperer is the American television and movie actor who played Colonel Klink on the TV series Hogan's Heroes. (Remarkably, Werner and Victor were cousins.)

Suddenly a nagging thought occurs to me: There is Ashanti, and there is Beyoncé … but wasn't there a third in that category? Yes. There was another like them—another young, model-beautiful black woman singer usually referred to by a single name. She has recently disappeared over the music-scene horizon. Her big hit song was "The Boy Is Mine." She sang it as a duet with somebody. I saw the video of it many times. In it she did a lot of vogueing, hand gestures, framing her face with her fingers, and so forth. I used to do a lip-synch imitation of her, using the same gestures but ending with one of my own, which was to lift my baseball cap above my head twice with both hands. I showed my imitation often to my teenage daughter and her friends, embarrassing her. What was that singer's name? It was … Brandy! Thank you, memory. Ashanti, Beyoncé, and Brandy.

Jamie Bassett, Diana Tackett; Drury Thorp, Kathy York. The names of elementary school teachers have a strange power to evoke the past. Ashanti, Beyoncé, Brandy. I am slightly afraid there's yet another in that category I've forgotten about, but I won't worry over it now. Russell Means (AIM), Russell Banks (novelist), Dennis Banks (AIM). Victor Klemperer, diarist of the Holocaust; Werner Klemperer, actor who played Colonel Klink. When I have all the names straight, maybe I will get to sleep.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom I confuse with nobody, once said that the measure of a first-rate intellect is its ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. I believe this may be one of those profound sayings that fall apart if you examine them closely. Holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously is a stunt that millions of minds pull off every day. A fifth of the people on the planet believe that their spouse is both the most wonderful person alive and the biggest disaster that ever happened to them; many of the inhabitants, sophisticated or not, of New York and Los Angeles will affirm in a single conversation that theirs is both the best and the worst city in the world. In fact, holding contradictory ideas simultaneously is a snap, because they are so distinct, and thus unlikely to interpenetrate dizzyingly with each other and swap themselves around.

A better gauge of mental subtlety, it seems to me, is whether you can retain ideas that are very similar but also different. For example, can you simultaneously think of, while noting the differences between, the dancer/actresses Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera? If you can accomplish that, try upping the ante by adding the actresses Carmen Miranda and Ida Lupino. Now see if you can hold all four in your mind simultaneously. The world of TV and movies offers many such tests. It takes all my mind's agility to hold at once the actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston. The first step is not to think about Sarah Michelle Gellar or Sally Jessy Raphael, because that will only confuse things. Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston are both young, blond, beautiful, and wisecracking but vulnerable. Both were in successful TV series that just ended. The first is married to Matthew Broderick, the second to Brad Pitt. Sarah has wavy hair; Jennifer's is straight. Thinking of one somehow makes it almost impossible to think of the other. Both are in the news a lot, which allows more chances to practice.

Then there are Charles Durning and Brian Dennehy (Wilford Brimley being the confusing third in that category); Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban (José Ferrer, ditto); Norman Fell and Jack Klugman; Van Heflin and Red Buttons; Swoosie Kurtz and Stockard Channing; Wally Cox and Don Knotts … My only advice about untangling the whole Lee Majors/William Shatner/Chad Everett/Robert Wagner/Robert Conrad/William Conrad nexus is: Don't go there. As actors from old TV series recede in time, memory conflates them into a single ur—TV star. Recently I've found that even the movie stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are starting to blur together in my mind.

The other day, while cleaning the house, I pointed to the dustpan in the corner of the living room and asked my daughter, "Could you please bring me the spatula?" She asked, "You mean the dustpan?" I replied—taking a page from her book—"Whatever." A dustpan and a spatula really are a lot alike. Why use a separate word for each object? "Dustpan" is drab and colorless, whereas "spatula" is a poetic-sounding creation that just rolls off the tongue. Also, "spatula" has a venerable history as a comic keyword, like "rutabaga" and "Buick" and "schnauzer." So why not call both objects "spatula"? That's the decision I've made. "Spatula" might not be quite accurate when applied to a dustpan, but for most practical purposes it's close enough. As you get older, you don't want to waste time on tiny details.

On the other hand, you don't want to become so carried away with "spatula" that you repeat it over and over to yourself as you lie in bed late at night. It's a perfect example of the kind of word that, if repeated often enough, will make you insane.

If despair is a sin (and it is—it's an aspect of the deadly sin of sloth), the virtuous person must resist it, and all tendencies likely to lead to it. Torturing the mind with minutiae is one of those. Originally, I seem to recall, America took pride in its plainspoken rejection of all the pomp and foofaraw of corrupt, overcomplicated Europe. Now America is complication itself. Look down the table at the public library where people plug in their laptops, and see the heaped-up entanglements of cables and wires. Try to read the pamphlet in six-point type that your new phone carrier sends you when you change long-distance service. Go to the supermarket to buy an ordinary item for your spouse. The other day at the A&P I noticed a man lost in thought in front of a bank of different kinds of brownie mix. Then he took out his cell phone and made a call: "Hi, babe … You wanted Triple Chunk? Okay … I thought you said Triple Fudge Chunk." At some point the brain, in order to avoid despair, begins to shut down.

My son, who is eleven, has a memory like wet cement. Occurrences leave impressions on it and are there to stay—clear, manifest, close at hand. Like apparently all children today, he has an effortless affinity with gadgetry that exhausts me just to look at it. I call him when I want some advanced appliance turned off or on. Even more useful is his ability to replay data he has observed. Ask him what we were talking about before we started talking about what we're talking about now, and he knows. He always retrieves the thread of a conversation in a manner that's matter-of-fact or bored.

For me, however, the feeling at these moments is a vast and happy relief. When you've been trying to remember something and you suddenly remember it, the mental pleasure is keen. Not remembering eats at you, but remembering soothes and resoothes. I imagine that feeling might be what heaven is like. You pop through to the other side, and suddenly every question you have wondered about for years and then given up on is answered. The fate of an object lost in childhood, the names of people met only once at a cocktail party, the difference between William Conrad and Robert Conrad—every answer coming to you in a limpid rush of enlightenment, as if you'd known it all along.

Ian Frazier is the author of On the Rez (2000) and Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody, recently published in paperback.
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