If Memory Doesn't Serve

Sarah Jessica Parker or Sarah Michelle Gellar? Ashanti or Beyoncé? All will come clear on the Day of Reckoning

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.)

Presented by

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

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