In My Own Write: Holiday of the mind

By
March 8, 2011 23:03

I was anticipating the event with great pleasure, but saw it as always ahead of me; so that when it actually arrived, I shot straight past it.




[illustrative photo]

Glasses sheet music 311. (photo credit: MCT)

In the early ’70s, after my aliya, I lived at the Beit Milman absorption center in Ramat Aviv. One day, a young man I had known slightly in London and fancied quite a lot dropped by to say he was having a party on a Saturday night a few weeks hence.

His apartment was not far away. Would I be free that evening? I was thrilled, and began to plan what to wear. I thought about the party, dreamed about it, looked forward to it... and then one Sunday morning, I woke up and exclaimed: “Oh! The party was last night!” I had missed it.

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Now if this story sounds incredible, remember that truth is stranger than fiction, and be assured that it did happen. I was a lot younger then, and yet “forgot” something that, at the time, was really important to me.

How absentminded can you get? I’ve thought about this episode over the years and decided that it was a case of “overshooting” a target. I was anticipating the event with great pleasure, but saw it as always ahead of me; so that when it actually arrived, I shot straight past it.

Nevertheless, some crucial part of the mental process had clearly taken a vacation.

ASKING around about other memorable instances of absentmindedness, I collected a variety of anecdotes: Two women each recollected an occasion when they’d left home in their slips, having forgotten to put on a skirt.

Which reminded me irresistibly of the cartoon where an Englishman leaves for work in the City in the morning wearing his bowler hat, jacket, shirt and tie, carrying his briefcase and rolled-up umbrella – and in his underpants. When his wife calls him back, saying, “Haven’t you forgotten something, dear?” he bends down and gives her a peck on the cheek.

One colleague laughed as she recalled placing her daughter’s plastic toy hamburger carefully in the fridge; another went one better and put a favorite sweater in the freezer, where it remained undiscovered for months.

A cousin remembered, several years ago, wishing to return a rented movie to the video store; placing the video cassette on the car roof while she strapped her child into the car seat; and then driving off, running over the video in the process. Since it was a copy that had been specially produced for public use, that bit of absentmindedness cost her dearly.

I remember going to a daytime movie and watching the entire film in my sunglasses, wondering all the while why it was so dark.

I saw a man walk out of my neighborhood minimarket with his groceries but minus his child, whom he’d left sitting in the store trolley. (He eventually returned.) But cases of small children left absentmindedly in vehicles have ended tragically.

One Post colleague got into a terrific sweat when he couldn’t find his car parked at Ben-Gurion Airport – until he realized that he had taken his wife’s car to pick up visitors because it had more trunk space, and had been fruitlessly searching for the wrong vehicle.

Another colleague improved on that: He told about spending two frustrating hours looking for his car in a US store’s parking lot – when it was the only vehicle left at the end of the day.

It was a large lot, he explained, laconically.

Mislaying keys, pens, eyeglasses, credit cards and receipts; forgetting things cooking on the stove or in the oven; not remembering what we just this minute walked into the next room to get... are we losing our minds? Those over a certain age are quick to fear they might be.

‘EVERYONE forgets,” declared an editor sitting near me as I was writing this column. And it’s quite true, of course. That point was made in a film I saw as part of a course on aging I took at the Adler Institute. The actors were well-known, and drove their message home.

It was this: Young people forget things all the time, too. The difference between their forgetting and older people’s is that, unlike seniors, they take it in their stride and don’t immediately worry that they’re suffering from senility or incipient Alzheimer’s.

That said, the film gave some good advice: Choose a place for your keys, eyeglasses, etc., and always put them back there. And, no less important: Maintain your sense of humor.

IT’S a hectic world we live in, and our attention is constantly being pulled this way and that, often in many directions at once. Absentmindedness or forgetting where we put things may thus be the result of distraction, of not having paid enough attention to where we laid those things down beforehand. We didn’t focus on it, didn’t consciously instruct our brains to remember it.

Says Prof. Daniel Schacter of Harvard University: “Usually when you are being absentminded, it’s that your conscious processing is focused on something other than the task at hand; you are thinking about something else.”

One of his examples is about the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who got into a taxi in New York City and placed his $2.5-million cello in the trunk. When he arrived at his destination, he paid the driver and walked away – leaving the cello behind.

This, according to Schacter, was “a failure of attention at a time when memory retrieval is necessary.” It’s happened to all of us, though perhaps not at such huge potential cost.

Dr. George T. Grossberg of the St. Louis University School of Medicine talks about living in a multitasking world and points to sensory overload, wherein people “have too many things going on at once, making them more likely to be absentminded.”

Absentmindedness, Grossberg holds, is quite different from memory loss. He says the time to begin worrying is when a person starts forgetting things that have just occurred.

An absentminded person may forget where he put his car keys; a person suffering from memory loss won’t even realize the keys are lost, and will eventually forget what they are used for.

I STILL remember the time my parents came home in a state of shock from dinner at the home of a genial couple they knew quite well from synagogue. There had been some eight people seated around the table.

“You’ll never guess what happened,” my mother told me, half-amused, half-dismayed. “D. [the host] suddenly got up in the middle of the meal, went over to the coat-stand, put your father’s hat on his head and walked out the front door.”

It happened over 40 years ago, and they didn’t know what to make of this highly irregular behavior. It was, of course, the onset of the degenerative disease of the nervous system called Alzheimer’s, and no amount of trying to stay focused or keeping a sense of humor would have helped.

Pathology exists and, tragically, people do succumb to illness. What we must avoid, however, especially as we age, is the conviction that every act of forgetfulness means we are losing our marbles. We need to take a leaf out of the youngsters’ book and laugh off instances of absentmindedness, while helping ourselves as much as we can – via written notes, visual clues and habitual storage places – to stay on the ball.

MY own particular thing is forgetting the names of people I’m in the process of introducing to one other. It can happen suddenly and – strangely – with people I’ve known for a long time.

I put it down to a very localized type of panic under the pressure of the moment.

Perhaps I am doubtful they will get on. Or worrying that maybe no one will know what to say next. Or perhaps my fear of forgetting what they’re called is what makes me forget. How can you ask a person you’ve known for years, “What’s your name, again?” I really don’t know the cure for this. When I find out, I’ll write another column.


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