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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
‘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
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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