Tuesday, July 11, 2023

BRAIN STRAINER – To Push or Pardon My Porous Memory

At a recent meeting of my men’s group I got this rude awakening about my memory.

We’d gone around the circle and each done our “check-in,” where we briefly report on our ups and downs during the last two weeks. I thought everyone had taken his turn to do so, except Dick. So I prompted him. “How ‘bout you, Dick?” I asked. He responded with a look of surprise and everyone reminded me that he’d been the first to check in. 

How embarrassing. Not only had I forgotten the few updates Dick had shared; I forgot that he’d even shared them. I babbled some kind of excuse, but then he added that I’d done this about something else barely a week before.

           My dad had a term for folks like this:
           He has a mind like a steel trap.

I like to think of myself as a good listener. I make a real effort to hear what people say. I follow up with a question or two and remember enough of it to perhaps ask about it the next time we get together.

So what’s going on with me and Dick? Or maybe I should say with me and my memory? Do its lapses mean I don't care?

I raised the question at our next men’s group meeting, where I at least got the consolation of hearing that a couple of the other guys share the problem.

That discussion also supported my assertion that my leaky memory is not—as are many of the maladies we share now that we’re all in our seventies—simply a factor of age. I was this way even in my twenties.

(I should note that, of all the people I’ve ever called friends, Dick stands out as the one with the best memory. You can tell him several things you’re doing, how your relatives are and even a couple of happenings you just read about, and the next time you speak with him he asks you about every one of them.)

My dad had a term for folks like this: His mind’s like a steel trap. That’s Dick. So my memory shortcomings seem all the worse by comparison.

                My memory, I now realize, is
                a rather large-holed colander.

I’ve always had trouble with things most people seem to remember, like the plot elements—or even the title—of the movie I just watched last week. Or what my wife’s plans are for the day…oh, and don’t get me going on people’s names.

What does stick with me, it seems, are far more subtle, often sensory, details—like how much Dick's wife loves waterfalls; the way another friend wrings his hands while he talks; or the sense that great pain lurks just beneath one acquaintance's cheery façade.

IMAGE: New York Times


So, is my brain just wired differently? And if that’s the case, should I just accept it? Maybe rationalize that memory’s a zero-sum game and my brain's simply decided to excel at some other task?

I wonder if there isn't a better metaphor for memory than a steel trap. Maybe a strainer. A very few people—like my friend Dick—have filters, which grab and hold the smallest details. Others have sieves. They miss a few details, but latch
onto most.

My memory, I now realize, is a rather large-holed colander. I remember the important stuff, like “How’s your recovery from that heart attack coming?” “When do you get back from Uzbekistan?” Or “How’s prison life treating you.” I forget the stuff like the skinned knee, the day trip to Zumbrota or a friend of a friend’s divorce.

I suppose I could fight it. I could drive myself to listen to those I love as if there’ll be a pop quiz. I could take notes. (Actually, I’ve been trying this with some success.)

But I’ve also listened to the advice of another men’s group friend, Ken, who told me I’m being too hard on myself. We’re all different. Lighten up.

What do you think? Should I keep twisting my memory’s arm? Is remembering details essential for a real friendship? If so, do you have any tips on how to do so?

Or should I just forgive myself and move on? What would you do?


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