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You Can't Remember Half the Things You Used to -- How Much Does That Matter?

While memories may be all you have of the past, they're not all there is to being alive. There is something more.

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No such luck.

After a minute or two of testing and then rejecting a bunch of alternative names you know are wrong, just as Freud predicted in that essay he wrote,6 the two of you shrug and call off the search. Your companion takes another bite of his sandwich and plugs on with the story, a certain incompleteness beneath the surface continuing to gnaw at both of you, but it's an incompleteness that'll dissipate and soon be forgotten. As he resumes his tale, you take the opportunity to jot down "Margaritaville" on a piece of scrap paper, for, after all, you're writing an article on memory and this seems like a moment worth preserving. That irritating sense that something is missing has now been replaced by a satisfying bonus: an incident for the article.

That evening, at the keyboard, you remember that earlier that day there was some kind of incident, that you'd made a note of it, but now can't recall what it was all about. Before you reach for the piece of paper, as a kind of experiment, you close your eyes and try to squ-e-e-e-e-eze out a memory from the sponge that's supposed to be your brain. Bone dry. You'd hoped the act of writing might have etched a memory somewhere, made it more accessible, deposited some moisture in that sponge of yours. But it hasn't. From your shirt pocket, you remove the note, and after a minute or two of trying to decipher your handwriting (which seems lately to be going to seed even faster than your memory), the word "Margaritaville" becomes legible. What a relief! It's not lost. But then, wait a minute, what exactly have you found? A word on a piece of paper. Nothing more. The rest of your friend's story has vanished.

You honestly can't remember what he said.

Exhibit B: Who's the Mental Patient?

You visit your childhood friend Joe and spend several hours laughing and reminiscing. As you're saying good-bye, you enlist his help in trying to remember what the trigger was, two hours earlier, for that one particular bout of hysterical laughter— uncontrollable laughter, lasting more than a minute—that kept the two of you in stitches, like the kids you once were. But, mamma mia, neither of you can recall what was so damn funny. (This is especially upsetting since Joe, unlike most people you know, generally remembers everything.) Embarrassed and somewhat deflated (what was the point of the visit if, at the very moment it's ending, you can't even recall the highpoint?), you drive off.

The next day, you're surprised (because by then, of course, you've forgotten yesterday) to see that Joe has e-mailed the explanation for what had set the two of you so giddily off: some months earlier, he'd purchased a painting by an artist who, it turned out, was living in a mental hospital. Grateful for the purchase, the artist had written a note which, during your visit, Joe had read aloud to you. The note managed to convey without irony such primal, rock-bottom befoggedness that you and Joe couldn't help empathizing with its institutionalized author and laughing to the point of tears. It read in part: "Thank you for buying my painting. I think you bought the painting. I'll have to ask Dr. Reimer."

Exhibit C: You Do Remember Who Lincoln Is, Though

You look forward to reading the weekly book review section. Why? Partly because the writing is more gracious than the rest of the newspaper—a little more contemplative. There's no screaming sense of urgency that you find in the news section; no hastily-constructed overnight-turnaround feel that you often get with movie and theater reviews. You find, instead, that you're being extended an invitation to dip into something that has required and received some time and effort and thought to put together; something that feels lived in—an invitation to spend a little more time than usual pondering meaning. And let's not forget that reading book reviews also saves you the time-consuming chore of reading actual books, which, if you bothered to read them, you'd forget you'd read, anyway.

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