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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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You're reading a review of a book about, of all things, Lincoln's second inaugural address, his "greatest speech," when you feel that pleasing shift inside: the prose is starting to do its work, leading you to some deeper place, where things are less provisional, more solid and profound. A few days later, you flip through the book section again and after a few sentences into a review of a book about, of all things, Lincoln's second inaugural address, you feel an uneasy shift inside and pause (uh, oh; one of those damn pauses again). You metaphorically scratch your head and ask yourself: "Wait a second, didn't I read this review of the book about Lincoln's greatest speech already?" You're sure you did. (You're almost sure.) But how can that be; the text seems so unfamiliar. "I'm sure I read this . . . d-didn't I?" You skim in vain for a passage that might bring it all back. You can't find one. So you decide to read the entire review again, wondering as you do what the hell is the point since tomorrow you won't have the slightest recollection of a single damn thing you've read.

Okay, Okay. Not Everyone Has Amnesia

Ralph Nader, for example. Yes, the aged, once-lionized, now much-maligned Ralph Nader. He doesn't. He's brimming over with facts and opinions that bubble up—no, pour out—at the drop of a question. Asked about the Middle East, he prefaces his answer by saying he has four points he wants to make. Then he does something that, for you, is simply unimaginable, the near-equivalent of time travel: he goes on to make his four points!

You are in awe.

First, he remembers that he has four points to make. Second, whenever he is done with saying whatever it was that he wanted to say about a point, he then remembers not only to go on to his next point, but, Third, he remembers what that next point is, and, Fourth, he then actually proceeds to make it. (While you are unquestionably awestruck, you're also not quite sure what any of his four points are. Once upon a time you listened to the content of what public figures said; now you merely "listen" to the competency of the flow, and, if it's unimpeded, you just float along with it, indifferent to substance, as if listening to music, or better yet, Muzak.)

How does he do it? Even if it's all memorized, even if it's all rote, even if Nader has turned himself into a four-(and-sometimes-even-more-than-four-) point-making machine, you're still dumbfounded by his proficiency. Could you make four points about anything?7 Sure, it's true, once upon a time you could (and, probably too frequently, did) recite the Gettysburg Address and "Gunga Din"8 (often doing so back-to-back), but that was once upon a time. Now you can't even memorize a phone number. (Well, you can manage the first three digits as Information is giving them to you, but from there on out you need at least one other person close by to help you with the other four.) 9

And it isn't just Nader. What about the fast-talking political commentators on TV (always angry) and the fast-talking sports announcers (always excited). A vast community of remember-it-alls, loaded with more damn information at the tips of each of their tongues than they can ever be allotted time to say. You hear Daniel Schorr on the radio, at 90-something, rattling off historical precedents to the week's news. And Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Shortly before he dies, you see him on a panel. Then in his mid-eighties, the man has total recall: a conversation with JFK, the plot of an obscure film he saw in the '30s, a passage from his father's work. No pauses. No stumbling. Nothing escapes him. Who areplanet you're from? How do they remember all this stuff? They're as unbelievably flabbergasting as Michael Jordan in his prime, except these people are mental these people? Are they even from the same athletes, whose prime apparently lasts their whole lives. You watch them recite all those facts and figures and do it so jaw-droppingly coherently (you assume it's "coherently"; you can barely listen to them anymore) that you come to the only conclusion you can rationally arrive at: they are extraterrestrials. In contrast, aging Earthling that you are, you seem unable to hold onto a thought for anywhere near as long as you did in the old days. You struggle with it, like working out with a barbell you can only do one repetition with and then must drop. Memories used to stay put on the felt board where you placed them. Now they don't: you have to hold them there, but you still only have two hands. It's all too much. Before you know it, they're on the ground, along with that barbell, somewhere you can't find them.But if there's one thing that's perfectly clear, it's that public life has recently boasted at least one Earthling. Year after year, for what seemed like an eternity, you'd watch him painfully search for and trip over the answer to nearly every question he was asked, and you found yourself identifying with and even, God forbid, almost sympathizing with George W. Bush. It was so obvious he was in way over his head, his fakery in full view. He was you. (You sometimes got the feeling that, like you, he might not even have remembered the question he was supposed to be answering, except that, unlike you, and for reasons that continue to defy comprehension—like damn near everything else about the man—he was never embarrassed, nervous, or apologetic.) Eight years of Bush so trained you for the worst that when an answer by even the silver-tongued Obama is occasionally peppered with a pause or two, you freeze, fearing some wince-inducing Bush-like bumbling and confusion is about to occur.10 But then you begin to breathe easily once more when, grateful for the memory, you recall: the reason this guy pauses is that he's—get this!—actually thinking.

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