Total Recall

Tricks for the Forgetful

Everyone forgets now and then. Misplaced keys, missing words, forgotten names, absent-mindedly turning the steering wheel the wrong way while parking—much is made of these lapses when one is over sixty-five, but we all forget at times. Barring a major neurological collapse, chipper advice will get most of us around the forgotten word or lost gloves. Write yourself notes. Put everything back where you found it. Assume that your rarely seen neighbor, whose name you have forgotten, will misremember your name as well; therefore, at social gatherings, introduce yourself first. The neighbor will probably be grateful and introduce himself in turn. Of course, you do have to remember your own name for this ploy to work.

Emerging in the welter of advice to the absent-minded is yet another technique, modeled on crowd-sourcing, crowd-surfing, and crowd-funding. The principle is the same: we can remember if we stick together. Call it “crowd recall.” Here is an example. Six people are chatting at a social gathering. A proud parent is trying to remember a Georgetown University president’s name: “He was a wonderful mentor—but what was his name?” Person Two jumps in, “the wonderful Jack DeGioia?” Nope. “The wonderful Leo O’Donovan, SJ?” Not him either. Person Three: “Well, certainly a Jesuit and probably with an Irish name: Kelly, Conway, McShane.” No, no, and no. Person Four: “What are the dates?” Doting parent: “Well he retired in the eighties and became the head of the New York Public Library.” That’s the key recall, the New York Public Library! The name spills out: “Thomas Healy, SJ” Person Five: “No, no, it’s not Thomas; it’s Timothy.” There you have crowd-recall, in just minutes. What exactly did Timothy Healy, SJ, do for the now-famous child of the proud parent? Never found that out. The crowd moved on.

Face-to-face crowd-recall, batting names and ideas back and forth, is not required. There are other mechanisms, some old-fashioned (phoning, stopping the neighbor on the street) some new-fangled (texting and e-mailing). The right mix of recallers will get you the answer, though not always quickly. Another example. Daughter phones: What was the name of the café on the corner of our block? Me: Café? On our block? There was a filthy supermarket. When was this? Daughter: “Jane [a friend] worked there in the late seventies when she was in high school.” Me: “She thinks it was on the corner?” Daughter (emphatic): “It was on the corner. I can see it. I remember it, just not the name.” Time to line up some informants for crowd-recall. I ask the person who has been living in our building the longest. Like me, he remembers only the filthy supermarket. Next, the upstairs neighbor, she remembers neither supermarket nor café, but will ask her husband. Daughter phones again: “Jane thinks that it had the word butter in its name.” Me: “Bread and Butter?” “Butter and Jelly?” “Peanut Butter and Jelly?” No, no, and no. I am perplexed. Then the upstairs neighbor phones: her husband thinks he remembers something. “What is the French word for butter?” she asks. Me: beurre. She repeats it, and I hear him in the background. Eureka! That’s it: “Au Petit Beurre.” There you have it. Crowd-recall. Now I can see the name, but not the café itself. That will take more research.

Finally, absent a recall-crowd, you can follow the advice of Roger Angell, the retired New Yorker writer. In a jaunty essay, “This Old Man” (referring to himself), he reminds us that we all have a faculty—call it what you will, the subconscious or imagination—usually sitting quietly between our eyebrows and available for consultation when called upon. Angell, in writing of the benefits and challenges of older age, describes the work of this faculty in these words: “My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.”

Yes, a lot to remember, but practice makes perfect. Turn to the nearest person—even your spouse—and introduce yourself. That will get the process started.

Published in the March 25, 2016 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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