A Humorous Look at Forgetfulness



by Tom Paugh

                        Pease-Porridge hot, pease-porridge cold,

                        Pease-porridge in the pot, nine days old.

(Obviously this chef was over sixty and lost track of what he was doing. Now, hopefully, he will also forget about serving it.)

It stands to reason that as you approach the final portion of life your brain becomes overstuffed with education, business acumen, sports stats, the latest IRS regs and trivia, trivia, trivia. There can be room for only so much in a single cranium and when you go to squeeze something additional in, especially something as mundane as where you put the TV remote or exactly how long it has been since you last had sex, other things often get temporarily displaced. Not to worry.

                        The horror of that moment,’ the King went on,

                        ‘I shall never forget!’

                        ‘You will, though,’ The Queen said, ‘if you

                        don’t make a memorandum of it.’

                        —Lewis Carroll,

                        Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (1832-98)

Here is a joke making the rounds in over-sixty circles: A wife asks her husband to run down to the corner store to get a pint of vanilla ice cream and some chocolate syrup.

“Do you want me to write that down?” she inquires.

“It’s only two things,” he replies. “Not a problem.”

Later he returns and hands her a package containing cheddar cheese.

“I knew you should have written it down,” she says. “See here, you forgot the crackers.”

                        The palest ink is better than the best memory.

                        —Chinese Proverb

A possible answer to this over-stuffed brain problem is suggested by comedian Steve Martin in a 1998 New Yorker magazine article: “One solution for older men is to take all the superfluous data swirling around in the brain and download it into the newly large stomach, where there is plenty of room. This frees the brain to house more relevant information, like the particularly troublesome ‘days of the week.’” Not very practical, but at this point most of us would be willing to try anything. We all have to learn to deal with our temporary forgetfulness and there are a number of ways. As the foregoing suggests, we do need to write things down. Then we need to remember to take the list with us and THEN we have to remember to look at the list when it’s time for us to know what’s on it. Most of us have a strong tendency to believe that we will remember certain facts when we need to. The more probable scenario is that we won’t.

                        Memory is the thing you forget with.

                        —Alexander Chase, Perspectives (1966)

I have long worn glasses for reading and other close-up work. I hate having to take the time to reach into my pocket and put on my glasses, that is if I have remembered to put them in my pocket. This is especially true when it comes to using the touch-tone phone. My eyes are almost good enough to make out the numbers, but not quite. As a result I have to dial a wrong number at least twice before I am convinced I need to put on my specs. I am now in the process of trying to memorize the location of the numbers on the dial pad so I can do it by feel, sort of like touch typing. But since I often have difficulty remembering who it is I am trying to call, this scheme is no doubt doomed to failure.

                        Forgetfulness transforms every occurrence into a non-occurrence.

                        —Plutarch (AD c.46-c.120)

This same sort of quirky thinking applies to memory loss. At the time your brain first receives new information, you are convinced that you will retain it. (“I will put the package down here, on top of the car. Who could forget that?”) But when the moment comes to summon up the necessary information, it is nowhere to be found. We simply get in the car and drive off. We must learn not to trust ourselves. Don’t put the package (or the baby) on top of the car; put it on the hood where you can’t miss seeing it. Don’t put your cocktail glass on the mantel, or in the laundry room, or on the back of the toilet. Put it some place where you’ll at least have an even chance of finding it when you suddenly realize it is no longer in your hand. Two reliable spots are the cocktail table or the bar.

                        Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness . . .

                        —Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924)

Ever leave one room to go to another to do something and when you get there you have no idea why you are there? This is commonplace. No you are probably not getting Alzheimer’s. You and your mind are just moving too fast and not paying attention. Don’t leave room number one until you fix it in your mind just why you are leaving and where you are going and what you’re going to do when you get to room number two. Don’t stop to talk with anyone or answer the phone while in transit. And if you do forget, don’t worry. This is commonplace . . . or did I mention that already?

                        Better by far that you should forget and smile

                        Than that you should remember and be sad.

                        —Christina Georgiana Rossetti, Remember (1862)

How important it is for our favorite NFL team to win the Super Bowl. And, six months later, how impossible it is to even remember which two teams played in it, let alone who won.

                        It’s hard to be nostalgic when you can’t remember anything.


From Loving Life After Sixty, by Tom Paugh. Copyright © Tom Paugh. Excerpted by arrangement with Willow Creek Press. $9.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-850-9453 or click here.