"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Susan Who? Selective Memory And Remembering Only Those Who Matter

George Parsons was a Senior Manager at the World Bank, responsible for African affairs, formerly a Division Chief for West Africa, and before that a Project Manager for Mali, Burkina, and Niger.  He had travelled extensively through the region, had met heads of state, ministers with important portfolios, economists and development professionals, and the odd tourist,  In the parlance he had become ‘An Old Africa Hand’.

Yet his career before the World Bank was even more varied.  He had lived in India, Thailand, and Ecuador; had worked on assignments in the Far East and the newly emerging East European states; and by his count had worked in over sixty countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern and Central Europe.

It was therefore no surprise that he got a call one day from Susan Herbert who suggested that they have lunch together.  She would only be in Washington for a few days, and it would be a delight to meet up again.  Although Parsons had no idea whatsoever who Susan Herbert was, he readily agreed.  They had obviously had known each other somewhere in Africa or Asia, and because of her warm, encouraging greeting, the relationship might have been more personal than professional.  As soon as he would see her in the lobby of the H Building, he would immediately recognize her, and the lunch would carry on with mutual memories and a good time.

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He got off the elevator and scanned the lobby.  There was no one he recognized.  Perhaps he was early, he thought, or Susan Herbert was late.  In any case, he would sit in the newly-acquired Mies van der Rohe chairs bought as a gift by Samuel Schwartz, Chairman of the Franz Marcus Foundation, a man who had made millions in Congolese rare earths and Angolan diamonds before he took over management of one of the Third World’s biggest donors.

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No sooner had Parsons sat down then an attractive woman in her mid-forties came over to greet him.  He stood up, she gave him a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks, smiled and told him how absolutely marvelous it was to see him again.  Yet, she did not register, and as much as he tried, he could come up with nothing.  The deux bises suggested Africa, her tailored clothes and simple jewelry hinted private sector or a foundation like Marcus or even Gates or Buffett.  Her embrace was warm, but professional, her attitude bright but impersonal, and her demeanor respectful but not overly warm. 

He was sure that once they began chatting, sharing professional experiences, he would remember who she was; yet she talked only of her recent ski trip to Aspen, how boisterous the crowd at the lower lifts had been, the delights of fresh powder on the double blacks, and the absolutely not-to-be-missed restaurant in Denver.  Despite his prompts, she gave up nothing.  Was she still travelling as much? Yes, but it was becoming tiring. Was she still in the same field? Yes, there was no leaving the work she loved, work which gave her personal and financial independence.  She admitted that eventually she would like to retire and begin a new career, but that was too far off to consider now.

The lunch went on like that, Parsons telling in detail about his foreign adventures – the coup in Ouagadougou, the civil unrest in Angola, the juggernaut in Orissa, and the nickel smelter fiasco in Macedonia – and she musing only about the prairie, camping in the Adirondacks and trying her hand at blackjack in Las Vegas. 

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The life she described didn’t jibe at all with that of development workers who were generally eager, dedicated, a bit shabby, overenthusiastic, and anxious to talk about ‘the people’, village collaboration, and reaching the goals of the Millennium Challenge.  Parsons remained surprised that the mnemonic jump he was sure to come never did.  Even through coffee and dessert, they talked as friends but to Parsons she was a total, complete, utter stranger.

“Let’s do this again”, she said, giving him a warm hug and big smile.  “Soon”.  He waved to her as she crossed M Street, hailed a cab, and headed across town.

This is perhaps an extreme example of what is common in all of us – selective memory.  Obviously, for all Susan Herbert’s current charm, when he had met her she had made no impression.  She had come in and out of his life unnoticed, unremarkable, unacknowledged; a peripheral figure with no significance.  She had been a cipher, never even stored in his memory.  It was not that he had erased her; she had never ever been there at all.   Perhaps she had been a nurse at a nutrition rehabilitation center in Nouakchott, an intern in the Bulgarian Office of Economic Affairs, PhD student from Duke studying female kinship patterns, a missionary, a wife, or simply a traveler.

What would  have been the purpose of remembering the likes of Susan Herbert? The mind was not a sponge, after all, absorbing all random bits and pieces spilled on a table willy-nilly. “But you were there”, said his wife. “How could you nor remember?”.  For her, sociability and friendship – camaraderie, good nature, easy intimacy – were hallmarks, the attributes which defined her.  No one could ever consider her bookish, critical, or diffident.  People were what mattered; in fact the only thing that mattered.  It was no stretch, for her to remember something about everyone at the party, even if it were only the color of a scarf or a tone of voice. 

At the same time Parsons remembered none of them.  For him the party was an obligatory, wife-servicing event, a distraction from the coming Easter (he could not help but think of the Passion, the Crucifixion, and the death on the cross), the devilishly difficult Turkish relative clause, and what he was to make for dinner.  No matter how many people he met, nor how many with whom he chatted, their presence was insubstantial.  What they said was of no interest, of no relationship, and of no meaning.

As he got older, his indifference grew.  What difference did it make, really, whether the coquilles St. Jacques were overdone? What possible difference could a walk through the Cotswolds make alone or in company?  What was the point of birthday parties, outings on the Bay, or afternoons by the pool?

“I’ve had enough”, Parsons said to his wife when she asked him about his growing reclusiveness; but she could not leave it there.  Such universal diffidence signaled the onset of depression and dark days.

First to go were the Elders whom Carson had always suspected of airiness. There was no there there, and whereas Parsons had never noticed it before - so competently did the brass, strings, and percussion play together - he noticed it now.  Clearing this one lone pine from the stand might even make the stand even more beautiful and serene.

The Binghams went without notice, the absence of a moth in a complex ecosystem.  When Parsons disinvited the Wentworths the disruption in the formerly well-tuned social harmony was noticed; and when the Abbots were absent, the group had finally lost its character.  Although no couple substantively added to the substantiality of the group – no one added anything except their enjoyment – absences were felt.  A symphony can be rescored, but if enough sections are missing, the music is flat and not worth playing.

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Parsons chose to dismantle the group rather than simply leave it.  He felt, before his insistence on divestiture had become irreversible, that perhaps he could do with a smaller group, fewer parties, less ambition while pursuing his other, new, much more personal interests.  He soon realized that he was wrong.  He had created an orchestral wonder, but when looked at through his older, now severely critical lens, it was worth nothing no matter how big or small.

“What’s the point”, was his irritating, repeated bar.  How could a man of Parson’s intelligence, talent, and ability fallen into such nihilistic inaction?  Would this downward spiral increase, or would he pull up, redirect his energy, and right his ship?

Parsons was unconcerned.  It was about time that he rid himself of the clutter he had accumulated.  He knew it was time to clear the decks for running; to get rid of excuses – which is what he now saw socializing to be – and to get alone and serious.

Now not only was his memory untaxed, free as it was from the nonessential, insignificant people in his life, but his practical life was completely loosed from its social tethers.  It was never a question of whom he would remember, because there was no one to remember.

Of course no one is ever completely free from the insistent memories of childhood, regrets, guilt, or doubt indelibly inscribed on the cerebellum, but as for the rest?

Albert Einstein was once accused of never changing his clothes.  Surprised, he said that he changed them every day and showed the questioner his closet filled with racks of exactly the same suits, shirts, ties, socks, and shoes.  There was enough complexity in the known world let alone the unknown without adding to it with unnecessary choice.

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Any man without mnemonic clutter and unnecessary engagements is a happy man.  Susan Herbert, the partygoers, old friends and acquaintances,  politicians and preachers, all disappeared, a magical prestidigitation worthy of Barnum & Bailey.  The decks were indeed cleared for running.

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