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

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Who? An Uncluttered Memory–Why Bother Remembering The Irrelevant?

Henry Alberts  worked at the World Bank and had for many years.  He had become a Senior Project Manager, responsible for a portfolio of tens of millions of dollars to be invested in African hydraulics – dams, sluiceways, reservoirs, and earthworks.  Most of his loans were shaky and borderline non-performing, but that had less to do with his management than with the failed governments responsible for overseeing the projects the Bank financed.  The Ministers of the Interior, Commerce, Trade and Industry, and Revenue all had their hands in the till – Swiss bank accounts, offshore investments, or just seaside villas and Mercedes – and nary a guilty conscience.  As one minister confided to Henry, he was in his position because of  the support of family, community, tribe, region, and national interests; and he would pay them back in that order.  Political rank was an end in itself, not a means to anything further.

In the course of Henry’s financial management, he was often in Africa working with government officials to encourage a modicum of compliance with Bank ‘conditionalities’, to renegotiate failing loans that had some chance of survival, and to give notice to those indifferent borrowers who knew that the Bank needed to spend money more than they needed it, and more funds would be forthcoming no matter how ill-performing were current agreements. 

The Bank was generous to its senior staff – first class travel, long European stopovers at the best hotels, a limitless expense account, and lodging at the best hotels that the benighted countries he serviced could offer.  In all but the poorest countries there was always a first class hotel with Olympic-sized pool, spa, bars, and world class restaurants.  International civil servants like Henry were to be treated well, given the best accommodations, served the best food, and guaranteed the finest, most personalized service. The rates were far higher than any European counterpart because of the captive market.  Travelers from the World Bank, IMF, African Development Bank, and corporate entrepreneurs and their sponsors would pay anything to keep their high-end road warriors happy.

Image result for images lobby grand hotel calcutta

The atmosphere at these hotels was happy and upbeat.  However desperate the conditions outside the hotel, those within were sumptuous, elegant, and happy.  There was no guilt about this disconnect because all those who stayed there were ‘doing good’. Their missions were to help the poor by facilitating the construction of needed infrastructure, hospitals, health centers, and schools.  No one said that they were to be glum.  On the contrary, a happy, contented executive was key to high performance.

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As every hardened traveler knew, international experience provided a suspension of the other guilt – remorse, however temporary, about the fleeing affairs common in Third World watering holes – was a non-starter.  Sexual correspondence was if not de rigeur then expected.  It was the necessary anodyne to missing home and family in horrible places.  Sex provided release, solace, and respite.

One day in March Henry received a call from a Nancy Higgins, a woman who said she was delighted to hear that he was in Washington, and was hoping they could get together for lunch.  Henry, who had no recollection of the woman whatsoever, but assumed that once he saw her would remember immediately, accepted the invitation; and on the appointed day took the elevator to the lobby to meet her.  He got off and looked around for her, but there was no one that he recognized.  Perhaps he had the date or the time wrong; but no, he had double checked his calendar just yesterday.  Then, to his relief, a young woman, smiling, rushed over to greet him, hugged him, and kissed him on both cheeks.  “It is so good to see you”, she said. 

She had already picked out a restaurant (“One I know you’ll like”), and they began walking across L Street.  It was clear that the woman knew him, his tastes, and his preferences; had greeted him with more than casual attention; and was clearly someone important from his past.  Yet he remembered nothing.  Unconcerned, he was sure that over lunch and the conversation about old times that would flavor it, he would remember.  Yet, after the soup and salad, he still drew a blank.  He tried to draw her out with references to Africa, other downtown institutions, ‘characters’ she might well know; but at each sally, she only looked quizzically and went on to her next story.  Surprisingly, they were able to get through lunch without embarrassment.  Her assumptions and his blank went unchallenged.  They thanked each other for lunch, promised to see each other again, kissed, and waved as she hailed a cab. He still had absolutely no idea who she was.

Despite her enthusiastic and warm welcome, she was quite ordinary – plain in an international development kind of way, nicely spoken but humorless, eager but in all the wrong direction, and short of moves or anything odd.  How could he have become friends with such a woman, he wondered.  Attractive, intelligent, impressive women were in no short supply in Africa, so he was surprised that he knew her well enough for her to have shown such delight in meeting him.

Henry, however, was gifted with selective memory.,  Ever since he was a child he was able to tune out people, events, and circumstances which had no importance, relevance, or significance.  Many in a long line of family, friends, and lovers had said, “What? You don’t remember?” For them, Henry’s lack of remembering, was insulting.  People who were important to them passed unnoticed.  It might have salved wounded egos had he admitted at least a vague recollection, an acknowledgement that they had enough substance to have existed, but he could not.  Worst of all was the black hole of events which to others  was a conjuncture of important people doing memorable things, but to him a complete void.  There was no salience to Aunt Sally no matter what the venue; and Cousin Bob was no different.  There was nothing wrong with them, nothing off-putting, nothing disagreeable.  Had one of them been a cripple, a loudmouth, or an evangelist he might have remembered; but it was a stretch to assume a commitment to memory of the most ordinary, unremarkable people, what they said, or where they went.

“There’s plenty of room on your hard drive”, said his wife, after yet another of his demurrals and claims of ignorance. “Not that excuse again”, she said, but of course it was never a question of space, for the human mind is capable of an almost infinite number of mnemonic captures.  It was simply why bother? Regardless of neural space what was the point of remembering anyone from Accounting, Bank gatherings, or Betty Darling’s quiche?

Image result for images brain as computer

A disappointed girl friend had accused him of selfishness and lack of compassion.  “People are people”, she demanded, “regardless of who they are”; and yet not paying attention to Herb Brattle as he went on about financial drains in East Asia, or Molly Figgins’ hikes up the Appalachian Trail, or Sandy Berger’s fondness for Queen Anne highboys had nothing to do with indifference to people or lack of sympathy; but had all to do with relevance and the personality of the teller.  Adele Roberts’s disquisition on the proto-Mongolic origins of Turkish, for example, was fascinating because of Adele whose delight in the perverse grammatical twists of Turkic was effusive.  She laughed at inflections, case endings, tortuous agglutinations, and inverted word order. How could anyone forget Adele? or not remember her?  Henry paid attention and remembered.

Image result for images queen anne highboys

Henry never listened to everything his good friends said either.  He was less interested in what was on their mind than what they felt about it.  Their emotional correspondence was what counted – how they felt about a difficult son, an insecure daughter, a bitchy wife.  What were they going to do, what personal response would they make were necessarily reflective of character and personality.  It was of no relevance where Gil took his troubled son on the Bay, but the fact that they went.

The older that Henry got, the more pronounced his selective memory became.  His was exclusively focused on the end of his life and what was to come than anything before; and so others’ increasingly fading memories of picnics, drives, occasions, and conversations were particularly useless.  Figuring out what’s what is hard enough without the interference of twaddle.

“Teach me how you do it”, said a young friend who was kept up at night by half-dreams of sorting through a toybox – electric train cars, one-eyed dolls, swizzle sticks, worn tennis balls, and Monopoly pieces.  The more she dug through the toybox, throwing out old bits and pieces of her memory, the more the box filled up. 

“I have been this way since childhood”, Henry replied.   Selective memory – the innate, instinctive valuation of people, events, and things; and the seemingly harsh triage of them – was as much a part of his personality as dedicated compassion was to another.  Yes, true enough, he preferred silence to most people, a chance to reflect on those memories that had been recorded and, if he was lucky, would coalesce into some semblance of meaning before it was too late.  Then again there was Adele and if he was lucky, other Adeles to take up the slack; and the old movies he watched again and again, as unproductive an enterprise as there ever was, but one which enabled flickered memories, bits and pieces of something enjoyable that he couldn’t quite remember but wasn’t far.

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