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

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Seeing Things, Imagining Others, And Forgetting Most–The Selective Memory Of A Smart Man

Sanford Berryman remembered things that never happened, couldn’t remember many that had, saw things that no one else saw, and drew a blank on others’ recollections. There was nothing wrong with him unless a very selective perception counted as aberration. To him things went in one ear and out the other with surprising ease.  How could there be such a conduit, asked his wife, who generally paid attention to matters large and small, and for whom memory was like glue.  Things simply stuck to it.

When pressed, he demurred politely.  He hadn’t been paying enough attention, was distracted by an odd phrasing of music or a passing truck; when in truth what his wife had been saying was outside his ‘margin of appreciation’, that zone of particular interest where things did stick and were captured and remembered with no effort or will.  A line from Ode: Intimations of Mortality.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Image result for images william wordsworth

Ah yes, he thought.  Good old Wordsworth, always ready with some uplift, easy to ponder and relate.  What on earth did Eliot ever mean by:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih

His wife claimed that his highfalutin poetry was nothing more than an excuse.  How could he have forgotten her Aunt Betty’s neuralgia? Or Piper’s wedding?

An Indian sadhu had explained to Sanford why abstinence was important. “There are only so many shots in the magazine”, he said, and then went on about energy reservoirs, tantric flows, and godhead; but the comment made sense.  Everything had finite limits and marshalling resources and space were of utmost importance. The human brain could only manage so much information and cluttering it up with marginalia made no sense at all.  One needed a good filter to sieve out the drivel and others’ claims to importance, and to let in only the essential bits.

Image result for images indian sadhu

Or course he was aware that one used but a tiny fraction of the brain’s computing power, but until one had the key to unlock that potential, the brain’s memory was still a bank, or rather a small closet. And besides, most of what got filed away in that closet had never really happened in the first place, so fallible were the senses.  

By the time the story of Uncle Harry and the goat got told around countless family dinner tables it no longer resembled what had actually happened to Harry in the Austrian Alps and to the goatherd he asked for directions.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys know that eyewitness accounts are all bunk.  Three observers on the corner of Grand and Main saw the alleged perpetrators of a crime fleeing in either a blue sedan, a black SUV, or a Camry.  It was carrying either two black men, two white men, or two women.

Nabokov understood from a very early age that the present was only momentary and the future only a possibility; so it was only the past that had meaning, salience, and relevance.  So he made special efforts to fix in his mind what he knew would be important events, and played them over and over again, playing them out and respooling them until they were an integral part of him, an indistinguishable element of himself.

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Even  then, as he admitted, what he saw in the first place was colored by emotion, previous events, the time of day, the weather, and his disposition, but that was all one had, and one’s personal memories, however cobbled together from others’ recounting and personal impressions were not diminished in value.

Then there was the question of seeing things that weren’t there.  “I could swear that was Beanie Phillips”, Sanford said to his wife after returning from a walk on the Georgetown Waterfront.

“I thought Beanie was dead”, his wife said; and so he was, noted in the obituary column of the Yale Alumni Magazine somehow ignored by Sanford, irritated as he was by the University’s cover of story of “Diversity Comes To Campus”.  

Yet the man noticed by Sanford crossing his path and disappearing under the Whitehurst Freeway had certainly looked like Beanie.  Same gait, same sailor’s roll. If it hadn’t been Beanie Phillips then it was his doppelganger. 

In fact, what difference did it make?  The image of his college classmate, real or not, was enough to free hundreds of memories from his college years. Bladderball on the Old Campus Freshman Year, coffee and cigarettes in the Trumbull lounge, hitchhiking up the Merritt Parkway to Smith.

Image result for images bladderball on the old campus yale

Sanford lost track of Beanie after Yale, occasionally wondered what had become of him.  Beanie was never out front on things, so it was not surprising that there was not even a footnote about him in the Alumni Magazine.  The last Sanford had heard, Beanie was out West somewhere; but that never mattered since it was probable that he would never see him again; so it was the Nabokov-like memories which kept Beanie alive and well.

When he learned from his wife about Beanie’s death, he never looked up.  Since Beanie had been a fixture in his memory for over 50 years and  would be until his death, he was neither grieving nor sorry.  “I thought he was your friend”, his wife said.

“He was”, said Sanford, and with that closed his eyes and fell asleep.

A number of years back when Sanford was working at a downtown Washington office he got a call from a woman who regretted that so much time had gone by without their getting together, and now that she was in Town for a few days, wouldn’t it be nice to have lunch.  Although he did not recognize her name or her voice, he was sure that since she obviously knew him, once he saw her, all would come flooding back.

On the appointed day, he hesitantly went down to the lobby, hoping he would recognize her.  He had no chance, for no sooner did he step out of the elevator, she ran up to him, gave him a kiss and warm embrace and said, “Sandy, so great to see you.  Where shall we eat?”

Despite verbal nudges and casual prompting, he was unable to discover that key bit of information which would unlock the woman seated across from him.  They chatted, bantered, and enjoyed their lunch, but by the end of the hour, she was still a blank.  They embraced, promised to ‘do this again soon’, and parted.

The woman had obviously meant nothing to Sanford when he met her, and nothing they did together ever got registered or imprinted. While he was surprised to learn from the lunch that his memory was so selective, he took it for granted that the sieve worked no matter what the size or circumstances of the event in question might be.

At the same time his wife was continually amazed at how he could pull up literary references, verses, characters, and passages which to most people would be deeply obscure; but which to him were intimately meaningful. Literature was never just an avocation but a schooling – written things of value and relevance would never disappear and were always as accessible as the Hail Mary.

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Fortunately, thanks to his understanding wife, the marriage did not suffer from this disconnect.  One worked around the issue.  She lightened up on her shared memories and was patient with his monologues.  As they got older she began to worry about Alzheimer’s and tracked his sightings, lack of remembrance, and forgetfulness; but dementia was not in the cards.  He was simply a man of selective memory and lively imagination, and that was that.

Sanford Berryman was not alone in his paradigm.  There are certainly thousands of men far less charitable than he who simply turn off their minds’ hearing aid at the first mention of their wives’ own Aunt Betty or Piper Barwell. 

Sanford listened attentively and respectfully, but the words simply went in one ear and out the other.  With no mnemonic glue anywhere inside his head to catch and stick them, off they went into the void. Voila la difference. Deliberate deafness or innocent triage. There are certainly far more men who fall into the former camp than the latter.

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