Around the bend: Making sense of memory lapses
“Cybill Shepherd!”There are worse things a person could spontaneously shout while standing in line at the grocery store. As it was, my outburst caused the checkout clerk to drop a dozen eggs and a person in the next line to look around and say, “Where?”But it was a moment of triumph for me, a welcome relief after three long days of frustration.It all started on a family road trip to Massachusetts, when we passed a driver who looked kind of like Bruce Willis.It got me thinking about Willis’s acting career, which brought me to the ’80s romantic comedy/detective show “Moonlighting.” But I couldn’t remember the female lead’s name.It suddenly became critical that I know this. Lately, this is the sort of torture I put myself through almost daily in an effort to prove to myself that my memory is not fraying around the edges.I knew what she looked like. I remembered that they used to use a soft focus in all her close-up shots to make her look younger, that in real life she had twins and that she stayed in shape by speed walking.But what was her name?The other occupants of the car were no help. Two were too young to remember the show. And my husband Mark? Couldn’t care less.For the rest of the trip I went through the alphabet time after time. Rummaging through the dusty and overstuffed shelves of my brain, I managed to knock loose only a little bit of helpful data: Her name started with a “sh” or “ss” sound. I was sure of that much, at least.Shelly? Cheryl? Cindy?Argh.I spent the ride groaning, occasionally trying out names (“Sharon?”) while in the back seat a child and a college student exchanged confused glances and my husband sighed with mild annoyance, as though it didn’t matter.Oh, it mattered.Had I been at a computer, I would have googled “Moonlighting” and put my frazzled mind at ease immediately. Instead, I chased that elusive name throughout the poorly lit, rarely used corridors in the back of my mind. It skittered just out of reach every time I came close to snagging it.Eventually, I gave up and forgot all about it.What a surprise then, a few days later at the supermarket, when the name popped into my head. One instant I was thinking about dinner, the next I was scaring the checkout clerk.I have heard that as you grow older, word recall can become a problem. Or maybe it’s not even due to aging; maybe it’s just information overload. Either way, it appears that in my case the trivia of my youth is starting to slip away.I now understand why my mother once phoned me after a similar memory lapse and, without so much as a hello, yelled, “Albert Finney!” and hung up.Mark doesn’t share my panic at forgetting once-familiar lyrics, ad slogans or the names of celebrities who have faded from fame. He forgot who Cybill Shepherd was as soon as her show went off the air, if not sooner, and he doesn’t consider it a big loss.He apparently doesn’t care to retain any information that doesn’t directly relate to him. Sure, he’ll always reserve space for play-by-play memories of every sporting event in which he ever participated. But beyond that, his memory warehouse has a lot of empty shelves.He doesn’t remember the name of the unfunny Marx Brother. He doesn’t know who sang “Kung Fu Fighting.” He doesn’t even know the name of the bartender on “The Love Boat.”And it doesn’t bother him a bit.I, on the other hand, accumulate trivia indiscriminately, like a trawler net hauling in fish. But it appears my memory has reached its maximum capacity and is now jettisoning everything except personal memories. What good is that?I mean, someday I might need to remember what actor played Thurston Howell the Third. Knowing my seventh-grade locker combination will never help me win at Trivial Pursuit.The whole situation was really starting to get me down. Until yesterday.I was in line at the hardware store behind a man around my age, who looked lost in thought. He suddenly grinned and said, to no one in particular, “Lou Ferrigno!”It’s good to know at least I’m not alone.