Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Loss For Words


The other night, just as we were about to turn off the lights and go to sleep, I got out of bed and when Beverly asked me where I was going I wanted to tell her, “I’m going to turn off the furnace.” What I said to her, without hesitation, was, “I’m going to turn off the stove.” A malapropos. Sort of. Two machines that produce heat. Stove. Furnace. Not that big a stretch.

But when you arrive at a certain age, the age when you go from one room to another and have to stop and go through a sort of manual reboot to remember why you came in the room, a mental misfire such as that one becomes a chilly alarm. The same alarm that goes off when your vocabulary suddenly abandons you in mid-sentence and the word you need simply refuses to load. Charming events known as “word searches.” Compound these cerebral glitches with the fact that my livelihood depends on words, the right words in the best possible order and you can understand why these mental burps can be very hard to walk away from without at least a small...oh, what is the word...shudder.

I’m a writer and writers live under the old testament law articulated by Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and the not quite right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I don’t like these little moments of betrayal, when my brain, a brain I’ve taken fairly good care of over the years, leaves me to fumble around in a dark basement searching for that thing, no the other thing that’s like the first thing but altogether different.
I’ve given my head so much, that you’d think it would be kinder to me as I stumble into my dotage. Ungrateful organ. And it’s not even like going through a real basement where you can at least find something interesting when you’re looking for the thing you went down there for. A word search is less like a basement in that way and more like a warehouse containing countless identical unmarked cardboard boxes, only one of which contains anything of value. This was, in fact, the original pilot for ‘Deal or No Deal,’ then they added the girls.

It’s infuriating and disturbing and, if it goes on for more than thirty seconds, panic producing. Not a can opener, that other thing you use to shape the things that go in the other thing.
My head is full of all sorts of grand and trivial stuff, all of which I prize and welcome when something unexpected three-cushions itself to the surface. But right now I’m trying to remember who the hell I’m talking to before somebody comes over here and I have to introduce them.

Panic makes it worse and the thing you search for slips further away, lost until some future point when, unbidden and in the new moment completely useless, the missing piece shows up, like a streetlamp in the Sahara Desert.

Oh, memory, why do you mock me? Is this revenge for never seeking the headwaters of the Amazon, but going to the movies instead? Punishment for a pedestrian life that knows nothing of the Amsterdam red light district, but can tell you where the peanut butter is in the Ralph's on Vineland? You hunger to recall towering achievements and all I can offer is being trapped in the waiting room at Robertson Honda with the Rosie O’Donnel show blasting on the tv bolted to the wall. I’m sorry, but how do you think I feel about it?

Then again, I have had drinks with Ben Bradlee in his library and I have stood in Westminster Abbey, so do I really deserve this indignity? Fair is fair.

But memory couldn’t care less about fairness. Otherwise all the bad stuff would come with a delete option.

The theory of memory I like best is that there is no such thing as a memory. No isolated little factoid nuggets stuck in the gray matter like post-its. No memories, but there is remembering; the process of recalling and reconstructing memories out of separately stored electrical clusters, which explains how memories can change and adjust themselves over the years; we put them together a little differently every time, perfecting them. But those memories, those are the important things, the first times and last looks, the memories that have more to do with who we are than where the hell we left our car keys.

But I still worry about the car keys, and the sunglasses and the remote and that round thing that was over on top of the other thing. I worry that these are the canaries in the coal mine warning of greater losses to come. If they are warnings, then we better pay attention and savor what we are by exercising our memories through that sculpting process of evocation that is remembering.

Memories abandoned my mother toward the end of her life, leaving her with a spotty awareness of what was going on around her. But she remembered all the words to “Walking My Baby Back Home,” and who’s to say that wasn’t the thing she needed to hang on to? Not me. I can’t even tell the difference between a stove and a furnace.

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