. . . . . I know the song
of names by now seductive and misleading:
Cherry Birch Blue Birch Black Birch Sweet
and the High Himalayan though it’s hard
to say just which is which …
A century ago, seeing my students’ resentful eyes because I was keeping them inside on a fine sun-filled day, the old cliché would come to mind, “Hey, pay attention — I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know.” But now, facing students only occasionally, a less comfortable thought rises as I pause, a bit confused, in mid-sentence: “I really have forgotten it.”
At dinner a while back, Jeanne said she’d read a good review of a TV show about, um, the piano player. Piano player? I said. You know, the one with the candelabra… Well, OK, no problem.
Later, after that show, we turned the channel to Network, a 1976 movie we’d missed somehow, and right away an actress sashayed onto the scene with a sultry and familiar walk.
“She was in Chinatown,” Jeanne offered. But what’s her name? After a while, I said, “She was in Barfly, too — that movie about the poet whatshisname.”
Later on — as usual — we remembered: Faye Dunaway and Charles Bukowski. But as we were dozing off Jeanne wondered why names in particular are so hard to recall, much harder than places and objects (like candelabra).
“Every Tom, Dick, and whozit forgets names,” I said. But maybe that’s not true, and only seems that way because our friends tend to be tipsy septuagenerians. The basic problem is that names don’t have meaning in the usual sense. Our brains are programmed to remember by association, but names are pretty randomly assigned, and even ones that have or suggest meaning (Peter Singer or Ginger Baker, for example) are usually misleading. And a lot of names today are not only hard to remember, but hard to pronounce.
We occasionally try to do something about our memory slide. Staying for a while in the Catskills, I decided to study its flora and fauna. I was doing fine until I started on the birch trees, many varieties of which were scattered around the property. The more I looked up their names the more confused I got — “Knowledge splits its subjects into chunks” is another line from today’s poem — and soon gave up.
Jeanne, having more staying power, took a do-it-yourself course on remembering names, called Mega-Memory. Working on her computer, she got to the point where she could recognize whole groups of faces, using associative methods (Alison / a lice; Bailey / bay leaf, etc.). We were both proud of her ability, and she’d show it off on occasion. But it took practice and too much time, and gradually she got bored with doing it — “I don’t want this to be my life,” she said. She had her Poet’s Notebook drawings to do.
Recently we gathered with a large group of people, and — almost inevitably in such a mix — the difficulty of names came up, so Jeanne told her Mega-story, concluding that indeed, she had learned to remember names for a while, but now, she said, “I’m just like the rest of you.”
“Whoever you are,” I added, unhelpfully.
We’ve decided to live with this handicap, somewhat mollified by discovering it’s a widespread affliction, not entirely concentrated on our age group.
Just last night, we were talking about one of our bêtes noires, the bugaboo who got all the Republicans to pledge never to raise taxes. Of course, we forgot his name. Jeanne thought that it began with an ‘N.’ “I’d like to name a doll after him and stick pins in it.”
“Good,” I said. “If we remember it, let’s get the spelling right.”
As Jimmy Durante might have said, at the end of one of his shows, “Goodnight Mrs … um, wherever you are.” Began with a “C.”
… And on that big one
warbling his dumb head off sits a goldfinch —
some kind of goldfinch …
—Both quotes from “The Student,” in Night Watch on the Chesapeake by Peter Meinke, U. of Pittsburgh Press 1987.