“Funes remembered not only every leaf
of every tree of every patch of forest,
but every time he had perceived
or imagined that leaf. “

-Jorge Luis Borges “Funes, His Memory”

haystacks1989.jpgI turn sixty today and my memory plays tricks. At any moment I can forget a word, like “deck” or “cup” or “knife.” It’s there in my mind’s eye, a clear picture, but the word refuses to skip past the tip of my tongue to finish my thought.

I struggle with the word “sofa,” in part because growing up in my family in my corner of the Midwest it was called a “davenport.”

In frustration, I ask for a little help. “It’s that thing with numbers, on the car,” meaning license plate. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just say ‘license plate’?” responds my unsympathetic son.

But there are other memory flips that I think of as structural. I catch myself bewildered whether I’ve actually done something I meant to or merely think I have. Did I lock the door? Turn off the downstairs light? Or I turn to do one of those things and realize I did it moments before.

At the health club I hang my towel on a hook and unless I consciously make a mental note, look back and confirm its position and signature fold, I’ll emerge from the shower with no idea which towel is mine. By habit I have a primary hook and a back-up, but in these moments, who knows? At times I just grab and run. Folks can be very unforgiving if you use their towel.

And here’s another odd short-term memory thing. I read a chapter in a book. A half hour later I skim the same passage. Some details are as if new, others spring up vividly in memory, but with the same patina of recognition as memories that are ten or twenty or thirty years old.

And there’s that curious feeling of panic, forgetting the names of folks I know well when it’s time to introduce them. Or forgetting a person’s name fifteen seconds after we’re introduced. That may be as much social anxiety as faulty memory. But even in moments of quiet reflection, I’ll stammer. Who’s the female lead in my favorite movie, “Love at Large”? Elizabeth Something? Ah, yes. Perkins. Who wrote “One Hundred Brothers”? James Wilcox? No, he wrote “Modern Baptists.” The other quirky writer working in utter obscurity is Donald Antrim.

This is disconcerting because my mind for books and authors, even the most marginal ones I’ve never read or never will read, is usually of the same absorbent variety as others’ minds for baseball trivia or wines. Now that faculty skips a beat, too. So folded in my billfold, tattered and worn, I keep a short list of books, writers, movies and CDs, so I can browse in book or music stores without panic.

9780521834247.jpgFinding myself in this predicament more and more often, it’s no wonder Douwe Draaisma’s book Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past (Cambridge University Press, $18.99) caught my eye in an ad in The London Review of Books. I neglected to note it on my billfold crib sheet, though, so a day or two later in the bookstore I recalled, vaguely, “Why Memory, Something, Something…” and no more (until I looked it up again in the Review).

I found the book, held it, turned it over, thumbed the pages. What am I looking for, exactly? Not memory “aids.” There are mental exercises and twelve-step programs for that, as well as drugs and herbs, more notes stuffed in billfold or pockets, even knots in a piece of string wound around my finger. At the club the most practical of my contemporaries use memory aids or identifiers on their towels. Perhaps I only want reassurance that I’m not losing it (or that I haven’t lost it already). I’m not concerned about Alzheimer’s—although, perhaps, it’s what my dad, in his eighties, called his forgetfulness: “Old-Timer’s.”

It turns out, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older told me what I needed to know, and more. It’s an encyclopedia or field guide to the way memory works. Draaisma, a bold, articulate and very enchanting writer, identifies the tricks of memory by species.

Smells summon emotionally-tinged memories, called the “Proust phenomenon” after the author’s famous reaction to the taste of Madeleine cookie dipped in lime-blossom tea. Usually, these memories first elicit a dramatic mood change, with the actual memory lagging behind. But interestingly, these memories are very vivid and usually very old ones from our youth. The sense of smell declines drastically as we grow older. Therefore, the early olfactory memories are more distinct because they have not been crowded-out or overwhelmed.

My own most treasured olfactory memory is one associated with eating an ice cream bar in a car repair shop two blocks from my childhood home. Hofer’s Chevrolet in Willow Lake, South Dakota. It’s the smell of ice cream, chocolate and oil, and returns vividly today when I eat an ice cream bar or enter the cool stillness of a car shop. Remarkably, though, my mood is one of nostalgia or loss, because neither bar nor shop duplicate the exact smell I want to remember. Or, perhaps, it’s the time of lost innocence I crave, when a nickel for an ice cream bar was all I needed to make the day.

haystacks1989.jpgEqually vivid are memories of humiliations, insults, our “worst sins,” the powerful memories that stand as “affronts to one’s self-image.” Draaisma notes how these memories recur, unsought, unedited, almost as if unrolling for us in real time, with an uncomfortable sense of immediacy. “Deep traumas always seem no more than a stone’s throw from the present.” We see them from both inside and outside—feel the emotion and see ourselves as others did. This is one of Draaisma’s shortest chapters, perfunctory, without embellishment. He just doesn’t want to talk about it.

(I’ve developed an elaborate mechanism for recognizing the onslaught of these memories—their aura—and can corral and knock them back – unless, that is, I want to indulge them. At times, we seem to need to relive them – guardedly, in parenthesis – a check on the sin of pride.)

Closely related are the “flashbulb memories” that hold fixed details about the receipt of shocking news. They assume a narrative structure because we so often recharge them ourselves or recall them with others. Some, like the most famous, such as how we learned about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, are remembered with photographic detail and enter a shared cultural context. Others can be very personal.

“A St. Martin’s summer day is like a gift time grants to itself. It makes those of us who are older believe it is possible to prolong the sweetness of our days. Like the sauterne we drank at luncheon, you know. The golden sweetness of that wine is the result of November grapes, of fruit harvested after other wines are already in the casks. Only the ripest fruit, grapes dried almost to raisins, shriveled from exposure to sun and the dying earth, give us the incomparable sweetness of a good sauterne.”

Carlos Fuentes, Distant Relations

Deja vu, the presentiment that what we do now is a repeat of something we did before, has evoked many intriguing explanations: evidence of a prior life; coincidental similarity with something we have dreamed; a doubling of the image by the brain in split-second intervals; or, even a trace resemblance to something that we actually experienced in the past. Déjà vu may even be a memory illusion triggered by physiological factors.

My déjà vu-like flashes have to do with stored readings. I have a terrible time memorizing quotations, a block from the day I gave up theater: never looked back, never memorized another line. But I do have echoes from reading and countless times a day I recall bits and pieces of telltale shards that challenge, validate or complement what I’m thinking at the time. And I know vaguely where they are in the book – first third, last few pages, etc. – and precisely where on the page. The Fuentes’ quotation, for example, begins on the lower left-hand page and finishes on the top right in the edition of Distant Relations I own.

The point, I suppose, is that we can count on our memory for the things that count. The golden sweetness of the seasoned quotation, for me.

Far from the preciseness of such singular imaginings are the panoramic memories said to accompany near-death experiences, the rapid flash of images, reportedly, of a whole life. We’ll believe it when we see it, we say, and we’re skeptical of those few who’ve returned, as if from death, to tell us it is true.

And then, as if to taunt us, there are the black holes of memory, the absolute memories of prodigies and savants. Borges’ character Funes remembers everything, as well as every utterance accompanying every remembrance of his memories. Draaisma has gathered the stories of the calculating prodigies, who solve mathematical problems with results running to seventy-eight figures; the calendar calculators who can answer questions about precise dates, future or past; the musical savants who can memorize and recapitulate musical performances note for note, including mistakes; and singular artists like Stephen Wiltshire, whose graphic memory allows him to draw towers and buildings from memory, with accuracy and proportion, but who cannot print the word “Amsterdam” to accompany his drawing of the city. These memories are comprehensive but in an obsessively singular way. The fictional Funes concludes: “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.”

Draaisma explains how the classes of memory function in a systematic way.

The flood that is experience is sorted and layered from our very first breath, and most of us emerge from “childhood amnesia” with distinct memories, albeit few and isolated and seemingly inconsequential. These memories emerge with the acquisition of language to tell them. Some of these early memories may be family lore, too. Do we remember or remember being told? Unique memories are such because distinct; they haven’t been routinized, swallowed in everyday repetition.

Draaisma says that “our memory does not really handle the daily round well.” Think about it. Hundreds of times a minute our memory reassures us about the everyday, the mundane. So, we might think, no wonder it occasionally skips a beat, forgets a name or where we hung the towel. But no, blanking on my towel is not a random glitch. It is actually a tribute to memory’s pervasive, subtle power.

“The apple-tree, in New England, plays the part of the olive in Italy. . . . Its office in the early autumn is to scatter coral and gold. The apples are everywhere, and every interval, every old clearing, an orchard; they have ‘run-down’ from neglect and shrunken from cheapness – you pick them up from under your feet but to bite them, for fellowship, and throw them away.”

Henry James, The American Scene

In broad scope we have a difficult time trying “to reconstruct unremarkable happenings, or the way voices used to sound, how things used to feel, how rooms smelled, the way food tasted. Or what your loved ones used to look like.” The slow, imperceptible change in those close to us, for example, will “expunge” their past look from our memory. If our appearance at each stage of our life were a book, Draaisma says, and our memory a bibliophile collecting each new edition – if, in other words, Funes’ memory were ours – we could compare them and tell precisely “what had been removed, added, scrapped, revised or corrected. Instead our memory is a tool designed for evolutionary useful purposes,” and day by day the latest imprint is the one with useful shelf life.

Here I dissent. The woman I’ve loved for more than forty of the sixty years I’ve collected memories is there in my mind’s flip book in each day’s edition – I can’t believe otherwise! For each of us there is this single thing that is the measure of everything else. The rest, perhaps, we bite for fellowship and throw away.

(Now this aspect of memory is altered somewhat by the existence of so many images preserved in photographs, films, recordings and contemporaneous records, pervasive and mundane. These aids, like personal factual histories—educational, financial, health—can refresh our recollection.)

An exception proves the iron-fisted rule of the mundane. Studies of long-term memory show the “reminiscence effect,” a bump of vivid and reliable recollections clustered between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. After that the memory curve drops decade by decade in our autobiographical memories, except for our most recent memories. Perhaps our memory was stronger in youth. Perhaps it’s the life-defining moments that register most vividly and are the ones revisited most frequently, retaining their echo in later experience, after routine and repetition have become the order of the day.

I want to use memory to negotiate the present. I push it to provide useful recollection. And yet, as Draaisma points out, our memory moves counter to the course of time, we habitually remember forwards and not backwards. Remembering in reverse order, as in the movie “Memento,” requires painstaking deconstruction. At the level of the sentence it’s impossible, of course, for the very structure of thought moves action forward, a loaded spring, poised at any point to explode, out, forward. Draaisma also detects a more subtle force at work. Even so, memory functions to help us deal with the future, bringing experience to bear on present conundrums. “Remembrance serves expectation.” The expectation, for example, that I will know my towel by the hook it hangs from.

Why is that so hard to remember day after day?

haystacks1989.jpgIn his last chapter Draaisma addresses the most persistent illusion about time, the feeling that life speeds up as we get older. There’s an obvious commonsense explanation. At six a year was a sixth of my life. At sixty it is a sixtieth. “Objective slowing down creates subjective speeding up.” But Draaisma suggests much more. He quotes William James, who called the phenomenon “the monotony of the memory’s content.” In youth our experiences are fresh, “intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn out,” but each passing year “connects some of this experience into automatic routine” and “the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to countless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

It is Funes’ capacity without his ability to differentiate. Perspective and priority depend on—and here the words are Draaisma’s—“the intensity of our sensations and ideas, their alterations, their number, the tempo with which they succeed one another, the attention we pay them, the effort it takes to store them in the memory and the emotions and associations they call forth in us.”

Read that passage again: Intensity. Number. Attention. Effort. Emotion. Association. Ten years, four or five days a week, in the shower. No wonder there’s a moment now and again when I have no idea where I’ve hung my towel. No smell, humiliation or flashbulb illumination stepping from the shower. Well, perhaps smell, and potential humiliation if I’m caught out grabbing another old timer’s towel.

Memory, being what it is, you see, I know I’ll forget where I’ve hung my towel. If not tomorrow, then next week and with increasing frequency as shower, towel and hook stay pretty much the same. I’m not yet ready for herbs or mental exercises, or to give up and flag my towel with a name tag or colored pin or ….and I had to think a moment – roach clip. But after reading Draaisma I’ll be less hard on myself.—and, when all else fails, grab a towel and run!