I’d like to think … well, that’s kind of the subject of today’s discourse. I’d like to be able to think.
I started writing a novel I intended to title Time To Forget, set on a college campus, in which I would describe a popular professor’s growing concern about the deterioration of his memory. In the early chapters he lost the occasional word; by the middle, entire concepts had disappeared. The experience was not so much of memories erased, but of memories so slight and fragile that in attempting to recall them, they floated further into obscurity.
It wasn’t hard to come up with examples; they’re all around me. Identification with the character came much too easily. I backed away. The novel is still-born, not without merit, but too disturbing to finish.
I quite liked this section at the start; you’ll catch the overwrought tone of a weary academic.
In the dead of night, in the hour of the wolf, startled awake, I try to bring any of it back. I get no purchase. As I sit at my desk today, I recover shards of it, but the likely possibility that I’ll lose it all again brings the familiar thrill of terror. It takes an act of will to shake it sideways. I have learned to distract myself by flipping on the light next to the bed, staring purposefully at the window, half-closed, imagining myself raising and lowering it, raising, lowering.
My time is about to run out, and, in an egregious piece of bad planning, the universe intends for me to linger long enough to realize that not only will my experience of being end, but that my own memory of my existence will fade before my time runs out.
Uh, too close for comfort.
Yesterday’s plan was to drive to my brother’s house for a short visit. It’s not a bad drive, about two hours each way. When driving alone, I like to listen to an audio-book, but when with my daughter, I count on her to invent a challenging and diverting exercise-of-the-mind, pretty much her stock in trade as one of the nation’s most engaging and provocative conversationalists. In but a moment she presented what ought to have been a reasonably straightforward exchange: She presents an actor, I am to reply identifying a film in which the actor has appeared, she then responds with another actor also in the film, I come back with another film in which the second actor has appeared, and so on, we are to hope, ad infinitum.
The first hint of imminent disaster came within seconds of her lobbing me an easy first actor, thus:
She: Dustin Hoffman
Me: (OK, I know a bunch of films with Dustin Hoffman, but I have to pick one that features an actor that will leave her speechless, incapable of response …. No … I want the game to continue … OK, OK … Mrs. Doubtfire should work. That gives her a couple of options. She’ll get Robin Williams.) Robin Williams
She: No, you give me a movie.
Me: I did, from Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams
She: (Already wary) OK, so, you’re saying Mrs. Doubtfire?
She: Sally Field.
Me: Got it now! Soap Dish!
She: (OK, this might work) Robert Downey Junior
Me: (Cleverly) I’m not going to give you Gwyneth Paltrow
She: Good. (Hey, he remembers to name a movie)
Me: Mark Ruffalo
She: You want me to take the movies and you take the actor? There are only two of us, two jobs, whatever one you want.
That part got better; that was actually the easy part. The hard part was coming up with names that I knew perfectly well, familiar names, obvious names. Endlessly patient, the quiz mistress gave me a great deal of latitude in working my way from the clumsy approximations to something close to an actual name.
Given Ben Affleck, for example, I wanted to get cagey, show my teeth just a bit, avoid any of the obvious roles, so, remembering that he appeared in an odd and disturbing fantasy comedy, I began the work of bringing the title to mind. I knew everything about it: It was condemned by the Catholic League even before it was released, directed by Kevin Smith, had a bunch of my favorite actors – Matt Damon, Alan Rickman, Linda Fiorintino, Janeane Garofalo – all I was missing was the title.
Me: I know this. I know this. (Then told her all the information above)
She: (Nodding, willing to be helpful) OK, starts with a “D”
Me: Starts with a “B”.
She: Think of Password. Not Catma, but …
She D! D! D!
Me: Oh! Dogma!
Sainthood will fall upon her. We continued to play.
Mangling the work of countless artists, I suggested answers such as:
“Cameron Diaz. Got this. There’s A Problem With Mary … No … What’s Wrong With Mary … There’s This Thing With Mary“. With latitude again rather than attitude, she responded, “There’s Something About Mary?”
“Penelope Cruz. I know, I know … Velvet Sky!” No response. “Violet Sky?” Nothing. “Violent Sky?” Again with charity, “You mean, Vanilla Sky?”
The disturbing part is not that I have faulty recall of titles I once, and intermittently still, know; the problem is that only a short while ago, if I had issues with recall, it had to do with finding the proper noun. That was easy enough to negotiate; I could use all-purpose words, You know, Whatcha-ma-call-it, Thing-a-ma-jig, What’s-it, Whose-it, Thing-y.
“Honey, where did you leave the Whose-it that was in the kitchen?”
That actually called for several more passes before the item was identified as a spatula, which, to be fair, is not a word that comes up often in daily conversation. No, the search for absent nouns was challenging enough; disappearing adjectives are a whole other order of misplacement. Not much room to fake it.
Unlike the professor in my stunted novel, my concern is not appearing purely competent to the outside world, or as was the case on our trip, in quickly trading film titles, but in losing access to the richness of language. Aside from my family and best friends, I love words, and I will miss them if the days bring increasing ____ uh _____ you know ____ Whatcha-ma-call-it.