News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 8, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘The mind is a dark forest’

A middle-aged truth

If you hadn’t noticed by reading this newspaper or hearing me crow about it myself, I have another collection of stories out in print. And over the past few weeks, I’ve been out and about peddling them with the heart and soul of a hungry Fuller Brush Man. It has been a joy to see old friends who have bought the first three books I’ve compiled; it’s been a real challenge to remember their names, too…

The whole scenario reminds me — if I remember correctly — of a cartoon by the late great Jeff MacNelly. His Pulitzer Prize-winning “Shoe” was one of my favorite strips, and in one, the irascible columnist Professor Cosmo Fishhawk stares at his overflowing, impossibly crammed desk and says, “I don’t get it. … I can remember every word to ‘This Ol’ Heart of Mine’ by the Isley Brothers. But I can’t remember where I put my stapler. …” As he continues to stare, he mutters, “The mind is a dark forest.”

Amen to that! It seems as if the more I try to stuff into this wrinkling cranium of mine, the more that falls out when I’m not looking. Names, it appears, seem to be dropping like flies.

A great example of that problem presented itself just a few weeks ago. I was merrily signing books at Baesler’s Market (I can still recall the chilly wind wafting up my pants leg as we sat near the front doors), and Dick Becker, who I’ve met a half-dozen times around town, and who owns personally signed copies of my first three books, approached the table.

He must have seen the look of utter confusion on my face when he began speaking to me, for I was carrying on a completely different conversation in my head while he spoke, a tiny voice imploring the name-recalling lobe of my mushy gray matter to kick-start itself. I finally admitted to Dick that I had forgotten his name, and being the gracious fellow that he is, he told me not to worry about it. “You meet a lot of people,” he added.

Convinced that the bit of forgetfulness was temporary, I greeted a number of other readers, drank a cup of caffeine and ate an apple fritter. I nearly choked on the latter when Mel Gastineau came around the corner. “I know this man,” I began to think to myself, but I also knew I’d remember his name 10 minutes after he left.  

“I hate to tell you this,” I told Mel, “but I can’t remember your name,” my pen poised to scribble his name. Mel, like Dick, was gracious. “Don’t worry about it, Mike; you have a lot to remember,” he said.

Like Cosmo, I don’t get it, either. I can remember Carl Yastrzemski’s batting average from 1967, the year he won the Triple Crown. I can remember I got a C in algebra my freshman year from Mr. Norris, and knew even then that it was a gift. I can remember the phone number of my seventh-grade girlfriend. I can remember that my stepgrandfather wore a Bulova wristwatch, and I can vividly recall the few seconds of puckered revulsion I had when I ran my tongue across a piece of alum I found at my grandmother’s house, believing it was rock salt. I can remember the names of most of the students I had in my first year of teaching, even where they sat in my classroom. But, I couldn’t recall the names of two men, both of whom I had seen over the past few months.

I had my picture taken with Mel when I spoke at the retired Vigo County teacher’s luncheon last summer, for gosh sakes …

Do I have too much aluminum in my diet? Should I start drinking filtered water and sprinkling blueberries on my cereal? Do I need to work even more crossword puzzles? Take up Sudoku? Get to a memory clinic? Probably not …

I asked someone who should know. Dr. Paul Reber, an expert in brain, behavior and cognition at Northwestern University, and director of the prestigious Reber Lab, which studies the “cognitive neuroscience of learning and memory,” tells me I shouldn’t get too concerned, yet.

“The key piece of why names, in particular, are hard,” Reber tells me, “is that they are completely arbitrary. Other facts or general pieces of information connect better to other things we know and things that ‘hang together’ are remembered better. Seemingly random numbers, like batting averages, have meaning — how much better or worse was that average than the players’ previous years? League/team averages? Tell somebody who isn’t a baseball fan some batting averages, and they won’t remember them.”

Reber added, “But names are arbitrary and so they are hard. As we age (Reber is 46), our memories all gradually get a little worse at learning new facts (remembering old facts stays about the same), and it’s the hard things like names that we notice first.”

The good doctor is a very busy man, but he also took the time to say, “I go to a lot of conferences, and I will frequently be approached by a student whom I recognize that I have spoken with before, but I have no idea what their name is. … This will sometimes be disappointing to them because they hope I’ll remember them. The thing is, I do remember them — I can generally tell them … everything except their names. Why? Because all of that other information fits together and because it hangs together, pulling up some of it helps pull up the other related information. But not the name. Nothing about the rest of the information gives me any hint as to what their name should be.”

He went on to tell me that unless I was having other neurological symptoms that are affecting my memory, I shouldn’t be concerned at all.

So, this morning, after checking to be sure I had on the same two shoes and had recovered my ring of keys from the entry door where I had left them last night, I headed to work confident in the fact that I wouldn’t get lost.

I also know that I have a pair of book signings coming up soon and that I’m going to have to look at least a few of those who come in right in the eye and tell them cheerfully, “I know your face, but refresh me with your name.”

Whew …

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new story collection, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” has been released. He’ll be signing his books from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Coffee Grounds, 1115 E. National Ave., Brazil.

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