I’m having trouble lately remembering peoples’, um, uhh... names. I was never much of a name guy anyway, never one of those hey-buddy-howya-doin’-call-you-by-your-first-name-six-times-firm-handshake kind of guys.
I could work with someone on a project for months. Then if I don’t see them for a week or two, they end up: um, wait, your name is... hold on a second, I know this. It’s, um, it starts with a “K” I think...”
I’m good with faces, other things that might define a person. It’s like I’m describing them to a police sketch artist: “She’s short with dark hair and glasses. She does this weird thing with her arm and she always wears vests...”
When I was a bartender, I’d remember you by your drink even if you weren’t a regular, “hey, Gin and Tonic! How’s it going?” “Nice seeing you again... Came back for more margaritas, huh?” But put a name to that beverage? Forget it.
When I did comedy clubs, I’d remember comedians by their jokes... “Oh, who was the opening act? That guy... the guy that does Mister Big Stuff who hands out the flower?”
Once in a while, I give my kids combo names. I can be looking right at Jack, let’s say, ready to yell at him about something, but for some reason I’ll want to call him his brother Charlie’s name. Midway, I catch myself and switch so it comes out: “Char-jack!” Max gets “Ja-max!”
Sometimes the person’s name won’t come to me until much later in the day, long after I stood face to face with him, carried on a conversation, an awkward look on my face. Two hours go by and a light goes off: “Oh wait! Bob! That’s it! That guy’s name was Bob! He has the office down the hall.”
On that rare occasion when I actually remember someone’s name I psyche myself into thinking there’s no way I could’ve actually remembered it so I must be wrong... For the most part, I play it safe and never even try to use anyone’s name. I don’t want to end up like my neighbor who mistakenly called me Warren the first three or four years after we moved in across the street from him.
No, I was never much of a name guy. And over time, it’s not gotten any better. I have a few theories for my missteps down memory lane:
1. A friend of mine believes your brain only has so much space on it, like a computer hard drive. The more you load in the front part, he says, the more you dump out the back. So as you’re learning which Kardashian is which, you’re forgetting who your first grade gym teacher was.
2. I’ve been trying, since my brush with death four years ago, to keep the stresses in my life at arm’s length. I’ve been pretty successful at simply not engaging in stressful situations. I can see them coming now so before I find myself knee deep in aggravation, I break my connection to them. (It’s an actual, recognized technique.) Of course, that means I’m pretty much disengaged from a good portion of any given day. It’s like I’m watching it on TV. Or more like half-watching it while surfing on my iPad so I’m not entirely sure who all the characters are in my little teleplay.
Maybe it’s that. Or maybe it could be a phenomenon affectionately nicknamed “pumphead.”
3. Pumphead happens when doctors stop your heart during a coronary bypass. They keep you “alive-ish” for a couple of hours while they’re working by pumping your blood through a heart-lung machine. But the machine’s not as good as the real thing, the theory goes, and your brain doesn’t get quite enough oxygen. Another theory blames microscopic cell debris and bubbles generated by the machine. Either way, you lose cognitive function, meaning you forget stuff. Sometimes pumphead only lasts a few months, sometimes longer. A new study says 42% of open-heart surgery patients have symptoms of pumphead as long as five years after their procedure.
Or it could be I’m ignoring the huge, forgetful elephant in the room.
4. When we’re young, our minds are like steel traps. We’ve got the names of cartoon characters, NFL players, and that girl we met during spring break on the tips of our tongue. But the more years we log, the more things we lose. Muscle mass. Bone density. Our hairline. And now scientists have found that memory loss for old folks isn’t just in their head. Or, actually it is in their head, literally. See, over time we lose nerve cells in our brains, too. Nerve cell production and replacement decreases and that leads to slower brain function and memory loss.
Whatever the cause, I’m destined for increasingly anonymous interactions with, um, wait... It’ll come to me, just give me a second... Can I get back to you?
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