I forget

The years hang heavy upon the mind

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The disturbing thing that happens as you age, I find, is that you begin to notice your mind working subtly differently from the way it used to. From an early age I have set great store by my thinking organ, through all the years of school and the years working in technical professions, and taking care not to mess it up with chemicals or risky activities. Boxing was not for me as a college student, or football, because of the way these would dash the skull about, but instead the safer sport of fencing. And I never wanted to drink enough to black out, not when I would worry about what mathematical subtlety might begin to elude me afterwards. But now, over the last dozen years, it’s become clear that the mental tricks I always used to count on as being easy to pull off have stopped coming to me as readily. I can still pack things into my memory the way I used to, but they don’t form the sorts of associations I need for recall, and I have to repeat the process maybe twice or three times as often to get the same confidence that a memory has been laid down. Of course there are ways to make up for the lack. I have always been a big notetaker, and it helps a lot to jot things down in a peripheral storage system I can get to on my phone. If I’m trying to understand some complicated thing for the first time, I can’t really slurp it all on in one go like I used to, but have to focus on the individual chunks making up the whole and then learn about how they interconnect as best I can. It all feels tedious compared to the way I used to remember breezing through these kinds of gymnastics.

And still, I recognize that there are certain behaviors, habits of mind, shortcuts, which can help in ways which really haven’t changed since my early years. Too bad I haven’t come across any which can do a much better job of this. Even in grade school I was kind of slow and uncertain about doing simple mental arithmetic, and that hasn’t gotten much better since then. I have tried to use all the tricks to remember a person’s name when I meet them, and it works for a short while, but often fades away even before I’ve finished that initial conversation. Or I can know that there’s a word for some concept I’m thinking of, but instead of coming up automatically out of storage, I reach for it only to determine that I certainly do not have it at hand.

Lacking these, all I can do is to wait a while for the missing token to show back up all on its own, a process that sometimes takes minutes to succeed and from time to time never at all. And once I have recalled something in this way, if I don’t jot it down, I’m apt to lose it all over again after a frustratingly short interval. I recognize that this sometimes makes my speech more deliberate in that way that seemed funny as a quirk of older people, because if I try to express myself faster I can trip up and come up with the wrong words in a mixed up order. I know, rationally, that all this is unavoidable if one lives this long, that all indications are that this is just the way the human brain tends if it goes on long enough.

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