The Nobel Prize in Medicine has already been given for this year, but I should like to get a jump on next year’s prize by describing and naming a mental condition from which untold millions suffer. The condition is not anything so devastating as dementia. Most people who have it manage to work around it.
For the most part the condition attacks people in their fifties and beyond, though the young can acquire it in an early onset version. Consider a single, if far from singular, case—mine. I encounter with mildly irritating regularity the problem of forgetting names, both common and obscure. In sports, the Mets’ catcher Gary Carter’s is a name I not long ago forgot. The other day I could not call up the name Eric Blore, the comic character actor in lots of Fred Astaire movies. From culture I lost the name Reynaldo Hahn, the composer who was a friend and some say lover of Marcel Proust. With a few clues, of course, one can locate all these names on Google.
Less bearable is forgetting names of acquaintances, recent and old. I could not remember the name of the girl, the tallest in my grammar school class, so shy when young, who turned out to be an extraordinarily sweet character (Doris Weisbrod). People at the university at which I taught for 30 years, both administrators and fellow teachers, their names—poof!—have disappeared from my mental Rolodex, gone, I assume, where notes of music go.
I can list movies—Match Point, The Odessa File, The Freshman—in which I can name the principal actor but cannot recall a shred of the plot. Sometimes, in a nice reversal, I remember a fair amount of the plot of a movie but cannot come up with its title. I’ll sit down to a movie shown on television, or on a DVD, and halfway through realize that I’ve seen it before. More worrisome, though, is when watching a movie with my wife, who is my contemporary and the person with whom I have watched every movie I’ve seen over the past 40 years, one or the other of us is certain he or she has seen this movie before and the other certain that we have not.
I do not misplace my glasses, nor do I lose my keys and wallet. Yet every so often I will unconsciously break with decades-long routine and neglect to place one or the other in the pocket in which I traditionally place them. A brief moment of panic results when I put my hand in my left-hand pocket and find my wallet isn’t there, relieved a nanosecond later to discover it’s in my right-hand pocket. Whew!
I go to the grocery store to pick up four items. Four measly items, I decide, do not require a shopping list. I arrive at the store, and I cannot remember the fourth item. Cottage cheese? Pretzels? Possibly sparkling water? I buy them all. When I return home the item I couldn’t remember turns out to have been bananas.
Then there is the problem of not being able to recall the things I forgot earlier in the day and hoped to remember or look up later. These are usually bits—notions, conceits, ideas—that seemed dazzling when they occurred to me on the edge of sleep or in the shower or in my car, yet they depart my mind quite as mysteriously as, unbidden, they arrived.
None of this stops me from functioning. I continue to work, pay taxes, lunch with friends, maintain family life, get riled up about politics, harbor preposterous fantasies. Still, why have so many small, usually quite unimportant items slipped from memory? Why do I so often find myself doing once-routine things ass backwards: putting my cell phone in my night-table, a necktie in my shirt drawer, a salt-shaker in the refrigerator.
The cause of this condition is unclear. As with all conditions with no known causes, I suspect there is no cure. A label for it, though, would be helpful. Attaching a label to a mental condition can be, if not necessarily explanatory, highly comforting. Without such labels the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders would be out of business. The condition I have been describing—forgetting mostly unimportant things, falling out of once-secure routines—badly needs a label, and I have decided to call it Assbacker’s.
Assbacker’s—it does have a nice lilt to it, does it not? When next I cannot recall the name of the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, or the director of The Postman Always Rings Twice, or two names of the French composers known as Les Six, I shall say to myself: “Not to worry, kiddo. It’s only Assbacker’s. It’s not fatal. Merely mortal.”