When I was 15 years old, I decided to keep a daily journal. I was partly motivated by the fact that my father had started to do so two years earlier and partly by the fact that I regretted not having a record of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated less than six weeks earlier. Strange as it may seem, I have kept up that diary every day since I was 15.
January 1, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of my first entry.
There are so many ways I could celebrate this day. I could list the most important lessons I have learned; I could reflect on my greatest joys or my greatest regrets. But I have decided to play it simple and concentrate on one subject: false memories.
I would not have realized how much we unconsciously edit our memories if I did not have contemporaneous accounts of each day of my life for the last 50 years. Most of these alterations are minor and harmless. For example, when I told people that, as a teenager, my friend Skip Baumgarten and I had seen Lenny Bruce perform live, I always said that our dates were two German tourists and that it was at a club in the San Fernando Valley. When I tracked down the entry in my diary decades later, I discovered that my memory of what Lenny Bruce talked about was accurate, but that the venue was in Hollywood and my date was not a German tourist, but a school friend named Wendy Wellwood.
But there is one false memory that had a major effect on my life. The incident began on October 16, 1979.
My wife, Flora, and I were visiting Calcutta, where we were hosted by my publisher's representative, Lal Hiranandani. We got along well, and Lal decided to bring us to the home of a different friend each evening so that we could be served home-cooked versions of the cuisine of various regions of India.
Lal asked me what I wanted to do on our final day in the city and I said that I wanted to meet Mother Teresa. It was an unusual encounter because when we entered her office, she was involved in a heated real estate negotiation with a seller.
"That's my last offer," she was shouting at him. "Not one rupee more!" It was not what I had expected of the saintly woman, but I liked her more for it. The next day, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
As memorable as was our meeting with Mother Teresa, it was what happened later that same day that would haunt me for many years to come.
We were to have dinner at the home of Lal's best friend, a surgeon named Bhawani. I had met Bhawani the day before and he was a lively and erudite fellow. But when we arrived at his home, Bhawani was in a sad mood because he had come from the funeral of a friend who had died at an unusually young age. Bhawani asked to look at my right hand. After studying my palm, he sighed and asked to look at my left hand. Again he sighed. He told me that I would die at the age of 62.
"Too bad," he said, "but we have to accept our fate."
I was startled, but I had researched palmistry and considered it without merit, so I didn't take too seriously what he had said. Besides, I was only 31 years old, and 62 was literally a lifetime away.
Then came another day in my life...April 3, 1988.
I was in Mandalay, Burma. After visiting the Kathodaw Pagoda, otherwise known as The World's Largest Book, I went to see the sunset from the top of Mandalay Hill. At the entrance there was a row of palm readers and their customers. One elderly man had a long line of people waiting for their turns, and I thought it would be interesting to have my palm read by him.
But by the time I returned to the entrance after sunset, everyone had gone home. Only one young man remained and asked if I would like my palm read. He looked like a real novice. I thought I caught him hiding a study book as I approached. I declined. He kept dropping his price until it was so absurdly low that it was pointless to say no. When he read my palm, his pronouncements were silly, so I asked him if he could at least tell me when I would die.
He looked at my palm again and said, "When you are 62 years old."
Uh-oh. Needless to say, I recalled my encounter with Bhawani the Calcutta surgeon.
As the years went by, I would occasionally recall these predictions that I would die at 62--occasionally, that is, until I started to get much older. Then those occasions became more frequent.
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