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the key to memory
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The Skinny on Remembering

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Joshua Foer's mental memory gymnastics are fascinating to read about, but come on. His talent seems savant to me. His feats seem to me as unobtainable as perhaps Dara Torres' body is to Rosie O'Donnell. First of all, he went to Yale. Secondly, his father, Albert Foer, was a think tank president, whatever that means. Thirdly, even though he can memorize 99 names and faces in 15 minutes, recite a 50-line poem in 15 minutes, followed by a series of random digits, a list of random words, and lastly a shuffled deck of playing cards in less than a minute, unless I am down to my last dollar, find myself in a Vegas casino, someone is holding a gun to my head and if by counting cards I can win back the millions of dollars that I owe, then thanks anyway, but I'd rather just watch and be astounded. I have no desire to run the "4-minute mile of memory." I just want to be able to remember how to log into my Facebook account.

I now have frequent moments throughout the day where an uncomfortable pause falls upon whatever conversation I am having. It is a noisy quiet, sometimes initiated by me, sometimes by my middle-aged girlfriend, but it's an unmistakable moment of quiet that concerns me because it never happened to me until I got old. Thinking about these spaces of quiet in my day reminds me of what Deborah Underwood has described as many kinds of quiet: Top of the roller coaster quiet, first look at my new bad haircut quiet, first one awake quiet, jelly side down quiet, don't scare the robins quiet, car ride at night quiet.

As pathetic as it may sound, I think that I've lost the no-brainer part of my brain. Nothing is a no-brainer for me anymore. No random fact comes automatically or without a torturous amount of head-scratching.- Penny Love Hoff

Along that same line of thinking, I have, as a middle-aged woman, discovered a new subcategory of quiet. There is the I forgot my password quiet, I'm not sure where I parked my car quiet, I can't remember what I came in this room to get quiet and the I can't find my reading glasses and the waitress is waiting quiet. Then there is the dreaded I cannot remember my boss's wife's name to introduce her quiet. One last oft visited category is the none of us can think of the name of that movie quiet. This last one is what my kids would aptly call a no-brainer.

As pathetic as it may sound, I think that I've lost the no-brainer part of my brain. Nothing is a no-brainer for me anymore. No random fact comes automatically or without a torturous amount of head-scratching. I will never again be able to Name That Tune in three notes nor will I ever get to slam my hand down on a buzzer before the question is out of the announcer's mouth. It's not that I don't know the answer. It's just that I cannot retrieve it, until I'm in the shower the next morning. The Jeopardy! music will just keep playing and playing. Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah. Dah dah dah dah dup, duh duh de duh duh.

Or as my kids would say, Duh.

Losing your memory is sort of like gaining weight; you don't quite know how it happened but one day your zipper won't quite zip. And the same thing happens mentally. You reach for that actor's name that you know you know and its like feeling around in a dark closet: It's in there. You just can't quite put your fingers on it. One day you run into a boyfriend from 20 years ago and although you can remember the name of every girl he slept with while you were dating, for the life of you, his name is gone.

"What was that guy's name?" has become my new mantra.

Up until I reached middle age, I had always insisted that if you want more control of your life, your body is a good place to start. But what to do if you want more control of your mind? Where to start? This dilemma makes me miss Nora Ephron. She felt bad about her neck but she wrote in more detailed anguish about losing her marbles and I loved her for that.

One of my old mantras is that the more your train your muscles the same way, the less your muscles respond. The same seems to be true for your memory. So whats the answer? Get rid of your cell phone contacts list? Write your passwords on the back of your hand? Unlike with exercise, struggling harder mentally doesn't seem to make deeper brain creases the way that running farther tends to chisel your thighs.

Now perhaps a more practical application of Mr. Foer's insight would be if he could invent the Bowflex equivalent of memory muscle machine. A MemoFlex. What would we all pay if we could get the memory equivalent of well-defined arms, sculpted abs and rock hard thighs? If we could just be the phone-a-friend we used to be, where people could ask us to think of the name of that actor who played Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump and shazam! The answer would spew from our lips. Would we be willing to get a better memory if the cost were divided into 64 monthly payments of only $25 a month? Just one simple workout, 20 minutes a day, three times a week and you could be the one at the dinner table to immediately reply, "Well, of course it was Gary Sinese."

A MemoFlex would be extraordinary. It's message would be concise and reassuring, simple and yet life-changing. Televangelists have preached on this bright shining promise for decades and more recently, Jillian Michaels on The Biggest Loser. The message would be enticing: Just because I'm an aging, forgetful, scatter-brained geezer who has lost some marbles does not mean I am beyond redemption. It could be as easy as clicking a few buttons and adding it to my Amazon virtual shopping cart.

If only Mr. Foer could invent such a device, I would immediately order one up.

If only I could remember my Amazon password.

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