Memory Tips from Old What’s Her Name

by Dorothy Rosby

Before you start blaming your memory problems on age, let me remind you, you forgot plenty when you were younger, too.
I’ve researched the subject of memory extensively—I read a couple of articles while I was waiting in a doctor’s office one day—and it turns out that sometimes “forgetfulness” is just an excuse for not paying attention. As a public service, I will now discuss some common “memory” problems and what can be done about them:
Interrupted sequence: You might know it by its scientific term: scatter brained. Let’s say I’ve decided to straighten my living room—not that I did. This is purely for demonstration purposes. I pick up all the newspapers stacked on the couch and take them to my recycling bag. It’s full, so I haul it to the car. That’s when I notice that someone has spilled popcorn in the garage. I wander through the house looking for the broom, which I don’t find. But while I’m in the basement, I do see a dirty cereal bowl, which I take to the kitchen. There’s a stack of dirty dishes, so I start to load the dishwasher. I remember I’m almost out of dishwasher detergent, so I start a grocery list. The phone rings and I go searching for it. I find it under the bed. I pick it up and my sister says, “What are you doing?” And I say, “I have no idea.”
Mort Herold, the very optimistic author of You Can Have a Near-Perfect Memory, advises us to finish sequences whenever possible. In other words, you should finish cleaning my living room before you start sweeping my garage. (Carry your own dishes to the kitchen, too.)
If it’s not possible to finish a sequence, grab something that will remind you of where you were in the process. Say someone comes to your door while you’re making dinner. You could burn the house down if you don’t get back to the stove right away, then you’d have to go out to eat. So grab something, say a carving knife, and hold it until you’re finished talking with your visitor.
The knife in your hand serves as a reminder that you need to get back to the kitchen. It also assures that your guest will never bother you at dinner time again. Quite possibly, no other time either.
Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon: I had the song, “I Won’t Back Down,” stuck in my head. (I won’t sing it for you because I like you too much—some of you anyway.) It’s one of my favorite songs, but hard as I tried, I could not remember the artist’s name.
Psychologist David Brooks says our memory’s filing system is to blame for tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. I was looking in the file under aging rock stars, which as you know, is a fairly large file.
Brooks says it’s best to stop trying so hard and relax. This makes your mind more receptive to other cues that could lead you to different files. That’s why you sit up in the middle of the night and yell, “Muenster cheese,” which can be upsetting to your spouse.
Being the impatient sort, I didn’t wait for cues. I Googled it, which was lucky. If I’d sat up in the middle of the night and yelled “Tom Petty,” that may have been upsetting to my spouse too.
Forgetting where you put things: What’s-his-name, Mort Herold, says it’s logical to forget where we put things because putting something down is a gesture of release. It’s like saying, “I’m done with you.”
He suggests you tell the object something else, maybe, “Stay, scissors! Good scissors.” My scissors don’t listen very well, but see how it works for you.
Another option is to make it a habit to put your keys or your reading glasses in the same place every time. But—and this is important—you must remember where that place is.
Forgetting names: Dale Carnegie, who wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People, said that when you meet someone new, you should use his or her name often in the ensuing conversation. . “Nice to meet you, Bill. Isn’t the weather nice, Bill? Is that spaghetti sauce on your jacket, Bill?” Meanwhile, look closely at Bill until your mind begins to associate his name with his appearance—or until he says, “I’m not Bill.”
You can also connect the name to others you know who have the same name. For example, sometimes when people meet me, they think of that other Dorothy—and her little dog, too. Frankly I find that annoying, but if it means you’ll never call me Debbie or Doris again, go ahead.
Try these tricks, and you may find that your memory problems have more to do with paying attention than they do with getting old. Not that you aren’t getting old.
(Dorothy Rosby is the author of several humor books, including I Used to Think I Was Not That Bad and Then I Got to Know Me Better. Contact drosby@rushmore.com.)
(Dorothy Rosby is the author of the humor book, I Didn’t Know You Could Make Birthday Cake from Scratch: Parenting Blunders from Cradle to Empty Nest. Contact drosby@rushmore.com.)