Mar 16 2012

Memory Tricks

“Wiseacre,” said Short-pants, “W-I-S-E-A-C-R-E. Wiseacre.”

She’d gotten it wrong the first time she tried to spell it, not surprisingly, as it’s a word she’d never heard before. But now that we’re on our third tour through her study list, she can pronounce each letter confidently. Most of the words she missed on that first go were instantly corrected the second time I asked her to spell them. Occasionally I’d offer a mnemonic device to help, like finesse has two s’s like the feminine form in French, because women finesse things better than men. But mostly she just remembers, once she’s learned how to spell the word correctly. Her mind, at age 10, is a sponge.

Both girls signed up for this year’s English spelling competition. I was surprised at Buddy-roo’s interest, and not surprised when her enthusiasm waned. She struggled with the words that her sister memorized effortlessly, partially because she’s two years younger, but mostly because when confronted with the work to prepare for it, the spelling bee lost its appeal. But since we want to help her learn about keeping commitments, we didn’t let her drop out. De-facto, especially, pushed her to learn as many words as she could, quizzing her relentlessly, despite her protests, on the walks to and from school, dangling a ½-hour of television in front of her as a reward for getting 20 correct words in a row. By the time the first round of the competition – a written test – came along, I couldn’t wait for him to stop badgering her.

Not that Buddy-roo isn’t a pro at memorizing. She can hear the words to a song once and sing them back, with sass and vibrato. At school she has to learn poems by heart and recite them in front of her class. She does this easily, and orates with aplomb. But if she doesn’t like something – and spelling is now on that list – the magic brain glue disappears. So even though she stuck it out for the first round of the spelling bee, she didn’t make the cut to continue.

When the results were published, we told Buddy-roo first. She seemed only mildly disappointed – more likely relieved – which changed to delight when we asked her if she wanted to be the one to tell her sister the good news: that Short-pants had finished in the top twenty and would compete in the final oral competition.

It was poignant: the two of them cheering and hugging until Short-pants stopped to ask Buddy-roo if she, too, would go to the next round, and then, after hearing the answer, wrapping her arms around her little sister and consoling her. It’s a moment I won’t forget.

Or will I? I don’t remember things the way I used to. I suppose the emotional impact of seeing my two daughters celebrating and consoling each other helps to embed it in my gray matter. But other things, day-to-day pieces of data like phone numbers, the amount of that check I just wrote and sealed in an envelope before registering it in my checkbook, the code for a neighbor’s door – my brain won’t hold it anymore. De-facto’s taken to sending me emails about appointments and obligations, because he’ll tell me and I honestly won’t remember. The information sifts through my brain like it’s a sieve.

“Don’t you remember I told you I was going to watch the rugby today?”

“No.” I answered him with disdain, as if to say I’m always the last one to know these things. But then I wondered if he had mentioned this rugby arrangement to me and I just didn’t remember. Or was I not listening?

It is easy to tune out and stop paying attention with so much data buzzing around. Documents and links to click through and read for professional edification, news of the US elections or the French presidential contest. Social networking, though not imperative, provides amusement and connections with far-flung friends. Two children squawking at me in stereo. All this contributes to the sense of information overload that seems to be taxing my memory.

I used to have a good mind. I thought of myself as relatively quick-witted. Maybe not as sharp as a West Wing staffer, but I could hold my own when it came to banter and part of this was an ability to summon key details and facts with some immediacy. Occasionally I still get a zinger in – it feels like, wow, that’s the old me – but mostly I’m experiencing a mental thickening. I can pretty much pinpoint the start of this deficiency in mental acuity to my pregnancies. Further decline might be attributed to the normal deterioration that takes place with aging, or perhaps one too many glasses of wine, too often.

I know that Google tracks a lot of things that I don’t even know about, but I hope they aren’t monitoring the number of times I receive an automatically generated email with the subject title: Reset your forgotten password. Between multiple email accounts, websites, dashboards, memberships, newsletters and on-line communities, I’ve got way too many passwords to remember.

One of those newsletters, A.Word.A.Day – which thankfully doesn’t require a password – dutifully drops into my inbox each day, as promised, an interesting word, like preantepenultimate (fourth from the end) or gedankenexperiment (something carried out only in the imagination). At least once a week I say to myself, I like that word, I want to use it in a post some day. Within hours it’s vanished from my memory. Maybe it was never there.

Is there anything to be done about it? More crossword puzzles? Memory games? A friend mentioned to me the book, Moonwalking with Einstein, in which author Joshua Foer recounts his experience turbo-charging his recall capacity to compete in the Memory Championships. The gist of it: memory is not related to intelligence, it’s a skill that if practiced can be enhanced. And there are tricks to help, like visualizing what you want to remember in a familiar place, or making associations with something particularly salacious in order to freeze an unforgettable image in your mind.

Short-pants isn’t the only one benefiting from the spelling practice. Her study list hosts some rather obscure words that I’d never met before: homburg, kavya, geta, Kabuki, so we’re both getting a vocabulary boost. There’s also a page of easily confused words that includes a pair I’ve always mixed up and misspelled: biannual and biennial. Well, up until now, that is. In my imagination I’ve conjured up the most unlikely people having sex with each other twice a year, and another odd couple doing it every other year. It seems like this gedankenexperiment (hey, I used it!) may work after all. I haven’t mentioned this to her, of course. The little wiseacre, with her recall intact, can come up with her own tricks.