Tuesday, January 31, 2012

800 Words: Memory Problems


I woke up before 5:30 this morning. Like all people who just get out of bed, I’m both less and more alert than I’ll be at any point during the day. They say that your mind is a sponge during the first hour or two after you get out of bed - with a level of recall that can never be approached at any other point in the day. I think that’s horseshit.

I remember that there’s a book next to my bed: The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. True to my inability to keep on the same book for more than a few days, I’ve skipped between a number of books about which I have little to no enthusiasm. Some friends are trying to get me into Terry Pratchett, but after 70 pages of Good Omens I found myself bored out of my mind. I’ve recently tried my yearly assault on Proust, to no avail - there’s only so much you can write about a candle... And for ten years, I’ve tried to finish Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and inevitably find myself enthralled for three paragraphs before my eyes glaze over the sheer monotony of the prose and violence.

But true to my odd reading tastes, I’ve fallen absolutely in love with The Good Soldier Svejk, a book from post-WWI Prague in the throes of the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Picture Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock trying to be a great Patriot in wartime America but derailed along the way by every person in our country, all convinced he can’t possibly be serious, and put through every part of the legal system for treasonous behavior, you have some idea of The Good Soldier Svejk’s plot.

I read a few pages this morning and, as usual, this book is amazing. If I ever finish it, it just might become my all-time favorite novel (a position currently held by The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow...for those who care). But there’s a point in this particular chapter when Hasek recalls something that happened a few chapters before. I thumb back to the chapter in which I think it happened,...but I can’t remember where it was. I then start skimming through the chapter and I don’t remember reading it. I then go back further to a different chapter, and I can’t remember reading what happened in this chapter either.

Thus begins my weekly memory panic. I try to recall all my grade school teachers. Mrs. Pollack and Morah Blake in Kindergarten, Mrs. Michaelson and Morah Feitelson in First Grade....etc....oh my God who was my seventh grade Hebrew Teacher?!?!?

For as long as I could remember, my memory has been both amazing and terrible. Over Thanksgiving, I wowed some cousins by listing not only all the American Presidents, but also all the Israeli Prime Ministers (including the interim ones). With a slight brushup, I can probably do the heads of state of a number of European countries (at least the twentieth century), and even European Monarchs and Popes stretching back a few centuries. I’m not sure if it’s an exaggeration to say that I have a few thousand hours of music in my head that I can listen to with instant neurological availability (and that’s not even getting into memorizing individual performances). There are substantial fragments of poems that I can recite without having read in years. As my cousin David said, “The stuff Evan knows about, he knows better than anybody.” As for the rest....

The breath of my interests is wide, it has to be. My competence doesn’t stretch any further than they take me. The list of subjects and tasks at which I’m utterly incompetent stretches miles, surpassed only by the stories that demonstrate them. Manual tasks that children understand implicitly take hours of explanation for me. My brother Jordan once said that he could film a television show called ‘Evan vs. Technology’ and it would be the hit of the decade. I am the ultimate proof that Attention Deficit Disorder exists. Anything I’m cursed enough to be interested in, I’m neither able to forget nor tear myself away. Anything I’m unable to summon up the fascination to remember, I’m unable to remember at all. Nothing is more irritating than those comfortable souls who say that people like me haven’t reached competence in life’s more simple tasks because we haven’t tried hard enough. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve tried for tens of thousands of hours. By now, I think we can reach a definitive conclusion.

But I’m beginning to wonder, is my ‘infallible’ memory failing as well? In recent years I’ve begun to notice creaks in the armor; forgetting small moments in musical pieces I’ve known all my life, having slower recall of facts I’d memorized for decades, having to look up synonyms when i write because I forget a word, often forgetting what I was talking about in conversation mid-sentence. Things that happen to everyone else, but aren't supposed to happen to me. Perhaps this is just me getting older, since we all tend to forget things. But I’m 29, not 58. In very neurotic moments, I begin to wonder if this is just a sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s - hilariously unlikely as that is, it’s not quite as neurotic as it seems, I have two grandparents who suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia for well over a decade. And no doubt, there are plenty of people, particularly those who knew me as a kid, who would probably say ‘we knew it all along.’

Perhaps my memory was never as good as I made it out to be, and maybe I’m not as incompetent at the rest of those tasks as I sell myself. Then again, I have plenty of experience to corroborate both.


There’s a story by Stefan Zweig which absolutely I love called ‘Buchmendel,’ or ‘Mendel the Book Peddler’ in English. Jacob Mendel is a Jewish bookseller in pre-War Vienna. Born in Eastern Europe and trained as a Yeshiva bocher (Rabbinic student), he has a talmudic memory capable of memorizing anything he reads at first glance. When people want to learn about a topic, he offers himself to them as a kind of Google, from whom they can learn what precisely what books to read (and inevitably there are dozens), and where in Europe to locate each of them.

Buchmendel is a celebrated Viennese eccentric. feted as one of the city’s most valuable citizens. He practically lives in his favorite Viennese coffeehouse, where he shuckles back and forth in the manner of all orthodox Rabbinic students, memorizing books. To interrupt him for a consultation is thought a very high honor indeed. But when World War I begins, the Austro-Hungarian government accuses Mendel is of being a spy because of suspected connections to foreign book dealers. Mendel, utterly lost outside of the world of books and unaware of how he might incriminate himself, tells the government all about his foreign connections and is sent to a concentration camp for his indiscretion. When Mendel returns to Vienna after World War I, it is a changed city and Mendel a changed man. His eyes can no longer see the words to read, and what he manages to read he no longer remembers. His cafe comes under new ownership which knows little of who he used to be, and bars him from the premises. Mendel passes away shortly thereafter; helpless, penniless, forgotten.


I’ve heard this over and over again from friends who regularly smoke marijuana - they remember very little from their past. They rarely seem to connect the two in their minds (perhaps lack of memory impairs that), but it would appear from all sorts of first-hand testimony of people I know that those ads from our childhood about marijuana’s effect on memory is absolutely true. Apparently, other scientific findings have surfaced since then which show that cannabis actually improves memory retention. As difficult as I find that to believe, it can’t be dismissed outright.

I am not, have never been, and shall never be, a weed person. That’s not to say I’ve never tried it, but I find the whole experience somewhere between unsettling and stupid. What does it say about the quality of people’s lives that for recreation they like a drug that helps them to check out mentally?

But like most people who’ve smoked weed, I also feel paranoia from the experience. The paranoia didn’t happen at the time, not usually at least. But it was right after the roughly three weeks of my life that I tried it more than once every six months that I began to notice gaps in my memory. Did pot cause memory lapses? Or did pot cause paranoia about memory lapses? Or is pot responsible for the memory lapses at all?


It’s a Friday night during the summer of 1992 and I’m ten years old. My Zayde is calling us once every five minutes, yelling at my father to come over immediately because “somebody stole the Challahs.” My father tells him that he will be over as soon as we’re done with dinner.

My father arrives. Surely enough, the challahs were in the drawer over the stove. My father then asks “Where’s Mom?”

“Oh. She went to visit her mother.”

My Bubbe’s mother was shot by German troops in 1940.

My father immediately calls his brother and the police. My dad, my uncle Harold, both their wives, and my uncle’s twin sons immediately get into their cars and start combing the streets of Northwest Baltimore to find my grandmother. While this is happening, I have to watch my two younger brothers.

Late that night, an 77 year old lady who apparently spoke only Yiddish is picked up by the police around Har Sinai congregation. By 1992, my Bubbe’s ability to walk was reduced to a mincing shuffle, yet she’d walked two miles away from her house through intersections of enormously dangerous traffic.

In my father’s opinion, Zayde knew that something was very wrong, but he could no longer articulate what it was.


I’m a terrible linguist. There are probably a few people reading this who would be surprised by that statement. Like many pretentious nerds, I have that terrible propensity after a few drinks to find the idea of speaking with friends in foreign languages a little too attractive. No doubt, we all feel very smart and smug for doing so, but in my case it probably makes me sound mentally challenged. The fact remains, I speak terrible Hebrew, miserable Yiddish, awful French, disgusting German, and passable English. I’m a terrible linguist because there is no one I’ve ever met who’s ever passed up more opportunities to learn foreign tongues correctly.

Foreign language is something resembling a way of life in my family - we are an immigrant Jewish family with living relatives born in America, Israel, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Sweden, Cuba, and Quebec. At holidays and simchas, it’s not unheard of for conversations in five - occasionally even six - languages simultaneously going occurring around the table. My father alone learned seven languages - English, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, German, Romanian, and Italian - all of in which he is still conversant. His parents grew up bilingual in Yiddish and Polish, doubtless they had to learn Russian too during their period under Stalin and they learned to speak something resembling English when they came to America. My uncle Nochem is the only foreign service officer in the entire US State Department certified in Yiddish, and while I’m not sure how many he speaks currently, at various times in his life he’s learned English, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, German, Russian, Farsi, Japanese, and I think Arabic too. My mother is fully bilingual in English and Yiddish, and there was a time when she was nearly fluent in both French and German. Her mother, equally bilingual and a college German major, recently told us for the first time that her job during World War II involved not only translating Nazi documents but also meeting with defected Nazi scientists.

Until I was four years old, Yiddish was my first language and the language I spoke best. Most of my family considered it important that kids in my generation would be able to speak the language, and since I was the oldest, I was the guinea pig. The only people who objected to my learning Yiddish were my father’s grandparents, the only actual native speakers in the family. So while all my American relatives spoke to me in Yiddish, my Bubbie and Zaydie spoke to my exclusively in English. The result to this day being that my natural inflections can occasionally sound like a cross between Tevye and Dr. Zoidberg. If anything, my disasters in Yiddish sound more American than my English. A couple years ago, I learned that I can pretend as though I’m a decent Yiddish speaker surprisingly well if I have to - a fact which until now I’ve tried my best to keep secret from my family lest they try to guilt me into learning it again. How do I know this? Because I interviewed to teach at a Hebrew School, and after speaking to me in Hebrew and Yiddish, they offered me a job as a Yiddish teacher.

For whatever reason, around the time I was four years old, I refused to speak Yiddish any longer. In my head, the way I remember it is that it had something to do with my American Zaydie dying. In real life, it probably had more to do with the fact that I reached the age for which it occurs to you that not only did no other four year old have any idea of how to speak Yiddish, they also had no idea that Yiddish is a language.
But it wasn’t just Yiddish I was being taught at that age by family members, it was also some rudiments of French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, complex computation, Algebra, Astronomy, even Farsi. I was a fact suppository who could repeat whatever I heard like a playback - the only person who refused to indulge this apparently limitless possibility to learn was my Polish Zaydie, who told my father, rather ominously, that everyone was setting me up for disappointment.


I’m losing control of this essay.

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