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Jim Mullen: The sounds of time flying by

Posted: August 8, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 8, 2012 2:00 a.m.

People naturally worry about their memory as they get older. “Oh, I can’t remember where I put my reading glasses. It must be the beginning of the end.” Really? Follow a teenager around someday and watch how much they forget.

“My math final is today, and I forgot to study for it!”

“I kissed Billy. I forgot I was dating Bobby!”

In healthy people, much of what is remembered is a choice. We remember the things that are important to us, while unconsciously deciding that other things are not worth it. That’s why forgetting birthdays and anniversaries is considered so unforgivable.

“I don’t remember the doctor saying I shouldn’t eat so much salt and should cut down on calories.” Why would you bother to remember something like that?

“I don’t remember you telling me your mother was coming to visit. For three weeks.”

These kinds of things can be explained as lapses, lies, denials or delusions. However, there is one kind of memory distortion that is not so easy to explain. Just last week, I was telling one of my many riveting and entertaining stories to some friends at dinner. I picked something I knew they had never heard before, because I don’t want to become known as one of those boring old men who tell the same stories over and over again. Even the best story can stand only so many tellings.

At the end, Bob woke up and said, “How long ago did that happen?”

I said, “Oh, eight or 10 years ago.”

Sue said, “It was 25 years ago.” It seems she had heard the story before (and, of course, she was in it).

Could it have been that long ago? Well, let’s see, when was Jimmy Carter president? Ten, 15 years ago? Thirty? Really?

Someone mentioned a popular film.

“When did that come out?” Mary asked.

“Five, six years ago,” I said.

“1996,” said Sue. Well, I was close.

I asked my friend John, who just turned 62, if he had experienced this odd memory quirk.

“All the time,” he said. “I used to be able to tell you what year something happened. One day that stopped. I could still tell you in which decade something happened, but not the year.

“When did this Beatles record come out? I could tell you it was in the ‘60s. Disco? The ‘70s. ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’? Fax machines at home? Somewhere in there. My first home computer? My first Starbucks coffee? I throw up my hands. Sometime in the last 30 years.

“The division of time in my head is not years, but eras. That happened in grade school. That happened in high school. That happened in college, that happened at this job, that happened when I worked for so-and-so. In my head, I’m not 62. I’m 35. If something happened 40 years ago, subconsciously I must think I’m not old enough for that to have happened 40 years ago. So I say five years ago. Or 10.”

“I’ve just noticed it happening to me this year,” I said.

“The rest of us have been noticing you doing it for 10 years,” John said.

“Twenty-five,” said Sue.

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