Making A List…

June 1, 2011

Dear GAB,Making A List drawing
As a fellow Baby Boomer, do you have any great ideas about how to deal with the ever-increasing frustration over our ever-increasing lack of short-term memory?
Just Had It A Second Ago

Dear Just Had It,
I’ve recently discovered that the use of the right kind of lists can go far towards addressing this worrisome problem.

The other day my husband and I were trying to figure out if our friend’s father had passed away.  We remembered being at a large gathering at their home but couldn’t recall if it was for the briss* of the grandson or the shiva** for the father.

Sad to say, this is par for the course. I simply can’t retain information about other people’s lives. I don’t remember whether or not they recently took a vacation, where their parents live, the names of their children (let alone where they go to college), their birthday or anniversary, or how many sisters or brothers they have, if any.  This will be the case even if they are well versed in all the details of my life and we have known each other for decades. This doesn’t mean I don’t like them – I’m sure I do and may even consider them close friends.  But this is me, an unfortunate amalgamation of bad memory, indifference and self-absorption.

However, I have gotten quite skilled at mining conversations with friends or family members to unearth snippets of critical information. For example, the open-ended question “How is school going?” directed at my cousin Elaine is perfect – all I recall about Elaine is that she is a parent, but of who, how many, which gender and how old I have no idea. This particular question doesn’t require me to specify grade school or college, whether I’m talking about one student or five, boys or girls. Strategic use of the response to the question (e.g., “Andrew’s loving junior semester in Florence”) can make it appear as though I regularly mull over all of the facets of the lives of all of Elaine’s kids. “Oh yes, I’m glad you brought that up,” I might say. “I’ve often wondered how Andrew was enjoying his semester abroad.”

(Note, before she made this remark I had no idea whether she actually had a son.)

More and more, however, the system has been failing. Example: I recently ran into a friend – not one of my very closest buddies but someone that could definitely be characterized as a “good friend”. She immediately asked about my mother (who had been in the hospital recently). I wanted to reciprocate by asking a thoughtful question about her mom or dad, but I couldn’t remember if either of them was still alive.

I tried to recover by asking a general question about her family, usually a good tactic to prompt disclosure of some facts I can work with. She shrugged. “Not great,” she said, “but as well as could be expected under the circumstances.” And then I was really flummoxed. That there had been a crisis and that I was expected to be aware of it was quite clear.  The challenge was to tactfully extract from her key information to determine exactly what crisis had occurred so I could seamlessly pick up the threads of conversation and sound sincerely concerned about the afflicted loved one whom, a minute earlier, I was not even sure still walked the earth.

I felt paralyzed – How easy it would be to fall into the pit by asking how her dad was doing, only to be reminded that he had died last year and that I had, in fact, attended the funeral. (That would result in a Double Whammy – not only deeply offending her but also losing the “relationship credit” I had earned for having (apparently) attended the funeral.)

All of this brings me back to the original subject of lists, because a list of some sort is just what one needs to tackle this problem. Not a “To Do” list, but one that allows you to keep track of whose sister is getting a divorce, husband has lost his job, son didn’t get into law school, mother is in the hospital with pneumonia or a broken hip, or father just had a stent put in or passed on.

You can name your list “Terrible Things That Have Happened To My Friends and Family” and it will be a wonderful resource for you to consult, particularly before family gatherings or other social events.

Armed with this you will be a hit at parties, (at least the kind of parties I attend which are not hipster hangouts but sedate gatherings where conversation revolves around the competitive exchange of tales of worry and woe). People will be touched by the sincerity of your concern and dazzled by your clear recollection of the details of every calamity of their lives. That is, so long as nobody peeks at the little cheat sheet you have tucked inside the sleeve of your sweater, which reads:

“Shirley:   mother in nursing home; father having affair with sleazy  hair stylist;
Diane:  husband lost toe in bizarre plumbing incident; dog put to sleep;
David:  shingles…”

So, Just Had It, start making your list.

*Gathering to mark the rite of circumcision.
** Visit to the home of a mourning family.