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An Absent-Minded Confessor About Recalling Names

It is no secret that, like most people in their senior years, to put it kindly, my memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be. I am particularly remiss at remembering names.

I am reluctant to go to social events for fear I will be unable to remember the names of friends I have known for years. Assuming other people have the same problem, I always say “Jack Smith” when I put my hand out.

Of course, this sounds foolish when the person I am greeting has known me for years and of course remembers my name. (Mine isn’t too hard to remember.)

What rattles me is when the old friend, instead of telling me his name, shakes my hand heartily and laughs, “Hey! I know who you are!”

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That leaves me standing there still not knowing the person’s name. My only recourse is to get to my wife’s side and ask her sotto voce what the person’s name is. Her ability to remember names is paranormal. She will say, “That’s Gert Wallach. You know, she’s a Friend of the Center.”

I have heard some Presidents have had retainers who stand beside them at social functions to whisper the names of citizens who come up to shake hands. My wife could handle that kind of a job. I do believe that women have a gift for remembering names. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hillary does it for Bill Whatsisname.

I am familiar with various methods for remembering names, but none of them has worked for me. Usually the method merely increases my embarrassment.

I have just consulted a new book, “How to Remember Names,” by Dr. Thomas Crook with Christine Allison (HarperPerennial). A blurb on the jacket says, “The proven, easy, immediate method for remembering names, numbers, lists . . . and where you put your glasses.”

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I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Crook can’t help some people, but I seem to be beyond his reach.

For instance, he lists the most common American names, from Abbott to Young, and gives clues for remembering each. For example, when you meet somebody named Abbott, you are supposed to think of Abbott and Costello, or “butt (a cigarette butt).” The next time you meet Abbott, you will think of Abbott and Costello or butt and it will clue you in to Abbott.

I’ve tried that. It’s nothing but trouble. Supposing I meet a man named Churchill. I think of Winston or a church on a hill. When I meet him again I am likely to call him Winston, or Hill, or even Church.

I had a dentist once who evidently used this method. He knew I was with The Times and asked me if I knew a fellow worker named Mudge. I didn’t remember any Mudge.

“Bill,” he said. “Bill Mudge.”

I realized that he meant Bill Dredge, who was indeed a colleague of mine. Obviously the doctor had planted mud in his mind as a clue, because what do dredges do? They dredge up mud.

By the same token, if I were to meet a man named Abbott, on our next encounter I would probably call him Mr. Butt--or something worse.

Dr. Crook suggests numerous other clue words. For Harrison, for example, hairy man or hairy son. Henderson, hen under son. Larson--arson, larceny. Those all sound like trouble. If I were to encounter a man I had met as Mr. Larson, I would probably think of larceny and call him Crook, which would be OK if I were actually to meet Dr. Crook, the author, himself.

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My main hope in reading “How to Remember Names” was to find out how to remember where I put my glasses, as promised on the cover. Misplacing my glasses is one of my main problems. I can’t read without glasses, and I am always picking up something to read--the paper, a magazine, a book, letters.

But often I have misplaced my glasses. I sometimes have to search the whole house. It is very exasperating. Usually they turn up, but sometimes on a couch or in bed where they have been sat on and bent out of shape.

There is indeed a chapter called “How to Remember Where You Put Your Glasses (keys, wallet and just about everything else).”

“The goal,” it says, “is to make the ordinary become extraordinary. In the case of your glasses, for instance, you will want to dramatize where you place them, each time you put them down. Say you place them on your night stand, near the alarm clock. Mentally imagine the alarm clock ringing loudly as you put them down . . . the more theatrical and absurd . . . the dramatization, the better.”

OK. But when I go to the right room, how do I remember what I went there for?


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