Reader Request Week 2023 #4: My Memory

John Scalzi

Granny Roberta says:

I had a really good question a while back but I forgot to write it down. (Remembering the actual question was never an option.) So how’s YOUR memory holding up?

As far as I can recall, it’s about as good as it ever was, which is to say, not particularly good or bad.

More accurately, it’s kind of like this:

1. Do you need a rough estimate of the domestic box office gross of any film released by a major Hollywood studio since 1991? I have that shit wired, both because I was a professional film critic for several years, and so I had a need for that sort of information, and because my brain has always been incredibly good at noting and retaining facts and trivia, which has come in super handy as a writer, putting together stories on the fly.

2. Do you need to know where I put my wallet fifteen minutes ago? Fuck if I know; I mean, it’s probably in the house somewhere? Because I haven’t left the house in the last fifteen minutes? But after that, yeeeeeaaaah, it’s a blank, I will have to undergo a journey of the soul, and a walkaround for the parts of the house I am likely to have been in, to find it.

3. Did we meet once, eight years ago? I will likely remember your face, and more likely if you are a woman/femme-presenting, because (best guess on my brain here), I’m straight and women’s faces interest me more than men/masculine-presenting faces do. Yes, I know, I’m not rationalizing my brain’s apparent inherent sexism, I’m just telling you what it does. But regardless of gender presentation, I am pretty good at faces — and also, really good at identifying people I already know at a distance from other less-obvious physical traits, like how they walk or gesticulate. This is why I was not particularly flummoxed by masks when we were all wearing them; faces are not the only thing I clue in on. BUT —

4. I’m shit at names and if you are in my signing line and you bring more than one book I will likely forget your name between signing the first book and the second one. That’s because when I’m doing something like signing books, everything is in the short term memory buffer and gets wiped the instant I’m done; look, you try signing for dozens or possibly even hundreds of people at one time and trying to remember them all for any longer than five minutes. I want to be clear that when I’m talking to you in my signing line I am going to try to give you a pleasant and memorable experience for you, because even if I’m seeing a whole bunch of other people, you’ve come to see me, and I want you to know that I appreciate you have. But, yeah, the second you walk away your name is already out of my brain. Sorry. It affects other people in other situations as well, and at this point I just say to people “I know we know each other but my brain is shit at names so please tell me yours again.”

5. So, Krissy had foot surgery a while back and couldn’t drive for six weeks, so for every day of those six weeks I drove her to work, and then a few hours later picked her up and drove her back home. Did it happen? Yes, absolutely. Does Krissy remember it? Of course she does. Do I have any memory of this six weeks of taxi service? Not one bit. It’s as if my brain looked at that whole time period, said, oh, you don’t need that, and then just hit the purge button. There’s a whole bunch of stuff where Krissy will say, hey you remember that? And I will say, no, not in the least, my love. Again: Absolutely certain it happened. Have no memory of it. At all.

6. But it works the other way too! Sometimes Krissy doesn’t remember a particular thing and I have an exact memory of it and can go down that rabbit hole as deeply as you please. Between the two of us, we remember most things to a reasonable approximation.

7. You slighted or insulted me even once? Oh, I’m gonna fucking remember that until I die, my friend, and while I practice a policy of genial amusement at such things, and will not do anything to make your life more difficult or unpleasant, because why become that sort of person, when you fall down some stairs, personally, professionally or literally, I can’t promise I won’t say “oh, no,” in a very small, studiously compassionate voice and then think about making a pie. I’m happy to forgive, actually. Forget? Nah.

8. Do I feel like age has had an impact on my memory? Not really, and while one can never really foretell the future, I don’t really expect it to; I come from a line of people who remained mentally tack-sharp well into their 80s and 90s. Also, it helps that I am relatively active, healthy, and I don’t do recreational drugs or have other habits that are correlative to memory impairment, and have not (to date, crosses fingers) had any number of concussions or contusions that would directly affect my brain function. All things being equal, I expect to be at a fairly standard level of memory function for a while yet.

9. Oh, jeez, I forgot what I was gonna say here.

10. That was a joke. I SWEAR.

— JS

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Leave in the comment thread at this link.)

27 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2023 #4: My Memory”

  1. If I had never read any of your writing, This response would make me go out and get one of your books.

  2. Excellent recap on your memory state. I think we may be wired similarly.

  3. LOL. Yeah, 3 & 4: I always say I never forget a face, I just don’t have a clue what the name is that goes with it! I’m not sure I’m more likely to remember women than men (or vice versa), but I AM far more likely to remember you if you have a dog… and you have the dog with you whenever I meet you. I have actually met people I’ve walked dogs with, when they didn’t have their dog with them, and TOTALLY ghosted them.

    #5: I get it. The important thing about that whole memory is that Krissy remembers, and appreciates it. Remembering it for yourself would be so self-serving!

  4. Mid-50s here and while I think most of my memory is about the same, I feel like I’m definitely losing it when it comes to faces, especially if I see someone out of the usual context I see them in. Like if I’m at the mall and I bump into a co-worker who I only interact with occasionally, I will frequently not realize it’s them. (Masks might be part of it though as it is in the last few years that I’ve noticed it).

  5. Faces out of context (including things like “hat/no hat”) are problematic for lots of people. I personally don’t think that degrades differently than other memory tasks, but is likely to be noticed more often as you age just because you probably know a lot more people, and have a lot more different contexts to encounter people in (so more opportunity for that particular brain misfeature to apply)

  6. I’ve dabbled at writing and people point out that I have this weird trick with minutiae: I remember shicoffee. My mind is a junkyard of superficial garbage that works it’s way into my writing. But yeah, there’s a slip of paper on my front door (inside) that lists car keys, work key card, ID badge, wallet, money, 2 pens (working), both phones, because reasons…

  7. I’ve always had an “idiosyncratic” memory. For exampe, I can remember the first machine code routine I wrote (EE 00 80 4C 2E E6) in 1981 (I was in hospital so hand assembled “INC $8000; JMP $E62E). I remember programs I wrote in 1985 and was able to type it in, from memory, in 2015 (when I did it as a test). I remember solutions to problems I solved for work 30 years ago, that I’ll never need again.

    I don’t have a photographic memory, but I have an “almost-photographic” memory. I can see stuff in my mind, but I can’t describe it. For some reason I just remembered the foot of the couch in the living room from 1975. Hmm. And panning around the room in my minds eye I can see the fireplace (oh, I forgot it was tiled). And I can see the front door knocker.

    I have a terrible memory for names. My Dad said he did as well, so I wonder if this is something organic. He would always call people “Blue” (“Hi Blue, how you doing?”) because he couldn’t remember names. Makes me wonder if there’s a hereditary organic component at play!

    I’m also face blind; I did one of those tests and I can see faces, but I don’t recognise who they belong to. Between those two problems, no wonder I have social anxiety ;-)

    I also suffer what I call “associative amnesia”. This isn’t new; back in 1993 (in my early 20s) I couldn’t remember the name of a co-worker that I’d worked with for 3 years. And then I forgot the name of the person she sat opposite. And the names of the people in the office she sat outside.. and the people on the next set of desks and… until I found a trigger; I remembered her login ID (“wcm1”) and that gave me her name and every other name cascaded in (“Oh, she sits oppose Mary, outside of Brian’s office, next to John, with Kathy outside and…”). All the information was there, I just couldn’t retrieve it.

    I’m about the same age as you; I don’t think my memory has got any worse over the years. But it’s not always good :-)

    One thing it is good at, though, is remembering every f***up I’ve made. Mistakes from when I was a kid. People I hurt, who don’t even remember I did it. People claim I’m my own worse critic; how can I not be, if I remember all those errors?

  8. I don’t recognize faces, can’t remember names, don’t even notice when someone is trying to insult me, can’t give directions to save my own life, but I know the exact location of everything in the house and garden, every plant I’ve put in or handled at work by name, habit, and edibility/toxicity, and many, many recipes. I have an inventory memory, not an relational or associative one. Strangely, people get upset that I never noticed they insulted me and don’t remember them at all. My wife thinks this is hysterical, because she will nurse a grudge until it dies of old age, then taxidermy it.

  9. Is that C64 (6502) machine language? I tried to learn it when my dad had a Commodore 64 (which I mostly used for Jumpman and Lode Runner) but didn’t succeed.

  10. It’s 6502 assembler, yes; in this case for the Commodore PET 3008.

  11. I always say “Sometimes I remember faces, sometimes I remember names. Remembering which faces go with which names… now that is a bit more challenging.” But I know where most things in the house are. Sometimes it is because I have actually seen it in the place it is located, but often my wife will ask me about something that she is looking for. I didn’t use it, don’t know where it is really, but I tell her where it is, because I remember the last time she used it, and therefore I know where she left it.

  12. Re: #4 – my younger kid swears there’s a little man with a shredder in his head, and Every. Single. Name. he hears gets put through that shredder. Faces, he’s fine with – names, nope, the man with the shredder got ’em.

    mintwitch, I cackled out loud (and scared the cats) at “she will nurse a grudge until it dies of old age, then taxidermy it.” I would ask if your wife is my mother-in-law if she hadn’t been dead for decades, because that described her to a T.

  13. @ Colonel Snuggledorf: We make a good team. She stears me around toxic people and situations, and I give her permission to let it go. Don’t give others free rent in your brain. Life is short. The best revenge is indifference. There’s maybe a dozen people in the planet whose opinions matter to me. That guy is definitely not on the list. Have a cookie.

  14. I’m in my early 30’s and I’ve had a lot of weird perceptions about my memory. I think it largely has had to do with my stress state though. I would think ‘Oh if only my brain was like when I was in high school’, but that brain had the benefit of not being exhausted with young child and work demands, and then I reflect on the content I produced at that age (at least the written content for this purpose, the artistic content was actually up to par because I haven’t had the same amount of effort in developing that aspect of myself), and I’m like, yeah, what an idiot.

    And then there’s the fax-style degradation that comes with re-remembering memories, is my first memory really me bouncing in a duck bouncy thing attached to the ceiling? Maybe? But maybe it’s just something I propagate forward and no one else can substantiate my claims if they don’t remember it either. Also I will not remember your name if we meet briefly, but I ALWAYS feel awkward and awful about that.

  15. After two bouts of Covid, one before the vaccine, one after I would say my memory is worse. Sometimes I struggle to remember a word until it finally comes to me. I am really good at trivia games though. I tell people that I have a brain full of useless information. I can remember something I read but not where I read it whether it was a book, magazine article etc. I totally suck at remembering names, I always have though.
    A comedian once said “my mind is like a Rolodex, I just haven’t gotten to that card yet”, of course I don’t remember the comedian who said it.

  16. I was gonna makes the “forgot something” but you were faster :)

  17. That was an even more rewarding answer than I hoped for. Thank you.
    Plus before I read this post my sister emailed me “Oh my freaking gods and goddesses, my sister is famous! Scalzi famous.”

  18. Penn Jillette is a devoted diarist. He writes in his journal every day and has done so for decades. He’s also been partners with Teller for 50 years. (If you don’t know, they are magicians.) He had said that they will be discussing something that happened years ago, each remembering it differently and completely certain the other is an idiot. Then he will check his journal and find they are both completely wrong.

    I can’t remember names, never have been able to. Then I had to relearn how to walk in early 06 and in the process I forgot my co-workers names. I knew them, who was married, what they did on vacation, etc., but their names were gone. Same thing happened when I started going to cons later in the year.

    And now I’m even worse with names.

  19. My memory got suddenly a lot better when I retired from a stressful job. I don’t know if it was the stress or the distraction. What has improved a lot is my ability to remember where I put things, why I got up to go to the other room, etc. Still not perfect but way better than before.

  20. @Stephen Harris:

    I don’t remember the first code I wrote for my job but I do remember what I suspect was the interview question that got me hired at this company. The interviewer (who would be my first manager) asked how to create a symbolic link on a computer. I gave a correct answer, though it wasn’t the answer he had on his answer sheet. I patiently walked him through checking that the answer I gave was correct (while pointing out that both my answer and his were correct.) That behavior is kind of important for a technical support job.

    I’ve been in my current role for nearly 20 years and have touched, read, or reviewed so much code that while I can’t necessarily immediately recognize my code I can say “Who the wrote this?” and only after checking source control realize “Oh, that was me N years ago.”

    “One thing it is good at, though, is remembering every f***up I’ve made. Mistakes from when I was a kid. People I hurt, who don’t even remember I did it. People claim I’m my own worse critic; how can I not be, if I remember all those errors?”

    +one million.

    One tactic I’ve found useful if I can’t recall a name I know I know (the actor who played a particular character on a show, usually) is to internally start saying the alphabet. Each letter combined with the character and show is likely to spark some connection. I may make a different connection before I reach the actor I’m thinking of but I continue on.

    For example, if I were walking through actors on Babylon 5 trying to think of who played Delenn I’d say A, B is Bruce Boxleitner, C, D is Delenn, E, F … and might stop here if that reminds me of Mira Furlan. It might take me getting to M for Mira (passing through G for Garibaldi, I for Ivanova, and L for Londo) before I think of it but it often works and doesn’t usually take that much time.

  21. @Steve L
    That alphabet trick is something I’ve never heard before, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying various ways to recall names for the faces I know, both in person and in media. Now I just use IMDB for movies and TV (“That comic looks familiar.” “Yeah Oh! He was Dank, from Dank and Dabby on Disjointed”—actual convo with my husband from two nights ago) Too bad there’s not a My Life Data Base.

    I once met a woman on a bus who clearly knew me. I knew I knew her, but after fumbling for a minute, I finally had to ask her name. It was my kids’ pediatrician, whom I’d seen probably once a month for at least 5 years. No office + no white coat = no idea who she was.

  22. I sent this post to my family, and especially my wife, as a sort of “see-I-TOLD-you-its-not-just-me” message. [This sentence reserved as a placeholder for the other snarky thing I was gonna say but can’t remember now.]

  23. Thank you for posting the clip from “Gigi.” I’ve always been a big fan of Hermione Gingold.

  24. Oh yeah, 70+ and my memory is still mostly intact. I have noticed sometimes a name won’t come, but generally five minutes later, it pops into my brain. My mother was obsessed with losing her memory (she never did) and spent hours daily on puzzles and word games. My father went to an Alzheimers memory place because his mother had a form of dementia, but he didn’t lose a thing to the day he died.

    I may not brag about a lot but my memory is one thing I do brag on. We’d been in Rome once. Several years later we went back, driving this time, and my wife was astounded that I remembered exactly what street to turn on to get to our pensione.

    I have been keeping Week at a Glance notebooks since 1975, so that helps for specific dates, but generally I remember. Watching British television and someone looks familiar, but you don’t know from where or when? I generally do.

    Now my wife has a name problem, we call “Liliana” because for a couple of years said Liliana would drop her off from school meetings weekly, yet she always had trouble remembering her name. (After two years or so she finally nailed it, but others have taken its place over the years.)

    My mother used to call me up regularly with questions along the line of, “Who was that guy in the movie with so-and-so? It was a western, I think.” I usually knew.

  25. I had a friend years ago who, every time she went to an event, on the way out she would tag team recall with her husband the names of any new people they had met. They were wizzes at names and that is probably why — rehearsal shunts short term memories into long term storage. Names are hard for everybody because they are arbitrary labels, bearing no relationship to any characteristic of the person.

  26. As for journals, I don’t want to date mine, or even put them in order, because I don’t want to know my life too precisely.

    My slim week at a glance calendar is nice for noting telephone contacts with corporations, and places I have gone and seen. I keep a handwritten spreadsheet there too.

    On a sad-funny note, I was happily having a meal in a London restaurant. I had just retired, I said to a “forth” at the next table, because covid had done a number on my brain. The man said one of the ladies at his table had retired with long covid. We talked and I kept failing to come up with names for movie stars, writers, books and movies. I said I would normally know, today was just coincidence.

    He pointed out the lady couldn’t remember words. Later, walking to my hotel, I just had to smile at being so tactfully told I was in denial.

  27. There stuff I can recall easily. But my phone goes missing on the regular. That is the result of having 3 major concussions in one year. And then subsequent concussions from falls. My brain is mush.

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