A penny for my thoughts | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Mar 29, 2017

I’ve had a few fun conversations lately with my friend Wendy. We went through a class together a couple of years ago, the kind of class in which you can learn a lot about each other. A bond can form, sometimes, just by knowing some of another’s story.

And while I might run into Wendy once or twice a week, it’s usually only long enough to say hello or have a short conversation. Still, this element of human nature can be striking, a tendency to form emotional connections based on a shared experience, even if that experience was just pleasant and fun. Wendy and I are friends with benefits, the kind that come from knowing someone just a little bit more.

She always makes me smile when I catch her eye. If I see her across a crowded room, I’ll usually make the extra effort to walk over so I can say hi. I like Wendy.

It’s just that her name is Penny. Like the character on “The Big Bang Theory.” Like the coin. Like the Beatles song.

This isn’t a phenomenon. We’ve all done it, probably, gotten the wrong name stuck somewhere upstairs, somewhere that’s pretty sticky. It’s a little embarrassing and maybe funny, although I’d suggest this is just weird. I know this woman. I know her name. I tend to call her by another one. I have no idea.

My theory is that this is specific to Penny, for whatever reason. I’m usually OK with names and faces. I do remember greeting a guy I don’t know all that well as “Bob” for a couple of years. His name is actually Bob, but for a couple of years I wondered if I had it right. It’s not as good of a story, I know.

But memory is a funny thing. Sometimes not so funny, and as we age it becomes more of an issue. There's plenty of neuroscience out there to explain and ease concerns, though. The more memories we have, the more complicated our storage and retrieval mechanisms become. It makes sense.

It’s still funny, though, occasionally disturbing, and the subject of any number of conversations I have every week. People in my age cohort tend to bring it up, although at this point no one is worrying about impending dementia. We just acknowledge our shared experience, which is that from time to time our memories hiccup. Spasms of amnesia contort our faces into pretty silly ones, and we wave our hands vaguely in the air while trying to access a name or place that remains inaccessible. It’s part of the process, we know.

In fact, what strikes me as more interesting is what we do remember. Ask me about something that happened three weeks ago and I’ll tell you, with the caveat that I might actually just be making stuff up.

But ask me about, say, 1975, and I’ll tell you a lot with confidence. This isn’t a news flash, either; we all know about long- versus short-term memory, and the curiosities that come up.

It’s just that I’m not sure what to do with those old memories. I was an eyewitness to a fair amount of history; I have distinct if fleeting memories of the assassination of President Kennedy, and much more specific ones from six years later, when Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon. I was a child during the Vietnam War and the social chaos of the 1960s, a teenager during Watergate, and a young father when Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on launch in 1986. Those might be worth something, to someone, far enough in the future, although I have nothing to offer other than my spectator status.

I’m more interested in the cultural memories, and what value they might hold. I’m the last person to suggest that I grew up in a happier, safer time, although there are plenty my age who will. These are people who think that because we drank out of garden hoses and never wore bike helmets, we’re somehow physically, psychologically, and maybe totally superior to the current generation of coddled young adults, helicopter-parented and always given a trophy.

This is idiotic. I know a fair number of young people around the age of 30, who with few exceptions were thrust out of college into a cratering economy, and who, again with few exceptions, have played a significant role in reshaping our world. They’ve started businesses and created jobs, mostly because they needed one, and their fingerprints are all over this century.

From this perspective, then, I wonder if anything I remember is of any use at all. I walked to and from school as a child on statistically far more dangerous streets than we have today in my neighborhood; it’s hard to see this as a virtue of a simpler time. It’s just the way it was.

Is the fact that I remember “The Waltons” salient in any way today? Or Walter Cronkite, Howard Cosell, The Monkees? Every episode of the original “Star Trek,” or Rod Serling’s clipped delivery?

I’m starting to think that memory is overrated, actually. I see no point in spending any time trying to change the past, and not much value in reliving it. I’m more interested in what’s coming, and I’ll be grateful just to remember where I put my keys and that Wendy’s name is really Penny.

Unless it’s Bob. I’ll check on that.

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