With the virtues of aging come fits of forgetfulness

November 05, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The other morning, as fine a morning as ever dawned for reminding myself how old and absent-minded I'm getting, I hopped into my car and drove right into my own dimly seen future.

I arrived at the Owings Mills mall, in northwest Baltimore County. Getting older has many virtues, and I hope to discover at least one of them before I die. Meanwhile, at the dawning of my 51st year, as I enter the shopping center, I am carrying new glasses to see things I've previously seen without glasses. Words on a page, once clear and vivid, are now a blur. Is that a headline atop this newspaper, or a smudge like Groucho's old mustache?

The eye doctor says not to worry. You're not going blind, he says assuringly, you're only following the normal patterns of aging. The eyes just need a little assistance, like Bosnia.

Also, it turns out, my brain may need a little help.

I drove to Owings Mills mall in search of a sports coat. This is never easy for me, as my interest in fashion ended around the time I discovered it would take more than a great wardrobe to turn me into Cary Grant. (Or Hugh Grant. Or Lou Grant.)

But clothes selection gets even more burdensome now, as I can no longer clearly make out colors without pulling my new glasses from a shirt pocket and examining the clothing up close.

At Macy's department store, I see a coat that looks pretty nice at a fuzzy glance, and pull out my glasses to look more closely: Not bad; I try it on. For the moment, instead of putting my glasses back into my shirt pocket, which is under a bulky sweater, I unconsciously take the easier road and slip them into the pocket of the jacket.

I look at myself in the mirror: Nah, not what I wanted. (Not quite Cary Grant; more like Ulysses S. Grant.) So I put the jacket back and exit the store. And I'm wandering through the mall when I reach for my glasses in their customary spot.

Only now, in my pocket, in the place where my glasses are supposed to be, there is a thing which can only be described as Absence of Glasses. They're gone. And I don't have a pair of glasses to help me find my glasses. Where, in this conglomerate of stores, could I have misplaced them? In a moment, it comes to me: the sports jacket back at Macy's.

OK, this could happen to anyone. You don't have to be 50 years old to be forgetful. Such things happen to the Schmoke administration all the time. Look how they misplaced their ethical compass during the last campaign.

So I backtrack through half the first floor of the mall, happily find my glasses in the sports jacket and remove them without anyone thinking I'm trying to steal something. And I leave.

Now I stop at The Gap. I see a nice jacket, but I'm unsure of the colors. Pull out my glasses. Slip the glasses -- guess where? -- into the jacket pocket. Look in the mirror: Nope. (More like Horace Grant than Cary Grant.) Put the jacket back, exit, get halfway through the mall. Whoops! Where are my glasses? You got it: Second time. Back to The Gap I go.

How do such things happen? How is it I find myself wandering through Owings Mills mall like all 12 of the lost tribes of Israel? How does the human brain, once so sure of its every move, get so forgetful? Or is it not the human brain, but merely my particular human brain?

After all, across this shopping mall are people far older than I, leading apparently productive lives, trying on things, buying things, and not forgetting to carry them away.

So now I go to the Hecht Co. for sports jackets. I see one that looks pretty nice, and take out my glasses to look at it more closely: Not bad. Try it on. Not quite my style. Exit the store, and as I stroll along, I reach for my glasses. Not there! Third time! New American League record! Back in the sports jacket at the Hecht Co.!

What do we learn from such a display of genius? First, that the human brain, operating on automatic pilot, is not entirely to be trusted. Second, that people walking through the mall, apparently browsing and purchasing, are doing nothing of the sort. Those folks strolling the malls of America every day? They're not strolling, they're looking for their glasses!

So I leave the mall understanding a few things: I can't take my memory for granted. I need to focus. And, if I do these things, life will be fine.

And I exit the mall, step into the fresh autumn air, and realize the following: I have no idea where I left my car.

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