And as the body begins to creak, the mind begins to leak, so I’ve begun both to do more vigorous physical exercise and to write things down. I can’t remember everything, of course, and as Cardinal Newman wrote, “We must make up our minds to be ignorant of much, if we would know anything.”
Anyway, my forgetting isn’t dementia, just aging – although nobody has measured the beta-amyloid deposits, hippocampal neurofibrillary tangles, or neuritic plaques in my brain.
It began with my Norma Shearer problem. She was a luminous beauty and a fine actress, and when first I saw her in Marie Antoinette (1938), I said to myself, This is an unforgettable actress. Yet for some mysterious reason, I seemed never able to recall her name. I would think of her, visualize her, and name her movies and recall her first husband (Irving Thalberg), but for the life of me I couldn’t dredge up her name. Funny, huh? Well, no.
And so, I started a computer document: “Things I Refer to.” I considered dubbing it “Things I Can’t Remember” but that seemed wrong, given that what I actually can’t remember can’t be listed, and because my concern is for things I do remember in part (faces but not names): of people I sometimes like to write or talk about. As far as I’m concerned, the rest of what I can’t remember is a pack of sleeping dogs. Norma is my alpha.
Once I had this Word file working, I began to add the names of other actors – character actors, mainly – whose identities also escaped me now and again. Soon enough I realized that names and film titles are insufficient, floating meaninglessly on the page without the faces, which are powerfully mnemonic. Thus, Norma Shearer’s name is accompanied by her photo, although in her case it’s unnecessary. Not so, however, for Sir Guy Standing, who starred with Fredric March in one of my favorite films, Death Takes a Holiday(1934).
Yet even this remedy for forgetfulness can be lacking, as it was with Shearer: a classic case of a memory blocked. Thus, whenever I stumble over her name, I silently admit: “I’m Not Sure.” N.S. = Norma Shearer. Problem solved!
Norma Shearer by John Ralston, 1932
But I’ve no such memory trick for Sir Guy. Besides, I likely wouldn’t recognize him in some of the other films he made, what with makeup and context and all that. Not true, though, of Eric Blore (whose name I also used to blank on) because his voice is unforgettable. (He was Toad in Disney’s animated The Wind in the Willows.) In this instance, just placing his name and picture in the file has been sufficient.
Then, Eureka! It occurred to me to use this ever-expanding file for more serious things: for favorite quotes in their completeness and noting their sources. For instance, I’m fond of quoting the gimlet Jonathan Swift this way: You can’t reason a man out of a position he never used reason to arrive at in the first place. After sleuthing (to a thoroughly delightful result), this is now an entry in “Things I Refer to”:
Swift: “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.” from A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality,1721
This led to the addition of words and Scripture citations. The latter is just an amplification of “Quotations” and now exists as one of a growing number of categories in the file, including Actors, Definitions, Pronunciation, Quotations, Scripture, Sports Facts.
For instance, I’ve compiled an answer to an oft misstated description of how my Buckeyes got into and won the first college football National Championship (2014). People say it was because of “third-string quarterback” Cardale Jones. He was fabulous, coming into the last regular-season game against Michigan after the starter broke his ankle, but the real reason for the run of four consecutive wins was running back Ezekiel Elliott. His season-ending rushing stats: Michigan (121 yards); Wisconsin (220 yards), Alabama (230 yards), Oregon (246). I’m amazed every time I look at those stats, now fused in memory. Or, if not, now easily found.
But it is the collection of Biblical quotes and theological terms that is most helpful to me at this point in my life. And when I encounter a quote or a word that I recognize as one I often fail to adequately remember, I take the time to put it in “Things I Refer to” in such a way as to make it stick.
It’s often little more than a dictionary definition, as in Merriam-Webster’s on theodicy: “vindication of the justice of God especially in ordaining or permitting natural and moral evil.” Yet more comes, because I’ve found that knowing the simple form sends me on the trail of the complex, sometimes with unnerving results. In the case of “theodicy,” related entries in my little glossary are mysterium tremendum and numinous, with links to articles about Rudolph Otto.
I also have trouble remembering how to pronounce certain words – no matter how often I’ve looked them up. (I went to college but I’m mostly an autodidact.) For these pesky words, I link to Emma Saying, an online pronunciation guide that aspires to speak every word in English, for such important vocabulary as Koine and Chalcedon. If seeing is believing, so is hearing. I’m a little in love with Emma, but that’s okay: she’s computer-generated.
I’ve filed away some phrases in languages I don’t know and refer to them only to remind myself what others are saying. Well, sometimes I’ll drop some Latin.
The other day, I wrote to Father Schall and, apropos of something, dropped in a “Sic transit gloria mundi,” to which I added: “I went to college with a Gloria Mundi. Nice kid.”
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.