Memory gaps

(Originally written up on 12/3 at the rehab center in Palo Alto.)

A striking, and very distressing, effect of my alcohol poisoning is memory gaps. Some afflicting me:

— (Gap 1) the name of the company my caregiver, Kim Darnell, works for: Wells Fargo.

— (Gap 2) The name of the company my daughter, Elizabeth Daingerfeld Zwicky, works for: Yahoo! (The company itself has a different idea about its proper name, but I’m sticking with its older label.)

— (Gap 3) The name of the native language of my neighbor when I was a patient at Stanford Hospital: Punjabi.

— (Gap 4) The name of the long-standing affliction of my joints (causing significant pain in random joints, different ones on different days); in the context of either alcohol poisoning or alcohol-withdrawal syndrome, I don’t know which, magnified to an exquisitely painful condition: osteoarthritis.

— (Gap 5) The name of the governor of California before the current one, Gavin Newsome (whose name has always been firm in my memory): Jerry Brown.

When I was first asked for this name by a doctor probing my awareness of the cultural context surrounding me, I got nothing at all.

Then the last name, Brown, came to me (apparently spontaneously, out of the blue) and was firmly fixed in my memory thereafter, but the man’s first name eluded me, and in the context of a medical institution where I had no means of searching for information, continued to elude me, until this morning, when one of my therapists provided me with Jerry.

Now, in the interim I could automatically retrieve not just the family name Brown, but also the information that this governor’s father was Pat Brown, an earlier governor of California; that the Brown I was after had himself served as governor a while back in a hippie-esque period, when he was sometimes mocked as Governor Moonbeam; that he then went on to serve as mayor of the city of Oakland; and that he then returned to the governorship in a much more serious guise.

That is, I knew a hell of a lot about this man Brown, but could not for the life of me retrieve his first name.

The general pattern is typical of my word-finding difficulties: I am enormously knowledgeable over a wide range of facts, but there are seemingly random gaps in word-finding.

This is not a matter of personal significance to me. It’s true that Jerry Brown’s first name is of no particular importance in my life, but the identity of Kim and Elizabeth’s employers are central in my life, and my grave difficuty in retrieving these names fills me with shame and distress.

It’s as if some malefactor were firing shotgun blasts at my word-hoard, taking down some items willy-nilly.

An additional wrinkle is that some of the gaps are persistent — the items vanish again and again, even after being found. This is strikingly true for Gaps 1-4. I rehearse them thousands of times, but still they vanish.

The key to recovering them is having a mnemonic. For Gap 1, ths is the song “The Wells Fargo Wagon” (“The Wells Fargo wagon is a-comin'”) from the Broadway show and movie The Music Man. For Gap 2, it’s about what the cowboys shout when they see that wagon train a-comin’. For Gap 3, it’s “word play poke” (pun + jab). For Gap 4, it’s “bone joint” (Greek roots osteo– ‘bone’ + arthr– ‘joint (of the body)’).

Other gaps are temporary: once I have recovered or learmed te vagrant item it’s firm in my memory from then on.

Just so for Gap 5, for both parts of the name. Once I had spontaneously retrieved the family name Brown, I had it as automatically available as any familiar name, like Newsome. Then, once I had been told the personal name Jerry, it too became as automatically available as any personal name, like Gavin.


— (Gap 6) the name of the shop on Caifornia Avenue in Palo Alto that provides the closest thing to genuine New York City bagels locally: Izzy’s (full name Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels).

In talking, with some feeling, about the world of bagels, I could recall the location of the place and remember that it was Joel Wallenberg who brought me to a full appreciation of the place, and even picture its interior, and recall that its name was an affectionate abbreviation of a specifically Jewish man’s name, but Izzy eluded me. Until a friend supplied it for me, and then it became an automatically available local food name, quite unproblematic.

Similarly, for a brief period, it took some work for me to recall the name of the college Kim’s daughter Maggie attends — Emerson (in Boston). But once I’d retrieved it, it was as automatically available to me as any school name — much like the name of the prep school my granddaghter ttends, Northfield Mount Herman (in rural western Massachusetts), NMH for short, which never presented me with any difficulty whatsoever.

A higher-level memory issue. For persistent gaps like 1-4, the menomics provide a device for getting at the problematic item, but of course, the mnemonics themselves must be memorized. They could be subject to the same effects of the malevolent shotgun-wielder as the items they’re aids to.

In my experience, this seems not to happen — presumably because the mnemoncs are ostentatiously playful and so resound rewardingly at a personal level. But the topic deserves a more thoughtful treatment than these facile remarks.


4 Responses to “Memory gaps”

  1. Frank Abate Says:

    It may have something to do with how recent the memory is. When it comes to names, they present a particular problem and are a special case. Your mind needs to have some sort of association for the memory of the name to stick.

  2. Doug Harris Says:

    For some reason, I realized yesterday that you hadn’t posted recently. I was instantly distressed.
    I am SO happy to ‘have you back’, Arnold.
    You may not — probably don’t — fully realize the joy you bring to your readers.
    You are an incredibly brilliant man, with knowledge and expertise across a BROAD range of topics. Youo have enlightened me on many subjects, and I relish the fact that, somehow, I stumbled into your email circle.
    My doctors, given that I am on dialysis with failing/failed kidneys, would prefer to see me forgo drinking. I try to hold it to a volume just short of causing alcohol poisoning, reasoning that I’m destined to die of something related to kidney failure — why mess with destiny.
    I cherish you, Arnold. You are a wonderful person.
    Doug Harris

  3. Julie Says:

    So happy to hear your voice again.

  4. Jim fidelholtz Says:

    Hi, Arnold. We may not have seen each other much since grad school, or rarely, but I’m glad to hear you are doing better, and your interesting comments on the aphasia-like sequels of your recent bout with alcohol. I’ve only had drinking problems twice, fortunately. After the second time, I couldn’t drink even a beer for six months, and since then I haven’t really gotten drunk again. I might have been tempted if T**** had really won the election, but thank God he didn’t.

    I noticed somewhere that you are Emeritus at Stanford. I’m still teaching here in Mexico. BTW, Facebook just emailed me to send several messages or communications that I had received recently, and your msg was sort of tacked onto a note from a relative; in fact I very rarely anymore even get into FB, so if the urge strikes to get in touch with me, it would be better to use my email: . I’m glad there’s a vaccine finally, since I have been hunkered down now for what seems like years, here with my wife. We have a largish house for 2 people, and even so it’s hard to not get on each other’s nerves. We old folks need to stay out of circulation as much as we can.

    Take care, wear a mask &c.,


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