published Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Fortune: Life in the fun house is sometimes no fun

by Mary Fortune

My brain is a fun house. I have a weird, killer memory when it comes to recalling conversations, numbers, any and all dates, trivia about who was wearing what and when and where. I don’t know why I know. I just know. I don’t even have to try.

The flip side of the fun house, though, is kind of a nightmare. People are impossible for me to pin down. When I am confronted by the face of someone I’ve known casually for years, I will blank out completely and stand there smiling and nodding mindlessly while they talk to me, hoping desperately that they’ll drop some hint, some nugget of information, some social lifeline that will reveal to me our connection.

Or, if I’m feeling brave, I’ll decide I know who it is. That never ends well. I recently asked a guy I ran into at the pool how his pediatric practice was going. He smiled and said I had him mixed up with someone else.

“Oh no,” I said, feeling the painfully familiar blush creep into my cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”

He nodded. I waited. Finally, I had to cave.

“So. Who are you?”

When he told me, I was aghast. Our sons play ball together. I’ve been to his house several times for family parties. I know where he works; I know his wife’s name and his sons’ names and ages. I know his address! His face, though, like most faces, pulls no triggers at all in my mind.

My husband understands that my reluctance to socialize is tied directly to this defect I have, and he has learned to shepherd me through the inevitable awkward spots. He is my complete opposite; he remembers every face, every name, every time. When he’s not saving me from ghastly social implosion, he’s teasing me about how few real friends I have.

“I have plenty of friends,” I pout. “I just don’t know who they are.”

When I first became a reporter, this missing piece of my brain became a pretty serious problem. Reporting is full of the kind of superficial, occasionally recurring interactions that are my exact mental blind spot.

In the small town where I started out, I would see the mayor and council about once a month, when they’d meet. That first meeting was no problem — it was socially acceptable to walk around introducing myself and asking questions about who people were and what they did.

I knew, though, that while I would recall every word of every conversation, I would have no memory of any of the faces. So I scribbled frantically in my notebook while I talked with all these new people. They probably thought I was dutifully recording their comments, but I was really taking notes like this: (Mayor has bushy white eyebrows, black-rimmed glasses and crooked front teeth. Chairman of the ways and means committee has big ears, thick brown hair and a cleft chin.)

I did this throughout my career, carrying descriptive cheat sheets with me until I had met often enough with specific people for them to have a firm spot in my mind. It usually took about eight meetings — and if I saw them out of context (running into the mayor and his bushy white eyebrows at the grocery store, for example), I was right back to zero.

The notion that I might somehow, miraculously, grow a social memory is one I abandoned years ago. But, honestly, the whole thing never gets any less embarrassing. I’m just glad my husband is around to whisper our friends’ names into my ear at parties. (Curly auburn hair, blue eyes, white gold band on third finger of left hand.)

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