Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Memory Lapses, Part I - Who Are You?

Twice in one day, I ran into people who knew me by name that I didn’t recognize. The first time this happened, I had gone into a café in Newport to have lunch with a friend. As we were taking our seats a young, good looking woman at a nearby table looked at me, smiled broadly, and said, ‘Hi, John.” I knew I knew her, but couldn’t place her at all. She was with a man who hadn’t acknowledged me and whom I was pretty sure I didn’t know. The only glimmer of recognition I had was a sense that she was out of place. I felt that I shouldn’t have been running into her in Newport.

After lunch, I stopped at her table and said, “You’re not usually over this way.” “No,” she replied. “You neither.”

“Actually, I’m the arts coordinator at The East Bay Met School. I work there three days a week, so I’m in Newport quite a bit.”


“And you?” I asked.

“I’m here seeing some massage clients.”

Of course! She was a massage therapist I’d gone to three or four times. She saw clients in the old mill building in North Kingstown where I had my art studio. She gave a break to other tenants in the building making her services quite affordable. Once I made the connection, my recognition of her was complete, my memories intact. I don’t think she realized that I hadn’t recognized her.

Later the same day, I went into Belmont’s to buy ingredients for soup. The woman checking me out, said, “Hi, John.” I looked at her with no sense or recognition. She was a thin, attractive woman about my age, but I had no idea who she might be to me or me to her.

She said, “Its Diane.”


“I took pottery lessons from you when you had your shop on Main Street.” I had the shop thirty-five years ago.

“I’m the one that made all the lopsided bowls.”

“Everyone who studied pottery with me made lopsided bowls,” I said.

We chatted a bit but no memories emerged for me. Nothing.

When my wife Deb and I are together, we have a signal worked out. If I should be able to make an introduction, but I am drawing a blank, I say, “Have you two met?”

Deb sticks out her hand and says, “Hi I’m Debby Drew, John’s wife.”

Usually, but not always, the person will complete the introduction and I’m off the hook.

Sometimes there is no choice but to say, “Look, I’m terribly sorry. I know I know you but I can’t place you.” People are generally very kind about this. They laugh it off.

These lapses are pretty common and have been going on for quite awhile. I think they are happening more frequently, but I don’t think they are completely age related. For example, I’ve never been able to remember numbers. I don’t actually mind these memory short circuits for myself. It is a minor inconvenience. However, I worry about how it makes other people feel. I guess I just have to trust that they will know it is a cognitive limitation and is not a reflection of how I regard them.

About the self-portrait:
I took a workshop in botanical illustration from a woman named Gretchen Halpert (http://gretchenhalpert.com/Home.html). This workshop involved spending two days in February in the greenhouses at Roger Williams Park, while it was in the 20's outside, drawing tropical blossoms. Gretchen pushed the participants to do slow, accurate drawings. A couple of days later I did this pencil self-portrait. The workshop and this drawing reminded me of a way of working that I don't often use, but that I have available.


  1. yes... that slow careful way of looking at the world and then slowly, slowly, drawing what you see is how Gretchen and I were taught by Amy Bartlet Wright... I remember taking 12 hours to render a red cabbage( maybe it was more , i lost track of time after a couple of days spent pencil shading cabbage crevices) . I would dare to say that this self portrait is one of your best. Watch out Holbein, here comes Kotula.

  2. yeow John... you posted this at 4:59 this morning.... how often does that happen? you could do a posting on age and sleeping habits?

  3. hmm... something is not right here... it says I posted these comments at 5;37 am...maybe the computer is confused.. sorry about my anal preoccupation with time..

  4. Sally, Your comment sent me to Google searching for Holbein.

    Here is a link to one of his portraits that I like a lot. Maybe I'll do a version with my face superimposed on it!


    Can you say more about what makes this one of my best?