Column: Life is a baffling ordeal for an absent-minded man

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 30, 2001

My mother used to tell a story about me whenever the topic of absentmindedness came up.

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

My mother used to tell a story about me whenever the topic of absentmindedness came up. It seems that I was once so preoccupied as I got ready for school that I left the milk in the pantry, the cereal in the refrigerator and my cereal bowl, spoon and juice glass – all rinsed and nearly stacked – next to the bathroom sink. I’m lucky that I remembered to put on clothes that day, I guess.

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It was a relatively harmless act of forgetfulness, but my memory lapses have not always been this benign. Important documents are constantly being put in places where they will be &uot;safe,&uot; which means, of course, that I’ll never be able to find them again. I have forgotten to vote a couple of times, something I must remember not to do next week for the school levy election. You would think that having kids in school would be enough to keep it on my mind, but we’ll have to see. Too much is at stake for the children of our community. Even so, my absentmindedness sometimes extends to kids; I once forgot to pick up my oldest daughter from school (she was in the third grade) and the principal phoned to find out why no one was there.

Luckily, I have never forgotten any of my kids in the car when I’ve gone shopping, either in winter or in summer. You’ll understand, though, if I can empathize with parents who have been responsible for injuring or killing their children when they leave them in closed up automobiles for several hours. But for the grace of God, it could have been me.

Still, I have always been absentminded. For better or worse, I probably always will be. It’s a frustrating experience, more than anything else. It’s not like I’m just trying to avoid doing unpleasant things or avoid unpleasant experiences. The tedious chores do get forgotten, but also things I was looking forward to, like a show on TV or a concert or a date with someone. I do know that it’s very easy for me to become preoccupied and I spend a lot time deep in thought about this or that. Some might say I dream a lot. I suppose it looks like dreaming (or daydreaming) to many.

Part of it is probably due to the fact that I am usually thinking about (or working on) several different problems at the same time -&160;by default I am a multi-tasker; I think all parents are. And there’s only so much brain tissue to go around. Eventually, as more items get added to the list of things I need to be thinking about or remembering, other things get pushed out. Psychologists have established that the average American adult is capable of holding about seven different things in our short term memory. Add one more, and something gets purged. I think I must be well below average. I seem to only remember about three things (or maybe four on a good day). Good thing my head doesn’t come off, or I really would leave it somewhere, never to be recovered again.

Absentmindedness is supposed to go with my choice of profession -&160;teaching at the college level -&160;but it isn’t an especially good &uot;skill&uot; in that context, either. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve left notes for class at home or neglected to collect an assignment when it was due (the students never remind me, of course). I leave my keys on my desk and then pull my office door shut with the lock engaged. I open my briefcase to get out the handouts for a class meeting only to remember that I never made that trip to the copy machine; there are no copies of anything to pass out. And the list goes on … I never seem to learn my lesson. I could write notes to myself, to help me remember, but I always forget where I put them.

The worst fear I have about being absentminded, however, is not about forgetting my children or my notes for a lecture somewhere. It has to do with what might happen 40 years from now. If I end up suffering from Alzheimer’s, will anyone notice?

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.