Multiple Guess

Posted on July 6th, 2009 by

Friends of mine, as well as readers of the former print edition of this zine (now excitingly being archived right here!) are exceedingly familiar with my (only partly morbid) fascination with the loss of memory I’ve experienced as I enter my ever-later-forties. (49 in a few weeks….) Lately, I’ve been observing to my father (who, at 86, can sniff the air and pick up the tang of 90) that I feel much more in common with him than with my (twenty-something) students, in the remembering department. Like him, I now regularly tell stories in which, in place of people’s names, I recite their place of birth, the car they used to drive, where I first met them, what they do for a living, and other, often minute, particular, exacting details about their lives-all correct, but none of them quite the same as, say, the name Jane Doe.[1] It’s maddening-but I have to admit it’s also fascinating to me.

<div xmlns:cc="" about=""><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=My mental image for the loss of this ability-to-retrieve is this: imagine a room full of floating index cards, all of which have a hole punched in one corner. Memory is a hook, designed to grab the hole in the appropriate card (the one with the damn name on it) and slot it into the card reader, a device that looks sort of like a stereopticon in this weirdly-nineteenth-century image. Because so many cards now crowd the space in that room, it’s hard for the hook to position itself just right, to snag the right card. It can snag lots of cards in the right vicinity-just not the right one.

The stereopticon-card-reader can, however, recognize the right card when someone else does the snagging. I now find myself saying, with comic regularity, “that’s right,” when someone[2] provides me with the name for which I’m struggling. It’s comical, because of course the person isn’t asking me if that’s the name I’m looking for; they’re telling me. But what I feel, when they produce the name, is the satisfaction of suddenly, gloriously, coming upon just the piece of information for which I’ve been searching, and knowing, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it is the right piece of information. I can’t say the name, but (to paraphrase a Supreme Court justice), I sure know it when I hear it.

Photo: <div xmlns:cc="" about=""><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=This obviously got me to thinking about multiple choice tests, specifically: do you suppose I could pass multiple choice tests now? ¬†As a kid, these were always my downfall, especially Mrs. Mortenson’s seventh- and eighth-grade P.E. tests. I got a C+ from Mrs. Mortenson one semester, all because of those dastardly multiple choice tests, with their arcane “some of the above,” “none of the above,” “at most one of the above,” “in all likelihood at least one of the above” choices. Well, okay, I got a C+ because of those tests and my physical ineptitude. (But please; have you ever seen uneven parallel bars up close?)

I have always hated multiple choice tests, because they’ve always thrown me into a bath composed of equal parts self-doubt, second guessing and Talmudic thinking. (“Well, it seems to me that both b and c could be right, but that’s not one of my choices, so I bet this is a trick question and the answer is a. Or maybe d, none of the above.”) But the newfound certainty I feel when presented with someone’s name in the midst of my scratching around for it-the complete confidence with which I can say to the provider, “yes! That’s it!”-lead me to think that maybe, just maybe, my journey to the center of middle age has at least netted me the ability to identify the correct answer when presented with it alongside three other choices (if I’m allowed to wear my bifocals, that is).

Granted, this benefit is of rather limited use. Short of appearing on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” in fact, I can’t think of a single case in which I will be called upon to complete a multiple-choice test. (Those quizzes on Facebook don’t count, since I can’t really be right or wrong about which of the following four activities constitutes a “romantic evening” for me. (Answer, btw, is e: none of the above.))

Still, it’s comforting to know that, should I suddenly be called upon to simply identify the height of a volleyball net from the floor (at the center), or the name of the error committed when you hit the ball with the wrong side of the field hockey stick[3] there’s now a greater than twenty-five percent chance that I will be able to do so correctly.

And if not, well, I can probably phone a friend.

[1] And like the formerly-young me, my students now sigh, exasperatedly, while I talk all the way around someone’s name, before finally arriving-ta da!-at…Descartes! Or something equally obscure, like…Kant!

[2] That someone is often Peg, though her memory, too, is beginning the slow slide, and thus she too is becoming somewhat unreliable, I’m sad to report.

[3] A word that I actually remember for no good reason, btw; it’s “backsticks.” And “sticks” is when you raise your stick up above the waist to hit the ball. That’s a no-no too. I can still hear Mrs. Aldrich, one of my high school P.E. teachers, yelling “Heldke, sticks,” at the top of her lungs.


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