Remembering the perils of forgetfulness

Posted 8/2/19

Imagine picking up a sandwich from your favorite drive-through joint, taking it back to your office and sticking it in the fridge for later — only to find, after you’ve unwrapped it, that …

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Remembering the perils of forgetfulness

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Imagine picking up a sandwich from your favorite drive-through joint, taking it back to your office and sticking it in the fridge for later — only to find, after you’ve unwrapped it, that someone’s already taken a bite.

An officer with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in Indianapolis had that experience two weeks ago. With a number of cases of food sabotage against law enforcement officers (some of them pretty serious) having ended with arrests, the officer — understandably upset — demanded an answer.

“I know I didn’t eat it,” he told a local television station. “I said, ‘You know what? I am going to the McDonald’s to see if they can get that taken care of.’”

He went to the McDonald’s in question, where he’s a regular customer. They offered him free food. What he really wanted, though — suspecting that an employee targeted him because he was a cop — was an answer.

An investigation was launched. Employees were questioned. Soon, the mystery was solved: the offending person who’d snuck a bite was the officer himself.

He’d simply forgotten.

“The employee took a bite out of the sandwich upon starting his shift at the Marion County Jail, then placed it in the refrigerator in a break room,” his department said in a statement. “He returned nearly seven hours later having forgotten that he had previously bitten the sandwich.”

There were apologies and mea culpas all around, but reading the story reminded me of a conversation a few years ago I had with a friend, a UNC professor, about the fine art of forgetting. I was lamenting to him about my seemingly random inability to remember names from the past. My friend Jock’s wife is also an esteemed professor — and research scientist — at UNC, and he related to me something she’d told him: an inability to remember certain details isn’t necessarily a sign of dementia or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, it’s just an indication about the mysterious function of short-term and long-term memory, and how some details just get pushed aside over time as new inputs and information take root.

I was relieved to hear that. I can still tell you the starting lineup for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1971 World Series-winning team, and can relate details from irrelevant conversations from 40 years ago, but my distracted, fragmented brain has trouble remembering details that I think would have been more “sticky” in my brain. I’ll ask my wife where something is, for example, and will go to that room to locate it, only to have forgotten 14 seconds later exactly where in the room she said it was. She will have said “dresser,” but I’ll be looking for it on a table. That kind of thing.

My friend Jock says that’s probably more an issue with my focus, rather than my memory. But I did, in fact, have my own “let’s launch an investigation” experience about the same time the police officer in Indiana had his.

I told you last week about our experience moving our daughter from Virginia to Apex. What I didn’t tell you was an embarrassing footnote to our weekend. I returned the U-Haul truck we’d rented to the facility in Sanford, cleaned out the cab and checked it in while waiting for my wife to pick me up. When she arrived, I discovered a roll of cash I’d had in my shorts pocket was suddenly missing.

Convinced it had fallen out of my pocket while waiting in the U-Haul facility, I went back in to the empty reception area. Nothing on the floor. The store’s employees were in the garage area installing a hitch on a car. Panicked, I went back out to the rental truck. Nothing there, either. As we continued to search, I began wondering how to approach the obviously guilty store employees — who had no doubt seen the cash, collected it from off the floor, and squirreled the booty away before rushing back to the garage to appear innocent.

I began imagining their denials.

As I searched the small canvass bag I’d had in the truck cab for the fourth time — calculating in my mind how I’d approach the employees — I saw my sunglasses case. And suddenly, I remembered: I’d put the bills there for safekeeping as I’d packed up just 20 minutes earlier.

I felt like going in to the store to apologize to the employees for my silent accusation of theft, but my self-chastisement, I figured, was punishment enough.

“Remember this lesson,” I told myself, “before jumping to conclusions next time.”

Here’s hoping I do.


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