The other day I couldn’t remember the word “kayak.”
I was making a list of things to do, and one of them was to pull our kayak out of the basement in case the grandkids wanted to take it out on the Gulf when they visited next week. And my pen hovered over the page of my notebook as I pictured the long yellow plastic-hulled thing in the basement, and try as I might, I couldn’t remember the word for it. I thought of “boat” and “canoe” and “paddle,” and pictured the thing in the basement out on the water with me in it, and even thought of the name of the maker of the thing in the basement (Hobie), but I couldn’t remember the correct, specific word for the thing itself.
As the seconds ticked by and I still couldn’t remember the word for the thing in the basement, a rather strong sense of panic set in. This was bad! How could I not remember the simple little word for that – thing? Was this early-onset (if rather age-appropriate, truth be told) Alzheimer’s? Was I losing my mind, as they used to say before there were more specific words for losing one’s mind?
I thought of cheating and googling the word “Hobie,” which would certainly turn up the word for the thing in the basement. But no, I thought, that was a form of laziness, and the brain is like a muscle, right? And if I relied on Google to remember common nouns for me, as I had already begun to do with the names of celebrities whose faces I could see in my head and whose movie titles I could recite but whose names I couldn’t remember to save my life, I would soon begin to rely on Google to recall my address or my phone number or my daughter’s birthday, at which point I might as well have a chip implanted in my head and be done with it. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t a bad idea, but probably in its early, experimental stages, and very expensive. So I was determined to exercise that brain muscle and make myself remember the word for the thing in the basement without online or mainline assistance.
I briefly thought of asking my wife, who was, as usual, nearby, but I knew she’d be horrified if I asked her the word for the thing in the basement. She would conclude that I was losing my mind, even though she herself might not be one hundred percent sure whether it was a canoe or — something else. She could certainly come up with a number of alternatives, and allow me to pick among them, all the while making a mental note to herself to see that I be tested for degenerative brain disease on my next annual physical, and to have our wills updated against the possibility of my requiring extended supervisory care.
So she was out. And still the seconds ticked by, pen still hovering over my list of things to do. (Pull [blank] out of basement.) I tried free association with words for other water-borne craft – yacht came easily, also barge, dinghy, ferry, pontoon, cruiser, trawler, and raft. But not the word for the thing in the basement. I took momentary comfort from the fact that at least I knew that none of them was the word for the thing in the basement.
I tried my other go-to if rather cumbersome memory crutch, that of running through the letters of the alphabet to see which one of them might be the first letter of the word I was trying to remember and thereby might trigger my recollection of it by aural association. The problem with this technique is that often the letter that I most strongly associated with the word I was trying to remember – “y” in this case – turned out to be embedded in its second or third syllable, which was next to no help at all as I sat there mumbling phenomes to myself and contemplating my incipient senility.
By this point I had resolved that I would, as soon as possible, start taking those pills made from jellyfish that one sees advertised on the afternoon sports shows, the ones where some attractive old person is wandering benignly through a forest looking up at the sky and extolling the greater “clarity” she’s achieved by taking pills made from jellyfish – “clarity” being code for the ability to remember the word for the thing in the basement. (As a complete aside, advertisers have apparently determined that afternoon sports shows are watched predominantly by two very distinct demographic groups, i.e., those young enough to actually go to a place called Buffalo Wild Wings, and those old enough to be interested in pills that give you greater “clarity.” That both of these groups are presumed to be at home all afternoon watching TV bespeaks a serious malfunction in our culture; but I digress.)
I’ve found that if you can’t remember a word or a name in the first few seconds of trying, it will only become more elusive, like a cockroach in a flashlight beam. And so it was with the word for the thing in the basement. I tried to still my beating heart and relax into a zen-like state, emptying my mind to let the word come, but my mind remained empty, except for visions of my being gently guided around the house by my wife, who would tell our friends that I had my good days and my bad days.
Finally I decided there was only one thing to do: confront the thing itself. Ding an sich, as Kant put it, that unknowable object, irreducibly itself, stripped of my ability to name it. And it was as I descended the stairs to the basement that the word came to me in all its simple, balanced glory, a palindrome, the same backwards or forwards (tenet, madam, nurses run) and I called it out in the darkness and flipped on the light, and there it sat, gleaming, waiting to be taken out on the water by little boys and old men.