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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 20, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Curbside Memories

Those who fly Delta out of Greensboro have no doubt noticed by now that curbside check-in has been eliminated.

First they started charging for it. Then they wiped it out completely.

For visitors to Greensboro, this is a gross inconvenience. With curbside check-in, they can bring their rental car to the curb, check their bags and get their boarding passes; then they return the rental car without having to mess with their luggage.

I do this all the time, because curbside check-in is still functioning in cities that Delta cares about, like Salt Lake City, one of their hubs.

Think about that. If hub cities are the only ones that still get curbside check-in, that means that the people who already have the great advantage of direct flights to everywhere, because they're already in the hub city and don't have to make connections, also get curbside check-in.

But those of us in smaller towns, who always have to fly first to a hub -- Atlanta, Cincinnati, and now, since the acquisition of Northwest, Memphis -- can be left to shlep our bags from hither to yon.

On the other side, though, I have to point out that recently a flight out of Greensboro was running late (a computer glitch had tied up the paperwork) and they actually re-opened the doors to let people who had already missed their connections at the destination get off the plane.

This is almost miraculous behavior from an airline. True, they hadn't yet pushed back from the gate. But the doors had closed, which usually is enough of an excuse for the airlines to treat you like cattle already in the chute for the slaughterhouse.

So Delta took away our curbside check-in, but they may have started a new era of civilized treatment of people who want to get off a plane that hasn't yet left the gate.


Last week my wife and I had business in Utah and made a quick trip there.

So I'm sitting in the hotel room, staring at the Amazon.com welcome screen, utterly unable to remember why I had signed in. "What was that book I was going to order for your dad on Amazon?" I ask my wife.

"Let me think for a minute." Then, a exactly minute later, she says, "That thing you were going to send my dad -- wasn't it a CD called 'Trek' or something?'"

Indeed it was -- Trek: A Nashville Tribute to the Pioneers. Not a book. Nor was I planning to order it on Amazon.

But it was definitely for her father, so I had one detail right. That's why her answer had been nearly instantaneous.

Later that morning, we're driving to the airport on North Temple Street in Salt Lake City, and we approach a Carl's Jr. (the most unintelligible name in the fast food industry). Free-associating as usual, I say, "That is the home of the worst hamburger I ever ate in my life."

"When did you ever eat at a Carl's Jr.?" asked my wife.

"I can picture the place -- upstairs in a shopping center," I said. "I think it was on a trip to the Bay Area of California. A family that I knew there had a son who worked at one, and they swore they were the best burgers in the world, so that night I went to one and tried a burger and couldn't take a second bite. But I can't remember who the family was."

From my tone of voice, she deduced that this lack of certainty was causing me a bit of discomfort, and since her primary role in life is keeping me from having an even slightly imperfect life (a role at which she is superb, I must point out), she thought for a moment.

Carl's Jr. was still in the rearview mirror when she said, "Wasn't it the [name withheld] family?"

"Yes!" I cried triumphantly, as if I had something to do with this memory breakthrough. "Of course," I continued, "they lived in southern California back then," I said. "Not the Bay Area at all."

She smiled slightly and went back to looking out the window.

That was the first time I realized that my wife parses me. Like an interpreting computer language, she listens to what I say, and then translates it into an internal code.

So when I say, "What was that book I was going to send your dad?" what she actually hears is: "What was that ... {something} ... I was going to {perform an operation on} ... {to/for/on behalf of} ... {person who makes husband unit think of my father}."

In other words, she replaces all the details of my memory-centered question with variables, slots into which she plugs various nouns and verbs and prepositions, as appropriate, until she comes up with an answer that connects with the real world at some point.

Sometimes she completes this intellectual operation instantly. Sometimes it's hours, days, even a week later -- depending mostly on the number of possible variables and whether or not she was present when the thing I'm trying to remember took place.

I have known her to bring this off when she was not present and I never actually discussed it with her or sent her a copy of the email.

Back when I was deciding whether, when, and whom to marry, I did not know I was going to need this feature in a wife, so it's blind luck that I happened to marry a woman who had it pre-installed.

Back then I had a terrific memory for everything except jokes, song lyrics, and people's names, unless they were dead historical figures. (In fact, I read so much history as a kid that it is quite possible I simply used up my brain's entire capacity for human names on people like Utnapishtim, Hatshepsut, "Fighting Joe" Hooker, Benjamin Disraeli, Pericles, Xenophon, and Parley P. Pratt, and have to forget a historical figure each time I need to make room for a living person's name to be added to my permanent name storage.)

My inability to remember jokes and song lyrics has a different origin. I'm the descendent of a joke-telling father and grandfather. I loved listening to their jokes. But since they told their favorite jokes to the same people many times over the years, I learned to instinctively forget every joke so that I wouldn't blurt out the punch line and wreck everything.

How could I know that my brain filed "joke" and "song lyric" under the same heading, so that turning on the forget-immediately switch in one would affect the other?

Or maybe geography and song lyrics can't co-exist in the same brain, so my memorizing the globe, all the nations and capitals, plus the SSRs in the USSR, and most major islands and territories, had a downside when I stood on a stage with a guitar in my hands and could not for the life of me remember the next lyric in the novelty song "Little Arrows," obliging the audience to shout them out -- since every living human except me had them completely memorized.

Other than those strange gaps, my memory was so good I could memorize any poem or an entire role in a play overnight. And by "overnight" I mean "during some odd moments before going to sleep, usually while watching television."

I had a competent, useful memory. Phone numbers, once learned, stuck effortlessly. If I had once been to a place, I could find it again. I never grew disoriented in space, so I always knew where I was, approximately, even if I didn't know the exact route that would most quickly get me to the place I was going.

And then ... in my late 20s, I was on stage in a production of Macbeth. My part was a small one, but I had a few moments to shine and was having a lovely time until, for the first time in my life, I went up on a line. Just stood there like an idiot. Till somebody else thought of some way to cover the lapse and the play moved on.

My shame passed soon enough, but the inner dismay continues even now. I could no longer trust my memory. Yet how can you get through the day without trusting it? You can't recheck everything before you speak or write.

And now that I think of it, maybe my memory wasn't that perfect even before my onstage disaster. After all, I'm the guy who, in his first published short story, changed the main character's last name from Wiggin to Wiggins and back again several times.

The astonishing thing is that nobody noticed. Not the editors, not the proofreaders, and not the readers. If I had been married at the time, however, I know that my wife would have noticed.

(To whom it may concern: I finally settled on "Wiggin" without the s.)

(I think.)

It's a weird thing, though, to go through life knowing that the more certain I am of a particular fact, the more likely it is to be wrong in one way or another. It forces on me a certain degree of humility.

I can know perfectly well that I'm correct in the way the facts fit together -- the causal relationships, the story -- but yet I am constantly discovering that on some detail or another -- usually, but not always, minor -- some fact has slithered away to be replaced by a pretender.

My wife has long joked that her Franklin Planner (and then her Palm Pilot) was her "brain." I think of it, rather, as her brain's external storage unit. But because of the unreliability of my detail-memory, my brain is actually her.

So, in order to provide her with the pertinent details she'll need to parse my questions and statements, I tell her everything. We take walks together that are, in fact, extensive debriefings.

When I get up in the morning, I routinely ask -- and it's not an idle question -- "What am I doing today?"

Thus I am able to move through my own life giving the general appearance of competence.

Now, don't get me wrong. I actually remember almost everything that I need to remember. I often remind her of things. My memory is stuffed full of useful things that pop out just when I need them.

The problem is that there are little lapses that make me distrust all my memories. So even when I do remember perfectly well, I have learned not to insist on my correctness. Instead I'll say things like, "Oh, I could so easily be wrong about this, but let's try it anyway, if you don't mind."

Usually I'm right. But I'm wrong just often enough to make me glad that I didn't make a complete idiot of myself by arguing about it.

This was a hardwon habit -- I certainly didn't always have it. Just as I didn't always have to use my wife as my reminder system.

And because I now talk that way, as if my memory can't be trusted, too many people close to me have the habit of assuming that I'm wrong, or that my memory doesn't count. They seem to remember only the times when I'm wrong, forgetting the many, many more times when I'm quite right.

But that's the price I pay for my trembling uncertainty. I'd rather be right when people think I'm wrong, then be wrong when I blusteringly declare that I'm absolutely right.

Meanwhile, I'm relieved that the actuarial tables are so insistent that my wife will outlive me. She can function perfectly well without me -- instead of my opening the potato chip bag, she'll use scissors -- but I cannot function without her.


Robin Prak, a friend of mine who reads this column online, wrote to me after I gave advice on correct pronunciation of "plethora" but then pointed out that I like people who mispronounce words because they encountered them by reading.

Said Robin: "Your discussion of 'plethora' (which, by the way, is the opposite of 'dearth' in my family's lexicon) reminded me that there is another aspect of learning words through reading. Sometimes people learn a word aurally, without a clue how it's spelled, and learn another word from reading -- without realizing it's the same word.

"I can remember when I was in the 8th or 9th grade, I was reading a passage aloud in class and came to the word 'anxiety.'

"Now, I was quite familiar with the word through conversation, but had never thought about how it was spelled. The word I saw on the page was also one I knew, but I'd never known how to pronounce it and always 'bleeped' over it in silent reading.

"I don't remember exactly what came out of my mouth, something like 'an-ex-y,' but I clearly remember that when I was corrected by a classmate I experienced equal portions of embarrassment and 'aha!' as the two pieces of knowledge clicked together.

"My mother told me that when she was young she read 'misled' as 'my-zelled' and 'unshed tears' as 'unched' -- one syllable rhyming with 'lunched.'

"But the best one was something my parents heard a preacher say in a sermon. He pronounced 'idiosyncrasies' as 'id-ee-AH-sin-crazies.' I really think that should be the correct pronunciation, don't you?"

Card again: I also thought the word "misled" was the past tense of "misle." In addition, I remember as a seven-year-old running across the word "aged" (in a Casper the Friendly Ghost comic book, of all places), and sounding it out as "agg-ed" (to rhyme with "jagged").

Yet I knew the word "aged" -- but I always imagined it to be spelled with a j. I didn't parse it as the past participle of the verb "to age."

The odd thing is that English really does have spelling rules -- it's not a case of anything goes. Notice that "aged" and "jagged" are spelled differently. That doubled g in "jagged" is actually our English-language method of communicating that the vowel before the doubled letter is short and stressed.

We have no trouble reading "padded" and "faded" -- we know that the a before the double d is short, and the a before the single d is long.

The trouble is that pronunciations change -- and in a literate society, spellings generally do not. That's how the Irish are punished for having achieved literacy in their native language centuries before the English language even existed.

The Irish are now stuck with ludicrous spellings of simple words, because the written language preserves syllables that don't exist anymore in the spoken words.

We're lucky in English that our spelling didn't really start to solidify until Noah Webster and other reformers set to work in the 1800s.


This is so predictable: After a reader told me that WalMart carries the Tropicana Pure Valencia Orange juices -- Tropicana's top-of-the-line product -- I went and bought the three bottles they had remaining.

But we were happy because the labels were there on the shelf, showing an intention to restock.

Well, I went back today, assuming that they would have restocked by now, and guess what?

That's right. Not only had they not restocked, but also the labels were gone.

So I'm back to my previous plan -- driving to Wegman's in Virginia and bringing home good orange juice in a cooler.

It's not as if they didn't sell out of the product every time they stocked it! It was making money for them. Just not enough money, apparently.

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