Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.



Several years ago, a guy I knew told me that when you turn 50 it’s like flipping a switch and suddenly you can’t remember names.

As I’ve done with so many of these things, I thought, “Yeah, that’s not gonna be me.”

I share that because when I turned 50 that flip got switched, and because it’s good to admit to past hubris. (I think it’s also good to resist the inevitable tide, so there.)

Everything always used to be at my fingertips, certainly including names, and now I have to reach for them. Sure, the last kid who still lives with me, I can hang onto his name, and the names of our dogs, but much beyond that and I’m either playing the “sounds like” game in my head or free-associating:  “Hm. I know I did this with this person, and those other people were there, and I remember these things about that time, so the name is attached there somewhere in my brain….” And at some point, I get it.

Yesterday, I spent the day in a meeting room with two other members of the Counterintuity team and the facilitator we’ve hired to lead us in some extensive planning. Early in the day, the name Steve Jobs came up, as it inevitably does when you’re discussing vision and leadership and the intersection of tech and creativity. I’m of the strong opinion that Jobs was a needlessly terrible person, and that his terribleness is unconnected with his success — i.e., he didn’t need to be that way to achieve much of what he did. Others heard me, and then we moved on. Meanwhile, this stated opinion of mine led me down a rabbit hole of conjecture about Steve Jobs, and the nature of being terrible, and how awful he was to his illegitimate daughter and his legitimate business partner and select employees and even the idea that he needed to be a responsible member of society, and then my thoughts wound around to his early employer, who always made a place for Jobs to succeed because he could see Jobs’ potential, and even though Jobs, as a barefoot, stinking, only-eating-carrots hippie had driven everyone else crazy at the workplace, this brilliant entrepreneur whom I admire arranged for Jobs to work a night shift all his own, wherein he succeeded. Yes, I’d been an admirer of this visionary business leader for many years, the man who founded both Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, and of course I was thinking of….

And that’s when I blanked.

Meanwhile, of course, the meeting was going on and I was fully participating — at least outwardly — although I saw this very smart facilitator look at me repeatedly because he saw my eyes doing the upward-left look, which signifies either lying (but I wasn’t saying anything) or imagination. Imagination is related to conjuration, and I was trying to conjure up the name of this business leader I’d learned about in the 80s and followed off-and-on ever since.

My hand itched, naturally, because I was ready to pluck my iPhone from my pocket and type in “Chuck E. Cheese,” and then there it would be, presto:  the owner’s name. But I knew I knew his name — it was lodged somewhere in my memories, so all I had to do was retrieve it. And, hey, I’d be at this event of our own making for another nine hours, so at some point it would come to me.

This happens to all of us, the delayed memory. Fishing for a word or a name and then, hours later, unprompted, it comes to us. But in this case, I was determined to work for it and not to take the easy route and look it up on the wonder killer (invented, ironically, by Steve Jobs’s company). So, in off moments, I started jotting down little bits related to this guy.

“Chuck E. Cheese.”


And I remembered Steve Jobs, and the story that he’d decided to eat nothing but carrots for two weeks, which turned his complexion orange. And that he smelled so bad that no one else would work with him, so he got that night shift. And the name of the guy who was determined to keep the brilliant young Steve Jobs employed was…



It wasn’t Mason, but I wrote it down.

Maybe half an hour or more later, “Gordon” came to me.


It wasn’t Gordon. But if it wasn’t Mason, and it wasn’t Gordon, it at least ended in an “uhn” sound.  Memories attach to other related memories, so fishing up bits of context is a reliable way of remembering something. If I could just figure out that first name, the rest would come. Except now I was struggling to think of other names like “Mason” and “Gordon.” This grew into such a distraction that I kept itching to pull out that iPhone. Finally, I just set it aside. It would come to me — or it wouldn’t — but for now, I needed to focus.

Finally, I had it. The name just came to me, in a flash of not-thinking. Just setting it aside took care of it.

I had been thinking of Nolan Bushnell.

Total time to remember his name? (I wrote down the starting time.) An hour and forty-five minutes.

There are two lessons here:  1. Yes, all those memories are indeed still stored in  your head. You can retrieve them.  2. But sometimes, it’s much faster just to use your iPhone.

2 Responses to “Memories”

  1. Dan Says:

    Just so you know, Lee, this afflicts old movie buffs too. I’ll be merrily writing away on a review of some obscurity no one’s ever seen, and suddenly I can’t remember the name of the actor who played the Governor in THE PIRATE (MGM, 1949.) Or who directed TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES (Universal, 1940.)

    Fortunately, I’m running my words through a processor at the time, and the processor has a Google Machine built into it for easy reference. When I’m actually out talking to someone — you’re right; I have to fake it. Usually by yelling “Fake News!”

  2. Uncle Rich Says:

    Sometimes when I can’t think of a name my mind will substitute another that sounds similar, maybe with the same initials. A few years ago I was trying to recall the name of a famous actor. It eluded me but I did come up with ‘Dalton Weiner’. Remember him? No? That’s probably because he’s actually known as Denzel Washington.

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