If you think about all the people whose names you’ve forgotten, it can be quite embarrassing. Especially for the people you’ve forgotten, some of whom were once important people in your life.
You run into them years later without recognizing them, and they have to remind you that they once saved your life by providing a kidney.
Here in Mexico, getting names right can become even more complicated because Mexicans often use several paternal and maternal surnames together out of respect to all their various lineages, with their paternal last name first like a middle name and their maternal name last. And then first names interchanged with what are called nombres hipocoristicos or pet names. Francisco becomes Paco and Jesus becomes Chuy (pronounced Choowi), Eduardo becomes Lalo. And Jorge Francisco Alejandre Rodriguez might even answer to ... George.
It’s a challenge for we elderly gringos when our memory banks have shrunk to the size value of a centavo.
Recently, someone, whom I probably embarrassed because I forgot his name, suggested I try sharpening my memory by using creative little tricks called mnemonics to help my brain remember things, even when it’s been out late drinking the night before, calling everybody Bub.
Here’s an example of how mnemonics work. A teacher once told me that I could easily remember, let’s see … I could easily remember … uh, yes, the musical notes on the treble clef with the sentence, “Empty Garbage Before Daddy Flips.” (Or is that the mnemonic to remember the countries of Central America?) In either case, it didn’t work. Because it was always Mommy who flipped when the garbage wasn’t taken out, while Daddy read the paper. If I had to depend on that mnemonic to remember the notes on the treble clef (or the countries of Central America, whichever the case may be), my brain would just wander off whistling. In fact, I would probably need other mnemonics to remember the first mnemonic. And that could take me back into counseling.
What makes all this mnemonics business worse is that I don’t think I’m particularly skilled at making up my own mnemonics in the form of unforgettable sentences like “Empty Garbage Before Daddy Flips.”
Just the other day, I met a charming Mexican-German man here with an unusual name, Alberto Wolfischlegen de Vaso. Here was my chance to put my mnemonic skills to work. Instantly, I took his name apart in my mind’s eye. I pictured an owl-shaped bird (Albert, get it) chasing a Wolf and a Fish with one Leg and (get this) carrying a Glass (Vaso) of beer. Now, that little cartoon seemed to work fine until I couldn’t make up my mind if the Owl, the Wolf or the Fish should have the one Leg. I also couldn’t decide who should be carrying the glass of beer. I tried putting the leg on the fish with the fish hopping about with the beer and being chased by the wolf. (I don’t remember where the owl went.) But then this started me thinking that fish don’t actually have legs – unless you consider the fossil record, which confused me further, since I don’t know anything about the fossil record.
So I started my mnemonic over again, still staring mutely at the poor man. But by this time, a concerned Mr. Whatsisname was shaking me vigorously and asking me how many fingers he had raised.
Maybe the Mexicans have a better solution: There’s a custom in Mexico that allows you to address men as Jose and women as Maria, referring to the biblical Joseph and Mary, when you don’t know their real names. Otherwise, it’s “Hey, Bub!” for us gringos.
Now that makes sense to me. It makes the whole problem go away … Jose. Except that if you call everybody Jose, are you risking mistakenly giving your neighbor looking for a good periodontist the name and number of your septic tank cleaner?