Several years ago, I switched health insurance companies and my new insurer sent a uniformed nurse with short black hair to my house to conduct a health assessment. We sat at my kitchen table and she officiously asked questions about my health history.
"Diabetes?" she asked, as if accusing me of illicit drug use.
"No," I answered.
"High blood pressure?" Nope.
When she'd completed the questionnaire, she reached into a portable metal case and retrieved a white plastic cup. "Last thing I'll need is a urine sample," she said, sliding the cup toward me across the wooden table.
I took the cup to my bathroom, set it on the white tile counter, unzipped my jeans, sat down, and promptly started thinking about something else. Many long seconds later, I stood, re-zipped my jeans, and, still absorbed in my thoughts, looked down to find the empty plastic cup waiting on the tile counter.
My consciousness careened back to the present. The cup!! How could I forget to fill the cup?!! I picked it up and held it at eye level. The cup seemed larger somehow, and infinitely unfillable, like a gigantic movie prop from "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." I set it back down and considered my options.
I could fill the cup with water and "trip" on my way out of the bathroom. I could invent an excuse involving dehydration or bladder shyness. I could wedge through the narrow window above the bathtub and flee to the airport.
Realizing none of these schemes would work, I ultimately had to admit to the nurse that I'd forgotten what I'd gone to the bathroom for. "I can drink a bunch of water and try again in a few minutes," I offered.
"That's okay," she said, grabbing the empty cup and dropping it into her metal box. "I'll come back tomorrow. I have nothing better to do."
I'd like to report this was an aberrant bout of absent-mindedness, something that could be chalked up to cold medication or a fight with my mother. But the fact is, I tend to forget. A lot. And it's getting worse.
In the last several months, I've left my purse in two Mexican restaurants, a coffee shop, the trunk of a friend's car, and a department store dressing room. Two weeks ago, I removed a nozzle from my garden hose and spent the latter part of that afternoon trying, in vain, to discover where I'd placed it.
The scary part for me is that over the last few months I've also been going to a Zen Center in an effort to practice meditation and mindfulness. One of my goals has been to become less forgetful by being more fully present. Or, to paraphrase a popular Buddhist saying, "To pee here now."
But I've even forgotten things at the Zen Center, like the time I misplaced my purse before an important ceremony and had nothing to contribute to the fight against world hunger.
The increasing bouts of absent-mindedness had been worrying me, and the jokes from friends about early Alzheimer's were starting to be not so hilarious. But last week I got some valuable insight into absent-mindedness when I completed an assessment called the Gregore Style Delineator.
This assessment groups people into four types based on how they value certain words. The word "lively," for example, struck me as more appealing than "rational." I liked the word "spontaneous" better than "trouble shooter."
When the results of my word valuations were tabulated, I was shown to be a clear "Abstract Random," whose negative characteristics include a proclivity towards "flightiness," and an inattention to detail which often earns them the title of -- and I'm quoting directly from the assessment -- "an off-the-wall flake."
However, in reviewing the assessment, I learned there are several good reasons why Abstract Randoms -- "A-Rs" for short -- appear so flighty. For starters, and I'm bragging only a little here, A-Rs have vivid imaginations, a tremendous capacity to absorb and relate seemingly unrelated facts, and they often divert their attention only to that which has personal meaning. (A urine cup? I don't think so.)
Furthermore, A-Rs rarely work in a sterile office with an orderly desk. Instead, and I plead guilty, the office of an A-R is located in whatever coffee shop she happens to be working in. Her filing cabinet is in her head.
Needless to say, I found these results reassuring. As a journalist, I'm paid to find connections between people and the events that surround them. Thus, I have to spend time musing about life and what it means, and sometimes the best time for musing is when I'm doing some other mindless task. So what if I forget a purse in the process?
All of this has gotten me to thinking about something I learned in a novel writing class and that is that a character's greatest strength is also her biggest weakness.
It's certainly true in my case, but it's also true of many people: the brilliant physician who focuses so intently on healing a patient's body that he neglects to comfort her soul; the quick-thinking marketing whiz who's hugely intolerant of people who don't "get it" as quickly as he does. Even Einstein, from what I hear, couldn't remember his own address or phone number.
The point I'm trying to make, and I'm not at all defensive about this, is that no one is strong in all facets of human behavior. Some of us are good with people, others with data; some are logical, others reactive; some pay attention, others? what were we talking about? Anyway, chances are, the better you are at one end of the spectrum, the worse you'll be at the other. How many visual artists do you know who could run an accounting firm?
Instead of judging a person's weaknesses, wouldn't it be kinder to recognize her strengths and offer to drive her to the restaurant where she left her car keys the night before? I think so.
Copyright, 2005, Shari Caudron.
Shari Caudron is an award-winning columnist, writing coach, and author of "What Really Happened," a collection of humorous stories about the lessons life teaches you when you least expect it. Shari regularly delivers speeches to women's groups about how to transform ordinary experiences into opportunities for personal growth.