Friday, March 23, 2007

"Thanks for the Memory"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

I'm a guy who often can't remember where he parked his car, which becomes a moot point if I don't know where I put my keys, so I was the last person who should have competed recently in a national brain-teasing event whose name unfortunately escapes me. Wait, now I remember: the USA Memory Championship, which was held amid much fanfare and media coverage at the ConEdison Building in New York City.

Actually, I wasn't the last person who should have competed because I did not, much to my shock, finish last. I can't recall exactly where I finished (I hope to locate the final standings before the end of this column), but let's just say that if I had any shame, I would have been humiliated.

Also, I was the only returning contestant from the inaugural USA Memory Championship 10 years ago and this time I was the oldest competitor (at 53, I am old enough to know better). That, of course, is not why I turned in such a pathetic performance, because many middle-age people have fantastic memories, except when it comes to finding their glasses, but I am not above making lame excuses.

As I parked my car in a garage a block from the event, I wondered whether I could possibly do any worse than I did in 1997, when I finished 14th in a field of 18. That included two contestants who didn't show up, probably because they forgot.

When I walked in, I was warmly greeted by Tony Dottino, a management consultant who founded the USA Memory Championship. He remembered me even after a decade because, he said, "You are not easy to forget."

With 41 contestants from across the country, the field had more than doubled since I last competed. Because the primary purpose of the USA Memory Championship is educational, there also were three high school teams whose members reminded me nothing of myself at that age, when the only things I could remember were baseball statistics and girls' phone numbers.

The organizers gave me a name badge that read: "Jerry Zezima, Mental Athlete." I'm no athlete, but they got the other part right.

In a futile effort to get inside the mind of one of my numerous mnemonic nemeses, I introduced myself to Dave Thomas (not the late founder of the Wendy's hamburger chain), a Britisher with dual citizenship: He lives in both Sandston, Va., and Yorkshire, England, from where he had flown for the event. Thomas, 38, is the author of "Essential Life Skills: Improving Your Memory." Since there was no way I could have read his book before the competition started (and even if I did, I'd never remember it all), I asked for his advice. Thomas answered, "Relax." Easy for him to say.

I sat down at a table with Paul Mellor, 48, a memory systems trainer from Richmond, Va. Most tables had two competitors, as well as a judge who administered a series of memory tests. Our judge was Colette Silvestri, a composer, playwright, lyricist, teacher and former legislative aide from Harrisburg, Pa. She asked if we had any questions. I said, "Can you be bribed?" She said, "No." I said, "Forget I ever mentioned it."

The first of the four qualifying events, which would narrow the field to seven finalists, was "Names and Faces," in which we had to memorize the names and faces of 99 people. I was so totally lost in the recall portion that under the photo of a guy with a beard, I wrote: "Grizzly Adams." Under the photo of a cute blonde, I wrote: "555-1234."

Still, I scored 13.5 points and was doing much better than I expected: I was only next-to-last. My standing didn't improve after the next event, "Speed Numbers," in which we had to memorize 25 rows of 40 numbers each. My score: 0.

I couldn't help but do better at "Speed Cards," in which we had to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards. For once in my life I was playing with a full deck. I didn't ace the event, but I did score 11 points.

I got 21 points in "Poetry," in which we had to memorize an unpublished poem, meaning I had gone from bad to verse. But it wasn't enough to put me in the finals. In fact, I finished a dismal 38th. The winner, not surprisingly, was Thomas, who will compete in August in the World Memory Championship in Bahrain. For me, it was a no-Bahrainer.

Still, I had such a good time at the USA Memory Championship that I plan to go back in another 10 years. My only other consolation is that I actually remembered where I parked my car.

Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima


Terry Marotta said...

From bad to verse!....No behrainer!

How do you DO that?

You may not be much of a rememberer but you sure have the punny stuff down!

Jerry Zezima said...

Before I forget, I just wanted to say thanks, Terry! By the way, you have a great Web site. Link it here or it will be -- you guessed it -- the missing link.