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

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Paste Makes Waste"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

As a man who has been living in wedded bliss for almost three decades, I am keenly aware that half of all marriages end in divorce. That is why I prefer to look on the bright side: The others end in death.

Still, I have been a husband long enough to know that there is one marital problem that can't be brushed off. I refer, of course, to the toothpaste cap.

If there is one reason why many marriages go down the tubes, it's because either the husband or the wife doesn't put the cap back on the toothpaste. In our house, that person would be my wife.

Sue is perfect in every way except one: She either can't or won't secure the top of the toothpaste tube. In the early days of our marriage, all toothpaste tubes came with screw-on caps. The idea seemed simple enough except that Sue would never screw on the cap all the way. When I picked up the toothpaste, the cap would invariably fall off and land in the sink, on the floor or, God forbid, in the toilet. (That's what I got for being a man who is genetically incapable of putting the toilet seat down.)

Apparently, this was not a problem unique to the Zezima household because in recent years, toothpaste companies have designed tubes with attached caps that could be lifted and snapped back into place so they wouldn't, despite the best sabotage efforts of certain spouses, fall in the toilet.

Unfortunately, the technology was flawed because toothpaste would build up on the opening of the tube and harden into a substance remarkably like Spackle, thus preventing the cap from being snapped closed. To complicate matters, those same certain spouses would put the tube on the vanity face down, creating a gummy mess.

But recently I beheld a scientific breakthrough that could save millions of marriages, at least among people who brush their teeth regularly. Sue came home with a tube of Colgate Luminous, which had an attached cap that was different from the others in that it was larger and looked more like a hood, meaning it could still be closed if toothpaste had built up on the tube. And that couldn't happen anyway because there was an X-shaped slitted opening in the tube that prevented such a buildup.

For the record, this is not an endorsement of Colgate because: (a) the company isn't paying me and (b) an endorsement from me is usually the kiss of death. But I was so impressed by the ingenious design, which made it impossible even for Sue to make a mess of the toothpaste, that I decided to track down the inventor.

His name is Joe Norris, a packaging development engineer from Cumming, Ga., who holds United States Design Patent No. US D531,504 S. In layman's terms, he got it for inventing the spouse-proof toothpaste cap.

When I called him last week, I spoke with his wife, Terri, who said she and Joe have been married for 27 years and added, with no small amount of pride, that she may have been the inspiration for his invention. "I used to complain about the toothpaste," she said. "There was always a mess. He brought home all different tubes he was working on, but this was the only one that was clean. I don't know if he did it because of me, but I was very happy when he came out with it."

Joe Norris began his career at Coca-Cola, where he designed the plastic soft drink can. He worked for Colgate for 14 years before going back to Coke a year and a half ago. He started working on his toothpaste cap and slitted tube opening in 2002 (with help from John Crawford, Scott Walsh and Peter Stagl) but didn't finish until 2005. He was awarded the patent last November.

"I gave Colgate my 'Field of Dreams' speech: Let me build it and they will come," Norris said, adding that he was responding to consumer complaints. "You're not the only one who had a toothpaste problem," he assured me.

"This must be your greatest triumph," I said. "You deserve to win the Nobel Prize."

"I wouldn't go that far," Norris said modestly, "but I do remember my kids' friends saying, 'Wow!' when I brought it home. And my wife liked it."

My wife likes it, too, although I think she's a little disappointed because she can't sabotage my toothpaste anymore. That's a feather in Joe Norris' cap.

Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Making Scents"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Over the years, readers of this column have often remarked that I stink. Even though I haven't taken a bath since the 1960s (a morning shower is how I stay clean and fresh), I have never taken this personally. Still, as a sensitive modern man with an uncanny ability to sniff out trouble, I recently went to Bloomingdale's in New York City for a fragrance consultation.

My wife, Sue, who always smells good, and who buys my cologne because she knows which kind masks the odor of beer, accompanied me on this olfactory adventure.

After a quick detour to the jewelry department, where the diamonds made Sue swoon and the prices caused me to break out in a cold sweat that made a splash of cologne imperative, we arrived at the men's counter and were greeted by a pair of very nice fragrance specialists named Jaime Mancera and Sheresa Rohoman.

"What brand do you use now?" asked Mancera, a sophisticated young man from Colombia with a charming accent, movie-star looks and a jet-black ponytail.

"Eau de Heineken," I replied.

Rohoman, a beautiful young woman from Guyana, giggled. "I can smell it from here," she said from behind the counter.

I obviously needed help. Mancera started handing me these little fragrance-imbued cards so I could sniff them to see if they made scents.

"They smell beautiful," I said as my nose began to run.

When Sue said that she wears Beautiful by Estee Lauder, Rohoman remarked, "With patchouli."

"Gesundheit!" I said.

"No, silly," Rohoman replied. "It contains patchouli, which is a flower."

"If I smelled like a flower, it would be stinkweed," I said, noting that I once created my own signature fragrance, which I called Zez. Going for a scent both flowery and manly, I included beer, barbecue sauce, some grass and evergreen clippings and a few drops of a lily of the valley and peppermint mixture I had received in the mail. I put them all in a blender. The result was putrid.

"I don't think I have ever smelled anything that bad," Sue recalled.

Mancera suggested that I leave signature fragrances to the professionals, such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Paul Smith.

"Paul Smith?" I said. "Who's he?"

"An English fashion designer," Mancera answered.

"Sounds like some guy who uses the name on hotel registries," I said.

Rohoman said Smith probably does stay in a lot of hotels but that he's a big name nonetheless.
"Especially in Europe," she added.

"I've never been to Europe," I noted. "I guess he's never heard of me, either."

"I'm sure he would love to meet you," said Mancera, who sprayed the back of my right hand with Paul Smith Story. "It just arrived today," he said. "It's very popular. In fact, I'm wearing it."

"How could it be popular if it just arrived?" I asked.

Mancera ignored the question and said, "What do you think?"

I sniffed my hand. It had a nice touch of citrus. Sue liked the fragrance, too.

"That's one of your pulse points," said Rohoman, adding that another one, which should also be sprayed, is on the back of my neck.

"So I'll smell good even if I'm being followed?" I inquired.

"Exactly," she said.

I tried other fragrances, including Sunset by Escada, Eau Fraiche by Versace and another Paul Smith creation, Extreme. I also sampled V by Valentino, which Mancera said was "more aggressive," adding that it is meant to be worn at night. To which I replied, "I'm usually sitting in front of the TV at night, trying to stay awake for the 11 o'clock news."

"I think you should stick to the lighter stuff," said Mancera, who sold me a 1.7-ounce bottle of Paul Smith Story, which cost $50 and which Sue kindly paid for.

Maybe I'll make another batch of Zez and send a bottle to Paul Smith. Then he can smell like beer.

Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima