James Coburn! Of Course!

Placing the name to a movie star’s face proves a challenge. Internet to the rescue. Is that such a good habit, though?

My wife and I were channel flipping at the TV last night, and we came across what looked like a made-for-TV movie about Noah’s ark. I could identify John Voight as Noah and Mary Steenbergen as his wife. They were looking over the rail of the deck down at another small boat filled with Middle Eastern-looking trinkets, piloted by a bearded peddler, played by an actor with a very familiar face.

My wife said he was Robert Redford or some such. (I love her, but she sucks at identifying actors. I’ll occasionally quiz her, and laugh at the answers.) I knew who it was, what he’d previously done, some things I’ve seen. One of my earliest bosses resembled him, especially in the jowls. Which is one of the reasons he’d spent such a long time in my mental short-list of pop culture figures. But last night, I just couldn’t make the memory of the face produce the name.

Before, I’d just keep thinking about it. Let it haunt me for the better part of an hour. Pace the floor. Play that game where I’d think really hard, then stop thinking, go and do something completely different, then think again. That would make it pop into my mind.

Now, I had my wife make another Firefox tab on her laptop, go to IMDB, enter Name: John Voight, look for the listing of Noah’s Ark movie, click, look for peddler…. James Coburn.

Tip of my tongue!

Now granted, James Coburn’s career is what it is whether I remember his name or not. And since I’m no casting director, I don’t think I’m at a loss for having a big mental Rolodex of movie stars at my mental fingertips.

But I’m surprised how much of the ephemera of pop culture that I used to keep in my brain I’ve relocated to the renderfarm that is the internet. What am I using the remainder of my brain for? Clearly the analogy of the brain as a thought-attic needs to be re-examined.

What I’m more curious about is the mental rigor of remembering something you used to know, and the exercise you get recalling it. And that I do it less and less.

Back in time now, to the early ’60s. My first favorite TV show was the game show Concentration, hosted by Hugh Downs. I got several editions of the home game, and found I couldn’t wait to find playmates who were as into the game as I was, so I played by myself. This meant that I would have to give the solution of the rebus puzzle that’s underneath all the squares my very best effort, because it was too easy to just pop open the little window with the solution printed in block letters. (One player was designated MC in the rules.) One puzzle had a big hot dog on a bun, plus an ampersand, plus a big German-style beer mug with a lid. I think I said “Hot dog and mug” every different way one could for the better part of a day, trying to distribute the stress among the syllables, bunching some together, drawing some out. No luck. Finally, the next day, I took the game board to my father and asked for his help. He gave me some hints, but that didn’t help either. (The solution was “Frankenstein”, of course. Frank + stein.) The problem is, I didn’t know what a stein was. Some German-American I turned out to be!

The point is, I never put myself through such mental discipline since. I still wonder why I cared so much about not cheating. I was the only one who’d know.

If today life (as opposed to a game) should give me as bewildering a puzzle, I wouldn’t even think about it. I’d tweet it. I’d Google it. I’d do most anything other than reason it out.

Is this kind of mental laziness a sign of age? Should I be grateful I’m so connected and agile with online tools? Or is it simply progress, the shucking off of a vestigal skill, like hunting and gathering? Should I worry? Are you?

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One response to “James Coburn! Of Course!

  1. When books fall to the wayside, then I’ll be completely worried. Movies? Not so much. The “at hand” information that is the glut of the new frontier (in comparison) called the Internet is both titillating and terrifying to this autodidactic bibliophile.

    The aesthetic value in books (and subsequently, the brain exercise involved in the use), for me, still tops ALL the valuable instantaneous bits floating around out there in cyber space. I’m all for mental exercises going forward, through out life. Keeps one sharp. All the advances in technology we have through the ages are both a boon and a burden. On one hand, we are as far as we are in so many aspects of our lives, because we have advanced from and through it all. We’re also very much led by immediate gratification; the burden of the blessing makes us lazy. I think the defining point may well be how we each process information as we take it in; how we “view” information.

    No worries, just watchful concern. 😉 C.

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