My memory trick really stacks up

Way back when the earth was still cooling, I awoke one night with a brilliant idea. It was a 2 a.m. brainstorm, the kind that makes life simpler and more satisfying for millions. In the dark, I wrote several words on the pad of paper at my bedside and went back to sleep.

When I looked at my note the next morning, it didn't make sense. I carried it to the window for better light, turned it right-side up, and peered closely at the crabbed script running off one edge of the page.

" 'Keep frying pans in treetop'?" I mumbled aloud. Then: "Maybe, 'hogs bring passionate hopes.' "

"Huh?" said my husband, Rog, still in bed and half-asleep. "What on earth are you reading?"

"I had this stroke of genius last night, and I wrote it down. Now I can't read my writing. Can you figure this out?" I asked, handing it to him.

He looked at it for a long time without speaking.

I glanced over his shoulder and said, "I'm pretty sure it goes the other way."

Rog turned it around, flipped on his reading light, and said, "Uh, well, I think it says, 'Help free sinful turtles,' but I wouldn't swear to it."

So much for my nighttime idea that, at best, would have promoted world peace - or at least allowed us to retire early.

Following that experience, a memory trick popped into my head. I didn't know where I'd heard it, but it involves making visual, mental images of what you want to remember. Having used it with some success, I'm willing to share it.

The first of four items on your list is perched on top of a flagpole. A flagpole looks like the numeral 1 - tall, straight, and singular. You put the second item astride a bicycle with a cute little wicker basket mounted on the handlebars. A bicycle has two wheels, get it? The third item wears a tricorn hat, and the fourth goes into a playpen, which has four sides.

So here's how it went a while ago as I drove the morning carpool. I said to myself, "Gotta wash Skylar's soccer uniform, remind Rog to set the VCR to record that National Geographic special, and remember to call the pet store about canaries. Oh yes, and I need to buy primroses."

The canary was the logical choice for the top of the flagpole. So far, so good.

I visualized myself pedaling a bike, the wicker bike basket overflowing with multi-colored primroses. I discovered that my husband looked smashing in a tricorn hat, striking a Napoleonic pose with the VCR clicker clutched to his chest. Of course the laundry went into the playpen.

Done.

And it worked! The soccer uniform was clean and dry, the flowers bloomed by nightfall, the TV show was properly recorded, and I bought a canary that very afternoon.

As I became more skilled at this handy technique, I discovered I could create a single, totally memorable visual image - a collage of sorts - that combined elements of all the items I needed to remember. I could put everything on top of that single flagpole and be done with it.

It worked like this for me recently: I needed to call my friend Rose, buy new towels, inflate the team soccer balls, and pick up a roasted chicken at the grocery store for a quick, easy dinner that night.

So, up the flagpole went Rose. Then she made a turban of the purple towel, balanced a chicken on top, and began juggling four soccer balls. It proved to be an unforgettable mental image, and we ate that roasted chicken after soccer practice.

Occasionally, of course, I find myself staring into space, trying to remember the last critter that shimmied up that flagpole, or what it wore on its head. But most of the time, as long as I don't pile too much stuff up there to flap around with the flag, it works pretty well.

Since that middle-of-the-night debacle so long ago, when we struggled over the interpretation of my scribbling, my husband has been reluctant to assign me the task of reminding him of important things. But during a cold spell the other night, we awakened as the cat wiggled her heat-seeking body between us, and we operated as a team to convince her to stay put on her usual blanket at the foot of our bed.

"Remind me to change the furnace filter," Rog mumbled as he pulled the quilt up to his chin, "and let's buy a thicker comforter for this bed."

As I was busy balancing my husband, wrapped in a puffy comforter on top of my mental flagpole and staring at the world through a rectangular furnace filter, Rog continued in a sleepy monotone, "And let's have oatmeal, something hot, for breakfast...."

In my mind, a bowl of steaming oatmeal suddenly sat on top of his head.

When morning came, I rolled over and saw Rog, eyes open, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling. The cat lay on his chest, and he made no move to push her off.

"Crazy cat," I said. "Why don't you shove her off?"

"Too cold to take my arms out," he said, but something other than the cat was bothering him. "There's something I needed to remember...." he mumbled.

"Buy new comforter. Change furnace filter. Have hot cereal for breakfast. I'm going downstairs right now to start the oatmeal."

He stared at me in amazement. It was a sweet victory -very, very sweet.

"How did you remember that?" he asked, and I described the mental image I'd created.

"Hey, that's wonderful," he gushed. "Maybe you could market it, teach seminars, you know? It could help millions of people. Maybe we could retire early."

As I stirred the oatmeal, I wondered if I'd thought of the idea myself.

Perhaps that's what I'd written on that notepad so many years ago: "Canary on a flagpole...."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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