The Power of an Absent Mind

Controversometer Green Mike Thayer

Absentminded Mike Thayer

As I have gotten older, I have come to better understand myself.  There are some things I like, some things I don’t like, some things that give me hope and some things that worry me.  It is something in this last category that I wish to address.  It is a lurking deficiency that has followed me in some form or fashion for as long as I can remember.  My father once told me, that “we write to better understand ourselves” and so I write of this deficiency now, to better understand myself.  I share it with you so that others can better understand me as well.  Allow me to set the stage.

The story begins in 1st grade, Mrs. Roberts’ class. It was the end of yet another school year, spirits were high for an epic summer. We were being called to the front of the class to receive certificates for various accomplishments on the year. The time soon came for Mrs. Roberts to award certificates for our end of the year math test. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on math, having long swept my guilt under the emotional carpet for cheating on the number-writing exam in kindergarten by looking at the clock (poetic justice ruled the day and I still ended up writing the “5” backwards). Mrs. Roberts went on to reveal that two people had scored 98%, no one had gotten 99% and only one student had attained a perfect score. I had no expectations that day. No aspirations. I would have been content merely finishing the day and starting my summer. But fate had chosen another path and when I saw my name printed upon the superlative math certificate, something was set in motion. A spark, however brief, illuminated a possibility. I might be intelligent.

Prouder of my hairy arms, gravely voice, and Nintendo prowess, I didn’t pay much attention to the chance that I might be a smart kid. I continued to get good grades in school, but still considered myself an outsider to the uppermost echelon of brainiacs. The Nick Bryners of the world dominated that domain. Losing Quiz Bowl after Quiz Bowl to the defacto smartest kid in the grade only served to solidify my standing as a second string smart kid. My confidence in the skills that had at one time procured that certificate was fading…. until the day I dethroned Nick Bryner. The Buster Douglas to his Tyson, the unlikely collaborative minds of Mike Thayer, Eric Pelissie, Kit Averitt, and Sean Loveless ousted the reigning champ in the very first round. Walking home alongside my elementary school sweetheart, Cami Roberts, I distinctly remember her asking me “what are you going to do now? You did the impossible.”(or the 4th grade equivalent of that comment). With a smile from ear to ear, a familiar spark flashed.

Before I knew it, I was a bona fide smart kid, having notched my cerebral belt time and time again. Elementary, Junior High, High School. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, however, I still felt like a pretender, like a second stringer. Like I would get to the point or take the wrong class where it would all come crashing down and I would be exposed as the intellectual charlatan that I was. Starting at BYU, I could feel the day of reckoning at hand. I was determined that I would do whatever necessary to ensure that this academic implosion was kept at bay, indefinitely. I can’t say that I know the specific date when the conscious decision was made (or perhaps it was subconscious, the mind’s own self preservation kicking into gear), but sometime around my freshman year in college I made the ultimate sacrifice. I jettisoned whatever parts of my brain that were non-essential to academic flight.

Names, dates, directions, placement of objects and the like were all turned away at my mind’s door.  Whatever distracted from cramming, regurgitating, rinsing and repeating was simply unable to find purchase in the wrinkles of my cerebral cortex.  When I returned from my mission in Italy, it was not uncommon for me to run into people from my freshman year, have them utter my entire first and last name in salutation only to receive a universal moniker in response.  “Hey…dude, how’s it been?  It’s been a long time.”  Sometimes I wouldn’t even remember how I came to know the individual, preventing me from bringing up any relevant information from the past.  Consequently, I did develop a near superhuman ability to get people to reveal their name in the middle of an ostensibly normal conversation between old friends.

This strategy, however fruitful in college, has come at a cost later in life.  It’s not just that I am known to have smothered my face with shampoo in the shower after forgetting that I put Herbal Essence in my hand and not facewash.  No, that is just the tip of my absent-minded iceberg.  I now share two instances to help you see what I mean. 

A Mind Without Borders.  The first took place a few years back.  We were living in Texas with two small kids, when I heard that Borders was closing its doors for good.  I quite liked Borders, as much as a man could like a bookstore, and had heard that there were some killer clearance sales going on.  This, coupled with my wife’s desire to replenish our children’s book library, looked to be the makings of a fine day at the bookstore.  I took my oldest daughter with me and we set out for Borders. 

When we got there, I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed.  From my friend’s description, I was expecting huge “Going Out of Business” and “Everything Must Go” banners hanging from every rafter.  There was nothing.  No outward indication that any permanent closure was imminent.  I perused the books and found no amazing sales.  I walked out with one small book that my daughter wanted just to make the trip not a total bust.

When I got home, I relayed the unexpected experience to my wife, who was equally confused.  I also told her about the trouble I had finding a parking spot.  I could see the faintest hint of additional confusion on my wife’s face and then the wheels started turning in my head.  Something was seriously wrong.  Before my wife could ask any follow up questions, I slyly turned away and pulled out the receipt in the bag.

“You know,” I started, “there may be the slightest chance that I actually didn’t go to Borders.”

“What?” my wife responded.

“I may or may not have actually gone to Barnes & Noble.”

How I did not notice the conspicuous Barnes & Noble signs and logos on the front of the store, in the store, on the employee’s shirt, on my bag and on my receipt, I will never know.  My mind had decided that that store was Borders, Barnes & Noble signs and lack of “Going out of business” signs be damned. 

The power of the human mind when committed to absentmindedness is truly an impressive thing.  In fact, I think that an absent mind is not a sign of a brain that can’t focus or retain information, rather it is a brain that focuses so superhumanly well on certain things that it is incapable of being distracted or deterred with anything else.  It locks onto a thought and is implacable in its resolve to stay on that thought.  Yeah… I like that.  Makes me sound way less prematurely senile and almost cool when you put it like that.

The second occurrence happened some years later, and was regrettably much much worse.

Cart Failure.  I love Walmart.  Despite its reputation for being a mecca for white trash and costumed hobos, I love being able to buy my groceries, my clothes, my electronics, my hunting gear, new car tires, a lawnmower and a chest of drawers in the same store at 1:00 am.  Having lived in Australia for the past 3 years, where Target closes at 6:00 pm on a Saturday, my desire to return to the land of 24 hr large scale consumerism has grown immeasurably. 

Several years ago I was making my usual Saturday night rounds at Walmart, weaving through the aisles and dutifully filling my cart according to the list my wife had given to me.  In America, I actually looked forward to doing the grocery shopping, if only because my brain is easily distracted and Walmart both supplies and accommodates distractions of all kinds.  “Let’s see.  What brand of ranch dressing would my wife…hey I wonder how much a 50” LED TV is going for these days?”

I had filled my cart about half full when I decided to go check if there were any Avengers clothes that would fit Owen, who at the time was a four year old of monstrous proportions.  I wheeled my way over toward the kids clothes and then got distracted with some electronics display, or a kiosk of discounted Oreos, or whatever else.  Needless to say, several minutes had passed by the time I arrived at the kids clothes.  I picked through the shirts of Cap and Iron Man before settling on one that I thought would go well with Owen’s seventeen other Avengers shirts.  I went to put the shirt in my cart and hesitated. 

Tortillas?  When did I put tortillas into my cart?  Was I seriously THAT absent minded that I couldn’t even remember what I put into my cart not five minutes prior?  Tortillas weren’t on my list, but some subconscious part of my brain must have recognized the need for more tortillas.  Oh well, part of being absent minded was learning to just play it off and go with the flow sometimes.  I went to put the shirt in the cart and froze again.  Whole grain bread, organic bananas, humus.  I didn’t remember putting ANY of these into my cart…

You know that feeling when you realize that you mistakenly hijacked someone else’s half-filled shopping cart and took it unwittingly for a 10 minute joyride?  No?  Well, I do.

I hesitantly looked around, half expecting to find some enraged or bewildered customer headed straight for me.  But there was no one.  What… in… the… hell had just happened?  What was I supposed to do now?  I couldn’t just walk back with the cart.  I didn’t even know where I made the switch.  I’d have to sneak up and down the aisles with a another man’s groceries hoping to find my cart and seamlessly make the switch back.  What if he had MY cart?  I’d be like Orlando Bloom in Pirates of Caribbean trying to swap out the key from underneath a sleeping Davy Jones’s tentacle beard.  What if he was wandering around and saw me wheeling his cart?  What was I supposed to say then?  “Sorry I accidentally stole your cart for a full ten minutes. I hadn’t noticed.”  That wouldn’t even make sense.  One thing was for sure, however.  I couldn’t risk being caught out in the open red handed.  I needed to do some reconnaissance.

With the kidnapped cart securely stashed away among the boys clothes, I set out looking for where it had all gone wrong.  After a few minutes of weaving through the aisles, I found a lone, half-filled, abandoned cart.  I glanced around to make sure no one was staking out the place, and tried my best to look natural as I walked up, grabbed the handle and cooly walked off to the cereal aisle as if nothing was ever amiss.  The feeling of reclaiming my misplaced cart was one of immense relief.  It was also a feeling that would only be experienced by one person that day, because now that I had cleanly reclaimed my groceries there was no way in hell I was going back to implicate myself in the crime scene evidence that was hidden away by the kids superhero t-shirts.

I know.  I am a terrible person.  I still think about how it must have been for the other guy.  How in Odin’s beard had I inadvertently performed a perfectly timed, Ocean’s Eleven style switch of carts, without either of us noticing?!  I don’t even know if I could do it again if I tried.  How long must the guy have been distracted that I could smoothly make off with his groceries like that?  What I wouldn’t give to see the security camera footage of the whole ordeal.  I’m sure the guy must have looked around the adjacent aisles for his cart once he noticed that it had magically disappeared.  But I wasn’t in the adjacent aisles, was I?  I had made a clean break for the clothes section.  The fact that I could mistakenly grab someone’s cart is ridiculous, but to get away with it scot-free is nothing short of miraculous.

I wonder how long it took for this man to realize that his cart was gone and it wasn’t coming back.  At what point did he resign himself to walk back to the front of the store, grab another cart and start completely over from scratch?  I sincerely hope that “little boys t-shirt” was not at the bottom of his grocery list.  That would be like being Tom Hanks’ wife in Cast Away.  It’s been four years since you lost your husband.  However hard it was to accept his death, you’ve moved on, started over, and to have him just come waltzing through the front door one day… I mean, it’s good news, but I just don’t know.  There’s this morbid part of you that wishes he would have just stayed dead.

Conclusion.  So I don’t know where this leaves me.  I’ve tried to repurpose my brain back to what I think would be normal, but it seems that those mental bridges are burned to a crisp.  There’s no turning back.  For now, I just make due.  I have learned to not trust myself with certain information.  I write things down or set alarms on my phone.  My wife doesn’t ask me to remember to take something to work in the morning.  She just hangs plastic sacks on the front door or goes and directly puts the thing in my car.  How quickly they make it out of the car is another story, but you can only lead a horse to water.  The raw power of the absent mind is truly a site to behold.

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2 Responses to The Power of an Absent Mind

  1. Marci says:

    Dang funny mike

  2. NeifyT says:

    Wow, this is so much me as well; from childhood on up.

    I was totally laughing at the whole cart experience even before reading your realization of what happened, that it must have been someone else’s cart. I don’t think I have done that one; but that sounds like me anyway.

    I for sure have done the wrong store thing before as well; on many occasions.

    I have had to resort to putting things right next to doors to remember to get them into the car… probably is remembering to get them out again in the right places and times. I have had computers sitting in my car for weeks, that was just supposed to be transferred from one building to another.

    I guess I have an Absent Mind that to is very smart.

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