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A Horse Is a Horse of Course ... But, Um, the Color of My Wife's Eyes?

The long parade of witnesses in Ken Starr's various investigations has not been easy for me to watch. One of my big fears is that someday I will be summoned to give official testimony in a court case. Then my faade of intelligence will crumble away like a cheap Halloween mask.

The embarrassing fact is this: I have a highly selective memory. It has enormous storage capacity for trivia, but is unreliable when I attempt to recall where I was two days ago. This aspect of my personality, that I am using in everyday life, would not play well in the legal system.

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The most egregious example I can offer is one that happens whenever my family goes shopping. In any sizable mall, it is likely that we will become separated. And when I start looking around for the woman I have been married to for 15 years, my recollections turn hazy. What was she wearing? Jeans perhaps, or maybe a skirt. Perhaps a dark skirt, unless it was beige.

You can see how this might be a huge problem if I were unable to find my family and had to seek police assistance. Burly sergeant: "Sir, how tall is your wife?" Me: "Oh, average. You know, about up to here." (I place finger on my nose.) The officers don't buy it. Any husband who can't give definitive answers to such basic questions immediately turns into the "Prime Suspect."

Cars are also a problem. On television, witnesses have encyclopedic knowledge of the automobile industry. Joe Friday never had trouble finding a bystander who only caught a glimpse of the suspect vehicle, yet was able to verify that it was a '63 Ford Falcon, white, two-door, cracked window on the driver's side, with a bumper sticker saying "Go Dodgers."

But my world isn't like Dragnet. A few weeks ago, a friend and I saw an errant motorist back into a parked car, then drive away. My pal wrote down the license number while I nodded encouragingly. But when she tried to confirm other facts, like the car model and a description of the driver, the strange veil of blankness descended over me.

And what confounds my family is how someone who gets lost going downtown is able to recite all the words to theme song of "Mr. Ed," or the list the crucial details of Superman's life.

It's probably too late to reorient my memory skills. But I have learned a few tricks to stave off complete humiliation. If facts are elusive, vagueness can be useful. When someone asks about my wife's eye color, I now say "greenish." That gives me a wide range of the visible spectrum to maneuver in while I try to remember whether or not I've been placed under oath.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, lives in Portland, Ore.

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