On being … like free association

By Ingrid Sapona 

The other day my friend Paula (not her real name) invited me to her house for dinner. She also invited Mia (also not her real name), whom I hadn’t met before. All three of us are about the same age and all have legal training.  

After dinner we got to talking about this and that. At one point the conversation turned to stories of brushes with famous people. Paula told about meeting a children’s author whom she loved. I think she met him at a dinner party or something, I can’t remember. She said she found him quite engaging but was surprised that his sense of humour tended toward the dark. Given this, she said that at one point she made a joking reference to something she thought would appeal to this dark sense of humour. 

She explained, “I made a reference to….” Then, in telling the story to us, Paula drew a blank. She thought for a minute and said, “Oh, you know, that famous American cannibal.” “Hannible Lecter?” Mia asked. “No, no,” Paula said. “A real-life cannibal.” I had NO clue who she could be talking about. 

Fortunately, Mia had her phone next to her and she Googled something like “American cannibal”. Scrolling through the info she eventually said, “Jeffrey Dahmer”? “Yes! Thank you,” shrieked Paula. My response was more along the lines of, “Dahmer was a cannibal? I didn’t know that. I thought he just dismembered his victims.”  

Then Mia started telling us about one of her brushes with someone famous. She explained that when she was working in Hong Kong, sometimes she and her colleagues would let off steam at a local disco. (This was the 80s, I think.) “One night I was out on the dance floor and I looked up and saw someone who looked really familiar.” She paused for a minute and said, “It was Oliver… um … Oliver North.”. Wow, I thought, trying to picture the Iran Contra guy in a disco. 

Mia went on to explain that eventually she got up the nerve to talk to him and that he told her he and his crew were in Hong Kong after finishing some film. That was even more confusing to me, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to feel like an idiot, nor did I want to seem openly skeptical about Oliver North being in a film.  

The conversation then moved on to something else, which I don’t remember because I was still processing Oliver North. Maybe Mia saw the puzzled look on my face because I noticed she had picked up her phone and was clearly looking for something. Then she said, “Oh… Oliver Stone – not Oliver North!” Ahhhh… that made sense! We all had a good laugh about the wrong Oliver.  

On the way home I was thinking about how fun – and funny – the evening was and how every now and then it seemed like a game of free association. If we were 10-20 years older, I might be worried that our reliance on oblique references in lieu of names might be a sign of word retrieval or memory issues. But in this case, I’d say it was simply a function of odd games of connect-the-dots that our brains play as we store away information and ideas. 

I think one of the reasons I enjoy such quirky conversations is because round-about references have been a hallmark of conversations I’ve had all my life with my eldest sister. It’s totally normal for us to refer to something else all together by way of reference when we can’t remember an exact term or name. When we chat, there’s a lot of, “Oh you know – it’s like…” or “You know who I mean – she was in that movie with what’s-his-name”. And of course, there are lots of references to family-related events or incidents like, “It’s like that time Dad…”. 

I think such free association is also a pretty good way of bonding. It certainly requires a level of comfort that those you’re with won’t tease you or make you feel inordinately foolish – whether you’re the one making the analogy or the one trying to understand what the other person means. That said, it’ll be interesting to see if such round-about referencing gets worse as we get older. Indeed, I think I’m going to do a self-check every now and then to make sure that it’s an innocent habit and not a sign of cognitive decline. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


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