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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Each night when I get home, I do exactly the same thing: excavate my keys, my cellphone, my wallet and my reading glasses from various pockets, and deposit them on the countertop en route from the garage to the kitchen. God forbid, I enter to find a toilet overflowing, a tea kettle blowing, a child begging or a spouse reminding me that we're late for a parent-teacher conference. If any distraction breaks the chain of my routine, I'm lost. The wallet could end up in the laundry room, the cellphone in the bathroom and my keys wherever it is that keys go. The next morning, as I pass the countertop, its blank surface will remain petulantly silent, refusing even a whisper that I'm forgetting something critical.

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Which is what happened one recent morning. My wife dropped me at the Metro station and glided away. At the faregate, I reached for my SmarTrip card. Wasn't there. Neither were my wallet, keys or cellphone. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, three steps off the edge of a cliff, my predicament slowly dawning on me. I had no cellphone to call for rescue, no money for a cab to take me home to retrieve my valuables and no keys to enter my house if I could get there.

Feeling pathetic -- heck, I was pathetic -- I begged a cellphone from a man coming up the escalator and called my wife. Straight to voice mail. Stay calm, I told myself. After carefully reviewing my options, I determined I had no options.

Eventually, I walked the three miles home, knocked on a neighbor's door and bugged her every 20 minutes to try my wife's cell again. Three 20-minutes later, my wife answered. Another half-hour, and she arrived with her set of keys. My farcical nightmare was over, 2 1/2 hours after it had begun.

Until recently, I'd thought of that as a funny story, foolish as it makes me look. But then I read the devastating article by Gene Weingarten that begins on Page 8. Some people will vehemently insist that suggesting a connection between forgetting a wallet and forgetting that you've left a sleeping child in the back seat of a car is offensive. They passionately believe that no decent human could be so irresponsibly absent-minded when an innocent life is at stake.

As I read through the piece, horrified and heartbroken, I desperately wanted to agree with them, despite the nagging feeling in my gut. And then I got to this comment, from a memory expert: "Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless ... If you're capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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