The things we used to know
April 11, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

As if things weren’t already bad enough, I recently discovered that not only do I have to worry about the things I don’t yet know (of which there are an abundance); now I have to start worrying about the things I used to know but don’t.

This vexing discovery came out of a discussion in the newsroom. It occurred to me that, although there was a time I knew all of Minnesota’s counties, and could both list them and plot them out on a map, there was some doubt about whether I could still do so.

It should be noted that the time when I could do this was many moons ago when I was in college studying the geography of Minnesota.

Still, the names of the counties haven’t changed since then, as far as I know.

This uncertainty weighed on my mind, as these things tend to do, so I decided to conduct an exercise to determine how bad things have become.

I got out a notebook and a pencil, and numbered the page from one to 87. Then I set out to write down the names of the counties.

In my defense, I should say that I didn’t start this exercise until well after midnight, a time of day when my acuity is far from its peak. I am sure I could have improved my score had I started in the morning after a beaker or two of Java.

Things were worse than I feared.

I started by visualizing the state, and writing down the names of the counties beginning in the northeast and working west and south.

The first part was easy. I grew up on the north shore, and any time I have an opportunity, I return to that area, like a wayward swallow returning to his beloved Capistrano.

I continued with my list, and when I got to the area around the metro counties, the process continued to go smoothly. The farther south and west I went, however, the more difficult the task became.

I had to resort to working my way through Minnesota history, because I knew that some counties were named after early leaders in the state.

Despite my best efforts, I could only come up with 46 – just more than half of the counties.

In the morning, I pulled up a map of the counties and checked my results.

Not surprisingly, I had nailed the entire Arrowhead region, and almost the whole northern part of the state, with the exception of Roseau County on the Canadian border. I put this down to confusion over the fact that Roseau is both a city and a county. I got tripped up on several of those, including Marshall, Wadena, Winona, Faribault, and Waseca.

I missed Red Lake because I thought it was a reservation, not a county (both are true).

I failed to write down Douglas County, because I thought I was just confusing it with the county in northern Wisconsin (both states have a Douglas County).

There were counties for which there is no excuse for omitting, such as Lac Qui Parle County. I have always thought that was a stylish name for a county, and I like the fact that the name (a French translation of the Dakota name) means “lake that speaks,” but that didn’t help me to remember it in this case.

My score really suffered along the southern two tiers of counties. I found that most of those had not stayed in my memory at all.

Perhaps more concerning were the few counties that, even after I saw them on the map, I did not recognize the names. No offense to the good people of Wilkin County, for example, but apparently nothing about that county made any impression on me whatsoever.

The settlers in that county were apparently a fickle bunch. The county was organized in 1858 as Toombs County. In 1862, the residents petitioned the legislature to change the name to Andy Johnson County. Six years later, in 1868, the residents again petitioned the legislature to change the name to Wilkin County.

In the end, two things emerged from this exercise.

First, I am going to have to do some studying. Perhaps I will even embark on a mission to visit each of the counties in our fair state. I am sure this would help me to remember them better, since I would have a tangible connection, rather than just a name on a page.

Second, the exercise made me wonder what else I used to know that I don’t know anymore.

There are certainly a lot of formulas and rules I learned in algebra, trigonometry, and physics classes that have long since faded out of memory, but I can probably get by without those.

I am almost afraid to consider the amount of important information that may have disappeared from the memory bank.

I can cope with the things that I never knew, because I am reasonably handy at research.

But the prospect of reaching for some tidbit of knowledge from the archives of my brain and finding the shelf bare is terrifying.

Perhaps one can justify these memory lapses on the grounds that there is a limited amount of storage space available, and acquiring large volumes of new data pushes the old knowledge out. That is the story I am going to use.

However, I would be much happier if I could control which information is deleted.

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