December 6, 2021

"I remember...."

I remember something made me read this old blog post of mine, from 2013, when I had a little project going where I'd take one sentence from "The Great Gatsby" and present it for discussion, not in the context of the book as a whole, but purely as a sentence. I like to read on a sentence level, and this book has the best sentences.

The sentence of the day was "I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: 'Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?' and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands."

I believe what took me back to that post was the "gloved hands." They reached out to me from the past! What happened was that within the course of 2 days — November 18, 2021 to November 20, 2021 — I'd written 2 posts that had the tag "gloves." One was about Facebook's virtual reality device, a haptic glove, and the other was about a legal decision in India that meant groping while wearing surgical gloves was not a crime.

I love tags that are specific and concrete but that link up disparate things, and "gloves" is a great example. This is one of the true joys of blogging. Most things on that level of specificity do not get a tag. Excited about "gloves," the tag, I fell into a reading spree and ended up in that "Gatsby" post.

What I wrote back then about that sentence:

This "Gatsby" sentence has a simple structure. The subject is "I" and the predicate is "remember." How many sentences in the history of humanity begin "I remember...."? There's no end to where you can go from there (especially if you're not hung up on nonfiction and truthtelling). So string along the memories — the memorabilia, the "things... worthy of being remembered."

I remember the Michael Jackson memorabilia, the Bruce Lee memorabilia, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorabilia, Malcolm X memorabilia, the Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, the $43,350 Rolex watch, the fur capes and parkas....

Those items before "the fur capes and parkas" were all references back to an earlier post that day: "Why did Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife risk everything to buy such stupid stuff?" Speaking of the joys of blogging, I love when a post references an earlier post in a way that gives in-the-know readers a frisson of in-the-knowingness.

Continuing with the post about the "Gatsby" sentence:

I mean... I remember the fur coats.... They — the girls returning from Miss This-or-That’s — weren't wearing their fur in cape or parka form back in 1922.

Things remembered: fur coats, chatter, hands waving, matchings of invitations, and long green tickets. These remembered things give the reader a sense of the incompletely delineated human beings. Who are the unnamed girls and who are the "we"? There's the overspecificity of the people offstage, Ordways, the Herseys, and the Schultzes. There's the silly half-specificity of Miss This-or-That. These people — or, really, places (hence the possessive) — are, like fur coats and gloves, appurtenances to the human beings we are trying to see in this picture.

This is a mass of faceless humanity, cluttered with hands, waving and clasping. Hands appears twice in the sentence — the grotesqueness of a hand appearing — first, waving (connecting with others), and second, clasping a ticket (intent on getting to one's predetermined destination). The hands of the others reaching out are grubby and horrible and we've got a fear of relinquishing sole ownership of our long green tickets.

I kept reading into the comments and found this, by gadfly: "Althouse is doing her Joe Brainard, 'I Remember' schtick - but she can't top the master." He quoted a bunch of stuff from "I Remember," a book I'd never read.

But I realized soon enough that I had read about it, because — decades ago — I'd read Kenneth Koch's "Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry," and one of the lessons for kids is to write "I remember" to begin a sentence and keep writing, then begin the next sentence with "I remember," etc. etc. 

Brainard and Koch were friends, and it's not obvious to me which one originated the idea. Did Brainard follow Koch's exercise that was aimed at children or did Koch adapt Brainard's idea to design a lesson for children? Both books came out in 1970.

Anyway, I got the Kindle version of Brainard's writings and read all of "I Remember." Things I highlighted... oh! I only  highlighted one thing:

I remember “statues.” (A game where someone swung you around and then let go and you froze in whatever position you landed.)

I highlighted that because I'd blogged about that game — back in 2007 and again in 2019. I'd encountered some questioning about whether this really was one of the traditional outdoor games. Perhaps it was local to Delaware, where I grew up playing freeze tag and octopus and monkey in the middle and so forth. But Brainard grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so I liked that confirmation.

The failure to highlight more only means that I got uniform satisfaction from the various sentences. It was a sentence-by-sentence book, so that was great for me. That's what I like.

So I wanted to put together a post encouraging you to read "I Remember," and I got back to gadfly's comment: "Althouse is doing her Joe Brainard, 'I Remember' schtick - but she can't top the master."

Was gadfly giving me credit for writing "I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: 'Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?' and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands"?!

I'd love to have thought of that, and if I had a brain that came out with that sort of thing — as I sit alone in the coffee shop, smoking — I wouldn't care if somebody thought Joe Brainard was the master that I couldn't top. 

BONUS: From the Wikipedia article on Kenneth Koch:

Koch had a brush with the anarchist affinity group Up Against the Wall Motherfucker in early January 1968. During a poetry reading at St. Mark's Church, a member of the group walked in and pointed a handgun at the podium, shouting "Koch!" before firing one blank round. The poet regained his composure and said to the "shooter," "Grow up."

15 comments:

Joe Smith said...

Nice.

I don't remember hats, but like women wearing gloves, every respectable man (and some not-so-respectable ones) wore a hat.

I've seen it in old movies and film footage.

Suits too.

It seems like that was a more civil time but maybe it wasn't.

Were you a smoker AA?

Maybe go to Tokyo (I'll tell you about some really good spots) and you can still sit in a cafe and smoke and write.

And draw cute ink-rats...

Howard said...

I remember listening to The Joe Rogan Steven Pinker podcast and was struck by the fact that memories are unreliable. I don't remember the specifics but the model I have created in my mind of that experience recalls a discussion of the recent exonerated rapist story and how prosecutors cement false memories through repetition. Them I remember a friend of mine using that old cliche about hindsight being 20-20 and I stopped him in his tracks and said no. Even though I had used that same tired cliche a zillion times and suddenly struck me as being completely and totally false. The main feeling of human beings is our myopic view of the past. I remember not so clearly the exact phrase but Google tells me Pinker said "Often, the best explanation for ‘the good old days’ is a bad memory.”

Ann Althouse said...

Before writing this post, I intentionally used the "I remember" format in the comments section of an earlier post, here.

Dave Begley said...

"I remember “statues.” (A game where someone swung you around and then let go and you froze in whatever position you landed.)"

We played that game in Omaha although I don't think we called it "statues." We also played freeze tag. We didn't play octopus or monkey in the middle.

Frankly Anonymous said...

You make me think of my Mother’s reminiscing of people she knew. But then she wasn’t a blogger, nor even in the Meta. Just my Mom.

Richard Dillman said...

This Gatsby passage is one that I highlighted when I taught the novel for over 30 years. I read it as a major part of the East versus Midwest
theme in the novel. Nick remembers a kind of bucolic Midwest, in this case St. Paul, Minnesota, that stand in sharp contrast to the
corrupt New York of the novel. He remembers a lost world that may have no longer existed in his post WW1 world.

Tina848 said...

I loved the sentence posts - wish we did more of them.

MOfarmer said...

There it is! The answer to the question of why I come to this blog so often. JOY! There is so much joy. Your joy from doing it and the joy your commenters get from commenting. I really enJOY this blog. So thanks everyone.

Tina Trent said...

Apparently, debutantes are less idiotic than artists. Might social mores have purpose?

Leslie Graves said...

If you were to go back over your oeuvre and sort it out by month and throw adjectives on them, I have a sense that your "winter posts" have a flavor that would be noticeably distinct from your summer posts.

Amadeus 48 said...

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. I remember...

RBE said...

I wore white gloves on my 11 year old hands while taking ballroom dance class at my elementary school...early 60's in the Midwest.

Rollo said...

So this Fitzgerald guy must have been the Whit Stillman of the 1920s?

Lem said...

I'd love to have thought of that, and if I had a brain that came out with that sort of thing — as I sit alone in the coffee shop, smoking — I wouldn't care if somebody thought Joe Brainard was the master that I couldn't top.

For some reason or other i read that in Anthony Bourdain's voice.

Tina Trent said...

My mother and sisters, 12 to 40, with pitch black hair and pure white dresses and white shoes and white gloves, legs tucked demurely below them, framed beneath a cherub sculpture draping purple and green plastic grapevines over them.

I still have those gloves. The box slides out of a cover and is lined with white satin inside and out. It opens almost like an origami, from the center. Lord and Taylor, I think. I can still faintly smell the lilac.

You old folks had experiences that sharpened the senses. By the time I was in college in the 80’s, it was all about forgetting and moving on to the next mindless stimulation. How lucky you were.

There is an Inspector Morse episode about this. It is called Cheribum and Seraphin.