by John Ostrander
I have now coasted past my 70th birthday and have acquired the rights of geezerhood, one of which is a variable memory. I forget things. Not everything nor am I making claims to senility (yet). But sometimes some things drop out and that isn’t necessarily bad.
I suspect I acquired both this trait and outlook from my mother. Every year she would re-read Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather and at the time I didn’t understand that. Why re-read a book when there are so many out there she had not yet opened? She told me that, due to lapsing memory, she didn’t always remember the plot and so had the pleasure of discovering the story anew. I have since discovered that pleasure for myself. It’s not simply re-reading books that I like but forgetting some the plot details. Mysteries work well with this; for example, I have read every Nero Wolfe mystery that Rex Stout ever wrote (and a few that he didn’t) and I am currently re-reading them. With some (not all), I have forgotten who-dun-it and that’s okay.
The real pleasure is not in the unravelling of the mystery but in time spent with the characters, especially Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. I’ve really come back for the interplay between them. The resolution to the mystery – indeed, of most mysteries – is very secondary for me compared to that interplay. I would argue that’s true for most mysteries; when Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in A Study In Scarlet, we’re not deeply interested in who the killer is but in how Holmes catches him. I would argue that Doyle’s deepest interest also is not in the killer although he spends a great deal of time in the killer’s backstory. The identity of the murderer and the workings of the plot are there to drive the story and to give us an excuse to visit with our friends, the main characters.
It is somewhat the same with music; I’d forgotten how much I liked the group WAR until I recently stumbled on to their recording of Cisco Kid
which in turn led to re-discovering Low Rider, Why Can’t We Be Friends, All Day Music and so many others. The algorithm on YouTube thought I might like The O’Jays For The Love Of Money and it was right and that led to Earth, Wind and Fire’s That’s The Way of the World and the algorithm was even more right there. With all these, there are complicated rhythms and harmonies that I don’t think are matched in today’s music (I told you I was hitting geezerhood; HEY, YOU KIDS! GET OFF MY MUSIC!). I remember the cuts but forgot just how good they were. Re-discovering them doesn’t just take me back. The music buoys me up as it did when I first heard it.
Rediscovery is harder for me to do with movies. The ones that have been my faves I tend to watch again with some frequency. I remember the plots; I remember the details. On some like Casablanca or Waking Ned Devine, I can almost speak the lines with the characters. However, there are some TV shows that I liked when I was quite a bit younger that I have occasionally re-encountered not that long ago. (That’s one of the blessings of TV these days; everything that was ever shown before may be on again.) My favorite TV show when I was a boy was Zorro with Guy Williams in the title role.
They all were half hour shows and what really makes them work is the writing. Not only first rate but a season back then had more episodes than they do these days. More demanding. And they often worked with themes and social questions. Keep in mind, this was back in the 50s and the early 60s – not an era we associate with “social relevance”. I remember seeing these shows now and then back in the day but forgetting how good they were.
There were shows and books and music that I sort of remember when I encounter them – and hey, they’re as bad as I remember. One of my PBS stations runs re-runs of Lawrence Welk every Saturday and I can hardly bear to see even the commercials. But sometimes selective amnesia is a gift and it can give a great deal of pleasure.
So excuse me while I check back in to a certain brownstone on West 35th street in NYC to find out what Wolfe and Archie are doing. They may have told me but I forget.
John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but our favorite editorial scapegoat, AKA Tim Muncher, found this piece, which seems to have been John’s last at the eminent and still trucking blog, PopCultureSquad. You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE