So, what have Marcel Proust, Sandy Koufax, and Sylvester Stallone all have in common? “I’ll take ‘Things Completely Unrelated’ for $800, please.”
I firmly believe that intelligence, creativity, and education are all about putting things together that have no apparent reason for being on the same planet, let alone in the same neighborhood. People in the know or who wear lab coats refer to this as “associative intelligence” or “non-sequential reasoning,” which is another way of saying that intelligence is about quirkiness: finding the thread that runs through seemingly unrelated things and pulling it.
Take Marcel Proust. I’ve never met anyone who has actually read his 4,000 page novel, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), which has more than 2,000 characters and is best known for the “episode of the madeleine.” Personally, I think if what you have to say can be summed up in a scene about a cookie, 4,000 pages seems a bit excessive. Undoubtedly, he had a very sympathetic editor, or no editor at all.
The main character of the seven-volume novel, the Narrator (Marcel Proust), is sent into a nostalgic reverie after seeing a madeleine cookie dipped in tea. The madeleine conjures up memories of his early life in Combray, France; his Aunt Leonie; Charles Swan, a visitor of his parents; a lesbian encounter he witnesses; and a host of other things as he lies in his bedroom. It’s what you would get if you crossed La Bohème with the Mexican soap opera Rosa Salvaje. So, there you have it. A little thing like a madeleine dipped in tea triggering 4,000 pages of memories, for good or ill.
Enter Sandy Koufax. Some of you may not be aware (people born after 1990 seem to find it inconceivable that the earth existed prior to that date; people born before can talk of nothing else), but Sandy Koufax was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1955-66. He was called “the man with the golden arm,” which may have had something to do with the James Bond movie Goldfinger (1964), but that’s another story. My point is that Sandy Koufax is my madeleine. How so?
The first major league baseball game I went to was on August 30, 1966 at Shea Stadium. The Mets were hosting the Dodgers and Sandy Koufax was pitching for the Dodgers. I remember a lot about that day, although I won’t attempt to stretch it out to 400 words let alone 4,000 pages. I remember two guys, college kids probably, running down the aisle where my uncle and I had box level seats to harass both Koufax and the umpires. I was utterly amazed not just at their behavior but the ritual environment (for what else is baseball?) that allowed them, even encouraged them, to do what they did and say what they said. Let’s just say their language was anything but fin de siècle French literature.
Another thing I remembered was Sandy Koufax. The Mets knocked him out in the fourth inning and went on to win 10-4, which was amazing itself (the Amazin Mets!), but what I remembered was a gold chain that he wore around his neck and was clearly visible from the stands. Judging from Koufax’s religious convictions and what had happened during the previous October during the 1965 World Series (Yom Kippur), it could have been a Jewish Chai necklace.
Years later, in 1979, I was jogging in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and saw a short man running in the opposite direction with a bunch of kids around him and a flatbed truck in front with a camera crew. As we passed in opposite directions, I could see that it was Sylvester Stallone (most of us had seen Rocky, although none of us admitted it). Two things stood out, apart from the kids: Stallone was a lot shorter than I expected, and he wore a gold chain around his neck. I immediately thought of Sandy Koufax and the Mets.
Whenever I see gold necklaces on men, I think back to 1966 and 1979. But the older I get, the more memories are triggered, not unlike Proust’s madeleine. And the triggering is often random. For instance, I heard Nat King Cole sing Nature Boy this afternoon and remembered a Canadian girl named Katherine who lived in Alberta. It was the summer of Skylab and I had asked her to marry me. But Skylab burned up falling from orbit and so did our love.
Maybe there are more madeleines out there, more Sandy Koufaxes and Sylvester Stallones. Maybe what is happening is that I am infusing everything I see and hear and touch with the past. And, more importantly, maybe it isn’t the past anymore. Maybe it’s here and now. Gold chains and madeleines. Skylab, Katherine, and me. Maybe it’s being aware that there is nothing but memory and that everything exists in time perdu.