Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Rosemary is for whattyacallit

In Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, one of the narrators keeps track of each day's responsibilities on her fingers and toes. For her, each digit represents an errand to the grocery store, a child to pick up, or an appointment to make.

I thought that was an interesting — and also unlikely — way to remember things. I know that it wouldn't work for me. My to-do lists tend to be more free-floating, circulating on post-it notes or in one of the three notebooks that I keep. (And, no, it doesn't make sense to have three, but that's just how things evolved.) Typed to-do lists feel cold, and ultimately invisible, to me. Palm Pilots also turn me off, although I admit that I've never owned one.

The problem with my system of remembering is that all the small tasks tend to rise to the surface of my memory, like so many dead gnats in a pail of water. So I dutifully pay the bills, change the lightbulb, fold the laundry... but at the expense of more important things I should be doing.

(One ironic corollary to the problem of giving too much attention to the small stuff: I'm pretty good with birthdays. I have no problem remembering to buy or make cards. But sometimes those cards will sit on my desk, unwritten, until after the birthday has passed.)

When it comes to other things I need to remember (e.g., good ideas, or those ideas that seemed good at the moment they were born), I try to capture these by weaving an absurd net of associations. These nets may be obvious. For instance, if I need to get in touch with a Professor Flowers, I imagine myself at my desk the next morning, awestruck at a nest of blooms sprouting from my plastic laptop. Or the nets may be more bizarre, as happens when some idea wafts through my brain in the moments right before sleep. Too numb or lazy to get out of bed in search of paper, I imagine myself writing the words down my ankles and onto my feet. The words are pointy, and therefore at risk of snagging on the fabric of a sock. When morning comes, and when I go to pull on a pair of socks, the words are indeed hooked and the idea dragged back. (Never mind that it’s almost always less lustrous in the morning light. I’m just pleased to have recovered it.)

I'm always curious about how other people remember and prioritize things – both the epiphanies and the daily detritus. I'd like to know what you do with the stuff that loops through our heads in inopportune moments, when there's no easy way to write it down.


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