One of my favorite scenes in Young Frankenstein is when, after the recently animated monster goes on his first mini rampage, the doctor gets Eyegore to admit that he dropped and destroyed the brain of the brilliant scientist Dr Frankenstein had hoped to revive and had taken another brain from the brain depository.
“Abby Someone… Abby Normal, I think. I’m almost certain that was the name.”
No one wants to be labeled “abnormal,” but most of us also don’t want to be described as “ordinary.” We want to be close enough to normal to be excluded from the freak category, but also to be considered above average at something. So many of us spend at least part of our lives walking a tightrope, trying to find a path through that ill-defined territory that brings both acceptance and maybe a teeny bit of acclaim.
One problem with walking a tighrope is that there isn’t any room for error. And certainly no opportunity to explore new territory.
I fell off the tightrope pretty early in life. At some point before kindergarten, my parents figured out that when I was talking (or rather, babbling incessantly) while playing by myself, that I was responding to voices that I was hearing in my head. I thought everyone heard voices like that. It was the only way I knew how to think, to have conversations with different parts of myself.
I tried explaining that, but being only—what, three years old?—didn’t have the experience, vocabularly, or conceptual framework to get the idea across. All my dad understood was that 1) I heard voices, 2) I did not think of them as imaginary friends, and 3) I couldn’t stop them.
So he told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never, ever to let anyone hear me talking to the voices. If I did, very bad things would happen to me. The least of which were that no one would be friends with me and that I would be taken away and locked up somewhere.
Dad isn’t exactly a touchy-feely kind of guy, you know?
Now there’s neuroscience to show that talking to oneself makes several mental process work better. There’s additional evidence that imagining different trains of thought as a conversation is simply an outgrowth of a number of perfectly unexceptional mental processes. The extent to which my internal monologue splits into a couple dozen dialogues is more than a single standard deviation away from the median, but it’s not so far out as to be worrisome.
I also see relationships between things differently than most. It’s the reason I used to confuse some of my fellow orchestra and bandmates when I would say that playing the tuba was no different than trumpet, you just needed to move the root note of the scale. Reading Bass or Treble clef (or, once I took up bassoon, Alto and Tenor clef) was simply a matter of sliding the starting spot up and down, as well. Switching between bassoon, saxophone, clarinet and flute was all about transposing or rotating finger positions.
I think the one that weirded them out the most was trombone. “First position is just like all valves open because the air path is shortest.” (Though French horn was actually the hardest—I had to visuallize it as air paths, but my fingers kept wanting to treat it as one of the other valved instruments.)
None of which made me a musical genius—it was just me looking at music as a series of math problems. (Of course, there were the other math majors in college who thought my love of Differential Equations was the equivalent of performing black magic).
Seeing those transpositions and substitutions as being the same whether we’re talking about notes, numbers, labels, or commands is why I can quickly (I mean really quickly) learn new scripting or programming languages, et cetera.
Which all sounds really impressive and cool and such. But that same brain is incredibly proficient at losing my keys, or the pile of papers I just had in my hand, or what do you mean my glasses are right there? I looked five times already and they’re not… Oh, well, what do you know?
It seems as if I’m always playing catch up.
There is never enough time in the day to do everything I’d like. Never enough time to see, talk to, email, or otherwise check-in on everyone I care about. The pile of books I have been meaning to read never seems to get smaller, no matter how many I read.
Everyone feels that way some of the time. Those of us with a wide variety of interests may feel it more often than others. Or maybe we just think we do.
I was reminded of this while sorting out some things regarding the collaborative sci fi project for which I’ve been editor for a number of years. I and one of the authors were figuring out where, on the project timeline, a particular tale could take place, and which characters would be available to use in the story. And I mentioned a character, and the author said, “Oh, was that the guy whose story never got finished?”
The character had been created by Gerald P., an extremely enthusiastic and always busy member of a lot of projects. He had submitted a couple of rough drafts to our project, along with this character and a number of proposed further stories with the character. He completed two stories, only one of which included this character (and in a small, supporting role, to boot!) which we published several years ago.
Subsequently, whenever I talked with Gerald, whether it was at a convention or online, he would talk about the other stories. He would occasionally send me revised individual scenes from the stories. I would send back comments.
Soon, whenever I would see him in person, he would get a slightly guilty look on his face, and would open every conversation with an apology for not finishing a second draft of the stories. We’d talk about what was holding him up on this scene or that, but soon we would be talking about other things. Often other stories others had written and how much he enjoyed them. Or stories he had finished in other projects. It was impossible not to enjoy these conversions, because Gerald’s joy and enthusiasm for everything he did was just that infectious.
Unfortunately, a few years ago, Gerald unexpectedly died. He’d been fighting cancer for a while, but it was undiagnosed diabetes that brought his untimely death.
He never finished those stories. If there is an afterlife and I am lucky enough to see Gerald again, I am certain he’ll give me that familiar guilty look, apologize for not getting a new draft in, and start talking about the intricacies of the plot that have been troubling him. And I’m just as certain that our conversation would quickly drift onto other topics.
Because all of us are always playing that crazy game of catch up.
Otherwise known as life.
A long-stuck story came unstuck last week, and I was able to read a complete draft to my writers’ group on Saturday. One of my friends present asked how I got the story unstuck. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how incomplete an answer I gave.
I’m not sure how much a complete answer will help, but here goes:
Had a busy weekend, which included going with some friends to hear another friend perform.
I mentioned just the other night how many wonderful, talented people I’m privileged to know. Having a friend who’s won the Washington Blues Society’s Best of the Blues Electric Guitar Award twice in a row is just one of those examples. Hearing C.D., Chris, Don, and the two Mikes play a selection of blues and blues-adjacent music for a couple of hours would brighten anyone’s week. And I’m looking forward to the new album they’re looking to release around the end of the year.
I didn’t get a lot of writing done over the weekend, but I worked a lot on writing-adjacent things. My biggest accomplishment was dropping off a new issue of the Tai-Pan at the printer Friday. My second biggest was working on the issue after that (a good chunk is now in copy edit), organizing a bunch of in-progress stories, and otherwise participating in a work party with a few other editorial board members on Saturday. Just a few hours before we ran out to be band groupies together.
And then there was the journey to the year 1876 where we moved a little closer to the nuptials of “Atlas” O’Flaherty and Miss Prudence Earwig.
The weekend wasn’t all great news. After helping a couple friends earlier in the week diagnose significant computer problems, my husband found his main computer dead when he got home Friday night. Turned out to “only” being the failure of his primary boot drive, but it still took him most of the weekend to get his system restored, pulled data out of backups and off the failed drive, and so on.
So he didn’t come with us to the work party, nor dinner and music after.
And then late at night, we got rain, ending our dry streak that was only a few days from an all time record. We didn’t get a lot of rain. And the long range forecast has no rain coming up, but this bit was quite welcome. I love the way the world smells after a rain. The sunlight looks cleaner, somehow. And I love the rain.
I was sitting in my usual seat at practice for the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus. I was tenor section leader at the time, and we had just finished singing a song that I particularly loved. The conductor then said the name of another song, “What’ll I Do?” an Irving Berlin classic from back in the 1920s. I should have known what would happen.
We started singing. I always had a freaky good memory for music, so I always had songs memorized very early in the typical practice cycle, and would start memorizing the other harmony parts to keep my focus. Besides, my favorite choral professor in college had insisted that was the only way to learn.
So I was one of the few people in the chorus who was off book. Good thing, too. The first half of the first refrain is when it started:
What’ll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do?
The song is about a lost love. And most of the lyrics refer to the loved one being with someone else, now. So it’s a break up song. I had not broken up recently.
But my first husband had died only weeks before.
And I started crying.
I kept singing. A part of me got very stubborn. I knew the music. This was rehearsal for an upcoming concert, one that was going to be dedicated to Ray, in fact (since he had been involved as a volunteer for years, specifically the music librarian the last year and a half before his death).
I wasn’t sobbing. I mostly managed to keep control of my breathing. But the tears were flowing and I couldn’t make them stop. I didn’t want to disrupt the rehearsal by standing up and walking out.
We reached the end of the song. And it was break time, anyway. The conductor told us to be back in 10. I tried to get away. But Adrienne grabbed me.
She had been a super volunteer with the chorus for years, as well. She and Ray had often working together at the back of the room on various things for the chorus while we sang.
She grabbed me. She kissed me, and then she let me finish fleeing the room.
I found out later that most of the folks sitting around me had not realized I was crying while we sang the song. As Mary 1 (we had two Marys singing tenor) told me, “I didn’t know until I saw Adrienne grab you, and saw the tears welling up in her eyes.”
I was standing around outside, cursing myself for having quit smoking just a year or so before—and seriously thinking of walking over to the group of smokers to bum a cigarette. But also knowing how angry Ray would be at me for starting up again on his account. He had never managed to quit, see. Even when his illness and the chemo started destroying lung tissue, he just couldn’t. He had been unbelievably proud of me for quitting. Knowing how disappointed he would be had been the only thing that kept me on the wagon for months after he died.
I pulled myself back together, walked back inside, and finished the second half of the rehearsal.
It’s a little early in the year for me to start getting melancholy about Ray. But only a little. His birthday was two days after mine. So as my birthday gets close, I keep thinking about him. I start being moody. And it doesn’t let up until November, when the anniversary of his death comes around.
I think about him at other times of the year, of course. I don’t always get weepy. Sometimes I smile, or even laugh. I remember it was a bit more than a year after he died when I realized that I would smile when remembering him about as often as I was sad.
But the September through November period is fraught. Ray was a little crazy about anniversaries. He would give me anniversary cards for things like our first date, the first time he made me breakfast, the first time I made him breakfast, the first time I bought him flowers, et cetera, et cetera. I could never remember all of those anniversaries. I knew our first date had been early in September, and when we had our commitment ceremony a few years later, it was on National Coming Out Day, in October, but all those other things blended together, for me.
Even though I don’t remember the exact date of those anniversaries, this time of year reminds me a lot of those firsts. And as we near November, it reminds me of a lot of our lasts (which at the time we didn’t know they were, of course).
It’s been fifteen years, but being awakened by any sound too close to that of a bookcase falling over still sends my heart into panicked super overdrive.
But crying is good. It reminds us that we were loved. That the loss hurts so much should also remind us that we had something precious enough to deserve being cried over. And it should remind us not to take what we have now for granted.
I have a lot of wonderful, talented, loving people in my life. I don’t deserve to have all this wonderfulness in my life. Thank you for letting me be a part of yours.
I wrote before about one form of semi-autobiographic writing that can drive a reader nuts. There’s another kind that some audiences just eat up, which drives a lot of writers nuts.
It’s the fictional, semi-autobiographical best seller. This seems to occur in movies and television far more often in books—or maybe I’m just lucky and don’t read those kinds of books. It’s the tale of an author who wrote a semi-autobiographical novel or series of novels that became bestsellers, and she/he either a) has to eventually deal with the fallout of friends and relatives who felt betrayed or somehow stolen from, or b) it’s a big secret that it’s semi-autobiographical, because there is some tragedy or a long-hidden crime or something.