Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Things I know before I know I know them

Sometimes my body is way ahead of my brain.

Take one small example: One afternoon, I had on NPR's music station, which had that day broken format, replacing classical music with selections from classic musicals.

Immersed in what I was doing, I didn't pay much attention to the radio. At least not until I felt seized with anxiety, and abruptly started to sweat. My brain noted this unpleasant sensation, along with the heart accelerating in my chest. But I had no explanation for it. Was I sick? What was happening to me?

Then I registered it. The radio. The station was playing the long overture from Carousel, a musical I'd not thought about since my high school had mounted a production twelve years earlier. The overture was nearing the moment when, in that production, I would have been readying myself in the wings, preparing to glide on stage on the unicycle I'd only recently taught myself to ride. In rehearsals, I'd had a generous amount of stage space to pedal around in. But, just before opening night, the stage crew had installed a giant carousel and barkers' booths that took up most of the stage. This pushed the crowd of actors forward... and left precious little room for a nervous unicyclist. As the musical cue for my entry approached, I clutched velvet curtains in one hand and my juggling pins in the other. Balanced on my bike seat, I stared a line of safety across the stage and willed. that. crowd. to. part.

Hence the heart palpitations. Triggered all those years later by a few bars of music.

(That story has a happy ending, at least. I never hit anyone. I navigated my little strip of stage and never fell off that bike.)

Yesterday put me in a bad mood. And so I thought I was overreacting when I spied the long screwdriver that a mechanic had left behind in our car. True, the mechanic had kept our car a day longer than planned, but that didn't justify the nausea and fury I felt at the sight of his forgotten tool. Shaken, I slammed the car door and fumbled for my housekeys. Don't be such a baby, I chided myself. So you've had a disappointing day. That's no reason to get so worked up over nothing.

And then I remembered why that screwdriver might be upsetting. I remembered broken glass and blood-soaked seats. It was the early 80s and my father and I had just emerged from a Phillies game. The Phillies had won and it was a delicious, bathwater-warm summer's night. I ran ahead of my father through the darkness of the parking lot and, in little kid fashion, playfully threw myself against our car's side door. That's when I noticed the window was missing. Standing on tiptoe, I peered over the door ledge and saw the bloody screwdriver. And the dark stains all over the car's tan front seats.

I can't report accurately on what happened next, save to say that my father must have done a boffo job of staying calm. He explained that the radio had been stolen and that someone must have cut himself on the screwdriver used to pry the radio out. He urged me to curl up on the back seat and drove us swiftly home. I vaguely recall the extra wind that blew through the car's broken window and (as I began to doze) my father's cheerful observations about how I could learn to play third base like Mike Schmidt.

And I remember one last thing. The annoying neighbor who came over to dinner a few days later. Who cracked a racist joke (sickle-cell anemia) that took me years to understand. And who said something else that struck fear in my second-grader's heart: "Will you be tested? What if you and your daughter caught AIDS?"

I don't remember what my father said to that. But it was many years before we went to a Phillies game again.


At 7:16 PM, Blogger Terminaldegree said...

I am constantly amazed by the memories that music will trigger. I'll have the radio on in the background, and suddenly a childhood memory will pop up, triggered by the piece I was learning on at the time. Or I'll look at pictures of a vacation, and then find myself humming an aria from an opera I saw on the trip. The brain has an amazing way of storing information.

Your screwdriver story is scary!

At 1:41 PM, Blogger YelloCello said...

How I envy your specially cultivated memory for music, Terminal Degree. That sounds wonderful... especially the fact that certain vacation photographs can trigger memories of musical performances.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Benedict said...

Hmm, maybe that's our problem, yellocello. Somehow we've arranged things so only the ear poison memories get through.


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