15 May 2008

Sing me Spanish techno

Travelling at godspeed
Over the hills and trails
I have refused my call
Pushing my lazy sails
Into the blue flame
I want to crash here right now

When is it too much?

I guess I need to stop dancing around the subject; I see the threads you pick up, the threads you follow, putting the pieces together. What is it I am trying to tell you? I find it oddly touching, and a little funny because the only person who thinks it's a secret is me. Don't think I underestimate you.

("Mom," asked the son once, "who is the 'you' you're talking to?"
"The world," I told him. "The people who read it. Myself."
"When I see that 'you,'" the spouse said another time, "I feel like you've turned to look right at me."
"Perhaps I have," I told him.)

I try to tell myself that the labels others use are just that: descriptors. Like I have brown hair or green eyes or XX chromosomes, or I'm tall.

But people don't freak out when you say, "I'm the tall brunette."

People freak out if you say, "I'm profoundly gifted."

I don't know why those particular words are fighting words. I don't like to fight so I don't say them. To me, they are largely meaningless, just a measure of what people see going on in my head, no different from the numbers and other words that have been pinned to me. The world gives them weight; I don't, at least not until the weight is dropped on me.

I don't have to prove that I'm the tall brunette. If you've got eyes in your head, you can pretty much see it.

The thing is that, apparently, the moment I start talking the other becomes obvious. I don't see it, of course, because I'm just being myself, wandering off on whatever amusing tangent I've discovered, gleefully pursuing a hunch, an interesting string of words, an idea. I only have the word of those who know and love me that this is what happens.

But for some reason, everyone wants me to prove those two words.

Two words: "shelf bra," the funniest two words ever put next to one another; "potato salad," something lovely I just had for lunch; "profoundly gifted," something to prove.

Back at the office--which is the sort of operation where everyone has a Ph.D. from Berkeley or Stanford or MIT or Caltech--I was getting myself a cup of coffee in the break room when a woman I didn't know walked in. She'd been on leave for the several months I'd been working in the group. She introduced herself, and I introduced myself, and then she said,

"MD told me that you are the smartest person he's ever met."

Which skews in more or less the same direction as that guy back in Kansas City who said, "I saw you walk into the premium parking lot."

What am I supposed to say to that?

"Why, yes, I have a freakishly high IQ, and I've scored off the charts on every test I've ever taken, and I can pretty much do everything except play the banjo, and I've won this award and that award and the other award, and colleges chased me the way greyhounds chase a rabbit, and would you like to know what I've turned down because in some ways that's the more interesting story..."

Sure, I say that all the time.

What I really said? "Oh...? Would you like some coffee?"

She was clearly deflated but I don't know what she expected me to do. Make up and solve quadratic equations on the spot? Write the report I was working on in iambic pentameter? Recite a passage from The Odyssey in Greek? To be fair to her (since I found her to be a congenial person and pleasant to work with), she intended no harm with the comment, and perhaps meant it as a compliment.

What most people don't recognize is that I see myself as nothing particularly special. Yes, I am unusually tall, but that's genetic, and I also have unusually loose joints, which is bad but also genetic. Apparently what lives in my head is genetic, and you know what? I can tell you unabashedly that I love it, just the same way I love being tall. I love the way I think, I love the way I discover things, I love to know things. I love knowledge for knowledge's sake, and I love the way a little fact lights up a huge grid for me. I work hard at knowing things, and it pleases me. That's the gift.

It doesn't make me special, but it sure as hell makes me happy.

"Only connect," said E.M. Forster, and that's what I spend my day doing. Connecting the dots, often in unusual ways. Connecting with people. It is such a blast; it is my joy.

Until you run into that roadblock.

Humans seem to be programmed to hate and fear what they don't understand. Humans do things to those who are different that are inexplicable and cruel, and seem to be outside of what they might normally do. It's very hard to tell the mother of another little boy that this will always be the battle. That's the curse.

I've met very few people who are like me in this specific way, simply because there aren't that many of us. But we recognize each other very quickly when we meet. Most of them have been men, and most of them are damaged, angry, hurt people. People told them "prove it," and by God, they'll die trying, getting that fourth Ph.D., or talking, talking, talking until someone fires them again.

Or like my father, will submit to self-defeat and set a course for self-destruction.

I haven't gotten through unscathed. As a child, you can only be called a freak so many times before you start to believe it, believe that you are bad because your existence makes everyone so angry, especially when you're a girl who is building the seven wonders of the engineering world in the backyard. And reading every book in the library. And asking a million questions. And filling in the name of every European country and the capital of each like you're supposed to, but adding the GNP and major exports because you learned that, too. Because it was there. Because it was interesting.

And blowing up the science lab. Twice. Because it was fun.

Because I need to know EVERYTHING. Including how the high flame on the Bunsen burner has to be to heat the acetone sufficiently to blow spinach onto the acoustic tile ceiling.

Experiments are good. That's science.

I figured out that talking was what angered everyone. No one understood what I was saying, no one could see the tapestry of information in my head, no one recognized the connections I was making, and so they didn't want to hear about it. I stopped talking. Then everyone complained I was too quiet, but that was easier to live with. Then everyone told me I was shy, which made me laugh because I am naturally gregarious, and keeping my mouth shut can be a bit of a chore. And sometimes I AM shy. Because the first time you see me, I don't want you to see what I am. Because if you do, then I never get a chance to be just a person.

I'm a brain. A walking encyclopedia. A genius. A freak. A threat. A polymath. Whatever label you like best.

It is what I am.

But it is not me.

The son inhabits the same land. At least he knows he is safe with us, knows he can break down and get understanding, new meaning, a way to keep moving, even when he wants to reenact the Trojan War with a weapon made of broccoli, even when I don't want to talk about Star Trek again. He knows he is different and that his difference is nothing to fear, that it is simply part of who he is, just like his love of Legos. Most importantly, he knows he's not the only one out there because this place can be very lonely. He knows that I care more about the effort than the outcome, that he'll learn more from the process, that failure is a possibility, that "no" is a valid answer. I was lucky to learn most of those things on my own. It just took longer.

And I'm still learning because failure has never been an option for me, because I still hear the voice that says "prove it." For me, this is the most difficult part: the world confers that meaningless term on me, something I've never believed in, and then asks me to prove it. There is no logic in that and it creates considerable confusion. Honestly, I'd rather study Icelandic (because who doesn't need yet another language?) or reread Galsworthy or finally learn to play piano.

Those who know me best understand what it is costing me to write this, what it is costing me to even consider posting it. But those who have seen the drafts say it has value, it has meaning, that it should be read. I long ago granted myself invisibility, but in the last several years, even more in the last year, I have seen that my superpower is fading, that the world is looking back at me. Sometimes, it's even smiling.

From my own childhood and experience, I reclaimed some ground, and the son is reclaiming even more. We are sharing this knowledge with another family who is navigating the same rough waters. I understand that it is in part my responsibility to do this. The spouse is constantly telling me that I leave a tremendous wake behind me, and I believe that if I'm going to rock all those little boats, it had better be for a good reason.

One person at a time.

For some time, I've been considering what comes next in my life and I am ready for a fresh challenge, something new and exciting. It may not be something huge, just different. And I've seen that there is work leading up to change, foundations to be laid, part of which is simply what I've written here, probably the truest and most difficult thing I've ever written.

I am here. It's only me.

Go listen to some good music: "Sing Me Spanish Techno" from the album Twin Cinema by The New P***nographers.


Bill Chapman said...

Can I suggest the challengre of learning and using Esperanto?

There's a good guide to the language at www.esperanto.net

guerrilla girl said...

Of course you may suggest Esperanto. And I have played around with it a bit; there is certainly appeal in the idea of a universal, "neutral" language.

One of the things I enjoy about studying native languages is the insight each provides about the speakers, the landscape, the cultural identity, the history. And frankly, we travel a great deal, so there's a practical aspect to messing around with various languages. Secretly, though, I do like to know more than how to ask, "Where is the Ladies?"

Thanks for taking the time to write.