By Cornelia Read
I have a condition I like to think of as "sticky brain." I never know where my car keys are, unless they are physically attached to me, but I remember small bits of trivia I read eons ago.
I was reminded of this in the Dallas Fort Worth airport this past Friday, when I bought a copy of Vanity Fair (as The New Yorker is apparently banned throughout DFW) with which to pass the time on my way back to San Francisco following the extra-fabulous Texas Library Association Conference.
There was a profile of Doris Day in my magazine, which was pretty much the only thing I wanted to read since it was The "Green" Issue, and who really gives a crap what Madonna thinks about global warming?
Here is something I already knew about Doris Day: once a week, she slathers herself from head to toe in Vaseline and then puts on footie pajamas and sleeps in it. I think I read that in the National Enquirer when I was about twelve.
The Vanity Fair article said (paraphrasing here, as I left the magazine on the plane), "once a week, Doris Day rubs herself down with Vaseline before she goes to sleep.
This makes her maid unhappy as she also sleeps with several dogs in the bed, and it's a big hairy mess in the morning."
And I thought to myself, "oh great, now I'm going to have that image stuck in my head for the rest of my life."
Here's another thing I remember from eons ago--a beauty tip from Brooke Shields, who claimed that after she brushed her teeth, she went on to brush her lips, to make them soft. That one was probably from Seventeen, back in the day. Oddly enough, it's a factoid I've found about 80% of women in my age cohort also remember.
I remember odd little lines and giblets from books I've read, too--for some reason especially well from those old Scholastic paperbacks they used to stock my elementary-school shelves with.
Here's one that always comes to mind whenever I'm faced with riding in a crowded car: an explanation given about how many people fit into a certain wagon when the crowd wants to ride into town together, from a book about an East Coast girl who spends her summer on an old West fort: "Six if you're particular, but eight if you're sociable."
This is why I love my friend Ariel: I told her about that phrase one day, and said, "I don't remember the name of the book, but it had a yellow cover with a really ugly Fifties illustration."
And Ariel looked at me and replied, "Blue Ribbons for Meg."
So at least I have the comfort of knowing I am not the only person in the world to suffer from the Scholastic variant of Sticky Brain.
But I don't just remember thing's I've read, I remember things OTHER people have read. Like the paragraph about how Shackleton's crew spent so much time playing cards in their tents in the Antarctic after the Endurance was trapped in the ice that they couldn't read the faces, anymore, and were finally forced to clean them off with blubber so they could continue their games.
I heard a boyfriend of my mother's read that bit out loud from a book one evening in Aspen, in 1972. I didn't remember it was Shackleton, I only remembered the cards and the blubber, until I randomly read the same book myself about five years ago.
It was during that Aspen trip that I also heard the guy read a paragraph from a novel in which some dude was racing across the snowy outback of Russia in a sleigh, but the wolves were gaining on him so he threw his chick-of-the-moment over the side. To my astonishment, I ran across that exact passage about twenty years later in a Flashman novel.
The strangest occurence of this was the morning I first took the SATs, when I realized the passage we'd been set for the reading comprehension portion of the test was a page a stepfather of mine (mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my vaccine post) had read aloud at the breakfast table about five years earlier from a book about the health benefits of wheat bran.
It was about Victorian-era British orphans who were healthier than their wealthier parented counterparts because they weren't fed white bread, which was more expensive than the whole-wheat version at the time.
My Aunt Julie once asked me, "Cornelia, how do you remember all this shit?" and I told her I figured the part of my brain that was supposed to be devoted to remembering where my car keys are had instead been programmed as an extra trivia receptacle.
In school, this condition (the car-keys part) extended to pens and binder paper and textbooks, in that I never remembered where they were, either. Like I had some sort of negative electrical charge which made essential academic supplies jump away from my body at random intervals, a dozen or so times an hour.
After everyone I knew got sick of lending me pencils and paper and what-have-you in class, I fell back on a tried-and-true method of studying: just remember what the teacher said, because I was never, ever going to have the implements necessary for writing it down, and besides which I'd then lose the piece of paper.
It actually worked okay, though Judith Goldiner once got really pissed at me in chemistry class when everyone else was getting their binders out, and I just sat there, which prompted her to say "yeah, you and your photogenic memory."
Q. What did the signers of the Declaration
of Independence all have in common?
A. They remembered to bring pens.
Apparently, several years after I'd moved on to college, there was another girl in Mrs. Laupheimer's AP American history class one day who had forgotten her pen and paper.
Mrs. Laupheimer looked at her, it was later reported to me, and said, "There was only one kid who could do that, and her name is Nicky Read, and she's already graduated. Borrow something."
And I have another weird thing that happens in my head--well, okay, several, but let's just say this one is the second-most striking weird thing to me.
It happens when my "front" brain is engaged in some mundane task--say, driving a route I'm familiar with. I get these weird chunks of language that just emerge from the fog. Verbal images, lines of dialogue, little jokes, &c.
I remember one, specifically, that I ended up using in A Field of Darkness... I was driving back home from dropping my daughter off at school and was just passing the Claremont Hotel on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, in my husband's old Benz wagon with the broken radio.
I'd been thinking vaguely about heredity and weirdness amongst my ancestral strain, and suddenly got this word-image plopped into my head from God knows where, which summed up the practice of moneyed WASPs inter-breeding with Eurotrash in the Hamptons as being likely to produce "Dobermans with the Hapsburg lip."
Which is exactly the sort of darkly twisted semantical fillip that most appeals to me.
What's started happening lately, however, is that I get entire paragraphs, usually things that are the start of a short story. The strangest thing about this is that I'm not trying to work on any short stories, I'm trying to work on a novel. But these whole little worlds appear in my head in one stroke--with voice and place and premise locked into them--like involuntarily tuning into some crazy radio show in my head.
They just start to spin out and add to themselves, and I do my best to remember a key phrase so that I can write down the bones of them later.
Here is one from Saturday, which emerged as I was waiting for the light to change under the elevated BART rails down on MLK, on my way to Rae's house:
We killed Santa on the nineteenth day.
Trust me, you would’ve done the same. I mean, you’ve got eight reindeer and five elves and one morbidly obese self-important prick of a management type stranded on a desert fucking island two hundred miles off Tierra del Fuego… which one would YOU take out?
If nothing else, we figured we’d get more meals out of his ass than ours. God knows it hadn’t actually fit down a chimney since 1952. Elves haul your crap down the damn things, and elves haul your cookies and milk back up them, too. You’d think he’d give us a taste.
And don’t give me any shit about how reindeer don’t eat meat. Like you’d know. How the hell do you think our guys fly? They’re carnivorous, that’s how they goddamn fly. With a double row of pointy-ass teeth to use for ripping flesh. No meat, no altitude.
Santa’d run us and the boys into the ground that Christmas, literally. Doubling back twice to the Cote D’Ivoire, because he screwed up the list? We barely made landfall that last time over the Atlantic.
You should’ve heard him screaming when we jumped him: “Off Dancer! Off Prancer! Jesus H. CHRIST, that’s my bad leg…”
Yeah, that *was* your bad leg…
Fat fuck had it coming.
Okay now, seriously, how weird is THAT?
I mean, I kind of like it, as short story openings go, but it's still seriously freaky to have some psycho elf dictating the Piers-Paul-Read-Alive mashup with The Night Before Christmas to you as you're driving, you know?
I'm hoping this is just an advanced case of Writerly Neurochemistry, not some brain tumor possessed by the shade of Roald Dahl.
Anybody else get this kind of unprompted brainwave weirdness? If so, please share...
p.s. This week's Snack o' Thought: