A S C E N D I N G
Had a thought today. Lost it. Wonder what it could have become, if it were cancer-cure caliber or more modestly made, like the idea of grating smoked gouda over Annie’s Organic Shells and Cheddar, which is something that last week came to me as I was transferring noodles into a colander while considering the really excessive tablespoonage of butter on the box directions, and which I would highly recommend.
Anyway. You see what I mean about thoughts escaping.
Sometimes I think about the fact that I am a human being with a brain, this white-matter-mass of neurons and synapses that are not only at this moment organizing words in this sentence but also words in sentences and paragraphs that will follow, while simultaneously signaling my fingers to move across a keyboard for said sentences’ translation into text. If I think about it too hard, I mostly end up as something like a big city traffic jam personified, hyper-aware of my every movement so as to make even the act of flexing my big toe a downright ordeal. It’s as if this top-performing, exceptionally remarkable body has a serious case of stage fright, freezing up at an audience. Like when, late at night, you become suddenly aware of the breath inside of you, the rise and collapse of your lungs, the escape of air through your nose, then your mouth, the way the curve of your waist shifts against your pajamas. You become suddenly aware of the breath inside of you, and suddenly you can’t breathe at all. Try it. Try breathing now that you know you’re breathing.
I saw a brain once, and probably multiple times seeing as I went every year as a child to the Hospital Open House up on the hill, but I remember this one time in particular because of the boy just ahead of me in the Neurology lab. He fainted. One look at that spidered map of axons and action potentials and he was pale-shivering on the floor, but not before he’d cracked his own cranium against the right-angle edge of the steel surgery bed behind him. Back then I only remembering thinking about the blood, which didn’t bother me (the only time I’ve ever fainted would happen a few years after this, on cue, while playing Hero in a Junior High production of Much Ado About Nothing), and also that if one absolutely had to collapse like that there’s no better place than a hospital to do it in. My dad the doctor had snapped into emergency mode even before the boy hit the floor, and within the minute had him revived and blinking, on his way to several stitches and a complimentary lollipop. I guess it could have been pretty traumatic but to be honest I hadn’t thought of the incident until typing that above paragraph only ten minutes ago and now looking back on it I think who wouldn’t faint at a sight like that? Your every thought, movement, make and ability reduced to pink-hued noodles on a pan.
They say that at best we only use ten percent of our brain capacity. One guy over at Syracuse University put it into more tangible (yet still impossible) terms by breaking the brain down into gigabytes, terabytes. Studying the storage of data in proteins, he estimated back in 1996 that our brains are capable of a capacity anywhere between one and ten terabytes–with an average of three–assuming that we are counting neurons and that each neuron holds one bit. I myself am not entirely sold on the analogy, probably because that one-to-ten approximation feels vague and unreliable, but it gets you thinking. Three terabytes. I of the iGeneration consider how many songs that must hold, chord progressions for how to wrap your fingers around a pencil, lyrics to reason between wrong and right. More literally, that moment when you turn the key in the ignition and there’s a song on the radio you haven’t heard for the better part of this century and you still sing along. Every single word.
That thought is still missing, MIA, AWOL to be more exact, and this bugs me just as much as it continues to fascinate me. When people say “like lightning,” doesn’t that imply the idea that the thought is branded into your brain, that it not only came quick and crackling but also left an imprint behind, that white-hot scar of the image that appears against your eyelids every time you blink in the minute after the lightning hits? Strikes, they say. Lightning strikes. But a few hours later and the only thing I remember is the immediate effect, the jump of adrenaline in my blood, the illumination of all things, my seeming brilliance in the flash of epiphany. In that moment you don’t only recognize the power and possibility behind the thought alone, but the power and possibility of your very own self. You are the genius your mother always said you were, you are going to make a difference, you are going to change the world, you are worth something after all. Epiphany, as the word’s Greek blood suggests, is a visit from the gods. One glorious golden apparition like that and you don’t need Hermes’ ankle-wings to get you high.
More often than not, however, my brain harbors the reverse. Not those rare moments of colossal clarity or the impact of insight, but what Robert Atwan wrote as “those sudden flashes of anxious confusion and bewilderment . . . a dizzying sense of unease . . . a terrifying rush of unknown possibilities.” I feel something so common and familiar should have its own type of term, this idea of reverse epiphany, the dull dread that rolls over you like thunder: you have always forever known you are nothing but plain normal.
Mediocrity, apart from just being a beautiful chord of syllable and sound sung on the tongue, is a terrible word and one that haunts me. Mediocrity is only ordinary or of moderate quality, it is neither good nor bad but barely adequate. It is undistinguished, commonplace, run-of-the-mill, when all we really want is the antonym, to be extraordinary, incomparable. In Latin the word is mediocris, meaning in a middle state, or literally of a middling height, though some suggest the translation as being halfway up a mountain. On good days I can see the summit and feel confident in not only accomplishing it, but making the ascent solo, no supplemental oxygen to speak of. But mostly I look back at the first half of that mountain and consider how quickly I might slide back across the ice and snow, how easy it would be to fall and not get up. Maybe I should have stayed at base camp, you know? I was useful at base camp. I can set up a tent and ration water and hey, I make a mean grilled cheese.