Pretend This Is Normal

Emily Dickinson

Was she missing something?

A study was done not long ago in Russia looking at the effect of a particular genetic variation on heart disease. Although the article was published in Russian, the abstract was available in English, a practice that allows more people to see what the research was about. I found the abstract on a medical database, and the text contained a phrase that struck me as quite an interesting understatement. It said that the genetic variation was “unfavorable for successful aging”.

Sometimes I use that database to check things as part of my job, but in fact this job is almost over, as I have almost no work to do now. With the little bit of proofreading I’ve been given lately, I’ve spent most of the week reading about DNA, gene therapy, etc., just for interest. I’ve learned a lot for an amateur, but I’m not doing much real work. I’ve been honest enough to tell my boss that I’m not very busy, that I run out of work, but not honest enough to volunteer to go home and stop being paid. So I recognize that getting paid for doing nothing (except learning about DNA promoters) is not entirely ethical, but I figure it’s better than wearing a ski mask and robbing a liquor store. Which is, of course, what I would do if I came home.

Looks like I’m about to have another transition, back to looking for a job, but never mind. Let’s talk about literature. I went last night to a literary event down in the city, at a “bookstore” (actually mostly a restaurant) called Busboys and Poets, a reference to the poet Langston Hughes.

I miscalculated how long it would take to get there. What I discovered on the highways and boulevards and streets and alleys of Washington, DC, was a massive automotive clusterfuck of such epic proportions that the ancient poet Homer would have needed to use Greek, Latin, and mathematical symbols to describe it, as every car within 100 miles was packed bumper to bumper in Washington. Or that’s how it seemed to me anyway. Was that normal? I was pretty late.

In compensation, God gave me a parking space the moment I looked for one. The restaurant was packed and people were waiting for seats, but I walked on through looking for the people I was supposed to meet on the sidewalk more than an hour before. Busboys and Poets turned out to have a large room at the back, with a stage, booths, tables, and waitress service. A woman was on the stage reading a poem about missing a man’s penis. I’m not making that up.

I found my people (members of my Thursday writing group), who mysteriously had an empty chair right beside their table, so I sat down as if all were normal. As a general rule of life, I’ve found that it can be helpful to pretend that things are normal. The genital-longing poem was eventually followed by another that I liked quite a bit, in which a woman spoke as a mad scientist in love. I thought it was strikingly clever in some bits, such as the declaration that she would create a biological plague to kill people off so as to have some time alone with her beloved.

Maybe that doesn’t work for you, but I liked it, and afterward I went to the poet and told her so. The reading we were at was not an open mic at which anyone could get up and abuse people with their poetry. This event was arranged by some kind of writing collective, which publishes people digitally, perhaps with the idea that it is a step toward paper publication, or perhaps they are satisfied with electrons. It’s an idea that comes up more and more, publishing only in digital format, but I’m old fashioned and I want to be published in a form that a dog could chew up.

Once the formal readings were over, we were encouraged to mingle with the other writers in the room, not actually a very practical proposition, as everyone was seated and almost no one moved. I took it seriously, however, and went over to sit down at a booth with two young women, to interrupt their conversation and engage them in writer talk. One of them works for NPR (headquartered here in DC) and the other, I am sad to report, is in graduate school. I wish her a speedy recovery.

Next Thursday our own writing group will be back to pretending that everything is normal, meeting once again at the table in the back of Bread and Chocolate. I’ve decided next week instead of reading another chapter from Benedict and Miramar, to read what I’ve written describing the characters for the new novel, and see what people think off that. Time to move forward, which is my favorite direction.

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