Sam Gimbel

Tech, Beer, and Strange Thoughts.

Two feet on the ground

a partial fiction

Ever since I was little I have been living somewhere between dreams and waking life. I was never diagnosed with any condition, and I don't think I should be. My breaks from reality seem to stem from a stubborn belief that my own future and those of my loved ones can be better than our respective pasts. I don't know if that qualifies as an illness. I don't know if I want to know. But I am made painfully aware of this phenomenon each and every time it happens.

It's scary at times. Every now and then I speak to a close friend and realize my recollection and theirs are not aligned. Not in the sense of what color shirt I was wearing or who was dating whom in high school, but on the level of themes, of intent, and of defining moments within a cherished memory. I'm always shocked by which memories are which, to be honest. Sometimes it's obvious that a thought does not fit, and other times it is only through painful discovery that my reality is not yours.

I first remember being aware of this around the time I turned 13. I was obsessed with lucid dreaming and keen on developing my skills so I could fly and create what turned out to be very awkward sexual encounters with the pretty girls from school. I was good at it. Sometimes in my dreams I would look into mirrors and see faces that weren't mine, and upon waking I would catch glimpses of my dream in the shadows of the bathroom mirror, waiting to be unlocked in the daylight.

These early experiences with the line between dreaming and the waking world were deeply affected by my childhood. On one hand I was voraciously reading all the fantasy and sci-fi I could get my hands on. Dreaming was a big part of these adventures, and was typically used by their authors as a window into the true self of the dreamer or the nature of his or her quest. On the other hand, my family had been shattered by the murder of my Aunt Ilene by my uncle her ex husband and the arrival of Luke, my cousin, who my Mother agreed to take in when no one else could or would. I needed frequent escapes from that moment at age nine when I saw my mom crumple to the floor in numb shock after receiving The Call through those moments when Luke in his misplaced rage would force me into my room in order to tune out his hateful screams and on through high school when my parents threw in the towel and got a divorce after twenty-odd years of loving us and maybe half that of loving each other.

And so I hid. I hid in books and video games and music. I never got into trouble or got less than a C on a report card. Instead, I built worlds and I explored them and I asked myself "where are you now?" and my other selves would answer "Somewhere quiet. Somewhere better." My curiosity of the world beyond the visible grew and I went on to study philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and religion in college. I found ways to cope. This isn't a story about my pain.

Somewhere in that hiding I realized the power of deception. Of deceiving oneself by focusing so hard on one facet of the diamond that the rest of the world disappears. Eventually—inevitably— something else would creep in and start construction on new ideas. I would be reading a book and the characters would leap off the page and into new adventures when my eyes were closed, but also when my eyes were open. There was magic in the world, dragons from ages past, and everyone was implicated in their prophecies. My ability to imagine grew exponentially and my real life friends were those who enjoyed playing pretend with Dungeons & Dragons, laser tag, and fort building in the woods. It made me happy to be able to escape and find new places to sit on rocks and think about what I might like for dinner. My life meant something when all that stood between myself and the world burnt to cinders was my own restraint in casting that very powerful fireball spell. And so I never thought twice about "letting my imagination run wild," as my imagination-Mother put it. She was like my real Mother, but she wasn't sad.

And that's the thing. No one ever told me "you're not really a wizard," or to stop playing pretend, because that's what kids do. But my imagination wasn't "regular" in that sense, and without any critique it began an insidious infiltration of my day-to-day life. Mostly it's minor incidents, like thinking I've not watched an episode of television because I remember it ending differently. Or, in the case of romance, I allow myself to become entwined in post-relationship intrigue and succumb to notions that my unrequited love is being returned when it isn't. That's even alright, except for the times when I act on it and have it thrown in my face that no, we never agreed to get back together and no, saying "i love you" when we break up does not indicate that you're secretly with him and not me because no one can know about us for very important and valid reasons. But then there are the times when I swear he deserved it because everyone knows you walk on the LEFT down the subway stairs (I had just decided on this a minute ago) and so it was OK to shove a little. Or the time when you wrote those incredibly hurtful messages because XKCD set such an important precedent on the matter.

So it would be a mistake to say I haven't been hurt or hurt others by this little foible of mine. I also still enjoy video games, getting lost in fantasy worlds, and reading until my eyes hurt. And I've found ways to leverage this iffy grip on reality into new ideas, new companies, and some pretty great friendships. So, it's not all bad. But what is it in the first place, and is it possible to keep myself and the others around me safe? Is this actually what being crazy is? Are we all a little bit crazy?

I'm more concerned with the effects of this behavior, though. Am I actually creating a better world for myself by denying the world we live in? It does not seem to follow logically that by ignoring one reality we may create another. Can any reality exist in a vacuum without being informed by a previous reality, and honestly, isn't ignoring something simply another way of addressing its presence in your life? That doesn't imply that the world we live in is good, does it?

I do not know what to believe, but I do know that whatever belief comes home to roost must pay rent. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that so many thoughts take up residence in my head without my say-so, but I'm unwilling to take action given how similar it feels to the way creative people create masterpieces: by being a little bit off and a little bit in their own world. Or is that one of my false memories? Equally as confounding, do other people experience this? The brutal isolation of individuality makes it almost impossible to know. It's a situation my brain wants to solve coldly and rationally, but the nature of the problem does not lend itself to objective study at all. When I come up for air I'm fatigued and full of ennui for a world that does not have to ask permission.

Of course, that leaves out my own agency entirely. In this scenario it sounds as if I'm a bystander and a puppet to this mysterious force. That's not the case. Sometimes I'm aware—painfully so—that the words coming out of my mouth make no sense. Instead of cutting off the stream, I consciously allow the flow to continue to see where it takes me. My curiosity always trumps my social tact (which may or may not exist at all). And even if I do cut myself off or alter my own behavior I am left haltingly devoid of accurate alternatives. I simply freeze.

Have you ever been frozen? Not "I can't dance, so I'll stand here," frozen. But frozen for words, actions, thoughts? Petrified that the next words or movements you make won't be yours? You know if you have.