Tuesday, June 19, 2012
The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 46
In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, the Trespassers' trial is interrupted by the arrival of Gustav Mahler, announcing that his new symphony has been stolen with dire implications if it should ever be taken back to Earth. Dr. Kerr and his team, along with Detectives Smighley and Ste.-Croix plus BHUIA agent Rondo Sharrif, split up to take on two challenges, now: undoing whatever Klangfarben was up to and keeping Rogers Kent-Clarke and Mahler's Symphony from crossing over through the Time-Gate.
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When Cameron Pierce first looked through his class yearbook during that week before graduation, he had initially been disappointed to discover how little evidence there was he’d played any significant part in his high school’s life. He considered himself a good student who earned good grades, a member of several organizations, popular, involved and generally active with his friends. It wasn’t until later he realized the day they’d taken many yearbook photos was the day he’d been excused for a concert, the only student from his school chosen to play in an honors youth orchestra.
Searching through the activities sections, there he wasn’t – not in the school orchestra, the choir, the chess club, the Future Scientists Association – no proof that he’d ever belonged to anything, even absent from the candid shots. It made him feel, despite everything he remembered, like some under-achiever, a non-person, yet there were his friends, smiling, oblivious to his invisibility.
Something similar had happened to his grandfather after he left his native Iran before the revolution brought the Islamic Republic to power, though it happened for far more sinister reasons than missing a day of school. A week after his retirement party, Grandfather had told him the whole long story, figuring he was old enough now to hear it.
Paging through his yearbook, then, looking for signs he existed beyond his formal studio portrait on page 31, Cameron remembered this family history and the doctored photographs he’d seen where it was clear someone had been erased.
A former colleague now based in Switzerland sent his grandfather three photographs, assuming they’d come from a file at the university in Shiraz, an ancient city that was home to the first modern university in Iran, someone in the Shah’s government calling someone at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to help set up what they called Pahlevi University.
Several faces were “smudged” beyond recognition but still his grandfather could point to one and proudly say “that was me as a graduate student in 1960” or “this is me, in 1975, distinguished professor of chemistry.”
As the story continued, things started going badly. His older son Kamran had become involved in a political group opposed to the Shah’s government and was killed in a demonstration on a spring day in 1976. Then his grandfather showed him another picture, university students with several faces “smudged.” This face, front row, third from left, was once Kamran’s.
Grandfather, remembering the old story of the writing on the wall, contacted Anderson Pierce, his former mentor from the University of Pennsylvania, asking if he knew of any positions at American universities he could apply for. When everything had been secretly arranged, the family was packed up for what was described as a vacation. They never planned on returning.
And that was how they arrived in Brooklyn with only the stuff they could pack in their suitcases that summer of 1977, just a few months before the Shah’s fall and the return of the Ayatollah.
Thinking back on that story, harrowing as it was, Cameron continued paging listlessly through his yearbook, realizing his experience wasn’t as bad: at least they hadn’t purposely gone about “erasing” him, his face smudged beyond recognition. It was all a matter of bad timing, he thought, even as his family’s lives in Iran depended on some very lucky timing.
The children of teachers, his grandparents Mahmoud and Parvana had both been raised in secular households and brought up with Western concepts, both attending university where they met, working as lab partners in a chemistry class. They had no particularly strong religious beliefs, being scientists, and, considering themselves erudite cosmopolitans, dressed in Western style like their friends and colleagues.
No one knew (until it was too late) how all this would be viewed following the establishment of the fundamentalist Islamic state: tainted by the West, Mahmoud Shirazi and his “hypocritical” son Kamran were, essentially, deleted.
His mother was ten years old when they arrived in Brooklyn, staying with another faculty couple whose children recently “left the nest.” With so many new things to get used to, she remembers being quite scared. It was cramped but they were safe while Mahmoud Shirazi worked on his English, preparing to teach freshman science at Benson Community College. Once Parvana found something part-time working in the high school office, they were able to move out on their own later that spring, where they watched the nightly television news from home with horror and dread.
Watching the news today, Cameron often wondered what his life might have been like if his grandparents hadn’t left when they did. Of course, his mother would never have met his father, marrying an Iranian instead. He would’ve been raised a Muslim rather than having no real faith at all. Everything about him, he imagined, would be completely different.
Instead, his mother grew up to earn a business degree and work for an insurance company in Manhattan as a mid-level manager. At a party, she met her future husband, a teller at a mid-town bank. Later they discovered – funny, how things worked out – he was the nephew of that American professor who’d been her father’s mentor in Shiraz.
After he was born in 1992, Cameron grew up in a secular household, unaware he was different from anybody else in his school or that he was named after his uncle, killed in a forgotten Iranian protest.
He also grew up surrounded by intelligent people with what he considered “high-powered” careers bringing with them an income he considered extravagant. His father had moved on to survive the season of lay-offs on Wall Street. His mother, who didn’t, had spent twenty years working for the same company before being cut loose at the first sign of trouble.
It had caught them completely by surprise, years ago, his request to start taking violin lessons when he was in 4th grade. They listened to him evolve into a decent player over years of hard work.
They weren’t sure, trying to approach it as practically as possible, whether his love of music was sufficient enough for a career. Considering everything more realistically, he could always play the violin in his spare time.
What they did in their spare time was “unwind.” Hobbies, such as they considered them, were things they’d chosen to save for retirement.
And here he was, his presence all but erased from high school, still trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Why did this have to be such a difficult decision? It was a topic he often tried deflecting from conversations since it invariably resulted in arguments with his parents or confusion among friends. If he wasn’t comfortable in his own mind, considering what he felt about it rather than just enumerating the pros and cons, how could he defend himself when others, advice aside, inevitably challenged him in conversation?
When he’d started taking his lessons more seriously, his teacher recommending he take private lessons with Zoe Crevecoeur who fortunately lived just around the corner. Weekly lessons with her were rewarding, both musically and personally, supplementing the limitations of a largely indifferent school program. Later, Ms. Crevecoeur asked him occasionally to babysit her son Zachary when she had “gigs.”
His parents had no qualms about this: their main concern was the amount of time he spent practicing, wondering if he wasn’t devoting too much to something that offered such little – as they saw it – return. At least the babysitting brought in some extra money: they didn’t realize he did it in return for an extra lesson or two.
Friends thought it was cool, seeing him play in an orchestra, but really, who wanted to spend their life playing stuff like that?
After coasting through school, he was now off to college, his plans still undecided.
What to do?
When he would go to concerts, he often found himself less interested in watching the violinists than how the orchestra worked together, what the conductor was doing or how the music sounded, overall. He wasn’t quite sure what that meant: would he prefer listening to it rather than working hard to be only part of it?
It was after a long, serious talk with Ms. Crevecoeur that he began thinking maybe it wasn’t so important to become a violinist but he wasn’t sure how else he could be so involved in music.
If he wasn’t going to be strong enough to make it professionally, what about the idea of playing in a community orchestra, still actively involved but using it as his way of unwinding after his day-job?
He’d watch her at concerts and wonder how hard it would be for him, between playing and teaching, just to make ends meet.
There were other interests he could think of though he wasn’t sure how he’d turn any of them into career goals, either. Yes, he enjoyed playing basketball but it was hardly something he loved like music. Maybe he’d started the violin too late but he already knew from his experience he really wasn’t tall enough to take basketball seriously.
Of course, there was always science, his best academic subject along with math but it struck him as so broad a possibility, he couldn’t think of any area he might want to dedicate his life to.
Because he was good at math, his parents automatically assumed he would enjoy going into finance or economics, but working abstractly with numbers bored him, even in class, not that he’d admit that to his parents.
What about chemistry, following his grandfather, or maybe teaching general science like his grandmother? Always a possibility except he hated disappointing them, too.
But nothing could compare to his love for music, nothing interested him that much.
Except one thing which had only recently come to the surface and quite unexpectedly, the result of a chance encounter last summer.
The first time he ran into Dylan was on the subway after Ms. Crevecoeur’s concert (her trio played Brahms C Major that afternoon).
Handsome and tall, a far-off look in his eyes, the same age but home-schooled, Dylan talked effortlessly about music, spouting voluminous facts. There was something different about him Cameron both liked and disliked without knowing why.
It wasn’t that he didn’t know what it was like to be different, an Iranian-American with all the assumptions that usually entailed. Did Dylan look different, act different or sound different? It wasn’t easy to say. He noticed Dylan rarely talked about personal things or, when he did, seemed uncomfortable, sometimes switching into a fantasy world of improbable possibilities.
It wasn’t so much an “otherness” that Cameron found intriguing – Dylan was at times distant, stand-offish; at other times, talkative and mischievous – because in many ways he began to recognize himself in the ways Dylan responded.
One afternoon, Cameron invited him over to listen to CDs, talking for over an hour about different recordings, their pros and cons, Dylan comparing them with extensive comments that sounded like they were quoted from reviews.
His mother, after suggesting it was time for Dylan to go home, said without explanation she didn’t think this new friend was “suitable.”
It’s not that he wasn’t allowed to be his friend: she just didn’t think all that time together was a good idea, so instead they agreed to meet in the park, part of Dylan’s daily routine. On his way home after a lesson, Cameron stopped at Dylan’s and played his violin for him, something which made them both laugh.
Dylan’s mother seemed similarly concerned but for different reasons, cautiously adding something he didn’t understand about not wanting her son to get hurt. She was trying to give him a certain independence but why, she wouldn’t say.
At least he wasn’t labeled “unsuitable” so they were allowed to spend time together, like little kids who needed their parents’ approval. Mostly, they talked about music, about recordings or about the concerts they attended together.
One steamy August day, they sat under a tree on the edge of Riverside Park, watching people amble past, mindful of the heat. Dylan sat there, silent for a long time, Cameron recognizing he was off in some other place but thought nothing of it. It was best just to give him his space, wait for him to return.
It wasn’t unusual for his friend to misinterpret a comment or be unnecessarily rude as if he didn’t know how to act. That was just part of who he was, how he related to other people.
After a while, Dylan blurted out he had something to tell him, something important.
The secret, he said, was he had Asperger’s Syndrome.
Cameron, looking at him for additional explanation, was afraid to show any immediate reaction, unsure how to respond or what was expected. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and admitted cautiously he didn’t know what that meant.
Dylan took a deep breath – perhaps relief, perhaps disappointment – and said it meant nothing, it was something he had and let it go.
When they stood up to head home, Cameron gave his friend a long hug, their first real physical and possibly emotional contact, which Dylan slowly responded to before backing away, telling him they’d meet again tomorrow.
Looking up “Asperger’s” on the internet, Cameron discovered things that explained a lot about his friend’s reactions, his habits, even his personality, all the result of something scientists called a “syndrome,” implying other labels and responses.
After telling his mother, she sighed, “I knew there was something wrong with him...”
Cameron, staring at her, stormed out of the apartment.
After all the prejudice they’d dealt with because they’re from Iran and not, say, England – after her own parents were called “camel-drivers” – how could she have said something so disgustingly intolerant, making assumptions about his friend? She’d already implied artists were of less value to society than doctors or lawyers: people who were somehow “different” were also less valuable? The more he read or thought about it, the more he considered going into psychology, maybe do some research in the field.
And for the first time, Cameron began thinking he might be falling in love.
Success, at this point in his life, meant doing something “of value,” even if that did not bring in a substantial salary. Maybe he could still become a good enough violinist to make himself feel fulfilled. Maybe he would make a breakthrough in psychology that could help someone like his friend Dylan live a more fulfilling, more purposeful life.
He still wasn’t sure which it would be, in the end – music or science – but he’d gotten into Penn with some help from his Uncle Anderson, where he could take courses in both and decide later.
There were still the old prejudices, Grandmother Parvana occasionally saying, “I have my garden club, you have your music: isn’t that nice?” His parents tried not to say anything about his moving to Philadelphia with Dylan whose parents agreed to let him attend school there, too, if they were roommates. It seemed like a good situation for them both.
He and Ms. Crevecoeur – Zoe, now, he could call her – had had long talks about how he was not an “aggressive” person, probably not well suited to a commercial world, a poor salesman or corporate manager. Whenever his dad’s Uncle Anderson would visit, he’d felt swept away by this force of nature, still intimidating even well into his 80s.
Cameron was quite comfortable playing second violin or being a member of the scientific team, not the star, the leader or the hero, confident that he could do his part, knowing it could be an important part.
Cameron understood, if others did not, how one event had started the thread making it possible he could grow up an American: because fifty years ago someone got a call about starting a university in Iran. His grandfather was a young student working with an American professor named Anderson Pierce who later found him a job teaching in Brooklyn. A generation later, his mother meets a young man who turned out to be Anderson Pierce’s nephew. Call it fate, perhaps “kismet”? Cameron believed there were no such things as coincidences: everything, he knew, was planned.
He had started taking a more serious interest in music because his violin teacher had taken a more serious interest in him. He was considering research in psychology because he’d met this guy on the subway.
Who knew what dreams may be inspired by the least likely, most unpromising seeds?
What might fall into his lap when least expected?
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To be continued…
- Dick Strawser
The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.