11 October 2009

Two-Headed Monster

Talking to my brother, Roger, on the phone earlier this evening, I had another weirdly humorous reminder of the deep and sometimes strange connection between us.

I say "sometimes," because the two of us have long since come to laughingly take the whole thing for granted, expect it to happen, even, preternatural as its manifestations may be.

You have heard stories about oddly deep connections between twins even when the twins have been physically separated for most of their lives. Well, though we were born 15 months apart, with Roger and I, it's like that, too. Just like that.

To put it scientifically, the power of genetics is manifest in our lives.

First, there are the similarities you expect from brothers. We are both big, fat guys with roundish, chunky, cheerful heads. Our distinctive, buzzing voices sound the same. (This is a quality shared by our third, seemingly mutant, thin and wiry brother, Bill. It has something to do with our northern New Jersey upbringing.) In fact, when Roger and I still lived in the same house, we would occasionally try to fool callers by subtly pitching our very similar voices.

It goes beyond just the sound of our voices, though. It's the way we use those voices, too. We both have a digressive and discursive, detailed way of speaking that can be frustrating to more direct-speaking friends and acquaintances. On any subject that matters, we might start with what we consider important deep background. That is, we take it back to when we were little kids in New Jersey. Or further. Then we illustrate, we progress, we take side trips, backtrack, remember important details we should have put in earlier. We take, in short, the long way around.

That's what I gather, anyway.

So, Roger and I look and sound alike, or very similar. If you swapped my often longish, thick, unruly grey hair and goatee for his self-cut, wispy, one-time blond and pencil-thin Gable mustache, we could take a respectable crack at fooling people.

These kinds of things you might expect from brothers. Even Bill, whom at first glance a stranger might think is from a different family, exhibits some similarities. Some of these grow more and more obvious as the three of us grow older. When I uncovered my now-adult face for the first time in my life by shaving off my beard some years ago, I came to realize that, yes, Bill and I do look alike in some ways.

But then there are the odder manifestations I mentioned earlier.

Roger lives in Germany. He has been there since 1983. We are in almost constant contact by phone and on the internet. We love our instant messenger sessions together.

On the instant messenger it is a common occurrence that we'll both type the same thing at the same time and send it nearly simultaneously. Our wording might be slightly different, but we've both come up with the same comment or question. Often this seems like a new or unique statement to each of us, a new subject or drastic veer away from what we were just talking about. . .until we read that that other brother came up with it, too. Our brains followed very similar paths from whatever we last talked about to arrive at this same place. It has happened like that so many times that we hardly note it anymore.

Then there are the thoughts and even activities that we seem to be doing "independently together."

So, you got your car inspected on the same day I did?
You are also reading about the Civil War?
I had no idea that you, too, were a fan of the Pretenders.

When the weight of these "coincidences" becomes sometimes hilariously annoying, we might seek to assert our own individuality. And of course, Roger and I are different in many ways. Roger is a genius with his hands, with planning projects and following through with them. He is a brilliant maker. I am a ham-fisted dunderhead in this department. Roger is very much more talented musically than I am. He is adept at picking up instruments and noodling around with them, at figuring out songs. I have never been very musical. I try, but it is a struggle for me. Roger might say that I am better with words, but I'm convinced it is just a matter of where we put our attention.

But inevitably, the similarities return:

We are both birders, though Roger, as in most things, is far more diligent and serious about it than I am. We both have favorite birdwatching spots outside of the cities we live in. Both places are lakes. And one of the typical activities for each of us involves making our way to a wooden observation structure to get a better view of waterfowl on the lake. We didn't plan it this way.

To add another layer, in the "tape days"--the years when we frequently exchanged cassette tape letters--we'd sometimes find ourselves listening to a tape of the other brother's birding expedition while we ourselves were driving out to our own lake.

These types of correspondences, though amusing, are understandable considering our shared interests and basic outlooks on life.

The phenomenon is at its most amazing when it has nothing to do with opinions or values, but comes, rather, as a strange echoing of trivial events in our quotidian lives. Some silly thing that happened to me, or that I do in a certain way, I find that Roger experienced also or does the same way. The very unimportance of these events is what makes their
correspondence startling, and, to us, usually hilarious.

Why would it turn out that we shave using not only the same type of razor, but the same shaving pattern? On our tapes some years ago, we kicked around the subject of odd things we do that we have never told anyone. That is how we found out that we are both sometime "step-counters": we habitually count our steps when walking from place to place. We both bought cars with sunroofs. We had never talked about sunroofs.

There is a paradox here, though: the more unimportant the action or event we share, not only the more amazing the coincidence, but the more difficult it is to remember! Who remembers these littlest of activities, sometimes as small as gestures or odd, inconsequential thoughts? So, even when Roger and I do weirdly share one, it tends to slip away quietly and disappear. They are the lint of the mind. They blow away in the merest puff.

I've been struggling with this, in fact, in working on this piece, and I have to apologize. I have been trying for quite some time, with Roger's help, to remember some of the more amazing examples of this correspondence between us. And what I have come up with arrives like lukewarm drizzle or small beer. Not that impressive, somehow.

But that doesn't mean the phenomenon is not real. It is very real. Roger and I feel it deeply and experience these funny echoes often. It feels, sometimes, like we are two parts of the same being, living different aspects of one life. It feels like we are a chunky, pleasant-headed colossus, one foot planted firmly in Berlin, one in Denver, spanning the Atlantic!

So, earlier this evening we were once again on the instant messenger, typing away about this and that and nothing in particular. Near the end of our conversation I was talking about my recent efforts to pick out the guitar introduction to "Stairway to Heaven" on my ukulele. I had only gotten as far as the first line or two (the first line repeats as the second), but was delighted how the iconic, oh-so-familiar opening notes of the song came out so easily on the uke. And I wanted to share it with Roger.

In a typical exchange of this two-headed, intercontinental monster:

Jim: Grab your uke and I'll talk you through it.

Roger: Grabbed already!

So we picked through the first 5 notes of the song, Roger getting it much quicker than I did, of course. Then came time for us to sign off the computer, as Roger needed to go to bed.

But he wanted to phone me first to explain something, which involved a little story of when he first left the country to go vagabonding in Europe. He wanted to actually hear my progress on the "Stairway to Heaven" intro, as well.

Well, this involved balancing my cell phone on a pile of books, papers, and so forth, so that it was close to the sound hole of the uke. I plucked a few strings to see if Roger could hear it.

And here came the occurrence that amazed me.

Roger had his uke in hand as well. He was plucking a few strings. And our instruments were in tune. Perfectly.

This would easily be explained if we both had tuned our ukuleles properly, to a pitch pipe or some other source. But we hadn't.

Or, at least I hadn't. Last time I tuned the instrument, I just tuned the strings to each other, and to a pitch I found pleasing. After failing to find my 40-year-old pitch pipe, I said to myself that the key doesn't matter. I'll just make sure the strings are tuned to each other, and forget about the actual key overall. After all, I was not playing it with anybody.

And it turned out that Roger's uke was tuned haphazardly, as well, a tone or two flat of the proper tuning.

I do not have perfect pitch or absolute pitch, or whatever. I don't even know the difference between the two.

But, like so many small occurrences in our mysteriously shared lives, like our lives themselves, our instruments were in tune.