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Half Life | 2013 | Ludwig Montesa


We are never prepared for what we expect.  

-James A. Michener


God Is Not What You Imagine

Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer  
An Evening with...

My coworker offered me tickets to An Evening with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, since she is moving this weekend. I don't need these; I bought mine the moment I possibly could and presented them as a Valentine's gift to Amber. I drive to acquire them so that Daniel and Sarah M may join us.

Though the drive is only fifteen minutes, I do not doubt that I stretch if not outright break a dozen traffic laws in my excitement on my way to her condo, where I yank them from under the door.

Daniel and Sarah are already present when I return home. Amber is dressed in her best "artist" ensemble, striped thigh-high socks beneath her black, homemade bloomers, a tight vest over a pale blue shirt. She complements these with a rare touch of eye make-up as I endeavor to bring Sarah up to speed as to the nature of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, since she is aware of both but not experienced of either. I select a few videos that underscore that Ms. Palmer-Gaiman is reduced in the popular consciousness to nudity, passion, armpit hair, ear-worminess, and eyebrowlessness. Neil Gaiman looms too large a concept in my mind for such a reduction (also, it is tricky to force someone to understand the essence of a writer in a three and a half minute video, so I simply play her a promo video for the Coraline movie where he talks of koumpounophobia.

As they watch, I change out of clothes that still smell of smoke from a potluck turned bonfire we attended the night before. "Imagine Neil Gaiman calls me onstage as his personal guest to read from Artificial Gods," I shout into the living room, "what am I wearing?"
Neil Gaiman  
Heaven is the waiting...

"Are there any Hot Topics nearby?" asks Daniel.

Amber says, "I had a dream about Neil Gaiman months ago and he told me that he had only read the second chapter of Danse Macabre so far."

"That's not a bad chapter for him to have read, actually, but answer the question. I am onstage. What am I wearing?"

They decide a purple long sleeved shirt and jeans is good enough, which means they are not properly playing along with this fantasy I have been indulging for days. I know it won't happen, of course, but there is still a secret thrill to mulling it over, not unlike one's first discovery of masturbation. It is self-indulgent and ultimately unproductive, except for pointing out something I want enough to strive and work for it. Gaiman has touched my books and may still own two of them, unless he fed these to his dog. At least once, for a few moments, my name lingered in Neil Gaiman's mind. It is a Brobdingnagian leap from that fact to calling me onstage, but it may elevate me more than many of the people I will be rubbing up against tonight.

We arrive forty minutes before the show is set to begin, since I cannot stand being anywhere but in the closest proximity to Neil Gaiman. As we are directed to a far parking lot, I see that I am far from the first - or two hundredth - to feel this impulse, however having a set seat number obviates any benefit to early arrival. As we walk, a woman behind us nearly shouts to her companion, snottily wondering how many of these people around her are only here because of Spawn. Gaiman has a small affiliation with that comic series, having created a few of the characters and having then spent the next fifteen years suing Todd MacFarlane for using them without permission, but choosing to believe any of those walking toward to show are here because of that minor, ancient in terms of pop culture fact is astounding. As I count a dozen faded Sandman shirts and at least as many Dresden Dolls ones on my stroll to the theater, it seems far more likely that people shelled out for tickets based on more mainstream interests that some forgettable bit of comic esoterica to which she feels obvious contempt.

We squeeze into the lobby of the Fisher Center, a building described in We Shadows as a ravenous fish made all of sheet metal. I feel that there must be something here for us to do now, before we are allowed to seat ourselves, but I can't fathom what it might be. The presence of other people, a large portion of whom have hair the color of Skittles, makes me uneasy and I feel some inner Wormwood springing to life, its snotty voice curiously familiar as it wonders how many of these people are really fans of either or both of the artists and how many are smatterers that are about to occupy seats that should, by dint of the fact that Gaiman has thrice spoken to me on Tumblr to give me advice or assistance, be mine. Contrasted with this hairdresser's palette who even my Wormwood deigns may actually be legitimate fans (even if a few of them seem to be committing the mortal but temporarily forgivable sin of Wearing All Their Weird on the Outside and Trying Too Hard) are older people arrayed as though this might be a night at the Met - opera or museum, your choice - who I simply cannot bring myself to fully believe have any awareness that one of the headliners has taken an expletive as her stage middle name.

I am aware I am experiencing an unsubtle sense of entitlement, fueled largely by envy. When I am directed to my seat, I notice with annoyance that the theater has been redesigned in the seven month since I was last here and there is a wall between our seats and those of the theater center. Anyone within thirty feet in front of me earns my glares. Who do they know that allowed them to get better seats than I did? Anyone beyond this circle, I feel nothing toward. Possibly, it is because I burn out over a certain level of base and unfounded hatred. Possibly, it is that they are simply too blurry to be loathed properly (save for a larger woman in the front row with deep purple hair and a torn black shirt, who jumps and flails to attract people's attention to the excellence of her seat, for whom I am still able to rally a laser beam of animosity because Wormwood assures me she is rubbing it in). I do not consider that Daniel and Sarah are trapped in the second balcony, their sight line interrupted by a pillar, so far from the stage that Daniel later tells me he simply gives up and closes his eyes. (He is not sorry for this fact, he assures me later, because it allowed him privacy with his thoughts to absorb the experience.)
Amanda Palmer  
Amanda Palmer

A couple near us seems to be trying to cram as much related media into their facial orifices as possible before Neil and Amanda take the stage, listening to iPods packed with all of Palmer's albums as they cuddle reading a pirated version of The Sandman series on his iPad. Amber takes out a sketchpad, creating a squinty onion person while waiting. If just to have something to do, I try to write notes so far, but I cannot bring myself to have any observation more profound that scribbling that I am not close to as excited for this experience as I was for the last. It may simply be that I am farther back and there is no way short of my fantasy invite that I will be within a few dozen feet from the stage. Amanda is not in the audience, lovingly heckling Neil as she was last time. I have nothing to deliver to Gaiman. I am simply a spectator, a role I don't care much for. Once they take the stage, there are several times I blur my focus a little and it is easy to imagine I am watching this all on a screen at home, divorced from interaction, far less intimate than our last foray.

One trouble is that I have this unjustified feeling that Neil Gaiman belongs to me and Amanda Palmer to Amber (as I do not doubt many of the people around me could say of themselves). They have been there like friends, often more so than friends, on those rough days where we want to melt into the magic of a world with cagey gods or rage along with the crowned queen of the punk cabaret. We are spoiled by feeling their presence whenever we need them, but the intimacy of it is one-way. I can rattle off details about Gaiman's life and works, Amber can sing the better part of Palmer's discography from memory (only inserting my name into choruses to pester me with her affection), but they are not our friends and they do not owe us anything beyond hopefully continuing to be worthy of our interest. As much as my childish hindbrain doesn't wish to share its toys, they do not belong to me in any way beyond how they have personally affected me.

Amber positions her camera and telephoto lens on her knee, essentially becoming a steampunk pin-up as she contorts in her seat to steady the lens, despite the passive-aggressive throat clearing of a seventy year old couple in front of us, though I believe this is more directed at the content of the songs and stories than the gentle click-whir of Amber's camera.
Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer  
One gets the feeling he is somewhat smitten

Several seats around us are left vacant. I try to text Daniel and Sarah to tell them to wave so I can have them come sit near us, but I think they must have no reception in their Siberia.

The show begins with Amanda Palmer announcing their special guest, a musician I have never heard of who is not Sara Bareilles, but who belts out her song and then vanishes backstage, never to be seen from again. I had been guessing at who the reported special guests would be, and admit to being a little disappointed that she is the only one, if only because I don't know her through no real fault of hers.

True to my assumptions - a statement I always hate - it seems several of the people had no idea what this evening would involve. When the Palmer-Gaiman's call for a ten minute intermission a bit before ten, I would guess ten to fifteen percent of the crowd simply leaves, the harrumphing elderly couple in front of us included.

Gaiman reads a couple of stories inspired by Twitter prompts sent to him, which are clever and which I have yet to read, though I express my delight to Amber that one about a djinn sounds very much like the sort of tale I would tell. There is nothing quite like hearing them from his lips, though, because my mental impression of his voice always sounds needlessly posh.

There is a brief question and answer portion, though all the questions were submitted on notecards available in the lobby (I knew there was something I was supposed to do out there!) and boil down to:

  • I named my baby-to-be Indris, please acknowledge that this is cool.
  • Are you still buddies with Brian?
  • How did you two meet?
  • What is one thing you like and one thing you don't about Cambridge?

I cannot blame the crowd for these softball questions, as Neil and Amanda selected the ones they were going to ask one another from a fat stack. As Neil is answering, Amanda thins out her stack considerably, the cards floating to the floor. This portion only lasts ten minutes and, while cute, I wished it had been a bit meatier, aside from Amanda embarrassing Neil on his love of French accented women.

I am surprised to hear Neil Gaiman sing almost as much as Amanda. Though he has a patient and sonorous voice, much the sort of voice an author should have who is going to give copious public readings, it translates into a sort of deadpan singsong, not unlike what should come out of the snout of a wry cartoon dog. The first of these is a duet of "Makin' Whoopie" with an off-stage Amanda. Never in my life did I quite envision I would be listening to one of my literary idols crooning this, but it is well-received by the crowd.

Whenever Amanda plays piano or sings, Neil sits on the edge of the ridiculously orange chairs, a hand to his cheek, and smiles up at her like a schoolboy. I can only guess at their private relationship, based on posts and reposts in dueling social media, but it is charming to see how in love he persists in being with her. I don't know that I could handle a relationship such as theirs, where their schedules separate them for months at a time. Since Amber and I move in together, I have not slept the night without her next to me.

Amanda Palmer sings a song she wrote only three days before, "The Thing About Things", the message of which is that we often don't love people until they are no longer alive to love us back. Though she is being almost silent, though Amanda Palmer belts out each note between those of her piano, I sense Amber sobbing. She still clicks away on her camera. No earthly trauma can get between her and her need to create art, but she allows me to kiss her and nuzzle against her hair to soothe her. When I later comment on the clarity of these pictures, how crispy everything is in focus, she remarks that she has the instincts of a sniper, shooting between sobs instead of heartbeats.

Amanda plays "The Ukulele Anthem" as her encore, though Neil does not return to the stage. As we exit, I pass a middle-aged couple arguing with the college usher guarding the rope that keeps fans away from the stage doors.

"I know them! You got to let me in there," the bald man shouts.

"Okay, well, let me just check on the list..." she says through a clenched smile.

For a few seconds, I play out a scene in my mind where I try this. I would approach one of the ushers, tell them I would like to see Neil, make eye contact and appear confident, assure them that I should be on the list, they radio back and... and Neil Gaiman tells them that he has no idea who I am and I am turned away, mortified. After that, I believe seppuku is the only way to restore honor to my name, so I decide it is probably best to find Daniel and Sarah.
Neil Gaiman  
How he reacts to being reminded of French accented women.

Amber wants to stand in the long line to examine the art book being sold. I leave her in the capable hands of Sarah while I search out Daniel, who said he would be getting air. Directly outside the glass doors of the theater mill a dozen smokers. I know Daniel, he will not be among people after having spent so long confined with them. I look into the night, for a spot of darkness that is a bit darker than the surrounding area.

In greeting, I say, "I find it all a bit unfair. What have these Bard kids done that makes them worthy of a sleepover with Amanda Palmer or a fiction class taught for a week by Neil Gaiman, other than been privileged enough to go to Bard in the first place?"

"That's all they have, the fifty thousand a year their parents pay for them to be in this bubble," says Daniel, "but they don't see outside, how lucky they are."

"It's a very narrow worldview. I get the distinct feeling that most of them don't even grasp that this should legitimately be one of the greatest things that ever happened to them. Hell, I could have been an amazing TA for Neil, if I had been invited in any way. Amber said she wouldn't be good at it, because she would be too busy cuddling his dog Lola, but I could have swinged it, if only I'd been a Bard kid." Just for this past week, for the opportunity to think nothing of sitting at the feet of Neil Gaiman as he proselytizers the edicts of good fiction or being blase about cuddling beside Amanda Palmer at a pajama party, I want very much to have been one of them, even if it meant being sneered at by everyone over the age of 21 outside of campus.

Amber calls me back inside to pay $5 toward her book, all the while the guy behind the table apologizes for a slight ding on the spine that dropped the price $20.

She says that this completes her evening, that she feels fulfilled, but I feel antsy. I wanted something more out of tonight. Not the impossibility of my fantasy, but to have felt a little less like a spectator. It would have been a feat to top my last time seeing them, but I didn't think I would already feel so entitled and jaded by what would have been pants-wettingly thrilling had this been my first time.

Perhaps I am more like a stereotypical Bard kid than I thought... SET LIST (with great thanks to H0wlingfantods for compiling most of this):

Grooveshark playlist of most of the songs, minus the ones linked above.

Soon in Xenology: The Ship of Theseus. Ludwig.

last watched: The Prestige
reading: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
listening: Evelyn Evelyn

Half Life | 2013 | Ludwig Montesa

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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