Our son, Erik, came home for the Jewish High Holy Days last week from Chicago. He’s in the frozen north studying to become a theoretical chemist.
They grow up, folks. And then they become all sorts of things. Self-reliant. Confident. Sometimes, a little odd.
These days, Erik is extremely interested in things he took no notice of when he was young. He lifts weights and reads about exercise now and again. As a child, he could not catch a football.
He still can’t catch a football. He claims that he lifts weights because it is a form of physical exercise that takes the least amount of coordination. Now, he is very good at picking things up and putting them down exactly where they were again.
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Did I mention the word “odd”?
I had just come home from the gym and walked down our hallway to put away my sweatshirt. Erik was in the shower, but I heard his voice. He was not singing. He was talking.
I listened to make sure I wasn’t imagining it all, and finally knocked on the door. I was deeply hoping that he had not become one of the people in the world who carry their cell phones into every setting and make phone calls no matter what they are doing and where they are doing it. I am treated to this sort of thing every day in the UNC Charlotte bathrooms. I don’t like it.
“Um, Erik,” I said, “are you talking to someone?”
“Yes,” he called out. “Myself.”
“Do you have a second personality?” I inquired through the door. “An invisible friend?” Suddenly, I remembered William, his invisible friend. He used to talk about him all the time when Erik was 3. “Is William in there with you?”
“No,” he said, “I’m just discussing the 2016 presidential campaign.”
“Let’s talk about this later,” I said.
Later was over breakfast.
“How is William?” I asked.
“We haven’t talked in a while,” Erik said. “I hope he’s eating enough.”
“Do you often talk to yourself in the shower?” I asked.
Erik explained that he had been practicing debating politics and having all his statistical data at the ready. “Do I often talk to myself, yes,” he said. “I don’t think the shower has anything to do with it.”
“Chronic solipsism,” Erik joked.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s the idea that fundamentally, only you exist and nothing else.”
“That sounds lonely,” I said. “Don’t you have any friends in Chicago?”
“It’s just that I don’t understand that talking to myself is different from talking to anyone else,” he said. “But I only do this when no one is around. Or I think no one is around. Or I am working. Or cooking.”
“While you are working?”
“In my office, I’ll say, ‘Erik, you are being stupid. Why are you doing this?’ I also talk to my computer code.”
The code Erik is working on is about simulating proteins. He says I am actually mostly made of proteins.
When he told me this, I remarked, dryly, “So much for the sugar and spice and everything nice.”
To which he responded, “There are sugars in there.”
“So you talk to your code. Does it ever answer?” I asked.
“No,” Erik said, “which is distressing.” He paused. “Sometimes it stops working. When I ask it why it doesn’t love me anymore, it doesn’t respond.”
Sometimes I think all the oddity really stems from the kind of work Erik does. I think it’s likely that this sort of work leads to talking to yourself. If he had become a professional weightlifter instead of a theoretical chemist, things would surely be different.
I asked him about that. “If you had decided to lift weights for a living, would you have talked to them?
“No,” he said, “I don’t think so. But,” he said, grinning, “I would still talk to my proteins.”
Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.