It’s been a long time since I just wrote, no attempt at being poetic, lyrical, or profound, just wrote.
Today, I just write, just because.
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The Undefined Variables
When I was in engineering school, my roommates and I formed a rock band called, The Undefined Variables. Credit for the name goes to our keyboardist and computer science student, Gordie Ray.
The Undefined Variables played theoretical rock, a genre that, to this day, we remain convinced that we invented. We may not have invented air guitar (me), air drums (Mike), air bass (Joe), or air keyboards (Gordie, when he wasn’t playing the role of Dungeon Master), but somewhere in the bowels of the U.S. Patent Office, in the third drawer of some neglected file cabinet, is our patent for the Air Flute.
In our band, air flute was played by some random guy from across the dormitory hall, usually Dale. Picture five engineering school classmates, gathered in a small dorm room, sitting on desks, leaning back in desk chairs at dangerous angles, someone’s feet dangling from a bunk bed, all ready for an air jam session. Sometimes we would forget to put the, “Recording In Progress,” sign on the door, and we’d be forced to start over.
We had a wonderful theoretical sound, one that often only we could hear and appreciate, like a pack of dogs who had fallen in love with their own dog whistles. We’d play for hours in near-silence, the occasional grunt coming from hitting a hard-to-reach note.
Sometimes on weekends, we’d play along to real music, stuff we could actually hear out loud as we strummed, picked, plucked, hit, stroked, pecked, and spit into air next to fluttering fingers.
Who can count the throngs of girls we attracted, and instantly repelled during our undergraduate college years? Who can number the fraternity parties that we were never invited to attend?
I wonder how much common college life we were able to avoid, while we were busy imagine-touring the world. So many shows played … so many parties missed … so many girls repelled… it’s all a blur really, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
A band’s name such as ours was worthy of a lengthy subtitle. The posters (if we were to really design one) would have read:
The Undefined Variables
(A band whose existence is found only in the most complex, darkest, most obscure, and most elusive of all mathematical proofs, or in a simple and easily correctable mistake in software coding)
At times, we set aside our egos and asked real-world guest musicians to join us on a project. Not many of them were willing to risk permanent career damage to explore our world of theoretical rock. Actually, none were.
Once, I negotiated a collaboration with Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of the legendary Canadian band, Rush. “Think of it as real meets imaginary,” I told their label executives, sweeping my hand across the room in dramatic fashion, visualizing the headlines. “It would be like a new numbering system, something between the real numbers we can count, and those imaginary numbers we know exist but mostly ignore.”
The Undefined Variables / Rush deal never materialized, I imagine because of scheduling conflicts. Final exams got in the way for us, and real albums and real world tours got in the way for them. A few years after college, on the way back from an engineering trip, I met Geddy and Alex while traveling through London’s Heathrow airport (true story).
I was relieved to hear that there were no hard feelings. In fact, the two rock stars were tactful to a fault. They pretended to not even remember our late-1980s negotiations. Alex and Geddy even threw in about six seconds of blank stares, first at each other, then at me, as if possessing no knowledge of the theoretical existence of The Undefined Variables.
“That’s OK,” I said. “Age has a way of taking its toll.”
“We need to go,” Geddy said. “We have that thing. Remember, Alex? That thing?”
“Oh, right,” Alex said. “We have that thing.”
Geddy pointed at his wrist, as if he were wearing a watch, and as if on the imaginary watch face, the big hand had swept past the expected time.
“Excellent name for your new album,” I said.
Again with the blank stares.
“Imaginary Time Piece,” I said.
“Or, Imaginary Piece of Time? It’s your creative choice. Both titles are yours, free of charge,” I said. Two-thirds of Rush turned to leave.
“Later,” I said. I waved at the backs of their heads. The two figures got smaller, as their strolls transitioned to brisk walks.
“Hey,” I yelled. “Did you hear that? I said, ‘Later’! What a great name for a song for your new album about an imaginary time piece! You’re welcome!”
The two figures got smaller quicker. Their brisk walks became full sprints. Little do they know that I plan to be at their 40th anniversary tour in a few months. They will be so surprised to see me, especially Neal Peart. Wait until he hears that I’ve recently taken up the real drums.
But enough about that non-theoretical band. After several decades of expanding the boundaries of theoretical rock, The Undefined Variables grew weary of the grind of mental touring. Reluctantly, we dissolved the band. A few of us still perform the occasional mental solo show, especially during those days when we are forced to experience the full arc of the sun from the fixed viewpoint of a small cubicle.
Over the years, we’ve entertained the thought of reforming, maybe doing a small-venue reunion tour, but at our age, time and energy are limited. As I wisely taught Alex and Geddy on that fateful afternoon in London, age has a way of taking its toll.
Plus, there is always risk in trying to recapture old magic. In our zenith, our assistants gave away magic-filled capsules at our shows, The Undefined Variables Ooze of Greatness, with proof of purchase of one of our over-priced, ill-fitting, low-quality concert t-shirts. It was our way of giving back. Now, we take prescription capsules and ask for assistance as we stretch cheap t-shirts over our ill-fitted bodies.
I still practice on a real guitar, just enough to remember what bending a real string feels like. Whenever I see a musician miss a note, I can smile and say with confidence, “Ah, I’ve been where you are, my friend, too many times to count.”
I’ve played guitar until my fingers bled, once when I was sixteen. Somewhere, I’ve got that callus stored in an empty peanut butter jar. They can’t take that away from me. It was Jif, I believe. My mom was a choosy mother.
What have I learned from these grown-up days? I’ve learned that they offer too many easy answers, and not enough right ones. Our variables arrive pre-packaged and pre-defined, and we have become jaded and bored.
I think it’s time to make ourselves interesting again. Maybe we all should follow the band’s example and undefine a variable or two of our own. Let’s dust off our air instruments (after we remember where we put them) and play again, even if only we can hear it.
Our fans deserve that much.
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