Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (Feb 2010)

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            As the night’s Art History lecture drew to a close, the instructor asked us to turn in assignments on our way out, and reminded us that our next session would take place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She added, “I’ll be in the European section.” Some subtle quality in her cadence called to mind a line of the then popular ballad, I’ll Be. So I sang it. Aloud. With the new lyrics.

            “IIIIIIIIII’ll be / in the Eu-ro-pean sec-tio-o-on!”

            It was out of my system and I thought no more of it. In the commotion of escaping students, only three people were near enough to have heard me: the instructor herself and the two students in line ahead of me. The instructor and my friend, Student 1, had both experienced my freeform musical interpretations in previous classes and carried on with their conversation.

            Student 2 appeared to be deciding between fight and flight as she looked from me to the other two, her crumpled brow pleading, “Why isn’t anyone saying anything?” Student 1 noticed this, offered her the reassuring head tilt and double arm pat combo and said, “Oh, she does that,” before turning back to the instructor. No attempt was made to hide this comment from me; as my friend, she knew I would take no offense given that I do, in fact, do that.

            I do that at fall karate camp, where we are awakened daily at 6am by a whistle. Most everyone awakens groggy and cold, trudging in silence to brush teeth and get into uniform. That’s me skipping around the cabin singing, “Good mawnin’, good maaaaw-nin’!” from Singin’ in the Rain. The murmuring sound in the background is, I suspect, everyone else intoning the phrase we repeat at the end of every class: “Refrain from violent behavior.” 

            I was at the rockclimbing gym when I found a humanitarian outlet for my “gift.” I and two others stood watching a friend ascend a route notorious for its tricky crux. After a few attempts at that section, she hung back to rest. “I don’t think I can finish this one,” she shouted down. “Yes you can!” we all yelled, but she remained both doubtful and stationary. It was then that I began to sing.

            “Dunh! Dunh dunh dunh! Dunh dunh dunh! Dunh dunh dunnnnnnnnnnnh! / Risin’ up / back on the stree-eet / did my time, took my cha-an-ces….” Eyes widened in amazement rather than the usual concern for my mental health because the climber soon started upward. Shocked, I kept singing; inspired, she kept climbing. After completing the route, she insisted that she would have given up had she not heard that song. It may have helped that “don’t lose your grip” is in the lyrics of Rocky III’s Eye of the Tiger.

            When another friend struggled at the same point on the route, I thought, “why not?” and sang a few lines. When I paused, asking, “Should I stop now?” she yelled, “No! Keep going!” Other people in the gym even started to sing along, and after this, my friends asked me to join them on all future climbs (I was flattered, but suggested that a mini-cassette player in the chalkbag might be more efficient). They then conferred upon me the climbing nickname of “The Tigress.” I gazed into the future and saw the SWAT team summoning The Tigress with a symbol in the sky whenever a situation called for my mutant ability to sing people up walls. “No, please, don’t thank me,” I’d say with a shrug. “I do that.”

            Sadly, when I am not out saving the world, one indoor rockclimber at a time, there is considerably less excitement surrounding my musical superhero alter ego. When those around me recognize the source material, which more often than not comes from the ‘80s, the melodious moment comes and goes without much fanfare (Friend 1: “What’s the address?” Friend 2: “9th & Christian.” Me: “9th & Christian now the tiiiiime has coooooome”). But trouble follows when I am the only one convinced of a link between my serenade and the word/phrase/incident that sparked it. Worse still is that illness and lack of sleep are WD-40 for the hinge on the swinging door between my brain and my mouth. Perhaps I was tired or coming down with something when a girl surnamed McDougal came up in a conversation with three friends. I sang, “The sun’ll come out / McDougal.”

There was a long pause filled with the wide-eyed stare of Art History Student 2, three times over.

“What?” I asked.

            “The sun’ll come out, McDougal?” they asked.

            “Sure.” Another pause. I gathered that this song had not, in fact, popped into everyone else’s heads. “It’s the same meter. To-morrow, Mc-Dougal.”

            Longer pause. “The sun’ll come out… McDougal?”

            OK, duly noted. Much like Superman, I had finally discovered that hiding my powers might be best for everyone. This lesson did not abandon me when I needed it most, working one night at the front desk of a study center. A young woman asked to withdraw materials, and I requested her last name. She replied, “Cheng.” My next thought was, “CHENG CHENG CHEEEEEEENG,” as in the 60’s song Chain of Fools. It occurred to me that, if my last name were Cheng, I’d sing this all the time. I’d have a copy of it playing wherever I went. It would be my theme music, like Shaft. I’d even record my own version with updated lyrics.

            This was as far as I got. I would have begun composing right there, but 1) I didn’t know any more lyrics, putting suitable parody out of reach, and 2) I had to respond to this woman who had just given me her name. On one side of my mental swinging door was The Tigress singing “CHENG CHENG CHEEEEEEENG,” kicking, flailing, trying desperately to get out. On the other side with both hands on the door, arms locked, feet planted, head down like a charging bull, was my own, personal Clark Kent chanting, “Must... remain… silent…. Must… remember… McDougal….”

            Grateful that I had awakened well-rested and healthy that day, Clark won. This time. I signed in Ms. Cheng, found her materials, and bid her happy studying. She will never know the struggle behind that exchange, but no one said that being an undercover superhero would be easy.

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