Summer mornings, rather than waking abruptly, I occasionally slide from sleep into a sort of continuum of awareness. Maybe it's the open window-- the way muffled night sounds blend into day noise-- a sense of nostalgia in the warm breeze, the birdsong-- but sometimes I forget where I am, what phase of life I am coasting into-- a sort of soft landing… as though I am steering through a dream, and for seconds feel I can time travel. I often think of my Mom-- she is somewhere between life and death, between awareness and dementia-- and I miss her voice, her quiet singing and those kitchen sounds that are part of all of our personal geography. During these moments, I can bring her back-- I can bring myself back… I listen for familiar clues, for music.
Most people these days reach for their phone, upon waking-- the way we used to reach for our lover, check the alarm, calculate how we could prolong morning bed-time-- before children, responsibility, reality called us into our day. For some of my friends, waking brings the hard landing of depression, of regret-- we are no longer who we were, we are no longer lying with our great loves, no longer waiting for our babies and toddlers to jump on us with their laughter and their affection-- our puppies and kittens have aged and passed on. Here we are with our past-prime selves, reconciling our agenda with
another remembered present… bringing the sounds of the day into focus.
Friday afternoon I went to have my hearing checked. I am on Obamacare-enforced medicaid, like many of the income-challenged in this city, and while they relentlessly remind us to visit our healthcare facilities, they generally cover very few reasonable remedies. Reluctantly I agreed to see the audiologist, having abused my ears for a lifetime, played ten thousand loud rock and roll gigs swimming in decibel-rich oceans, weathered a virtual hurricane of guitarists who have heard little above 4,000 Hz since their teenage years. Many of them nevertheless lay it on for the rest of us, like a thin audio sandwich slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise so the main ingredients are virtually indistinguishable.
Not that I am innocent; volume was definitely my substance of choice, I confess to the ENT specialist who made me earplugs 10 years ago when a European tour left a permanent souvenir in my ears. I remember how as a young player I'd melt into Marshall stacks and absorb the aural loops and acrobatics of stage audio. I'd imagine riding a rough massive sound wave which rose and curled and brought me breathless to some new beach of musical denouement... but like all great drugs and unprotected sex-- there's a price and I am paying it. My Dad survived five years of combat with some wounds and scars; his hearing loss was low on the macho-hero list of complaints; there is no purple heart for inner-ear damage.
In the city, there is a constant subtle roar; some neighborhoods are louder, but few are completely free of this-- motors, traffic, air conditioning, underground sounds, airplanes and helicopters-- the cumulative buzz of voices-- a rush, like wind-- even in the quiet patches. There is very little silence, and when there is-- in these dead audio moments, I am aware of the rushing in my ears which crescendos to a whistling in the hours after loud gigs. Yes, I now use my earplugs-- my protective devices which are a little too little, a little too late… but they take the edge off, and they don't really ruin the experience. Some of my peers lament their hearing loss chronically. They miss their old acuity and the way music sounded. For me, I chalk it up-- I'm alive... I can put headphones on at medium-volume and still indulge. There is perpetual noise in my life. I ride subways, I walk the streets, I leave my windows open and hear the living sound of urban energy, like a blend of grey-waves.
What surprised me Friday is how little my hearing parameters seemed to have changed, despite the tinnitus. I can understand speech, and apparently the new normal is significantly less acute than it was years ago. Look around. Scarcely anyone in the city is not wearing earbuds or some kind of headphones. Speak to anyone on the street and they first remove their device. On subway platforms musicians are playing to a vastly diminished audience; most everyone has their own portable entertainment in their phone. But the ambient noise level-- when trains pass, especially dual trains-- exceeds most normal phone volumes. No wonder we are an increasingly deaf culture.
Like the old Luddite I am, still without a cellphone, I am hyper-aware of the constant public phone-use. Everyone in the street is talking-- earbuds in, microphones on-- looking straight ahead, and having a conversation-- on buses, trains… in elevators, at the gym… everyone is talking at once. It's loud, as well. I often wonder if lovers ever have those late night phone-in-the-closet dialogues when they sleep apart-- where listening is the focused activity. No visual-- nothing but waiting for the voice on the receiver telling you what you want to hear. It was everything-- the whispering, the confessions… the sound-on-sound intimacy. We exchanged our first words of love in the dark, this way, so many of us. It felt important and sexy-- listening. It was all we had, and we invested in it. Anyone could pick up another extension and eavesdrop, but it still felt so private and safe. With all the texting and face timing, I don't think voice-to-voice communication is the same.
The face of the city has changed so drastically. Many of my friends spend time on sites that post old photos of New York. They look important and great to us, these images. What people don't often speak about is how the sounds of the city have changed-- how not just the music has changed-- but how the way we hear music is different. We are in our own little worlds, listening to our personal downloads-- watching clips, sampling songs-- texting and sharing… but essentially we are solitary. We are missing that version of conversation-- whispering, lying in bed in the morning with the street sounds seeping through windows, the stereo on… looking up at the ceiling, sharing our dreams and plans… inventing dialogue-- a version of love that relied less on visuals and more on what we said and how we said it.
So while I function with a soft roar in my ears-- a whistling and ringing and rushing I can never remove, I realize it is the memory of things I heard that I value more than the actual sound. Like a painting of the moment-- a cinematic recreation rather than a digital accuracy, or like old photographs where not everything is in sharp focus, but the image is somehow present, and important. I will take my audio memories any day, vintage as they are, faded and fingerprinted with static and ambience, blurred like dreams and weighted with longing and love; I am still listening.