A Different Knob

"It's part of your job to speak to people up close," he says, dropping a tin of mints on my desk. It strikes, and a pleasantly resonant rattling sound rings out. It takes its time to get to silence. I look up and smile.

He told me I have bad coffee breath without having to say it, I think. My tongue makes a squishing, squelching sound from wringing foul tasting saliva out against the roof of my mouth. It probably smells worse than it tastes. The nicest thing a boss has ever done for me.

Since then, my bosses have gotten progressively worse, with one notable exception, and none have had the tact to effectively pull off that gesture. Now, my boss is me, which definitely is not breaking the pattern. Just another asshole boss in a long line of asshole bosses.

There's a comfort in being part of the inevitable.

*  *  *

I planted an elderberry tree in front of our house a few months after settling in, when we finally had the energy to hack up the horrific, bumpy, crappy grass lawn that was littered with random construction debris and lacking in any promise. It grew to cover the front window in what was once the front room, same as it had been since the house was built in 1908. A few years after moving in we renovated and the elderberry was killed in the process. When I saw that it wasn't preserved, I sighed a bratty sigh, muttered something about a spray of white flowers, a cloud I’d definitely miss, and declared I'd plant another in the same spot.

The renovation was finished a few years ago and that front room is now my office, where I write. The new tree is just on the other side of the window from where I sit. It’s almost as tall as the old one, and though it hasn’t sprayed its flowers yet, it has its own peculiar way of getting my attention and interrupting my work: as I stare at my laptop screen, out of the corner of my eye, the new small bunches of leaves are perceived by my mind as of all things, a small hand. An existential, biological threat. 

Wind rustles the leaves, causing a type of quick back and forth motion that produces a response I can't unlearn. That specific wave, that one familiar pattern, solidified and recognized. I get a quick start in my mind — my occipital lobe is protecting me from the small, fragile green hand that has clearly just poked out from behind my computer.

It’s here to prey on me, drag me through window over the broken glass, out onto the front lawn next to the forsythia that has already dropped its flowers for the season, my delicious insides a feast for the ground.

I fertilize it and help it grow, becoming part of something larger than myself.

*  *  *

The morning I woke up to take my newly prescribed Amphetamine Salt Combo was my first morning without coffee in a really long time. I took the pill with hesitation but also with a type of curious hope that only gets harder to muster as you need more and more hands to count your age.

I tried to focus on my focus — not easy. I tried doing some things but didn't feel like inventing them. I read that some people get a great quiet in their mind but I suppose my noise is controlled by a different knob.

I breathe deeply and try to focus on not the focus itself, right now, today, but what can happen over time, if I can edge my my emotions and habits and actions, which is to say my behavior, toward something smoother that doesn't necessarily have higher lows or lower highs but which is predictable, internally reconcilable, and more palatable for those who I spend most of my time with. I quietly wonder what role the simple act of stopping and accepting, compromising and attempting to change, would have on its own. Surely I can brain-wrestle the problem away, even if the problem is my brain? I'm willing to sublimate. 

I accept my place as a small part of the whole.

*  *  *

Cicada mating season is in full force with a once in seventeen year pattern happening at this very moment. Brood X is awakening, the same brood I heard at 7 years old in 1987 and 24 years old in 2004.

My daughter points out how old I'll be when they come around the next time and I defensively snap that I don't intend to be living on the East Coast by then so let's just not discuss it.

To get her back for making me think about my old age, I explain how the way we hear the sound of the cicadas when they're active during the day reminds me of what I studied in graduate school, introducing her to a term in musical composition known as granular synthesis. Just like the sound of dumping out a bowl of marbles, shaking a tin of mints, or rubbing your foot on a pile of pebbles, or even the sound of the ocean, the way we hear the collective sounds of the cicada is blurred, dispersed, a throbbing cloud of sound, with all of the benefit of the air and the world's natural reverb. 

The term granular synthesis was originally conceived of by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, and fleshed out by American scholar Curtis Roads in the 1970s. The idea is that by taking sounds with very short durations, a few milliseconds for example, and playing them over and over again, many times per second, with random changes in spacing between them, produces a new type of synthesized sound that had not yet been documented. Xenakis knew and Roads proved that the key to certain natural sounds was hidden in the properties of these sound grains.

Many of these grains played in the right way produce diffuse clouds of sound, transforming the original sound in a way that is stunning to hear. As Barry Truax, a scholar who studies Roads, wrote,

"What is most remarkable about the technique is the relation between the triviality of the grain (heard alone it is the merest click or 'point' of sound) and the richness of the layered granular texture that results from their superimposition." 

In this superimposition, I want to see myself.

*  *  *

To faithfully reproduce the summer cicada sound, begin by arming a few thousand friends and neighbors with a pair of serrated steak knives and a solid climbing kit suitable for the tall east coast trees. 

When the sun comes up, or when it warms up enough, or both, instruct your brood to follow the instructions to the best of their ability, stopping only when the sun goes down:    

  1. Find an appropriately strong tree, one with limbs that can hold your weight for several hours, and climb it.

  2. Pick up one knife with your non-dominant hand and hold it by the handle with the teeth facing up. Your grip should have your thumb on the handle and the blade should be parallel to your arm.

  3. Pick up the other knife with your dominant hand and hold it by the handle with the teeth facing down. Grip this knife the same way as the other.

  4. Keeping your non-dominant hand steady and the point facing away from you, bend the arm of your dominant hand at the elbow and begin to bow the knife back and forth across the surface of the other.

  5. Picture an infinite violinist, then the endless ocean tide, and finally the grandest universal motion of them all, the violent swing toward and away from entropy.

When the full complement is finally in swing, the resultant throbbing and gentle bursting of vibration-becoming-sound should be eternal, natural, and ultimately, familiar.

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