I eat antipasto twice just because she is so nice
Windmills in my head

Listening to what I hear

A. Sound

Right now as I begin to type, the cat is breathing loudly across the room. She is purring, but also has chronic congestion. I feel like I can hear the lamp behind me, but I can't be certain, because I also have tinnitus, and I'm not always completely sure which noise is only inside my head. As an example, I can hear a lot of electricity (so you see, the tinnitus isn't about hearing loss, at least not yet,) and that merges with the sound in my head,  which is sometimes crickets and sometimes just a hum, causing a bit of confusion. I can hear my hands typing, and the noise of the solid Apple keys beneath my fingertips. The refrigerator just began to cycle. And I can hear a car occasionally pass by.

Always, nearly always, there is music in my head. When not a distinct song, which is most of the time, a rhythm and aimless tune. It's been that way as long as I can remember. I keep all the tunes, they're all interconnected for me, like a website that has hyperlinks on every line, but of course, they're actually a real web of tangled musical phrases. If my son whistles a line from some song he knows, my head instantly sources wherever and whatever else I've heard with that same or a similar construction, and almost without being aware of it, I'm singing or humming something new (though probably quite old.)

 

Let's stop and reflect on the understanding that I know this isn't unique. I am not a precious snowflake of musical intellect or nuttiness. I've been given the impression by others that they don't experience quite what I can never fully express, but there certainly must be more people who do.

I used to think that because I love music so much, and oh, I do, even though it is a nearly-constant tease as well, that I could never choose "hearing" in the game of "Which would you rather live without, sight or hearing?" Now I know that because of the songs in my head, I could live without all the other external noise and still have music. I wouldn't even have the buzzing and chirping that forms part of the background, just pure song.

It's an awful thought, of course, and must be terribly sad for people who realize it is happening to them, learning to cope in silence. But for me, losing sight would be worse. If I look across the room, I might take some contentment from mentally tracing the outline of the flowers printed on my little yellow loveseat. I'm mentally redrawing them across the fabric. They're warm and sunny and remind me of youthful summer days spent reading books in the bright light of my bedroom. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine them, but they aren't really there for me to fully receive. Nor is the morning light on the dog's fur as he idles next to the window, or the slow rise and fall of his abdomen as he breathes in peaceful contentment. I have to see it with eyes open to fully experience it.

The cat beating her tail on the loveseat reminds me of how my oldest son used to chant rhythms when he was a baby. We called him "mantra boy," and later we thought he might take up drums, but what he does is compose music, in his own way, on a keyboard and guitar, connected to a computer. I suspect the inside of his head works much the way mine does. He has the same ability to find any tune on a keyboard after he's heard it once. And I think there's just a lot of noise in his head all the time.

When I was a child, my grandpa would show up occasionally with a crazy Christmas gift. One year it was an old but fully working organ with two keyboards. I wanted so badly to have lessons, but didn't have them, so I taught myself about notes from an old book I found in the bench. However, having to read notes to play a song seemed like more effort than just putting my hands where I knew the song would be. I was a little lazy, though, and had no one around to help me see what else I could do with the music printed on the page. So this innate ability remained a party trick, for the most part. I was physically awkward as a youth, and it's funny to me now to realize learning real keyboard technique probably would have helped with that. Instead, parents and teachers assumed there was no point in trying to extract grace from something clumsy. I can read music now but I can't look at a page of it, the way some can, and automatically hear what is there. It's like closing my eyes and knowing the chair is printed yellow, but not grasping the warmth of it.

My son is very naturally graceful, but also even more stubborn. He's taught himself music, and his hands perform in a way mine never did, but he doesn't share the love of it all with me. Maybe someday he will want to.

B. Words

A good turn of phrase thrills my mind and heart. If I could not read words on a page, I would turn into despair. I stopped reading new books for awhile a few years ago, because I was having trouble seeing, and my particular combination of farsightedness and presbyopia, while not terribly uncommon, made the use of reading glasses strange and difficult at first. When I got progressive lenses a couple years ago, I began again to read all I could get my hands on. I can't not read stories. I've never been the least bit interested in reading about how to do things or what something looks like or means, but I love stories about people and what they think or do. So I mostly read fiction, and some biographies, but I also read song lyrics. When I write poetry, I feel most successful when it attains a lyrical quality. That's just like heaven to me. And in my head, the tangled web of song lyrics is just as broad and extravagant as the musical sounds one, although it isn't quite what I'd like because I've never been one of those people who naturally pull out Shakespeare and Wodehouse quotations at just the right moment. It's multiple choice, rather than short essay access.

I love the shapes of words as we speak them, which is probably partly why I cringe when I hear them mashed together in slang without regard for the dissonance in tone that often creates, and even though I read rapidly, I subvocalize nearly everything I see. So words are sound to me, more than they are pictures. I do like the pictures they form, though, and as a natural speller, I am soothed by the arrangement of letters into coordinated meaning. I didn't read early, like many of my very special internet friends, but I unlocked the code nearly all at once. It was a mystery, and then it wasn't. I took great joy in teaching my children to read, that is, the four of them who were taught. They learned at different ages, and by different techniques, and I loved figuring out how each of them saw the letters on the page, and how best to help them know what it all meant. My other two children learned to read simply by having been read to, and that in itself is  technique and learning style, as well, that they both later employed in other ways.

I want to add as a side note that my six children learned to read in three (but kind of four) basic ways. They were all read to every day when they were young. They saw their parents reading. They were and are surrounded by books, and had many trips to the library and bookstore. Their TV time was limited and controlled in the early years. And now, some of them are avid readers while others are not. There isn't one path to follow to "grow a reader." Remember that next time someone unctuously says "parenting win!"
 
C. Musicians and Singing

I love how some people must be musicians. It worried me for a few years that people maybe weren't learning music and how to play instruments and exploring the history of it all. Now I know that of course, they still are. Some people need to, and they do whatever they can to serve that need. When you hear a published song, think about the "dah-di-Doo-doo-doo-doo-Doodoodoo" that the vocalist begins it with. (Did you hear Robert Smith when you read that? If so, we have to meet.) Anyway. it's not there by accident. Maybe it was an accident the first time he or she sang it. But there's a reason it stuck and got added to and recorded. It was in that person's head, throat, and mouth, and needed to be formed with tongue, lips, and teeth. It satisfied a need. Glenn Miller had to spend endless sleepless nights figuring out how to marry a need in his head with what he was composing and directing from a page. Dave Grohl has to keep making bands because he has to write and play. And Trent Reznor and Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby and David Byrne. And Carlos Santana. They create and invent and discover other people to do it with. The great female singers are always looking for material to express those sounds inside them that must come bursting out in joy and passion and romance and sometimes anger and sadness. We will always seek them out and feebly but joyfully attempt to sing along. This happens all over the world, all of the time. It's a huge part of who we are.

My youngest kid thinks there's no music in his head. In our family, music is a part of both waking and sleeping consciousness, so it's not easy to understand. I think, actually, that he resonates to symphonic music, but he expresses no need for it, and doesn't understand why the rest of us do. I can't explain it to him. It's just there. I don't fault him for being this way, of course, but I find him a curiosity. He is different from the rest of us in general, though. He is here to simply be in the middle of whatever living is happening to go on. He is naturally content with life just unfolding however it will.

And yet, he always wishes he could naturally play an instrument. He doesn't want to learn how, he just wants to know. Any instrument would do, as long as the knowledge was instantly there, you see. He enjoys hearing me sing, but has little interest in the differences between songs. Just the fact of them, and of my singing them, is enough for him, like part of his satisfying landscape.

I used to sing all the time. Then I was too sad for too long to do much of it, and now I'm out of the habit. I think that's a problem, but it isn't as easy to fix as to just say, "So start singing more again." I do sing along to some of the music I listen to, but I am a more active listener than in my youth, and have found a new contentment in that.

I still barely perceptibly rock back and forth nearly all the time when I'm sitting, keeping the beat to whatever's in my head. I've always done that, and when my husband first kept calling attention to it, I transferred the beat to my thumb, but now I just let it go naturally again. Who is anyone to question that, after all?

 

D. Sinatra in My Head

The other day I read something in an essay that struck a dissonant chord in my head, and it's still bothering me. The author said that no matter how many times we hear a Sinatra song, we can't quite sing along with his same phrasing and timing.

I know Sinatra like I know how to breathe. When I'm listening to a song of his I haven't heard often, I can still tell when he's tipped his head, when he is grinning, when he has briefly closed his eyes. And I know I'm not the only one.

Okay, not to gross anyone out with thoughts of having sex with Frank Sinatra, but it's like this. Did you ever meet someone at work or school, and you connected instantly and intellectually, and a match was struck so that you both were charged with light and energy and could not wait to get your hands on each other only to learn that, after all, there was no true physical spark? I bet that happens these days as well with online dating. It's just that we're all compatible with some people and not others when it comes to physical union, just as we are with conversation. Sometimes amazing conversation leads to amazing kisses and embraces, and sometimes it doesn't. As you mature, you learn that you might not have a satisfying intimate experience just because the two of you can talk in rapid fire over a plate of scungilli anymore than you can tell just by looking at someone that they'd be great to kiss. Turns out, it really is just there or not there, with biology in charge of that part of the program. (Of course, if we are sensible, we'll just keep enjoying the conversations even after learning they best lead only to more of the same.)

But Frank Sinatra, when he sings, makes everybody think it's possible, with whoever they're with, and with him as well. Famously, Johnny Carson asked him in an interview, “When you're in a romantic mood…when you're trying to make out... Whose records do you put on?” Everything he put into the songs he chose to sing is everything we yearn for, ache for, thrill to. And Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Count Basie, they brought it all to life instrument by instrument and in "le tout ensemble," in grand and glorious coition. If you're all alone while listening to these guys, who is the object of your affection or desire?

Yesterday I thought I was going to go completely nuts listening to my neighbor power wash his driveway, and then another neighbor's driveway. On the other side, the old (I mean, really old) people were passively-aggressively blowing fallen leaves into our yard, as they have only conifers in their own. We are savages for not residing outside in autumn, picking up leaves one by one before they settle in or are blown elsewhere by the devilish wind. (You think I'm overstating the matter. I am not.) So all day long I listened to noisy motors performing barely necessary labor until I was just sick of it, until I remembered I could plug headphones into my ears and tune them out with better sound. It was not preferable just then to no external sound at all, but I found myself relaxing and feeling better about the world as I performed my own non-motorized tasks, and then realized it had been quite awhile since I did nothing but listen to good sounds filtering into my head that way. Always I'm listening to music while driving or cleaning or cooking or mowing the lawn, or I might put on a record in the evening and listen while puttering online.

But lying back with headphones in and doing nothing else for a few minutes is like being a kid again, only the recordings and headphones are so vastly improved, you hear things in an even more complete way. You hear the Charlatans enjoying that little extra half beat before they sing "arise, arise," and you hear Frank winking at the band…and if you learn the music this way, it will never leave you.

The music I know well, I know so well that if I never heard it again, I could still play it in my head in a full-blown concert of my own construction, from the first fingersnap to the last breath. I learned to play orchestral music at school in my youth, and I learned to enjoy many other varieties of music thanks to my parents and brothers, my husband, and most of my kids, but it's Frank Sinatra who filled my head with rich and intimate detail that I carry around with me all day every day. Every moment resides within me, and when a Sinatra tune is stuck in my head, it's never just a looping bit of bridge or chorus, but the entire piece, in real time, with full orchestration. And I hear the spaces between each syllable of each word, and every note on every line that was either written down or improvised, like knowing the individual hairs on the head of someone I love. I mean, I also hear Bobby, Dean, Peggy, Julie, Stacey, and Michael that way, and Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck and the Talking Heads, but it's mostly thanks to Frank that I do. I got it from my Dad? But he also got it from Frank...

When a song is playing actively in my head, the tinnitus fades to a manageable place in the background. That's partly why I never mind what other people distastefully call "ear worms." It's not that it's better than nothing; it's that there never is nothing. But if there was, I'd still be able to internally enjoy "that sly (slyyy) come-hither stare that strips my conscience bare," and learn to be satisfied with it.
 

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