Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Noise Box

Staying with the language theme, however loosely I may be following this supposed thread, I was reading today about the latest plea from pediatricians for parents to prevent their young children, those under the age of two, from watching television. They claim that watching television harms the development of language. Parents talking to and with their children apparently is better than television. Obviously, given my age, I watched much less television than children growing up today, in fact I watched precisely no television until about the age of four when mom and dad finally scraped together enough money to buy a set. You see how old I am? I still call it a television set, not just the television. Clearly my language skills are greater than those who had a television in their first two years because I use more words. I imagine that many years ago pediatricians and academics were pounding out papers telling us all that allowing our children to listen to excessive amounts of radio would soften their brains. Soon we will unearth a scroll in which various high ranking courtiers were predicting that excessive reading of the products of Guttenberg’s printing press would lead to the death of conversation and a diminishment of listening to the lute. None of these doctors and experts can explain to me how listening to and watching television is worse than listening to parents. I gather that it’s that awful word “interactivity”. The child will, I am told, be more linguistically adept if the activities in which it is engaged involve some sort of back and forth. None of these doctors seems aware that what goes on in a child’s head is entirely opaque. When my daughter watches a television program she laughs at the jokes, she covers her face at the scary bits and she switches channels when it’s boring. This indicates at least some form of thought for which we must now use the word “interactivity”. She is reacting, she is thinking and she is probably listening to people with better grammar than most parents. The only reason parents want the television turned off is because they want to talk to their child. They want to know what is going on in their child’s life, at their school, with their friends. Here’s what’s going on in your child’s life: everything is more interesting when she is watching television and less interesting when she is talking to her parents: school is dreary and utter drudgery: she does not want to discuss her friends because that’s private stuff and interesting precisely because you, her parents, know nothing about it. As for the younger than two year old, she likes bright colors, she likes the songs and the songs teach her language better than you do.

I am contemplating earlier generations who had much less television, including my own. Without going back too far let’s list a few of the things that these linguistically adept people have given the world. The First World War. Soviet Communism. The Second World War. Vietnam. Trickle Down Economics. Rupert Murdoch. Apartheid. Need I go on? Had earlier generations been watching more television there might have been greater harmony. I have stood in a pediatrician’s office and been told that my child should eat low fat food despite massive evidence that eating less fat is about the worst thing you can do for your health. The same doctor told me that we should play Mozart to our child. There are no words in any language for how utterly fatuous this notion is. I have conducted a study recently that took me about thirty seconds and involved precisely one participant, myself. I asked a simple question: Which is worse for your child, watching television or doing what pediatricians tell you? All the evidence I have gathered in the thirty seconds of the study suggests that your child should watch television. It’s funnier, it’s better written, it actually is intended for the child and not for you or your child’s doctor (and to sell lots of toys, as opposed to your child’s doctor who is trying to sell you lots of drugs) and it is utterly harmless.

Friday, October 14, 2011

More Noise

It seems I have been bitten by the language bug since my now ended silence, I cannot stop analyzing what people are saying. Today I read about another political misstep by Scott Brown, soon to be former Senator from Massachusetts. It’s not that I am particularly focused on this man, it just happens that he embodies a certain approach to both political turmoil and the language he and his associates use to try and extricate him from his difficulties. What people forget in their times of trouble is that others do not forget. The political chattering classes will always tell us that such and such an incident will be forgotten “come voting day”. What actually happens is that the arc of the story of any given individual allows us to set aside certain mistakes, foibles and peccadilloes. We all knew Bill Clinton was a philanderer but it was his very success as a philanderer – his charm – that made him so appealing (cries of shock and horror at such a notion). No, we did not take to him because he was good at seducing women, he was someone whose ability to charm translated into what we call charisma. Others were notable seducers (Gary Hart, John Edwards) but lacked whatever it is that transforms good whisky talk into overwhelming public approval, though Clinton’s very small electoral victories seem to belie the notion of the extent of his skill. Part of what Clinton did, or John Kennedy in his time, was subtly alter the message depending on which constituency he was aiming at. Clinton was more Southern in the South, Kennedy more Catholic in the Northeast. Obama has that same skill, though his charm is not as warm as either Kennedy or Clinton. Clinton, like Nixon, looked straight into a camera and lied to the entire population of the United States, yet he left office still very popular. How? Clinton winked.

The first thing of any consequence I ever taught my daughter was how to wink. With this wink I also taught her to pucker one side of her mouth and use the side of her tongue to make a clicking sound as she winked. I told her that this would carry her further in life than anything else she would ever learn. Why, then, was Sarah Palin’s winking so abjectly unsuccessful? Well, take my daughter’s wink and click. She turns out to be a natural. Had I discovered that my daughter simply looked like someone with a facial tick I would have discouraged the winking. Sarah Palin is not a natural winker because she uses it only when the camera is on her. Clinton winks through life. Palin’s wink is a self conscious “see, I’m just like you” sort of activity while Clinton’s is a “wouldn’t you like to be a member of this club?” motion. Nixon was incapable of anything remotely associated with winking. I have noticed that the people who wink more than any other are the Irish. We consider the Irish to be very charming but, as I like to say, you don’t have to live with them. So, Clinton’s, or Kennedy’s or Obama’s story is what attracts us and we choose to set aside the less comfortable aspects of their personalities or styles. Recently Scott Brown made an insulting remark regarding his likely Democratic Party opponent in next year’s Senate race, Elizabeth Warren, specifically about her appearance. This will not be forgotten because it is the opposite of Clintonian. Remarking on a woman’s appearance is the least charming thing you can do and cannot be set aside because it indicates how you will regard women’s standing in the legislative process and how slightly you regard the effect of legislation on women. Whatever it was that Clinton exuded it reassured us that he would not slight women, no matter the position of his pants while talking to them in the Oval Office.

Scott Brown has been caught plagiarizing the text of another politician’s website for use on his own website. When this copying was brought to his attention he had this to say: it was the fault of one of our interns. That sound you hear is a hammer blow to the coffin lid of Scott Brown’s short political career. “The Intern Did It”. If you scoured all the dictionaries of the world and commissioned speeches from all the great wordsmiths of the political universe you could not have come up with a string of more politically fatal words. Even under normal circumstances this would not be a good response but when thousands are camped on Wall Street and at City Halls and outside Federal buildings demanding that ordinary people get a fair shake, ordinary people who would be glad to have a job even as a lowly intern, you really have shoved a blade into your own artery. What possesses people in such positions to say these things? As I like to say in regard to Afghanistan or Iraq, why didn’t they just ask me? I could have told them. And if a sometimes employed actor in Echo Park Los Angeles could have told you, you know you’re in trouble.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The End Of Silence

“Ralph’s”. That was the first word I have spoken in two weeks and it was said not to my surgeon or vocal therapist, not to some close family member, but to a parking lot attendant near the University of California Los Angeles in the parking lot of a grocery store. This was another instance of the deference we pay to complete strangers, as I mentioned before when recalling the accidental clipping of someone’s heel in a movie theatre. One of the most despicable elements of visiting a medical facility in the United States is that you have to pay for parking. In the case of UCLA the rate is exorbitant. However, nearby is a Ralph’s grocery store that offers free parking for two hours. Usually this lot is unattended, you simply take your ticket from the dispenser, go about your business and, as long as you stay within the two hours, away you go. For some reason – almost certainly the likes of me who use the Ralph’s lot to avoid paying the UCLA fee – there was a uniformed Ralph’s employee (an understated lightish burgundy vest over white shirt and black pants) asking people as they emerged from their vehicles where they were going. In my guilt I stated “Ralph’s”. Had I payed UCLA’s wad of money there would have been no question asked and even if there had been no guilt would have forced me to be polite, compensating for my criminality by appearing wholesome and well mannered. My silence would have lasted until my appointment with my surgeon. So, there ended my odyssey in the last of the morning shade on the rooftop parking lot of a Ralph’s grocery store in West Los Angeles in the presence of an entirely oblivious but neatly dressed employee of a large grocery chain, whose sushi counter, by the way, is very good.

I have noticed something else in all this. I refer to the woman who removed the cyst in my throat as “my surgeon”. Why do we become possessive of the people who treat our ailments? She is just as much the surgeon of the person next on the appointment calendar and yet I, and almost certainly that next person, call her “my surgeon”. Illness breeds an awful sort of dependence and sometimes a dreadful resentment. I can remember my father being gravely ill in the nineteen seventies and the futility with which he attended his frequent appointments, the quiet rage and frustration that accompanied the apparent dying of his lungs. When he changed doctors a new diagnosis cured him almost miraculously. This past Summer I went to that doctor’s practice, where my parents still go, and was told that the doctor who re-diagnosed my dad is still alive, in his nineties. Without hesitation or sentimentality I said “Dr. Williams saved my father’s life”. I imagine my father is very possessive of Dr. Williams. What that experience taught me is that doctors are mostly guessing. Informed and educated guessing, but guessing nevertheless. This is not to be resented but it should be understood and the best doctors will tell you this themselves. I am ever grateful that one doctor guessed correctly. I also discovered that the cyst that was removed from my vocal chords was unusually large, possibly freakishly large, thus the very long enforced silence. Now, the surgeon, my surgeon, had told my wife while I was still unconscious that the cyst was “bigger than expected”. Do I regard this as a lie, perhaps a white lie, used to keep me calm and collected while I healed? Is it, perhaps, simple medical conservatism: nothing is so strange that it cannot fall within the parameters of “bigger than expected”? I appreciate my surgeon’s discretion, rather like my own with my daughter whose most frequent question is: “Daddy are you lying?” To which my usual response is: “Sweetheart, all parents lie to their children all the time”. Like the wonderful medical people at UCLA I am in favor of a mixture of the deceptive and the brutal. It breeds relaxed patients and world-wise children. Though my child almost certainly knows there is no Santa Claus she’s too smart to say so or she’ll miss out on an extra present.

And so, off into the world of speech, little by little. I have photographs of my vocal chords, Before and After, and I shall keep them close.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Silence Day Twelve

I am assured this will be my last silent day. At the very least it will save the paper I have been using to scrawl my notes and I will no longer be posting my ramblings here. I can go back to wasting my time in the ways I always have. I am now faced with the question of what might my first word or words be after almost two weeks of silence. It’s a little like the opposite of a dying remark, famous first words. My daughter’s first words were incomprehensible though we did distinguish the word “Daisy” fairly quickly, the name of the dog who still lingers. She also wandered about saying something like “skoowonday” and we finally realized she was reciting a line from “Mary had a little Lamb”. She was saying “school one day” as in , “It followed her to school one day”. It’s only when you have a child that you realize what a monumental achievement the learning of language is and what a strange hybrid creature we have in English. All that mixing of the Angles and the Saxons and the Romans and the French and the Germans. Even some Chinese (Ahoy and Ketchup and, occasionally, Gung Ho). If you are foolish enough to hang around in the places I grew up you’ll hear odd grammatical constructions that are born of Irish usage and torture of the language of the oppressor. Oddly there are very few Irish words in English though I believe “brat” is one instance. One of my favorite linguistic moments was on a bus in my home town, Birmingham, in England and it demonstrated the future better than any gadget or academic study. A young man got up from his seat and was greeted by a fellow passenger who had not seen him earlier. Their conversation was in Urdu since the vast majority of my neighborhood is now Pakistani. The young man who had stood was surprised to see his friend and rattled of a greeting in Urdu in the middle of which were the distinctly spoken English words “fucking wanker”. So, the quickly spoken greeting went something like: “Urdu, Urdu, Urdu, fucking wanker, Urdu, Urdu”. What was so marvelous about this was that Urdu clearly has no equivalent of the delicious and demeaning phrase “fucking wanker”. It also highlighted something about the adaptation to culture. I have no idea if Pakistani personal interactions are similar to those in England, where English people deliberately distance themselves from any sort of intimacy by deliberately insulting those they most love and like. Here was, probably, a young man who had been born in England to Pakistani parents, much as I had been born to my own immigrant parents, and he had adopted the English way of dealing with friends. Insult them. I wonder if there are any good Urdu phrases that could be adopted into English for insulting people.

About ten miles from where I grew up is the Black Country, the original industrial belt in the middle of England where the modern world was created in the Industrial Revolution. It’s where James Watt put the steam engine to practical use and out there they speak a dialect of English which is almost incomprehensible even to those of us who grew up close by. Now, technically, a dialect is a grammatically distinct form of a language and must not be confused with the way dialect is often used, to mean “accent”. For instance, Black Country folk (if you are looking for where this strange people live find Wolverhampton on a map and you are there) asking you if you wish to do something, for instance, go to the pub, will ask: “Yam gooing down pub?”. The word “going” here is pronounced as I have written it, a long “oo” sound. “Yam” means “are you?” This use of the word “yam” for “are you” has resulted in people from the Black Country being called Yam Yams by those nearby. While being derided as bumpkins it should be pointed out that the great James Whale, director of “Bride of Frankenstein” was from the Black Country as is Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Here’s a link to how to speak Yam Yam. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrIqSlt9PXg

Now that we’ve all learned a little more about the varieties of English I must contemplate my first words from my reconstituted vocal chords. Should they be purely medical? “Did you biopsy the thing you removed?” is one possibility. More likely is: “This is harder than I expected”.

“I can speak again, my family will be disappointed”.

“How soon will I be able to yell at my child?”

“I am really sick and tired of this. Can I go now?”

My mother is dependent on hearing aids and cannot hear me when I call her on the phone because the hearing aids seem to present difficulties that neither of us understands. Though she will not be able to hear me much, if at all, it will be lovely just to have her at the other end of the line.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Silence Day Eleven

I used to talk to the dog. I didn’t stop because of my enforced silence but because the dog went deaf. Other than a very high whistle the dog really cannot hear very much. She’s not really that much interested in people anyway though she loves my daughter which is galling after the number of times I have walked her (over 10,500 in case you’re interested) and follows her around like, well, a dog. This is mostly because my daughter tends to slip the dog milk bones and various treats while I am a fairly rigorous enforcer of a lean diet, which, might I point out, has led to the dog’s living long enough to accompany me (or me her) on many thousands of walks. Almost everyone likes talking to dogs and foolishly believe that the dog understands that it is admired. Dogs equate love and admiration with food, end of story. Perhaps my rather aloof dog, its love of my daughter notwithstanding, is an exception but I doubt it. When my dog, Daisy, passes the yard of another dog, barking often ensues, though rarely from Daisy. If the owner of the other dog is nearby he or she will order the dog to be quiet. In very rare instances the dog will stop barking. Mostly the barking keeps coming while the owner insistently tells the animal to be quiet. It’s an odd ritual, after all the dogs are doing what untrained dogs do and often the barking is playful though most people assume any barking is aggressive. If the dogs barking at Daisy could reach her they would probably sniff each other, dance around a bit and Daisy would move on. She’s not really much of a mixer with dogs, either. What I have realized about all this quieting of dogs is that the owners are embarrassed. It’s like people and their children. Why do parents find their children’s crying embarrassing? Children do as much inappropriate laughing as they do crying and no one ever sees fit to stop that. Nor should they, but, equally, let the child cry. If it annoys people move somewhere the child cannot be so easily heard. People see their barking dog as an extension of themselves, they worry that the person passing by, particularly if that person has a quiet dog, will judge them as out of control, as unconcerned with matters of decorum and manners. As goes the dog, so goes the owner is the thought they fear. People worry that a crying child indicates that they, the parents, are not raising the child to be tough and capable of dealing with this difficult world. Crying is for pussies and I ain’t no pussy. As far as I can see the most amazing thing about our species is that we are not crying all the time. The shushers of dogs want the passerby to believe that they are entirely in control of their animals, that they respond to their voices and this moment of insanity is a blip and were I to wander by tomorrow the dog would be calm and controlled and the owner would show me that he or she is the master of their domain. Of course I have passed these dogs thousands of times and they are always the same. The only point of pride I have about Daisy – other than the fact that she is trained – is that she has lived so long. This is mostly genetics but we have fed her and kept her properly and that seems to me to be worthy. I see people walking their dogs and talking to them and it is in this talking that you hear the owner’s personality come through. There’s a woman in our area with a small dog, and every time she sees other dogs she tells her own dog to be careful, she begins talking and moving as though the dog across the road or approaching along the sidewalk is potentially evil. A possible eater of other dogs. Immediately I know that her dog is aggressive but she would never admit this or try and fix it, rather proclaim loudly that the other dogs are savages. Which, of course, is what they are. They are dogs, after all. She’s the dog owning equivalent of the Ranting Preacher, aware of his consuming sin, as he sees it, but unwilling either to indulge that sin or confront it and so finds a soap box on which he stands and tells the world how sinful it is. The difference is that dogs cost you money while condemnation rakes in the dollars. I almost never say anything to Daisy when I walk her and never did much when she could hear me and now I am temporarily entirely silent but for my high whistle. I suppose that says something about my attitude both to pets and to the world in general. Love me love my dog.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Silence Day Ten

For a lot of men conversation is slightly competitive. I certainly spend some of my conversational time working out the next snappy comeback or the Great One Liner. Obviously I know men who are not conversationally competitive and women who are endless streams of witticism, but I think of the oneupmanship of conversation as a male dominated place. This probably stems from an adolescent need to impress girls or, given how witty many of my gay friends are, boys. Boys have no idea what actually pleases girls so we assume that what amuses us will amuse them. Mind you, I was given to conversational dominance before I realized that girls were the whole point of our existence along with beer and sleeping. Even as a five year old I was cracking wise, or as wisely as a five year old can which I discovered after having a child is actually quite wise indeed. Perhaps in some subliminal way I already understood this when I was very young and somehow believed that I could win girls’, indeed people’s, affections by being wittier than the other boys since, though I could run like the wind I was too small to be a fighter and being a good fighter, as all boys know, is what really attracts the females. I can sit in the midst of a conversation and quietly interject a bon mot or a sharp retort that is heard only by the person sitting next to me and as long as that one person is amused I feel my time has been well spent. In fact there is some strange pseudo intellectual pleasure in cracking jokes that only one or two people get, a kind of smug entre nous humor (always enhanced by the dropping of an occasional French word). Now I sit silently in the few conversations I encounter. Torture. I can feel my brain turning off because there is nothing to engage me, I have no quip with which to top the last utterance, no phrase that will show my extensive reading and the fact that I took Latin and Ancient Greek in school. Try cracking a joke with a pen and pad. I am forced to sit there while parents talk about their children and, worse, oh, much worse, the education of their children. Or watch helplessly as women talk about their feelings and the men present, ever optimistic that life could get a little better if they just behave in what is taken to be a mature manner, nod sagely while seething with the desire to discuss sports or have an argument just for the hell of it. I, too, am silent though not nodding sagely. I am inwardly smacking my head on the table. Perhaps, unaware, I am actually smacking my head on the table. How did this happen? How did the notion that discussing one’s feelings, being in touch with one’s emotions, is somehow more appropriate, more intelligent, more anything than what a man might prefer to be doing? Even unto middle age the men are convinced that this sage nodding and their little confessions of their tiny emotions will get them laid. Which man among us would prefer that he be remembered as emotionally open rather than for the Great Line? I remember sitting at a packing machine in a Dutch razor blade factory with three other men and we were just finishing the night shift during which we had laughed uproariously the entire time. Our laughter had been reported to the factory foreman who came on shift just before we left. He was, strangely, a former prison guard from Kentucky though he had a Dutch last name. He told us we had been laughing too much and that he would check our work closely and talk to us again the following morning. He was as good as his word and returned to our packing table with two sets of razor blade packets, one of which had one set of blades turned the wrong way up, the other containing an ear plug. I pointed out the ease with which the upside down blades could happen and sort of smirked at the earplug, squashed and yellow in the bubble pack. The foreman then waxed lyrical about his own start there on the factory floor, how he had worked every single machine that we could see and how, without question, “a monkey could do this job.” Now, the sage nodders, the faux empathizers, the New Men, would accept this information and their role as quasi monkeys and carry on. But there it lay, one of the great opportunities, the chance to be enshrined forever in my own Witticism Hall of Fame, a candidate for lifetime achievement in snappy comebacks. The moment seemed to stretch as I contemplated my looming unemployment, the dreary search for menial work in a foreign city, but it had to be said. As the echo of “a monkey could do this job” faded into the hiss of machinery, out it came: “Well, you’re proof of that”.

Here in my silent life I contemplate those Great Moments, such as going into work the morning after a drinking session with my boss, knocking on his door and hearing him say, that whisky went straight to my head. Well, I observed, Nature abhors a vacuum. For sad, vaguely intellectual people such as myself this is scoring the goal, the touchdown, the game winning home run. Sitting there in silence is painful, watching the opportunities even for a small riposte float by on the river of redundance. I cannot wait until it is over.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Silence Day Nine

I had vaguely remembered dreams again last night about speaking. Earlier dreams involved my speaking and then realizing that I shouldn’t be. Last night I was trying to speak but it was very difficult, I couldn’t make my voice work. Thus do my dreams track my hopes and fears. I don’t put much stock in dreams but these have been interesting. My life became odder late last week when I had dental surgery and the left side of my face swelled like a grapefruit. Now I have to explain, pen and pad in hand, first why my face is swollen then why I cannot speak about it. I had another of those walking in the street experiences today. In this case I was very aware of a lot of people staring at me, which they may have been doing a few days ago when I was carrying my daughter’s school paraphernalia home but I had not noticed. I was forced to park a distance from the bicycle repair shop to which I was taking my daughter’s bike. It’s a fabulous Hot Rod, banana seat, red like the red that is simply the only red for a bike, Easy Rider handlebars. I had to wheel it to the shop, it’s chain hanging loose, the reason for the needed repair. Quite a few people offered to buy it from me. I got it repaired and wheeled it back to the car but on the return journey no one offered to buy it, though many stared. Again I started to get worried – did they think I’d stolen some poor child’s bike? I am becoming paranoid because I know that I cannot tell people what’s going on and I have been taking a lot of drugs for the throat surgery and now the dental surgery. Do steroids make you paranoid?

This is all getting tedious. I no longer want to go to enter a monastery, even as a notion. I have had one insight confirmed. We should all take a moment before flying off the handle. It seems very simple but for someone such as I, whose approach to life is aggressive and deliberately provoking, it’s only simple in the abstract. One of the effects of not speaking is the need to summarize what you wish to communicate. When able to talk I can go on at great length about the source of my frustrations, about the opinions which everybody secretly agrees with, which is even more frustrating because I just know they see it my way but won’t admit it, the fights with family are long drawn out exegeses on my rightness and their wrongness. When all your emotions have to be expressed in a short written note it all becomes less embellished. Long words, which, let’s all admit, we use just to show that we know them, will not do. What this pause to write helps with is the moment of reflection. Stopping to realize that maybe the root of the problem is really quite insubstantial or petty. I really am going to try and use this strategy after the pad and pen have gone away. It will all come to naught, I will still be charging about the house yelling up a storm, browbeating with the long words, endlessly circling the drain of my anger. What people don’t get about angry people, at least about me, is that we like being angry, at least in the moments when we are venting. It feels good. Endless psychoanalysis has led people to ascribe reasons for anger or insecurity or cruelty. I have news. Most of us are just born that way. If I were a calm and reasoned person this silence would have been easier I expect. I wouldn’t be sitting in places thinking: What that person just said is utter garbage. I would be on my high, but very well informed horse. I would be dismantling their theory or pointing out the flaw in their logic or their misleading interpretation of whatever text they were referring to. The problem for people such as I is that we know we make little difference, we don’t really change people’s minds that much, which is in itself frustrating. Now and again I can see a crack, mostly in religious arguments though it is hardest of all to get through to a believer because there is no logic upon which belief is founded. We can argue economics or mathematics but how can we argue with Faith? This silence has not made me any more willing to see the other person’s point of view, though I do see it more than my friends realize, I just can’t admit it because I’m a man and we can never lose, either the argument or face. I’m also a very angry man and that reinforces all the mess of maleness. Isn’t it fortunate that I grew up in a country with almost no guns?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Silence Day Eight

It is not true that silence engenders calm. It is still perfectly possible to have an argument while unable to speak. Fury can still be expressed, opinions thrown about. Some who are forced or choose to be silent might be able to take those few moments needed to write or to get into position to gesture and think about the wiser course. How remaining quiet will help more than gesticulating or writing in very large capital letters. I am not one of these people. The odd thing is that my family has the same reaction to my silent tirades as they do to my vocal expressions. If I were them I would just ignore me but they find my silent ranting and gesticulating as repulsive as the audible version and try hard to avoid prompting them. This thought occurred to me not only because of the daily bumps and potholes of family life but because of a political report I read yesterday which reminded me of a theory of mine about political campaigning. Whenever I hear a politician making a mistake I wonder if he or she is simply unable to edit or they have bad advisors. A woman by the name of Elizabeth Warren is running for the Democratic nomination to face Scott Brown, Republican Senator from Massachusetts. Brown is well known for his modeling career, a job that put him through college. In a radio interview he was asked about Warren’s comment that to get through college she did not “take my clothes off”. Now, I feel Warren’s comment was a joke but it certainly could be taken as a dig at a perfectly acceptable way of making money and might even be seen as prudish. I did not hear the comment directly so cannot say. Scott’s response to Warren’s jibe was this: “Thank God”. I predict that Scott Brown has already lost the election. If he had replied that Warren was either a prude or a bad joke teller he would have scored a point and put her on the defensive. Instead he lost the election because he will never get enough women to vote for him no matter what he does. This moment reminds me of other defining spoken moments in elections. There are, of course, the visuals: George Bush the Elder looking at his watch during a debate, John Kerry windsurfing. I am not thinking here of the “defining moments” such as Dukakis’s response to the question of how he would react to the rape and murder of one of his family members. I am thinking of the small moments that pass almost unnoticed, except by weirdos such as I, who pay far too much attention to these political circuses. The most recent little moment was in June of 2008. Most people think that McCain lost the election with the crash in September of that year or when he was born a complete tool with the moral principles of rutting hog. Though both of these were significant I believe It was something else and it is something he has in common with two other really terrible candidates for President, John Kerry and Al Gore. In an interview in June of 2008 John McCain said something along these lines: I wish Barack Obama would quit attacking me and debate the issues, that he would stop these personal attacks. On the face of it, a perfectly reasonable request. I remembered, though, that Kerry and Gore had made almost exactly the same request of their opponents in the previous elections. Instead of making these candidates look like reasonable people trying to have a responsible debate with people who know nothing of Robert’s Rules and the bounds of Decency it simply makes them look weak. McCain believed that his plea would resonate as the appeal of a reasonable man fighting despicable forces. It echoed as the sound of a chickenshit. Not necessarily consciously, but under all the noises about reason and debate people aligned themselves with the man who fought hard and asked and gave no quarter. The unspoken, possibly unrealized, response was: Man Up. When you hear Mitt Romney (for it will be he) ask that Obama refrain from “all these personal attacks” call your bookie and lay everything you have on Obama’s re-election. As for Scott Brown, he has done something slightly different, the Rick Lazio move. Lazio was the man who stomped across a debating stage and brandished a paper at Hilary Clinton in a Senate campaign debate and instantly lost all. Fool that he was, Lazio had not realized that Hilary was the smartest he would ever meet, until Obama showed up. The language of politics, for all our bemoaning its unchanging dynamics, has in fact changed quite radically. It has been feminized. Don’t get me wrong, all those women out there also unconsciously thought, Man Up, McCain, not because they admire old notions of manliness but because, more than men, women have to put up with this shit all the time and they don’t go whining about it to the nearest microphone. They get up, they feed the kids and they go to work. What Scott Brown has done is insult all those women out there who consider themselves attractive, who dress up once in a while when they can afford a babysitter and astonish their spouses and friends with their poise and elegance and who want, just now and again, to be told how good they look. They even want their beauty acknowledged when it isn’t framed in glamour and they want, above all, to be respected for what they do. When Scott Brown mocked Elizabeth Warren’s looks he drove several daggers through every facet of modern perception. He cannot escape it because if he claims he was kidding and he thinks Warren is perfectly good looking he looks both like a liar and a Neandertal because his instinctive reaction to a female opponent was to comment on her looks. Scot Warren will soon be the former Senator from Massachusetts.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Silence Day Seven

As I mentioned on an earlier day Harold Pinter saw and wrote language as a battleground, each speaker maneuvering for dominance and position. My most blatant experience of this use, or avoidance of use, of speech occurred in the offices of a law firm. One of the things you discover quickly when temping is the lack of full literacy and numeracy among the populace. Though I had, and have, almost no skills applicable to the modern office – I type slowly, I have no great familiarity with most computer programs – I am literate and numerate. The reaction to a temp who can file alphabetically, numerically and chronologically is quite astonishing. You become indispensible. You can sense that the full time employees with whom you work begin each week relieved that you have returned and they do not have to call the temp agency and run through nine more temps before a tenth shows up who can read and write. I arrived at a very prestigious law firm one Monday morning and went through the usual routine: finding the lunch room, being shown the desk at which I would work, details of break times. The offices were laid out like a frying pan, the reception desk sitting at its handle, the better rooms ringing the outer wall and thus having windows with spectacular views and the lesser rooms grouped in the middle of the pan, separated from the gods of law by the circular hallway. It was both efficient and a clear statement of hierarchy. If you are a secretary you have an office in the middle of the floor and must cross the dividing walkway to approach the higher beings. Conversely the higher beings can be seen crossing the dividing river to descend upon their underlings. Because of a lack of space and the absence of one of the partners I was given the office of said partner and for a week or two I had the office of one of the gods of law with the aforementioned spectacular view. One of the effects of this design is that whenever someone needs to get from one place to another he or she must travel at least some of this common circular divide, so encountering a good portion of the workers each day. On my first morning there I was heading for the lunch room to get a coffee and I passed someone of note. He was not famous, he was noticeable. He was dressed very casually, jeans as I recall and an open shirt and I immediately knew, because I had become familiar with the semiotics of places of business, that he was a Senior Partner, probably a Founding Partner, and that he came and went as he pleased. I also remember that he was short, which may have some bearing on all of this. Being a polite person I greeted him and received an odd response. He sort of jerked slightly or flinched and there might have been a grunt but there was no definite reply, no sign that he had understood my greeting and was responding in kind. Odd, I thought, as I went about my coffee hunting. About half a minute after I had returned to my splendid office on the better side of the river of quite lovely carpet the woman who was my supervisor rushed in (without knocking, what was the world coming to?) and asked me if I had spoken to the casually dressed man. Yes, I had said good morning to him, I replied. You must never speak to him, said she. He is not to be spoken to. She told me that he was indeed a senior and a founding partner and he did come and go as he pleased and he was never to be spoken to by any but a select few. As a man of the theatre and of the unemployment line I asked why and my supervisor’s response was entirely that of a woman of the office, of the world of Law (it might just as easily have been of Insurance or Aeronautics) and it was the usual: that’s just the way it is.

I continued about my day doing dreary things in a rather lovely place and mused upon this man and this culture. The next day, and for each day following that I worked at this particular law firm, I found an excuse to linger at the reception desk as people arrived. I discovered that the Casual Man, He Who Must Not Be Greeted, though free to come and go as he pleased seemed to arrive more or less when everyone else did. He would get off the elevator, put his head down and head for his office. Because the hallway down which he had to travel was circular all I had to do to encounter him was to enter the circle from the opposite side. Which I did. Every day. As we passed each other I would greet him very loudly, very cheerily, making sure that he knew that it was him I was addressing. Even by the second day of my illustrious career in Law my supervisor and those with whom I had worked for one day knew that I was the office equivalent of gold dust. An alphabetical, numerical and chronological filer of mammoth proportions. A reader and summarizer of documents of biblical talent, which is to say that I could read and write and convey meaning from what I had read. I greeted Casual Man every day and no one came rushing to admonish me for my simple human interaction. Whether he was a very shy man or a very busy man or a short man who had decided all those years of being looked down upon, about which he could do nothing, were now to be atoned for I cannot say. I simply could not understand a world in which one person says to another, no one is allowed to speak to me and that other person takes this as perfectly acceptable. In fact rushes about the office enforcing this diktat. Had this man been a philosopher I might have understood but then he would not have been atop a skyscraper with a magnificent view litigating on behalf of corporate America. He’s have been in a soup kitchen line happy to engage with whoever seemed willing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Silence Day Six

Through various circumstances too dull to relate I was walking through my neighborhood yesterday carrying my daughter’s lunch box and odds and ends from school. My daughter was not with me. I began thinking what an odd sight I might appear to anyone of a suspicious mind. What is this grey haired man doing with the paraphernalia of a schoolchild? Where did he get those things and where is the girl to whom they belong? I wonder if there are people whose first thought is – Oh, there’s a nice man, he’s found some child’s stuff and he’s trying to get it back to her or her family. I doubt it. I am not given to such thoughts though neither am I particularly given to suspect dark motives in those I pass unless they are drunken youths since I was once a drunken youth. My lack of voice and the various diagnoses that have gone along with its deterioration are the reason I was walking alone with my daughter’s things, (as I noted, very dull) and I couldn’t bear watching others eat pizza while I sipped water or chewed lettuce. My shadowed thoughts are a result of the several times I have been accosted by various authority figures questioning my relationship to my child who is adopted and looks completely unrelated to me. Were I a fully functioning individual my daughter and I would have been walking together, chit chatting, making our usual observations and, though some uniformed person might question our association, no one would find it odd that I was carrying a child’s lunch box and composition book. This lack of a voice is beginning to make me view the world quite askew. I am now envisioning myself in some dank police cell, gesticulating at an investigator because they have taken away my pad and pen in which are written such strange things as “tazer” and “Alice killed him”.

I don’t really know exactly how silent monastic orders operate, the degree to which the silence is observed. Presumably talk is allowed when they are trying to bake their daily bread and orders have to be given and acknowledged and the various functions of the monastery have to be carried out. One of my favourite jokes is about the man who joins a silent order which allows each member to speak once each ten years, only to the abbot (if that’s what a chief monk is called). After ten years the monk enters the abbot’s cell and the abbot indicates permission to speak. The monk tells the abbot that he finds the heating inadequate but otherwise things are going well. Ten years later the same ritual occurs and the monk says he finds his mattress a bit hard but otherwise all is fine. After thirty years the ritual is repeated and the monk tells the abbot he wishes to leave the order. Fine, says the abbot, all you’ve ever done anyway is complain. What I am realizing over these few but seemingly endless days is how much our personalities depend on our voices. This is true also of those whose voice is sign language since each person’s signing is differently expressive. We all react to an adult, man or woman, who has a very high voice. Similarly we have prejudices about deep voices. The monks, though, rarely register the way a personality is expressed in speech yet I assume they have deep friendships and notable likes and dislikes within their group. I find myself now unable to contribute to any conversation, in fact I avoid most social situations because they are so much work. I do listen, however, and even though others are sadly missing out on the enlightenment I usually bring to any given subject, I at least am learning something. Speech tells others a good deal about how your mind works. This allows those engaged with you to adapt their conversation to suit the way in which you seem to perceive the world. This to and fro is the basis of change for those of us who are changeable, which includes the great majority of us. The other apes don’t change much because they have no significant discourse (all PETA members can find a link to opinions that suit them better). We are discursive apes. We are self reflective apes. This is linked to brain size, which is linked to vocal chord usage and so on but the basis of our success as a species is the ability to communicate in very sophisticated ways. While this ability has led us to the brink of the destruction of our own and many other species it is also what gives us the capacity to save ourselves. I wonder if our exasperation with politicians lies in their speech. It is unchanging. Their way of speaking, certainly the unvarying way they have of addressing the public, is ape-like. They are grunting at the faction that already agrees with them because they know that’s where the next banana is coming from. To speak in a flexible way, in the way most of us speak in our daily lives, taking in information and adjusting to it, might alienate their supporters and there is no guarantee that the people whom they have earlier opposed, and to whose view they might be leaning slightly, will throw them any fruit. I am probably gravely insulting other apes, particularly those who watch cable news. I am sure that monastic life has changed over the centuries but probably not by much. This, too, might be the result of not speaking. Much as the world might benefit from the study of the monastic life I think I will stick with mouthing off and leave that to some quiet academic.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Silence Day Five

I know people who have had far more serious conditions than my loss of voice and once in a while I have had a taste of what truly changes a life unbidden. I have lost a piece of me to a machine, fortunately it was a piece of the little finger of my left hand and I am right handed. For a few moments now and then, though, such a thing gives a glimpse of what true damage would mean to someone who lost several fingers or a hand. I was paralyzed temporarily down my left side by a spinal dislocation and was not certain for a while whether the damage was permanent. Now I see people in wheelchairs after accidents, unable to move below a certain point and that helpless feeling returns viscerally. An undiagnosed exploded appendix brought to mind a friend who went in for exploratory surgery and did not come back. When darker thoughts overtake me, usually in those minutes before the day has really begun, lying awake trying to keep the clock from moving forward to the struggle to get the child out the door and the even greater struggle to find things to do that will keep me from writing or reading or something equally significant, like paying the credit card bill, I fear for my ability to deal with a less than perfect outcome. I see my neighbor barreling along in his wheelchair after a motorcycle accident, his garden planted with trees since the accident, the child he and his partner have had and I cannot imagine I could ever recover my spirit to such a degree. Most of us are defined by two things: our relationships and our work. I remember the times my dad was out of work, that creature of the workplace always slightly ill at ease in the house, a man who took joy in looking at blueprints, who to this day stops at building sites to watch others work, still talks of how much he wishes he were still out there hammering and sawing. Those days of unemployment were a torture to him, leaping to the telephone each time it rang, hoping it was a contractor who needed him and his immense skill. Though I inherited almost nothing of my dad’s aptitude I do share his view of work. It isn’t simply a way of putting food on the table, as important as that is. It defines us. He was only ever two things, a blacksmith and a carpenter. He did other things to get by, he picked potatoes, did a few pick up jobs in factories, but he almost exclusively became a carpenter after he moved from Ireland to England. I worked with him several times and it was as important to him that a concrete pour be perfect as it is for me now to get a phrase right, to write or speak a sentence with such clarity and force that it will say something about who I am and what I am. Having a mellifluous speaking voice is pure happenstance. I got it from my family whose voices are deep and resonant, it’s pure genetics. Using it well is work. I can write good prose and dialogue on occasion partly because I spent my youth listening to Irish people tell stories that changed the hardship of impoverished rural childhoods and the difficulties of immigrant life into the magic of Story. I find myself now, in the waking minutes, wondering what I would do if my voice does not come back fully, remote as that possibility is. I like to think of myself as someone who is not ruled by fear, but neither am I immune to it. While I have the imagination to create a world and people it, to interpret the worlds of others and convey those worlds to listeners and watchers, I cannot imagine what I would do other than this strange thing called acting or this even stranger thing called writing. Of course I would find something, there is food to be bought and a house to maintain. I think of my father and what might have happened to him if he had ended up in a factory, as many of his contemporaries and several of his family members did. There would have been food on the table and the house would have been paid for but that man, prowling the house waiting for a call that would take him out into the rain and the wind, would have been less, a shadow, Sunday night a dread of Monday morning rather than a day off that got him back up to speed. Over at UCLA some of the best physicians in the country tell me with absolute confidence that all will be well and I believe them but now and again I find myself in a dark place, remembering all those things I have done for a living that sucked the life out of me. If anyone thinks I am a dyspeptic curmudgeon now they should see me when I am temping.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Silence Day Four

Each school day morning we drive three children from three families the short distance to their school. One of the children is the daughter of a couple that speaks very little English. The child herself is bilingual and even though she is sometimes called upon as interpreter we try hard to communicate directly with her mother who brings her to our house five days a week. Her mother is a delightful and very funny woman and it would be very amusing to watch us trying to understand each other with her shards of English and my wife’s schoolgirl Spanish and my smattering of Spanish words. Somehow we have managed to become great friends, we’ve been out to dinner with them, we get each other’s jokes. It isn’t that much more difficult communicating with these friends without speech. It reminds me a little of when I was hitchhiking through Europe and trying to tell French and Italian and German drivers where I was headed. Some things can be easily understood: the very first person who ever picked me up was a man who propositioned me with a mixture of French and fingers and whom I politely declined, choosing to be dropped in the rain next to a public toilet in which I spent the night. One of the difficult aspects of our friendship with the smattering of English/smattering of Spanish friends is that they feel some debt is owed to us because we own a car and they don’t and they seem to feel that we are doing them some great favour. This results in their sweeping leaves up around our yard as some sort of recompense and generally trying to clean up. It so happens that my mother spent much of her working life cleaning and serving and I am very sensitive to this. I find myself wanting to say – Stop, you are not my employees, you are my friends, you owe me nothing. I do in fact say “!Para”, Spanish for “stop” and this seems to have little effect. I now have no voice and when the daughter started to sweep leaves this morning I simply walked over, grabbed the broom and threw it down the length of the yard. Sometimes the inability to speak is quite liberating.

The instinct for speech is very strong. Even encountering the dog I can feel myself about to greet her and banter with her. She can no longer hear anything other than a shrill whistle and is blind in one eye and I find myself approaching her without her being aware. Despite her advanced age and her near deafness and blindness she still loves to walk. She runs, well, totters about, like a deranged puppy with motor function difficulties and will stagger around the neighbourhood for as much as an hour, sniffing everything, finding out who has passed by recently, smelling the trail of a skunk or that annoying inbred midget dog from across the way. Mostly she is searching for two things: food that has been cast aside and cat feces. Dogs love to eat cat feces. This trait in our dog has become quite pronounced. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of soft food for old people. Along the way we encounter other dogs and their owners (sorry, guardians) some of whom have been watching me walk the dog with my daughter for more than ten years since we first moved to this area, some encountering us for the first time. They are always astonished that Daisy the Dog is still alive or mystified by how that creature manages forward motion. Those who do not know Daisy ask how old she is. The answer to this now entails reaching into my pocket and pulling out my notepad, finding the page on which is written, “I have had throat surgery and cannot speak” and using my fingers to indicate eighteen years. Then I have to point to the dog in case they think I am barred from speaking for eighteen years rather than indicating the dog’s age. All this could be avoided if I were a rude person. If I were the sort of person who considers small talk beneath him. I sometimes wish this were the case but I am a polite person in a superficial sort of way and I end up in conversations with people I barely know whose obsessions and concerns are understandable but not of the least interest to me. At least for now I can avoid conversation with the woman who is in the awful process of getting her child into school and addressed the subject with me, assuming that I would be of help, having a child in school myself. She is not to know that I find that particular subject less interesting than my dog’s bowel movements and, again, I show good manners by engaging her. It turns out that she knows of my daughter’s school and has been there to take a look. She does not think she will send her child there, she says. I imagine that this statement is intended to draw me into a defense of the school, some attempt to convince her that where my child goes is better than where she might otherwise send her child. In reality I could not care less. My failure to jump to the defense of my daughter’s school elicits, unbidden, the reason she does not feel the school is right for her family. There is not enough shade. I will repeat that for those who are staring at the page wondering what the woman actually said, rather than the silly words that I have clearly put in her mouth. She said, there is not enough shade. Yes, there is someone in this world, probably not alone in her worry, whose major criterion for the choice of her child’s school is that it should have sufficient shade. My first thought might have been something along the lines of, I wish I could develop a growth of some sort on my vocal chords so I never have to engage in this sort of conversation again. In fact I believe it was more in the vein of, Daisy’s feces looked good and solid today, that’s encouraging. That my thoughts were not on this woman’s concerns for her child’s risk of skin cancer probably registered with her and we parted, mutually bemused I expect, she by my unconcern, I by the ever increasing amazement that overwhelms me whenever I am forced to talk to people about their children.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Silence Day Three

I rarely remember my dreams but last night, though the details are unclear, I spent my time dreaming that I was speaking and then being brought up short by the realization that I shouldn’t. I wonder if I was making noises in my sleep to match my dreams. I went to the movies last night (Moneyball, very good) and as I left I accidentally clipped the heel of the man in front of me and automatically said, or sort of aspirated, “oops, sorry”. First of all a dread descended that I had just ruined my voice by that simple utterance and all this surgery and silence was for nothing. Then I began to wonder why the clipping of a stranger’s heel elicited sound while dealing with my daughter’s moods or the necessities of daily life do not. We seem to be programmed as a species to be more concerned with what strangers think of us than what our family and friends think of us. Is it that we fear the stranger might turn on us while our families generally realize that the clipping of a heel is simply ineptitude or accident? Presumably the family, knowing they are stuck with us and we with them, let such things pass and we generally know the limits of patience of those closest to us. The stranger, however, may be volatile, perhaps he has had a very bad day and might decide that my clipping of his heel is the last straw and all the frustrations of his day will come bursting forth in an attack on the heel clipper. He might be particularly angered by a clipper of heels who blithely continues on without a word or, worse, a possibly lunatic clipper who is gesticulating meaninglessly, trying to communicate through signs and gestures in the middle of the entrance lobby of a large movie theatre while hundreds watch the strange pantomime, an embarrassing farce for all concerned. Far more likely that we utter apologies left and right because we know that it helps grease the wheels of our days and costs us little. Apologies within families are delicate negotiations, upon them depends the fragile balance that is required to keep the whole strange edifice standing, or at least no more than tottering.

I have noticed that people start whispering sometimes when I indicate that I cannot speak. I went into the convenience store over the road from our house and let the owner know I am not speaking and he seemed apologetic and started to whisper. He accompanied this whispering with a sort of cringe, a bowing of the body and a slight shuffling as though he was in thrall to my reduced condition. I could not work out if this was because he feared a loud voice might shatter something in me or worsen my condition even though it is in no way connected to my ears. His is not an unusual reaction though a little emphatic perhaps. Those who know me usually laugh. Someone as opinionated as I ought to be the butt of jokes at a time like this. I caught a snippet of Sacha Cohen’s movie “Borat” the other night and remembered my reaction to it which the snippet confirmed. Americans, or more specifically people in the United States, are unfailingly polite to strangers or to those they do not know well. Familiarity breeds mockery. The man in the store knows me and my family as the buyers of bottles of wine and beer, occasional junk food and emergency toilet paper and he does not speak much English. The people at my local coffee shop, those behind the counter and the drinkers, know me and my daughter as voluble and garrulous and sarcastic and react accordingly. All are sympathetic, of course, but sympathy can come in the form of quiet glee at my condition, an opinionated man free with his theories and notions brought low by a small growth that might have been designed specifically to humble him.

As I drove home this evening I saw a billboard for the local television news and I realized that if I had a voice and another person in the car I would venture the question: Why does anyone watch local television news? It is beyond awful. I mean Maury Povich is awful, a lot of the Disney Channel is awful, the E channel is awful but Povich, Disney and E are awful in a thrilling, truly exploitative way. Maybe not Disney. You should know that I think Jerry Springer is a genius, by the way. Local news, though. Who still watches it? Millions, I presume, who want to know how the latest supermarket opening went, how the junior high basketball team fared in Nowhere Suburbia. I can sort of understand why someone might watch the weather forecast in Chicago or Denver where they actually have weather, but why would you care about the weather forecast in southern California? I can give it to you now. Warm and sunny. Besides you can get the weather forecast any time you please on the internet without the dancing bear and the smug commentary from surgically enhanced nincompoops who think Johnny Carson was the height of western culture. Don’t get me wrong, he was very good was Johnny Carson, but you know what I mean. The reason that local news has prodded me into ranting opinion is that while not talking I notice things more. Self help books seem to advise that we should all notice the world around us more, take time to look and listen. I have lots of looking and listening time and it’s not a great improver of life. It’s mostly billboards advertising local news. Mind you self help books also advise letting go of your anger and that’s the last thing you want to do. Greatest force for change in the world. Maybe it will force me to campaign to get rid of billboards with people who have had plastic surgery.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Silence Day Two

In this silence I communicate mostly by notes. I carry a pad and pen. Here are some of the scribbling from my first full day of not speaking:


Steroid tomorrow or today?

I have to eat.

Spit does not hurt so much.

Surgery was very successful and I will feel well.

You need sleep.

I have often played charades and quite well.

Another cop. His friend.

Alice did it.


I sent her to bed.



More pills than an old man.

3.30 a.m.

I moved the seat. Try it.

If they enclose the dog will you go?

We rarely remember much of what we say, I know I don’t, and now the reason is clear. It’s usually not worth taking up brain capacity for the odd little things we seem to care about. That might be the great lesson of these ten days: a good deal of what we say is just space filler. There is the Pinter view of conversation as pure power negotiation, the need to dominate or gain concession. So far silence is not getting me closer to dictatorship even within my own family. I am now much closer to ape than I was two days ago. I have banged the dining room table with my fists several times to express the common emotions of the average parent, raging fury and incoherent rage. We men are always being told by the women in our lives and in our reading material that we do not express our emotions enough. After all these millennia of coupling and parting, of raising children, of grappling together and apart with life the truth of the matter is that men are either happy or enraged and women do not like that. Men are binary creatures and any attempt to make us anything else is futile. Now that I am silent I can indulge my binariness and ingest Vicodin, take my steroids and my antibiotics and smash my fists on the table. Fathers have the great advantage over mothers of not worrying that their children like them. Or perhaps that’s just me. Mothers so want their children to like them while fathers want to do enough to get them a few moments of peace and quiet regardless of what their children feel about them. Much like the binary nature of men this is something that cannot be changed. This is not some startling insight that has come through silent contemplation. I have noticed this element of family life from its very beginning and now have nothing but time to spend writing it down. I should write that child rearing book I have been threatening so long wherein parents can learn the value of more television, the stupidity of homework and general parental amnesia. For some reason most parents have forgotten how dreadful much of childhood was – and I had a relatively happy childhood. I never ask my daughter how school was. I know it was tedious beyond description. It was, is and will be forever dreary. I ask my daughter if school was just as boring today as everyday and occasionally she surprises me by telling me, no, it was quite good today. Her favorite part of the day is always recess. So was it for us, so will it be for our grandchildren. All you out there spending hundreds of thousands on that fancy school, don’t kid yourselves. The paint job is nicer but it’s all a grind.

I began this odyssey to speechlessness with a diagnosis (almost certainly accurate) of acid reflux damaging my vocal chords and was put on a radical anti-acid diet. No alcohol, no coffee, no tea, no dairy, no tomatoes, no herbs or spices of any kind, no red meat. An endless lists of No. There came a point where my weight loss was so great it exceeded that of cancer patients (I kid you not). While I have been on this diet many friends have asked me if I feel better. No, I do not. I am not more energetic, I am not calmer, I am not more relaxed or more inclined to exercise. I am hungry. Get thinner, by all means, if that’s important but do not buy into the notions the experts sell that it will make your life exponentially more anything. Washing up is not more interesting when you weigh less, neither is making your child’s lunch or attending back to school night, the dog is still ancient and deaf and blind and falls over when you walk her, the things that annoy you about other people and the things that you love and adore about them are no different. You really are just hungrier.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Silence Day One

I am sitting in imposed silence. I wish I were sitting in imposing silence. Perhaps following some quietly but ferociously delivered command to my daughter who weeps and wails but nevertheless does as she is told, not because of the ferocity of my delivery but because of the bottomless depths implied by my silence. No, my silence is imposed by a surgeon who today removed a cyst from my vocal chords. The saga of the temporary dying of my voice is not the point of this exercise but suffice to say that an actor losing his voice is a deeply disturbing experience, particularly when said actor has no other skills in the world than those that allow him to stride a stage, interrupt light between sun and camera and talk into a microphone. More particularly so when this individual has had, for some considerable time, the great blessing to have earned his living acting rather than doing the awful things which once put food on the table and coffee in the cup. Some consider office temp work the very lowest rung and I have done a lot of temping and it is a sucker of the soul but I have worked the night shift in a razor blade factory, changed light bulbs forty hours a week and cleaned Greek toilets, the last of which gained me the grand sum of a bed for the night in a youth hostel. If you think the Greeks’ inability to pay their debts is their biggest problem you might want to test (or avoid) the quality of their plumbing. This surgical silence will last for ten days and I have decided to make a daily record of what it is like, firstly, to be someone who speaks both for a living and at great length in his normal life and, secondly, to negotiate life in one of the world’s largest and busiest cities without a voice. I should also mention navigating the ins and outs of spouse and ten year old child. My wife has already commented that I must be terrible at charades. This is a deeply humiliating opinion to offer to an actor. It does not help that my handwriting is not the most legible. Somewhere in all of this I have to go and have dental work done and I suppose I should be grateful at not having to respond to the dentist’s chit chat with the usual incoherent grunting while she has a suction pump and a tooth prong in my mouth. I imagine dentists do not call any of their tools tooth prongs but I am only an ill informed former temp worker and bog cleaner.

Today has been a half day of silence since I did not emerge from surgery and anesthesia until the early afternoon. I awoke with a very sore neck, more specifically a sore cervical spine. In order to get a scalpel – apparently a very tiny scalpel – down my throat my head had to be kept at an extreme backward angle in order to make my trachea into something resembling a straight line. Unfortunately, many years ago, I had a bone graft in two dislocated cervical vertebrae and my head really doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore. However, necessity and all that. The tip of my tongue was numb apparently from a topical anesthetic. Presumably used to ameliorate the pressure from some sort of clamp that held my tongue as far out from my mouth as possible. Or does someone just hold it for an hour? When the painkillers wear off my throat is very sore and I find it hard to swallow. When I take the painkillers, though, the pain is minimal and I am amazed at how well all this seems to have gone so far. I won’t mention the book narration I was offered last night that was both a fascinating subject and worth several thousand dollars and which I had to turn down. I hope no one from my mortgage holder is reading this. I would have said “my bank” but the notion of a bank actually holding your mortgage for longer than the time it takes for the ink to dry on the documents or the length of time it takes to say “mortgage backed security” is laughably old fashioned. And now, silence. My high school (actually a secondary school since it was in England, let’s not let enforced silence muddy our accuracy) was odd in so very many ways and each Easter Week we entered upon a Retreat. Three days of silence which were dedicated to contemplation, prayer and reflection and even more church services than usual. I loved the Retreats. I observed the silence, I prayed fervently and at the end of it I felt renewed and full of spiritual and mental energy. Truly. I sat through meals during which the only sounds were cutlery scraping and one of the students reading from Scripture. It was the oddest experience I’d ever had and, at the same time, seemed uniquely inspiring and uplifting. I admit three days was plenty but I grew to understand the monastic impulse and it returns very strongly when life becomes fraught, the noise level within and without my house grows intolerable and I desperately need some time to write (I was not sufficiently underemployed or impoverished as an actor and decided writing would drive me into the poorhouse). Unlike those Retreats this silence is mine alone and not shared with other adolescent boys and I will report how it goes. I am hoping it will teach me to listen, a skill I failed to pick up early enough for it to make an impression. I imagine the script on which I am currently working will be a polished masterpiece ten days from now. I don’t know what will replace prayer, something I gave up long ago. I’m not really given to meditation, something of which I had my fill while lying immobilized in a hospital for two months with the aforementioned dislocated spine. Perhaps the hefty tome on European history I am reading will finally be finished. Such possibilities.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Yesterday a question was answered and normally the answered question is a reason to celebrate or at least to be relieved that Ignorance has met its match temporarily. However, in this case, the question was: What makes Art possible in the modern United States? People will suggest artists themselves, obviously, working away for little material reward. Or patrons, those with wealth enough to spare some for their passions and sometimes those passions include theatre or painting or dance. The enthusiastic public, of course, why else do we do it? I have the double privilege of knowing the answer to the question and of having been the beneficiary of that answer. I also have the terrible misfortune to have been told that what, or who, makes Art possible in this country has gone from us. She was Melissa Hines, and I know that she made Art in this country possible because we will feel the lack of her drive and her determination immediately. When I first worked in theatre it was in the administration of a wonderful place by the name of The Empty Space, a legendary spot in Seattle that did what all good theatres do: tottered on the brink of extinction while producing work to make the gods weep. Partly because I was young and drank a lot the years at the Space were among the most joyous of my life. I took tickets, I swept floors, I ran the box office and then I did something truly stupid, I decided to cross the divide and become an artist, first as a dialect coach then as an actor and finally as a playwright. In all those years the rock upon which the Space survived was Melissa Hines who was the Development Director or, as I like to think of that position, beggar-in-chief. No one could write a grant the way Melissa could; no one thought so deeply about the reason theatre mattered to a community; no one made a potential patron understand why his or her donation mattered the way Melissa did.

She was much more than a grant writer and an intellectual presence. She baked cookies for the crew on all-nighters as opening approached, she hammered scenery, she swept the lobby, she changed light bulbs that were blown, she was always the last to leave and the first there. While I was faceless in the bar across the street (oh, the Comet, how I loved you) Melissa was tapping away at the very first of what were then known as word processors, the Selectric reserved for fancy letters, not quite obsolete but headed the way of the fountain pen. I rarely saw her flustered, almost never heard an angry word from her. This may have had something to do with her drinking prodigious amounts of coffee. I mean chain drinking coffee. When it was discovered that the Empty Space spent more money on coffee than on new play development I remember thinking, well, that’s Melissa dealt with but what is everyone else drinking? I do remember once when she finally demanded that her vast array of responsibilities be acknowledged in some way. Theatre has a simple way of rewarding people: there is never any money and so a new title has to be invented. This explains the vast number of associate thises and assistant thats. The managing director of the theatre, a great friend, couldn’t believe that even Melissa Hines was complaining, surely this was the end of civilization as we knew it? I suggested that Melissa be given the title, “Melissa Hines: Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Mongol Hordes”. He put this to Melissa, she laughed and left it at that. There was, though, more than a touch of respect in my suggestion because no one I knew then or have known since has ever done as much for the likes of me as Melissa Hines. My various jobs in theatre were subsidized by the money she raised, various buildings in which I worked were rebuilt and paid for by patrons persuaded to give by her dedication and relentlessness. She eventually took over the management of the Space and, in spaces around Seattle, the theatre continued to produce very fine work and I was lucky enough to be in a couple of productions under her leadership. There were still cookies being baked, Melissa still wielded a broom on occasion despite her having the title she had wanted and fully deserved. In her spare time (ha!) she translated and adapted Moliere and saw her work produced. Now, like the Empty Space Theatre, she is gone and our world is smaller and darker and more pedestrian than it was. I shall raise a glass in the Comet Tavern when next I am in Seattle and remember that once that glass was filled with beer partly paid for by Melissa Hines.