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Of sound mind. (an essay)

by Christina Gleason

I press the small, grooved semi-circle release and the
clear plastic top falls backwards, revealing a hard,
plastic shell wrapped in a line of soft wire. I unwind the
wire around my fingers until the locked arms of my favorite
headphones are free and the black and silver pretzel of
smooth plastic, brushed metal, - of wires, resistors,
capacitors, transducer - slides out of their case and onto
my hand. I flip the arms open and they go from the folded
pout of being shut in - closeted away in a desk drawer, a
purse, a book-bag - to warm and welcoming. Give us your
ears, they say, and we will cover them, form a seal of
sound and being and the cacophonous world around you will
become soft, indistinct, muted. I say: Yes, flip the soft,
round cups, shiny with my skin's oils, toward each other
and accept the seal.

They are my first good pair of headphones: a parting
gift, on indefinite loan from an audiophile house mate,
relinquished in the days before he leaves Rochester for a
summer of Virginia haze.

"They're workhorses," Dan says, "but I don't need them

I agree – on a diet of inexpert ten-dollar headphones
from Radioshack, this pair – compact and resonant – is a
rich and fine meal. "They're amazing..." I start. He
"You gotta listen to the good ones."

I don't know the difference between the pair of compact
Sennheiser PX200s that I, apparently, have, and the
mammoth, open oval mouths of Dan's HD600s. I imagine the
letters and numbers mean something in a vast secret society
of avid listeners and creators that I am not a part of. To
me they are just big, dark, isolating.

They remind me vaguely of my father's – over-sized,
washed in a halo of do-wop and 50s crooners and tethered to
a stack of silver boxes in the living room. He listens to
them loudly and often, letting the vocals pop in a
distorted soundtrack to perpetually close-captioned
television shows. When I am older, I take my turn - steal
them from their nest of coiled cords and sit on the floor
of my bedroom, spin the biggest knob on the face of my
stereo until the volume is barely comfortable. I'm abusing
the speakers and my ears ring faintly, but I don't move to
change it. I am immersed. I am cross-legged and still or
arms-stretched and fluid, moving with something that moves
in me. My eyes are almost definitely closed.

It is 1995 and Jewel is sweet and soft, 2000 and Thom
Yorke is detached and kinetic, 2005 and I am on Dan's bed,
pulling the weight of his blue headphone cable onto my lap
while he drops a CD into the waiting tray of his player. I
fit the headphones over my ears – they are comfortable, the
soft part of the cups are light, their outsides are an open
lattice, showing their silver inner-workings. They look
like two full-on speakers affixed to a slick metal headband
and, intimidated as I am, I am ready.

Tool's “The Grudge” replaces the ambient hum of cable
and amp and the first moment, the sound of a lock and spin
– a revving – gives way to a weighty mix of percussion and
repetition before Maynard Keenan's vocal lines drive into
eight and a half minutes of complexity that I am surprised
to realize I have never experienced. I am impressed. Dan
lets me lay in his bed, and while I am aware that people
are moving in the halls and on the stairs, it feels right
to be somewhere else. I think I am in the backseat of my
mother's van, tracing Bear Mountain between Newburgh and
the myriad towns of Rockland. It is probably autumn, a gray
and orange gradient rising to start the day. These are my
driving rituals - nod to my mother, fight against sleep,
slip the simple headphones with familiar black mesh covers
past my too long bangs, and ride. The music is
non-intrusive and adolescent; it suits me. It is too early
for thought and there is only simple melody, my forehead
against the too cold passenger's side window and brief
glimpses of the Hudson River over trees and guardrails.

* * *

I learn early that my ears are the most sensitive part
of my body. I am easily overwhelmed – rote repetition
destroys me, distracts me beyond repair, makes me too aware
of the silence between the actions, the drops of water
echoing in the ceramic well of a sink, the telling rattles
of a car's slow death. It drives me to obsessive control,
drowning unwanted sounds with song, monologue, recitation.
Silence is worse. It is too consuming, too absent. I never
sleep in a soundless room – I embrace white noise, the
ordered chaos that rules a spinning fan, the hum of a
computer running its tasks. Its amorphous whirring becomes
the base against which all other sound is measured,
allowing for awareness, but guarding against the paranoid
skin jumping that sidles along an un-welcomed jolt of

In my first years of college, the hours that I find
myself awake and alone in my family's house are filled with
a dining room table stretching long in front of me, myself
at its head, adorned in headphones and aware of every
movement around me. I listen to music until it bows out to
dawn and the hum of my computer's speakers is piped up into
my ears. I don't take my headphones off until I head to my
room and its fan-whir of sleep. I think I must be strange,
all the hours spent listening to the sound of nothing and
finding comfort in it.

For two seasons of drum and bugle corps, I live on a
tour bus - share the engine roar, the cold, circulated air,
the smells and sounds of forty other strained marchers for
three weeks of travel and competition. In 2002, we snake
our way to Rio, Wisconsin. The high school we stay in is at
the edge of a tiny blip of a town. There are no street
signs or street lights, just corn and a gas station and
stars. It's mid-August, but cool; we wear sweatshirts.
After dinner, I wander, place a portable CD player on my
stomach and lay in the shadow of our bus in the parking
lot. I am immobile, intent on the flecks that do not exist
in my eastern sky, some, overtaken by their weight, fall
away from me onto the horizon's distended belly. Before I
join the field of sleeping-bagged bodies on the floor of
the gym, I watch the town's lights power down as the night
passes into stillness.

In the morning, we work our way east to our New York
and New Jersey homes. Between Indianapolis and Columbus, I
refresh my batteries and soften the volume. I take on the
muffled conversations and bodies' small movements of the
members as part of my soundtrack and find sleep in
Pennsylvania. When I wake up, we are still moving and I
struggle to orient myself. I repeat this action, mid-song
and racing-heart, a thousand times since birth.

Sometimes I am on a school bus, pulling up to the
City's broad museum faces, on a train shaking into
Metropark from a winter's week of vacation, heading west
from Boston and leaving a lover on the Charles, touching
down in the dim humidity of Richmond among the idling birds
and beasts in the runway. Each time I am thrown awake, I am
aware of only myself and the fall of the last notes in my
waking mind. There is always something to avoid, somewhere
else to be, a reason for the isolation. I find myself in
the middle of a moment that I am not prepared for. I
imagine no one else feels this way.

* * *

The week Dan leaves, he finds me at night and asks if I
want to listen to one last piece before he packs his stereo
away. I smile, slide past him in the doorway of his room
and grab his HD's – I nod to him, ask him to choose the
song. He flips a leather case open and slips a
hand-labeled disk out of its sheath and into his player. A
sampled voice slows and distorts into the opening strains
of DJ Shadow's “Midnight in a perfect world.” I almost
believe that it is.

Dan shuts the door and darkens the room, drops on
another pair of headphones and taps into the track. The day
is changing and the lamplight over the Genesee falls in
through the open blinds on the east side of the house. I
have my back against the cool wall, my legs stretched out
under the cream-colored comforter and, nodding in time,
very slightly, sits Dan in his desk chair, slats of that
mustard light making bright blocks against his face and
shoulders. It is the most beautiful I have seen him and I
spend the five minutes, two seconds of the song transfixed
on his profile. The song is ever-present; it is beat-y and
intimate, rife with thick chords, simple piano lines, high
floating female vocals and scratchy, repetitious reminders
that we're now approaching midnight. I am immersed in a
moment, sharing sound, two people speaking by listening,
the air between us condensed and warm with understanding,
but somehow I am still alone. I am entirely alone – and I
am in love.


Author's Note: Just wanted to give some visibility to this. Would like some feedback - plus, it's the only thing that I've written in ages. So, there you go.

Posted on 10/29/2005
Copyright © 2024 Christina Gleason

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