I Grow Old

No, no, I’m not talking about T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (although it is one of my favorite poems of all time). I’m talking about growing up, and growing old.

Today, on my way to pick up my daughter from daycare, I heard part of a Trent Reznor interview with NPR’s Melissa Block. I caught the interview toward the end, and I ended up listening to it tonight after she went to bed. However, from the bit that I heard in the car, something stood out to me that Trent said (yes, I call him Trent because that’s what my friends and I called him when I was in 9th and 10th grade–and yes, we listened to Nine Inch Nails when I was a teenager, and I don’t know what that means.)

Trent said to Melissa Block,

I’ve kind of watched with amusement as the press has latched on to ‘Reznor, now 48, happily married with two kids and an Oscar winner,’ as if I can be summed up as that now. ‘He made a song with a major chord in it that we don’t understand’ is something that references Joy Divisionand New Order. It’s pop-punk. That’s the tagline for who I am now. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago, and I’m happy to not be that person. When I’m onstage, the songs that we’ve chosen to play from the back catalog are things that still resonate with me and matter to me, and when I’m in those songs, I get transported into those songs. It can be draining to go through that.

Whoa, Trent, whoa.

"nine inch nails @ ippodromo delle capannelle, rome - July 22, 2009 - by Pitto" by Flickr user Daniela Vladimirova, CC-BY-2.0

“nine inch nails @ ippodromo delle capannelle, rome – July 22, 2009 – by Pitto” by Flickr user Daniela Vladimirova, CC-BY-2.0

So, Trent and I are years apart. I’m in my mid-30s, he’s in his late-40s. We’re different people. And it’s not that Trent has kids and I have kids and that makes me feel old. No. What stuck with me as I drove in the later afternoon was the feeling that this man had penned songs that meant something to me when I was younger. R.E.M. meant something to me when I was younger too, but that is different. I’m not a Nine Inch Nails fan, but I had friends who were. Nine Inch Nails is part of a certain period of my life, and listening to those songs I listened to back then (some of them aggressive, some of them precious, some of them harsh, some of them obscure) transport me to a different time and place. NIN’s The Downward Spiral was a staple of my middle school/high school years, what the cool alternative kids in Puerto Rico were listening to. (They were not listening to R.E.M., in case you were wondering.)

So hearing Trent Reznor talk about how he didn’t play some of his old songs any more made me smile. It felt like he was admitting he had outgrown some of the songs, and it reminded me that it was okay to outgrow some of the songs/artists that you once upon a time listened to. It doesn’t mean we’ve become uncool as we grow up–maybe we do, but that has nothing to do with the music we listen to or don’t. That’s who I was. And I still love music. I just…I don’t know. Maybe I’m listening to something different (in the music, not just in terms of artists). It’s…weird. I still recognize myself in some of those old tracks I play, tracks by Aterciopelados, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Toadies, Nirvana, etc.

It also takes the pressure off of me to try to keep up with music nowadays. Seriously, I can’t keep up, folks. I listen to NPR and sports radio in my car, for goodness sake. I get my new album recommendations from folks I follow on Facebook or Twitter. Or in this case, NPR.

I’ll be listening to the newest by NIN (which came out on September 3rd, by the way). In the meantime, here’s an oldie from my high school days. Don’t laugh.

NIN, “Hurt” (1994)

Aural Memories (Or, My Husband’s Play-by-Play Voice)

"Radio" by Flickr user S. Diddy under Creative Commons 2.0 License

I met my husband in New York. He was a play-by-play broadcaster for a minor league baseball team. I was a graduate student whose only connection to the sports world was through her father, a big baseball fan. I learned about the minutiae of baseball through my husband, not just through conversations with him but also through listening to him call games.

My husband’s voice is also the soundtrack of my academic work. It has kept me company through every major assignment of my PhD. Even when we broke up when he first moved to Kansas City, I still listened to his post-game show as I burned the midnight oil researching for my dissertation. I can still see myself in the corner of the dining room, with the paper lamp hanging over my head and over my iMac, the rest of the apartment blanketed in darkness, and his warm voice filling the corners. I would listen to his co-host and him online, this unfamiliar voice interrupting the soothing sound of my now-husband, then-ex’s voice. Even through the break-up, I found the sound of his voice comforting.

Listening to my husband back then was not about nostalgia or longing–ok, maybe a little, but not all of it. I started listening to him as a way to support his career; being a play-by-play broadcaster is his calling, and he has been after a job in Major League Baseball his whole adult life. When we first met, the regular minor league baseball season was over, and his team was nowhere near the playoffs in their division. That meant he and I spent a lot of time together…until college basketball season started a month into our relationship. I would listen to his broadcasts, and found it hard to follow along–basketball is so much quicker than baseball–but I tuned in anyway. Soon, I knew who he was talking about and what he was talking about, and I could tune in while doing other things.

When we started dating, the fall semester was halfway over, so when basketball season started I was nearing the time of the semester when I had to write papers for class. His schedule and my routine clicked. He traveled occasionally, and worked mostly evenings. That gave me time to research, read, write, and prep for class; and when he was at work I could stay in touch with him by listening to his broadcasts. Soon, I was so used to writing and listening to his voice, that it acted like a Pavlovian bell of sorts: I would plan my writing/research schedule around the start of the game because I knew I’d have a few hours where I could zone out and zone in. Hearing his voice on the radio wasn’t white noise, but instead kept me company while I wrote semester in and semester out.

Years later (after we got back together, after I gave birth to our daughter, after I packed up all of our belongings and moved to Kansas City), I found myself trying to get back into the writing and research groove. Tuning in to his post-game broadcast long after my daughter was asleep helped me get back on track. Once she fell into a solid sleep routine, as small babies sometimes do, I could plan my evening writing and research routine: I would listen to the baseball game and then his post-game broadcast, or I would listen to him call a basketball game from two or three states over. For some reason, listening to him soothes me and helps me focus. It might be his tone, it might be his delivery, it might be the familiarity of his voice…or it might be all three. When I was nearing the end of my dissertation, I remember remarking on Twitter that my husband’s voice has been the soundtrack to my work from Day One. I’m only mildly exaggerating.

Kauffman Stadium. Picture by author.

Today, February 23rd, 2013, was my husband’s first broadcast as a major league play-by-play broadcaster. I eagerly purchased my subscription to MLB’s At Bat for my iPhone just in time for the first pitch. I was working an event today, but when things calmed down and my students were hard at work, I put in one ear bud, tapped the headphones icon in the app, and waited for his voice to wash over me. The sound of his voice filled me with pride, with joy, and with relief. It had been years since I last heard him call pitches, catches, outs, swings, and misses. Hearing him today felt like putting on my comfiest sweater.

Like others before, many baseball fans will now associate my husband’s voice with summer, with afternoons at the ballpark, with the joy of a home run, with the bitterness of a tough loss on the road. He will become the soundtrack of their memories of baseball. But for me, listening to his broadcasts will always mean more than just baseball. It means he is here with our daughter and with me, even when he is away, through the sound of his voice.

Taking The Time To Listen

"Listen" by Flickr user ky_olsen

In my last post I mentioned that Monday was World Listening Day. To commemorate this day, I talked about reading out loud and how that could change the way we interact with a text. Today I bring up my experience of listening to my environment, a practice I like to call “active listening.”

One of my academic areas of interest is sound studies. If you think about it in the vein of cultural studies, American studies, disability studies, etc, sound studies looks at everything related to sound (noise, sound, listening, music, among others) and how it is constructed in society. The basis of sound studies is to think critically about the sounds that surround us, and how we interpret them. For some time now I’ve been working with an academic blog called Sounding Out!, and month after month we roll out posts that look at our relationship to sound. This has changed my relationship to my sonic landscape, for now I try to pay attention to not just the sounds around me, but also to how people talk about these sounds and in what context.
Because I hadn’t done a listening exercise in a while, I decided to take Monday afternoon to do just that. While my daughter napped and my boyfriend worked, I took the time in the late afternoon to sit on the terrace and pay close attention to the sounds around me. I’ve done soundwalks before (and blogged about them here and here). But this was the first time I had practiced this in my new apartment.
I stood in the terrace that afternoon and took stock of what I heard:
  • wind chimes
  • air conditioner
  • cars
  • fans whirring (from the ACs?)
  • airplane
  • paper rustling
  • bugs buzzing
  • birds chirping (in this Kansas City heat?!)
  • car muffler
  • car horn
  • pen click
  • no people other than me?
Even though the afternoon seemed very still, there was a lot happening. The longer I stood there on my terrace, the more activity I heard. What caught my attention was that I caught myself itching to check my phone, go inside, turn the tv on. I told myself to stay still and just observe. I wanted to really listen to what was around me and not tune out by doing something else. But I found it so hard to do just that! I got out of my chair, I walked around the terrace, I swatted bugs…eventually I caved and looked at the time on my phone. Ten minutes had passed. My attention span was just too short for the listening activity. And I felt a little guilty.
Even though I knew I wasn’t going to stand outside for too long (goodness sakes, it was nasty hot outside!), I thought I’d be able to sit still and listen for more than ten minutes. However, my short attention span isn’t a unique thing; I’m sure we all complain about how we can’t focus on one activity and we must always be multitasking. Some time ago I complained about not being able to read for long periods of time like I used to. But these exercises are nonetheless important. Sounds walks and exercises in active listening of your surroundings help us learn to be aware of the sonic dimensions of our surroundings. They also remind us to keep an ear out for how we use sounds to transmit messages, or how we define the elements of our sonic landscape. (Think, for example, of the difference between sound and noise; how much of that is rooted in what we hear and in how others define sound and noise?)
My exercise on Monday reminded me that even though I’m quick to analyze a song or how some may define certain sounds, I have to work on listening to my surroundings. I may have an ear for “fabricated” sounds, sounds that come from elsewhere (like the tv), but I also need to pay close attention to the soundscape I inhabit. If anything, it will allow me to get to know my new hometown better.
Please, dear readers, take the time this weekend to really listen. It doesn’t have to take that long, and you don’t have to take copious notes. Wherever you are, take a minute to tune in; you might be amazed at the sounds you pick up on. Don’t forget that you make sounds too.