Sunday, October 9, 2011
the missing sound
PART II of Missing Pieces: Modern-day fables
Once upon a time, there was a sound that came from people's hearts when they were nervous, anxious, insecure, or afraid. It was called your boom-boom because it sounded like an amplified drum beat emanating from a person's left breast. You could be sitting in the audience at the theater when Hamlet enters, stage left, for his first appearance onstage, and then jests, "A little more than kin, and less than kind." In addition to hearing his first line of the play, you would hear his boom-boom echoing out across the sea of theatergoers. Underneath his calm exterior, beneath the confident projection of his voice, despite the fact that he is a famous Shakespearean actor who has performed this role hundreds of times, his boom-boom would make you aware of the edginess of his nerves. Or you might be attending the birth of your first child. When it is discovered last minute that the baby is positioned 'upside-down,' so to speak, the doctor decides a c-section is necessary. You watch from behind a glass partition as his fingers move self-assuredly and the nurses gossip with him about hospital goings-on. He even turns to smile calmly at you mid-procedure, but rhythmically thumping faster than the tempo of the composed scene is his boom-boom, slightly shaking the glass in front of you so that all you love so deeply appears slightly blurred. During the burst and crack of big thunderstorms, it felt as if nature empathized with the plight of the human condition. Just as a house cannot contain the sound of a child practicing the piano, the human body could not contain the announcement of its own fear.
The boom-boom was the resonating backdrop of life. You could hardly go anywhere without encountering someone who was worried about this or that and people were utterly accustomed to the aural pulsation of their world. There were some places that were boom-boom louder than others -- talent shows, hospitals, Wall Street, courtrooms, rollercoasters, the DMW, and pretty much all of Spain during the Inquisition. On the flip side, there were places where the boom-boom was rare -- the beach in summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Buddhist temples, tasting rooms at wineries, or movie theaters after the showing of a romantic comedy. And funerals. For deep sadness was not audible, despite the heart's best efforts, though people felt the weight of silence more profoundly than we do. It was rumored that during the infamous sinking of an unsinkable ocean liner, the boom-boom was louder than people's screams for help. Anyone who had ever driven on a highway in a blizzard or been pressed up against his neighbors in the panicked surge of a crowd towards the exit in a nightclub fire knew as much to be true.
The boom-boom was common, yes, but it made people uncommonly humane. People stopped in the middle of a crowded, gushing city sidewalk during the peak of Monday morning rush hour in order to hold the hand of an especially loud boom-boomer. Actors were rarely booed for their performances after the audience witnessed their unremitting boom-boom throughout the show. Babies cried less because they heard the boom-boom of their parents and intuitively understood. Children teased only rarely because they knew of the boom-boom of the other kids on the playground as well as their own. Wives took husbands in their arms rather than accusing and blaming them when problems arose because they recognized that fear was at the heart of his heart in place of spite, reproach, or unreasonableness.
And so the world was louder -- by quite a few decibels -- but warmer. In fact, the boom-boom seemed to generate a heat of its own -- a heat that did nothing to threaten the polar ice caps, but a heat that melted the icy exterior that people nowadays can so easily assume.
Werner knew the boom-boom well. As a child, he was acutely sensitive in all aspects. As an infant, he was extremely colicky and kept his mother up most nights. As a toddler, he fell often and bled easily. His wounds were slow to heal and, though his parents were worried and arrived at all their appointments, their presence announced long in advance by their blaring boom-booms, the doctors assured them there was nothing unusual about Werner's health. Werner suffered from frequent stomach aches, headaches, and allergies. He was easily heartbroken and thereby especially observant of others. He spent hours as a child sitting on the curb in his town square listening for the boom-boom of passersby and trying to figure out exactly why they were so aggrieved. In his teen years, he was a quiet, moody figure, often dressed in blacks and somber greys, unusual in his tendency and preference to be alone. Yet still, he listened. It had become perhaps his favorite pastime, preferred over games of chess in the park and harvesting honey from his father's bee hives. He paid closer heed to the boom-boom pulse of the world than any other human being alive, and yet, he never once approached another to console him. The boom-boom intrigued him, but it did not move him. For Werner was a biological abnormality, a freak of nature, as they say. He produced no boom-boom of his own. And he resented all boom-boomers as a result of what he lacked within himself.
He still felt fear, though. And the fear of being different was enough to incite him to hide his deviance from the norm. Among other talents, Werner was an exceptionally gifted young engineer. His father was a watchmaker and part-time apiarist. When he was a young child, he loved sitting with his father while he fixed expensive Swiss watches for the well-heeled of their small German town. Werner took pleasure in the slow, methodical nature of the process, but even more, he relished the silence of the workshop, a silence that made him feel more at home than anywhere else, a silence interrupted only by the reserved and, to Werner, well-mannered tick-tick of a watch his father had just mended. Barely into his teens, he stole into his father's workshop late one night and spent the dark hours tinkering with gears and springs. Early the next morning, his ears heavy with the constant night sounds of owls and crickets, he carefully slipped back out of the workshop and up the stairs in their old farmhouse, skipping over the two creaky stairs at the top.
Back in his own room, Werner sat on his fully made bed. From beneath his sweater he pulled out a small device. Dawn reached in through his window with its first rays and shone upon the little invention making Werner blink through weary eyelids. He gave a tentative smile. Slipping the device back under his clothing, he looped a string around his neck so that the small machine was flush with his left breast. Then, with his right hand, he pulled another cord through the left armhole of his sweater and down to his left hand. In this hand, he now held a tiny, almost imperceptible, button. Werner lay back, feeling relaxed for the first time in his entire life, and closed his eyes. But sleep would not touch him for long. In an hour he awoke to the sound of eggs sizzling in a hot pan and coffee dripping into a pot. It was time for the first test.
Despite his exhaustion, Werner made his way down to the kitchen to join his parents for breakfast. As his mother and father sat discussing his father's upcoming trip to Geneva for a watchmaker's exhibition, Werner held his left hand under the table and when he felt the moment was right, he pressed the button. The reaction was immediate. Both his parents stopped talking and turned towards their son.
"Werner, what is it?" his mother inquired. His father merely held his expression of shock. Werner had always been such an unusual child, in health, emotion, habits, and interests, that it had never struck either of them as odd that they had not heard his boom-boom. They figured he only boom-boomed alone or that, corresponding to his other idiosyncrasies, he didn't need to boom-boom. Perhaps, they thought, to balance out his sensitivities God had gifted him with an extremely serene nature, a personality of the sort that cannot be ruffled no matter what the circumstance.
So, the sound of Werner's boom-boom this morning was like the explosion of an atomic bomb in their small, humble kitchen. "Werner?" his mother pressed again. "Are you all right?"
"Oh yes, Mother," Werner responded, trying to contain his glee. "It's just a test this morning on Voltaire's Candide. You know I'm no good at understanding French literature. Their philosophers just do not work with reason."
"Oh yes, indeed," his mother forced a smile, but inside she felt her own boom-boom arising and worked with all her might to suppress it. His father just sat beside him, a look of perplexity mixed with a new sense of distrust that he could not explain.
And so Werner entered the world of normal. And for many years, he was quite grateful for his creative invention. He wore it always under everything. For the first few years, he had to wear long sleeves all the time, but everyone already knew him as a rather curious character and it struck no one as suspicious. After a few years, he reworked the device into a wireless form which made it even easier to blend in.
Werner went off to college a year early to study mechanical engineering in Munich. He was considering taking his talents and what his father had taught him from watchmaking and entering the field of artificial organ making. Amongst engineers, Werner was able to make a few friends. Still, he enjoyed spending much of his time alone walking past the cafes and bars of the Marienplatz. He took walks at night too, luxuriating in the quiet of the city, only broken by the hourly orderly chiming of church bells.
It was a Sunday when Werner made his weekly call home to his parents. "Hello, Mother?" Werner was surprised to hear her boom-boom over the phone before he heard anything else.
"Hello Werner..." Long pause. Too long. "...and how is school?" Werner could barely hear her meek voice over the boom-boom crossing and trembling the wires. "Oh, fine, Mother, fine. But... but what is wrong?" And though she tried, his mother could hold back no longer. She knew he heard her boom-boom so there were no secrets. She explained how his father's watchmaking business was in dire trouble. A huge French conglomerate which now owned two major watchmaking companies had opened a store in town. They offered all manner of watches at discount prices. They even had a home-visiting watch fixing service called the "Techie Troop" that drove the famous Mercedes Silberpfeil (Silver Arrow) up and down the Autobahn. Even worse, his father's bees had been fingered as the origin of a new disease that was killing bees all over Europe. He had been forced by authorities to shut down that business as well, leaving him with no viable occupation. "We are struggling a bit, that is all," his mother attempted to downplay their bad fortune. And they hung up the phone, the boom-boom throbbing in Werner's head.
Despite his mother's assurances, Werner could not let the issue lie. He was angry. He felt wronged, cheated, betrayed. And he wanted to know where to direct the blame. His father's watchmaking business was a true art form. And there was no way his bees were carriers of a new strain of contagion. His first reaction was to be angry at the French. They had destroyed his father's business and then mocked him by parading around in trademark German cars. Werner had always felt a severe dislike for the French. When he was about ten, his parents had taken him on a summer tour of Europe and, of all the countries, the boom-boom thundered the loudest in France. They had no shame. They did not fear the display of fear. And they loved attending to each other's boom-booms. Even from the height at the top of the Eiffel tower, the air shook with the barrage of boom-booms from below, the city quivering slightly as if the buildings themselves throbbed with life.
Werner needed air. He walked the streets and platzes of Munich and continued walking west to the outskirts of the city. Soon, he found himself facing the grandeur of the Nymphenburg Palace. Across a small lake, he stared at its massive Baroque facade. He sat on a stone bench and tried to think. Here was a place of greatness, of power, of history. He could feel the weight of important decisions in the heaviness of the building. Werner was a connoisseur of German history and knew its figures and legends well. He thought about Maximilian I who had been heir to the King of Bavaria and whose parents had built this palace. Maximilian had long sympathized with ideas coming out of the French Enlightenment and had held that nation in great esteem. He had infused Germany with art and music and tried to counter their growing inbred nationality. Werner had always admired stories of Maximilian he heard in school, especially the one of him saving the life of an orphan apprentice when a glassmaker's workshop collapsed. As Werner was picturing that scene in his head, he closed his eyes a bit to relax. It was quiet here where no one lived, where the breadth of the palace extended like outstretched arms shielding him from the incessant boom-boom of life. But his serenity was shortly disturbed when the ground beneath him began to shake.
Werner slowly opened his eyes and turned his head to see a fellow ponderer who had taken his place on a nearby bench. Clearly, he had come here, like Werner, to figure things out. But unlike Werner, his anxiety pumped out of his heart like the detonation of a thousand canons. Damn it all, could Werner never find any peace? And it was then that it struck him. It was not the French he was angry at. It was the boom-boom. It was not he who was abnormal and unnatural. It was all of the boom-boomers with their absurd broadcasting of each and every jitter they ever felt. At that very moment, he reached under his cleanly pressed button-down shirt and ripped his counterfeit boom-boom from his chest. He wrapped the string tightly around the instrument and the button that had previously been hidden in his hand and then propelled his boom-boom high into the air and then down into the depths of the lake before him. He was done with the boom-boom... and now, he understand his mission in life. He was to rid humanity of this debilitating handicap.
He began as always, by delving into books and research. His nights were now spent, not wandering the quiet of his beloved Munich streets, but hunched over piles of dusty old books at the tippity-top of the university's six-story library. He began by perusing biology and anatomy texts, thinking that there must be something there that would enlighten him. All he came across were mountains of explanations and schematic drawings and descriptions and diagrams of the boom-boom. Then he recalled that he had once read a newspaper article about how Buddhist monks were able to suppress their boom-booms after years of diligent training. He knew there was a famous monastery in the south of France and decided to get the word first-hand, hoping knowledge of this technique would be the door to teaching others how to control the sound of their fear.
Taking the train, he traveled down through Germany and Switzerland and then across the width of France. He crossed over the rustling rush of the Rhone and through the purring warble of the Pyrenees before finally arriving at the monastery early in the morning. He walked through the murmuring mist and whispering plum trees towards the monastery. A group of monks dressed in orange robes sat outside meditating. As he passed to their left, Werner heard nothing and smiled.
Once inside the monastery, Werner wandered up and down empty hallways before finally being stopped by an elderly monk who politely asked him what he needed. "I have need of nothing, except knowledge," Werner told him before proceeding to explain how he wanted to understand the secret of the monks' power over the boom-boom.
"Come to my office," the old monk susurrated and as they walked, it seemed the monk was carried by a gentle wind and did not need to move his feet. Once seated in the warmth of his small, sparsely decorated office, the monk addressed Werner. "Young traveler, you say you want to know the 'secret' of why we do not make the boom-boom." "Indeed, yes," Werner assured the monk. "It takes many years of practice. The mind is a powerful agent. There is much that we can control, if we so desire... like our heart rates. If you want to learn..."
"No, I think you misunderstand," Werner interrupted. "I don't want... I don't have the time to spend years learning to do it myself. I just would like to understand the process by which it is done."
"Ahhh," the monk nodded. "Quick, quick," he snapped his fingers. "People want results and they want them now. They do not want to earn them. I do not think you are meant to undertake this challenge. Time is a crucial part of the process. We cannot cheat time because time will always win." He then waved his hand briskly, dismissing Werner from his office.
Werner soon found himself back outside. He felt a bit dazed at his eviction by the monk and further dazed by the intensity of the late morning sun. He turned to take the same path from which he had reached the monastery and was surprised to see the same group of monks sitting beneath a large plum tree, its blossoms a delicate pink and humming with bees. Cautiously, he approached the monks.
"Excuse me, I hate to interrupt but I would like to ask a question." No one moved. The air itself seemed to freeze in spring efflorescent stillness. Werner could not even hear the buzz of the bees. "Please," he continued to speak, breaking the silence like a shatter of glass, and tiptoeing closer as if he did not trust the hush of the ground beneath his feet. "Please, I am begging you just to speak with me."
And just then the monks all stood in unison, their eyes closed. Together, they intoned a brief chant and then bowed towards the green earth below. Standing upright once again, they opened their eyes and quietly recognized the presence of each other. And then, just as easily, they broke their unified circle and went their separate ways... all except one monk who stood facing Werner. "And what is your question?" His voice came out like a song and Werner felt very very small.
"I just want to know why there is no boom-boom here," he whispered timidly. "Ahhhh and have you spoken with Phra Sheng-yu?" "Is he the monk..." and Werner pointed back towards the monastery. "Yes," spoke the petite man beside Werner. "And did he not tell you of his own secret?" "He told me nothing," Werner responded. "Mmmmmm," the little monk pondered. "He fears his own story. But none of us can fear ourselves. It is not safe. And so I will tell you."
And so the monk explained to Werner that Sheng-yu had no boom-boom, had never had one. He had spent many years roaming the earth, feeling a permanent exile from humanity. He practiced the Buddhist faith of his ancestors as a solace. One day, he sat beside a small stream, meditating. Upon finishing his meditation, he opened his eyes to find a young man meditating beside him. "I have heard only stories of you," the young man spoke. "I thought it was all myth and fables. But it is true. You have taught yourself how to dominate your boom-boom."
"And so Sheng-yu realized that he could hide his lack of a boom-boom behind this facade of mastery. And he bought some land and founded this very monastery. The thing is he has taught us, through years of practice, to lessen our boom-booms to the point where most people can't hear them. But one can never be completely rid of it and why would he want to be? It is part of being human."
But Werner hardly heard the last words of the little monk before he was off and running. He was not alone. There was someone else without a boom-boom... and that meant that there were others. Werner spent the next few weeks researching the existence of legendary cities such as Atlantis. It wasn't long before he came across the fabled city, Pluvious, and with his knowledge of ancient Greek and Sanskrit, he read of accounts of a quiet people living far below the ocean. In one account, he read the following: "...and so they hid because they could not make the sound of fear" and then Werner was hooked.
Werner became obsessed. He was sure not only that Pluvious existed, but that it was where he would find the other non-boom-boomers. He dropped out of his engineering program. He moved back in with his parents for a while, but they could not support him and they were disturbed by his new preoccupation. Finally, he moved in with an old, senile grandfather who needed caretaking. In between feeding and walking and bathing him, Werner continued his search. Years passed. Werner, always skinny, grew gaunt and aged rapidly though he was still only in his late twenties. On his thirtieth birthday, he was given the night off by a friend of his grandfather who agreed to take care of him for the night. Werner decided to give himself a break as well. He was exhausted and almost at the point of giving up all hope. That night, he went to a new movie. The film was about a young woman who almost dies in a tragic bike accident and then, with her second chance at life, travels to Venice to open a bakery, following what has always been her dream. The film was cliche and sappy. But in the middle of the film, Werner sat more upright in his seat and began watching with intense interest. It was not the story that interested him, but Venice itself. Venice! Why had he not put the pieces together before? Venice was an entirely unnatural island so something must be holding it up... Pluvious.
Werner went home and packed straight away. His friend agreed to watch his grandfather while he was gone and Werner was on the next train to northern Italy. In all the years that had passed, his only other hobby had been scuba diving. Of course, he had an ulterior motive beyond his love of the quiet of the sea. It was the only way he would ever reach an underwater city. Once in the Veneto, he traveled to a city up the coast to the north of Venice. It was from here he would attempt his dive.
The next morning he arose early and walked from his hotel to the shore. He changed into his wetsuit, checked his oxygen tank, and prepared himself mentally for the dive. Once underwater, he began his long descent. He listened to the iron saturninity of ocean depths, heard the air struggle in and out of his lungs, and then... for the first time, he heard his own boom-boom as the vibrations from his heart coursed out into the aquatic ebony. It was a strange feeling. He felt a foreigner to himself and an alien to the inarticulate dusk of his life. The ocean thickened and darkened. He checked his GPS to make sure he was moving in the direction of Venice. According to his calculations, he was a mere 200 meters from the edges of the island. He kicked harder.
Something blinked in front of him. Then something else shimmered and glinted. It seemed no time at all passed before an entire city appeared before his eyes, quivering in watery reverberation. He had been right. Despite the years he had spent convincing himself, Werner was in shock. Minutes passed before he realized he had stopped swimming altogether, taken in as he was with the glowing structures, the tunnels like incandescent tentacles enabling travelers to walk and travel while breathing oxygen-rich air. Werner felt youthful and vibrant, reborn with the impossible lightness hidden in black.
The people of Pluvious were a gentle, if cautious people. At first, they took Werner in as a prisoner, but after weeks of not hearing his boom-boom, they accepted him as one of their own. They explained to him that they had been able to survive for so long because they had invented a form of underwater farming which was, in fact, highly efficient and environmentally friendly. They were happy, yet lived in constant fear. They knew it was only so long before they were 'discovered' by the rest of the world and then what would become of them?
It was this moment that Werner had been waiting for his whole life. He rose like a general and addressed the Pluvions with charisma and rhetorical virtuoso. He announced his theses and spoke straight from his heart into the silent souls of the Pluvions. He beat the drum of fate with his voice. It vibrated underwater with the power of ten thousand voices. It was time, he told them. It is our time. We are the blood that is pure, the blood that beats and does not sell out its secrets to the masses. He aroused the Pluvions, firing up their courage, turning around their doubt, steeling them against the fear they had clung to for so long.
They came out of the sea like a tsunami, surging over the land with the sheer force of their own sense of righteousness. The last Pluvion stayed behind and caused the first boom that did not come from the human heart. Pluvious was detonated in an instant. Yes, bombs had existed prior to this event, but they had never been used because people had always been able to use the boom-boom a a guide towards accord, even in matters of foreign policy.
They dressed in all black and marched through city after city, their advance trumpeted by the squishy sound of their ever-wet shoes. There were tens of thousands of Pluvions, far more than Werner had ever estimated. No one had ever seen such a sight. The sheer force of their numbers and their apparent fearlessness frightened people. And they quickly obeyed their commands. Boom-boomers were told that scientific evidence proved the boom-boom was a defect, that they were a people scarred and broken, that the only hope left in this world was to cultivate a race of those who produced no such sound. Others, like the old monk, who had been living in hiding for years, came out of the woodwork and joined Werner's cause. And Werner grew in boldness and determination... and arrogance. He seemed huge when he spoke before a large crowd, and the booming nature of his voice convinced all that it alone held more power than the combined boom-boom of their hearts.
It wasn't long before a device the opposite of Werner's had been invented -- this time a tool to muffle the boom-boom. Once someone wore one, he ardently proclaimed the power of the non-boomers and blamed the boom-boomers for all that was wrong with the world: poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, any and all failures of human striving. It became a world of us versus them, the strong versus the weak, the pure race versus the faulted. It was a game of survival and everyone wanted to be a part of the winning team. At first, the remaining boom-boomers were ordered by Werner to be sterilized in order to protect the future of the world. Rapidly, things escalated and those who hadn't hidden their boom-boom were gathered up and sent away to isolated areas. They were barricaded inside and made to work. They were limited food and water and soon they all began to starve. Some Pluvions who had been persuaded of their superiority shot the boom-boomers indiscriminately, cackling with cold indifference, their laughter vibrating across the landscape empty of the warmth of the once so-common boom-boom. In time, the earth became quieter... and colder.
It was a frigid evening in late December when Werner arrived at the world's largest auscultascope, a device similar to a telescope except that the auscultascope amplified sound from hundreds of thousands of miles away. Werner had ordered a day of silence on this day, ostensibly to honor the bright future of their brave quiet world, but really so that Werner could listen without interruption. Like a king, he was led to a throne-like chair at the center of the hearkenatory and seated with much pomp and circumstance upon a red velvet cushion. The roof of the hearkenatory began to open, buzzing in the still night air as all around was utterly silent. Werner forced a plug into his left ear and turned his head so that the small tube of the auscultascope stuck cleanly into his right ear... and he listened. The world had never been so quiet. He heard no wind. He heard no voices. He heard no crying or calling or whistling or singing. He heard no flutter from birds' wings. He heard no lapping of waves upon empty shores. The night was so mute that all he could hear were the particles of light as they journeyed from ancient stars towards the earth. His heart beat firmly inside his chest as all vibrations turned to stone.
Thereafter the sound of the skies was planes, the occasional scream of a hawk circling, and the air itself escaping from this wintry world into the endless infinitude of the universe. This was the sound of the skies above a new humanity rather than the sonic boom-boom shield that had once wrapped itself around the earth, a protective atmosphere from all that threatened.
And so the boom-boom was silenced. And so Venice sinks a little more every year, no longer buoyed by its underwater foundation. And so the human heart sinks into its own quarantine of nerves, arteries, veins, and internality. And so fear was turned inwards away from the generous hand-hold of a stranger, away from the sympathy of one's fellow man. And so audiences mock poor performances. And so children tease and bully relentlessly. And so doctors no longer comfort patients and husbands and wives bicker and yell incessantly. And so fear must be carried alone and a heavy burden it is. And so people were less vulnerable, but more afraid.
There are stories. Many many stories, told only by the courageous, of the world of the boom-boomers. And other stories. Stories told by even fewer of surviving boom-booms hiding in a secret city, or perhaps still walking among us, able to detect the boom-boom of another's heart, stifling their own for fear that their fear will be evident. Sometimes though, at the height of a thunderstorm or during the clamoring finale of a fireworks display or as a storm crashes upon a rocky coast, you just might hear the boom-boom of another's heart that he has dared to bare to all.