One morning I woke up to the alarm on my cell phone. I often do. The time was 5:00 a.m.; the air conditioner had been running hard all night, and in its loud, motorized hum, punctuated by the occasional asthmatic bout of clanking, I had dreamt strangely.
I’ve gone through some pains to choose my cell phone’s alarm. I seem to remember wanting something that was at once loud enough to cut through the sound of the eternal air conditioner yet soft enough to avoid giving me a case of the vapors every time I was thrust back into what Wilbur so aptly called “the punctual rape of every blessed day.”
I also had to choose an alarm that would reflect my personality with adequate force and subtlety. My phone offers no fewer than twenty-three such options free of charge, among which appear such suggestive titles as “Froggy Night,” “Kinetic Beauty,” “Jazzy,” and, in a crowning irony, “Vintage Telephone.” More up-to-date phones offer more feng-shui alarm noises such as woodblocks, harp strings, and even church bells. But this is worse. Why should I want to hear a harp and think of that long email I have yet to answer, or hear a church bell and have borne in upon my mind the doleful face of my garage mechanic?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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On the way to work, I turned on the radio. I did so grudgingly, but with a bracing sense of social obligation, as you might experience in asking a lunatic relative about the state of his corns. News radio is so old-fashioned now that it (sometimes) gives you a sort of sturdy ancien régime Yankee feeling. A lady with a dusky, businesslike voice was asking earnestly about the sexual misconduct of some man she had never met. Probably neither she nor I will ever hear his name again.
The gas stations, even in the morning, all play the same Sterno canned heat that has been sitting in our cultural pantry since the eighties. Like Sterno, it gives you a feeling of some viscous, neon pink substance that should probably not be left open around the cat. It’s either that or whatever the hits of tomorrow are. “Hit” is an appropriate word. When someone hits me, I recoil in pain. If you hit something enough, it usually dies.
As I write, my pen scrabbles at the paper, giving a top note to someone practicing Greig’s “Morning Mood” on the upright in the living room. My lips make a small, delighted “pop” as they draw the smoke from my pipe. The highway adjoining the property hums like a swarm of gigantic bees. Sometimes I admit to myself the odd comfort that it brings me, like the sound of the ocean, or seeing all the lights on in a house that you pass in the night. Frogs creak and click in some nearby shrub. It’s the warm herd feeling of companionship.
Frankly, what concerns me most are the sounds we can’t hear, though they increasingly surround us. I can slip into any library and hear the musical groan of some thousand odd authors, tuning their instruments in preparation for some opus I will never read. However, the tags on my clothes, and the big names on my appliances and sundry comestibles, speak to me just as loudly, in thick assertive fonts like cattle brands. If I have bought the stuff, it should be mine. What right have these people to colonize my kitchen and my closet? Everything seems to bear this mark of mammon, from my socks to the shelf of the downstairs toilet. Silversmiths and potters usually put their maker’s mark in some inconspicuous location, rather than burying their poor consumers in typographic detritus.
“Branding” seems to exist in an inverse proportion to the quality of the good or service branded. This I object to. It is inaudible, but it is a horrible chattering of people who have nothing to say, even about the weather.
It’s easy to imagine the radio host I mentioned, perhaps slightly fatter and older, and less like Meryl Streep than her voice would suggest. She comes out of the studio, perhaps dropping a lozenge the more perfectly to smoothen the voice that has been pumped like mustard gas into every New Englander’s forest green Subaru, and then goes about her life. She has promptly forgotten the man whose complicated relationship with an unmarried woman she had been so blithely discussing. Tomorrow she will discuss something else.
But I will probably have to hear about it at dinner.
[Image: A Back Road by Childe Hassam]