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Ears


Mon, May 29th, 2000
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Contest Runner-upBy Marie Winckler

Monday, May 22, 2000

(Due to technical difficulties, this article did not appear in last week's web edition of the Journal. The article appears in full as it was written by Marie Winckler below.)

This is a story with a subtle but powerful theme of how different sounds are always around us whether we choose to use our ears to hear them or not. “The piece has a nice loose structure to it, almost like a letter to a friend,” one of the judges commented. The author, Marie Winckler, lives in Canton.

I hear the unexpected noise as I crease each sheet of paper. The trance I'd fallen into is suddenly broken. I hear it, my fingernail sliding first one way then the other over the flyers Lynn made. I flip them over and score them again, preparing them for mailing, trying to finish by Friday, Steve's deadline.

Slish slish pause...slish slish pause. There's a surprising amount of high frequency in this noise. Is that what's drawing my attention? It sounds so foreign.

Every sound is different now. My ears have recently returned to normal thanks to the help of my healer friend from the Big Woods. Judging by how strange this paper is to me, I'd been functioning with only a percentage of my hearing for quite some time.

The brittle, metallic hiss of paper being creased continues to engage me. As I listen, I think of ears and of hearing. What a source of pleasure it is to me! When I couldn't hear well, I was completely focused on sound, no longer taking it for granted. Now, my hearing restored, a story begins to take shape. I'm thinking of calling it "Ears".

I think of Belinda, my T'ai Chi teacher, who is deaf. To be in the class of this young master is a privilege. Watching her "do the form" with such flawless inner power, it's impossible to think of her as disabled. She told us that when she lost her hearing she began to hear other kinds of things.

I've heard noises in my head: fluid crackling behind my eardrums; ringing noises after a night working the dishwashing machine at the Pub; even the "ghost voice" of my niece Rachel calling to me several days after she and her family moved to their own place. I wonder if these are the kind of things that Belinda hears.

Mark said he once partied with a group of deaf kids as a teenager. They turned up the rock music with the speakers face down to the floor. The floor acted as a sounding board and vibrated with the rhythm of the music. They danced to the feel of the vibrations.

Our navy directs high levels of low frequency sound toward the center of the earth from a station in Wisconsin to communicate with submarines all over the world. We might have heard this one night while living in the Big Woods. We heard with our bodies, not ears. We didn't know what it was at the time but knew the sound was too big and too low for a farm implement. It sounded bigger than nature, able shake the earth.

My cat B.B. hears the mouse that lives in our attic long before we do. He's a dedicated hunter and cries in frustration that our attic is temporarily inaccessible. His big ears cup to the direction of the faint scratching, locating his desired prey with deadly precision. Lucky for the mouse that he can't get there.

Today as I walk past Duane's place on my way home from the old school I hear a bird song that seems out of place. It's too sweet, too gentle for these hardy winter birds I've been listening to for so many months. It's familiar, thought, and I look around for the singer. It's a robin! Spring is really here.
I hold my bass guitar in my hands, its weight carried by the leather strap over my shoulder. The body of the instrument is resting against my torso. As my fingers pull the strings toward me, I feel the familiar vibrations flow through my body. There's no sound coming from the guitar except the faint tones of the strings. My amp's not turned on. I'm just warming up the strings before playing. I stand beside my amp. Soon I'll feel the legs of my jeans flutter with the low frequency sound waves lifted to levels that will be heard and felt alongside the rhythms Luther will be pounding out on the drums and cymbals. But for now, there's nothing audible much beyond the perimeter of my body. Mark tunes his guitar with the electronic tuner. He's silent also, focused on the swing arm of the meter. Soon his instrument will scream out, weep and moan, chuck and flutter, come alive with this expression of our technology. Luther waits, careful not to influence the sensitive tuner. Our energy builds as we go through these familiar paces, the knowledge of what's to come reverberating in our bodies, charging us, the echo before the event.

It's all in the ears, I guess. The county deputy knocks at our door to tell us politely that a caller has registered a complaint. Our best technical effort combined with unwavering obedience to our souls has earned us a standing ovation from the sheriff's department. Age-old conflict, our fractured culture reflected in sound. I gather another piece for my story.

We want to hear a friend play his last set at Zeke's, so we close up shop early and head out. As we walk down the steps, we hear the sound of familiar music slicing through the cold night air. Zeke's is two blocks away.

I turn back for my earplugs. In the bar, I decide to use them. I'm pretty sure that I'm the only one there wearing any. All the revelers are greeting friends, dancing to their favorite tunes, telling jokes and enjoying music, the liquor and the atmosphere. Making music is a multi-billion dollar business in this country. I think about the cumulative noise of all that practicing.

Charles Ives once composed and performed a piece of music in which he had four bands playing four different marches marching toward the city square from the four different directions, crossing through each other, then marching off away from each other, the music receding from the gathered crowd. They said the din was awesome.

We are being listened to as we work. The ears around us are receiving us. We can draw the curtains but we can't stop the waves. The organist at the church where I danced told us that his new pipe organ's lowest pipe produces a four-cycles-per-second sound. That's below the audible range for humans but you can feel it in your stomach. He said it would go through thirty feet of concrete. Our military has made a "sonic canon" with low waves that will liquefy the innards of "the enemy". My bass guitar thus becomes sister to a deadly weapon.

Wednesday our city council meets in the community center beside the fire department's garage. We go to get a business permit. The wind is howling outside. Our firemen have been called out to three fires this evening, a dangerous situation with this wind. The National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning for our area. The trees make frightful noises outside the center as they sway precariously back and forth. The walls shake and rattle so that sometimes Karla's quiet voice ending the minutes can't be heard.

It's our turn. We're told we don't need a license or permit. As I finish laying out our plans, everyone begins talking at once. I hear as though in a dream. It seems our old Norwegian hall has become a giant sounding board. Finally, Russel turns to ask, "Well, what kind of music is it, anyway? Good music or bad music?" Is this a standard question? "Good music," says Mark without missing a beat. "But it's rock and roll. Some people like rock and some don't. It's a matter of preference, I guess." The mayor states with authority, "well, I was walking by there one night and it sounded like a bunch of horrible noise to me!"

My mind wanders over other events of the past few

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