Monday, September 1, 2008

The clumsy passion of the amateur

I hate air conditioning.

I understand it's prevalence. I get the need for climate control in areas of the world (including Chicago) where the heat and humidity, can be debilitating, even lethal.

And little can compare to the true pleasure of opening up your bedroom door - the one room in the whole apartment where your window unit will do any good - after the damp meat hooks of August have rendered you nearly immobile on the sofa, and having a pure, icy 50 degrees slap your whole body, chilling the sweat puddle in the little hollow below your throat. A faint Exorcist vapor escapes your lips as you sigh and slide into the refrigerated sheets...this is living.

(Wistful staring off, then remembering-)

I still hate it.

I don't want to be freezing my nips off in Walgreen's. I don't want to have to wear socks around the house in June. Cold slaps us around enough in January, with a bone chill we can't shake until the end of May, so why can't I sit in a movie theater without a scarf in July?

But the cold is the least of it.

It's the sound. The constant buzz or whir or white noise that cancels out certain frequencies making it difficult to hear the radio, or television or conversation. When the air conditioning is on, the windows cannot be open and we are hemmed in. Air conditioning robs us of one of the greatest pleasures of the Summertime (even greater than the walk-in freezer bedroom) : Outside noises.

Footfalls on the sidewalk. Crickets and night bugs. The Breeze. Distant thunder. Children squealing, screaming, crying, banging, giggling, falling, yelling. Parents hollering at their kids. Remote backyard conversations I can barely make out (and sometimes in languages I don't understand). Dogs. Cars driving by. Rain. Sirens in another part of town. A ballgame (depending where you are in the city a Cubs game can be heard very clearly, and without the hordes of fandom begging to be tazed). A fight someplace. Laughter in pairs. Laughter in groups.

Sound carries so well in the Summer. Must be the humidity.

Recently, I have rediscovered some of those sounds coming through the open window in my current bedroom. On Sunday morning while everyone was away and I sat typing at the computer, cars drove up and parked nearby, doors slammed, breakfast conversations were muttered in the house next door. As the church hour approached, the neighborhood fell into relative silence. And then I heard one of the most amazing and beautiful things I have heard in my life.

The boy next door, he must be around 12 or 13 years old, has lately received a guitar.

Listening to amateurs practice their instruments fills me with such an awkward mix of dread and joy. Every note is plunked out with the same emphasis, all nuance is wrenched from the sheet music. Often the the melody is totally unrecognizable. And should the student ever get on a roll, don't get too comfortable. The fumble is inevitable and as jarring as driving down a highway at full speed, only to slam on the brakes as a nursery of raccoons totters across the road.

It's the possibility of it that brings the joy. When they DO get on a roll, or I begin to to hear their own expression through the jungle of notes (especially if it's a song they really want to learn), it sounds...I don't know, lovely, I guess.

Now, to be clear, I wouldn't head to iTunes and download an album of amateurs practicing their instruments. Christ, I'd rather gauge my own ears out with a fondue skewer. Getting a glimpse, however, in the quiet of a Sunday morning, through an open window feels like an awesome secret.

The boy next door twanged and plucked at his guitar, playing the same phrase over and over. My heart swelled.

The song was Iron Man, by Black Sabbath.

Fuckin' A.

Sucks to you, AC.

(*If you're looking for something interesting in the realm of how all the buzzing and whirring of Air conditioners and appliances and office machines can affect your mood (and why certain musical intervals might make us feel one way or another, you should check out This American Life and the Mapping episode and then the Radio Lab Musical Language episode.)

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