Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 12

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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The hum of my furnace, as it heats the house after a cold morning's start, is a low, constant motor-noise kicking in with reassuring warmth, suffusing my home with a sense of physical comfort though I have the thermostat set low – I consider 63° low – as a matter of conserving the electricity and saving some money. But for some reason, it sounds more "present" this morning, louder, slightly more insistent, and I worry if there's something in this change that could soon become a problem. Don't machines, like human body parts as they wear down, produce in their own ways symptoms that could diagnose future issues?

I have not, in the years since I'd installed the geothermal system, had any problems with the furnace (knock on plastic laminated artificial wood substitute) – I still call it "the furnace," knowing technically it's not the same thing – but who would look forward to waking up some sub-freezing morning to discover there is no heat? This would, I'm convinced, happen on a Friday night when no one would be able to come out and fix it until after the weekend.

There are other sounds in the house that I usually pay little attention to, the essence of involuntary actions like a person's breathing or the pumping of the blood. The water pump clicks off for no reason and I begin to worry if that means there might be a leaky faucet or toilet in the house that will need tending to.

There is the steady ticking of a clock (tick tock) intimidating as it verifies the waste of minutes, then hours, as I sit trying to work in my study and find, at the end of the morning, a page as blank as when I began.

The refrigerator hums and sometimes drains water in an uncanny imitation of a cat peeing in the litter box, though there in no litter box in the immediate vicinity. The computer – my laptop sitting here on the table in my kitchen – hums at a frequency not harmonious with the refrigerator and frequently whirs for no apparent reasons. The kitchen clock ticks louder than any other clock in the house and I've tried replacing it: electric ones hum, battery-operated ones thunk every second off into the past.

Worse, certainly, is the water softener in the basement which occasionally needs to "recycle" its timing mechanism (or so I'm told) and usually does it with a loud whump and a high-pitched squeal – often at 4am – before chugging away for an hour or so, jarring me out of a sound sleep.

And yet anyone visiting my house would think it's very quiet here, without the radio or TV on, without having music playing in the background. The solitude, here, is peaceful.

Music – as opposed to noise – is often defined as "organized sound," something sung or produced by playing an instrument, something that contains melody, harmony and rhythm. And while most of the music we are familiar with will fit into at least one or another of these equally simplistic definitions, there might be a great many sounds we'd hear that are musical – bird-song, the wind chimes on my neighbor's porch which, to some people, may sound pleasant – that are neither human-generated nor, technically, organized.

Silence, on the other hand, is usually defined as the absence of sound which cannot be, not in this world, not in our reality. Silence is more the shifting of our attention to other, more easily overlooked sounds whether it is the ticking of a clock or the pulse of our own breathing.

Perhaps because I am a musician, I am more sensitive to sound. I am told my hearing is very keen, since many of my friends were not even aware of this background of sounds we've become inured to.

There were a few who, even after concentrating on it, were unable to notice the hum I'd said was annoying. For them, this is normal and perhaps for that reason they do not notice it.

The music I have loved and listened to all my life – and that, almost exclusively, is "classical music" – is based on a series of perceptions: whatever the surface language of the individual composer, there are various levels at which certain things operate – something linear that might be a melody, something vertical that might be a chord, something with a more or less consistent pulse that might have a beat or articulate a rhythm.

Because pitches can be organized into scales or modes that might affect our emotional responses ("major mode makes us happy; minor mode makes us sad" – those annoying but unavoidable generalities), listeners often equate pleasantness of experience with "what music is."

But then why do some people like a particular piece of music and others do not? If we have "one definition fits all," shouldn't we have a singular, unified response to it?

Autumn is in full force this morning as I look out over my yard. The wind swirls around the house, whipping the leaves in vast waves and eddies before it, and this fascinates the cats who sit on the window sills hoping to catch something as it blows by. The sound of the wind is moving counterpoint to the drone of the furnace, as if the two – one static, one rising and falling – create harmonic and rhythmic conflict, a musical tension. It makes me conscious of the chill inside me but I find the drone comforting as does one of the cats, curled up in front of a vent, content with the comfortable.

For some reason, after lunch I felt suddenly deflated, overcome with what the French would call ennui: all I wanted to do was sit down and stare out the window. But that only made me feel colder, drained of energy and, worse, of any interest. So I looked around for some chores to do, hoping perhaps doing something practical – a load of laundry, perhaps – would get the blood circulating again.

But in gathering clothes out of the hamper, I twisted my back, bending over, and a wave of muscle spasms flowing down my leg made me almost lose my balance. It only takes the smallest misstep to cause an accident: living out here, alone, one of my greatest fears – tripping over a cat or falling down the stairs – was lying on the floor, unable to move or call for help.

Despite the silence, there was still no one close by who could hear me shouting for help, no neighbors, no mailman, no friends who'd notice they hadn't seen me at the diner for coffee for a while. How long would it be before someone would come looking for me? Perhaps I should not begrudge Sybil her unannounced visits after all.

I retreated to the couch with my microwaveable heating pad pressed against my lower back after deciding it's best to close all the drapes, turn on all the lamps – I even thought about building a fire, a luxury rarely indulged in in the afternoon, especially so early in the season, except for the constant bending over and lifting it required.

The days were getting shorter every day but today had been particularly interminable without the sun. If it started to rain now, I'd probably slit my wrists.

Lately, what's become my greatest fear – even beyond the idea of growing old and what we used to call "senile," of dying alone, of lying immobile on the floor – is now the acceptance of having become useless, the pointless meanderings of a life turned lifeless, the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck with no source of income or the fulfillment that provides it.

I sit by the piano for hours almost every day trying to force the issue I could still be a composer with something worth saying that people would find worth performing and listening to – that I could be, in the words of an immortal movie (for those who like movie quotes) a contender.

For all the good it does, I could sit here and instead read one book after another or watch television all day long and not beat myself into depression. Maybe writing a novel would be a diversion, perhaps even easier, but it would be no different in the long run.

There would be a sense of accomplishment, words adding up, but would it put off the realization that I have become stagnant?

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...to be continued...

Dick Strawser

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