A Little Wobble

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By: 
Matt Geiger

This morning, I listened to an interview with Craig Harrison, a soldier in the British Army. He described a firefight in the desert, in which he and his compatriots were on the verge of being overrun and killed. “Smashed” is the word he used.

As bullets slammed into the ground, into flesh and into bone, and it looked like soon they would all be dead, he pulled out his phone and called his wife.

“I love you, you know?” he said. 

“I know,” she replied. “What’s going on? What’s that noise?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “It’s nothing. I’ll phone you in the morning.”

“We went back on the roof,” he continued. “And yeah, we won the fight.” 

He did call her the next day, telling her he had experienced what he nonchalantly called “a little wobble” as he came face-to-face with oblivion, so far from home–it sounds great in a British accent–the day before. A “wobble,” a moment when we become unsteady. A period when our will, our constitution, or understanding of the world or perhaps even our ability to live in it, teeter and threaten to collapse. 

Years later, Harrison was readying his gun, but this time it was not in a desert. This time, he was in his living room. This time, the target was himself. But for some reason, through luck, through a change of heart, and because he was not alone in the room–he was with his little Yorkshire terrier–he did not fire. Which is why he was being interviewed for LADbible, and I am listening to him telling his story as I mindlessly file pictures and press releases for the next edition of the newspaper. 

The thing that struck me about his story is that, when he thought he was about to die, his impulse was to tell his wife, Tonya, that he loved her. He didn’t call her to ask for anything. She didn’t even say, “I love you, too.” 

She said, “I know,” which is the best response to someone who really, really loves you. Because once she reminded him that she knew, his deepest reserves of strength rose up, like a tide that had only temporarily ebbed. His impulse in what he thought was his final moment was not to get something, but to give it. He did not call her and ask for vengeance or a monument. He did not call to be told he was loved. He called, in the midst of battle, to say, “I love you.”

“I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my wife, and my dog,” he later said. In other words, he is here because of the things he loves; not necessarily because of the things that love him. 

I love many things, including music. Even if I don’t like the particular song that’s playing, the noise of any tune helps drown out the bellicose ringing in my deaf ear, which means even bad music helps me out, a bit. 

My favorite songs are the ones– songs might be a bit of a stretch, at this early stage–that my six-year-old daughter plays on her violin. She has been taking lessons from the most incredible teacher ever since the spring of last year, and, unlike every other hobby we have thrown at her, she seems to have natural inclination for this. I can’t read melodies very well, but I played drums for years, so I can at least decipher a rhythm. She is already surpassing me.  

Learning to read music is an exercise in humility, especially for young children who do not yet know their numbers and fractions very well. 

“This is a quarter note,” you say to the child. “It’s worth one beat. A sixteenth note is worth a quarter of a beat.” 

“I, uh, what?”

“It’s easy! Just remember that a 32nd note is worth an eighth of a beat, and a half note is worth…”

“Half a beat?”

“No, don’t be ridiculous! A half note is worth two beats, of course. An eighth note is worth half a beat, silly!”

“My head hurts.”

“So does mine. That means we’re doing great! Also, don’t forget that music also has commas, but they don’t mean the same thing as commas in regular language. And it has periods, which of course don’t mean the same thing as periods in regular language, either. Basically, try to forget everything they taught you about numbers and letters and punctuation in kindergarten, and you will be ready to begin learning how to read music.”

“Okay.”

“But please, when you are in school, be sure you forget everything you’ve been taught in music lessons. Otherwise, it will be very confusing…oh, I see you’ve wandered off and I’m now talking to myself while holding a very small violin.”

The instrument, which is real but sized for someone roughly the size of a Smurf, really is adorable. It’s so small I was tempted, when going through some tough times recently, to crawl into the room where it is kept, unzip the case, and play a little tune on it. If only I knew how. 

The sounds it makes when Hadley plays it do not seem any less majestic than those made by larger violins. In fact, I am constantly surprised by how beautiful the music she makes on it is. Granted, my hearing is badly compromised, but I still have one ear that works relatively well, and with it I can listen as she runs her bow delicately across those four strings, which are capable of creating infinite songs. 

In one of her workbooks last night, we came across what they call a “Mystery Rhythm.” It is a series of notes that you clap, and you are supposed to try to think of which famous song they are from. It was “Ode To Joy,” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and I played it on my phone so Hadley could hear. 

She asked about Beethoven, she wanted to see the face of the person who imagined such beautiful sounds into existence, and when I Googled him, I came across several interesting articles. 

“Oh, yeah! He was deaf, like me,” I said, getting excited. I also learned he suffered from IBS, and possibly a heart arrythmia. In fact, some scholars have decided a few of his most incredible songs were inspired by the sporadic galloping of his own heart. None of the articles mentioned what impact, if any, his bathroom difficulties had on his music.

Hadley is nearing the age when people will start to tell her that a variety of things aren’t real. I’ve always thought it incredibly hubristic to decide what does not exist and then lecture the other eight billion people about it. “You know that god you prayed to when your mother died? It’s not real!” “You know that love you feel for your husband? It’s not real!” “You know those stories you tell and read? They aren’t true!”

As she nears her seventh birthday, Hadley’s main lines of questioning always have to do with whether or not things exist, and where they come from. My answers are almost always the same: “I don’t know,” and “I don’t know.”

Some people think it is easy to decipher whether or not something is real. They think you simply look for it, or listen for it, and if you do not see it or hear it, it does not exist. This, I think, places a lot of unwarranted faith in our own limited senses and powers. I can’t hear most things, these days, yet I know they are not entirely gone. The Earth often wobbles beneath my feet when I walk, yet I have a feeling it is as solid as ever.  

My ability to know something is not the thing itself.

And many of the most important things can’t be seen or heard, anyway. I have never seen love or compassion, or heard them, but I have observed and felt their effects. Things like justice and peace are entirely human inventions–they do not exist in any real way–and yet I suspect they are real. 

“Ode To Joy” did not exist, until the day a German composer with faulty hearing and irritable bowels dreamed it into existence. Today, it is very real as it plays on my phone. 

“Is ‘Star Wars’ real?” my daughter recently asked me. 

“Sure,” I said. “We just watched it, didn’t we?”

“And the Force, is it real?” she asked. 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t seen it in this world, but there are a lot of things I haven’t seen. I guess you will have to find out for yourself.”

Whenever someone near me speaks these days, I get a distorted crackling on the right side of my brain. Like the sound of a tiny speaker turned up way too loud, until it is merely robotic syllables. On the left, I can still hear, so I tend to get a mix of the two. 

I try to tell my daughter I love her every chance I get. It’s important work, and I, like all parents, have finite time in which to get it done. Sometimes she acts like she doesn’t hear me, because she is playing with dolls, or playing her violin, or watching “Star Wars.” But usually, she says the same thing in response. She says it casually, and confidently, which is all I could ever ask for:

“I know, dad,” she says. “I know.”

 

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