On the dentist’s chair with a radio hit of 1978 in his ears
He got into the chair while the dental hygienist made small talk. How would human beings who did not know each other well ever be in the same space together without finding trivialities to discuss and without pretending that the trivialities they offered to one another were not trivialities, but vibrantly interesting insights about critically important matters?
“There’s supposed to be some snow tonight.”
Unbeknownst to him, she had made some version of this precise statement to every other person who had been seated in this chair before him today. Six times, to be precise.
He was aware of the game’s rules even as he often failed in his adherence to them to effectively camouflage how aware he was that it was indeed a performance that was being undertaken on all sides.
“Oh yeah? I didn’t hear about that. How much?”
“Oh, not too much, though it’s going to be pretty cold!”
“Ah.” He thought perhaps that had sounded too transparently uncommitted, and he hoped she wouldn’t notice.
She asked him what flavor he preferred for the tooth polish. Mint is always the safest option, so this was his choice. She seemed satisfied by his conservative decisiveness.
As she put his chair back, he wet his lips to be sure he didn’t split one of them during the extended period of sitting there with his mouth stretched wide open that was in the offing. The light above him shone right into his eyes, and the gleam from the face shield she was wearing created an explosive effect, modulating, disappearing, reappearing in a slightly different location every time she shifted her angle of vision slightly.
He thought about nothing in particular.
The effect of the double espresso he’d had just before coming into the office was just settling in, intensified by the blood rushing to his head as his chair tilted him at an angle never approximated in real life.
The dentist’s office PA system was tuned to some online ‘70s and ‘80s station. It was mildly disconcerting to him that this was now universally referred to as “Oldies.” The music that had been on the radio when he was a child. Somehow, the Oldies that were the Oldies when he was a kid—Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry—had become something else, or in fact it had been forgotten altogether. Did anyone even acknowledge any more that his Oldies had ever existed? They had simply been relegated to the great wastebasket of history, and the music of his youth had been dragged in and had the label stapled unceremoniously to its forehead.
This of course meant he was old. No other possible way around this.
But there was a benefit to this shift too. As a young man, going to a public place where background music could be expected meant hearing things that evoked no meaningful personal memories. Now, he had become one of those people who had recurrent nostalgic episodes in elevators because music was constantly playing there that took him back to the Dairy Queen when he was 12, sharing a sundae with a blonde girl and listening to the jukebox, or to hitting a game winning triple in Little League off the lanky kid who struck out everybody, and then hearing the radio in somebody’s car after the game playing that song that could be heard every half hour on every FM station that summer.
Pop music is simple music in its composition. It is easy to ridicule if one has even the slightest degree of musical sophistication. And this is the easiest of things to do with the pop music of every generation that is not yours. But the stuff on the radio that was first captured by your auditory nerve and then transmitted to the neurons when your child’s brain was still bursting in development, that simple music will forever have an emotional valence lacking in what your mother or your children listened to, which is for the musical elitist patently rubbish and amenable to eternal criticism in the interest of vigilance for Music, capital M.
For a child of the ‘70s, the Captain and Tennille, Boston, Starland Vocal Band, and the Bellamy Brothers were forever exempted from such aesthetic rigor. That music resided in some other place, far from the brain, the neurological facts notwithstanding, and much closer to the emotional center of being that is found behind the rib cage. Yes, yes, of course, technically, artistically, that ‘70s pop music was as worthless as that of the Archies or the Big Bopper or Katy Perry or Destiny’s Child. Of course. But it would forever hit your brain differently than the trash that you had first heard as a 40 year old, or that as a child you already knew as your parents’ music, or that you’d never troubled yourself to hear at all because you couldn’t bear to pay even the slightest bit of attention to what 13 year olds were listening to now.
In many cases, one didn’t even register the music of other generations as music, at least, one’s brain refused to do any of the work that would be necessary on hearing it to associate it with profound emotional chemistry and reaction. It struck one in precisely the same way that traffic noise or incoherent yelling from another room in the same building might. Sound that registered as such, but without attracting real attention.
As he sat in the chair, or rather as he lay suspended nearly upside down, he disappeared into a reverie.
Somehow, through the random chance of this series of neurons getting exercised by the combination of stimuli, the coffee, the inverted chair that placed his head closer to the ground than his feet, he found himself thinking about the walk he made every day from his childhood home to the two schools he’d attended from 7th grade through high school graduation. Not just abstractly, but considering it in the finest detail. Precise images, maps of blocks and neighborhood features appeared in his mind. The two schools were within a few blocks of each other, so the walk was basically the same for six years. About two miles, one way. Thirty five minutes or so. From High Street to 4th, down 4th to Frebis, then to Wilson, to Thurman and finally Ann Street. Street names that were recalled without effort, even with forty years separating him from the last time he’d trod them.
A huge field of overgrown grass and weeds, with no houses or other buildings, right in the middle of an otherwise crowded neighborhood of working-class homes came to him. How many times had he walked past it? Maybe 200 days in a school year times six. He walked the same way there and back, so twice a day. Almost 2500 times he’d walked that path, past that field, minus a few absences for illnesses and some snow days when school was cancelled.
He could see it in his mind’s eye as though he were standing before it now, 15 years old, fresh-souled, clear-eyed, certain that the horizon of life was wide and far, far away in the distance. He could see the wild flowers, the dandelions, the waist high grass here and there where it had not been trampled, the piles of dirt, the junk that had been dumped by people in the surrounding neighborhoods, bricks, some half-destroyed kitchen cabinets, a toilet, pieces of automobiles and numerous tires, the bike trails kids had left on their journeys through on high speed chases, the soda cans and the McDonalds bags and straws. He could see it all as vividly as he could see the exam light and the glare from the hygienist’s face mask.
He’d sometimes stop there on the way home, on warm days, and just sit. Climb up on a pile of dirt and sit there, like some out-of-time Stylite, meditating on the name of God on his mound while the world passed around him. Ferociously trying to dig through the illusion to the reality, to find the something he could not identify but of whose existence he was perpetually aware because of the gnawing, unceasing ache in his gut, the incompleteness. In his mind’s eye, it was so present that he might have reached out to touch his youthful self, pensive there on his dirt heap, pondering everything and nothing, he might have touched him with a hand that was his own but separated by decades of future time.
“Everything looks good,” he heard the dental hygienist say. “You can rinse with that cup of water. The dentist will be here in a minute to have a quick look.” She hurried out of the room, leaving him alone.
He was absorbed by the image of himself in the field. In the background, somewhere above him, he heard a voice.
He listened. “Yes, it has,” came the thought. “It has.”
He thought of how, as a boy, he would sometimes climb out his window on to the roof at night and just sit there for hours, perched above the yard in the darkness. He had the impression then that he was dangling in the void, and all it would take was a relaxing of his posture to effect a drop into that black sea.
“You used to think that it was so easy,” sang the voice.
There he was, at once the Buddha sitting zazen and a crouching bird of prey at the edge of the roof.
“Another year and then you’d be happy,
But you’re cryin’, you’re cryin’ now…”
It came as a flash, triggered by those sounds and those words, the banalities of his generation impervious to the immune response of his critical faculties, that his 12 year old ears had absorbed so many times at precisely the moment that the hormonal transformation was beginning in his body and he first began to think about the world beyond childhood, however furtively and murkily.
Perhaps the melancholy way that melody and that lyric, not even maudlin to the serious musician, hit his pristine consciousness, still uncluttered by sophistication, in that time now so distant had left a trace that the years and the accumulation of knowledge about the arrangement of sound could not erase. Neurons are not replaced; they last until you die. Those neurons that had been imprinted with whatever emotional experience, now unavailable to his memory, mingled with that song might well still have retained the same configuration of connections through the decades. They were unchanged by the accretion of other experience. They insisted on moving him in a way that better music, learned later, could never hope to do.
“Another year and then you’d be happy,
But you’re cryin’, you’re cryin’ now…”
Something happened. To turn it into words is already to turn it into something else. But without the need for words, or even for a silent narrative inside his head, a realization was made.
The voice inside his head that did not have to speak said this:
“I don’t care at all if I’m dead in a month. Why should I? That is not real. The idea of being dead in a month is nothing but an idea. It is no more real than the idea of the day the sun goes supernova and engulfs every planet in the solar system, including Earth, in a glorious, destructive wave of celestial funeral plasma. What’s real is one thing, one thing only: this moment right now, when you are alive. It’s all there is. All of it. What is to be worried about? How can one be frightened of what is not in the all? How can one be frightened of what is not? Here you sit, thinking these thoughts, seeing these images in the mind emanating from the brain in your head that is functioning perfectly well, at this moment, right now. Here you are. This is it. There’s nothing else.”
The song went into the bridge, then back for the final verse. Tears welled up in his eyes as he listened.
One of his dead sisters’ faces came to him, then the second. They were singing the chorus, from somewhere he could not name. The beloved ones, gone, taken, had come back to press the point. Here you are. This is it. Nothing else. Just this. Be here. Nothing else. Just be here, and everything is ok. There’s nothing not here right now that is part of the conversation about what is ok or not ok, after all, nothing to worry about trying to make ok at some later point or to keep ok beyond this moment. There’s just this. The only thing there is, the only thing you have, the only thing you can ever, ever have. You’ve already arrived. You’re already home, and home is wherever you are right now, in all the nows of however much time you get to be a breathing bundle of living cells.
This, he now knew, in a way he had never known before, though he had read all the right books and could recite all the tidbits of philosophy that would indicate how aware of all the meaningful things he must be, this was the same experience Siddhartha Gautama had sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, the same experience had by the student in the koan, chased away with a stick by the master with whom he had wished to study wisdom, the same experience of Saul on the road to Damascus, the same experience of Muhammad in the cave on Jabal an-Nour.
Not a similar experience. The same one. Precisely the same. This moment was the same moment those others lived. An eternal light shining from a pristine black sky, illuminating everything, the backdrop of dark somehow both obliterated and enhanced for relief against the purity of realization.
The dentist came into the room to find him wiping his eyes and laughing.