05 November 2007

From my notebook....Ear Worms

Scanning the channels for something I can actually listen to on the radio during the early morning drive to the airport. Metal is too noxious, news too chatty, and the station that passes for jazz just took the last train to the coast. Somewhere on the dial, during a brief airing, I hear church music. Bad organ music. Reminds me of the quasi-Mexican place in my college's town that piped in hymns into the dining room. Onward Christian soldiers, marching towards the taco bar.... I hit the scan button not eager to hear what other audible atrocities awaited.

90 minutes later, I'm on the plane, starting to dose as the flight attendant goes through the security speech. What exactly is a cross-check? Whatever, I'm glad that it is done and we can pull away from the gates. I doze uneasily during take-off. Somewhere in my brain an ear worm has planted itself. Damn it! Of all the songs to have running through my mind, Amazing Grace is definitely not what I want to be humming during flight. Nor, did I hope the pilot might be singing:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I'm found/was blind but now I see

Now, understand, I don't have anything against church music, per se. I belong to a denomination with a rich tradition of great church music. I think back to when I was 20, studying in London: I would drag my then-agnostic self occasionally to Westminster Abbey to hear evensong. I didn't care about the words spoken in prayer. I didn't listen to them. I didn't realize, at least not on any sort of surface level of consciousness, that the music was sung prayer. I only cared about how the music rose to the vaulted ceiling, bouncing off of the damp stones; how it seemed as if the notes blended with the filtered sunlight streaming in the narrow windows to transport one's spirit to some sort of ethereal place. More than once I thought how it'd be cool to do yoga in the middle of the Abbey, or maybe in the cloisters, while listening to the chanting and singing inside. I would have laughed if anyone had told me that 20 years later I'd make an effort to go to evensong when I could, in places far different acoustically and culturally than Westminster.

But there are some hymns that I can't stand. I don't like the melody; I don't like the words; I don't like the pithy, saccharine distillations of faith. And Amazing Grace, with all of its well-intentioned meaning and historical reference, is one of them.

And it was going through my mind unceasingly. On a plane. At 6:30 in the morning. Bleeechhhh!

At dinner that evening, I joked with Catherine about the annoying ear worm. If anyone could give me another song to displace the current loop, it would be her. Most Annoying Songs or Show Tunes is her category. She did not disappoint.

Crackling Rosie you're a store-bought woman. You make me feel like a gee-tar hummin. Come on now girl, our song keeps running on. Play it now. Play it now my baby....

I asked for this? Neil Diamond in an endless loop is worse than Amazing Grace. I've always distinguished myself from other baby boomers a few years older than me by their like/dislike of Mr. Diamond. Few, I'd say, under 50 would count him as a favorite. Only a few years younger than those boomers, my age-mates in school detested him. Two, three years older and one could claim to really remember the Kennedy assassination -- and attending a Neil Diamond concert was on the calendar every August at the State Fair. I hadn't thought of a Neil Diamond song in a decade. That night, those few bars replayed at least 10 years worth of music in my head. Still, it did displace the lamenting church song.

Throughout the next day, I cursed Catherine for making me think of this song. I would be concentrating at work; it would crawl in. I would be looking out my office window at the sail boats on the river; it would wiggle in to share my thoughts. I'd hear someone's obnoxious ringtone, and my brain would transcribe the guitar chords into a MIDI file. Arghhhh!!!

That evening, returning uptown, I thought it was almost gone. The steady rhythmic sounds of the subway washed away all of my thoughts of the day. Work worries, what to have for dinner, silly pop tunes: all were gone.

I smiled as I switched trains at 42nd St. I had read something a few days earlier about observing where you walk. I paid writerly attention to my quick journey up the stairs and through the corridors. I made note of the people I passed -- what they were wearing, how they looked, snippets of conversation. I paid attention to the smells and how the squalid air in the stairwell felt as the train pulled away. So many images: there would be much to write about in my notebook that evening. I was surprised when I got to the wide open mezzanine area that there weren't musicians playing, just police officers with fierce-looking, but muzzled Alsatians.

I headed down the stairs to the 1. As I walked down the platform, I heard the lonesome sounds of a saxophone. An old Korean man, seated on a milk crate, was playing slowly. As I neared, I realized, too late, what he was playing.

Amazing Grace continued in endless loop in my brain for another three days until I boarded a plane to come home.

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