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Learning to love the unplugged life.

The Sound of Silence

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In 1994 the radio in my Honda hatchback sputtered, fizzled and died.

I pulled the radio from the casing in the dashboard and looked quizzically behind it. I saw a Medusalike tangle of wires. I blinked. I looked again to be sure it hadn't become easier to understand. Then I put the radio back. It never worked again.

Living without a car radio was tough. Since high school, I had become utterly obsessed with popular culture, and had become used to spending my drive time flipping from pop music to jazz to talk radio.

So at first I overcompensated. Perhaps, I thought, I could be my own radio. For a while, I tried singing aloud on my way to work. That was somewhat fulfilling, but doing the DJ chatter between songs exhausted my imagination. I soon gave up.

I realized that I had been carried away. No surprise: I tend to do that.

For example, when I got cable for the first time — in 1989 — I was in one of my occasional college-dropout periods, so I spent most of my life in front of CNN. Of course, I could remind myself that that was the year of Tianenmen Square and the Berlin Wall. But I have feared cable television ever since.

Now, there are the times I go two or three days skipping breakfast and lunch, and then wander downstairs in the middle of the night and eat a whole pie. Of course, I can remind myself that I missed so many calories that I'm breaking even.

And the times I start working on something — an article, a toy I'm trying to put together — and can't let it go. Suddenly I realize that I've been struggling all night long and the sun is rising, and my wife is saying, "Did you do stay up all night again?" Yep.

So, without my constant fix of popular culture, I was jittery. I desperately wanted a car radio. I made appointments to have it fixed, but would have to cancel for one reason or another.

Then, after a few weeks passed, I noticed that with the radio silenced, I could hear the hum and grumble of the road. I could hear my fingers tap the steering wheel. I could hear the flap, flap of the windshield wipers.

I was in a tiny minority of those whose world inside the car was not completely, hermetically sealed. Without a car radio I could unplug from the incessant rattle and hum of the entertainment industry and pay attention to the real world. It was like stepping back from a movie set and seeing all the hollow stage sets from behind.

As I waited at stoplights I could hear birds singing through the open side window. I heard people chatting on cell phones. I heard snippets of the music pounding from the radios of cars idling beside me, ranging from the whoomp, whoomp, whoomp! pulsing from a vibrating Jeep to the Boom-chick, boom-chick coming from a Ford pickup.

It occurred to me that we are so profoundly linked by the web of radios, television, cell phones and the Internet that it's startling to just turn it off. I started to like living without a radio. I never made another appointment to get it fixed.

Then, this Christmas, my wife presented me with a surprisingly large television. And cable.

I was speechless. I had no idea this was coming. I tentatively fingered the remote, then clicked the TV on. I swept through channel after channel. Music videos, weather reports, yellowed soap operas. I was in love. I didn't get up from the couch all night.

The next morning, I got in the car and shut the door behind me. Then, for the first time in seven years, I took my index finger and poked the On button of my car radio. There was a flicker of orange light. My heart jumped. Then the light faded and died. Nothing.

I sat in the car for a minute. Then I started it up and went to work.

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