When I was younger, each morning I’d tie my shoe laces and that was all it took. These days it seems I can’t make a knot last longer than an hour. (This isn’t some loopy metaphor – I am talking about actual shoe laces.)
There were occasions in the past, out and about, when I got the Annoying Son to re-tie them for me. This was when he was little. It’s not a good look, having your small child kneeling at your feet, on Waterloo Bridge, in the rain, doing the laces you can’t be bothered to crouch down and fix yourself. He was much closer to my feet, good at the job, and liked helping out. But people stared and couldn’t see good reasons; they saw a grown-up treating a child like a servant – the role reversal is too jarring. And now he’s almost as tall as me, it’s unacceptable to ask.
We’re walking down Shaftesbury Avenue heading for the cinema. My left shoe has come loose. It’s the second time since leaving home. I say to the Annoying Son that I think something’s up with my knots. He replies, maybe the laces got bigger.
At the traffic lights, I bend down to knot them again. At that precise moment, a man bumps into me from behind, and if this were a different film, he’s just dipped his hand in my pocket and nicked my phone. But in reality he charges onwards, straight into the road without looking, and almost gets run over by a bus turning left. The guy’s wearing giant headphones and presumably doesn’t hear the bus driver screaming at him for almost dying. He is a young dude oblivious of mortality, bumping along, life well within his stride. I bet his shoelaces are fine.
John Stuart Mill
Later in the week, in a book I’m flicking through, a list of curious facts records that John Stuart Mill never learned to make a proper knot – his whole life. What a useless utilitarian. Also, Bertrand Russell didn’t know how to make tea. A colleague mentions that ex footballer Philip Neville only figured out instant coffee well into his thirties. Martin Amis once described in comic detail the logical positivist AJ Ayer singularly failing to cope with a car ashtray out for a drive with the author.
It feels better knowing Mill struggled with knots. I couldn’t do my school tie the first few years at secondary. Although I saw that the other boys could, that they didn’t descend into a tangle getting dressed after PE, I still assumed it was a general bloke problem with fastening stuff, and prepared to console the Annoying Son when he found the leap from Velcro to shoe laces a challenge. But before he was even five he’d mastered his knots. Tying was a breeze. He has good fingers.
He used to play with his trains all day every day. We would watch as he crouched down constructing elaborate wooden train tracks, then pulling an engine and its carriages along these flexuous triumphs of fantasy engineering – round and round, up and over hills, in and out of bridges – and it seemed as if the trains were almost secondary, merely a vehicle for the greater project of advancing his dexterity to the next level, and the next level beyond that. Almost to say that the bright engaging Thomas trains flicked a developmental switch for his motor skills. (Also his spatial and conceptual awareness.) That if it wasn’t the trains, it would be action figures, or colouring in, or building a tower to knock over.
Life as it was before the iPod
But perhaps our theory of the ways of the toddler was misguided. It could simply be the Annoying Son was hot on trains and that his hand skills were forced to keep up. Recent research indicates that developmental drives can’t be relied upon, as numerous four year olds start school with fingers so weak from excessive early iPad use, that they require remedial sessions with an occupational therapist – who trains their digits till they’re strong enough to hold a pencil.
I tell the Annoying Son he’s lucky he was born before smartphones and tablets. (He even predates the iPod going mainstream.) If I’d owned an MP3 player in the early years, then I would’ve listened to music rather than talk to him and perhaps he wouldn’t have learned how to speak.
I mean especially the long cold walks after lunch. Long cold walks to get him to have his afternoon nap. Wheeled through the draughty brown streets in his yellow buggy, using repetitive motion and chatter to trick him to sleep. Then, soon as he was out cold, I’d rush to a cafe and sit in the quiet corner furthest from the bangy baristas, and just sit and stare into empty space. I didn’t read the paper or bring a book, I just looked at the middle distance, letting my brain stray.
It was knotless John Stuart Mill who described ‘the freedom of mind’ as an individual’s ability to ‘shape and assert their thoughts’. But that’s not always true. Often, my thoughts refuse to be commanded, preferring to meander this way and that.
Since fifty, the thoughts are more distracted than before and likely to come loose at any moment. (Yes, like the shoe laces.) It’s good to wander, I tell myself, to go rambling in your meanwhile states. But culturally as well as economically distraction is largely viewed as aberrant and slack. Or worse: a dispersed consciousness can be taken as a mark of sickness. ‘Enter Ophelia, distracted’ (Hamlet Act IV, Scene V) – where ‘distracted’ stands for derangement – also known as losing your mind.
|enter Ophelia, distracted
At a less acute level, how often do model workers mentally wander off? Not often, if they want to stay model. Good employees don’t sabotage their work goals by allowing their attention to become misplaced. Variable pay doesn’t reward scatterbrains.
And what happens at work, doesn’t always stay at work, instead it follows us home like a bad mood – where frequently we are critical when we catch ourselves mentally pottering about. You wake from your latest fugue – find yourself standing over by the window in the lounge, led astray by another reverie, wondering why did I come in here, to do what? Distraction is the leftovers of the task that required, but lost, your attention. You are cross you forgot what it was. The crossness is tetchy: For fuck’s sake! What was it? Think!
But hold on a second, what if a distracted mind is good for you? These rambling, brooding cogitations may well bring forth a greater clarity in time, where the wide-angled apprehension of everything allows us to properly see something. Or put it like the poet Randall Jarrell: ‘The way we miss our lives is life.’
Too much concentration narrows the mind. This seems hard to dispute. Focus = Restriction = Censorship. Perhaps simply better to let your thoughts steal away. Distraction is ‘the freedom to enjoy the complexity of your own mind,’ suggests the writer Adam Philips, who urges that we make time, all of us, to give the attention economy the slip.
|breathe in, then out again
Be Mindful, Be Fruitful
Attention economy. Could focus be a capitalist fixation? Has thought, through meditation, been co-opted for profit? At work mindfulness is all the rage. Soft-spoken mind leaders roll up to the building and take to the stage, sharing well-oiled mantras for putting your brain back on track. They say it cultivates wellness and agility in the workplace. Work on your attention, they declaim, only softly.
Could their call to focus actually be a kind of misdirection of our attention? Forget your stagnating wages, plus inflation, plus stratospheric housing costs, plus job insecurity – just take this mindfulness patch and go back to your desk. Don’t stop there, though. Download my app. Bring my velvet voice into your bedroom at sleep time; into the plush, noise-excluding cups of those deluxe headphones during your morning commute, as I calmly remind you to gently return your thoughts to the breath, in this way bringing your mind back to the job in hand.
Mindfulness – the mind control technology claiming it’s a wellness hack. I sit in the audience not paying attention to the meditation whisperer, thinking I’m sure I’d feel so much better if they just paid me more to work shorter hours with better benefits. That sounds like well being. ‘You can’t really be happy if you are a victim of injustice or exploitation,’ writes Terry Eagleton on a whistle-stop tour of the wellness, mindfulness and happiness industry, ‘which is what the technologists of joy tend to overlook… When Aristotle speaks of a science of well-being, he gives it the name of politics.’
It’s your political duty to tune out occasionally. Deep-focus refuseniks, hyper-attention truants, unknot from your desks and drift idly mentally here, there, and everywhere.
|So we beat on, boats against the current
Losing My Conversation
And yet. And yet. After all that, contrarily there is also much to be said for being engaged. Not necessarily wedded, but certainly engaged. (And likewise, yes, good things do come from mindfulness, not least as a balm.)
Remember what Scott Fitzgerald said about intelligence: ‘the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ Well, let’s put the function bit over there for now, while we scrutinise the flip side to the attention argument. Which is: If we wander off frequently, losing the conversation half way through, then we might need to ask what are we missing and is it a problem? And the answer is – Yes, I think it’s a problem that I keep losing the thread. Time and again.
Why do I mislay the thread this often? Maybe I wasn’t listening. Or, perhaps I tried very hard but couldn’t actually hear you. The world of sound grows distant and laboured. You need a new style of thinking as hearing loss turns to deafened and life becomes a foreign movie with no subtitles. A new style of dating too.
|comedians do the funniest things
Because I started dating again, you see. Because it was a new year and all that, and I got a special cheap deal on the site I always use.
Light dating – nothing too diligent, arduous, or unseasonably fast. There’s no rush – I assure myself. Yes, I’m certain there’s no hurry to gather the last partner in, the one to see me through – no rush, because there’s still miles to go before sleep, miles to go. But age is in the mix and it strikes me this time round in seeking a partner I should be thinking of bottoms more than faces. What I mean is seeking out a lover less based on sex appeal and more along the lines of does she seem the sort who’ll stick around after I can’t take care of myself any longer? You know, do the incredible stuff, even wipe my bottom? Is she that kind of future squeeze? (And am I that kind of future squeeze? After all, could go the other way, with me as carer doing the wiping. I could do that.)
I tell myself look long, make sensible the new criterion and lead search item for the latest love quest. Stay away from the stripes, is the warning slogan I repeat at the shops when buying clothes, because otherwise I always buy stripy tops. Stay away from the faces is the recent dating site chant. Read their words. Read them carefully. Forget the photos, keep to the text, dig away between the lines of self-promotion, perform rigorous exegesis to try to figure out what kind of person they are, and how they’ll hold up in a health care scenario.
But really that’s not it at all, as becomes only too very bloody apparent. The main question is not will she slop out for me thirty years from now? It’s much more pressing. It concerns now, today, this evening, and my rubbish ears. How do these women feel on a first date meeting a bloke who can’t go in that bar, because it’s too loud, or that bar, because it’s got music, or that bar, because everybody’s shouting, or not this restaurant with no carpet and excessive tiling, and not that table, because it’s directly under the Bose speaker, and not over there close to the service hatch, with its cacophony of chefs saucepans and china plates?
Last round of dating, hearing was barely an issue. Now three years later, it’s the only issue. I’m deafened. I meet people from Tube stations for our expectant but awkward introductory date, and the first thing we do is we wander up and down for ten or twenty minutes, in and out of joints, absorbed by the search for silence, consumed by the business of walking from place to bar to restaurant to pub to boite. Is this okay? Too loud? How about this one? No? Shall we try another? That’s okay. It’s fine. I understand. It must be awful. How about here?
Truly, this is what we do. Such extensive rambles nearly always lead us to strange, empty bars with zero atmosphere, all because I can’t hear what you’re saying otherwise. And even with good sound conditions, there are still no guarantees for audibility.
Of course, there is another way of approaching this: the way of the long talker. One sure method for staying in the conversation, to stop worrying about losing the other person’s words, is simply do all the talking – straight at them. Talk and talk and talk… And, if you see their mouth opening, as they prepare to issue an utterance, talk a bit more.
This is, of course, a large fat exaggeration. But occasionally I’ve hogged the speech – without meaning to – as a fix for not being able to hear much, and have found that apart from it being rude and unfair, and even a bit boring for the other person (Yes, really), it’s actually not that easy.
And simply no way to behave on a first date. So, sit up in your chair, Kaput, and listen carefully to what she is saying. Lean in a little. No, not that close. You’re scaring her – she’ll think you are intense and weird.
|velkommen til oslo!
And then, I Moved to Oslo. And in a Year, I was speaking Norwegian
And then, I moved to Oslo. And in a year, I was speaking Norwegian.
This is what my date sat opposite just said. She utters the chain of words. I follow her lips. I tilt towards her with a hopeful face as I bid, but fail, to catch the whole sentence straight out of her mouth before it gets scrambled in the ambient storm. We both decided this bar, this room, that it would be okay in here. But the acoustics are actually not so good and the table next along has just filled with four suits talking loudly. Their Eton barks are unhelpfully cranked up by the speaker system housed inside my listening aids – amplified, distorted and sucked down inside my ear canals; forced and pushed in alongside the rest of the loud airstrip whoosh of other drinkers speaking and music playing, all of it bunched and screeching and jackhammering inside my head, in file with the front door banging repeatedly and glasses crashing onto wooden table tops. And between all of this inner blare, plus occasional white shrieks of electronic feedback, I grab each one of my date’s words and stitch them together carefully – and her Oslo utterance starts to take shape and now after this much effort, I actually understand her whole sentence: So, she moved to Oslo, and in a year was speaking Norwegian. Wow, she wrangled a new language in a year. And here’s me, losing the only language I ever got.
I want to say to her, that’s very impressive about the Norwegian. But also, given that we’re talking about Oslo, I prepare to share the cute anecdote of when my son once travelled there aged seven, and getting on the plane at Gatwick, he shouted, Why are all these people speaking Norwayish? But while I’m figuring and processing her words, sifting them from the surrounding auditory dissonance, and then taking the time to mentally assemble my response – while all of this is happening in my head, my date has already quit Norway. Goodbye Oslo, Hello Hamburg. Then it’s Munich. And Berlin. Followed by Paris. And finally she returns to London after a brief hiatus in New York. So, by now it’s much too late for me to say out loud what I had prepared, and therefore I don’t have any words to respond. I just watch and listen closely and try to keep up with my date’s migratory life story.
All that close listening wears you out. Each date night I come home knackered and the first thing I do walking through the door is take the aids out and dump them and blissfully get a break from all that boosted sound. I relax into the semi-silence of the deafened. It’s all quiet. It feels nice.
I could give up on going out. It’s a temptation. I could stay home with Netflix and subtitles. Call it a good-enough life. But even introverts get the blues, even deafened introverts feel the urge to go mingle. But not just that. You also want to contest the usual logic of hearing loss (a deafening that’s arrived twenty five years ahead of schedule). The usual logic of hearing loss is withdrawal.
Being withdrawn enough already, you haul yourself up off the sofa and back out the door and go spend time with people. Some of them, until not so long ago, you used to indulge in quick jokes sent back and forth across the table. Banter. But now you find you stare at them a lot – What did they just say? With them looking back at you, no doubt thinking, I’m sure he didn’t used to stare that much?
I spell it out up front to the first dates. I tell them, you know, it’s my ears, they’re bad with hearing things. I’m not actually as slow as they make me seem. In fact, I used to be reasonably quick witted. And although I sit and gawp at you, in a way, I still am quick witted. But you’re going have to take my word. Tonight’s first date nods. She says, Trump’s position on gun laws is fascistic.
I take a guess that she said Fantastic. I don’t know why, as she looks pretty liberal to me. I shake my head and say, No.
She replies, No! So you you think it’s a good idea to dole out handguns to high school teachers?
I didn’t get much of that last sentence, except for the brisk No. I could ask her to repeat. Or spend thirty seconds working it out. Instead I take an instant guess, go in with both feet. I say, Yes. (Makes a change from No.)
Blankly she looks at me.
I quickly correct myself. No, I say. Pause. I really meant to say, No. Pause. Where did you say your parents live?
These are the conversations that can happen if you don’t watch out. You make a guess on the spot and get it wrong by 180 degrees. You smile, while a frown was expected. Brighten, where somber was the appropriate response. Look sympathetic, when it’s time to laugh out loud. Or, you listen really hard, still don’t hear a word they said and you don’t own up to it, but just sit there dumbly, waiting for things to pass. Only to realise, after one or two seconds, that this won’t do. That by their dilated imploring eyeballs it’s now clear they just asked you a question and a reply is expected. And then comes the really stupid bit – the idiot thing that you do sometimes out and about, and really need to stop doing – which is you foolishly think it’s already too late to rewind, so you pretend, you look away, look at your shoes, or across the room at the pink hen party lined up at the bar, and try to think of something to say that might work as an answer to a question you didn’t hear. Pluck it out of nothing. You want to redeem the situation, to conceal your weak dissembling tendencies, and so you stumble around in your brain looking for a broad platitude that might just work as a coverall answer, a placeholder to every possible question in existence. You seem fixed on not being truthful because this will only betray an original dishonesty. The sensible thing at this point would be to just call time on an exchange that’s turning to dust. Just own up. Don’t wriggle. Do not improvise! Tell them, I’M SORRY, I DIDN’T HEAR WHAT YOU JUST SAID, BUT PRETENDED I DID, AND NOW I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY TO YOU. But no, oh no – fuck that shit. Anything but sensible. I’d much rather further complicate this wretched state of misunderstanding. I look at the framed print on the facing wall, a cartoon of two foxes dressed as Edwardian gents, wearing long coats, high collars and yellow paisley cravats. The anthropomorphic foxes are playing billiards, drinking frothy ale from pewter tankards. Is there anything in this cartoon than might help me to come up with an answer to the question I didn’t hear?
My first date gets up and goes to the toilet.
|the 70s show
The social comedy of ill-communication and getting boxed in makes me think again. I’m going round in circles on how to exist. Maybe I should actually, simply throw in the towel. Social spaces, perhaps they’re beyond plausibility, not for you any longer. Stay home instead and listen to some music.
Except, the music doesn’t sound the way it used to. The songs come over as dim and sketchy round the edges. The bones and rhythm’s still there, just the melody’s losing clarity. Long familiar tunes getting paler, with less colour and salt – call it the bland remix.
Until the recent dating fiascos, being deafened didn’t seem worth dwelling upon. Now it’s a preoccupation. I have to make a new plan. Coming to terms can sometimes be a slow road though. The writer Bella Bathurst was profoundly deafened from her twenties and admits for years she turned away from what was happening, she didn’t even make a note of it in her journal. Bathurst ignored the problem while her world gradually closed in on her. And she ignored the closing-in as well. And then, one Friday night, she turned up at the in-patient department of the local mental health unit pleading to be sectioned. (They told her to come back on Monday.)
That’s not going to happen here. This is not a concern. I just read a book. Then later I turn on the TV. I start watching The Deuce on Sky. The drama is by David Simon (who made The Wire, just the second best TV show in history) and covers the rise of hard core porn in early 1970s New York. It’s a full-on pornocopia of flesh, flares, crime, and social commentary. I read about it and thought, well, given you once wrote a book on porn, maybe you’ll like the series.
I watch the feature-length pilot and all of episode two – one hundred and fifty minutes of screen time – and the show leaves me cold. At first, I don’t understand why. The drama feels flat, vague, indistinct. And then it falls upon me. The problem with The Deuce is I have no idea what is happening or what the characters are saying.
Two pimps compare their work to being president of the United States while the male lead cooks up a scam with the local mob. But why is pimping akin to being leader of the free world? And what is the actual scam? No idea. There are no subtitles on Sky.* I watch and listen carefully. I try my best. I pay close attention scene by scene, hoping to guess the words and get inside the story. It’s like feeling your way in the dark.
|ever think you took the wrong corridor?
All hail subtitles. They ought to come loaded with every show. Subtitles make screen clutter, but clutter that’s heaven sent. After a lifetime of foreign movies, I realise all those years I was in training for now. The screen clutter’s even greater with the Closed Caption (CC) descriptors explaining ambient sounds: birdsong, a key in the door, traffic drones in the background. Tap dripping, Angel coughs, distant gunfire. At first I bristled at the captions – they made me feel spoken down to like an elementary or an inadequate. Door squeaks, indistinct chatter, Olive belches. But over time the descriptors became almost poetry. I pause playback to copy stuff down: metal clicks in distance, spoon tinkles and scrapes, a final chord rings out. And how’s this for a sex scene: a smouldering man starts to undress, watched through a two-way mirror by a flock of palpitating women.
The more subs you use, of course, the greater the dependency. Gradually, unconsciously, you expect them to be pasted on everything. I settle in at the theatre and only as they get talking on stage do I remember, oh yeah, shit, no subs. I saw Black Panther at the cinema and five minutes into the story, it felt like something was up. But what is it? And then you remember – oh yeah, shit, no subs. Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049 – painful. I missed a key plot point in Moonlight. A friend told me later. I felt stupid for not knowing for myself. Like it feels moronic asking people to repeat what they just said; or not understanding the conversation going on around you until it’s moved on.
It raises a larger question I can’t begin to answer: If you’re out of the conversation, no longer receiving and withdrawing into your head increasingly, are you maybe also getting stupider?
Blow-Up The Night Of
In Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie dissection of swinging sixties London, there’s a long forensic detection scene where the lead fashion photographer develops an image containing ‘proof’of a murder. The scene has minimal sound, no spoken word and lasts for several minutes. On TV’s The Night Of, several extended scenes trail the lead cop silently as he compiles and sifts evidence looking for proof of a murder. He cross-references surveillance data and camera footage, constructing maps and timelines of both the victim and the prime suspect’s journey through the city on the night of the killing. Through this mute, methodical compiling of layer upon layer of detail – seeking incontrovertible elements of an irrefutable crime – the drama becomes richer, deeper and more compelling.
More of the above, please. The mumbling Deuce. The inaudible Atlanta. The days of listening to Elliot Gould muttering incoherently in The Long Goodbye, Joaquin Phoenix performing a similar routine in Inherent Vice, and mumbling lots again in You Were Never Really Here… That’s done. It’s over for me. In the meantime, it would be nice if Ofcom could tell Sky to put some subtitles on. They can afford them.
Because, this is what society means in real life situations. Every time I see a double decker pull in at a bus stop and the exit door slowly lowers the electronic lifter to pavement level to admit a passenger in a wheelchair. Every time a similar event occurs on a railway station platform. I think to myself, this is what regulation looks like. It’s public protection. And it is a good thing. The private firm that runs the rail service or bus route for profit is required to accommodate all sectors of society as written by law. Doesn’t matter if the bus gets slowed up and fails to keep to timetable, that maybe profit takes a small hit. This is what a society looks like – and what it sounds like.
|string of pearls
* No subtitles on Sky means no subs with The Deuce, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silicon Valley, Atlanta, The Leftovers, The Walking Dead, The Trip, Game of Thrones. With Curb it doesn’t matter so much, as part of Larry David’s comic performance is enunciating extra clearly. Or simply shouting. And everyone shouting back at him. The mumblecore of Silicon Valley though, or the deep south drawl of Atlanta – which looked like the best new TV show on debut – means I just can’t go there. The Walking Dead, however, quitting is not an option as I’ve been watching with the Annoying Son since he was thirteen – so, I sit through each episode largely in a state of confusion. And then straight after, I read the online episode recap to find out what I just watched, but actually mostly missed. I think that’s called a work around.