Saturday, May 24, 2014

May Day Monkeymind

The other day I arrived to work an hour earlier than I was scheduled (I could swear they told me to come in at noon) and had sixty minutes to pass through before I could clock in. It just so happens that the shopping plaza hosting the grocery store I work at sits astride the Northwest Branch Anacostia River, and a stretch of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System runs along its banks.

I'm really enjoying my new digs in Maryland. I don't mind my job, I love my roommates, the neighborhood is lovely, and being able to walk five minutes to the Metro and take a twenty-minute ride to the Smithsonian and United States Botanic Garden is pretty fuckin' sweet.

The one thing I've really missed are the woods. My hometown in Jersey has a wonderful public park system; the Quaker center doubled as an arboretum, and it was a ten-minute walk from an impressive forest. Since I've been down here, I haven't found any open spaces I can reliably lose myself in (the unusual savagery of this last winter might have something to do with that), and so the hour I spent getting acquainted with a tributary of the Anacostia River was indescribably refreshing.

The storms of the previous day had swelled the river, and the water was running fierce and heavy. I took a seat on a boulder and listened to the crashing of the rapids.

"Crashing?" Is that the word for it?

"Crashing" implies a discrete impact; I don't think "crashing" aptly characterizes the sound I heard. Would it be "rushing?" I don't know—rushing describes movement, not sound. "Murmuring" and "babbling" don't touch it: both imply vocalization, and one suggests mutedness. "Splashing?" No: a frog hopping from a pond makes a splash; a tot in a kiddie pool splashes around. "Purling?" It comes closer in that it indeed does refer to the sound of running water, but gently running water. "Hissing" just means the sound of a voiceless alveolar sibilant, sustained for some time; and the sound I heard hissed and crashed, but neither word by itself approaches the sound to be signified.

Is there a word in English for the sound of water tumbling into water? The sound is unique, but I can't find a unique word describing it. And I'm sad for that because—aside from the cultural disinterestedness for an ancient natural phenomenon it would seem to indicate—that sound, whatever you'd call it, intoxicates me. I get lost in it.

But never lost enough, and especially not during my hour on the banks of the Northwest Branch Anacostia.

I wanted that sound to be the only sound I heard. I wanted to see nothing but the sun on the leaves and the ochre water and foam to. I wanted my experience of that moment to consist wholly of my immediate perception of it.

But there was just too much noise. Not in the environment, but in myself. I sat there and I was thinking about a bit that Brian Regan performed during one of his appearances on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. "Karma Police" by Radiohead was on loop in my auditory cortex. I was thinking about Mega Man 2 and (god help me) Final Fantasy XI. For a few minutes I was remembering my EDH deck and pondering how it might be tweaked with some cards from the new sets.

Noise. Noise noise noise noise noise noise noise.

Earworms. Brainworms, thoughtworms. A lifetime of speakers, screen, and games has filled my brain with niggling little parasites.

I'm still hearing these things, seeing them, and playing them, even when they're miles away. Even when I've turned them off in the physical world, they're still plugged in inside my brain, and I'm watching them, listening to them, and playing them even when what I want is to be doing is nothing but letting myself be wholly in the place that I am in the moment I am.

During that hour on that afternoon, if it were possible, I would have gone back in time and muted every speaker, switched off every screen, and walked away from every game if it meant I could have sat for just five minutes in the sun of a late spring and heard nothing beyond and nothing within myself but that primordial sound for which my language seems to have no name.


  1. Funny, I had the same problem today, the one with rivers and words, I mean. I had to describe it to someone and I just went with "the sound of the river". It seemed to do the trick even if it's not very poetic.

    1. Mizu no oto works, yeah. But it's interesting (though not surprising) that our language has so many more words referring to specific visual or tactile sensations than auditory or olfactory ones.

  2. I'm pretty sure the word is rushing. Your argument to dismiss it would dismiss several other sound-naming adjectives that also describe the movement that causes them.

    Nevertheless, let me present you with a challenge to your wistful melancholy: Consider the possibility that a genie had appeared at that moment and granted you your wish of 5 minutes of rushing water communion in exchange for all the memories that were demanding your attention, and that you were so ready to banish from this timeline. Do you think this granted wish would have sated your mind and spirit (to give the feeling that birthed such desire a word) in the same lasting ways that all the things that you lost in exchange? Would the memory of it never tire you and always please whenever you wanted to summon the joys of the past? Can you explain how such exchange would be objectively more defensible and ethically superior to the unwitting trades you've made many times to acquire those intellectually and/or emotionally stimulating constructs at the cost of going outside and experiencing natural wonders such as these rushing waters?

    Nay, I say, for if rushing waters in your mind had distracted you from the precise sequence of button-presses required to defeat Crash Man, you would have cursed and wished for every spring and river to dry and their sound to be forever quieted if only you could reach the hoped joy of victory, so close at hand and to which those sounds constituted an obstacle.

    1. On the first point: true, but I was looking for a word denoting the sound rather than slipping it in as a connotation of a visual sensation.

      On the second: I rather doubt it. I've tried replaying Mega Man 2 five times in about as many years, and I never even make it to Wily's Fortress before I get bored and quit. I'm pretty sure I'm over it.

    2. Haha, fair enough. I found I couldn't really replay A Link To The Past without marring its memory because now it seemed boring. However, that was just an example. My point is that whatever captures your mind at any given point, independently from its naturalness or artificiality will always seem important enough to sacrifice any other distracting thought. Not trying to dismiss the relevance of your rushing waters moment, but rather, a reminder that what made that moment special was your state of mind and not some inherent objective worth of the subject of your admiration.

    3. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. I mean, I'm not ready to argue about the existence of objective worth or assert the inequivalence of such a quantity between the activities of looking at the river and playing Mega Man 2. But for myself, I am coming to rate the value of the former much higher than the value of the latter. Individual circumstances may vary, though!

  3. Here's the paradox: even if there was a dandy English word for the sound of water, those three paragraphs about its non-existence show off the river a thousand times clearer than any single word could.

    1. Thanks, but you give me far too much credit,

  4. I like how topical that Radiohead song is. "He buzzes like a fridge/He's like a detuned radio", shalala.

    I might add how much I miss your buzzing and hissing about interactive entertainment automatons. Between you losing interest and being swallowed whole by a SuperGrafx, everyone left to write about this subject just seems so dull.

    (I also might add that I had a chuckle when I found out this isn't a very widely held opinion.)

    EDIT: Now with 100% more hyperlinkery, because I'm an idiot.

    1. Hah, thanks for sticking around. And sorry: for the foreseeable future, I'm done writing about video games. Who knows—maybe I'll fall back in love with them again someday?

      ...I'm not sure how to feel about that link, by the way. "I really like the stuff you wrote, but everyone else thinks it's crap!" Jeez, NeoGAF is a tough crowd.