September 20, 2010
1. I had a car once that had no music. No player, no speakers, just the motor, wind against the metal hulk, the weather. I commuted in that car and there was so much relief in the silence. So much space, even if I was enclosed and traveling at 50-70 mph. Alone with my thoughts. Sometimes I want more of that. Sometimes I want less. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do.
2. I am drawn to: books on language, conversation, all the forms of communication between one person and another; art & artists who incorporate language in their work; poetry & poets who incorporate visual language or tools in theirs. One of the recent books I’ve been reading (I should call it not-reading, as I spend more time trying to think of a way to read another page than I spend actually reading it) is: Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. One fact I enjoy thinking about:
English speakers dread silence. We are all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that overcomes us when a conversation palls. Studies have shown that when a pause reaches four seconds, one or more of the conversationalists will invariably blurt something–a fatuous comment on the weather, a startled cry of “Gosh, is that the time?–rather than let the silence extend to a fifth second.
I couldn’t find the passage in the book until I did a search in google books, but before that I stumbled on a website from Cooper, a product & design strategy firm in San Francisco. In 2009, they had an entry in their Cooper Journal on the 4 seconds of silence:
Though it reads as a very short amount of time, it doesn’t sound the same way. At an average 196 words per minute in a typical (English-speaking) conversation, four seconds equates to 13 words. That’s about the length of an average Twitter post, i.e. a complete, if short, idea. It actually sounds pretty long, especially in the middle of a conversation… It’s a long time.
I’m fascinated by the drop offs in communication, in the invisible back and forths between people who can see each other, as well as those who can’t and maybe never will. What is building? What falls apart? It’s fascinating but painful sometimes also. Silence sometimes equals an opaque distance that’s impossible to traverse. Between two people, interpersonal conventions give us visual cues as to how respond to each other, what to think, what to say or not say. When physical presence is removed and it all happens online, what is left? Impossible silence.
3. I visited the SF MoMA again last week just before the Fisher Collection debut was closing out, and I saw so much visual information, it was a cacophony of visual conversations between the artworks, the people, the artists themselves, and no one in particular. It’s like walking through a hall where everyone is talking loudly on their cell phones, listening & taking it all in just the same. I always walk through museums backwards- I enter the side that is supposed to be the exit, I start at the last floor and make my way to the first. This time I ended up on the 2nd floor last, and when I walked into the room, I faced Mitzi Pederson’s Untitled, 2007 (featured in the Whitney Biennial 2008.) In the past I hadn’t understood the great draw others have had to the work. When I saw it previously, it was silent for me when I wanted much more. This time, when my mind was crowded with the voices of so many artists, I was relieved for the silence I got from her work, the emptiness was the relief. That became the point.
4. Nap time is just an awesome time when you have a small child in the house, but it’s fragile too. My 4 year old Zee still desperately needs the quietness in his day, and so do I. I’m so desperate for it that any sound which threatens to break the moment startles me. My 7 year old Enn is the quiet one. When he was a baby, my mother chastised me (in love) for not talking with him more. But he was happy & quiet and I was happy & quiet, why ruin it? His language developed normally, and he’s a reader & sometimes writer, but definitely not a talker. Zee on the other hand… he’s been chatted with since he was born (brother, mother, father, live-in grandmother, another pair of nearby grandparents) and his language is/was delayed. That doesn’t stop him from talking non stop, though. He insists on being known & understood, on saying what he thinks and wanting to know what I think. While Enn’s mind & heart are only opened from time to time on an invitation only basis, Zee’s is a space where the doors are always thrown wide open, ready to receive, he’s fresh air and full of presence. For all the love I have of silence, knowing and being known is actually pretty awesome after all.