Monday, February 12, 2007

The Profoundness of Silence: Memoirs of a Temporary Mute.

An interesting thing happened to me in Palolem. A combination of a throat infection, too much passive smoking (Shoham mostly – she’s practically a chain smoker), and possibly too much shouting in some boisterous games of beach volleyball and football resulted in the loss of my voice. Now, I’ll grant you that a lost voice in itself is not that interesting. I’ve lost my voice many times in my life, but this was quite different. Firstly, those other incidences were before adulthood, generally occurring mostly at the latter stage of a youth camp. Secondly, at those other times I had lost my voice, it was really just that my voice became quite weak and it was difficult to talk. However, in Palolem, I lost my voice in a totality that I cannot recall previously. Finally, and most importantly, I do not recollect learning anything interesting from those previous occasions.

Losing my voice was initially a very frustrating thing for me, for I’m not shy when it comes to giving my oral input, and it pains me to not contribute a remark or witticism when the situation calls for it. However, if I consider it from the perspectives of my friends, it probably sounds like pleasant relief from my interruption. Someone else could finally finish a sentence.

I first noticed my voice getting weaker while Daniel, Shauli, Shoham, and I (we had become something of a regular social foursome) were dining one evening. It became harder and harder to talk, but luckily we had moved from conversation to playing Yaniv, an activity that doesn’t require too much from one’s voice. I won’t go into the details of what Yaniv is, except to say that it is probably the most fun type of card game I have ever played, and there are few things cooler than giving someone an Asaf (ok, I understand that very few readers will know what the hell as Asaf is, but for the very few that do, I had to write that!). And by the way, all this is coming from someone who is not normally into card games.

As was typical, we started the game while waiting for dinner to be served (the service can be very slow, so it works as a nice distraction), After dinner was the perfect time to finish a Yaniv game, as it gives time for the food to digest a little bit before moving on. When the Yaniv was over, it was naturally time to find a pub. I indicated that I wasn’t that keen to go along, as there was no way I would be able to speak to people (i.e. girls) in a loud pub given the state my voice was in. Shoham countered that it was a good challenge to see if I could pick up a girl under those conditions. My voice was almost totally gone at this stage, and I was often resorting to writing things down on the disposable napkins that they had on the table. I took the pen we had been using to keep score during the Yaniv game, and I wrote on a bar napkin:

Hello, I’m not able to speak. However, I’m the strong silent type.

I showed it to Shoham who then recited it to the others, who were all keen to know what I had written. Shoham and Shauli were more amused than I expected. Shoham especially liked it, and she said she thought it had a good chance of working on a girl, as it was something very different, and apparently it was also wittier (to Israeli perceptions) than I had thought it was when I wrote it.

So off we went to a pub, and I was determined to use my napkin on an unsuspecting girl. However, and I promise it was not a case of chickening-out, but I simply did not see one suitable girl (i.e. single and attractive and in a remotely approachable situation) at the pub that night, which was rather unusual to say the least. I guess it was just had bad luck in pub selection that night. It was especially disappointing, as I had already decided in my mind that the napkin move was a no-lose situation. Embraced or rejected, it would have made for a very funny story. Not seeing any suitable candidates to try my mute act on, I decided that all that passive smoking in the pub wasn’t helping my throat condition, and I headed back to the room to get some sleep.

When I awoke the next morning, I had expected my voice to have at least partially returned, but it hadn’t. I really could not talk at all. My voice was so bad that I made Whisper, the sidekick of the chief antagonist in the Bond film Live and Let Die sound like Frank Costanza by comparison.

Daniel and I met Shauli and Shoham for breakfast, and after I ordered through pointing at the menu and giving a nod to the waiter, I was only able to contribute to the morning conversation through writing comments on napkins. As this is a somewhat slow and cumbersome task compared to normal talking, I had to be select about my contributions. What I discovered from this was that it made everything that I did contribute seem more profound than I think it would have otherwise. For example, they were discussing relationships, and Daniel (who at around 25 was the youngest of our group, and who on an earlier occasion had revealed to us that he did not believe he had ever been truly in love with any of his previous girlfriends or any one else for that matter) was adamant that he could never stay in a relationship with a girl if he didn’t completely trust her. Up to this point, I had not made one contribution on the topic in the five minutes or so that they had been discussing it. I wrote on a napkin “Yes, but you have never really loved anyone before, so you can’t be sure. If you will be in love with someone but don’t trust them, only then can you know.”

Peculiar grammar not withstanding, I passed the napkin to Daniel. He read it to himself, and in his typical way, was not impacted greatly by it, offering up a shrug. However, Shauli and Shoham naturally wished to know what I had written, so Daniel then showed it to them, and their responses were along the lines of “Yes, that’s very true.” In retrospect, it was not simply that I was making so few contributions, although that probably was a factor, but it was what went along with each of these offerings. It was the anticipation, the waiting, them knowing a comment had been made, but not yet knowing what the content of that comment was. That was the key to the apparent profoundness to be found in a disposable napkin.

Also at that breakfast, Shauli told us about a strange and disturbing dream he had experienced overnight. It was impressive how he was able to recall such vivid detail, and he wasn’t even on Mefloquine! As he recounted the events of the dream, I took notes on a napkin. To my mind, almost all the incidents in his dream, disjointed as they so often are in dreams, seemed to involve having to protect someone of something. When he finally finished his dream story, and it was an impressively long recounting, I presented to him this napkin, feeling that I had quite possibly interpreted his dream, although I wrote at the top of the napkin the word efshar (possibly). I made a point of double underlining the word in an attempt to lessen the weight of my interpretation. Below that I had written in the second person narrative, that he had been travelling a long time now, and had been away from his home in Israel for many months. His dream reflected a feeling of either guilt or at least worry that he isn’t in Israel to protect some entity. I then drew an idea-tree suggesting three possible alternatives for what that entity might be.



-Medinat Yisrael?*

i.e. Either his family, a friend(s), or the State of Israel? (after all, he was a fighter-pilot back home I reminded him, via my a footnote on my napkin notation). He read it, and then showed it to the others, who were eager to see what I had written. It felt like it was as if Freud himself had written it.

After we had finished eating breakfast, Shauli and Daniel had some business to attend to, having to negotiate with a motorcycle hire guy. Shoham and I stayed behind at the breakfast café, and waited for them to return. Shoham started telling me a little about her personal history. I didn’t mind at all, and it was not in anyway uncomfortable, but given that I was unable to speak, I have neither recollection nor idea of how such a ‘conversation’ developed. Shoham would talk, and in my mute phase, I would just nod. She told me about her first serious boyfriend that lasted four years. She also spoke of some uncertainties she had about her current relationship with Shauli (she was 34, and he was 27 – she was going back home soon, but he was staying for several more months). She spoke about how she felt she was living the life typical of someone more than ten years her junior, and the uncertainties she had about what was going to happen in her life once she returned to Israel. All I could do was nod along, look empathetic (which I sincerely was) and on rare occasions write a brief comment or question for her on a napkin. I guess I came across as a very good listener! It was so unusual for me, as I am normally a compulsive interrupter, but on this occasion, I was forced to be the best listener I had ever been.

One story Shoham told me was unreservedly intriguing. A female cousin of hers in Israel once went away to a summer camp, where the kids on the camp came from all around Israel. While on summer camp, her cousin became friends with another girl of the same age. The two new friends discovered their fathers had many things in common. Both of their fathers had the same first name; both of their fathers were from the same place in Latin America; neither of their fathers were Jewish; both of their fathers were the same age and had the same birthday; both of their fathers had the same physical description. As the similarities mounted, they realized that both their fathers were the same person. That’s right, a whole second-family, with each family unknown to the other. As a result, both their mother's eventually terminated their marriage to him. However, it turned out they weren’t the only families he had. There were others still. Eventually, it all came out, and all of them (at least it was assumed “all of them”) terminated their marriage with him. From their experience, the ex-wives and their families later became friends with each other, and have frequently attended each other’s simchot – such as when one of the ex-wives has gotten remarried.


If the perception of profoundness amongst my friends was not enough to make me fantasize about life as a mute, the added bonus of the reaction I would receive from local Indians trying to sell me things certainly was. I would walk down the street, and when the street-side merchants would try to sell me something, I would use an improvised sign language to indicate that I was not able to speak. They might at that stage think I was pretending. However, once they saw me use my improvised sign language to communicate with Daniel, they would then just assume that I was a permanent mute. From that point, their fascination with encountering a mute would make them forget about their focus on trying to sell me something. In turn, I enjoyed their reaction immensely. In fact, I was enjoying being a mute so much now, that I was not at all missing having a voice, and was even a little bit disappointed when it returned, as it marked the end of this most novel and interesting experience. Perhaps in the future I could on occasions go around the place pretending to be a mute. Or is that like when Cosmo Kramer started wearing an eye patch because he thought it looked cool. I can hear George Costanza now “What? That’s like me getting a wheel chair to just cruise around in!” Thus I think I better give that idea a miss.

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