The Sounds of Silence

Snow days are one of those few un-earned, yet deliciously rewarding perks of being a public school teacher. A surprise snow day can reinvigorate your week, upend your otherwise dismal outlook on life, and make you think twice about sticking your head in the oven.

Over the course of my teaching career, snow days have helped me trudge through some of the darkest times, like when Easter falls in late April and the stretch between Presidents’ Day and Spring Break feels like the Bataan Death March.

I also attribute snow days as the primary reason my wife and I fell in love. In January, 2014, we were blessed with a two-week string of snow days and delays, which Melinda and I spent entirely on the couch, drinking red wine and binging Breaking Bad.

But being a parent changes the dynamic of that bonus time, because while a snow day means you don’t have to deal with other people’s asshole kids, it means you have to deal with your own.

My 10-year-old’s first order of business after getting up this morning was to slip on the driveway and split his lip open. He sat there for a moment on the icy concrete, stunned his legs were no longer under him, before he noticed the blood trickling down his chin. He started to cry, and then his sister started to cry, scared by the fall and the blood.

They came in the house shell-shocked and sobbing like they’d been on Ohmaha Beach, and they clung to Melinda on the couch, sobbing. The horror, the horror, they wailed.

“Happy snow day, everyone!” I said from behind my copy of Rolling Stone.

I’m very lucky to have good kids. They listen, they’re fun and smart and creative. They’re not an utter embarrassment to be with in public, which, based on every shithead kid I see tantruming on the floor of Target, is a blessing in itself.

But fuck, are they loud.

By 9 o’clock, the kids had invented a game with dolls that involved them repeating high-pitched whooping sounds that sounded like a mix between a car alarm and an audience of chipmunks watching Arsenio Hall.

At our house, playing Barbies is never a quiet affair. Armed with a few dolls, J can weave conflict-laden narratives that would make the writers of a telenovela jealous.

Over the years, I’ve heard Barbies get yelled at for bullying, for not trying hard enough in school or at dance class, and, my favorite, having their outfits critiqued at a fashion show by a judge who, for some reason, has a British accent.

Last week, Barbie even got litigious.

“I’m going to sue you for that,” J’s character yelled at D’s character.

“Do you even know what suing is?” D said.

“No, but I’m going to do it anyway!” she yelled back.

It’s cute, but it can be a lot. J gets so wrapped up in her storylines that she’s oblivious to everyone else in the house, and her voice crescendos into lung-topping screams and wails. Her favorite thing to do is to use falsetto-ranged squeals to simulate excitement, squeals that agitate dogs two streets away. They don’t just pierce my ears while I’m in the family room trying to read. They pierce my soul.

Melinda thinks I’m too sensitive. “They’re just playing,” she said once after I chastised the kids for being too loud. “It’s not like they’re killing each other.”

She attributes my aversion to noise to the fact I grew up in a quiet household, a theory I at first rejected. As far as I can recall, my childhood was a perfectly normal volume. My brother and I did regular kid things, wrestling in the basement, playing tag or hide & seek. All of which, I assume, carried the noise levels of excited children.

“What are you talking about?” I said. “You make it seem like I grew up in a monastery.”

“Oh yeah?” Melinda said. “Tell that to Rudolph.”

I frowned. The Rudolph to which she referred was one of the more famous toys in Hedenberg history. He was an animatronic reindeer that would walk across the floor and play cheesy Christmas songs through a tinny speaker.

Ben and I played with it incessantly once we got it, but after about two days, my dad had enough. He stood up, went over to where Rudolph was crossing the living room, and stomped it into the ground.

We still played with Rudolph after that, but he never sang or walked again.

I guess Melinda had a fair point. While my parents certainly didn’t invoke a children should be seen, not heard policy, if I wanted to play with a noise-making toy — a ray gun, for example, or a Simon — I’d have to either go outside or to my friends’ house and play with theirs.

So fine, I’m a little touchy when it comes to loud noises. What’s made things worse is that, because Melinda and I are going to have another kid, I’ve been evicted from my office.

Since I started writing bad fiction about 10 years ago, I’ve always had an office, a place to go and shut the door and get some peace.

Now, my desk is in the family room, where I’m forever in the center of the action.

Melinda’s running the vacuum cleaner. The washer is unbalanced and banging against the wall. The heater kicks on, and then the refrigerator.

In the living room, J is dancing to JoJo Siwa songs, and in his bedroom, D has decided Lizzo is his new favorite artist. “Alexa, play ’Truth Hurts,’ he says every 2 minutes and 53 seconds.

You don’t realize how much you miss a door until you don’t have one.

One Saturday morning, distracted and fed up with yells of HE STARTED IT NO I DIDN’T YES YOU DID YOU CAME IN AND JUST STARTED YELLING AT ME MOMMY, I stormed out of the house and went to Best Buy, where I bought myself a set of noise-cancelling headphones.

And that’s when my life changed.

Have you ever used these things? I was dubious, I’ll be honest. I didn’t buy a primo set – just a modestly-priced Sony pair discounted even deeper for the holidays. I didn’t expect them to do much, but these suckers can blot out life itself.

Now, whenever I need to get into the zone, I just throw on my headphones, play some Explosions in the Sky, start typing. They work so well.

Too well, apparently, because on the day I bought them, I was staring at the computer screen, my fingers flying in the throes of some self-indulgent tirade about my childhood, when I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye.

It was Melinda, her four-month pregnant belly just beginning to stretch the fabric of her shirt, dragging a seven-foot tall bookcase across the living room floor. She looked like an ant who’d captured an especially tasty king-sized candy bar.

“Oh,” I said, pulling the anti-family headphones around my neck. “You moved the bookcase?”

“Yeah, I moved the goddamn bookcase,” she said, panting. “All by myself.”

“Wow, I didn’t even notice,” I said.

“You didn’t notice me pulling a bookcase across the house by myself?”

“Sorry,” I said. “These headphones are really, really good.”

Around noon, the kids decided they wanted to try out the new ping pong set Santa brought them for Christmas. The only problem was that we don’t have a ping pong table, so the kids improvised.

They pulled the leaves out on the dining room table — you know, the one that’s seven feet from my writing desk — and went to town.

Normally, the sound of a ping pong ball bouncing over every flat surface in my house would send me into a Rudolph-sized rage. But instead, I put on my new best friends and hit the NC button on the side. The track I chose was from an album of nature sounds called “Snow Storm – Deep, Arctic Wind Sounds.” I lost myself in the blizzard and began to write, feeling the bliss of my snow day returning color to the world.

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