There is a certain tone of voice I use as a parent which makes me self-conscious because it is dishonest. Let’s call it The Tone Of Voice From Hell. I am well aware of its problematic nature but I use it anyway, now and then. I can’t help it. The tone could described as cheerful. But that is too easy. It’s main feature the is the strain of being cheerful. It’s the desire, which can verge of impatience or irritation, to lift a moment by sheer force of will out of the banal or – most dreaded word – boring, into the realm of the special or – second most dreaded word – fun.
“Let’s go to the sunroom and play catch!”
“Hey how about we go and do one of your puzzels?”
“Let’s go to the livingroom and play catch!”
It occurs to me, writing these variations down, that the The Tone of Voice From Hell resembles the exclamations that emanate from electronic toys, the elementary interactive kind that resemble kiddie slot machines. Once, when my daughter was about four and had started sleeping alone in her room, she was scared to death by one of these toys, that apparently had been programmed to wake after a sleep of months to shout one of its upbeat phrases. It was in a box, and I was terrified, too, when first summoned in the middle of the night. By the time I found it, buried but alive, I wanted to tear its head off.
I write from the cold wet center of Mardi Gras. My wife has been putting on a brave face about the whole thing in a couple of posts so I will speak for the grouch within us both when I say that after a certain point Mardi Gras is tiresome. I happen to love the parades, especially the night parades like Muses (all women) where the floats seem like Ghost ships and the crowds seem like they might riot. Beyond the mayhem of the parades themselves, there is a feeling of expectation that settles on the city like a damp mist.
Well, ok, I also like the strange Dawn of The Living Dead effect of all the people walking in the same direction down St. Charles Avenue towards a parade. I like it when people for whom the holiday has real resonance say “Happy mardi gras.” It’s like they appreciate the ritual of a special day, understanding how rare it is to have one. I even say it, too, sometimes. I guess you could say I like Mardi Gras. Except for that moment when you have had enough, and the whole thing turns into a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Which brings me to The Tone Of Voice From Hell, and today’s redeeming epiphany (see note at end). The Tone of Voice From Hell is a form of coercion. I like coming to my feelings on my own, without instruction or cues, but when it comes to my kids, I have devolved into a parent who occasionally tries and use this tone of voice.
Today, Lundi Gras, The Tone of Voice From Hell was echoing through the house all morning. I finally got a break and decided to look at the current issue of N+1. I had read almost all of it; this was a parting glance before putting it away. I started reading Kristin Dombeck’s essay, “How to Quit.” After a few pages I suddenly thought of The Tone Of Voice From Hell.
A parent uses this overly exuberant, emotionally blackmailing tone in response to the silly despair of the tiny people, their children, and yet how much more becoming it is compared to the voice early in Dombeck’s piece, which I would describe as prematurely ruefull. The piece is interestingly site specific, a kind of knowing memoir of Williamsburg and its evolutions and transitions. There is a lot about one building or another she has lived in, and good riffs on the general hellishness of gentrification. But it’s all written with such fatigue. It’s the fatigue of outgrowing your early twenties and being an adult long enough to to see the world change.
There are man good lines, no doubt about it, such as this, about the new glass condo buildings on the waterfront:
These buildings gave you the feeling that when the apocalypse came to Williamsburg they’d float up into space in luminous self-sufficiency and orbit the wrecked planet while their residents gathered in the billiards room, drank complex cocktails, and eyed each other’s neoprene skinny jeans.
But gentrification is the opposite of the apocalypse. The apocalypse would pause history, level the built world to a pile of trash, and most likely lower rents considerably. Gentrification churns history forward, takes out the trash, carts away rubble, hides the poor, makes you work more to manage your rent, and encrypts the past, when you didn’t have to work so many jobs just to fucking live here, behind its glossy surfaces.”
The lyrical self pity is coming on. I haven’t even quoted her using “we” to refer to habits of her friends and, by extension, her generation. On the other hand, the essay spirals onward for a long time and does develop a power on its own terms. But it was the note I heard in its first pages that awakened me to the possibility of forgiving The Tone of Voice From Hell, which is, after all, what a parent might resort to when their little children are whining and unhappy and remain so despite their best efforts on a rainy monday with no school and cancelled parades.
It is a retort to the whining of little children, however insincere. Maybe, I decide, its virtue is precisely what this insincerity is supplanting. Because the only thing worse than the sound of a whining little kid is the same whining coming from someone who, however young, is nevertheless supposed to be an adult.
(End note: Because this is the curious day of the Pope’s resignation, I will allow myself to wonder if merely by living much of the year in such a Catholic city has made me more prone towards Catholic language and imagery.)