Super Happyman

By Thomas Burke

Svetlana is so efficient and organized that it’s borderline nauseating. But she’s a laugher with knockout dimples, and she wears bright, eccentric European couture, so it’s easy to like her.

She’s not the director, but I’m her subordinate. If our employer, the annual Summer Literary Seminars program in St. Petersburg, Russia, were an old car, Svetlana would be the carburetor. I, on the other hand, would be something of a backseat window that doesn’t always close all the way.

In the welcome sheet given to all the North American participants and faculty, my bio lists me as the one that can help “if you need some heavy lifting done” or if you want to know a “decent place for lunch.”

Here’s a scene: Svetlana has cell phones to both of her ears, she’s pecking something into the computer, she’s hugging to her chest seventy-five passports and two thousand dollars cash, and I grimace and say, “Can I help you with something?”

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Birds Call, Dominik Mosur Listens

By Elizabeth C. Creely

Dominik Mosur stood in the middle of schoolchildren, who were busily running through San Francisco’s Randall Museum’ wildlife exhibit. A tall, powerfully built man with a mild expression, he wore a tee shirt that read  “Made in Poland”. Mosur was born in Poland and although he has the laid back attitude and accent common to most coastal Californians, he pronounces his surname with a distinctive Eastern European lilt.

Just then he looked tired. “There aren’t usually this many kids at once,” he explained. “I think there are actually two classes here at the same time. Someone’s always gotta be on the floor with all these kids.”

As an animal care attendant for the museum, he’d also dealt with an emergency that morning: a sick Great Horned owl.  The Randall Museum, which functions both as a natural history museum and as a refuge for the city’s wildlife, has had the owl in residence for many years. (Born blind, the owl would have died in the wilderness.) The stress of transporting a sick owl to a wildlife vet showed on Mosur’s face. “I’m pretty behind right now,” he said.

Mosur has the distinction of identifying the most bird species in one year in San Francisco County and has mastered the art of bird identification by listening rather than looking. This is sometimes the only way a bird can be identified. Songbirds like the Pygmy Nuthatch measure three inches in size and roost in the tops of mature conifer stands. “If you’re lucky, you might see one fly by,” observed Mosur, sounding doubtful. Listening for bird calls depends on a sonic atmosphere uncluttered by anthropogenic noise. In San Francisco, this can be a challenge.

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Familiar Shore

By Jim Ross

I am standing on the beach at North Captiva Island, Florida. It is 4:30 on a July afternoon and I’m gazing at the most beautiful natural sight I’ve ever seen. The sun shines onto the sea, making the Gulf of Mexico look like a giant sheet of wavy green velvet on which a million diamonds sparkle. Before me is a strip of white sand. Behind me is a dead tree, perched on the edge of a protected preserve overgrown with palms, sea oats and salty scrub.

Like most Florida residents, I grew up someplace else. I was raised and educated near Chicago and came to Florida during college for reporting internships at the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald. At age 21 I returned for a full-time job at the Times.

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Up in Smoke

By Erin Ollila

I used to sleep with a man who would wake me up in the morning to a lit cigarette and a cup of coffee. I thought that was so romantic – being woken up by kisses from a man I adored, taking a drag of his cigarette while I watched him light one of my Marlboro Menthol Lights with his monogram-engraved silver Zippo. The coffee was always too hot; I’d lean over his side of the bed to put the mug on the scratched hardwood. I’d lay back, pull the sage sheets around my more-than-likely-naked body and watch him get ready for work. I loved the way he put on his socks: Instead of leaning down to pull the sock over his foot like most people do, he lifted his foot off the floor and put on the sock midair. He’d then stand up, stuff his foot in his black Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers, grab his keys, and head toward the door. Inevitably, I’d have to stop him from kicking over my coffee. He had no nightstands.

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Aqualung

By Medea Isphording Bern

A private soundtrack plays for us who venture down, who kiss the surface goodbye and plunge, feet first, under the waves. The big blue, our languid concert hall, offers measure after measure of muffled hush, accompanied by the ‘schlippp-pssshhh’ of the diver’s rhythmic breathing and the pop and crackle of a thousand jamming reef dwellers.  Aside from an occasional percussive rap on a tank, the chime that draws attention to some elusive or reclusive marvel–a turtle, a hammerhead, an octopus–we flutter toward the sea floor in near-perfect, crystalline silence.

Neutral aural compliments psychedelic visual.  A benign patch of sand sprouts eyes, orbs that dart staccato in their sockets like a watch’s spastic second hand.  A pretty, frilly, sponge-covered rock suddenly sprouts a tongue and uses it to stun a passing goby, swallowing it instantly. Blink, and you miss the spotted eagle ray flying over a knob of lime green brain coral, the snowflake eel warning away intruders, the coral crab playing its castanets.  Glide slowly, all senses ‘go’, and Neptune will reveal the secrets hidden inside every crevice and crenellation.

I was born with seawater in my veins, and curly red hair that, when wet and plastered against my skull, could pass for seaweed.   Our family passed weekends slicing Florida’s shimmering blue waters in our 19’ dive boat, ‘Mal de Mer’ (‘Sea Sick’ en français.)   Several times a year, we traveled with dad’s dive club, the North Osprey Otters, down to the Keys, boat in tow.  We slept on deck or in pup tents on the marl of uninhabited out-islands.  We washed everything–hair, clothes, dishes–in the sea with lemony liquid Joy (according to old timers, it cuts the salt.) We gave wide berth to the grinning barracuda that always hovered under our hulls. We floated within schools of Spanish mackerel, piscine clouds of citrine scrawled with horizontal turquoise stripes, a communion unlike the usual wine and wafer, but that left us feeling reverential and a little bit holy.

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Why We Don’t Buy

By Harmony Button

I never used to snooze. It was the button on my 1990s Big Lots clock radio that I never fully understood: why wake up just to suffer in limbo, knowing more real sleep is not an option? Then, I met Jason, and suddenly I started wearing skirts, hitting snooze, and learning to cook artichokes. Jason is a handyman photographer who knows how to appreciate poetry: with a spoon, unwittingly. Sometimes, I catch him mouthing words just for the sound of them. Festoon, my breadbasket Rothschild! he rumbles from the belly, impatient at red lights. I had found my own dream of a common language. I found, at least, a basis for comparison.

Like most other addictions, snoozing leaves me disoriented and unsatisfied, and yet, I really do enjoy it. I can take a look through the spyhole in the door and tell the morning knocking to be patient while I find my slippers, fix my figurative coffee. The morning steps back, wall-eyed face blurring into sight, and shuffles foot to foot, a package of day in his hand. He rings again. Leave it on the doorstep, I shout from inside, but the muffled voice of morning says I have to sign for the delivery. I sigh and open the door, clutching bathrobe tight at the neck. It’s a new day, the morning says, handing over the package while I sign on the dotted line. Funny, I say, I thought it might be my new self.

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When I Leave San Francisco

By Elizabeth C. Creely

When I leave the city of San Francisco, the sounds and the noise do not come with me. Sometimes this feels like a minor miracle. On a BART train, bound for West Oakland the other day, I looked back at the city backlit by fog and considered the rectangular buildings and the silly triangle of TransAmerica building and thought of all the tumult in it. It’s hard to believe I live in anything that has so many people talking and so many dogs barking and MUNI trains rumbling and babies crying all at the same time.

My neighborhood in the Mission is a noisy place: By day, it’s a teeming habitat of police sirens, car tires squealing, people talking on cell phones all day and all night.

A woman walked by my apartment the other day, talking into her cell phone. A whole string of dialogue had unspooled before I heard a word, but the pitch of her voice preceded her. I finally heard her say, “I’m still struggling.” The word “still” hung behind her, fixed in the aether as a high singing note of stress and uncertainty as she walked on down the street, still talking.

At night, the monologues and dialogues of my 3 am dream will sometimes get overtaken by my neighbor’s love of electronic dance music. From across the street, the music pulses and I come to consciousness, snatched out of sleep, my dreaming mind taken from me. A great stationary force settles down in the street between her apartment and mine as I lay pinned to my bed by the driving beat of the bass, almost felt more than heard.

The difference between sound and noise is movement, I sometimes think. A siren wailing down 22nd street in the middle of the night moves one place to another in great haste. The sound of the siren, a sound that filled me with tense dread when I was a kid–That wailing sound! Unearthly!–goes away.

Noise entraps, takes prisoners: My mother, who has an almost autistic sensitivity to loud discordant noise, was once almost driven to tears by a VW Bug that pulled alongside us at a red light on Jamboree Road in Newport Beach.  A group of teenagers were inside the car. They were blasting Led Zepplin at top volume from their car stereo.

My mother’s whole face changed; she winced and her lips pulled away from her teeth. She quickly rolled up the window. She was in some sort of pain, and so was I: The noise was sudden, and its impact was profound. It was like being assaulted. The blankness on the faces of the beautiful blond teenagers in the next car frightened me too. They appeared to feel nothing, letting the music speak (or shriek) for them. The noise created defensive space, the way that an angry dog does. But what were they defending? Or were they on the hunt?

My mother’s reaction frightened me; it confirmed what I thought was happening was happening. We had both been speaking and listening, at the same time, to the same assemblage of sounds:  screeching seagulls, confirming the approach to the sea and our own voices conspiratorial and hushed speaking about our errands, what we were out in the world to do that day, and why. And then the music of the birds and our voices were blanked out with a terrifying force: Noise stormed in and overtook the diversity of the aural environment. Robert Plant’s screams filled the air, and I couldn’t hear anything else, couldn’t remember the sound of the birds or the words of the conversation I’d been having with my mother moments before.

(Seven year later I was on a school bus when I heard that the drummer for Led Zepplin had died.

“John Bonham died,” called out a boy in the back of the bus.

“Good,” I snapped.  “I hate Led Zepplin.”)

Sound often involves other sound: It exists because of and with other sounds. Acorn woodpeckers, known for their high level of social and communal interaction, call to other acorn woodpeckers throughout their busy day. They sound like this: Waka waka waka. Bang, bang, bang. This is how they sound greeting each other and storing their nuts. When they need to alert each other to important happenings–a squirrel advancing on their store of nuts–the call goes out. Waka! Waka! Waka! The calls and the tapping of woodpeckers in a richly diverse aural landscape can be heard for miles. But bring in one thing–a chainsaw, an iPod, anything mechanized that disturbs and redistributes the sound molecules in the medium of air–and suddenly everything changes. Nothing can compete with mechanized noise.  Not the woodpeckers, certainly. They cannot hear each other, cannot communicate.

Noise is a monoculture. It colonizes, overtakes, dominates, and invades. Sound is communicative and thus, if not reciprocal, then at least mutual. Noise is resolutely neither of those things.

In the city, I have often seen several red tail hawks circling in the sky. These are probably adults teaching their young to fly. They are calling to each other, I know, and if I were anywhere but 22nd Street I would hear them.  I usually don’t.

On the train that day I left the city, I thought about how the week had been. My neighborhood had mostly been quieter than usual. Most sounds had been transient, and had passed easily through my consciousness. But this will change. Sound and noise: aural phenomena that create a sort of intangible commons where people and their preferences bump and jostle against each other. Our own sound-scapes–the noises and sounds we make and prefer to hear–are being challenged as the city continues to take more people in.

I watched the sweep of the South Bay open up and then vanish in the distance while the sound of BART–metal wheels that scream and gnash against the rails–silenced everyone on the train.  It didn’t bother me. I’d knew I’d leave the train and the noise would stop. And when I returned to the city of San Francisco, the sound and the noise would greet me, enveloping me in its large body, and usher me home.

Elizabeth C. Creely is a staff contributor for Paper Tape. She received an MFA from San Francisco State University in 2005 and has been published in The New Hibernia Review, the Dogwood Journal, and The Mississippi Review. Her essays have also appeared in three anthologies: Manifest West: Eccentricities of Geography, New California Writing 2013, and Extended Family: Essays on Being Irish American from the New Hibernia Review. She blogs at Dinnshenchas and lives in San Francisco with her husband.