Eleanor Rigby - by John Sealander


Sealander's BrainSealander's Brain

The nurse keeps asking me what radio station I'd like to listen to while I'm inside the MRI machine. I don't really feel like listening to the radio at all, but I'm having considerable difficulty explaining this to her. Jeez, I don't even listen to the radio in the car these days. To tell the truth, I'm looking forward to the strange inner silence that only the peculiar jackhammer cacophony of an MRI scanner seems to be able to provide. The nurse doesn't understand. Each time I tell her that I don't get claustrophobia and will be just fine inside the machine without piped-in music, I get this lengthy list of Dallas radio stations to choose from. I shake my head when she offers me the earphones, but evidently she worries about these things and chooses a station for me anyway.

It doesn't really matter. Once I'm strapped down tight on the gurney and am snugly inserted into the scanner like a shell in the barrel of an old skeet gun, the whole issue of selecting a radio station becomes irrelevant. MRI machines are loud. Real loud. The sound is somewhat like one of those water pic's you clean your teeth with, processed through a digital flanger and then amplified through a full Marshall stack with the volume all the way up to ten. I like this intense staccato noise though. It completely drowns out the radio and leaves me alone with my thoughts. Don't believe what you hear. It's surprisingly peaceful inside the machine. Although there are two technicians in lab coats less than ten feet away, staring at their video monitors, I feel like I am in a different universe. I am completely alone.

Of course, we are almost always completely alone anyway. We just try to pretend we aren't. That's why, even outside the claustrophobic gun barrel tubes of MRI machines and CAT scanners, we find ourselves incessantly turning on radios and television sets, talking into cell phones and filling whatever silence is left with heartfelt but meaningless bursts of words that allow us to feel connected. The doctors think I'm in the MRI machine to discover why the left side of my body is going numb. I really just like it in here. I'd come every afternoon if I could. The noise is so loud and the machine is so imposing that it is easy to imagine a day when they slide my gurney out of the chamber and I discover I’ve been transported to one of those strange parallel universes that are typically only found in Neil Gaiman novels. Maybe one of the technicians will become Door from NeverWhere. You'd think that with all this technology, at least once I might emerge from the machine to find myself on a hospitable planet in the Altair system, or perhaps drinking beer with Shakespeare in a century more to my liking.

It never works that way though. When I come out, I'm right were I was before, with a stack of bills to pay and a dwindling list of clients who all think I'm too expensive. I use my time inside the machine to contemplate other things, however. Today I am thinking about my recent stay in Germany. Few places on earth have left me feeling as much like being inside an MRI machine as Germany. The Germans are a very compartmentalized people and not given to making small-talk. Each morning, while I was working in Erlangen, I would shower around 6:30AM and then go upstairs and eat breakfast in the hotel's small Frühstückssal or breakfast room. There was a single common table that could seat up to twelve people. Between 7AM and 8AM when I usually ate, there were always six or seven people eating breakfast. Faced with a similar situation in the United States, all of these people would be having animated conversations with each other, whether anyone wanted to listen or not. Here silence was the rule. Other than the obligatory Guten Appetit when a new person arrived and a curt Weidersehen or Tschüs when someone departed, nobody said a word. Even family members didn't talk much with each other. It was almost as if everyone was eating alone in their own private bubble, even though there were others sitting less than two feet away.

Americans could never pull this off. It would be physically impossible for them. A similar group of Americans gathered around a large table filled with food would first make sure there was a radio or television turned on quite loud in the background and then make a special point to find something in common with everyone seated at the table. We've all done it when eating in groups. The small talk pours out of your mouth like a reflex action and entire conversations can be conducted without any conscious thought. Personally, I prefer the German way. Either way, you are alone. Silence is an honest acknowledgement of our essential isolation, while small-talk is more like a forced exorcism of our ongoing fear that silence might be an all too close relative to death.

Walking down the peaceful pedestrian streets of Erlangen on my way to work each morning, I experienced a similar phenomenon. Nobody made eye contact. It just wasn't done. People walked with their eyes straight ahead and would come dangerously close to bumping into each other, simply because they weren't using their peripheral vision to gauge distances between other pedestrians. This was completely unnerving at first, since I was still in the habit of giving the casual "Hi" or "How's it going" to everyone I passed within twenty feet of. In many American cities it is almost a necessity to give cursory eye contact to even the most disreputable people you pass as a subtle signal that you are not intimidated by them or cowering in fear of being mugged. This certainly isn't the case in Germany, where pedestrians frequently have collisions on public streets as a result of their steadfast refusal to make eye contact.

One clear, warm evening near the end of my stay, I am having dinner with my new German friend Ursula at a delightful little outdoor restaurant a few miles outside the city limits of Erlangen. After we eat and have a few beers, we walk through a nearby cornfield and up a small hill to watch the moon rise. I am trying to explain to Ursula in a combination of English and very poor German my experiences with trying to greet people on the street and in the breakfast room at my hotel. It is one of those magic moments when I realize that all women are quite entrancing when you have no idea what they are saying, but that's another story.

As I tell Ursula about the silent meals in the Frühstückssal and how I thoroughly confused the other diners when, during the middle of a meal, I asked for "juice" when they thought I was saying Tschüs. The odd thing was that I fit right in at these breakfasts. The other guests all thought I was German. I didn't say anything because I only knew a grand total of about ten German words, but the net result was that my silence made me appear just like everyone else at the table. As we watched the moon rise over the Franconian valley below, Ursula told me that she though that loneliness was a disease of industrialized Germany and that much of the population was now afflicted with the sickness. The more time people spent at work and the more stressful their lives became as a result, the more everyone became experts at compartmentalizing to shut out unnecessary frustrations and distractions.

It was true. The more I thought about it, I realized that the Germans were using silence to compartmentalize their lives and regain the illusion of control, while Americans were doing exactly the same thing with noise. The white noise of American life is perhaps an even more effective filter than the German reticence to speak to strangers. With televisions, radios, talking computers and Sony Playstations blaring everywhere, we have managed to create a world that can be just as private in its own way as the upstairs Frühstückssal in Erlangen's little Hotelchen am Theater where even the quiet clink of a spoon stirring coffee sounded like an avalanche.

As I lie perfectly still inside the electronic gunbarrel of the MRI machine, it occurs to me that I am no more isolated here than I am anywhere else in this world. The pulsating, cacophonous white noise of the machine becomes a fitting metaphor for all the mindless talking and television and music and other sounds we use to build walls around ourselves while creating the illusion that we are actually connected in some way to those around us. It is as if every TV game show, every alternative rock radio station, every cocktail party conversation in the country is being simultaneously beamed into the bowels of the machine to create a single monster sound that encompasses all of the others. Although I like it here, I can't help but wonder if the results of these tests will end up sending me to other less hospitable places in the months ahead.

I am at that pivotal age where I am gradually starting to attend more funerals than weddings. Six people died on my street this year. The frightening thing was not that they died so frequently, but that they were forgotten so quickly. My next door neighbor Lenn died suddenly when cancer was discovered in his Lymphatic system long after it had metastasized. I had always envisioned Lenn as the friendly patriarch of a large and loving family. He died alone though. His body sat in the funeral home for a week and a half before his family could find time in their busy schedules to come and bury him. Up the street, Buford died just as suddenly from a different type of cancer. He walked across the street one day to ask my friend Mike, who he barely knew, if he would be a pallbearer and then died two days later. Two more older women who lived on the cul-de-sac at the end of the street were gone as well. I couldn't remember either of their names, but they had both paid me a visit when I first moved into the neighborhood to warn me that it was a violation of the neighborhood association bylaws to build a fence on my property. Buford's next door neighbor Fred died under mysterious circumstances in the Ukraine and for about a week there was a lot of speculation in the neighborhood about whether he was a spy or some sort of secret United Nations operative. Fred was younger than the others, but he was quickly forgotten too. As soon as the funerals were over, all the neighbors really wondered about was who was going to move into the neighborhood next and whether real estate values would rise as a result. There were several estate sales, and once I saw the journals and collected letters of an older woman who had recently passed away tossed out on the curb like empty tins of cat food. A lifetime of work didn't even matter enough to the survivors to save. Some flea-market scavenger types stopped by the pile of papers one afternoon and spent several hours combing through the debris for rare stamps. The wind blew away some of the journals and the garbage men eventually took care of the rest.

These weren't street people living under a bridge in a cardboard box. They might as well have been however. They were all tossed aside and forgotten just as quickly. I can't help wondering if anyone will come to my own funeral. I didn't go to any of these funerals. I made the excuse that I only knew these neighbors from walking my dog up and down the street and that I really didn't want to intrude on family matters. In truth, I was just lazy and didn't want to get involved. I should have gone. Perhaps I should have done a lot of things that might have made me feel less isolated, but I didn't.

It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Even when I go to funerals of close relatives and people I have known for years, I look at the people assembled in the church around me and wonder to myself if I even know them. No matter how well you think you understand someone, there will come a day when you realize that you understand nothing. One morning the woman you have lived with for fifteen years will say something casually over coffee that could only come from the mouth of a total stranger. One Christmas Eve, your father will tell an off-color joke while opening gifts that goes against the grain of everything you thought he lived for. It is so ironic to me that a president is being impeached for not telling the truth. What is the truth anyway? We put the "truth" up on this pedestal, but no one really wants it. In fact, we'll go to just about any length to insulate ourselves from it. In some cultures, we'll avoid eye contact wherever possible and never talk to strangers. In other cultures, we'll babble on incessantly about everything except what is actually on our mind.

The day before I return to the United States, my German hosts take me to visit an old Cathedral in Nuremberg. Since the father of one member of our group is a licensed tour guide, we are able to gain special access to parts of the church that are generally off limits to the general public for safety reasons. Nuremberg was bombed heavily by the Allies during the war and this particular Cathedral was heavily damaged. As we climb rickety old wooden stairs higher and higher toward the top of the Cathedral's tallest bell tower, I could see increasing evidence of that damage. Our elderly guide provides a running commentary on what we were seeing, but since he is talking in German, I don’t understand all that much. I can hear the emotion in his voice though. This part of the Cathedral hasn’t been restored yet. Even though I don’t understand the language, it isn’t all that hard for me to figure out that our guide is talking about the war and the devastation that occurred during the bombing of Nuremberg. This guy looks and sounds amazingly like my own Dad, who coincidentally is also Lutheran and although he fought on the opposite side during the war, could easily have shared the old man's emotions about his beloved church.

I remember how disorienting it was to look at the old German tour guide and see my Dad's face. As I examine the charred black timbers and stones inside the tower, the thought occurs to me that most of the wars fought through the centuries were just one more manifestation of our wretched isolation. People have always found it far easier to eradicate and destroy their differences than to recognize the small but essential things they had in common. I think a lot about my time in Germany as I daydream, sealed inside expensive medical diagnostic equipment. Since I didn't know a word of German during my stay in Erlangen, it seems almost as if I had been sealed inside an MRI scanner there as well. How strange that in these exceedingly isolated situations I am able to achieve a clarity of thought that seems close to impossible when I am actually having a conversation with someone. Maybe this is why monks go to monasteries or mountaintops. How ironic, if you could only understand your fellow man when it was impossible to actually talk with them.

I practice conjugating German verbs in my head to pass the time in the MRI machine. Even though I had a uniquely enjoyable experience living in a country where I knew nothing and could speak to no one, I am now trying to learn the German language. I want to. It is almost a reflex action with me to want to learn what I do not know. I want to know, even if it spoils the magic forever. When I was a kid, I used to love taking apart mechanical things to see how they worked. Usually, I couldn't put these things back together again and wound up with an angry parent yelling at me and a useless pile of small metal pieces on the floor. I never did learn that a clock which tells time is far more useful than a pile of springs and gears.

So, I continue to deconstruct my isolation and look for connections where in all likelihood none exist. I excitedly learn the rudiments of German in hopes of connecting myself to a group of people who in all probability have already forgotten about me. I enjoy these reflective afternoons inside the MRI machine, but I have already learned that what I initially thought were innocent dust spots on the film from the radiology lab were actually evidence that I had had a small stroke about two years ago. It will be nice if I can return to Erlangen next year speaking fluent German. I don't think it would be a good idea to return to this machine very often though. I have been warned.


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