Day 66: You’re in the tinnitus army now

Identify an area in which you generally shy away from confrontations. Practice the phrases, the tones, and the mannerisms that will enable you to effectively confront the situation next time.

My uncle is quite successful. He used to be a professor, he has written or edited several books, he’s got four kids and a lovely wife and a nice house. In Fredrikstad. (Well, you can’t have everything.)

When I was young, I never quite understood what he did for a living. Once, in his office at the university, he tried to show something amazing. He took a glass with coloured water and poured water of another colour into it. Look, he said, it’s changing colour! But it didn’t, and I wouldn’t have cared much anyway. (It might have been water and some kind of powder, I can’t remember, I wasn’t all that much into chemistry at that time either.)

But I understood that whatever he did, he was accomplished. He travelled al over the world on seminars and conferences. He was the first person I knew of who had a proper computer (he gave it to us later: it was portable, but only just, the screen could only show green and black, and to start it up, you needed a special start-up disk.) On his walls he had his PhD-diploma, letters from obviously very important people in his field, group pictures from exotic countries — and a small document, older than everything else, written in bureaucratic language.

It was from his days in the army. In a few terse words, it described how my uncle one day had come back to the barracks after having had a beer or three too much. Apparently, he had shouted and made a nuisance of himself, and he didn’t calm down when the sergeant came, or when another sergeant came, or at all. In the end he had to spend a couple of days in a military prison.

It always struck me as something very odd to have on our wall. You go on a drinking binge, you behave like a madman, and you end up being punished for it. Why would that be something to show off and be proud of? Not least, why would my accomplished uncle make room for that next to his diplomas and book contracts?

Some years later, I was in the army myself. I have never been a fan of the army, never been remotely militaristic, and the only reason I went, was that I hadn’t decided what to study yet, and that it would only last 6 months instead of the usual 12. It would be an experience, something quite different from what I was used to. Perhaps I even would learn something about myself.

I did. I learned that I was even less militaristic than I thought I would be.

I hated the uniforms. I hated the guns and army cars. I hated to way you were supposed to behave, the random rules, the anti-individualistic mentality, the joy some of the others felt when they could play war games. I hated the entire system. But I would have managed to leave it all behind me and move on (albeit with a slightly less optimistic view on human nature), had it not been for one thing.

The cannons.

All through my childhood, I had acutely sensitive ears. I would get annoyed when someone forgot to turn off the TV-set completely or pull the plug, the sound went on my nerves. Even though no-one else heard it. I couldn’t stand the sound of knitting, so my mother could only knit when I wasn’t there. I would always turn the volume down when listening to music, all the way down so that I would have to strain my ears to hear anything at all. My eyes are not very good, I squint when I’m tired — so I used my ears to get a picture of the world instead. I listened to the world more than I saw it.

And here I was, 19 years old, with two old ear plugs, waiting in line to shoot with a big cannon, thinking “this won’t do my ears any good” — and yet I didn’t challenge anyone. I didn’t tell the sergeants I refused to shoot. I didn’t make up an excuse or leave the army on the spot. No, I dutifully put my too old earplugs in my ears, shuffled up to the cannon, and put my finger on the trigger.

BOOM.

I still remember the taste. The bang left a taste of blood and metal in my mouth, and for a split second, it was all I could sense. My eyes were closed, my sense of touch had been overwhelmed, and my ears, my ears….

My ears couldn’t hear anything but a ringing sound and the cries of the sergeants far off. “Yeah!” “Good shot!” “We got the bugger!”

When my uncle got back to the barracks, sick and tired of his military life, he went on a rage. He confronted authority, he challenged his conditions, and although he had to pay for it, it made him a better man. One should fight the system when the system’s wrong. When I got back to the barracks, I went to bed and closed my eyes. My ears were ringing. The sound was much louder than the TV-set ever had been, much worse than any knitting I had ever experienced — and it didn’t stop. It went on and on, iiiiiiiiiii in my head, the same sound as when you come back from a disco, only louder. And perpetual.

When I got into the army, my hearing was excellent. When I left, I barely managed to pass the hearing test. The sound followed me anywhere I went, when I tried to read, when I tried to sleep, when I tried to listen to music. Iiiiiiiiiii. Once I found a cardboard tube and beat it to smithereens against the wall. It didn’t help.

What was once my main sense, the sense which gave me the most pleasures and insights, had turned into my main enemy. Whenever I heard my tinnitus, I was reminded about my time in the army. I was reminded that I had chosen not to confront authority, even though I knew at the time that I should have, and that I couldn’t blame nobody but myself. I used to be able to understand what people said to me; now, I found myself making strained grimaces, like an old man: speak up, I can’t hear you!

Every time I went to a party, I would have earplugs and still turn down the music. Every time I tried to go to a disco, I would last only a few minutes before I went out and back home. It was too painful.

My uncle is quite successful. I am not (at least career-wise). My uncle challenged and confronted his sergeants in the army. I did not. There might be some kind of pattern there.

I will never go back to the army. I will never have the opportunity to confront my sergeants again. But there will be other confrontations and other authorities.

I’ll start reading chemistry and fail at changing the colour of a glass of water. Perhaps that might help.

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