Thursday, June 16, 2011

FREQUENCY – Tuning In To Discovery

“What are you doing?” my mother asked skeptically. She’d glanced into the living room of our summer home on the St. Croix River and seen what must have been a disturbing sight. There I was hunched over the antique table in the corner, my neck craned, chin resting on the black oilcloth covering.

My left ear was pressed against the dark brown Bakelite speaker grill of our old Emerson table radio. (This radio, now a collector's item, had no digital this or electronic that, just one knob for on/off and volume, and another for tuning.) My right hand, reaching around my head, was on the tuning dial. With my thumb and middle finger grasping the knob delicately, and other fingers extended, I might have been mistaken for a veteran safecracker.

Illustration: Katy Farina

You have to understand that our little community of Franconia, while an absolute wonderland for adventurous kids by day, offered very little to do at night, except for maybe playing games or reading. That night, I was demonstrating my usual disdain for such pastimes in favor of some kind—any kind—of firsthand adventure.

Some nights would deliver a “perfect storm” 
of radio waves to that little Emerson.

If I’d had a name for it, I guess what my mom walked in on would have been called “the fine tuning game.” I’d discovered that, on certain nights, the river valley acted as a conduit, channeling radio waves from great distances. Add clear skies and a phenomenon called “skip”—in which the waves are prevented from dissipating in the atmosphere by some stratum or another—and the night would deliver a “perfect storm” of radio waves to that little Emerson.

I’d start turning the tuning knob and, bypassing the clear, strong stations, listen for the faintest signal I could make out. This took a delicate touch; I had to be ready to adjust the volume too, since reception of those far-away stations would fade in and out. My ultimate goal was to see if I could hear a station break while the signal was strong enough to recognize the station’s location or call letters. (Of course, my chances would spike on the hour and half-hour, when stations are required to give their IDs.)

Those faint voices brought down the walls of that dim, musty room. My little Emerson might as well have been some deep space receiver developed by NASA. How mysterious and wonderful to learn how far some of those radio waves had traveled to reach my ear. I imagined them as sheer curtains, undulating through a thousand miles or more of starry skies.

I wrote down the stations’ call letters and locations and kept a list. That summer I logged contacts from as far away as Texas, Arkansas, New York and Quebec. Some of the broadcasts were in Spanish or French, making them all the more exotic to my young ear.

I can now see what a rich metaphor for all 
kinds of discovery this fine-tuning game is.

Reflecting on all of this, I can now see what a rich metaphor for all kinds of discovery this fine-tuning game is. Whether you’re listening, looking, feeling, tasting, reflecting or praying, aren't you just curious to know what’s out there?

How good are you at “listening between the stations?” Can you filter out the static and make out the underlying message? Do you have the patience to wait for something wonderful to happen? 
These questions never become obsolete. 


Bebbilane said...

I can easily (at times) filter out the static to the underlying message! :) I sometimes don't have a lot of patience but recently have been learning how to have more...and how to be a more calm in the wave of the storms/squalls of life. I love this blog because it really promotes listening with great detail. We can do this in so many ways! :) Thank you!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Bebbi -- I'm glad you're realizing some success in navigating through those storms by focusing on the calms between them! I too find it hard to be patient sometimes.

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