This is as quiet as my house ever gets: the whir of traffic, often punctuated by the boom of bass; sirens and copters; yelping, yipping, barking dogs—from blocks away to the pair at my feet; wind chimes, lawnmowers, and the chirping of a dozen species of birds, including one who sounds like the laugh at the beginning of the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out.”
It’s only ever this quiet during the school day, when my husband and daughter leave me to my own devices. Even then, I’m compelled to fill their sonic void with sounds—court TV shows, music, a random video shared on Facebook. I screech Heart’s “Barracuda” in the shower, play guitar, shout at the dogs. I’m shouting at them right now, as they have just knocked over the zero gravity recliner, where I sit.
When my family is home, it’s clear we are loud. It’s partly because I am a yeller. I come from a short line of yellers and loud talkers, a detail I was cautious about sharing with my infant, but you can’t hide noise in your diaper bag. It’s hard to whisper “You ASSHOLE” to the pokey driver in front of you. It’s tough to hide your parents’ arguments, telephone fights with your sister, a public loathing of litterbugs and Express Lane abusers, and general abrupt disgruntle when that’s the person you are, whether by nurture or nature.
Even though I yell, I don’t need anger management. I need control. I once wrote that I yell to get people—my family, mostly—to listen to me, to respond to my THIRD REQUEST, DAMN IT, since the two nice ones went unheeded. DINNER IS READY! YOUR SHOES DON’T BELONG IN THE KITCHEN! CLEAN YOUR ROOM! I yell to insist I really did tell them the seder is Monday night. I TOLD YOU LAST WEEK THAT THE SEDER IS MONDAY NIGHT!
I yell at the dogs when they bang into me. WATCH IT, DOGS! I yell at the TV news. THAT’S NOT NEWS, YOU IDIOT, IT’S A MCDONALD’S PRESS RELEASE! I yell at Serena’s band when they are anywhere besides the basement or outside. DOWNSTAIRS OR OUTSIDE! I yell at my daughter’s friend to go home so I can yell at my daughter. I yell to get my husband to stop interrupting me mid-sentence to nag me about why the spray paint is sitting quietly on the deck, to get my family to PUT MY CAPOS BACK ON MY GUITAR WHERE THEY BELONG, to get my puppy to SIT!
The baton, with attached foghorn and vuvuzela, has been passed. Serena Joy (a garlic necklace of a name chosen to counter that of her mother, Neurotic Misery) yells, too—at her mom and dad, her friends, the dogs, her band. And my husband, Marty? Let’s call him a passionate discusser. He comes from a long line of boisterous talkers, grumpy West Virginians—Hatfields, in fact (the real McCoy!)—people like his Uncle John, who drank beer at lunchtime in the diner and bragged loudly of his sexploits; people like his brother, the builder/rock climber/ballerina, whose answering machine messages are spoken as if we’ll be playing them back from a neighbor’s house. His mom, who has lost much of her hearing, can still hear us.
Our family is overheard in restaurants. Marty’s cheer of appreciation (YEA!) can be heard on every family’s School of Rock video. But our volume is about more than our voices. (Our hair might as well be an ad for volumizing products.) At any given moment in the Miller household, in any room, you are likely to hear a movie, a song, saxophone, drums, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboards, drum machine—many of them at the same time, often one turned way up to hear over another. Doors slam. Dogs tussle. The refrigerator groans like a ghoul. Serena can’t calmly tell her dad that his timing is wrong on Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”; she has to shriek the correction. I yell from the living room to the attic, hoping to be heard over the Wii; Serena yells her reply. Our dog, Chance, yells at our new puppy, Jett . And Marty passionately discusses the mess I’ve made in the house, the unwalked dogs, the spray paint can left on the deck. He chews his food passionately, too. I turn on the TV at dinner time to drown it out, and Serena turns the volume even higher.
Shortly after I gave birth, I developed a sleep disorder and became so sensitive to the pesky sounds heard above the quietude that I had to muffle them with a white noise machine and foam earplugs. The last straw, the thing that bled through my barriers to a soundless sleep and led to my isolation was Marty’s nocturnal inhalations and exhalations. (Marty snore? Never!) I eventually moved to the guest room because the volume of his “nighttime breathing” was the only thing standing in the way of a good night’s sleep. Serena, who already sleeps with her door closed, often gets out of bed in the middle of the night to close his door—because, as she puts it: “he [nighttime breathes] like a frickin’ tractor.” If he didn’t, the four battery-operated clocks—one on the wall, one on the dresser, and two next to the bed, all set for a different time and a different alarm, all with a second hand—would have done me in. I have a clock on the wall of the guest room, where I sleep, but its batteries are on the dresser.
These days, if I manage to sleep through the alarms, the excited morning dog whimpers, the banging screen door, the whistling coffee pot, and the social studies documentaries (who am I kidding? Social Studies documentaries? Zzzzzz.), then I am awakened at 6:30 a.m. by the siren of ended lesson planning: a rousing version of Muse’s “Hysteria” on electric bass or one of Billy Bragg’s anti-government ditties, sung with Cockney accent and passion, if not perfect pitch, accompanied by zealous guitar strumming in the echoic kitchen, a favorite playing place for its acoustics.
I suppose I should be embarrassed, especially that the clean clothes are in the closet, but our dirty laundry is often wafting out the window for three seasons. That my overnight guest, visiting from Hawaii, was awakened by the loud charms jingling from Jett’s collar every time the dog moved and the 4:30 a.m. alarm that went off in the bedroom, despite my husband’s being out of town. That when my daughter told me on Facebook that I should yell less, the next-door-neighbor’s daughter, away at college, “liked” it.
I sometimes worry about how loud we are (the neighbors always tell us they enjoy our harmonies; they neglect to mention the discord), but the truth is that I don’t know of any other way to live. I apologize for the sounds of us, but, at the same time, I can’t stifle them. I love our cacophony, our laughter, our play, and our music, even if it comes bundled with the yelling, snoring, and loud-chewing package. I feel guilty that I’m entering Excedrin’s “What’s Your Headache” contest with a video of my daughter playing every instrument in the universe, with the volume up as high as it goes, because it’s a downright lie. The music in my house never gives me anything but delight. She is a thirteen-year-old girl who rocks. So does her fifty-something dad.
The time has come to wholly embrace the loudness that is the Millers. Songs and movies should be rewritten about us: Turn it Up. Pump Up Our Volume. It WILL Get Loud…er. WHO LET THE DOGS IN?
Yeah, that’s right. We are the Millers, and we go to eleven. (That’s one louder.)