Notes on laryngitis

As some of you know, I have been without much of a voice since Friday afternoon. At that point I thought I was getting over last week’s cold, but I started losing my voice during a late-afternoon meeting and it just got worse from there. At some point over the weekend it became clear that my cold had morphed into one of the disgusting sinus infections I get at least once a year, with evil bacteria marching south to my irritated vocal cords.

That’s really how it feels — like an invading army has occupied the seat of my voice — despite my agreement in theory with Sontag that these martial metaphors for disease serve us poorly. I think it is fair to say that we guys tend to think of our identity as being tied up in certain body parts, and as much as I may fall prey to this phallic fallacy myself from time to time this incident has made me painfully aware of just how much my identity is invested in my voice. To a surprising extent, I am my larynx.

While I am a decent writer, it is clear to me that I’m a better talker, or at least that my gift for gab is the one I use to greater effect. My work in PR means that I talk for a living — less so than for a newscaster, but probably more than most of my friends. Being voiceless makes it impossible for me to counsel my clients, rally my team or share my ideas. It was a wake-up call to realize that despite my prodigious production of emails, memos and PowerPoint decks, most of my real business value inheres in my voice. Likewise at home, I’m the talkative one happily married to a man of few words. Not being able to talk to David made me feel like I was somehow angry at him, giving the silent treatment. I’m the master conversationalist, social caller, the planner of events, the maker of reservations. Just not right now. In a profound sense, being voiceless has made me feel impotent.

I spent the weekend in near-total silence. It was bad enough that I resorted to using the “text to speech” function on my Mac to talk to David, which led him to call me Mr. Hawkings. The few times I did have to talk to someone — ordering coffee, getting my hair cut at Rudy’s — my interlocutors looked stricken, as if they were unsure whether this were a temporary problem or a more permanent muteness, and that either might be catching. It was deeply strange for me, a jabberjaw virtually from birth, to be so conspicuously quiet.

It seemed like resting my vocal cords had helped, so I went into the office yesterday. That was a huge mistake. Even people who knew it was painful for me to talk couldn’t help it — they needed things out of me, and despite all our electronica sometimes an IM doesn’t always cut it. Talking was not just painful, it was exhausting. I decided, wisely, to cancel a two-day trip to Chicago for some meetings — realizing that not only would the travel probably make me sicker, it just made no sense to go to a meeting where I would be unlikely to be able to speak. Worst of all there would have been no way to keep up my two-tea-an-hour consumption habit. There are only so many times you can leave a meeting to pee and refill your tea.

On the way home last night I picked up some prescriptions designed to give me my voice back. They seem to be working, but slowly. I was  listless last night, but as soon as I went to bed I set to painful coughing and couldn’t even apologize properly to David for waking him up as I tossed and turned. Today I slept in, deep in a codeine cocoon, listened in mutely on a conference call and reviewed a few documents in a desultory fashion. I’m really ready to be talking again; whether those around me are enjoying their vacation from my voice remains to be seen. But in any case, I’m looking forward to the end of my own private quiet period, the longest no doubt since I starting speaking before my first birthday. And I will return to the land of the speaking with a newfound respect for the tone, timbre and power of my voice.

One thought on “Notes on laryngitis”

  1. I love this post. Jay, I adore your voice and I can see how it might be labeled your most defining feature in a face-to-face encounter, but I seldom get to hear your voice as translated by the keyboard. I am enchanted.

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