Of Frogs in Drain Pipes
Updated: Jan 3, 2019
Do I write music and literary prose for the same reason that male frogs seek out cavernous spaces to amplify their voices? As a way to imagine a path out of loneliness? Maybe.
Four years ago, in the vaulted atrium of a children’s hospital, the sort of cavernous space that drives the gaze up, up, up, I made a promise to myself—the kind of promise that even then, even in those emotionally cloistered days, even in the darkened blanket-fort of my own mind, seemed sort of selfish, sort of dumb.
Once we were out of the hospital, I was going write music again.
I’d started playing the guitar when I was eight. I played in an alt-rock band in middle school, a metal band (and lots of “joke bands” and “side projects”) from seventh grade until I graduated from high school. When I was fifteen or so, I started doing a singer-songwriter thing, which I kept up through college. In graduate school, I recorded two songs with a friend, both of which we sent—earnestly—to an American Idol songwriting competition. (Neither song cracked the finals.) But then I got busy. Then I started writing prose and poems more than music. Then I got an academic job. Then I got married. Music became a thing I used to do.
In the summer of 2014, I hadn’t written any songs in five or six years. I hadn’t played publicly in more than ten.
About a week before I made this promise to myself, our three-week-old baby, Teddy, had been transferred from the Big Midwestern Hospital to the Big Eastern Hospital. The transfer, like much else that summer, was something Kori, my wife, and I thought about a lot, discussed, engaged in some frustrating conversations with doctors about, and then, once the results of a genetic test had come back from a lab in Chicago—and an email to the Big Eastern Hospital finally answered—the thing we’d been anticipating and worrying over happened with impossible swiftness.
We kissed our dog goodbye for the summer. We dropped our car at a friend’s who lived near the airport. Unable to fill an expired prescription for Xanax, we drank as many beers as quickly as we could at an airport bar, at 11 a.m. Buzzed and miserable, we boarded a comped Southwest flight.
Teddy was heading to the Big Eastern Hospital on his own—or, more accurately, with some medical transport nurses whose names and cell phone numbers we’d forgotten to ask for. He was riding in a special ambulance, a special plane, and then another special ambulance.
It felt good in those weeks in the hospitals to think of the ambulances as “special.” I once wrote an email to university colleagues where I talked about Teddy’s “very special plane ride.” How needy. How pitiful. Very special plane ride.
“Will you be riding in the very special plane, too?” someone asked.
Neediness and self-pity and dank loneliness—that’s really what my promise to myself was about. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I was making a pledge to make music again because I was at my emotional nadir. Lonely. Helplessly, ridiculously lonely. Lonelier than I could say, lonelier than I remembered ever being before.
I know the promise was made from loneliness because I remember making the promise while listlessly eating a bowl of breakfast cereal. I’d by that time, in the summer of 2014, established a pattern: small, excusable, but still weird, definitely weird, lies . . . followed by shame.
Once we’d arrived in The City We Never Visited, and once we had a room at the Ronald McDonald House a mile away from the Big Eastern Hospital, Kori and I’d silently eat breakfast in the communal kitchen and then, at about 8 a.m., silently make the walk to see Teddy. A couple hours later, I’d tell Kori I needed to use the bathroom. Then I’d sneak down to a little convenience store at the Big Eastern Hospital and buy a travel-bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and a bottle of whole milk. I’d sit in the hospital’s lobby, near a huge Rube Goldberg machine whose dinging filled the unlimited air with funhouse uncanniness, reading a book and publicly eating my second breakfast of the day.
After ten minutes or so, I’d get a gnawing feeling—about who I was.
Before Teddy was born, I didn’t routinely lie to my wife about eating breakfast cereal. Or anything else.
Before Teddy was born, I imagined that talking things through with my wife would solve most problems, that being open and communicative would keep dark, unthinkable thoughts at bay. Now I spent a lot of time silent and ruminating on the dark and unthinkable.
Before Teddy was born, I would have thought I’d do anything to be on a very special plane with my very sick and very special baby.
But I didn’t even want to be asked if I’d like to ride with him. Because no part of me did. Not even a little bit. No part of me wanted to be anywhere near, never mind on, that plane. “Will you be riding in the very special plane, too?” Um, no. Not a chance. No way in hell.
We got a double-stroller last summer, and so, most afternoons, we’d as a family make the mile-long walk to the university. “Let’s go visit the Catalpa,” I’d say.
“Colden Pond!” the kids would shout.
Alice is 2. Teddy is 4. The walk to Colden Pond is possible with one parent. But it’s easier, and better, with two. So, most days, Kori and I’d both go.
We’d feed the koi. The kids would run to the Ohio Buckeyes, the Northern Catalpa, the oldest tree on campus. Some of the koi are monstrous and aggressive. Sometimes we'd stumble upon a wedding party. We'd accidentally photo-bomb their pictures on the Kissing Bridge.
We’d listen to the frogs in the storm drains feeding Colden Pond.
The frogs would remind Kori, and she’d remind me, of this passage from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake:
“The male frog, in mating season,” said Crake, “makes as much noise as it can. The females are attracted to the male frog with the biggest, deepest voice because it suggests a more powerful frog, one with superior genes. Small male frogs—it’s been documented—discover that if they position themselves in empty drainpipes, the pipe acts as a voice amplifier, and the small frog appears much larger than it really is.”
“So that's what art is, for the artist,” said Crake. “An empty drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid.”
I'd grown up listening to musicians answer whether the cliché —to get girls—was why they'd started a band or learned to play the guitar. I never thought consciously that my love for music and my attraction to girls and women had anything to do with each other. Honestly. But Kori, about two months into dating, told me she liked me early on, but she didn’t really like me until she saw me play the guitar one night. So, there's that.
Of course, this is oversimple. Explanations for artistic creation rooted in “evolutionary biology” are unhelpfully reductive. Most of us, at least some of the time, want more than merely to reproduce. Sex may be high on the list of what we want, but it feels somehow insulting to think of it as dominant. Insulting to think that writing a song or an essay or a short story or a poem—activities I’d characterize as my life’s work—could be described as “a stab at getting laid.” There’s got to be more that makes us work through a tough chord progression; there’s got to be more that’s making us want put the right words in the right order.
But my promise to myself in the summer of 2014 certainly had something to do with amplification, with broadcasting a self bigger than the self that was.
Because the self that was felt . . . insubstantial . . . inadequate . . . wanting.
I didn’t want to sit near Teddy’s bedside. I didn't want to run for the hills. Or I did. Didn’t want to lie about eating a second breakfast. Didn’t want to sit for hours on end near the love of my life and the baby we both kept saying we didn’t really know. Didn’t want to do anything I was doing. Didn’t want to think what I was thinking.
I didn’t want to be who, it seemed, I was.
And my first thought was to find a drain pipe and sing.
I felt unloved and insular, and the pledge I made was not to believe in a benevolent God or to endeavor to be a better father or even to find a better set of words to say to my wife but to create art which might get me a particular kind of attention from others, that might allow for a connection, that might allow me to feel a little less alone.
I thought music might save me. Might help me climb out of the nadir. Music might return me to myself.
I made the promise, but I didn't really get to work on fulfilling it right away. It took me a long time to start writing music again. The more recent songs on Frog in a Drain Pipe have been written and recorded in the last year, so some 1,000 or more days after I made myself that dumb promise.
I didn’t get to music for a while, I suppose, because I was writing literary nonfiction. Teddy was in hospitals for most of the summer of 2014, and, in the first year of his life, I was mainly working on a memoir about becoming a father, “Sugarblind.”
One day in early June 2014, while we were still at the Big Midwestern Hospital, I woke up early at the Ronald McDonald House. I went to the community kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee from a pot that someone else had made, and I went out to the patio with my laptop.
I opened up a new document on my computer, and I began. I told myself: I’m just trying to get it all down. I’m writing so I’ll remember. I’m a poor rememberer.
I wasn’t trying to attract a new mate. I wasn’t even consciously trying to keep the one I had.
But maybe I was trying to write my way out of my own bad mood, my own insufferable selfishness, my own desire to run away, my own annoyingly insatiable loneliness. I was writing for some of the same reasons I make music: to figure out the mess in my head. To make something of language and sound. To make things which might allow a connection with others somehow stronger than the one possible . . . in just being me.
So on that Ronald McDonald House patio, I wrote what a doctor said. I wrote what I said.
By training, by schooling, by the experience of so many of the books I’d read and loved, I knew what to do: I wrote to expose my vulnerabilities, my flaws. I wrote to explore the saints and monsters that lived inside.
Which means that, in some sense, I was thinking about you. An impossible, vague you, in the future. The person—you! yes, I really mean you—that's reading these words right now.
I wrote: A doctor, a young resident, said to us, “This is as hard as it gets. This is the hardest thing you’ll ever experience in your life.”
And that’s when it hit me. That I was probably reaching out to you. That I was writing not so much for my family as for myself. That I was writing in search of a connection with you.
And that really brought it down, crushing as a stone: the shame.
I closed the laptop, and, a little before shift change, at fifteen minutes till 7 a.m., I called the nurse. The news was fine. Some minor issues overnight. One low blood sugar, a couple closer to normal. Teddy’d been diagnosed a few days before: congenital hyperinsulinism, an endocrine disorder that causes hypoglycemia, which can be devastating for the infant brain.
We had a diagnosis, but not every doctor, it seemed, had signed on to it. At least not all the time. At least not fully and unambiguously.
We knew what was wrong. But did we, really? Everything’s fine, even though, in ways we can’t name, everything wasn't.
When I hung up the phone, I opened my laptop again. I don't know how to be a father. I don’t know how to do this. Ashamed, underwater with shame, I went back to writing.
I wrote knowing that writing about becoming a father likely wouldn’t help me to be a good one.
I wrote to see if my voice might escape, however briefly, the darkened blanket-fort of my mind.
I wrote then as I write today—with the hope that the drain pipe will provide just the right amount of reverb, just enough amplification, and with the belief that, if I stumble on right words in the right order, back my way into the right sounds matched with the right lyric, my lonely island might deserve a population.
Richard Sonnenmoser writes about fatherhood, politics, literature, and music. His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Harvard Review, Beecher’s Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, West Branch, Permafrost, Quarter After Eight, and other magazines.