The Voice (Is Not for Sharing)

Derek Ziegler, Office of Environmental Health and Safety

Honorable Mention

“So, Mary, climb in. It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win!” I bellow the famous Bruce Springsteen lyric from “Thunder Road” at the top of my lungs. I imagine the passengers in the car next to me glancing over with a mix of amusement and concern. I smile a semi-deranged grin over at them as I listen to the saxophone solo, while cruising down the road at 70 mph. Joy has been cultivated.

I am the worst singer in my family. As I write this, my 14-year-old daughter and my wife are en route to a choir festival in Cincinnati. My 15-year-old son is singing loudly (and well) while listening to country music in the shower. My brother graduated from Westminster Choir College and received a master’s degree in vocal performance.

My inability to match pitch is my largest problem. For whatever reason, when I hear a note, my ears and my vocal cords don’t sync. Through the years, various musical people have informed me that they could teach me to sing. I won a voice lesson once at a charity auction. By the end of the half-hour lesson, the very patient teacher told me some techniques to try to match the right notes, but he didn’t seem too optimistic. If I sing at home, the talented people around me raise an eyebrow or encourage me to repeat the rare notes that I sing correctly.

So, if I am a bad vocalist, why am I mentioning this in an essay on how to cultivate joy? The answer lies in my long commute to Princeton each day, which involves three hours round trip daily. While this commute is generally blessedly low on traffic jams, it still is a long time to occupy every day.

For my first few months of navigating this commute, I had aspirations of using my time on the road to expand my mind. I imagined a world of heretofore untapped podcasts where I would learn about unsolved mysteries, travel journeys, or how things work. Soothing voices with their fountains of wisdom would guide me on new pathways of knowledge.

If podcasts weren’t my cup of tea, perhaps I could use my driving time to absorb great works of fiction that had long been on my reading list. Talented voice actors would take me away to the worlds of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens as the miles rolled by. Or I could discover new shiny needles of fiction within the vast haystack of contemporary literature.

Following a trip to Quebec City, I also went through a spell where I intended to learn French during my daily journeys. I even paid for a French language app. I forgot that seven years of high school and college Spanish instruction yielded little more than a basic vocabulary and a laughably bad accent. I discovered that I did not possess an inherent ability to learn French in the car. As such, my interest in a sojourn to Paris rapidly waned.

Expanding my musical palette was another initial aspiration. My kids expose me to plenty of contemporary pop, rap, and country music, but surely there were hidden gems that would appeal to me. Indeed, I did find some interesting music while cruising through the radio dial. The problem was that I didn’t know the choruses and forgot the melodies.

A few soporific drives home while consuming podcasts or struggling with French confirmed that I needed a different course of action. I needed to embrace the dormant lead singer lurking within. As Bruce says in “Born to Run,” “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive. Everybody’s out on the run tonight, but there’s no place left to hide.”

So, I abandoned all pretense of expanding my horizons. I decided to gorge on my audio comfort food of classic rock from the 1960s through the 1990s. My SiriusXM subscription proved to be an essential vending machine in my new vocation. I could navigate quickly between different snacks of preferred tunes. The Allman Brothers Band would be my salted peanuts. Neil Young would be my French fries. Pearl Jam would be my potato chips.

Lo and behold, I no longer find myself nodding off at the wheel. Hearing a familiar guitar chord puts me on notice that my time to shine is imminent. Gen X memories come roaring back as I sing along to well-known choruses from the past. Full knowledge of the lyrics is not required as I blast the radio and howl along like an emaciated dog. As the saying goes, “You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching, love like you’ll never be hurt, sing like there’s nobody listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.”

In my life, I am optimistic there will be times to gather new knowledge, challenge my sensibilities, and broaden my mind. However, that time apparently is not during my journey to and from work. Instead, that is my time for joyous–and thankfully inaudible to anyone else–noise.