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Austin Chronicle This Blows

You Know How To Whistle Don't You?

By Jay Hardwig

JUNE 5, 2000:  This is the story of a man falling out of love. There are two ways that love can die. The first is a slow fading, where the colors change from green to gray, the fire flickers fickly, the birdsong trails off into strange silence. One day you wake up and you realize you are no longer in love. Perhaps you are surprised, perhaps not. The other is more sudden. It comes crashing down from above with the force of a sledgehammer, cold and mean, and the birds of love are squashed beneath its remorseless thumb.This story is about that second sort of falling out of love.

But do not pale, dear reader, do not fret overmuch, for in this story there are no broken hearts, and little gnashing of the teeth. There are no long, lonely nights with a bottle of bourbon. For what I have fallen out of love with has no heart and knows no pain, and indeed will never know that a lover has been lost.

I have fallen out of love with whistling.

It is, I'll admit, less than tragic, and if your sympathies lie elsewhere, I understand. Still it startles me, and rests uneasy on my mind. I am a man, after all, who always fancied whistling, and was quick to defend the form from its rare detractors. What could be more joyous than the jaunty and innocuous whistle? I enjoyed the short, sharp trill as well as longer pieces built from upraised eyebrows and a gamy puffing of the cheeks, their merry melodies cast sweet across the skies, the very essence of come-what-may. The whistler, to my mind, was free of affectation: Here was none of the dire drama of opera, the overblown angst of punk, the studied reverence of jazz. Instead, the whistler blew an innocent and casual tune, a spare bit of loose jubilance far removed from the blues. Sweet-natured and unassuming, the whistle had all the qualities that I wished upon myself.

In time, I became a minor expert of the form, able in a note to distinguish between the standard pursed-lip, O-shaped cheek whistle and the more obscure, but no less soulful, tongue-to-palate style, most famously heard in the last lovely bars of Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" (and if any song belongs in the Whistle Hall of Fame, it's that one). Further, I convinced myself that, while I couldn't sing in tune, my whistles were always on pitch. A delusion, I now realize, but one that gave me great comfort in my lonely moments.

When I fell out of love with whistling, as I have said, it was the crashing kind. There was no warning -- there never is -- and had you asked me when I awoke that morning how I felt about whistling, I would have been as warm and effusive as ever a fellow was. As it happened, I was in South Africa at the time, camped in the lowveld of that country's eastern flank, smack in the heart of safari country. Lions, elephants, and wildebeest roamed the bush, and scads of eager-eyed tourists roamed after them, hauling not trusty old Winchesters, but Nikons and Pentax in their place. A pale approximation of the behatted huntsmen of lore, I'll admit -- what would Hemingway think? -- but surely a bit easier on the local critters.

On the morning in question, three of us hearty eco-tourists set off on a "walking safari," giving up the standard Land Rover for hiking boots, leaving the dusty roads behind for a plunge into the dense and surly thicket. We were up early -- the better to spot the game -- and a faint orange sunrise streaked the sky. There was a bit of a chill in the air, as I recall, and the tall grass hung heavy with dew. It was a peaceful morning -- with only occasional birdsong and the sound of our footsteps to break the calm -- and we walked in a quiet reverie, blessed to be part of the African dawn.

It was at that moment that my traveling companion and good friend Jake Bohstedt started to whistle. It was a powerful whistle, hearty and sharp, and it pierced the morning air like a rifleshot. The tune, you ask? "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy." And it was at that moment, "Yankee Doodle do or die," that I fell quickly and crashingly out of love. (I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy!) I held my tongue, but in my head the world began to tilt, and by the time the second verse rolled around my life had changed, and the whistle, far from being innocuous and spry, was nothing more than a vile and insidious imposition on my aural space. I was outraged. Not only a distraction, the whistle was a nuisance, an impossible affliction, a cross which I had no duty or desire to bear. I held my tongue, oh yes, but inside I stewed, and fell quickly out of love.

In retrospect, it might be argued that I was savaged not by whistling in general, but by a single misplaced whistle, a whistle that knew no context, that had no sense of time, place, or propriety. "You are a victim," that logic holds, "of a bad whistle. You can't hold all whistling accountable for a single whistle's crime." Perhaps, but in the time since that morning my new prejudice has only grown, and with each whistle I hear I become less and less forgiving, less accepting of the whistle and its heedless demand for public merriment, its rosy presumption and wispy insouciance, its false jolly, and I wonder if it is only a matter of time before I uncurl my aching fingers and wrap them around some poor whistler's throat, fate and consequences be damned.

Heavy talk, I know, churlish and unforgiving, but my heart is black, my patience gone. If I seem too tart, you must forgive me, and I beg of you to understand:

It is not an easy thing to fall out of love.

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