Dead Letter Office
The Sickness

dead Letter Office is a column of letters written by Todd Hutlock to a friend named Jimmy, who may or may not exist. The column details real-life experiences regarding work, life, and how Hutlock's obsession with music runs them both.


Hey, sorry it has been a while since I wrote back, but Mel has been sick and I was doing my best to take care of her in her time of illness. She sort of resisted my help at first (which sick people tend to do, I guess, because they usually don’t want to admit that they are as sick as they are) but eventually she couldn’t really help it. I was really glad that I could be there to help her out in whatever little ways I could. I know she would do the same for me—and she might have to, in fact, as I’m pretty sure I picked up whatever she had (or perhaps something else entirely, but I am not feeling tip-top, to be sure.)

Anyway, I noticed a funny thing and I started to wonder about it and wanted to bounce it off of you, oh sage expert. See, usually when I go to Mel’s, I’ll come in and there will be some sort of music playing. Almost always, in fact. It usually isn’t too terribly loud or prominent even, but generally speaking there is always a tune in the air (and come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve heard the same thing twice there either).

But this week, when she was feeling sick, I noticed less music. A few times, there was none at all. I spent the whole day there on Friday (she was really at her sickest then, so I took the day off to be with her) and I don’t think we heard a note—not in the house or in the car or anywhere. Granted, she spent a large portion of the day sleeping. I almost didn’t notice at the time, but on Saturday afternoon when I finally stopped home for a few hours and put my own stereo on, it hit me that it had been missing.

So this got me to thinking about music and illness (you know, because with a few hours to myself I apparently had nothing better to do than think about useless junk like that.) I know when I am sick, I still play music, but only if I’m a certain kind of sick, you know? Like, if I just have a cold or something, I’ll generally play some mellow stuff around the place just to relax me a bit. If I have some debilitating killer flu bug or whatever, I may spend a few more hours in silence than normal, but still, I’ll usually at least throw on some quiet jazz or something, maybe even some ambient electronic stuff.

So my thought was that when you’re sick, you’re sort of off your game. And if my game—or Mel’s—is playing music, then it sort of makes sense that it would be off as well. So why then do I still play things and she doesn’t seem to? And is that normal? Are more people like me than I think?

I came up with this: When I’m sick, my frequency of playing music doesn’t really change. Hell, if anything, I listen to more because I’m home from work. What changes is the stuff I’m listening to.

For instance, I wouldn’t ever generally play anything that was too loud or dissonant. That just sort of makes sense because that type of stuff might lead to a headache more pounding than whatever one I’m already experiencing. So: nothing too crazy as a general rule.

Also, though, I don’t ever play anything new or that I haven’t heard before. It takes too much thought and effort to pay attention to that stuff under those conditions, and with me not being at full strength, it just doesn’t work. I recall having to review records for AP at times when I was not feeling 100% healthy and playing them and dutifully writing them up. When I played some of them again later though, I almost always came to a totally different conclusion about it than I had originally, which is not usually the case with me—generally speaking, my first opinions usually hold up pretty well on things. So of course if I was playing something at home that I bought or otherwise wanted, I would wait until I was feeling better before delving into it. I justified writing the reviews at AP under distorted conditions pretty easily—half of the people reading that mag couldn’t have cared less about the things I reviewed anyway.

No, I tend to fall back on old favorites in times like this. Lots of Kinks, Smiths, Felt, Bunnymen, New Order, Orange Juice, etc. Comfort food for my brain. The tried and true, the stuff I know and love, like some comfy old pair of flannel pajamas that I know I will sleep well in or that one meal that I know will always sit well in my queasy stomach.

But silence? Man, I’d have to be pretty far gone to go there. At the point where I couldn’t get out of bed to turn something on I suppose. And even then, I could always reach my CD player alarm clock. I might end up playing the same album over and over for a few days even. I remember distinctly playing nothing but Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen for a solid week I spent with a nasty bug in high school—I just couldn’t get up to get anything else, and I think it was then when I truly fell in love with the album. After all, it stuck with me through my vomiting spells and 104 degree fever, and stayed there right by my side until I felt better and could bounce around the room crooning, “Forgive me, Faron Young!” Now there’s a true friend.

Anyway, Mel is feeling much better now (thanks to lots of rest and the wonder of the Z-pack!) and by Saturday night she was playing music again. I think I was still worried about her up until she put it on, and then I knew she had turned the corner. Also, she kicked the holy hell out of me at Scrabble that night, so I figure she must have been feeling semi-decent at least.

Now, if I can just hold off this cold until after the Wilco show this weekend... I’m off to load up on vitamin C and herbal tea.

Your man in the Midwest,

By: Todd Hutlock
Published on: 2005-02-21
Comments (4)

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