Sometimes I think a person from the 19th century would go mad after living in our world for about 15 minutes.
I live in the 21st century and it almost makes me go berserk sometimes. What would do them in, as The Grinch might say, is: “All the noise, noise, noise, noise!”
Some people take comfort in background noise — leaving the TV or radio playing in an otherwise empty house. On the other hand, the Environmental Protection Agency identifies sound pollution as one of the most subtle risks to human health. We can’t see, taste or touch sound, but it can have a quiet negative impact on our hearing, sleep, blood pressure, productivity and mood.
Most workplaces are all-you-can-eat buffets of noise. Even working at home as I do, when everyone but me and the cat have gone off to school and work, I am amazed at the inventory of sound in the air.
The kitchen radio is on so I can catch bits and pieces of the news while I work. The old Seth Thomas mantel clock is ticking loudly away on my desk. I hear the hum of the cooling fan in my laptop and the click of the keyboard.
The dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer all slosh and spin about their business. The coffeemaker wheezes to the finish line. In the basement, the water heater kicks on and the well pump responds in kind, replenishing the water tank. The dehumidifier is running down there, too, still drawing out remnants of the damp spring and summer.
The refrigerator clatters on and off. A robo-politician leaves a voicemail. My cell phone chirps to tell me it wants charged. In my son’s room, the fish tank hums and burbles. My daughter’s cat crashes into the screen door, trying unsuccessfully for the 1,000th time to pounce on the bird or beetle or rabbit or chipmunk passing by the porch.
When the kids are here, an entirely separate layer of electronic noise is added to the soundscape — the Wii, the computer, the Game Boy, the iPod, the CD and DVD players — punctuated by the occasional quarrel over who borrowed whose game and didn’t put it back. That noise a dad gets pretty good at ignoring.
I am famous at our house for trying to silence all appliances that can be muted. I don’t need the microwave to beep shrilly at me when the leftover chicken and noodles are heated for my lunch. My stomach will remind me of that, thank you very much. I don’t need chimes on the washer and dryer to tell me they are done. I get the hint when they shut off. The annoying artificial shutter sound on the digital camera? Who needs that? Why not give the keys on my laptop an old-time typewriter sound? Complete with a bell that dings when I reach the end of the line?
Every time I send something to our printer, it plays a little two-note song as it spits out the paper. It sounds like it’s singing: “Ta-da!” It reminds me of a toddler emerging from the bathroom after using the toilet for the first time. “Ta-da! Look what I did!”
With the windows open on a pleasant July morning, I hear lawnmowers, cars and the occasional semi going by like a horizontal rocket ship. A mile away, a freight train lumbers down the railroad tracks. An airplane flies overhead. And don’t even get me started on motorcycles with loud pipes and even louder radios. In the intervals in the traffic, I hear birds singing, insects buzzing, and the wind rustling the tree leaves.
When our house was built in 1832, none of these man-made sounds would have existed — except for the kid-made sounds of squabbling siblings. That goes back to Cain and Abel.
In the early 19th century, the only internal combustion engines on the road were hay-burners — horses and oxen and mules. Our house has heard clop of horses, the rattle of wooden wagons, the “awooga” of a Model T horn, and, of course, the roar of every gas and diesel engine that followed.
I often wonder if in my lifetime transportation technology will return to the day when engines were as silent as the movement of a horse’s muscles. I have already been startled by the approach of hybrid electric cars, which can creep up on you from behind as stealthily as a cat.
A 19th-century time traveler could come to terms with wireless technology, with Lady Gaga, with freeways and blow-up swimming pools. But the layers of ambient noise, tangled and overlapping, would seem overwhelming. It is to me, sometimes.
Yet, many background sounds I find tremendously reassuring. The genuine, mechanical, spring-powered, non-electricity-dependent, old wind-up clocks ticking around the house. The spin of a bicycle sprocket. The sound of my neighbor’s John Deere chugging up the hill, pulling gravity wagons heaped with grain, on the way to the elevator in town.
What a gift to hear all these things. Even the things some of us call noise might seem like music to others.
As they say, beauty is in the ear of the beholder.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.