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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Sounds of Silence

Walking the dogs at 5:15 one recent morning, and feeling rather cranky due to a poor night's sleep, I again became aware of how much sound impacts me. The only good thing about being up and out so early is the quiet typically prevalent at that time of day. But on that day, I was denied my longed-for silence. For some reason, the streets seemed especially busy. I hate the sound of traffic at any time of day, but especially early in the morning. The passing diesel pick-up truck was especially obnoxious that morning as it grumbled down the deserted street.

I live in a very noisy neighborhood, with houses close together and several busy streets nearby. I constantly feel bombarded by noise, particularly during warm weather when the windows are open. A major expressway is just a few blocks away; there are sirens (fire, police and ambulance) blaring several times a day. The airport is less than 10 miles away. My house is very close to a Little League baseball field, and soon every evening and all day Saturday and Sunday I will be subjected to the droning public address system and the incessant honking of horns as people remotely lock their vehicles along my street. Even at work, there often is a helicopter hovering not far outside my office window, as the pilot tests software designed to control the swinging of a heavy payload being lifted and moved. How I long for the quiet of my New Mexico neighborhood!

But some loud sounds are truly enjoyable. Strangely enough, I enjoy the deafening roar of a U-2 high-altitude plane taking off, afterburners aglow as it shoots into the heavens. Same with the noise of the Harrier, a vertical take-off and landing jet.

Aside from music (classical, acoustic guitar, smooth jazz in general and saxophone music in particular), one of my favorite sounds is of a whale exhaling as it breaks the ocean's surface after a long dive. And although I no longer play tennis, I still enjoy the sound of a well-hit tennis ball flying off the racket's sweet spot. Of course, the best sounds of all are totally natural: the breeze blowing through pine trees; birds chirping and insects buzzing; water rushing over rocks in a stream; the sound of waves crashing on the shoreline; a thunderstorm rumbling overhead.

Sometimes it isn't the sound, but the absence of sound, that is so pleasant. Although I have a major loss of hearing in one ear, the acuity of my 'good' ear is better than average. And I suffer from tinnitus, a constant ringing in my ears, so my world is never truly silent. Still, the absence of external sound can be wonderful. I love hiking in places where I hear only the sounds of nature, where there is no traffic, no people chattering, no lawn mowers or leaf blowers to disturb the sounds of silence.

Silence seems such a rare commodity in today's world. From cell phones to 24-hour news channels and endless choices of television and radio stations, our world is filled with cacophony. Many people feel uncomfortable sitting in silence with another person. They seem to feel compelled to fill the void with talking, whether they have anything to say or not. Some people cannot stand to be at home without the television running 'for background noise.'

I enjoy a quiet house. I do not need, nor do I want, some electronic noise polluting my space all the time. I will put on a CD or turn the television on, but only if there is something I want to listen to or watch. I enjoy the quiet of reading, listening to the pounding rain, hearing the gentle breathing of my dogs as they sleep.

Are people today afraid to be alone with their thoughts? Is it so difficult to be surrounded by quiet, to appreciate the sounds of nature, of our own breathing? We need to slow down and listen to the world around us.