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Memphis Flyer Listen

You might be missing something.

By George Shadoui

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Noise. It comes at you from all directions -- from the busy streets of American cities, from construction sites, car radios, boom boxes, beepers, motors, fax machines, televisions. In restaurants, malls, bookstores -- even at baseball fields -- noise hovers over us like a cloud of interminable doom.

As I get older, I wonder if I am not simply becoming jaded. As many a youngster has asked, what's so bad about music blaring from cars. Okay, but do the bass beats have to rock my car, too?

Then I remember my younger days when cranking up "Born to Run" not only seemed appropriate, it also seemed important, a declaration of independence, a fabulous moment of liberation. I remember when listening to the barely audible televisions and radios from the homes of neighbors was somehow reassuring, a sign of normalcy. I remember college when adjacent apartments cranked up the stereo on cool Saturday mornings before a football game. (Now that I recall that, it annoyed me then, too).

Noise has its place, of course. But so does listening. Sound is one thing. Aural assault another.

Take baseball. There are natural sounds essential to the experience: the pop of the ball in a leather glove, the chatter of the infielders, shouts of the crowd, even the cries of the beer man -- "getcha ice cold beer here." It is tough to hear any of this when speakers are blasting Warren Zevon at 10,000 decibels between every pitch.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with turning on the radio in the backyard from time to time, but think about what you are not hearing when you do it: birds and squirrels in trees, pecans hitting the roof, crickets scurrying in the grass, a light breeze that causes leaves to explode into understated applause.

How about your office. Turn off the radio, if it is on, and screen out, if you can, all the chatter around you and listen to what fills the void. Hums -- from air-conditioning units in the ceiling, from your computer, the tapping of your fingers and, far off, if you are lucky, the whistle of a train or the horn of a towboat on the mighty Mississippi.

Roll down the window of your car while sitting at a stoplight. You might hear the chatter of children at play, and they might carry you back to your own glorious summer days.

Why are we afraid of silence, of the natural sounds of life? Why do we have to pipe music into every crevice of our lives? Why do we interrupt silences that are so crucial to understanding and peace? Why can people not drive 10 minutes without grabbing a cell phone or turning on the radio? An old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon comes to mind. The two of them are standing outside and Calvin says: "Look at all those stars! The universe just goes out forever and ever."

Hobbes responds: "It kind of makes you wonder why man considers himself such a big screaming deal."

The scene shifts indoors, and Calvin is sitting in a room with a clock, a telephone, a television, and a stereo, all of them going at the same time. "That's why we stay inside with our appliances," Calvin says.

Perhaps that is the root of it, especially in an age where artificial communication has become so dominant. E.B. White (I believe) once wrote that most people he knew were afraid to be alone with themselves. After all, in the bosom of silence, you have only your own thoughts, fears, and breathing to contemplate. Do we fear that in the end, silence is what awaits us -- infinite and permanent? And is that the fear that drives the behavior of modern civilization? Perhaps.

But silence need not be solemn. The great comedians of past generations were experts at silence -- using it to communicate, to hold us, to focus our minds -- and then, wham, the punch lines! Remember Danny Thomas, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle? They understood the power of the pregnant pause, the moment of silence, even in the midst of their word-filled world. Today's comedians and talk show hosts can't stop talking long enough to catch their breath, so overjoyed are they at the sound of their own voices.

Or could it be that in this age of ego and mass culture, we measure our worth by the number of communications devices we carry with us: cell phone, beeper, laptop (with fax and e-mail capability, of course). James Gleick in his book, Faster, suggests that busyness is the stock and trade of our culture. We must be doing something important as long as we are endlessly bothered or bothering.

Or maybe I am complicating a simple truth. Maybe it's just marketing. Everyone is selling something, and they can only do it if they reach out and grab you by the eyes or ears. These folks who live through electronic communications have us all convinced that silence is lonely, desolate, empty, when, in fact, some of the greatest messages in life are delivered quietly and reflectively. Remember Silent Night? If Moses had lived today, he would never have heard the burning bush over the cacophony of noise that has become a symbol of modern life. And then where would he (and the rest of us) have been?


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