People who don’t like noise get a bad rap in America. We once had neighbors in Colorado who used to ride off-road dirt bikes up and down the street. Someone complained about the noise and their response was, “Don’t like it? Move. This is America. We have freedom to make all the noise we want.”
Yesterday, my barber was talking about television. He was watching an “entertainment” show in which people were screaming, amplified by explosions, and he just couldn’t abide the noise. But he’s an old fuddy-duddy, like me, right?
When I watch baseball on TV, I keep the “mute” button very close by for the commercials. But even the commentators are getting noisy. Baseball used to be a fairly quiet game with two commentators in the booth, a play-by-play guy and a “color” guy (usually an ex-ballplayer). Now there are often three people in the booth, with another one (or even two) on the sidelines. They all need to speak, of course, so baseball on TV has become a constant contest of endless chatter featuring mindless statistics. There’s so much chatter that it’s difficult to hear the crack of a bat or the sound of a fastball smacking a catcher’s mitt. Then there are the stadiums that feature lots of rock music, sound effects (like smashing glass for a foul ball), horns and pyrotechnics that go off when a player hits a home run, and all those video boards that order the fans to “Make Some Noise!”.
I know — I sound like an old fuddy-duddy again — sort of like the Grinch who stole Christmas because he was tired of all the noise, noise, noise of the Whos in Whoville. And if the Grinch was bothered by Christmas festivities, just think of how he’d react to July 4th, America’s most pyrotechnic holiday. Prepare for bombs bursting in air, jets screaming overhead, and loud music everywhere.
Just so you know, I’ve been known to pump up the volume on my favorite songs; I’ve thrilled to fireworks exploding in the sky; I’ve watched my share of air shows; I’ve even been at the very front of rock concerts as “security” (I fondly recall a Warren Zevon concert at which I had to arrange the return of a leather coat loaned by a fan to Zevon, who donned it on stage to the delight of the fan).
But you might say those noise events were matters of personal choice. Lately, noise in America seems pervasive, ubiquitous, almost unavoidable. And noise isn’t simply about volume: it’s about persistence. It’s about invasiveness. Think of people who chatter away on Smart phones even as they’re out for a quiet walk along the beach or in the woods. How can you hear the waves or the birds if you’re screaming into a phone? Bits and pieces of conversations I’ve overheard are not about emergencies or even pressing matters; it’s more like, “Guess where I am? I’m at the beach/concert/top of the mountain!” Followed by selfies and postings and more calls or texts.
With all these forms of noise, it’s difficult to be in the moment. It’s even difficult to find a moment. Also, even in quiet times, people feel pressured to fill the silence with, well, something. So unaccustomed to quiet are they that they reach for their Smart phones (perhaps to play a noisy video game), or they turn on the TV, or they chatter away even when they have nothing to say. Must avoid “uncomfortable” silences, so we’ve been told.
Part of this is cultural. Today’s Americans are not about reflection; we’re about action. We’re not thinkers; we’re doers. If I rest I rust is our motto. Together with, Don’t just stand there — do something! Preferably, something loud, splashy, noisy.
July 4th is a great holiday, but along with the fireworks and noise, perhaps we should celebrate the reflective thinkers of America, people like Thomas Jefferson who put the words to the noise of the American revolution in the Declaration of Independence. The quiet sound of a quill pen dipping in ink and scratching across parchment made a very big noise indeed in U.S. and World history.
This weekend, it wouldn’t hurt to put down or turn off the mowers, blowers, fireworks, Smart phones, TVs, and all the rest of our noisemakers and listen to the birds and waves while reading a few passages from that Declaration of Independence. For the right words can be explosive too.