I went into the Bose Outlet at the mall last week and tried on two pairs of noise-canceling headphones. One pair sat on my ears, and the other surrounded my ears like cups, like the fat headphones my uncle had with his hi-fidelity system and his reel-to-reel tape player when I was a child.
The headphones cancel noise by pressing silence against your ears like a mild headache, like a baby’s distant, persistent cry. Silence betrays the ears like the puff of air betrays the eyes at the end of a glaucoma test. In this way, silence violates the simple, noise-blocking understanding between headphones and ears that has existed at least since I listened to Train to the Farm on my parents’ Victrola as a child.
The Bose store walls seemed free of the instructions I have learned to depend on in recent years – instructions of the “do not pour this hot coffee directly onto your crotch” genre. I pictured myself using the headphones to keep myself calm while waiting for an important call or to protect myself against the piercing screams of an injured child.
But noise-canceling technology is an infant yet. The more expensive Bose pair (the on-my-ears ones) goes for $349 but masks mainly the low, hypnotic sounds that my mind filters out after a while anyway. It is ideal for someone who works around loud blowers or who frequents airplanes, or perhaps for someone who feels like a corpse when friends carry on comfortably within earshot. They laugh and snap ice cubes with soda water, and I staring at heaven with closed eyes in the next room? It’s not how I imagined my mourners when I was a child.
More than fifty people of all walks stood in bathing suits in 95-degree heat yesterday among eight rows of lockers. The $13-a-day large lockers modeled tolerance, mingling easily with the $10-a-day small lockers. I was slightly on edge because my first hour at Water Country USA was all assimilation, but Anheuser-Busch had anticipated this as well as all of the potential thoughts and actions of the other 20,526 (or so) guests. The park bathed us in ubiquitous music that reached my conscious mind only when I reached the teenage employee at the front of the locker line. The music seemed to assert itself there like my dentist’s novocaine asserts itself when I try to talk after leaving his office. The music was rock and blues and jazz and country stripped of lyrics and history and opinion and humanity and herded together into airless, stifling cattle cars. The music felt like a psychologist’s product after a lawyer’s vetting. It felt vaguely desperate, as if Anheuser-Busch knew that someone among us – someone it could not identify but would not close the park for – had a dangerous means of expressing a complaint or of ordering an Italian ice for his child.
But the music saved us guests from interaction and its attendant risks. I found that I could say, “excuse me” past a large, hairy, white stomach and it would remain part of the scenery, remain one line of a song on the everything-but-waterproof iPods we had rented our lockers for. I did not wonder if the stomach would respond to me, if it had rented a $13 locker or had paid for the prestige parking, if it visited its uncle’s farm as a child.
Modern devotional writers often make a distinction in the first chapter or two of their books between two kinds of silence. One kind of silence is like the necessary, between-rounds respite of the boxer’s corner. The other? Something inside us with her back to us. A child.
Posted August 12, 2007.