A few weeks ago when I wrote about the death of Pearl, my grandmother, I described a scene in 1934 where Grandpa came home in the middle of the night to his home on the farm outside Alpine.
"He went into a cold kitchen . . . and sat down in front of the coal stove to take off his boots. He sat there a full five minutes warming his hands, listening to the house crack and contract, the wind whip against the window, and the kids in the next room, now and then tossing and turning in the dark."When I imagined that scene, it came to me with a clarity so profound that it surprised me. Yet, I knew immediately why. It was because of the element of sound, or in this case, the lack of it.
Grandpa's house wasn't like the modern house of noises, but more like the cabins where I have stayed in the mountains from time to time, or the tents on outings, where the crackle of a campfire or the hiss of a Coleman lantern can sing to the night with a clarity undeterred by other distracting noises.
Grandpa's house that night was like houses had been for thousands of years. It is only recently, with the advent of electricity, engines and the like, that houses have taken on a life of their own, a life of breathings so subtle that we hardly ever notice them. Yet, to someone from a pre-electric age suddenly plopped down in a modern home, the noise would be intense and distracting.
Think for a moment of the sounds we seldom think about, yet which constantly surround us.
There is the furnace in the winter months, emitting a low rumble that actually vibrates the walls and floor joists. In the summer months, it has become the air conditioner or, horror of horrors, the whining fan of the swamp cooler.
The refrigerator kicks on and whirs above the furnace. The freezer joins in the duet with a tone just an octave lower than the fridge. In the kitchen, the fluorescent light above the bar buzzes. In the hall, the thermostat mutters. The television drones; the exhaust fan in the bathroom mumbles; the dishwasher throbs and the clothes dryer quivers. Outside, the sound of traffic is almost always there . . . if you listen for it. You may not hear it inside the house, but out on the porch there's a constant drone of cars, kids, construction equipment, horns, sirens and passing jets.
It's interesting to notice what happens when, in the middle of a thunderstorm, the power goes off. As all the systems kick off, you become aware of the sounds melting away and are left in the dark with a sudden, disquieting quiet, not unlike the quiet that always accompanied life before "power" came.
Could it be that a source of much of our cultural neurosis is due in part to the irritation we experience from a constant barrage of sound, so subtle but also so nagging that it strips our subconscious of any semblance of privacy?
I think of when I lived in the heart of Copenhagen, on a side street to Norrebrogade, one of the busiest arteries of the city. At night, I would lie in bed and listen to the sound of traffic, which continued throughout the night. There were also the street cars. You could hear them coming from far off, whining up to a high pitch between stops, then gradually slowing to the trolley stop about a half a block from our apartment. A few clangs of the bell and they were off again. I would listen to them for hours. Like calming waves on a seashore, they were the lonely moaning of a restless city. When I moved to Bagsvaerd, I missed the sounds of Norrebrogade.
Is it really possible that teenagers could miss the blare of a ghetto blaster? Could the supposedly mindless chatter of MTV be solace to a growing mind? Or a curse . . . another step in a continuing descent toward modern-a-mania?
I don't know.
I do know, however, that a break from the noise from time to time in a mountain cabin or a red rock canyon can act like an emotional balm.
Even so, after only a few days in paradise, I get restless for the rat race again. Might that restlessness really be a yearning for the thrum of my electric clock, buzzing effortlessly on the nightstand at home, where all the sounds of the house melt into a cacophony of quiet noise that sooths the very soul?