Quiet! I can’t hear myself think

Many years ago, I met a man who had gone to live on an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine. He had no electricity, no car (he got around on foot or by kayak) and few creature comforts.

The reason for his retreat was very simple. He just couldn’t stand the noise of modern life. He found electric-motor noise, in particular, intolerable.

I’ve thought about this man off and on over the years and wondered how he made out. Did he stay on his island—and did the island stay quiet? Maybe power boats or neighbors with boom boxes followed him there.

We live in a noisy world and it’s not easy to escape the clamor. Traffic noise is a biggie, depending on where you live, and so is electronic noise. It’s hard to find a medical waiting room, restaurant or retail store that doesn’t have a radio or TV blaring in the background—both, in the case of my dentist. I was there last week, trying to read while waiting for the hygienist as the radio played from a speaker over my left shoulder and the talking heads on CNN held forth across the room.

I’m not as extreme as the guy who moved to Maine, but I am probably more sensitive to noise than some. My husband, for example, doesn’t mind it. He likes keeping the TV on pretty much all the time, almost as a kind of white noise. I only turn it on if I’m actually watching something and even then, I mute the commercials. I hate being shouted at by an inanimate object.

Likewise, I find it distressing to converse with folks who TALK REALLY LOUDLY, as people sometimes do when they’re excited.

I wasn’t always like this. I grew up in the generation that played rock music—loud—while we did our homework and talked on the phone. The noise didn’t bother me then. Is it an age thing? Someone told me that as we get older, it becomes harder to filter out the ambient noise in the environment. That’s why it’s hard to hear what your dinner companions are saying above the din from the other tables in a crowded restaurant.

But maybe it’s not me; maybe it’s the world. Not long ago I had reason to go to urgent care. It was a Sunday and there was just one other person there and no one at all on the side of the cavernous waiting room dedicated to the lab and X-ray department. Nevertheless, their TV set was blaring.

The other patient and I agreed that the sound was a nuisance, so I went over and turned it off. Five minutes later, the receptionist for the laboratory returned from a back room, took her seat at the desk and picked up the remote. Click, the TV was back on.

Since a deserted island isn’t an option, maybe I should spend more time at the library. Do they still require silence in the reading room?

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