Paul Simon was on to something all those years ago. Every time I hear his 1965 song “The Sound of Silence” the lyrics still touch me with their poetic and magical eloquence: “When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, that split the night, and touched the sound of silence.” More than fifty-six years later I find I’m craving silence more than ever. I was reminded of that recently in my own backyard when for three consecutive Saturday afternoons a neighbour chose to share his backyard music with the entire neighbourhood. It was loud enough to be a severe annoyance with the constant thump-thump-thump of the bass beat, but not loud enough that I could actually make out the music. It could be heard a block away.
I attributed my neighbour’s bad manners to an inconsiderate visiting son or grandson as we live in a community of grouchy old retirees like ourselves who would never do anything to disturb the neighbours. And, don’t most people listen to their music on earbuds these days? I was tempted to put an anonymous note in their mailbox enclosing a cheap set of Air Canada earphones, but then the noise stopped so perhaps another neighbour beat me to it. I even worry when a friend laughs too loudly while we’re enjoying conversation over a lovely glass of wine in our backyard. We don’t want to disturb anyone.
Boomers were probably the first generation guilty of blasting their music to the immediate world whether they wanted to hear it or not. As soon as we could afford it, we started amping up our stereo systems to get maximum decibel output from the Stones, The Beatles, CCR, and later on, ABBA and Rod Stewart. We invented boom boxes. I’m embarrassed now when I think of how inconsiderate I was of people who lived in the apartment adjoining mine in the seventies.
Noise pollution has become a problem we’re far too content to accept and live with. Anyone who has ever lived downtown in any city knows that the constant noise of traffic, sirens, and trucks backing up is an unrelenting curse. It’s impossible to sleep with the windows open at night and if you live in a high-rise, it’s impossible to enjoy a peaceful sit on your balcony because of the pollution and roar of traffic below. We once had the good fortune to live in a condominium overlooking a cemetery which was the only time apartment living was reasonably quiet.
Earlier this year, when my father was in hospice in a small village east of Toronto, I was made aware of the prevalence of noise pollution even in a small farming community. One cold February day I stepped outside to get some fresh air on the porch of the hospice. It was so peaceful and quiet . . . until, along the highway came a single car, its tire noise rudely breaking the sound of silence like the flash of a neon light, that split the night. I was amazed at how much noise just one vehicle could make. The noise that day came not from the car engine but from the sound of the tires on the road. Imagine that multiplied thousands of times on multi-lane highways and city streets.
That one isolated incident reminded me of how immune we’ve become to the constant intrusion of noise pollution in our everyday lives. And we just accept it. I know motorcycle drivers get a massive hard-on from the sound of their barking engines, but it really should be illegal and not be allowed. The beeping from trucks backing up has probably saved numerous lives, but do they have to be so loud? If you live near an airport and have the misfortune to be on the designated flight path for landing and departing flights over your neighbourhood, well, you learn to live with the disruption every ninety seconds.
If you know someone who is a physicist or industrial engineer, see if you can get them to invent a quiet leaf-blower. The entire world would call them a hero and endow them with endless royalty cheques for saving our sanity. Lawnmowers, blow-dryers, snow-blowers, power washers—so many gadgets (operated, for the most part by men) can surely be designed to operate without inducing ear pain that rattles my fillings. Motor noise and tires on pavement—is it that complicated to re-engineer asphalt mixes to reduce road noise, or redesign tires?
There are advantages to hearing loss. When I’m somewhere where the noise levels become too onerous I simply remove my hearing aids. It helps and relieves the discomfort, but when I’m in a restaurant where the piped-in music competes with noise from other tables and overrides my ability to hear conversations at my own table, I’m forced to tune out and that’s not a good thing.
Who would have thought a hundred years ago that there would be people today who pay good money for machines that generate “white noise”? They generate bland noise designed to distract from and drown out other sounds. That is insane. The ceiling fans in my house have operated silently for several years now. Why can’t other machines, equipment, and gas/electrical devices do the same? Calling all engineers, inventors, and anyone else who can solve this problem. I’m not going to live much longer and I would like some peace and quiet in the meantime. Can you hear me?