This post was my third guest blog for the Jewish Book Council and appeared on The Forward.
One of the upshots of all the reading and thinking I did for "Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime," was that I ended up doing a lot of thinking about something I'd never thought that much about before — silence and its power.
It never used to be like this. I wasn't always on a quest for quiet. An only child, I yearned for noise, for hustle and bustle, a busy house with lots of people and their comings and goings. Who the hell needed quiet? Quiet was boring, unnerving, depressing, threatening even. A void to be filled. So, on went the TV the second I came home, the radio in the kitchen, a favourite tape, anything, as long as there was noise. Anyway, how could you do homework with no music? I had a friend at elementary school, who came from an odd family. They were odd as they had no TV. I remember thinking. What do they do for noise? It must be terrible, all that quiet. (Ironically, we are bringing up five children without a TV, but that's a tale for another day.)
It seems I wasn't alone. The world is full of intentional background noise: TVs no one is really watching, radios no one is really listening to, and why? Just to break the silence, that's why. Silence can be scary, sometimes lonely, and it forces us to turn inward and gives us space to think. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes not.
I'm not sure when exactly this craving for noise became a craving for silence but one day there it was. At some point I realized I could no longer remember the last time I'd turned the radio on at home, or while driving. Silence no longer bothered, noise did. With me, it was mainly a writer thing. "How do you expect me to listen to those voices in my head with all that racket?" So, that's what they mean by "I can't hear myself think!" I started noticing how much more relaxed I was when things were quiet. I started noticing that quiet brought with it feelings of serenity, peace and relaxation.
All well and good, at home where you can turn the TV, radio or your iPod on or off as the fancy takes you, but it's another thing in the public sphere. No one thinks it unreasonable. We've recognized the right not to have cigarette smoke blown into our faces. There are laws against that, so why does the commercial world seem to think it has every right to indulge in acoustic abuse. They just don't let up, do they? It's that insidious worm — Muzak. It's everywhere. Shops, the mall, pool changing rooms restaurants and cafes.
At first, I just suffered without a word. I didn't like to ask. British reserve and embarrassment, I guess. I mean, isn't it grumpy old crankies who don't want the music on? Music is cool. Not so cool to want it off. There are times I'd like to do the writer with laptop in café thing but so far every local café has told me they're not allowed to turn off the music, even if you're the only customer. "Company policy," they tell me. "We can turn it down but we can't turn it off. Sorry."
One waitress confessed, "I'd love to turn it off but if management found out I'll be in trouble." The pool is the only Muzak free zone I can think of, but I'll pass on taking my laptop for a swim. Perhaps, one day, I'll start a campaign for freedom from forced music in public places but until then me and my laptop stay home.
As I finish writing this, it's almost time to start my Shabbat cooking. I'll be listening to "Shabbat" by The Family Wach while I chop, slice and stir. Here's a taste.
Did I say I didn't like music? Oh no. There's a time for everything.
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