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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The elusive allure of silence

    “”I just want some peace and quiet.”” It’s the oldest plea in the world, and, to many of us, the most readily understandable one. It’s also the most easily frustrated one.

    Apart from the basic human necessities -ÿfood, sleep, oxygen – is there anything we desire more ferociously than peace and quiet? It certainly exceeds in intensity the much more familiar desire for money. And the more intensely you want it, the more maddeningly elusive it seems.

    As I discovered recently, it’s almost impossible to find a quiet place in town. Despite their association with escapism and relief, bars don’t offer any sort of respite from the world; they offer a deafening plunge into it, with a blaring soundtrack of whatever dreadful radio station the owner prefers to all the other dreadful radio stations. Restaurants are the same; anyone who wants to spend their lunch hour reading a book might as well go sit under a tree -ÿexcept that the tree probably sits in the middle of a parking lot next to a building that’s being torn up, with a car alarm going off across the street.

    In the movies, characters who want to read go to coffeeshops. They might seem quiet next to the nonstop racket of other public places, but fictional coffeeshops generally aren’t stocked with people holding conversations at the top of their lungs, the way the real ones are. Nor do they include those touching scenes when a girl who hasn’t seen her friends since yesterday, spies them across the room and greets them with an ear-splitting shriek. Nor do they include the sound of smacking gum – the loudest quiet sound it’s possible to make.

    Sure, you can turn your headphones on – but headphones just make noise, they don’t eliminate noise. What option remains for us who just want to be reminded what the absence of noise sounds like?

    Oddly, I’ve found that buses tend to be the quietest public places around. I’ve gotten more reading done on seven-minute bus rides than I have in all the restaurants in the country. But becoming one of those people who rides the bus all day seems like a high price to pay for getting a little peace and quiet. Besides, they’re not immune from the odious effects of the single worst invention of the modern age.

    H.L. Mencken once said that the only invention in human history that had brought any real benefit to humankind was the thermostat. Which raises the question: what invention has most blighted our lives? Some would opt for poison gas, while others might mention the atomic bomb. My vote goes to the cellular phone. Not because it’s going to eventually strike us down with cancer, but because it’s done more than any other invention to make it impossible for us to get any peace and quiet. Ever.

    Phone conversations used to be a fairly private matter; we’d even get embarrassed if people phoned us during dinner. Now people walk around sharing their conversations with the world. I was sitting outside my favorite coffeeshop on a recent day off, trying to read “”Moby-Dick.”” A guy walked outside and stood next to my table and proceeded to hold a long, droning conversation about his job. No one else was around; there were nine empty tables in the vicinity; resolutely, as if he feared I’d get lonely, he stood a foot away from me and talked. If I’d had a harpoon handy, I would’ve given him a grateful jab.

    Nor does home provide much of a respite. For one thing, home is generally a noisy place, what with the ominous-sounding growl of the air conditioning and the sinister drone of the refrigerator. (We can invent a cell phone that plays your favorite television shows, but we can’t invent a fridge that doesn’t drone.)

    If you live in an apartment, you’re liable to be subjected to your neighbors’ favorite records, or their kids’ piano lessons. And perhaps it’s different in towns not fortunate enough to have their own Air Force base, but I hear the deafening roar of a jet more frequently than my landlady’s voice.

    Suppose you’re fortunate enough to live in a quiet, secluded neighborhood. Suppose you have sound-proof windows and walls installed in your house. Suppose you turn off all your appliances and sit in the dark. What would that feel like?

    Truth be told, it’d get a little boring. That’s the problem with the world: once you’ve figured out the solution to your problem, they change the problem.

    -ÿJustyn Dillingham is the opinions editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at

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