Quiet: Something Worth Shouting About

I’m often reminded of how I crave, or rather, need quiet.

Like when I rode my bike to work this past Friday. Rolling into the driveway of my workplace, two bearded guys in long-sleeve shirts, pants, and goggles greeted me with the revving of their twin leaf blowers. It was anything but quiet. This might not seem like a big deal – perhaps it isn’t – but those leaf blowers – the machines, not the captive laborers – robbed me of restorative experience.

Because I get to work at bit earlier than most of my colleagues, I enjoy the interval between parking my bike and heading to my office. I catch my breath, think happy thoughts, and go inside with a clear mind. Not on el dia de los leaf blowers.

Work isn’t the only place I’m assaulted with uninvited noise. Sounds of modernity have punctured other peaceful occasions. Most mornings I step outside to gauge the temperature and wind and check in on my bird and ground squirrel comrades. More often than not, planes fly  overhead and muddle the whole escapade. I wonder what the animals make of this foreign – though sadly, now familiar – thundering from above. The rumbling aircraft and grumbling leaf blowers take what is tranquil, mostly quiet and natural, and impose upon them the loud and droning mechanical.

Author, Michael B. Crawford recently recounted how companies are desperate to attract our attention whenever and however they can. He tells of a time he used a bank card to pay for groceries, and that in between swiping his card and entering his pin, he was shown advertisements. Crawford goes on to argue how our attention represents a “new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention.” Though mechanical noise isn’t about monetizing our “head space”, it relies on an older frontier of capitalism: that motorized, higher-tech, and faster is always better.

About a week ago I read in our local paper that residents contacted authorities to get a nearby restaurant to cease playing music outside – the noise was disturbing the peace. If you were to count the number of times your peace was disturbed while walking around downtown, how quickly would you lose count? Think of all the traffic, the in-store music you didn’t request, delivery trucks, things like that. What about all of the uninvited mechanical noises that invade where you live? All of the droning HVAC units, lawn mowers and weed wackers, chainsaws, and car traffic? The ambulances and firetrucks, the neighbors’ base-heavy sound system? Would it be easier to count the number of quiet times you savored in the past year?

Ah, quiet. My wife and I relish walking around our town on Sunday mornings. Why? There’s virtually no traffic, which means? You guessed it: it’s quiet. On Sunday mornings, walking is easier, more comfortable, peaceful even. Plus, at this time, almost no one is up mowing or – thankfully – leaf blowing.

A Sunday morning stroll
A Sunday morning stroll

These walks are similar to those fleeting moments when snow has just blanketed the ground and people don’t dare to drive. You know, when the capitalist machine takes a breather. Sunday mornings offer a glimpse at a quieter, softer past – they present us with an Illichian “rest” – a taste of a time worth cherishing and resurrecting.

So, how to resuscitate a more beautiful, quieter past? In our culture, there is the illusion of only two solutions: make use of (1) the state or (2) the market.

  • (1) That is, we could do as my friend’s neighbor proposed and request that our local government ban the use of leaf blowers (i.e., make use of the state); or
  • (2) we could purchase quiet (i.e., make use of the market). Two ways of purchasing quiet would be to do as the wealthy do and buy a place tucked high up in the hills, or to deploy monetary incentivizes to encourage businesses and people to be quiet.

But what about a third way? A way that hops off the see-saw of (1) state on the one end and (2) market on the other? What about a vernacular approach? When more of us do for ourselves and others – i.e., partake in the vernacular -, when we see the rake, or the bicycle, or the handsaw, or the scythe as “enough but no more”, we start reintroducing quiet and peacefulness into our lives. Now that’s something worth shouting about!

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