Monday, February 28, 2011

The Quiet of the Future

[Note: the grandchildren referenced in the following story are unlikely to be mine. Perhaps they will be yours?]

Grandchildren, clamoring for a story? How strange. I would that we had clamored for the same. The advice we got from our grandparents might have been better than anything I can provide for you.

Still. I think I'll begin with the roaring in the ears. With the sound that was everywhere, inescapable, whether you had asked to hear it, or not.

Just another one of those things which are kind of amazing to think about, now.

Sure, many of us chose to listen to music. Or noise. Video games, movies. We had speakers in our homes, our cars, our businesses, and our pockets. If what we were listening to was not what our neighbors or roommates wanted to listen to, we had headphones--personalized speakers that we strapped on to the sides of our heads. And then later on, these were not loud enough for us. If we turned them up loud enough to satisfy, the people around us could still hear.

We were always trying to get away from each other, those days.

So we made the speakers smaller and stuffed them up into our ear-canals, so we could have it roaring loud and personal, just for ourselves. And these little ear-canal speakers were cheap. We could buy a pair for around ten dollars, which most of us could earn in an hour or two, working even the most menial of jobs.

But putting the music aside for a second, consider what the rest of the world sounded like, in America, at the turn of the century. We had a little house that had stood for 300 years. It was built along a main highway, in its day. Its timbers were hewn and raised to the sound of foot-falls and horse-hooves. But when it finally crumbled it was to the whisper of electric cars, the constant rumble of gas burning engines, the throaty growl of diesel trucks. It was a loud place to live. When the traffic backed up out front, it was like a pride of lions purring, all at once. When the traffic flowed smoothly, conversations would have to stop and resume to the whim of the vehicles flying past, vehicles that moved more miles in an hour than you or I could ride in a single day.

Most of us didn't live so close to major roads, of course. But the highways were everywhere. The most remote and isolated of us would still hear them, like a constant, distant sigh. I remember hiking in the mountains, once, and descending after a long day's walk into the crater occupied by an alpine lake. I think the hours we sat there were the only hours in my life where I could not hear any traffic. A single jet passed overhead, trailing it's contrail, too high up even to be heard.

That kind of silence was a treat, a symphony. I remember thinking, a person could become a connoisseur of such silences. The silence of the mountains, the silence of the desert, the silence of the forest. That kind of silence was precious and rare.

What a shock it was, then, when the oil ran out and the engines stopped running, and today’s silence descended, gradually, everywhere. What a surprise to hear it every day, and not even have to travel for it. But it was a cruel consolation, given the hardships we faced.

I say gradual, of course, because the gunfire went on for a bit after the cars stopped. But that was sporadic and eventually it, too, would cease—to make room for quieter violence.

How strange this must sound to you, with your carefully preserved, hand-cranked record players, as you dance at the hall to music my grandparents danced to. Anything as loud as a car or a plane is an alarm, a surprise. And music, music is a treat. There are no digital recordings of the best singers to ever sing—or rather there are, but we haven’t the machines to play them. Pianos only as good as the people who play them, guitars only sing at the hands of their players.

For the most part, that’s enough. I understand our county has a symphony again. Over eighty musicians, playing at once, well practiced and in tune. If you can afford to hear them, do. I doubt you will ever forget it.

And to think, for a hundred years there, we could listen to that sound any time we wanted to. We could turn it up and play it again and again, until we went deaf from it. Even now, I wish that I had listened to more.

But you will forgive an old man his regrets, I hope.

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