Omnipotent Acoustical Ugliness


by Jerome Grapel…….

I recently published an essay called “Music Revisited” where I included an excerpt from Milan Kundera’s renowned novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. In it, he spoke of an “omnipotent acoustical ugliness” that is conquering the world. Right on cue, a recent incident in my life engendered this further expansion into the subject.

Contemporary life is played out in front of an uproarious avalanche of noise almost all of us have become numb to. I say “almost” because I know of one person who is tortured by this. As for the rest of you … well, I’m still searching for some brothers and sisters in consciousness in order to wage this war.

For the last 30 years or so I’ve worked the same job, one that resides well within the frontiers of what could be called the working class. This is not a careless description of this part of the social lamination, for the jobs that fall into this category generally involve “work” — lifting, driving, lugging, banging, cleaning, painting, digging, schlepping … and so on. Given the educational level I’ve arrived to, as well as the social class I was sprung from, unlike most of my co-workers — who simply ended up here — my decision to do this kind of work was a conscious one. I dropped out. I signed on. The white collar world did not appeal to me.

Two days ago I fulfilled my debt to both myself and society by putting in the 10 hours of honest work I provide. It was a particularly difficult day, made so by a persistent rainfall that complicates such things. It began when I was ambushed going to work on my bike and continued for the whole day in varying degrees of sogginess that could not be avoided. It was a pain in the ass. But hey! I’m not complaining. All this comes with the territory, a territory I willingly entered into. I did my time, I provided a useful service to my fellow man and I made some good money. I’d earned my right to go home and relax.

About 2 hours before I got home, the rain had finally stopped, enough so that my next door neighbor’s gardener was busy trimming and shaping her anally maintained bushes when I arrived. My neighbor is a nice elderly lady who I get along with well, and she keeps her house in splendid shape. I mean, dude, her bushes are primo. Unfortunately, in order to concoct this sculptured quality, the gardener uses one of those power trimmers that sounds like an airplane taxiing down a runway. This is common practice for your average gardener.

So here I am, I’m finally home after a particularly tough day of real “work”. I’m tired and still a bit soggy, but content in the fact that I sustain myself in such a useful, non-parasitic way. I, like many people, like to chill for awhile after work, and I have a nice porch to do it on. Maybe a cold drink, a bite to eat … let’s watch the world go by. Nice … especially when there’s not an airplane engine-like noise blasting away just 10 yards from me. Five minutes? Ten minutes? Get real. This goes on for almost an hour. There is no place to go. There is no place to hide. Chill out after work? I am fu—d.

When one lives in a complex, technologically advanced, massified society, the idea of having a completely harmonious acoustical environment to live in becomes a task beyond practicality. When the garbage man comes clattering down your street at 4 in the morning, sure, it’s an annoyance, but we all understand this is an essential task of survival we must make peace with. There are many other examples of this, from the airplane noise overhead to the street workers repairing our roads or the 18 wheelers rumbling through our lives bringing us the goods we clamor for. The consumer life style is a noisy life style, one whose rewards are constantly being questioned against its nefarious consequences by this writer. But shouldn’t this unavoidable noise overdose make us seek solutions to minimize this constant audio onslaught? Or are we on our way to becoming desensitized zombies?

If we have the proper consciousness and we want to reduce this aggressive din we live in, I ask this question: is that horrendous bush trimming noise necessary? Can we accommodate this task with a reasonable noise reduction solution?

I did some research. The industrial type of trimmer used by your average gardener costs around $300. He or she will probably use such a device for years … maybe many years … maybe forever, who knows? Now, let’s say certain jurisdictions have passed laws rejecting machines with a decibel level of such and such, and both the manufacturer and those who use such equipment are forced to come up with a muffled version. What would this mean for the gardening entrepreneur and the consumer of their product? (I do believe this has already happened in certain pishy-poshy areas where almost none of the Kardashian-like home owners maintain their palatial grounds by themselves. This created a situation where the cacophony from such gardening machines had become almost constant. But this is still an extremely minority practice).

Obviously, the cost to the entrepreneur could be passed on to the client. But remember, this consumer is a home owner who can afford to pay someone for the yard work that is not part of their life style description. This consumer has money, not just money, but MONEY. The extra expense ($25?, $50?) could easily be absorbed by this kind of customer, or, at the very least, the market is available for those not happy with the bump in price.

But is such a cost transferal necessary? Would the gardening entrepreneur be so stressed by such an increase in his or her overhead that their business would be in jeopardy?

Here is where my research got a bit fuzzier. Those I asked were not sure as to what the extra cost to the manufacturer would be if they had to muffle their product. As a result, I’ll offer the following and accept any further information or re-boot anyone might offer.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached a level of technological sophistication where you can touch a screen on a small hand held device and send pictures of your genitals instantly around the world. We’ve developed bombs that are smarter than us. Surely, a muffling device on a bush trimming machine is not beyond the economic possibilities of such technological acumen. If this means the gardening entrepreneur will have to spend $50 or $100 more for a machine that will be used for years to come, I don’t see how this destroys his or her business model. I don’t see why I have to come home from a hard day’s work and be subjected to a constant, long term, excruciating dose of audio hell just so somebody’s bushes can have the exact geometric shape deemed necessary for someone’s definition of happiness.

These thoughts can be applied to any number of noise creation situations that, unlike the garbage man, do not have to exist. There is a guy who rides by my house with some degree of regularity on a bicycle. In his bike basket is a small device no bigger than a Rubik’s Cube. I’m not sure as to the versatility of this apparatus, but I do know it can play music. I can hear this man coming from 2 to 3 blocks away. By the time he reaches my house, the volume is such that it could fill — and I’m not exaggerating here — an NBA arena.

My anger here is not directed at the emotionally adolescent fool who so childishly needs to project himself in this way. I feel more pity than anger for him. My anger is directed at a society that, 1) would actually manufacture such a destructive device for personal use, and, even more so, 2) at a society that will actually accept this behavior, that will let this adolescence invade the privacy of so many people unnecessarily. Can a society that does not censor this still be considered in its right mind?

My purpose in writing this essay is not to be anecdotal about the noise we so dumbfoundedly live with. I’m not here to tell you about the intentionally made motorcycle roar that is so loud it actually hurts, other than to say this: I live in a county where the Sheriff’s Department uses a BMW model motorcycle that is a mechanical Picasso. It smoothly goes from 0 to whatever in about the same time it takes to turn a crisp double play. It is a joy to watch these vehicles perform mainly because they make almost NO NOISE! I’m not here to talk about the tens of thousands of automobiles that have been turned into mobile music venues that can be heard thumping away from as much as a ¼ mile, other than to say this: I spent a substantial part of my life listening to music in a car. Other than someone inside the vehicle or standing right next to it, nobody ever heard that music. My purpose in writing this essay is to address the universal carpet bombing of noise we seem to accept like lemmings being led off a cliff. I ask you — in light of this “omnipotent acoustical ugliness”, shouldn’t we at least be trying to deal with these most egregious audio transgressions, the ones that are easily controlled?

I’d like to finish with the following anecdote: a number of years ago a friend of mine was presented with 2 well situated tickets to a pro football game. He asked if I’d like to go and I thought, sure, why not? The last time I’d been to a pro football game was long before the digital age. I vaguely remember Roman Gabriel (what a great name) being one of the quarterbacks. As for this latest experience, my most lasting memory was the unending, merciless electronic audio-visual assault my organism was subjected to. It seems the football entrepreneur does not trust his sport to be enough of an entertainment vessel for a consumer he treats as if it had the emotional maturity of a 12 year old (he’s probably right). This means no down time. This means no stop in a sensorial barrage that must keep their attention at all times.

Somewhere in the third quarter, the stadium’s sound system malfunctioned and for a brief heavenly parenthesis the electronic Normandy invasion fell silent. I feel safe in saying it wasn’t just me. You could almost feel a kind of universal relief wafting up through the grandstand. It felt good. It was like returning to a paved road after clunking along on a bumpy dirt road for hours.

Within a minute or so the glitch had been repaired and we were returned to the idiotic state we now call “normal”.

I’m not sure what kind of research modern science has done on this subject or what kind of results, if any, it has arrived to. This is not something you can quantify with exactitude. But I sometimes get the feeling our culture is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In spite of this latest explosion of technology, a technology that has saturated us with more and more electronic-mechanical noise that is capable of reaching anyone in any place at any time, can we honestly say we live in a more harmonious, fulfilled way than before (pick a “before”, any “before”)? Look at the low brow hysteria that has taken over our socio-political discourse. One can blame it on one man (do I need to say his name?), but for such a man to appear and rise to prominence the ground had to be prepared for it. We’ve been continually sinking to this latest level of intellectual decay for a generation or more now. How low can we go before the whole thing begins to crumble?

Is this “omnipotent acoustical ugliness” a result of this decay, or a catalyst for it? I’d say it’s a little of both.


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7 thoughts on “Omnipotent Acoustical Ugliness

  1. I feel your pain Mr. Grapel. Being a born and bred Los Angeleno (and more than familiar with Roman Gabriel when he was with the Rams), I have become desensitized to most of the crass noise of modern living. However, the one noise that I cannot endure is that of loud motorcycles. A good deep rumble from a powerful engine (like my Mustang GT) is a sound of harmonious glee. The sound emanating from those monstrosities is simply ear splitting discordance. It seems every time we are eating at Caroline’s we are treated to the fumes and sounds of these macho men and their toys as they each try to “out rev” each other to impress god knows who.

  2. Anoter thought-provoking essay, Jerome. Thanks.

    I use a leaf-blower every morning at 9 AM for ~ 7 minutes (my giant sapodilla). I listen to an occasional half-hour of woodworking noise from a creative neighbor. Construction noise is a couple of months/year. Thursday morning widespread leaf-blowing is weekly. We live in the flight path, and automatically stop talking for ten seconds when a plane passes over.

    Thw worst was when I was a snow bird in the early ‘oughts. Paying $4k/month on Margaret, we were cursed with a system of central A/C compressors where everyone put his own compressor far from his own bedroom–and right next to his neighbor’s! Even on temperate nights, everyone had to seal themselves up with their A/C for noise concerns alone.

    And electrical generators after hurricanes have ruined neighborly friendships….

    I dunno, Jerome. At some point we move to Big Pine Key, or, in your case, have your cold drink at the bar down the street until the trimming stops. Yes, some regulations have been successful in reducing noise. But when I see what FDOT does to us, I fear having the gummint step in with staggering incompetence.

    I look forward to reading your response. Please send a copy to me via email.

  3. Jerome,

    Love your article. Great piece…Have I got some stories to tell you…

    There ‘s a lot of research on the destructiveness of noise. I’ll look to get hold of them and forward to you.

    New Year’s Eve, July 4th; along with all the every present audio assaults as I ride my back along US 1, can get a little tough. However, I was able to ride my bicycle for a lengthy distance today with the Wounded Warrior Cyclists.

    Again, fantastic column, thank you…

  4. It’s nice to know someone remembers Roman Gabriel. I’d like to thank everyone for their comments. I’ve also received quite a few more from outside the Blue Paper commentary space, and it is very heartening to know there are other people who feel my pain and understand the concept. In fact, I’m willing to believe we are the latest form of “silent majority”, and maybe someday this can become a movement. My purpose, as stated in the piece, is not to be anecdotal, music, motorcycles, etc., but to make us all realize we are living in an acoustical environment that is an integral health problem. However, I’ll get anecdotal by adding on something from the Harley trip. The latest madness here comes in the form of music. These children in middle aged, pot bellied bodies, have decided that in order for them to be the coolest dudes around, we must hear the 40 year old rock and roll they listen to … over the incredible din of their motorcycles! The effect is horrifying. Thanks again, I so appreciate everyone’s input, Jerome (PCM)

  5. Hey Jerome,

    Good essay. However, I always thought that phrase was an example of inferior translation. I suspect he meant “omnipresent” rather than “omnipotent.”

    I feel there are at least three vectors of this annoyance: narcissism as in the boom boxes – decency deprivation as in why should I care if my weed wacker bothers you – and the distraction matrix whereby the Malignant Overlords drown an airport concourse in ceaseless noise and telemetric nothingness.

    Fortunately, the sea gypsy life in the Archipelago of Bliss avoids almost all of this. I celebrate this silence and serenity almost every evening.

    Enjoy the First World!!!

    Ray Jason

  6. Ray, Great to hear from you. I’m not sure “omnipresent” and “omnipotent” are much different with regard to this subject. But your point is well taken. Ray, let me show you how bad this has gotten. Nowadays, every I-Phone (which everyone has) is also a place to store music. In other words, what we used to listen to only in our homes with our collections of music, can now go ANYWHERE! And these small hand held devices are even more powerful than our stereo sets used to be. They can really be cranked up. Forget gun control … how about music control? ciao, Jerome

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