What is so rare as a day in June or let’s say May? Not much in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, unless it’s the quiet of a small mountaintop over-looking Lake Superior. There, the only sounds on a day in May were the crunch of footsteps on fallen leaves, a whoosh of breeze, an occasional call of a robin or crow, and the snuffle of several friendly dogs. The views were spectacular, not just across the bald mountain top toward the coast (it turns out) of Michigan’s upper peninsula, but also within the maple/spruce forest itself where dells and hills defined the “lay of the land” with no brush yet in leaf to impede the sight. There you could see how the mountain had laid itself down to rest, with all the curves of a warm, breathing body.

Not every place I love is necessarily quiet, but such places rank high on the scale of pleasure. “I want to hear myself think,” my mother used to complain after spending a day with my father’s richly varied but constant Italian voice. Some peoples are by habit, temperament, or culture louder. Minnesotans tend to be quiet-spoken people. Rarely does a neighbor raise a voice to call across the street or shout out a window. But two days ago I discovered a frightening exception: decibel levels at Ganglelhoff Auditorium on the campus of Concordia College.

We attended a women’s basketball game – the Minnesota Lynx playing some traveling competitor. I’d never been inside Gangelhoff before, though I’ve passed it countless times since Concordia lies within an easy stroll of my house. The basketball courts and stands are not a huge space, more like a large living room than a field of dreams. The sound system was turned up so loud that low booms ricocheted like a souped-up ghetto blasters. But unlike cars blasting loud music, which at least pass rather fast, we were stuck inside this blaster, as were large groups of school children and teens.

The amplification of this music also picked up the shrill whistles of referees, and the grating voices of announcers. Within a few minutes, I was pressing my thumbs against my ears. Surely this will cease once the game begins, I thought. How can players pay attention when their entire beings are bound over to this booming, shrilling, nauseating noise? Wrong! The PA system went dead for a blessed interval, then roared again. A few seats below us, other older people began covering their ears. One woman looked around and saw me grimacing and bending down as I clamped my fingers and hands over my ears. She nodded and smiled and made a not-quite obscene gesture to the rafters–meaning we should do something damaging to these sounds.

The game started. The music kept up its din, shut off only briefly as the players sped up and down the court. Finally still in the first quarter of the game, my husband and I got up and left. The sound, intense, insistent, and very loud, was unendurable, painful, obnoxious. Note: noise and nausea have the same root.

I’ve read that generations of Americans born after around 1970 have significantly reduced auditory sensitivity. Now I see why: they are pounded from birth by TVs, restaurant music, boom boxes, movies and now computer sound systems which are often so loud as to damage their hearing. If we worry about the U.S. Navy’s sonar experiments affecting (even killing) whales in the oceans, we should also be worrying about our daily bombardment of our children with noise. It may not kill them, but it will derange them in significant ways. Here are the health consequences reported as the result of constant noise pressure: psychological annoyance and aggression. Physiological: hypertension (read high blood pressure), tinnitus (ringing in the ears), hearing loss, sleep disturbance.

The quietest sound a human can hear is a mosquito flying 3 meters away–that’s reported in Wikipedia by British researchers. If a meter is roughly the length of an adult arm, that’s quite a ways to hear a mosquito whine. That’s auditory sensitivity of the highest order. I’m not sure I have it, but I do know I treasure my ability to hear small sounds–my cats, breathing deeply in dreams from the end of my bed–I can hear them. The hum of this computer–I can hear it. The sparrows chirping outside the closed window (it’s still May in chilly Minnesota), I can hear them. I want to keep it that way. I’m surely not going to trade such daily pleasures that help orient me to my world for more than a few minutes of “sound attack” at the Gangelhoff!

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