Letter from the Lake. What better place to indulge in some summer reading than at the edge of a spring fed lake in Northeastern Pennsylvania, still 150 miles or so from the bustle of New Jersey, and at least 15 miles (hopefully) from the potential boom of the burgeoning fracking industry?
And what better book to read than “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want — a Book about Noise?”
Yes, here I am at the edge of Wrighter Lake in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, with a gleaming new cottage to replace the family cottage built back in 1962, enjoying the sights and sounds of the eclectic and entertaining natural environment, from cat birds to a few feral cats, from kingfishers to hopeful fishermen, from bears loping across country roads to Baltimore Orioles, which are not in contention for anything in any league.
And as I absorb those pleasant sounds, what else do I contend with? The usual sounds of the Suburban Symphony in E minor: lawn mowers, radios, barking dogs, and car alarms, in addition to the operatic wailings of ATVs and jet skis.
In short, a sweet subject to ponder on a warm summer day. But as I dig into this book by Garret Keizer, a former priest and teacher who has also written “The Enigma of Anger,” “Privacy,” and (coming out this week) “Getting Schooled — The Reeducation of an American Teacher,” I realize the moment is even sweeter. Keizer writes that he has had a “keen awareness” of noise ever since he was a kid and his father would admonish the family to not slam the car doors when they came home late at night, lest they disturb the neighbors and deprive them of the sleep that was due to any working man.
In my house in cheek-by-jowl downtown Princeton, separated by a 10-foot common driveway from the neighbors, my advice to my two boys has been virtually the same: Whenever we get home, cut the idle chatter between the car and the house. And if you get a ride home from one of your teenage buddies, keep the car out of the driveway altogether — a true devil’s interval is the noise of teenagers saying good night to each other at the end of an adventurous night.
And the source of this book about unwanted sound? A Christmas gift from one of my sons, who noted my concern about unwanted noise when he presented it. Wow, I thought, the kids must have been listening to at least one of my many lectures.
Keizer’s book is both entertaining and exhaustive (24 pages of the 384-page book are devoted to the bibliography; judging from the author’s credits he interviewed some 86 people in his research). And it is refreshingly candid. Rather than indulging in a knee jerk reaction to any sound he finds disconcerting, Keizer acknowledges the discordant complications of his subject.
Compared to dramatic social causes such as climate change, famine, and war, noise is a weak issue, Keizer writes, but it’s also a weak issue “because most of those it affects are perceived, and very often dismissed, as weak. The ones who dismiss them, in addition to being powerful, are often the ones making the noise.”
As Keizer makes clear throughout his book, the economically disadvantaged are the first to feel the onslaught of noise: workers on the factory floor, soldiers in combat or the firing range, and staff (and patients) in some hospitals, among many other examples. Even the noise that we endure in the United States (a county that experienced a boom in ambient noise at about the same time as the baby boom unfolded) is a whisper compared to the noise inflicted upon developing countries. One of the major differences: We in the U.S. adopt the best and the most efficient machinery and soundproofing; developing countries are often stuck with our cast-offs, including many squeaky wheels desperately needing grease.
Keizer has the courage to use his own case as an example of the hypocrisy that can be demonstrated by noise complainers: He interviews advocates for quieter national parks, whose list of offending noise sources include jets flying overhead — exactly how the author arrived in town the day before.
Up at Wrighter Lake I contemplate the sources of unwanted noise only after having zoomed past countless rural homes at 65 miles per hour to reach the place.
And if the manmade noise outside the cottage begins to overwhelm the singing of birds and splashing of fish snapping flies off the surface of the lake, then I can retreat to the monastic quiet of the new cottage itself. The structure replaces a cottage built in 1962, with louvered doors that never quite closed fully, and a single pane picture window that seemed practically porous to sound. I bought it from my parents in the 1980s for $30,000. That amount is roughly what I spent just for the windows and skylights in the new place. I have been fortunate enough to buy a little peace and quiet.
Sounds that register the same decibel reading on the meter may not be equally irritating. Keizer notes the irony of the phrase “making noise.” Some kids may make a lot of noise playing in the water, but eventually they will get tired or hungry or bored and do something else. Most noises that offend are not really “made” by a human being at all, but are rather flipped on by a switch or the pull of a cord. “The verb ‘crank’ grossly exaggerates the physical motion required,” Keizer writes.
Even sounds not generated by any human hand can have different levels of subjective annoyance. Keizer notes that many people buy a family dog the same way they buy a television set, and that either one can be a source of irritation to the neighbor. But, he notes wryly, “the only difference between the dog and a TV is that people usually turn a TV off before they leave the house. That, and the rarity with which an abandoned TV becomes frantic or depressed.”
A world of less noise is not necessarily better. Keizer acknowledges (but does not totally agree with) bikers at a Hell’s Angel rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, who argue that noisy exhausts save lives because they warn cars and trucks of the motorcyclist’s presence.
At Wrighter Lake we have made some progress on the noise front thanks to people who now motor around the lake in golf carts instead of ATVs. But the quiet golf carts can surprise pedestrians as they come around blind corners of narrow lanes flanked by wild blueberry and raspberry bushes. Similarly, even the most powerful boat engines operating today on the lake all seem much quieter than the old 75 horse Johnson outboard I used to “crank” up years ago. But the wakes generated by the boats seem bigger than ever. One of the lake rules now states that “no-wake” speed must be observed within 100 feet of the shore and docks.
Keizer’s book deals with unwanted sound as “a complex phenomenon that reveals our complexity as human beings.” But he also knows that noise is a personal issue. In a postscript he offers “Practical Considerations for Noise Disputes,” including strategies for those suffering from noise and other strategies for those likely to be making noise.
Among his best advice: “To stand and fight a noise is a braver course than to cut and run,” but “especially in cases of noise that will last only for a limited duration (graduation parties, civic celebrations, etc.), consider the possibility of getting away.”
And the converse: “Inviting people to a noisy celebration often makes it more tolerable to them — even if they decide not to come.”
As an occasional combatant on either side of the noise issue, I read Keizer’s common sense strategies and wince: Why hadn’t I thought things through before I embarked on any number of noise battles with neighbors?
At the next lake association meeting, I could stand up and read some of Keizer’s strategies in a loud and clear voice. Everyone would hear me, I am sure. The unanswered question would be whether anyone would do as my teenage sons did several years ago, and actually listen to me. But in such a noisy world, who can be expected to listen?