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The Sounds Of Summer: Worrying About Noise In The Sultry Season

If there’s anything that pits neighbor against neighbor, human against human, it’s errant noise, writes Joanna Weiss. (Loren Kerns/flickr)
If there’s anything that pits neighbor against neighbor, human against human, it’s errant noise, writes Joanna Weiss. (Loren Kerns/flickr)

This is the time of year when I worry about noise.

The windows are open. The lawn mowers roar. Someone is playing music somewhere. The illicit fireworks, left over from the Fourth, punctuate the night. Our chickens squawk when the sun comes at 5:30 a.m.

Everyone’s guilty of something: Unless you live deep in the woods, far from human habitation, you are going to encroach and be encroached on. The question is where the line is drawn, when someone’s joy is someone else’s nuisance.

If there’s anything that pits neighbor against neighbor, human against human, it’s errant noise. I’ve seen a barking dog cause a neighborhood feud. I’ve known people who wouldn’t venture into their own backyard because they couldn’t stand the sounds from the pool across the fence. I’ve been consumed with noise-making guilt, even as a child: Whenever the phone rang when I practiced piano as a kid, I imagined it was a neighbor, calling to beg me to stop.

But this Yankee-bred respect for others’ privacy can pose a dilemma, too: When is it right to breach the divide and ask for quiet?

And so, in summer mornings, I rush out to the coop and let the chickens out before they wake the street.

But I have no power to stop the chickadees.

Not all noise pollution is equal — and this often has less to do with the sound than the cause. Some animals are native; some are introduced, and in a sense, man-made. Massachusetts seems especially sensitive to man-made noise, which can be a wonderful thing. The mid-Atlantic beaches near where I grew up were marked by wall-to-wall towels and competing boom boxes. The first time I hit Cape Cod, I was stunned by how peaceful the beaches were, and I looked everywhere for a “no music” sign. I never found one. This was simply the culture, prevailing.

But this Yankee-bred respect for others’ privacy can pose a dilemma, too: When is it right to breach the divide and ask for quiet? I saw a musical in the theater district recently, and at a serious, sensitive portion of the show, the woman directly behind me decided it was snack time. First came a pack of candy: crinkle crinkle, chomp chomp. Then a drink: the fffoooop of the straw, and a crunching sound. I’m pretty sure she was chewing on ice.

Still, I declined to turn around — maybe because I’m wimpy and conflict-averse, or maybe because I had made my own down payment on noise pollution. There have been times when I’ve been the one with the loud kid in the restaurant, absorbing the dirty looks as I tried to make my exit. And sometimes, there’s no escape: On a plane, my son once howled when I shut off the laptop for landing. “Are his ears popping?” a kindly flight attendant asked. “Oh, yes, that’s it,” I lied.

I felt for the other passengers. But I admit I’m not always so sensitive, even to my son. When I took my him on a carousel a few weeks ago, he covered his ears and said it was too loud. When I truly listened — to the creaky machinery, the tinny music — I realized that, to a certain set of ears, this noise could be maddening, too.

The truth is, everyone has a different tolerance for noise, and a different expectation.

Alas, not every maddening sound can be avoided. In my town, there has been a furor over a Logan Airport flight path that, in the right wind conditions, sends a steady stream of airplanes overhead. This has spawned a divide — between the people who lament the loss of peace and the people who shrug and declare that, when you live 20 minutes from the airport, you’re probably going to hear some planes. There have been Facebook fights, exchanges of words far uglier than the sound of a jet engine.

And so far, there has been no solution. The truth is, everyone has a different tolerance for noise, and a different expectation. My dad grew up in New York City — Queens, to be exact, in a building beside the Long Island Railroad tracks. Every night, all through the night, the trains rushed by with regularity, bumping and clanging.

My dad learned how to stay asleep through all of it, perhaps incorporating the sounds into his dreams. Then he went off to college, in a leafy part of Philadelphia, and found that he couldn’t sleep.

The birds woke him up.

Related:

Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience Magazine, published by Northeastern University.

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