Thursday, November 12, 2009


(Ahh, the joy and randomness of the blog. Yesterday I rhapsodized on the cosmology of eternity, today I'm carping about candy wrappers.)

On Noise, Part 1.
There have been a number of times when, attending the theater or symphony, I have rolled my eyes and fidgeted in my seat in response to the honking and coughing and sneezing of some poor sap in the next row. The problem is, this is almost a sure sign that the next poor sap doing the coughing will be me! (This happened to me this very day.) It's like a divine reminder that before I can remove the speck from my neighbor's eye I need to remove the log from my own. (And just when will that be, I wonder.) So, I have become more tolerant, over the years, of the organic human need to cough, sniffle, and honk. I've come to have a zen-like attitude that, within reason, these sounds are part of the wholeness of the live concert experience.

But the lozenge wrapper is another matter. A fellow concert-goer today unwrapped his cough drop relatively quietly, but then proceeded to (certainly unconsciously) knead the wrinkled wrapper between his fingers for the remainder of the piece. Crinkle... crinkle, crinkle... crinkle.... My eyes started rolling heavenward, I imagined dialogue friendly (uhhh, could I take that for you...) and unfriendly (DROP IT ON THE FLOOR!!!). Of course there is no good approach to such dialogue, so I kept quiet. Good thing, too, because at intermission he proved to be a very engaging fellow.

Now, lest you think you are reading the rantings of the most petty guy in the world, the reason I'm going on about this is to report on a really neat science project I heard about a few years ago. An acoustical engineer proved (in an experiment that was written up in a professional journal) that if you unwrap a lozenge very slowly or very quickly, the exact same volume and level of noise is produced either way! (So get it over with and unwrap it already!) Neat, huh?

On Noise, Part 2.
I take part in a weekly coffee-conversation meeting. It's one of those groups in which whoever takes a breath is the listener. Last week, five of us sat at a table near the front door of our local coffee shop. We were discussing a couple of issues that a number of us were passionate about. We were having a good time. "The talk ran high" (in the words of Gordon Lightfoot), heads were thrown back in laughter. No fewer than four people (customers from tables further back in the cafe), on their way out, passed our table and said, "My, you're a noisy group," and comments to that effect.

In a similar conversation in a similar group in a different coffee shop a few months ago, a woman at the table next to us (working on her laptop), leaned over and said, somewhat severely, "You know, there are other people trying to work in here." I apologized humbly and profusely, but later I had one of those "what I should have said" moments and wondered if what I should have said was something like, "But this isn't a library." Or, better, what another at our table suggested: "This is a coffeehouse!"

Dear reader, were we too loud?

We judge others according to their behavior, ourselves according to our intentions. ~Unknown


Anonymous said...

I have often struggled with this same question at the gym, especially when I was going to the gym on the U of M campus. Often there were grad students on the various machines with their text books or notebooks propped in front of them, studying as they exercised. I became acquainted with one or two people there with whom I came to engage in enjoyable, stimulating, and, dare I say, pretty lofty banter. That banter was not whispered and was often punctuated with laughter. Great fun! Yet I was aware of the dirty looks we sometimes got from the studiers in our midst. I often felt like saying, "Hey, the library is across campus. This is the gymnasium." The irony, in case you didn't catch it, is that the European meaning of the word "gymnasium" is "school", which would make it more a place of learning than of exercise and thus would require quiet.
There are places in the world where quiet is to be respected. I believe that neither the gym nor the coffee shop are among those places. The coffee shop, in fact, may be the modern Areopagus.

Anna said...

One thing I think people need to recognize is that while one person needs silence for work, another might need noise. It's their choice to be studying, working, or intensely thinking in a public place; and unless there is signage designating silence there's really nothing they can expect for their work related needs. If they need silence why are they going to coffee houses and gyms?

I would also like to confront a stereotype that has lived on long enough. LIBRARIES DON'T NEED TO BE SILENT!!! It is a misconception that I have been trying to clear with my own students. While the patrons of the library should be respectful of one another, the library is a place of learning and information. What better way of sharing the information that we have by speaking to one another? The continuing the stereotype that libraries are where you go to be shushed is like assuming librarians are all in their 70s with buns, multiple cats, and knitting needles close to hand.

In conclusion: People who choose to work in public need to be more aware of their needs in order to choose their location. And the stereotype that libraries need to be quiet needs to die.

RLJ said...

Anna: Thanks for the response. I feel a litle sheepish for relying on the old quiet library thing -- good to hear your perspective. How about a coffe shop IN a library? There must be a few of those.

Jeff said...

Dick, as your brother-in-law I feel an obligation to respond to your musings, since nobody else (except our friend Warren) appears to be listening. Which is too bad, since your random ramblings are well written, always insightful, and possess a tone of both humility and good humor. That being said, I thought your comments on the wrapper could easily be developed into a Seinfeld bit. That little science fact on the sound of unwrapping at various speeds is interesting. Sort of analogous to removing a band-aid either slowly or quickly. Enough on the first topic.

I know how loud you can get (I have out-shouted you on many occasions) so I can only imagine the cacophony of a large group of your fellow pastors around that coffeehouse table. Had I observed this scene as a stranger I would probably think, "Those guys are sure having a good time. I wish I was at that table." I agree that a coffeehouse is not a library. If you have work to get done go to your workplace, that's why they give you a desk and good lighting. I think we need even more of the hubbub of the public place in our lives. This was one of the things I was struck by when I visited London a number of years ago. There is a dynamism and energy that is palpable, partly the collective result of thousands of conversations such as yours going on simultaneously in the public square, so to speak.

There of course also need to be places for quiet conversation. That's what restaurants are for, which might be another topic you could rant about in the future -- taking a perfectly fine dining establishment and sticking large, flat screen TVs everywhere. They did this recently to a favorite restaurant of mine. Decided to make it into a so-called sports bar. I noticed that nobody was really watching any of them. I suspect the owners were just trying to create some of that energy and "buzz" that your group in Northfield was generating organically. - Jeff

Mike said...

We certainly were not too loud!