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Noise Clutter

Rainbow Line

From the new book, Unclutter Your Life:Transforming Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Space, by Katherine Gibson

"Y'all hear that racket?" I heard a Texan tourist protest to her partner as they walked along a Parisian boulevard. "Must be rush hour."

Noise--lots of noise--defines the City of Lights as surely as the pigeons that perch on its ancient rooftops. Like legions of Napoleonic bees, Paris bustles day and night. The crescendo begins in the morning when the first cafè awnings spread over sleepy sidewalks. As the evening wanes, its cacophony of trumpeting and blaring sounds soften until, in the early morning, it tunes up for the new day.

Except on Sunday mornings.

That's when the nerve-jangling racket fades and Paris sings. And sing it did as I idled in a cafè near the Seine at daybreak listening to church bells. The boulevard seemed wider, the trees greener, the steel-blue sky softer as time slowed to an andante pace. In this short interlude, I heard the heart of Paris beat.

That morning still replays in my head. Until then, I was oblivious to the bustle, the clamor, the continuous hum that underpins everyday life. It had become part of the audio wallpaper, an invisible yet dynamic backdrop some call "nuisance noise."

While noise is transient and impermanent--and we may even resign ourselves to live with it--the effects of noise are not. Unrelenting racket is costing us millions. According to a Los Angeles Times article, European researchers from fifteen countries estimate excessive noise results in an annual loss of 2 per cent of their GNP. A report conducted by the Houston Chronicle also blew the whistle on environmental noise clutter. While not more than 40 to 50 decibels (dB) are recommended for physical and psychological well-being, gas-powered lawnmowers and weed-trimmers spit out 90 dB of noise in addition to harmful waste emissions. If we add lurching delivery trucks, car traffic, horn honking, car alarms, airline traffic, and the occasional police or ambulance siren, we have enough noise clutter to wear us down, and, I learned, break our hearts.

Scientists in Germany are studying a link between stress-inducing noise and heart attacks. Audiologist Dr. Deepak Prasher, a leading expert on this issue, writes that high volumes of traffic, especially at night, can trigger chronic stress leading to ulcers and heart disease.

Is nuisance noise a fait accompli? I think not. As the volume in our world increases, so do attempts to fight back. Each spring, the League for the Hard of Hearing sponsors International Noise Awareness Day. Initially an effort to focus attention on noise levels in New York City, the event has spread to more than thirty countries. Throughout North America, ambulance, fire, and police departments are reviewing their siren policies. But they need cooperation from us. In one tragic circumstance, an ambulance on an emergency call crashed into a car, killing the driver. A witness said the car stereo was so loud the driver may not have heard the ambulance siren.

Vancouver's Right to Quiet Society has joined other sound-burned citizens across North America and Europe to demand legislators outlaw gas-powered leaf blowers. Since 1982, the group has been educating communities and lobbying politicians for less noise. They maintain that a quiet environment is a basic human need, like clean air and water. More than forty cities in California have banned leaf blowers and others across the continent are plotting the demise of these egregious noise bullies that rage at 110 dB. As Ted Rueter wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, "Leaf blowers are a perfect example of technology run amok. They blare and screech, kick up dirt and dust and accomplish nothing."

"We choke space with continuous music, chatter Ö It is simply there to fill the vacuum. When the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place," wrote Anne Morrow Lindberg in her timeless treasure, Gift from the Sea. Her words brought to mind that time spent in a peaceful and spiritual setting allows the mind to find its own rhythm, not one dictated by external influences. Like selecting objects for our home, the sounds we live with should be useful, spiritually enhancing, or exceedingly beautiful.

All the rest is clutter.

Clutter Busters

  • If you work in an "open-concept" work stations, ask for sound-reducing cubicle paneling and carpeting. Locate office machinery and copy centers away from work areas.
  • Consider installing double-or triple-pane windows to reduce outside noise and the heat bill.
  • Place rubber mats under noisy appliances.
  • Turn off computers when not in use. They emit a low wheeze that contributes to "white noise."
  • Give yourself a mini-mental vacation by turning off phone ringers during meals and when you are relaxing.
  • Think of your grandmother when you reach for electric appliances and use the muscle-powered versions. Avoid the rumble of the dishwasher and the clothes dryer by hand-washing dishes and air-drying laundry.
  • Become a "quiet gardener." Use hand-powered gardening tools and consider a push lawnmower. If you have a gardening service, choose one that uses quiet tools.
  • Speak up if you dislike the "second-hand" music that is piped into restaurants, offices, shops, and other public places.
  • Be part of the auto-boom solution. In Copenhagen, 50 per cent of workers walk or cycle to work.
  • Get organized. Many communities have action groups who lobbied for a quieter society. Check out Vancouver's right To Quiet Society at :www quiet.org.

Unclutter Your Life: Transforming Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Space (Beyond Words Publishing 2004) by Katherine Gibson is available at bookstores. More about the book at www.clutterbook.com

Rainbow Line

Techno-Clutter

Rainbow Line

Here I sit, waiting for the bus on a crisp autumn morning. All is calm as I scan the newspaper, welcoming this gentle entrèe to the day. Then in a swoosh of shrills the "cell folk" arrive. Like an tsunami, the morning calm dissipates in a wave of sonority.

Like Alice tumbling into the rabbit hole, we're dizzy with the possibilities of the latest, the fastest, and the coolest inventions--stuff I call techno-clutter. Our fascination with technology slips our lives into fast forward as we are seduced by its considerable advantages. Who can dispute the research advantages of the Internet, the cut-and-paste efficiency of word processing, or the affordable convenience of e-mail? Cell phones can be crucial in emergencies and voice mail protects important messages. Technology gives us the flexibility to work anywhere, anytime, and its educational possibilities are unheralded.

But it also puts us in a state of continual "cognitive interruptus" says, Priority Management Systems founder Daniel Stamp. "Whether it's the phone, e-mail, or pager, every interruption diverts us from our task. We estimate the average worker is distracted on average every eight minutes. As it takes two to three minutes to refocus, efficiency goes down as anxiety goes up."

"We're suffering from digital depression," says Mr. Stamp. "Technology tethers us to the workplace wherever we are. There's no downtime, no escape, unless we take control. With clients around the world, I have to be connected. I've got all the latest technology, but I manage it." He says he puts an iron fence around the first hour and a half each day. "No one interrupts. What I accomplish during that time is often equivalent to what it might take eight hours to do otherwise."

The choice between real advantages and perceived need determine our load of techno-clutter. Are we so in need of being connected that we can't take a stroll without a beeper or cell phone? Do we want our kids living and learning vicariously, turning into a second-hand imagination generation? Is it possible to balance, or completely sidestep, the techno-craze and still function in this high-powered Age of Urgency?

Pamela Charlesworth, a much-in-demand architect and dynamic community volunteer says, "Yes!" Although this Victoria-based professional has clients as far off as Germany, she resists "outside circuitry." "I want to talk, negotiate, and suggest if need be," explains Mrs. Charlesworth. "I need to sense my client. I can't do that in an e-mail."

"We've furnished entire homes--put sheets on the beds and cutlery in the drawers--via phone, fax, and courier," she says. "I don't need anything else." Mrs. Charlesworth's decision to shun new technology might appear eccentric, but her courage to choose what she needs and to select what enhances and empowers her inner processes celebrates personal choice. "Technology has a minimal place in my life. People first. That's just how it is," she says.

Is there a middle ground? I think there is. We can filter what comes in and decide when, and to what, we respond. We can instill in our children the satisfaction of searching for answers in the old-fashioned way, and with it the pleasure of finding the unexpected. We can take an inventory of which devices truly make life easier. And we can make the technology we have work for us by using voice mail and call display and turning off ringers when it suits us. And we can take a step back (or perhaps it's a step forward) by using a diary instead of a palm pilot, writing a letter, and phoning instead of e-mailing. Above all, we can set boundaries and make technology serve us and not the other way around.

Clutter Busters

Avoid purchasing products advertised in spam messages, even if the product seems legitimate. Don''t reply to spam messages, click on links, or follow the "remove from this list" instructions. If you do, the spammer knows your address is active.

Daniel Stamp of Priority Management offers seven strategies for effective e-mail management:

  1. Turn off the alarm or visual message and treat e-mail like regular mail by checking it at regular times in the day, i.e. early morning, mid-day and late afternoon.
  2. Throw out the junk and respond to messages immediately.
  3. Create short answers. It's acceptable to send back a message that simply reads "Done" or "Thanks".
  4. Delete diligently. Delete messages as soon as you respond to them. If you have to save something, transfer it to a folder.
  5. Take control of your in-box. Subscribe to e-mail services selectively. Get a separate e-mail address for personal communication or one that you give just to key contacts, similar to an unlisted phone number.
Techno-clutter is an abridged chapter from the new book, Unclutter Your Life: Transforming Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Space (Beyond Words Publishing 2004) by Katherine Gibson available now at bookstores or online at: www.amazon.ca

Rainbow Line

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