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Shambhala Sun | March 2011
You'll find this article on page 64 of the magazine.

Welcome to Wedgwood

Charles Johnson’s new neighbors had hardly settled in when all hell broke loose — or so it seemed.

A new Rasmussen Reports survey finds that 69 percent of Americans think their fellow countrymen are becoming more rude and less civilized. Men are much more likely than women to have confronted someone over their rude behavior, though more women than men think sales and service personnel are more rude than they were a decade ago. Adults over age fifty are more likely than their younger counterparts to think it is rude for someone sitting next to them in public to talk on their cellphone.

"I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange I am ungrateful to those teachers." —Kahlil Gibran

The trouble started on a late afternoon in September. It was around 6 p.m., and I was sitting under one of the trees in my backyard, watching a brace of pigeons splash wildly around in our stone bird bath, beneath which a stone head of the Buddha rose up from the grass. My dog Nova, a West Highland white terrier, rested peacefully nearby. I’ve always loved this hour of the day, when the spill of late afternoon light, so ethereal, filtered through old-growth trees in Wedgwood, a neighborhood of gentle hills and slopes at the edge of strip malls, burger joints, auto dealers, and Rick’s topless nightclub in Lake City. But here you never felt you were in a big city—with all those big city problems—because before the Second World War this area used to be an orchard filled with more apple, pear, and plum trees than people, and all that lush plumage absorbed the whoosh of traffic on Lake City Way. Here, traffic moved along at thirty miles an hour. Years ago, it was outside the city limits, and so mailboxes were not attached to our houses but instead were out on the street, which had no sidewalks. It’s been called a “Prunes and Raisins” neighborhood, but don’t ask me why. All I know is that the spirit of place in Wedgwood (named after the English china), where I’ve lived for half my life, was that of a quiet, hidden oasis within Seattle, inhabited mainly by older, retired people like myself who all owned dogs, and quite a few college professors since it was only two miles from the University of Washington. A wonderful place, if you enjoyed walking. But here and there things had begun to change. Younger people were moving in, and some years ago the police raided a home that someone had turned into a meth lab. Yet and still, violence in Wedgwood was rare.

So that afternoon, I sat in a lazy lotus posture under an evergreen tree, the forefingers on each hand tipped against my thumbs, thinking about images from a new poem, “The Ear Is an Organ Made for Love,” I’d received via email from my friend Ethelbert Miller. Behind me, floating on an almost hymnal silence, a few soothing notes sounded from the wood chimes hanging from my house, accompanied by bird flutter and the rustle of leaves at about ten decibels. Up above, the light seemed captured in cloud pluffs, which looked luminous, as if they held candles within. The soughing of the wind in the trees was like rushing water. I began to slowly drift into meditation, hoping today would bring at least a tidbit of spiritual discovery, but no sooner than I’d closed my eyes and felt the outside world fall away, the air was shattered by a hair-raising explosion of music booming from stereo speakers somewhere nearby, like a clap of thunder or a volcano exploding. Now, I love music, especially soft jazz, but only at certain, special hours of the day. This was heavy metal techno-pounding at 120 decibels, alternating with acid rock, and sprinkled with gangster rap that sounded to my ear like rhymed shouting. And it did rock—and shock—the neighborhood with a tsunami of inquietude. Its energy was five billion times greater than that from the wood chimes. It compressed the air around me and clogged my consciousness. I looked at Nova, and behind his quiet, blackberry eyes he seemed to be thinking, “What is that, boss?”

“Our new neighbors,” I said. “We haven’t introduced ourselves to them yet, but I guess they’re having a party.”

You have to understand, I talk to my dog all the time, which is better than talking to myself and being embarrassed if someone caught me doing that, and he never says a word back, which is no doubt one of the reasons why people love dogs.

One or two hours went by, and we listened helplessly as the exhausting, emotionally draining sound yeasted to 130 decibels, moving in concentric spheres from my neighbor’s place, covering blocks in every direction like smog or pollution or an oil spill, and just as toxic and rude, as enveloping and inescapable as the Old Testament voice of God when He was having a bad day. And now, suddenly, I was having a bad day. This was exactly the opposite of the tranquillity I wanted, but there was no escaping the bass beat that reverberated in my bones, the energy of the shrill profanity and angry lyrics as they assaulted the penetralia of my eardrums, traveling down to the tiny, delicate hairs of the cochlea, and from there to the sensitive, sympathetic nervous system that directed the tremors straight into my brain. Unlike an unpleasant vision, from which I could turn away or close my eyes, wave upon wave of oscillations passed right through my hands when I held them against the sides of my head. The music, if I may call it that, was intrusive, infectious, wild, sensual, pagan, orgasmic, jangling, indecent, and filled me with foreign emotions not of my own making, completely overwhelming and washing away my thoughts and the silent, inner speech we all experience when our soul talks to itself.

I no longer recognized Wedgwood as my neighborhood. All its virtues—the magnificent views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountain Range, its old world charm—had vanished, and I felt as if I’d been suddenly teleported to Belltown at 11 on a Saturday night. I wondered if the Generation X new arrivals knew how fragile our ears are, and how many scientific studies indicated that noise pollution interfered with learning, lowered math and reading scores, and was responsible for high blood pressure, dry mouth, blindness, muscular contractions, neurosis, heart disease, peptic ulcers, constipation, premature ejaculation, reduced libido, insomnia, congenital birth defects, and even death.

Now darkness had fallen, but still the pulsions continued across the street, surrounding my house like a hand squeezing a wineglass on the verge of shattering. My ears felt like they wanted to bleed. And only heaven knows how Nova was feeling, since his hearing was four times more sensitive than mine. I shook my head at the thought of what a dangerously noisy species we humans are with our clanking, humming, churning machinery and motorcars, our loud music and household appliances with their anapestic beat, and fire sirens wailing. Walking into the house, I saw my wife coming down the stairs, wearing her round reading glasses and looking dazed. At sixty-two, she was slightly hard of hearing in one ear, but the stramash had shaken her and made her feel exiled from the familiar, too. She started shutting all our windows. But that didn’t help. The sound curdled the air inside our house, and her sore ears were burning as badly as mine. From the porch we could see cars lining the street, beer cans thrown into the bushes, and from our neighbor’s property there wafted pungent clouds of Purple Haze and Hawaii Skunk marijuana.

“I was reading the Book of Psalms in bed,” my wife said, “but I couldn’t concentrate with all that noise. What do you think we should do?”

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