The peculiar pleasure of earplugs.
I became a connoisseur of earplugs when three brownstones on my block underwent renovations at the same time. Clanging machinery, the truck deliveries, and that most noisy species, construction workers, conspired to disrupt the usual early-morning stillness. After a few mornings lying awake at an unnaturally early hour, pondering the mystery of why construction workers make most of their noise at dawn, I went out and got some foam earplugs and learned how to roll them into a tight cylinder, which I inserted into each ear before going to sleep. They worked. I slept happily right through the noisy hour.
Then one day, upon arising into the quiet post-shouting hour, I left the earplugs in. I went about my morning in the apartment and then ventured outside with the earplugs still in my ears. I could hear people speaking, I could hear sounds, but it all took place at a remove. And yet I did not feel farther away from everything. I moved through the streets as though in a dream, but, as with a dream, somehow more attentive and aware than usual. Up to that point the purpose of earplugs was to keep things out. Now I perceived a new dimension to earplugs—to keep things in.
What things? Thoughts, I guess. Ideas. Equilibrium. Concentrating was easier, and I began to leave the earplugs in to write. Errands in the city, or when I had to take the subway, were much more pleasant at a slight sonic remove. It’s like listening to music on an iPod, but instead of filling your head with sound, you fill it with your thoughts and your own breath.
In Nicholson Baker’s wonderful novel The Mezzanine, which turns the scrutiny of everyday objects into a kind of poetics, he points out that the earplugs at the chain drug store where he shopped were located in the aisle marked, “First Aid.” They sat alongside Ace knee supporters, Caladryl, Li-Ban lice-killing spray, and so forth. “Over the years,” he writes, “I had grown fond of their recherché placement implying, which was often true, that hearing was an affliction, a symptom to be cured.”