28 May 2010

White Noise

I’m sitting at my terminal in a two-doctor medical practice. I scan documents into the electronic medical record and I help answer the phones. My work space, roughly in the center of the building – a pleasant, spaciously-arranged area with a cathedral ceiling and skylights – is separated from the reception area by a partial wall. Further back in the north-facing building is a nurses’ station for the medical assistants. Three exam rooms on the east side and three on the west line each of the outside walls. Each doctor has an office in a back corner. Sliding windows on the receptionist’s countertop separate the reception desk from the waiting area, which lets the receptionist answer the phone without making all her conversations too public.

The practice management group that runs this office (and several others in this part of the state) has selected some sort of custom music service to provide “white noise.” This noise is apparently broadcast (nationwide?) via radio waves, for there is a receiver in the receptionist’s space. The noise service company provides a remote control and a list of channels, selectable through the remote.

The 50-plus channels include such scintilating choices as 924 for Hot FM, 958 for Strobe, 963 for Concrete Beats, oh, and 920 for Environmental. There are a few channels featuring, it appears, ethnic music, such as Mojito, Little Italy, and Hawaiian. There is one called Lucille, which means as much to me as if it were, say, Roberta or Hortense. There are plenty of channels presumably offering hits of some fan-base or era: Reflections, Expressions, Mo’ Soul, Cashmere, ‘80s Hits, Screen Door, Shag Beach, and Plaza.

The receiver has no display to indicate what channel has been selected. It does have a green LED to indicate that it is turned on. The receiver feeds a set of speakers mounted in the waiting area, and is also cabled to a separate console that was made some 20 years ago by Bose. This separate console, which has a defunct CD changer, feeds its own set of speakers arranged through the rest of the building, including three that immediately surround me at about eight feet above the floor. Right now a husky woman’s voice is coming through the speakers, berating her man, (I assume), with the repeating phrase: “I don’t care what you say/want/do,” something like that, and telling him in no uncertain terms what it is she is unwilling to do. If I were him, I’d be cowering near the exit. I feel as though I’m eavesdropping on a domestic dispute in the next apartment.

The Bose console can be turned off separately, and in fact, besides the white noise feed, can accept an alternate signal source, such as an iPod. But to run the back area of the building from a separate source would cause a jarring clash of sounds, sort of like standing in a shopping mall with Spencer’s on one side and Abercrombie & Fitch directly opposite.

But ordinarily the broadcast noise feeds both sets of speakers. Why? Well, there are several reasons. First, lawyers somewhere have persuaded medical practices everywhere that white noise helps protect privacy. This is borne out when one steps into almost any waiting area anywhere and sees two or three unrelated people, perhaps strangers to one another, who happened to find themselves unexpectedly thrown together for an hour’s wait, shouting at each other to be heard over the strains of “Don’t Let Me Go.” Second, lawyers everywhere have blessed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which, as everyone knows is all about AIDS/HIV and secrecy. Medical practice management groups evidently believe that pumping white noise through their buildings contributes to health insurance portability and will prevent lawsuits. If it did indeed absolve the practice of any further liability for an overheard conversation, that would be great. We could all tolerate a stream of crappy music everywhere if it would force tort lawyers to find real work. But the volume of lawsuits reaching our courts are not a function of our mis-adherence to regulations, it is a function of the numbers of lawyers clamoring to fill their case loads. Third, and the main reason why it’s pumped through both sets of speakers: The lone full-time receptionist in this office, Mary, who controls the white noise equipment, has made it plain that she cannot work without some sort of continuous aural stimulation and she cannot hear the “music” unless the speakers in the back of the building are on, since the sliding windows in front of her make it hard to hear it coming from the waiting area.

And it’s Mary who gets to make the channel selection. Not long after I joined this office a year ago, I presumed to experiment with the channels. The other staff members might have warned me not to, but they didn’t. Mary, though, made it plain that I had violated some cardinal rule. Since there is no display on the receiver to remind her what channel she had previously selected, and therefore I couldn’t help her remember, she grumbled for most of a day while she tried to return to it.

Mary doesn’t want to listen to music; she’s not interested in the lyrics, and she is not moved by melody or voice or harmony or arrangement. Perhaps because she is essentially an urban person, she just wants background noise. (To which end, I don’t know why other random sounds wouldn’t be as soothing and “white”: trucks dumping gravel, catenaries sparking over streetcars with squealing wheels, sirens and horns, people shouting.)

The couple of times I messed with the system, when Mary was on her lunch break, I tried one channel that had some light classical pieces and another that had familiar old songs with melodies. Mary found these choices offensive.

Since it must be loud enough in the back of the building for Mary to hear in the front, we generally communicate in raised voices, even the doctors – and that’s when we have only lawyer-recommended white noise to contend with. When the scanner is running, the fax machine is dialing or spitting, the copier is beeping, the shredder is grinding, and a couple of phones are ringing, all of which are within ten feet of each other in the center of the building and all of which can be going at once, the “music” becomes inconsequential, and we often shout. It seems to me that a doctor who must shout at the person six feet away, in order to be understood, is in greater risk of violating privacy than one who can murmer in low tones in a quiet space.

When I read Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks, I was thunderstruck to learn that there are people who do not like music at all, not even that which I (and Sacks) consider true music: a pleasing, even beautiful, combination of tones and rhythm that begs to be listened to and savored or hummed and danced to. Some classical music, particularly from the Romantic period, appeals both to Dr. Sacks and to me, but there is much in modern music that gives me great pleasure. (Limited comparisons abound associated with the other senses: favorite flavors can be consumed only as long as it is safe or comfortable to continue eating; favorite vistas can be viewed only until the sun sets or the fog moves in; and until the invention of sound recording, favorite sounds could be attended only until the source might choose to fall silent.) While I was prepared, on reading Sacks, to discover that there are many like Mary who are troubled by silence, I was not prepared to learn that there are many who find beautiful music irritating and who are deaf to its lure. (And are deaf to the lure of every other type of music as well.) This discovery is confounded by the corollary that, while a person doesn’t find music appealing, music that more resembles cacaphony fulfills their craving for background noise.

Mary can’t stand beautiful music. Nor can she abide silence. Apparently she needs to be surrounded by noise. I wouldn’t know, but I suspect Mary sleeps with a nightlight on, and, probably, with a radio or television playing. While I can’t comprehend her abhorence of beautifully-organized sound, she can’t comprehend my abhorence of cacaphony or my preference for the utter absence of auditory stimuli. Mary happily submits to a day-long drone that includes a guy whining “Oh, I----‘ll never fall in love [repeat ad nauseum]” – a group thrumbing “You might go to sleep on a good-good night [r.a.n.]” – another group that is “sending out an SOS [repeat x24]” – another guy whining that he doesn’t want to die, and, I assume, a compendium of second-string almost-hits from the last year or so. Not only are these “songs” stultifying and repetitive, they recur several times during a daily program. I still don’t know what channel she has chosen in order to secure this drivel. The broadcast does not include a word of information about the songs or performers like a normal radio station, so I have no way of knowing who is performing, nor would it matter. And most of the time the lyrics, save for a repeated chorus, are obscured by the accompanying guitar abuse or other electronic overnoise.

During a relatively quiet moment one day, when only the tune-of-the-moment interfered with the peace, I commented to no one in particular in the open area of the building that I wondered why such a song, which sounded like someone straining at stool, ever made it to the public airwaves. Another co-worker replied from around the corner of the wall: That’s So-and-so; meaning, I suppose that So-and-so’s performance of anything more musical than a fart should hold me spellbound. Just because So-and-so did it; like, whatever God creates is perfect because he did it. I’ve mostly kept my mouth shut since then.

Set aside, though, our difference in taste, if you can call it that. (It’s beyond taste. I must someday argue for a definition of the word ‘music’ that excludes such affronts as cell phone ring tones. I’m reminded, for instance, of other settings where I’ve spent a little time under the forced white noise, and I remember hating the repetitious drivel of “Su-su-sudio” and “Cisco Kid was a friend of mine.” It doesn’t matter how famous or creative the performers of these pieces were – I could crank out tuneless, mindless pieces like that all day long but I’d be embarassed to do so.) The greater question is this: Why is it OK for my employer, in the person of Mary the music Nazi, to subject me to an irritating, distracting, assault on my senses? What is it in her that not only assumes but insists that I will enjoy the noise she chooses? (It pleases her, so it must please everyone.) Consider the other senses. If I had the power that Mary has and I decided that she must endure a continuous daily light show of flashing blue LEDs over her head, would that be OK? (I know one person who has seizures when she sees flashing lights.) What if I decided that my co-workers all had to settle for a fifty-degree room because that’s my most comfortable working temperature? What if I brought in a plug-in air freshener in, say, ‘hot roofing tar’? What if I were in charge of the white noise and I chose Shastakovich, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev ad infinitum? (I like those composers, by the way – in moderation, but they grate on most everyone else I know.)

Why, oh why, is it ingrained in our culture that I must not subject another soul in the workplace to the odor of my aftershave but I must submit to an auditory assault by the office music dominatrix? If my co-workers must avoid offending anyone who can claim an allergy to the odor of flowers, then maybe I need to assert my own involuntary appoplectic response to white noise that is irritating by design.