The Ecstasy and Agony of Noise-Canceling Headphones

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It would have been nice for the bifocals and the midlife crisis to have been the only reminders I needed about getting older. More depressing, though, have been the less obvious reminders. The time-release condolence cards to your youth that arrived in the mail months ago but bide their time before ambushing you with evidence of your increasing age. Take, for example, the noise-canceling headphones I bought in summer 2015.

All my life I’ve known that sudden or persistent noise can either drag my attention where it doesn’t need to be (see: a lifetime of ADHD) or turn me into an unproductive bundle of nerves (see: every severe thunderstorm in the midwest during which I’ve hidden in a sound dampening clothes closet with a glass of wine and a Go-Go’s playlist.) But it wasn’t until two summers ago that I realized that along with my ADHD comes the comorbid chronic condition of hypersensitivity to noise.

Reading about the condition two summers ago, it was clear to me I was reading about my dysfunctional lifelong relationship with sound. On a hunch, I hopped on a CTA 147 express bus to the North Michigan Avenue Best Buy and picked up an alarmingly expensive pair of Bose QC 25 noise-canceling headphones. The classic, uber-nerdy, “Is it the 1970s again?” over-the-ear type you might imagine ABBA was wearing when they recorded Dancing Queen.

The moment I got home, put them on, and flipped the switch was a life-altering experience. One second the annoying background din of everyday life was rumbling in my ears. And then in an instant it was gone, replaced by a blissfully quiet, astoundingly relaxing, unbelievably attention-nourishing personal Get Smart cone of silence. Finally, I could work with a laptop or an iPad in a crowded coffee shop, on a residential balcony overlooking a loud thoroughfare, or in the living room while Ryan was watching Law & Order. (Seriously, that scene-change chime is murder. Pun intended.)

My relationships with Disney parks and my New York City hometown were transformed as well. Theretofore I always dreaded the bundle of nerves I would be at 35,000 feet in the air on my journeys to family, Disneyland, or Magic Kingdom, terrified of every noise made by every I-know-they’re-perfectly-safe aircraft on which I’ve ever flown, comforted only by ,@Heather Poole‘s magnificent flight attendant tell-all, Cruising Attitude. My roar-banishing QC 25s turned flying into happyeasytime, a quiet, restful trance of smartphone movies and semi-naps.

From there, it was an easy progression to wearing my headphones on public transit, walks down busy streets, rides in the car with Ryan, anytime my nerves needed a little time out. I just about learned to sleep in them. Recently, I started to covet the new Bluetooth version of them to remove even the slight stress of a physical wire.

Unfortunately I kept reading. Since turning 40, I’ve known that my hearing is no longer what it was in my 20s. Every ride on Indiana Jones at Disneyland or Spaceship Earth at Epcot where I’ve had to metaphorically squint my ears to hear some of the lower-pitched dialogue has told me that. It turns out that the natural process of losing some of your lower-frequency hearing as you get older sometimes results in perceiving sound in your remaining frequencies as louder and more distracting then you used to perceive it. So my increasing happiness with my QC 25s was, at least in part, a symptom of my slowly-but-surely increasing age.

I guess it really is like our grandparents always told us: growing older can make the rest of the world seem a hell of a lot more annoying. I should probably just stop reading things about age and attention altogether.

Especially since I do all of my reading in a mobile browser or an e-book app—and lately I seem to be battling more eyestrain than usual. I find myself hitting the plus button next to the font size but more often than usual. Fidgeting with the settings to find the most legible combination of text and background colors. This month, I’ve even taken to leaving the night-shift setting on my iOS devices switched on 24 hours a day. When I get to the point where I start wearing a chain around my reading glasses, please send help.

Just be sure to tell them to knock really, really loud.

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