The Rewiring, Part 3: The Sax Player and Super Bowl City
by Diane Whitmore • October 10, 2018
After my accident I became chronically sensitive to noise, as if the volume had been cranked up on every note in my auditory landscape. Rain dripping in the gutter sounded like someone incessantly hitting a single piano key. Heels on a sidewalk were like someone knocking on a door right near my head. Background sounds could move to the foreground, making me startle at the remotest jangle of a dog leash. It got so bad once that suddenly, mid-sentence, I couldn’t listen to my roommate talking and had to flee.
I began layering heavy-duty work earmuffs over foam earplugs. It was helpful, if a little socially awkward.
I would later discover the miracle of noise-cancelling headphones; but in those early days I relied on these compound noise abaters to keep the thunder of the world at bay. I was often in pain, but I could get by.
That is, until a protracted construction project began on my apartment building.
At this stage of my recovery I needed a lot of sleep — over 12 hours a day just to be minimally functional. But no amount of hearing protection could quiet the construction zone outside my window. Sleep became impossible. My only option was to retreat. I packed a suitcase and hit the road, beginning what would turn out to be months of itinerant living.
My first strategy was to catch naps in public parks, but urban life turned out to be overwhelming. Chatty people and crying babies seemed to follow me around. I magnetically attracted lawn mowers and tree trimmers wherever I went. Desperate, I fled to hostels and cheap hotels. My semi-tragic tale helped secure me the quietest rooms available. I would end up spending a small fortune on rented beds, but at least I was getting some much needed sleep.
After a particularly exhausting morning I retreated to a familiar hostel and laid down for an afternoon nap in my special room. A loud beeping noise bolted me upright. Peeking outside I saw a team of workers just beginning the rebuild of a large staircase right outside my window.
I went outside, lamenting the cosmic unfairness of it all. I desperately needed to sleep but couldn’t escape the amplifiers in my head. I phoned a friend for emotional support and she suggested that while I would never be able to make my world quiet enough, I could probably shift my attention to more calming sounds. “Try streaming some relaxation music,” she said over the speaker, (putting the phone near my ear was too much for me to bear).
Now, I have never had the patience for treacly New Age music. The term ‘relaxation music’ evokes the memory of regrettably granola yoga classes and crystal healing. I just couldn’t imagine voluntarily exposing myself to wind chimes and whale songs, but truly desperate people will try anything. I went back to my room, donned some earbuds, and typed Liquid Mind into Pandora. With my big-yellow earmuffs over the top, and my head surrounded by pillows, I lay down.
I found that if I focused on the music, I could partially tune out the sounds of saws and voices. The music began to envelope me. I let my limbs relax, and began to drift, as if on an air-mattress in a swimming pool. Generators revved and trucks beeped, but soon I was sleeping soundly.
During my third month living out of a suitcase, the Super Bowl came to the Bay Area. I’d gotten the hang of managing the tormenting din of ordinary urban life, but nothing could have prepared me for Super Bowl City, a dedicated party zone that took over downtown for three weeks. In addition to the loudspeakers from boat tours, there were helicopter and airplane rides, and droves of visitors, with their megaphoned leaders on buses, trains, and even Segways.
One afternoon, I was sitting on a park bench overlooking the Bay, thinking I was out of range of the hoopla. I heard an airplane engine, then another, and another. Within minutes, more than a dozen planes appeared over San Francisco Bay, flying banners for beer and car insurance.
My flight response kicked in and I turned to leave. But as I was going, I heard the faint sound of jazz amid the roar. I followed it up the cliff side until I found the source. This Pied Piper of a man was sitting on a bench with a saxophone, serenading the Bay. I was just below him, stage right, on a set of stairs. I crept slowly, remaining hidden to catch the soundwaves he was casting in my direction. I faced him, turning my ears away from the airplanes. Could I use his music as auditory shelter?
If all that E-Z Listening had taught me anything, it was that this was about attention, not volume. If I thought about the airplanes I could hear them get louder. But I found that if I could hold my focus on the sax, the engines seemed to die down for a few seconds. It was like two opposing forces competing inside my head.
I’d been driven from my home, forced to listen to Liquid Mind for hours on end, and my city had been invaded by horn-blasting revelers. I needed this win.
The planes that were plaguing me receded to the background as I followed the notes. They resisted at first, but this guy was really good. He was fluid and improvisational, flitting around and around a melody, challenging me to follow along. Gaining the saxophone for longer and longer stints, I practiced until it was almost all that I could hear. It was about 30 minutes before he took a break, and I felt oddly refreshed at the end of it.
I had won the battle, and knew that I was gaining the attentional tools to win more in the future. The planes were still circling, so I needed to go seek shelter. But first I approached and said a quick ‘hi’ and ‘thank you’ to the man I will always remember as “the saxophonist who saved me from Super Bowl City.”