Around this time last year, when everyone on earth was struggling for something to focus on, I was obsessing over household appliances and the sounds they make. Perhaps some of those buzzes and bloops would have been on my mind in any case — I’d been more or less stuck inside, in close proximity to the noises and their sources, for months that felt like years. But this new area of focus was primarily a professional one. I was writing about household noises for the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast.
I went into the project with a short list of my own appliance-audio pet peeves. The horrific volume of my burr coffee grinder, for example. The bathroom fan that blasts every time the lights get turned on. And, number one with the bullet: our mad-with-power Frigidaire microwave. Every time it’s finished cooking, it lets out three inexcusably long, loud beeeeeeps. Not one. Three. If you hit “cancel” before opening the microwave door, you can cut the beeps short, but if you miss that crucial step, the thing will continue to beep, and there is no way to shut it up. You’re stuck riding out the entire tuneless melody.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is a terrific show that I am honored to work on — I was a fan before I was a contributor. They have episodes about all kinds of truly fun and interesting aspects of sound, like the creation of the Netflix “ta-dum!” audio logo or the prevalence of 808 drums in modern music. My first episode of 20k was about something fun too — toys, and the sounds they make. That episode has a twist, though: the second half reveals the hidden dangers of too-loud toys to young ears. I also produced an episode about how noise pollution can be directly linked to anxiety.
This exploration of appliances was taking me to similarly dire places. What started as a catalog of annoyances was becoming a troubling exposé. I learned that too much noise is bad for your heart, and that a blender can be loud enough to damage your hearing. For some reason, no matter how fun I tried to make the project, my focus kept on drifting to the sinister nature of all our most innocuous possessions.
No idea what could have brought that on. In the summer of 2020.
Last week, the final results of all that household sound obsession was released, and (against all odds, perhaps?) it’s a lot of fun. I was just one of several writer/producers who worked on the episode, so when I listened back, I wasn’t sure what of my original interviews and clips would make the cut. Much to my delight, early on in the episode, I heard the all-too familiar sound of “a newer model Frigidaire microwave.” I’d made a recording in my kitchen, and now, through that recording, the whole world could feel my pain.
As long as I’m talking appliances and podcasts, let me pivot for a moment to Sweet Valley High. In the book that I read for this week’s Sweet Valley Diaries, we were told that the Wakefields (the star family of the series) have a “copper-colored” refrigerator. This struck me as alarming, even for 1989… Until I remembered that I grew up with an equally ‘70s harvest gold refrigerator. I began to think about my childhood kitchen — that fridge the color of squash baby food, the plaid wallpaper, the gargantuan microwave. I thought of the wood-paneled television set that wouldn’t accept any channel higher than 60. We had a fair number of appliances in our home that my parents received as wedding gifts in 1981. They never got replaced simply because they continued to function.
When I was researching the appliances episode, I found some YouTube videos about reprogramming a Frigidaire microwave. One had step-by-step instructions on how to stop the microwave from making any sounds at all. I followed them to the letter, but to no avail. I was inspired to consult the owners manual (The owners manual! For my microwave!) but there was nary a word in there about any noises, much less how to end those noises.
I’m a renter, and our microwave came with the apartment. Lucky us! Last year when our oven stopped heating properly, the landlord replaced it with a new one. If I complained about the microwave, perhaps it could be replaced, as if by magic, with a newer, quieter model. But that just doesn’t sit right with me. I still wonder: what happened to the old oven? Surely it could have been repaired? This microwave works quite well, and it’s a nice size; the idea of relegating it to some kind of WALL-E landfill somewhere, all because of its bad beep design, makes me shudder. Especially since there’s an easy way around the annoyance of those beeps: I just have to remember to press “cancel” before opening the door.
It’s so easy to live with things and not pay attention to them. When, for any number of reasons, we suddenly start to notice the flaws in the objects and systems we live with, sometimes it’s like a switch is flipped. It’s impossible to unsee, or unhear, the offense. What bliss it would be to return to a time before I noticed the length and volume of those three beeps. But I hear them, and I hate them. So now I do something about it: I hit cancel before I open the door. I had to learn how to do that. I had to make it a habit. Now, it is a habit. I’m doing my part, day in and day out, to make my kitchen a better place.
Are you following me here?
And what about the things in the world that we can’t hit cancel on? Some noises feel — and are — so entirely out of our control. So we have to call on the unseen, mystical forces — forces we call grace, or fate, or patience.
In my current screenwriting class1, I recently dropped a quote that is near and dear to my heart, one I heard from photographer Clay Enos when he was a speaker back in my Apple Theater days. He said, “the muses are a volunteer work force.” I dropped this quote to my students, and then I had to explain it, as its meaning is really not that obvious. But I’m pretty sure what he meant, in context was: as a creative, if you’re looking for inspiration, you have to call on it, and then it will come to you.
Lately I find myself wondering if grace, and fate, and patience are volunteers as well. Perhaps we have to consciously call on them if we want them to show up in our lives. I say this as a reminder to myself as much as to you who’ve kept reading this far, wading with me into the swampy area of the metaphor.
When the lack of control threatens to crack me in two, when the beeps are loud and there is no cancel button in sight, I’m trying to remember to call on grace. Or fate. Or patience.
Or, what the hell: throw in all three. I’ll take all the volunteers I can get.