The Joy of Headphones

logo headphones I am a simple man; I enjoy the simple things in life. Like a kitten with a ball of string, it doesn't take much to make me happy. Adrift in a world of the confused and the mundane - quite often the most obvious solution to my malaise and unease will present itself: a walk, a game of gold, a beer - and I will find myself dumbfounded that I didn't think of such a thing before. Such is the case that occurred to me recently.

Like many of you, I work in an office. Battleship grey walls and a lack of any windows were a big part of management's insightful scheme to keep the workers focused and happy. Poor air circulation and a leaky roof - that occasionally results in a waterfall of putrid water cascading onto my head as I sit at my computer - have combined to give me a rather grim countenance and at times somewhat irritable nature. My ever-jocular co-workers persevere over the drab atmosphere of our surroundings by blasting "classic" rock, and jesting loudly about sports scores, office gossip, and most fascinatingly (NOT) - who was kicked off the island on "Survivor" last night.

Left alone in a my gloomy corner, I try to cover up the distracting babble by loudly playing Sun Ra, Schoenberg and Sinead, but instead my protest merely adds to the noise - it turns into a cacophony and, in the end, exhausted, I relent and attempt to find a way to enjoy hearing B.T.O.'s "Takin' Care of Business" for the millionth time (give or take a few hundred thousand). I am actually keeping quite a tab on the travails of the "Survivor" castaways despite never having seen the program (nor having any desire to).

But the recent election did have one good thing come out of it anyway. While standing in line for 3 hours to cast my vote, I had the good sense and foresight to have borrowed a portable CD player - and as such stayed in fairly good cheer listening to the relaxing jazz of Bill Evans, and the compelling songs of "Isidore," among others. It may seem a mere stupid oversight on my part, but I was re-enlightened as to the wonderfulness of this incredible tool. And this tiny bit of wire, foam and plastic that attaches to my ears has taken on such importance in my life that rivals what the rediscovery of concrete, thousands of years after Rome fell and they lost the recipe, meant to the history of mankind.

Well okay, maybe not, but I have rediscovered something I thought I had lost long ago and never noticed. For although the little speakers implanted in an ear muff are great for keeping the annoyances of the outside world out, it is the way the device is able to deliver the music directly to my brain that I am overjoyed at regaining. Perhaps that is why I would prefer to call them "headphones" as opposed to simply "earphones" - because the former emphasizes the way the sound is tapped into your head so directly.

Sound waves naturally dissipate as they pass through the air; different players/speakers produce different frequencies better than others, and the equipment I use is hardly high tech: banged up boom boxes, low-fi record players, and generic cd players running through tinny speakers. Meanwhile, my poor ears have been subjected to a barrage over the years resulting in a quite noticeable degradation in my auditory abilities. At work, at home, even in the car - I am unable to play the music as loudly so as to make it clear. As such, I have come to the conclusion that for many years I have not truly been "listening" to the music I am listening to.

For example, listening to Mahler's 7th through headphones, I am suddenly aware of the mandolin and guitar in the Nachtmusik section. I have never heard them before! The intricate subtleties of the woodwinds - so distant before - are now so clear and beguiling. As one who has grown tired of my enormous music collection I suddenly feel like I have won the lottery. By listening through headphones I have in a sense doubled my collection - for I can now go back through and listen and hear everything anew.

How did I forget? Once, music through headphones was a source of incredible pleasure for me: a solace for loneliness, a comforting cocoon of sound, shimmering textures of primal bliss. I remember hours spent in my room growing up - tapped in, so to speak. I recall with some humor and awe actual tears brought on by an especially beautiful recording and a joint of fine Jamaican Red in a friend's basement long ago. Before the advent of "ear plugs" - headphones used to be the size of toasters. I wore a pair (which only included AM radio - state of the art at the time - wow, does that date me!) of those humongous things that winter in the sawmill - and I am still indebted to Billy Joel and Steely Dan for helping me along in that dismal season of dreadful conditions made worse by terrible music: I have little doubt that they saved my life.

So here I am again - stating the obvious. To all you headphone listeners - whether it be mp3s or 78's - keep it up. But if you are one like me - who hasn't had a chance to sit down with a favorite recording and put on the headphones - I highly recommend purchasing a pair (they are quite reasonable) and taking the time to get reacquainted with the joys of the headphone experience. I guarantee you'll come away refreshed and with a smile on your face. Just remember that you have them on if you have to get up for any reason.

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