Utility player

Before you call to inquire: Yes, my refrigerator is running.

So is my deep-freeze and my dishwasher and the washer-and-dryer. The furnace roars. The computer fan whirs. Somewhere, a toilet is mysteriously running. That infernal fluorescent light in the kitchen is buzzing again. And I can't get any work done.

With the kids safely imprisoned in school, the home office should be quiet as a tomb. But no, the child-free home turns out to be a lively place, a regular disco full of sounds and smells and lights left on in empty rooms.

I carefully schedule my home-office time to coincide with the hours when my two sons are safely in school. I need absolute quiet when I'm working, and there's no chance of that happening if my children are anywhere within three city blocks of my desk.

In the sudden silence, background noise steps boldly to the foreground.

An example: Various heaters in our house are going around the clock, preserving that greenhouse effect that keeps my wife's plants thriving and the rest of us in "tropical wear." The constant growl of the burners becomes like static over a phone line. We talk over it. We turn up the TV a notch. Pretty soon, we don't even notice the heaters.

But when I sit at my desk and try to wrap myself in silent concentration, the heaters boom like endless thunder. I notice one is making a ticking noise, and I start to worry. I jump up and go examine the heater for any sign of flame or smoke or other malfunction. (It's a given that I know absolutely nothing about how heaters work, but I'm compelled to go check.)

This is how I spend my work-day -- playing "What's That Noise?" Jumping up and running around the house, then returning to my desk with no idea what I was doing originally.

Partly, this is because we've made so many plumbing/furnace/flood repairs to our old house over the years. I always expect the worst when the place makes an unfamiliar creak. Partly, it's because I'm so focused on the quiet, that every noise-- no matter how inobtrusive -- feels like a jolt to my brain.

We recently added to the household din by purchasing a half-size deep-freeze, mostly to store the annual harvest of roasted green chile.

(I'd love to tell you how my wife saved the delivery fee by driving the new freezer home herself -- the huge box jutting from the back seat of her top-down convertible -- but there isn't room here, and you wouldn't believe it anyway.)

The deep-freeze runs just as quiet as any other modern major appliance, which is to say just loud enough to penetrate your subconscious, even when you're at the far end of the house.

My problem: The new freezer has a nervous, high-pitched motor, which sounds like water singing in the pipes. Since it's parked near a bathroom, I trek to that end of the house, oh, 37 times a day to see if someone left the water running or if that long-balky toilet has finally run amok. What I find is the freezer, whining along, doing its job.

The freezer shares a room with the washer and dryer. Our regular refrigerator is right around the corner. When they all get going at once, it's a regular symphony of hissing water and tumbling jeans and humming compressors and the ka-chunk of the icemaker. Listen closely, and you can practically hear the electricity being sucked from the grid by those huddled appliances, a portent of whopping electric bills to come. And that, folks, is why they call it the "utility room."

The music of the appliances eventually starts sounding like the ringing of a cash register at the power company. All that money constantly flowing out of the house, so the house in turn can make enough noise to drive me crazy.

The sounds should be an impetus for me to get busy and make some new money. And I will, just as soon as I can get some quiet around here.

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