The noise of summer

At the end of every school year, we who stay home with the kids face one certainty: It's about to get a lot louder around the house.

In summer, homes fill with round-the-clock chatter, along with the shrieks and threats of sibling interaction, soon followed by the crashes and "uh-ohs" of the latest spill. It can be distracting, but we work-at-home parents carefully tune out all these sounds while we concentrate on our calendars, counting the days until school resumes.

Noise radiates off children the way heat waves rise from car roofs. Kids can't help it. They're easily excited, and there's so much to be excited about. To them, the world is a brand-new place, full of wonder and adventure and siblings who'll squeal when you pinch them. All these discoveries mean that kids have a million things to say, and it's the parents' job to listen, no matter how inane the topic.

But what if the parent is distracted by money woes or job humiliations or a persistent itch? Or, God forbid, the parent is trying to work? A rambling lecture on the various super-powers of the characters in "Dragon Ball Z" -- complete with sound effects -- can be difficult to track even when you're paying attention. When you've got a lot on your mind, it's hard to focus on a child's prattle. And, let's face it, we all have a lot on our minds. Always.

We parents learn to pretend to listen, to yawn with our mouths closed, while the children go on and on. And the kids learn this and begin to use it, slipping in outrageous requests while Dad is in his "mm-hmm" mode. Pretty soon, Dad has agreed to send the 13-year-old to Cancun for the next nine spring breaks, if he can only get some quiet around here.

Some parents just give up and buy earplugs for the summer, but others try to manage the sound level of the children. At our house, I enforce a rule called "No random noise." Our two sons know that when I say, "That's random noise," they should stop whatever tapping, rapping, snapping, popping, cracking, shrieking, screaming, stomping, snorting or gibberish-spewing they've been doing for the past 20 minutes. When Dad mentions "random noise," it means the noise is getting to him and he could blow at any time. My sons know they should move a safe distance away and take up some other noise-making activity until the next warning comes.

Funny thing is, when no kids are around, it's too quiet. When they're in school all day, I often make random noise of my own, just to fill up some of the overwhelming silence.

I talk to myself all the time, even though I never listen. I give myself tons of perfectly good advice, then ignore it all in heat-of-the-moment, knee-jerk responses that blow asunder my well-laid plans and make all my self-advice a big waste of air. But I keep talking, trying to get through to myself, leaving a trail of mutter through the house. Sometimes, I address my remarks to the dog, just so I can pretend I'm not crazy.

Other times, I'll catch myself humming or whistling, even singing snatches of songs that have gotten wedged in my head, just to break up the quiet around here. In this manner, home-bound adults can produce entire soundtracks for their workdays, complete with the occasional "ta-da" or "voila" to mark an accomplishment. Sure, it's random noise, but we can get away with it because we're alone.

Now the kids are home for the summer, bringing with them the seasonal Wall of Sound, the random noise and the sibling-pinching, and it won't be silent again until fall. I'll go back to arising before dawn, just to get a quiet hour in which to work. And, through the long summer days with the boys, I'll work a little here and there, whenever one of those momentary silences falls over the house.

I'll still talk to myself, but now I won't have to pretend I'm talking to the dog. Instead, I can pretend to talk to my sons. And they can pretend to listen.

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