x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

It's a far cry from silence

From shrieks to cries to gurgles, life with a baby is rarely quiet.

Unsullied by years of raucous concerts and iPod headphones, a baby's ears are very sensitive, Robert Carroll says.
Unsullied by years of raucous concerts and iPod headphones, a baby's ears are very sensitive, Robert Carroll says.

Noise rarely troubles me. I've slept through earthquakes and studied amid traffic jams. Over the years, the city din has become my default. A few years ago I shared a dwelling with someone who could move furniture with the volume of the music he played. It was not just loud and repetitive. It was an earth-juddering, sonic experiment. Children make a lot of noise. From shrieks and cries to gurgles and scratches, they tend only to fall quiet when they go to sleep. At home, this is fine. Astrid can make as much racket as she likes. But venturing out with a baby feels in some ways like carrying a grenade: you walk around waiting for it to go off. I am no longer a person in the mall or airport or street who sees screaming children and skulks off in the other direction. I am at the source, watching people scurry away.

In truth, a noisy baby only bothers me now and again. After all, silence - the total lack of noise - is an illusion. Even in an idyllic pastoral setting miles from the nearest person, there is always something - the twitter of birds, the rustle of wind through blades of grass - to give us the impression that we exist. In 1948 the composer John Cage went to the anechoic chamber at Harvard University in search of complete and utter silence. The room was soundproofed and designed to absorb any sounds made within it. Cage was surprised by what he heard: two sounds: one high and one low. He emerged from the chamber and described the noises to the engineer. The high noise, he was told, was his nerves humming and the low noise was his blood pumping. In the absence of sounds outside, the body turns its attention inside. On the basis of this experience, Cage went on to compose 4'33", a three-movement work in which the musicians play no notes nor make any deliberate sounds. The piece's music comes solely from the ambient sounds in the concert hall.

A performance of Cage's work in Abu Dhabi would be interesting. On any day, 273 seconds - the length of the work - would probably include car horns, drilling, banging, scraping and tapping. Perhaps the screech of cats fighting or the clang of dustbins would emerge. In such an environment, a cacophony can crescendo pretty quickly, especially when babies are involved. One moment Astrid is asleep, the next someone outside is pipping his or her car horn demanding attention from a shop owner. Astrid is suddenly awake and crying. She continues with horn accompaniment like an experimental jazz singer. The chorus seems to grow louder and louder until it reaches its peak. The car horn dies down and Astrid goes back to sleep.

One of the things about having children is that you are not just gaining an extra set of lungs and vocal chords, but an extra set of ears as well. These ears, as yet unsullied by years of abuse from raucous concerts and iPod headphones, are very sensitive. Some people advocate machines that spew out white noise to help babies stay asleep. The white noise blocks out other sounds that might disturb the baby. Fortunately, our flat comes with a similar contraption, which purrs away night and day: the air conditioning unit provides a continual background murmur. Without it, even a few minutes of quiet would be unobtainable in this noisy city.

Teething is a world of pain and dribble. Rarely does it happen as early as three months, but Astrid's teeth started sprouting around that time. Drool pours from her mouth. She is forever trying to gnaw on things. She cries out at odd moments. She tugs her ear a lot, which apparently means "ow" in baby semaphore. With teething comes pain and with pain comes painkillers. Paracetamol for babies comes in strawberry syrup. It is sugar-free but the ingredients portray a manufacturer willing to go to great lengths to include flavours that make the product taste fruity and sweet. It also contains colouring to make it red.

This seems strange: Astrid knows neither the taste of sugar nor of strawberries. Her palette is monotone yet the maker is keen she should not miss out on something she does not yet know she is missing. Obviously the product is made to appeal to the buyers (parents), not the users (babies), but why not make it taste of carrots or curry or pea soup?