OPEN YOUR EARS – BY UNPLUGGING THEM

I was coming through an airport recently and found myself next to a tall young man who was smiling my way. Trying to be polite, I smiled back. He nodded his head. I nodded in turn.

Had we had met before, I wondered? Had I forgotten his name? Where would I know him from? Was it work? Personal? Someone from my past? Quick. Think!

I smiled again. I nodded some more.

Then he turned to the side – and I frowned.

Headphones.

Little white headphones, snaking from his ears to under his sweatshirt, disappearing into, I suppose, an iPod somewhere. He wasn’t nodding at me, he was bouncing to the beat. The smile he threw my way came from something he was hearing, not the face he was seeing. He was there, but he wasn’t there, you know?

It’s not the first time this has happened. More and more it seems, people go out in public in body only. Their mind and consciousness is dripping out their ears and down a wire into a portable device. A cell phone. An iPod. A small TV. A DVD player showing a full-length movie.

“Tune in, turn on, drop out” was a phrase my generation invented in the ’60s.

We didn’t mean iTunes.

Music to and from the arena

Now, I am not allergic to headphones. I got my first pair when I was a teenager, big, round, earmuff things that weighed a ton. They sat on my head like the headgear of a Gemini astronaut – or a Dallas Cowboy.

But they only went as far as the cord that was connected to my stereo. Mostly, I wore them to not wake up my parents.

Today, headphones are as much an accessory as a belt. Subway riders wear them. People working out wear them. Pro athletes wear them to the arena, from the arena and sometimes during interviews.

You get on a bus, the person next to you wears headphones. On a plane they tune out as soon as electronic devices are OK (and sometimes before). You can buy headphones almost anywhere. Newspaper stands. Drugstores.

It’s not that I am antimusic, antivideo or antiphone call. You get a lot out of all those things. But at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I would caution any younger, headphone-addicted readers that’s it’s not always what you’re getting.

Sometimes it’s what you’re missing.

The sounds of silence

For example, people. It’s true, some strangers you’d just as soon not talk to. But folks used to strike up conversations on buses or planes, because there really wasn’t much else to do. “Where you heading?” was a common line. Today you ask that, it means you’re weird or desperate.

Nature. You can’t hear birds with plugs in your ears. Or gusting wind. Or the sound of rain hitting rooftops. Sitting on a beach may be nice to do with the Black Eyed Peas in your ears, but there is something to be said for the crash of waves and the squawk of seagulls.

And then there is the simple sound of nothing. As a post-college kid, I once got stranded at a railroad station in Yugoslavia.

It was hours until the next train. I had nothing to read, couldn’t speak the language and the station was in the middle of nowhere. So I sat there, my back against the wall, alone in the hot sun. It was just … quiet.

Do you know, I still can remember that sensation? I remember it as well as I remember any song or video. It was haunting. It was real. It was something I miss: the sound of the world at rest.

Do we even know how to be at rest anymore? Have we become so addicted to input – noise, ads, Internet, cell phones – that being still is alien?

I think about that tall guy at the airport, nodding his head at me, and I wonder if he ever knew I was there. They used to say if a stranger smiles at you, check his eyes. Today you check his ears.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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