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Noise. It's everywhere these days. Step outside and we walk into a world of ear-splitting, nerve-grating noise: tires squealing, radios blaring, chain saws and lawn mowers drowning out the soothing sounds of nature and replacing them with sounds more aptly measured on the Richter scale.

The cacophony is inescapable. Enter almost any fast-food restaurant, where rap music seems to be the order of the day, and be prepared for an auditory assault that's guaranteed to cause a migraine headache, indigestion or both.

Romantic singers like Bing Crosby, Doris Day and Nat King Cole have been supplanted by vocalists who sing in a stratospheric range high enough to puncture eardrums and shatter glass. Whatever happened to music that once soothed the savage beast?

I can't tell you how many weddings I've been prematurely driven from by DJs who set the speaker volume at a level programmed to collapse the roof. Conversation with anyone at the table is next to impossible. How many times have I tried lip-reading and nodded my head, pretending I could actually hear what the person beside me was shouting in my ear?

Is it possible to be put on hold during a phone call without having your head filled with some kind of noise? And remember when doctor's offices used to be quiet places where you could read magazines and relax until called?

Now a television is strategically placed so that you're forced to sit like a captive zombie listening either to CNN blaring news of another Baghdad explosion or the sudden high decibel interruption of one commercial after another.

Apparently, noise is a form of happiness. After all, what would a party be without a rock band to blow out the walls? And consider how hard we work on New Year's Eve with our horns and rattles to create an illusion of merriment. I don't find it surprising that more and more people are wearing hearing aids these days. In fact, it's surprising that more people are not.

Chatter has replaced conversation. Consider those computer chat rooms. Millions of inane exchanges are going on at any given moment. We seem to crave constant communication of any kind. Enter almost any home at any time and you'll find the television on, whether someone is watching or not. Some of us even have to sneak off to sleep with the radio going, relying on a timer to turn it off.

People today seem to abhor silence the way nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe it's simply because life has become so stressful that we must constantly distract ourselves with noise of any kind to keep from thinking or confronting our inner selves.

It's as if the population has reverted to its infancy. Staying in constant touch seems to be as essential as food and air. Notice how many people walk around with cell phones growing out of their ears, all the while sucking on water bottles. Like babies who must be constantly distracted and pacified, we've become dependent on noise and the babbling voices of virtually anyone seeking our attention.

To some extent, most of us contribute to this modern madness. Perhaps if we turn off the television and the radio for a while and listen to the sound of silence, we might actually find ourselves relaxing. We may even find that being alone with one's thoughts isn't so scary.

JIM COSTA lives in Elma.