Originally posted on: http://www.stevenazarian.com/people/background-noise/
In the 1990 movie, The Hunt For Red October, there is a scene where a clever sonar operator named Jones, finds something in a sound where nobody else could.
The Americans were trolling around the north Atlantic looking for a Soviet sub called the Red October. This particular sub had a new mode of propulsion making it effectively invisible to conventional sonar by blending in with the ambient noises of the ocean.
So after listening to hours and hours of what everyone thought were simply normal sounds, the sonar operator decides to try something. He takes a recording of the “nothing” and speeds it up. When he does this he hears a mechanical clicking noise that does not sound like the ocean.
In discussing what he has found, the dialogue between him and Commander Mancuso goes like this:
Jones: When I asked the computer to identify it, what I got was ‘magma displacement’. You see, sir, SAPS software was originally written to look for seismic events. And when it gets confused, it kind of ‘runs home to mama’.
Mancuso: I’m not following you, Jonesy.
Jones: Sorry, sir. Listen to it at times speed. [Plays tape.] Now that’s gotta be man made, Captain.
Mancuso: Have I got this straight, Jonesy? A forty million dollar computer tells you you’re chasing an earthquake, but you don’t believe it? And you come up with this on your own?
Jones: Yes, sir.
Mancuso: Including all the navigational math?
Jones: Sir, I-I’ve got-
Mancuso: Relax, Jonesy, you sold me!
The Soviet sub could sonically disappear, but Jonsey figured a way to flush them out… he filtered out the background noise.
New Years Day 2006 was cold and sunny. My wife Emily had risen early to go into the hospital to be the pediatrician-on-call in the intensive care unit for the day, leaving me alone with the four children: Charlotte 5, Lewis 4, Oliver 3, and my youngest Lawrence was two weeks shy of his second birthday.
We slept a little later than normal, but after breakfast it quickly became clear that we needed to get out of the house. Since it was winter in Rochester we opted for the best thing one can ever do on such a day… go sledding.
My high school “go-to” hill in Ellison Park was more than my diminutive kids could handle, so I opted for a slightly smaller hill in Mendon Ponds Park. After all, this was going to be Lawrence’s first sledding experience; I needed to start him off slowly… but not too slowly.
I installed fresh diapers for those who needed them, and bundled everyone up in their snuggly best. We loaded two plastic sleds into the back of the Grand Caravan and off we went.
Being the morning of New Year’s Day, the park was empty. We unloaded, and quickly covered the short walk to the top of the hill.
The sunshine reflecting off the bright, white snow was almost unbearable, but when you live in a place that must endure a long, dark winter you’ll put up with just about anything for a sunny day, even partial blindness.
Charlotte and Lewis were old pros, making quick work of sledding down and jaunting back up the hill. Oliver did a couple runs, but ultimately decided the thrill of the sled was not worth the effort of the walk. Since I refused to carry him back up, he plunked himself down at the top of the hill content to just watch.
Lawrence seemed to be enjoying his first day on the hill. He and I shared a few runs together, but not too long into the fun, Charlotte and Lewis were begging to have a go with their youngest brother.
I loaded all three of them into a single sled; Charlotte at the bow, Lawrence in the middle and Lewis manning the stern. By this time they had worn some nice, slick trails into the hill. We maneuvered the sled to the top of one of the trails and let it fly.
They got off to a good start, but Lawrence’s boots were hanging off the side of the sled, not such that they were slowing them down, but enough that a steady stream of snow was being kicked up into his face. The three of them were actually going pretty fast. I watched powerless from the top of the hill, next to Oliver who was voluntarily stuffing his face with snow.
Lawrence started screaming, and as they reached the bottom of the hill, the sled did one of those ninety-degree fishtails and tipped over on its right side as it came to rest.
With one eye on a stationary Oliver, I sprinted down the hill to quell the crying and make everyone happy again. By the time I got to them, Lawrence was in a full-blown howl. Charlotte and Lewis were dusting themselves off, but seemed no worse for the experience.
I brushed the snow from Lawrence’s rosy face, but that didn’t help, and he continued to cry as I carried him back up the hill. We both sat down with Oliver while Charlotte and Lewis continued to sled for the next thirty minutes.
Lawrence calmed down, and not too much later we decided to call it a day. As I carried him back to the car he whined a little, but generally he seemed better. When we got back to the van, I put the sleds in back, but as I was loading Lawrence into his car seat he started screaming again. I figured he had a loaded diaper, so I simply slid the door closed and decided I would change it at home.
As we drove the twenty minutes home, the kids were fairly quiet in their seats.
We pulled into the driveway and as I pulled Lawrence from his car seat, he started crying again. “Okay buddy, I’ll change your diaper now and you’ll be happy,” I said as we walked into the house.
Without putting him down I pulled my youngest out of his snowsuit, but his reaction was ugly. As I pulled the zipper past his waist, Lawrence started crying again. I thought to myself that this must be one whopper of a diaper load.
I carried the screaming child across the kitchen and into the family room where we kept the changing station. I laid him down expecting the mother of all doodies, but as I cracked open the Huggie… I saw nothing. To say the least I was confused, so I began a little investigation.
After a few minutes of poking and prodding I found the problem…
the boy had a broken leg.
My brother Doug’s wife is also an intensive care physician, and he and I have always joked that when our wives leave us home on the weekend with the children, our only job is to keep them out of the emergency room. As we drove to the hospital, I called my brother to inform him that I was the first one to fall. To this day, he still has a perfect record.
Now I recognize that “father of the year” is not exactly the right term to describe a guy who managed to miss his two-year-old’s broken leg for the better part of an hour, but in my defense I give you two words… background noise.
At the time, Lawrence’s many modes of communicating were as follows:
- I’m hungry = Cry
- I have a load in my pants = Cry
- I have soap in my eyes = Cry
- I’m tired = Cry
- My brother/sister just stole my toy = Cry
- The dog just stole my cookie = Cry
- I just got snow in my face from sledding too fast = Cry
So, how was I to know this particular cry was a new one… broken leg?
The world we live in is noisy. We are so accustomed to a minimum of background noise that we don’t even remember what quiet is until the occasional power outage.
Take some time to look at the nosiest parts of your life, and try to develop some filters that will help you see and hear things, despite what is omnipresent in the background. If you can manage it, you might find that missing submarine, the reason your baby is crying, and maybe, just maybe, something else entirely.