Quiet Enjoyment

On sleeping with earplugs, and the futility of trying to block out the world.

A serene woman wearing earplugs that block out a chaotic black and red abstract environment.
Doris Liou

I have this fantasy of a magical device that translates all unwanted noise into birdsong. Or weather sounds. The sound of someone snoring would become the sound of spring rain. A chainsaw would become a gentle breeze. I imagine this thing as an unobtrusive presence that absorbs raw material and makes something better out of it, a bit like the tiny solar-powered Queen of England that sits on my windowsill—when the sun shines on her, she does her little campy wave. Each night before I go to bed, when I’m wedging lumps of cold putty into my ears to block out the sounds of my upstairs neighbors, I think of my foolish invention.

Anyway, about a year ago, I got new upstairs neighbors. They run a nursery up there during the day, and at night the person directly above my bedroom snores loudly and makes—I can only describe them as—quite strange sounds, and sometimes cackles apocalyptically into the night. It’s not their fault that the floor between us doesn’t have proper insulation to permit the “quiet enjoyment” that the famous covenant promises tenants of rental properties. I probably do weird things in my sleep too. After trying to manage the noise by moving my bed to the other side of the room, playing rain sounds, meditating, practicing gratitude, speaking to my landlord, and one time getting so upset that I threw my bicycle at the wall, I knew that it was time to give earplugs a proper go. I’d tried the ubiquitous foam ones before, mostly when traveling, but my ears could never get any purchase on them. If I yawned or chewed, the plugs just fell out. You wouldn’t think this is embarrassing, but it is.

Sleep is big business now. The earplugs scene, especially, is out of control. Some of these earplugs look like they’re designed for sleeping with your head inside a leaf blower. I visited some online forums for guidance. People talked knowledgeably about foam versus flanged, domes versus cylinders, bone conduction, how to avoid ear infections, and the importance of bringing noise-absorbing furniture and carpets into your home. It was comforting to find this community of people sharing noise-masking solutions. The tone was brisk and practical but sympathetic. Someone issued a gentle precaution re: silicone earplugs, one set of which “refused to be removed, disintegrating in my ears and causing (temporary) hearing loss, which was quite disconcerting.” (Apparently this should not happen if you follow the instructions.) I learned that I’d been putting foam earplugs in wrong—the recommended way is the Roll Pull Hold Method, where you roll the earplug between your fingers, pull the top of your ear up and back, then insert the earplug and hold it there as it expands to fill your ear canal, an odd but satisfying sensation that feels like having tiny furred animals burrowing in your ears momentarily. The demonstration videos for the method are mesmerizing, appalling—ears flying through space, close-ups of fingers squishing foam suggestively, expressions blank while ears are pulled. The top-of-the-line earplugs are probably Bose’s Noise-Masking Sleepbuds, which come with “pre-loaded, soothing sounds,” but those cost hundreds of dollars, and in the ad it looks suspiciously like the man who is wearing them has a nice, quiet apartment anyway.

I got some Mack’s silicone putty. Putty is meant to be good for sleeping, as it’s soft and moldable. It comes in translucent bricks, which you roll firmly into spheres then press over each ear cavity, creating a seal. I was excited once I’d sealed my ears the first evening. I couldn’t hear anything! My entire head felt sealed tight. It was thrilling to find that, whatever else was happening in the building, I had the option of peacefulness, of taking myself away, as if disappearing through a trapdoor.

Then, as I settled down to sleep, I realized: I couldn’t hear anything on the outside. But I could hear everything on the inside. I could hear my breathing, my swallowing, the creaky symphony of skin, hair, blood, dust. It was like that Simpsons scene in church when, during a prayer, Flanders is enraged by Homer’s whistling nose. The sense of body amplification is called the occlusion effect—when your ear canal is blocked, the sound vibrations conducted by bone and cartilage are trapped. Normally, these vibrations escape through the ear canal and you don’t register their presence. But with a blocked ear, the vibrations are reflected back to the eardrum, so you perceive them as unusually loud. The most unsettling thing was being able to hear the pulse of my blood. The pulse was relentless, heavy, like a yeti trudging through snow. It made me feel my mortality, the very thing I am trying not to think about late at night.

But putty is effective, because it blocks out snoring and sleep-talking, and during the night you adjust to the occlusion. I could still hear vibrations—stomping and door slamming and the experimental sound art that all the upstairs neighbors are making these days. Still, I persevered for several months. You can also reuse putty up to five times. This is convenient, but gross. The two bits of putty end up covered in hair and earwax and lint. They nestle on your bedside table like two huge horrible teeth. It was the grossness that compelled me to venture back out into the earplug scene.

Because I’d been Googling earplugs, my Instagram feed was overflowing with sleep aids. One ever-present ad was for a set of hi-tech earplugs by the British company Flare Audio, whose products have been praised by Jimmy Page and Jarvis Cocker. Ergonomically shaped and “easy to fit and remove for the smallest ear canals,” the earplugs had a metal core with memory foam stuck on the ends, a package that was designed to “turn the volume of the world down drastically.” Could I really spend $60 on something I would immediately lose? As I scrolled through the reviews, my upstairs neighbor apparently rolled a fleet of bowling balls across the floor. And so, a few weeks later, a tiny package arrived in the mail.

It was when I was unboxing these fancy earplugs, excited, thinking that my life was definitely about to change, that I sort of … saw myself, and wondered if I was going a bit mad. I’ve always paid close attention to what’s around me; it helps me both as a writer and, more generally, as a person trying to become less confused. But increasingly, I find my attention latching onto mildly troubling things and not being able to let go, as if my inner self has been replaced by a rolled-up ball of all the very worst letters to the editor. Perhaps it’s this tendency as much as the world’s volume that I’ve been trying to muffle.

I wondered if my endeavor to achieve a measure of quietness was having a kind of meta occlusion effect, making me feel not only hypersensitive to any disturbance at all in my flat, no matter how benign, but also oddly trapped inside my existence as a solo renter in the city. I’m more aware of being at the mercy of landlords than I’ve ever been. I sense the rumblings of another rent increase and the admonishments to get on the property ladder already. As I search for a new place, I see how much more inhospitable renting has become and how formidably expensive property is, and my mortality starts thudding away.

At any rate, the Flare earplugs are fine. I have not lost them yet. They seem to filter sound frequencies more evenly than putty or standard foam, so the occlusion effect is minimized. They come closer than anything else I’ve owned to being the Babel fish of my dreams, translating noise to the language of sleep. And they come with a little bag. Sometimes, I watch myself opening the little bag, retrieving the earplugs, and diligently performing the Roll Pull Hold, and I feel 200 years old. But the earplugs do a decent job; at least, they do when I can get them to stay in my ears all night. More than once, I’ve woken to an unholy cascade of farts in the room above my head and realized that the earplugs have abandoned ship. Then I reach for the putty. The earplug is so obvious an invention that it seems somehow right that it is flawed, like Microsoft Word, or a suit made out of sleeping bags. I am grateful to have this tiny, portable, ever-present gateway to some kind of quiet. However imperfect that quiet; however precarious the place.