Turn down the noise.

July 12, 2012 · 18 comments

Things have seemed very loud lately.

Last week on my commute into the city, a woman eight rows behind me yammered for a full hour into her Blackberry about her boyfriend’s mysterious affliction.

“Chuck’s skin is getting really weird –” she whined, as we pulled out of Stamford.

For the love of god, I sighed.

There’s nothing you can do, Susan whispered, so just try and ignore her. She closed her eyes and slept while I sat there, wanting to stand up and shout at the top of my lungs:

What the hell is wrong with you?

Were you raised in a hole?

Do you think that any one of us on this train gives a fat rat’s behind about Chuck’s rash?

All I wanted — all I longed for — was sweet quiet before the onslaught of the day. Instead, I was stuck — a prisoner in a hermetically-sealed metal tube hurtling through the wealthy northern suburbs of Manhattan — listening to a middle-aged woman with the vocal projection capacity of Ethel Merman wax rhapsodic about her Chuck, who was apparently bringing home vast quantities of Calamine lotion and leaving no room in the bathroom for her hair stuff.

I need room, she bellowed into her phone, for my hair stuff! 

I pulled my iPad out of my bag, turned it on, and went directly to Pinterest to look at some puppies. A minute or so later, I tapped over to Grist to read about Bloomberg’s ban on big soda, and followed the article to the Times, where some red state person was caterwalling about choice. It was his choice, he said, to drink something big if that’s what he wanted. It was his choice, he went on, to inform himself about it, or not.

Funny how these guys all scream CHOICE but they don’t believe in labeling genetically-modified products, so people don’t know what they’re CHOOSING, huh-– I said to Susan, nudging her in the ribs.

I’m trying to sleep, she groaned, her eyes closed.

Sorry, I muttered, and went back to Pinterest. There was Heidi Swanson’s page, and some fabulous shoes that I really love but could never wear because of my bunion. And a gorgeous pearl gray kimono-style frock that I fell in love with, but that would make me look like my Grandma Bertha’s 1954 Frigidaire. There were some kittens on someone else’s animal page. There was a bunch of gorgeous, smiling Bhutanese children on my travel page. I clicked over to a vintage furniture page and considered replacing my 1935 French dining room chairs with fiberglass Eames shell chairs — they bounce and I have playful cats — and by the time I opened my iBook folder to read a chapter of Jon Kabat-Zinn on stillness, I had pretty much managed to block out Chuck’s rash. By then, my brain already felt tired and doughy and completely hung over—like a mash-up of melting cotton candy, Silly Putty, and styrofoam packing peanuts—and it was virtually impossible to focus on anything at work until I’d had two liters of water followed by a triple espresso, which meant that I spent the rest of the day running down the hall to the ladies’ room. TMI, I know. Forgive me.

We were back on the train that night with no plans for dinner. We picked up a frozen pizza on the way home, ate it in front of the television with too much wine, and were in bed by ten thirty. While Susan slept soundly next to me, my heart raced and pounded — I was a swirl of cortisol-drenched crazy — and I was asleep by three, which gave me exactly two hours of rest until the alarm clock went off. By six, I was back on the train, iPad in hand, back on Pinterest, and trying to figure out what font Prospector Co. used on the labeling of their Burrough’s Beard Oil, and why anyone would sell those old-fashioned, striped paper straws that get slimy and gross the minute you drink anything out of them.

It was not yet 6:30 am.

It’s an amazingly loud world that we live in; it sneaks up and draws us into its clutches like a lothario, and before we know it we’re whirling dervishes, spinning down and down, even if we’re standing perfectly still and not moving a muscle. The problem is, unless you’re on vacation — and there was a whole article recently published in the New York Times about why it takes us as long as it does to unplug when we remove ourselves from our day-to-day — it’s virtually impossible to not run headlong into loudness pretty much everywhere. Fast food is loud; it screams in your face, BIG, SPEEDY, DELICIOUS, CHEAP. The digital world, of which I am (obviously) an active, card-carrying member, is loud: it feeds us snippets of information in tiny, quick bites, whether we’re reading The Atlantic or our Twitter feeds or a beautifully curated Pinterest page. Mean, cruel people, even in their deafening quiet, are loud. Tall food that you have to figure out how to eat is loud; so is frozen food shoved down your craw while watching television. Commuting long distances is loud. A thousand silent people sitting on a train and punching notes into their Blackberries with apoplectic fury is loud.

What is it about us? What is it that makes us so afraid of quiet—of quiet reading, and living, and working, and cooking? Why do we feel the need to jump from one thing to the next to the next, with nothing but a thin, fraying thread of connection — the ubiquitous version of Amazon’s “If you like this, you’ll like this” — tying our lives together? Why do we think it’s okay to sit on a train traveling from point A to point B and shout at the top of our lungs about our most personal situations? Do we rattle through life terrified of being so disappointed by everything and everyone around us — including the mundanity of quiet food and quiet living — that the only way to psychically protect ourselves is to hide behind the noise of digital puppies and foie gras lollipops?

What, exactly, are we so frightened of?

Last week, I left my iPad at home and took the actual New Yorker —the print version, remember it…with the print that rubs off on your sweaty fingertips? — on my commute, which is something I haven’t done in ages. I read it cover-to-cover; I felt calmer, my brain felt clearer and fresher when I got to work, and I slept like a baby that night. At noon, I removed myself from my office, walked ten blocks south, and ate a small lunch at a quiet sandwich shop: I read the Times, and got newsprint all over my fingers. Over the weekend, I bought a small, boneless leg of lamb and rubbed it with kalamata olive tapenade and dried lemon; instead of grilling it on our pushbutton-ignition, propane-fueled Weber, I roasted it slowly on Susan’s late father’s, patent-pending, avocado green Weber kettle grill. Don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t trying to shoehorn myself into some sort of prepackaged preciousness; I was just trying to catch my breath.

I didn’t miss the familiar pop of the gas jets catching, or the tick of the ignition. The lamb cooked lazily; I basted it every so often with olive oil and rosemary, moving it from one side of the grill to the other if it got too hot, or cooked too fast. We let it rest a good long time, and it was rich and delicious; that lovely red smoke ring that comes only with fire and time was there too, barely perceptible.

I sliced it, plated it, and took a Hipstamatic picture of it. And as if the universe was conspiring against my returning to my loud life, I promptly lost my cell phone.

Grill-Roasted Lamb with Tapenade and Lemon

When Susan and I moved to our house in Connecticut, I immediately went out and bought a gas grill, and had it hooked up to our stove’s propane line. I wanted it for its expedience: you turn it on and seconds later, it’s hot. And cooking on a gas grill also allows you to multitask while preparing dishes that, on a charcoal grill, would need your (mostly) undivided attention: a rack of ribs can hold at 225 degrees on a gas grill for hours while you do laundry or clean the kitchen. A chicken can roast at 400 while you’re on a conference call in another part of the house. Traditional, live-fire, charcoal grills need you to focus, to not stray, to get quiet and pay attention to what you’re doing, especially if you’re cooking a high-fat meat, like lamb. Here, the pungent combination of olive paste and my new favorite ingredient — dried lemon, purchased in a Lebanese grocery store — cut through the meat’s richness. Leftovers are delicious the next day, drizzled with a garlicky yogurt sauce.

Serves 4 with leftovers

1 4 pound leg of lamb, boned out and butterflied

2 tablespoons tapenade

1 teaspoon dried lemon

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 garlic clove, minced

salt and pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

The day before serving, lay the butterflied lamb on your kitchen work surface skin-side down and massage the tapenade and dried lemon into the meat evenly. Roll the meat up and tie it with kitchen string at inch intervals.

In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, olive oil, and red wine vinegar, and pour into a large freezer bag big enough to hold the meat. Place the meat in the bag, zip it closed, and place the bag in a bowl, turning the bag over repeatedly to make sure the meat is fully coated in the marinade. Refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. Remove 2 hours before cooking (reserving the marinade), and let the meat come to room temperature.

Remove the grate from a clean charcoal grill, and using a coal chimney, prepare a medium hot fire; when the coals are ready, use a long-handled spoon (and a heat-proof mitt) to pile them up on one side of the grill. Replace the grate, and set the lamb down on the side opposite the coals. Cover and roast for 40 minutes, turning the meat every 15 minutes, and basting it regularly with the reserved marinade. When the temperature of the meat registers 120 on an instant-read thermometer, remove it to a platter, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 15 minutes. Snip the twine and slice the meat thinly; serve immediately.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cynthia A. July 12, 2012 at 3:40 pm

How many ways can I say I agree? Trains? Love them. People talking endlessly on their phones while on trains? Hate them. Weber charcoal grills? Love them, have personally tried very hard to not even learn how to turn on a gas grill. Coal chimney? Can’t live without it. Grilled lamb? I wish I knew you better so I could invite myself over for dinner. Great post.

2 Elissa July 12, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Thanks Cynthia!

3 Marina July 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I know ultimately this is about what sounds like a really lovely lamb dish, but the noise part really resonates with me. I know I have mountains of things I should do after dinner to catch up with all our life’s crazy but I go through spurts where I excuse myself, tuck into a chair or bed in the absolute quiet and read real books and the New York Times Magazine that my neighbor so graciously drops in my mail slot once a week. I work at home so I don’t have to commute or work in an office and yet all the input from every day life catches up quickly and without that blissful quiet of climbing into someone else’s story or opening my brain to new, fascinating ideas, I would likely go crazy. It seems obvious that we all need the break, but it is good to be reminded to tuck into yourself every once in a while.

4 Liz July 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Your writing really is lovely, Elissa.

5 dervla @ The Curator July 12, 2012 at 3:54 pm

brilliant, brilliant piece. Loved this! I’m not able to grill in the city but will remember this for my next outdoor cooking experience.

6 Antonia Allegra July 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Elissa – Life on amplifiers has no interest for me. Yours is an excellent observation of subduing what we fear by turning to noise. Here at my treehouse, life shows in a different way: Peace in the woods is normal. Fear has no place when sharing space with hawks and woodpeckers and wild turkeys and squirrels.

7 Rachel Willen July 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Having just spent the day cooking two kinds of stock and slow roasting short-ribs I hear ya! I needed a day away from the computer and every rabbit hole on it. I admire your restraint. I would have walked down the bus aisle and told that woman that Chuck and his rash were TMI and PITA for the bus! and to STFU!

8 doreenf July 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Just bought a new charbroil grill already miss my weber charcoal…I always remember Laurie Colwin’s chapter on how not to grill in the summer..still laughing doreen

9 maki July 12, 2012 at 10:18 pm

great, big, surround-the-ear headphones are key on the train — even when nothing is piping through them, people recognize this universal, “do not talk to me” symbol, and the external sound is nicely muffled so that, at worst, all i hear on the train is charlie brown’s teacher’s voice, “wah wah waah wah?” kind of like the sometimes deafening and lulling roar of rain on a tin roof. i also find reading a book to be a great way to blow out the extraneous. wish my eyes didn’t need augmentation so badly, though!

10 Rita Arens July 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I love this post. I work in Internet publishing and have for a long time, and ever since the introduction of Outlook pop-ups, IM, Twitter and Facebook notifications, I usually end the day feeling like I’ve been dodging information all day, Star Wars-style. Staring at a wall is really peaceful for me by Friday afternoon. Look: I just did it. Ahhhh.

11 Rocky Mountain Woman July 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm

I can so relate. I am heading to a friend’s cabin in the mountains this weekend with a couple of rib eyes, a bottle of wine and my ipad. There is no internet, so I am going to load An Everlasting Meal on it before I leave and just read it….


12 Shauna July 14, 2012 at 12:25 am

You get me, every time.

I’m reading this on my iPad, in the bedroom, alone. Danny’s downstairs watching tv, and I could join him. But he knows me. I need some time alone. I have all the windows theown open, and in the gloaming light outside is quiet. And this piece of yours.

Thank you.

13 Hannah July 14, 2012 at 12:35 am

Elissa I love this – you are always so eloquent, and here you make your points quietly but still bracingly. And what is it with Pinterest?! I love it. I hate it. This lamb sounds amazing … I think my inlaws have a Weber tub. Maybe when we are back visiting them in August … yes.

Thank you for being so thoughtful, and for connecting so many dots for us. I always, ALWAYS appreciate what you put in this space.

14 Elissa July 14, 2012 at 8:04 am

Thanks so much Shauna–

15 Elissa July 14, 2012 at 8:04 am

Thanks Hannah!

16 sabine July 15, 2012 at 9:45 pm

As a journalist who now is getting paid to write only about 15 syllables per week, I appreciate that you’re still willing to get all inky from real newsprint. The lamb sounds sublime, by the way.

17 Elissa July 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Ink rules.

18 Valeria July 22, 2012 at 4:10 am

I moved from hilly, silent Langhe to concrete-jungle London, more or less willingly, to embark in a new professional experience. It was shocking, of course, but I had no idea of the seriousness of the problem that you call noise –digital, physical, visual, emotional. People on the tube hooked on their iphones the whole length of their journey, or else, women discussing loudly their motherhood problems. It troubles me deeply to see there is never space for silent contemplation, and I perceive my being different –too shy, silent, unfocused, unproductive. I find value in loosing time in silence, reading or just thinking. I feel I am not missing anything in those 20 minutes of tube ride if I am not actually doing something, not even talking. Yet, the world around me tries to tell me the opposite, and it becomes oppressing, at times.

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