I have been bitching for years about the universal plague of the earbud, the solipsistic me-world accessory that isolates other gym members in their own little music bubble and makes them impervious to things like friendly conversation or requests to “work in” on the machine they’ve been hogging for three sets without getting off in between. Well, you can talk to them, but you have to cause an international incident by raising your voice and waving your hand in front of their faces and repeating yourself when they fork the gross wax-glazed bud out of their ear and say “Huh?” like an old deefer in a retirement home.
Only I seem to have joined them. No, I don’t stick things in my ears. Never have, never will; it’s disgusting, and TOO GODDAM LOUD. I don’t need my music inside my bodily orifices; I really don’t need it in the gym at all. Which is sort of the reason. Gold’s was bad enough — they had their own disgusting radio station peppered with repetitions of the same ads every fifteen minutes,, for teeth whitener or Spandex leggings or what not. Back at Planet Fitness, where I reluctantly retreated after the millionth commercial and one too many rude assholes and a paucity of warmup bikes — they pick a Sirius station, and on Sundays I can stand the classic rock, which sort of takes me back to my roots at the biker gym that was my home in the 80s. The current top forty, however, can take a hike. It either sounds like a bad case of fleas or someone banging his head on a wall for eternity, and one of the current songs features a talentless female vocalist ascending to a dramatic peak note — practically in whistle register and grotesquely flat. I was raised on real music, goddammit — Mozart and Bruckner and Schumann and Brahms. I don’t know why people need to fray their nerves with this amateurish shit all day. No wonder society is in a mess.
So what happened was, I was reading the Twitter feed of Steven Silberman, who wrote the book, literally, about autistic people finding their place in human culture, and one of his autistic tweeps posted about wearing his Ear Defenders in the subway and meeting a gradeschool-age autistic kid who was excited at the sight because he wore them too.
I perked up. I have always gravitated toward people on the spectrum, though I didn’t usually know it because “on the spectrum” hasn’t been a term for most of my life. But forex, my first decent boyfriend (my “transgender ex,” as it turned out) ticked all the boxes for Aspie whiz kid with tics and quirks — could play reams of Bach and Beethoven by heart, chess maniac, used to make weird rolling movements with his hands and hum to himself, wore clothes until they were in tatters because they were familiar and soft. The Congressional protest candidate that I worked for in the oughts used to routinely stim while driving the car, holding his hand over the air vents and waving it continually at the wrist; couldn’t remember a face for five minutes; couldn’t shut up once he started talking, did statistics for a living, handled carefully planned public speaking with grace but had genuine meltdowns when there was too much unscripted interaction. (I earned some kind of an award for stage-managing his candidacy.) He had had a ham radio call sign since his teens — a hobby that was home to autistic people before the digital age gave them a larger playground. I was always sorry that I couldn’t coax him, a man born long before adult autism diagnosis was a “thing,” into getting evaluated, but like neurotypicals (that’s me and pro’lly you) of his generation, could only hear me suggesting that he had an awful defect instead of alternative wiring.
The common ground is that I get the characteristic low threshold that autistic people have for sensory input. I get a violent headache and throw up if I view 3-D movies or even the vivid animations that often precede a feature film. I cannot be near anything like a disco or party and, lacking any desire to attend a rock concert, can detect (and be crazed by) a loud stereo two houses away that the Engineer can’t even hear. This is a “thing,” too, though it is kind of mortifying that it is termed “high sensitivity,” which sounds like I am trying to align with a cohort of tender weepers who swoon if you say “fuck.” Whatever. It makes me a good bodyworker and ruthless lifter who says “fuck” a lot in the presence of excess commotion. Maybe that is its own neurotribe.
I stuck “Ear Defender” into the search bar.
A few days later this wonderful pair of orange things showed up.
They look like the headphones that a lot of gym peeps wear, they’re just not connected to anything. No one else has to know that. They muffle 37 decibels, are considered adequate for driving monster trucks or light shooting, and I can attest that while they do not obliterate the vile noise that pours from the gym speakers, they move it way up the road. Also, I don’t have to overhear screamingly banal conversation from the schlubby housewives and shuffling pudgy men who use the machines backward and operate the bikes on zero resistance in slo-mo just so they can tell their doctors they “work out.” I miss the days when only goons and buff gay men (and me) hung out in gyms.
Now I get to be the one saying “Hm?” What the hell. It’s nice and quiet in here.