Cower Corner

Different forms of literacy collide

When I tell people I am incredibly sports illiterate and depend on the kindness of strangers and the patience of friends to help me navigate the peculiar subset of the multiverse where I ended up living — one where “A team beat another team” somehow qualifies as breaking news — I often have to clarify the depth of my lack of informedness. My statements to this effect can be taken to mean that I only follow one sport, or just watch occasional games and don’t subscribe to “packages,” or stopped after baseball and football and don’t pay attention to those other sports, whatever they may be. Proving one’s lack of knowledge is a version of proving a negative — which is to say, difficult at best. When I do find sports-things of sonic interest, like the noise at stadiums (remember the vuvuzela’s 15 minutes of fame?) or a purported lip-reading scandal in the NFL, I pay close attention.

There may not be a true vacuum in the universe, but the part of my brain where actual sports-stuff is supposed to be stored comes awfully close. And the virtuous circle of this newsletter is that people who know things about things about which I know nothing send me sound-related things from those realms (and then I share them more widely). Readers who are into sports or practice law or perform surgery or carry guns as part of their livelihood — or simply make their homes places where I do not — send me emails (and social media messages) with tasty factoids about how sound operates in those (alien-to-me to varying degrees) spheres. For which I am thankful. (So keep ’em coming.) 

Hence this photo, sent by a friend in England, properly warning me in advance of my next visit. I feel vaguely relieved that (1) I wouldn’t be playing cricket in the first place (my hand-eye coordination is virtually non-existent) and (2) I am fully self-trained in acting accordingly when someone happens to scream “HEADS!” What fascinates me in particular about this sound-focused warning sign is the evident decision-making about emphasis. Someone put “STOP PLAYING IMMEDIATELY” in all-caps, whereas the actual safety measures (“cover your head and duck”) aren’t, and are left until the very end of the sentence. Fortunately, the signage is largely rhetorical. Its real purpose is likely the tiny print, the part that excuses the location from legal liability. Chances are most people will hear “HEADS!” and duck and cover (or as I think of it, cover and cower) before even identifying what the word means. Hearing is a key feature of humans’ built-in alarm system. It’s kept us safe for eons, even after we started throwing things at each other for sport. (Thanks, Susan Blue!)

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