Gentle Disconnect

A pillow embedded with the sounds of the sea proves irresistible—and oddly unsettling.

More and more these days I find myself relying on selective technology engagement. Use it all and you’re reduced to being a gadget freak; better to choose just what you need. My kids can have the iPod Nano, and nothing has changed my conviction that a BlackBerry 7290 will only challenge my already questionable time-management skills. But recently I read about a new product introduced by bed-and-bath manufacturer WestPoint Home that I thought I could put to good use: a pillow that sounds like the sea.

That pillows have become big business isn’t much of a surprise. About 70 million Americans are said to suffer from sleeping disorders; and according to a recent survey, the use of sleep medications among adults aged 20 to 44 doubled between 2000 and 2004. Consumers seeking natural solutions are now regarding pillows as sleep-therapy aids. As one friend of mine says, “Why not turn to a little blue pillow instead of a little purple pill?”

If a generation ago the choice was limited to down or synthetic foam, options today range from the natural—pillows stuffed with dried aromatic flowers, lavender, and other assorted herbs said to have a soothing effect—to the synthetic: pillows that can be pumped full of air or filled with water of varying temperatures. And then there is the “memory pillow.” While it is hard to deny that the words memory and pillow have a natural complicity, this product has something else in mind: its heat-sensitive cells conform to the shape of your head, retaining its contours.

Flowers, water, and air are all fine, but a pillow that accommodates the ocean is nature on a different order of magnitude. It’s hard to resist a pillow with such vast aspirations—and besides, something about it is deeply familiar to me. When I was young we would spend our summers on Cape Cod, and often at night, as I fell asleep, I could still feel the roll of the waves beneath me while their sound outside the window lulled me to sleep. Anything that proposes to evoke such deep comfort is technology I want.

John Gentile, president of T-Ink, the company that has developed the technology for the pillow, explains to me that the Eden Spa Collection decorative pillow sets out to expand the “white-sound library.” It’s an enchanting turn of phrase, but what he’s referring to is actually more prosaic—the earphones, clock alarms, and dream machines that emit white noise to soothe what has apparently become a sleepless America. The idea, Gentile explains, is that the pillow is a soft version of such hardware. “We looked at the penetration of the white-sound market, like the dream machines that create background ambient noise,” Gentile says, “and we thought if we could incorporate [the sound] into the pillow, it would be a total experience, a gentle world of sound and texture.”

When this gentle world arrives at my door in the form of a 15-inch-square blue silk pillow, I find that its acoustical options also include white noise and the sounds of a tropical rainforest. The allure of the former has always escaped me, so I’m hardly surprised that at this setting my new pillow hums with all the comfort of an electric carving knife. One of my 16-year-old sons wanders by. “What do you think this sounds like?” I ask him. “Rain,” he says. I adjust the sound to the melodic twittering of the rain forest. What about this? “Rain,” the household-technology maven says again. Of no matter: in our sleep-deprived culture it is usually infants and people like me who have trouble sleeping. Teenagers tend to be less afflicted with this problem, and most of the ones I know, including this one, can sleep for 18-hour stretches. What does he care what his pillow sounds like?

Besides, my hopes and expectations are such that I am willing to give the advantage to the pillow over the teenage boy. When I finally switch on the surf setting, its soft murmuring has the familiar rhythm of water heard from a distance—this time not across a marsh of sea grass but across years and miles. I am gradually returned to those long summer evenings by the ocean, and I know that this is not so much a smart pillow as a deeply empathetic one. You can keep your 600-thread-count goose down pillows; if conductive fiberfill is capable of delivering the ocean, I’ll take the synthetic alternative.

So gentle is this world, in fact, that I am drawn to the sounds of the pillow at other times throughout the day. This is its trick, it seems: the rhythm of the waves lends a tender measure to all manner of ordinary tasks, whether it is folding the laundry, paying the bills, or making dinner. And I realize then that the sound of the ocean may be the sound of sleep—but even more, it is the sound of life. This at least is the message that resonates most clearly as I listen to its gentle rhythm while sorting the mail and setting the table. So if I find myself listening to these waves in the dead of the night, then that’s all right too. My insomnia, after all, is my trusted companion. We can lie there together on the sand, listen to the gulls, gaze at the light on the water, sift the sand through our fingers, and contemplate our worries: how we will meet the deadline for the book, afford college for the twins, manage retirement. Such sleeplessness is my intimate and my confidant. Why wouldn’t I take it to the beach?

In his book The End of Nature, Bill McKibben suggests that our perceptions of nature have been radically altered and our relationship with it is in fact extinct; generations of environmental abuse have put us at such a remove from the natural world that we can no longer correctly calculate our place in it. So I wonder if this little blue silk pillow is delivering its own lesson about dislocation. It’s not that there is anything especially odd or off-putting about being returned to the rhythms of nature via electronic circuitry. Rather it’s the sense of awkward displacement on realizing how diminished our associative powers have become. Somehow we are able to arrive at the strange and sadly reductive conviction that the sound of the ocean is some sort of sleep aid—the kind of faulty reduction you are likely to make when you are vaguely out of touch with things. Or when finding meaning in nature is no longer as simple or intuitive as it once was.

Read a sample of Akiko Busch’s book, The Uncommon Life of Common Objects, by clicking here.

Recent Programs