Annoying Sounds, Part Three (Conclusion): Alarm Clocks

In this, the thrilling conclusion of my three-part epic about annoying sounds, we will discuss the most irritating noise that people hear on a daily basis: the alarm clock.

When I left home at age 16 to go to work, my parents gave me an old alarm clock they weren't using any more. I soon found out why they had replaced it: this thing was evil.

It even looked evil: it was a square metal affair painted in a sickly yellowish colour that I expect has been banned from the rainbow. When it was plugged in, it emitted a smug hum. Everything about this clock was cold, so even before that first morning when it woke me up, I knew it had been designed by a fiend.

Now, how do I describe the sound it made when it went off? Well, try to imagine a rabid cat being passed through a paper shredder. There was a little lever that let you adjust the sound slightly, but if it had been labelled I think the settings would have been "House Cat, Lynx, Cougar". In other words, you could only control volume (a bit) – there was no way to select anything else but that fractured-feline noise.

The alarm buzz was so unpleasant that I can pretty much guarantee it would wake any sleeper, and possibly some people in a coma.

If I had placed the clock far over on the other side of the room, each morning when it went off I'd have had my trembling hand on the "off" switch before the sheets had settled back onto the bed. However, since I wasn't keen on early morning sprints, I kept the clock on the nightstand and slept on that side of the bed so that a swift move with my left hand would silence the stentorian shrieking.

You may wonder why I didn't get rid of the clock immediately. The initial reason was that I didn't have any money. But the ultimate reason was this: the alarm clock gave me fair warning.

I doubt it was purposely designed to do this since it was, as I've said, obviously designed by somebody who hated people. Yet about one second before it screeched, it would emit a barely audible click. After a week or two, it was that tiny sound that would actually wake me up. I could be fast asleep, but if I heard that click, my left arm would shoot out and defuse the device.

I sometimes wonder to what extent that anticipation has contributed to my chronic insomnia. I suspect that even now – 30 years later – no matter how comfortably I'm resting in slumberland, some part of my brain is listening for that warning click. (To this day I still sleep on the left side of the bed.)

Eventually I managed to scrape up enough cash to buy a proper clock radio. That was a bit better, but it also had its down side. I remember waking up to hear "... police are reporting 47 dead." How's that for a cheery way to start your day?

I then invested what seemed to be the proper solution: a lovely little CD player with a built-in clock radio. I chose the Panasonic SA-PM01 because it had a "ramp-up" feature that gradually increased the volume when it was time for you to wake up. So I could pop in my favourite King Crimson CD and be gradually nudged out of sleep to the strains of "One More Red Nightmare". (Okay, maybe that's not the best choice, but you get the point.)

It also didn't have a "snooze" button. I've never been addicted to the nine-minute respite, but I understand that it's a problem for some people. In fact, the Panasonic SA-PM01 has very few buttons indeed, considering how many functions it has. That's why I stopped using it.

You see, I wake up at different times each day, depending on what I've got scheduled. Setting a new wake-up time on the Panasonic SA-PM01 is so complicated, time-consuming and non-intuitive that I never completely mastered the art. In fact, the procedure was so convoluted that I was compelled to keep the user manual beside my bed.

By the way, if you always wake up at the same time each day ... wanna buy a radio?

So it was back to the original clock radio. I now tune it to a station that I find utterly uninteresting. My subconscious knows this, so when I'm woken up, I pay no attention to what they're saying (thus sparing myself from beginning my morning with bad news).

A friend of mine tells me that when he was younger one of his jobs in the morning was to wake his sister. He relates that when he was in the Air Cadets, there was a rule that a person who was just waking up was not officially responsible for their actions for the first 10 seconds or so. I assume this rule arose because somebody slugged a lieutenant who had roused him from a bad dream.

An inventive chap, he settled on this solution: he'd fold back the sheets at the bottom corner of his sister's bed and wiggle her big toe. Apparently that worked well. It does sound like an innocuous signal that it's time to arise. I can't see how you could implement that into an alarm clock, though. In any case, based on my previous experiences, I wouldn't trust the electronics manufacturers if they did invent a device of this nature. Frankly, the prospect frightens me.

Looking back over the years, I have to report that the best alarm clock I've had was a cat. When he noticed I was starting to stir, he took this as permission to start nuzzling my face. If I could have equipped him with a wrist-watch, he would have been perfect.

I did not know of his capabilities as an alarm-cat when I got him, so what I am about to tell you may seem unbelievable. I swear I am not making this up: I named him TicToc.

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