One of the hazards of the modern workplace — like the rest of the modern world — is noise. Of course, the definition of "noise" is "sound that one finds irritating or distracting," meaning that what counts as noise is different for each owner of a pair of ears.

In my case, it's usually conversation and/or laughter among my coworkers when I'm trying to work. I find that I'm not often bothered by others' work-related phone conversations, but somehow, the "recreational" conversations — those that occur when a couple of people are taking a break or have finished their work for the day — are especially distracting. I think that might be because people are more animated when they're telling stories than when they're asking questions or having a factual conversation.

Anyway, it happens often enough that I've complained about it — just a couple of times, you understand — to my spouse. It's stressful to have my concentration broken repeatedly by what's going on around me, and I gripe about it. I have found that using ear buds connected to my phone to listen to music, especially certain New Age music, can be quite effective in helping me concentrate. Still, a month or so ago, I was whining just a tiny little bit to Maureen about the behavior of some of my workmates who refuse to treat the newsroom as if it were a library.

"Get some noise-canceling headphones," she said, which was not at all what I wanted to hear. I was hoping for something more like, "I can understand how you feel. I'll bet that's really stressful for you. I'm sorry you have to deal with that. Can I kiss it better?"

I ever-so-tactfully let her know her response was not what I was looking for; you can imagine how well the conversation went from there. Eventually, we went on to a pleasanter subject.

It happens that Maureen has hearing aids, which she wears when she really wants to be able to hear. She can hear some without them, and usually makes do by asking me to repeat whatever she doesn't understand when we're talking. But her hearing aids are so up-to-date that they are able to connect, via Bluetooth, with a little streaming device that's connected to our TV, so the dialog comes right into her ears. This means that when we watch TV together, the volume can be at a level that's comfortable for me and she can still hear it. Truly a blessing.

It also means that when Maureen wants to watch something that I don't, the TV volume can be turned all the way down and she can still hear it through her hearing aids. Another blessing, especially during football season.

And perhaps because she is now used to watching TV shows in a way that spares me the soundtrack, she likes me to use headphones when I'm watching something she isn't interested in. I had a nice pair my parents had gotten me about 15 years ago which worked fine until just recently, when they appeared to die. So I went to Ocean State Job Lot and got an inexpensive pair to replace them.

I walked into the house with them and started to boast about the good deal I felt I'd gotten, when Maureen interrupted me. "Take them back," she said. I was crestfallen. I hadn't even gotten the story of their purchase out yet!

"Why?" I wailed, my sense of grievance making my tone less than dulcet.

"Because I got you some for your birthday," she said. If I was crestfallen before, I was now even more so, as the surprise of my birthday present was destroyed two months before the event.

Maureen walked into the next room and returned, bearing a box. "You might as well open them now," she said, handing it to me.

The box contained a very nice pair of noise-canceling headphones. Bluetooth-compatible, of course. I did my best to act pleased and thank her, even though I still felt bummed that my purchase of the cheap headphones was now made redundant, and there would be no surprise to anticipate on my birthday. I also couldn't help feeling just a tiny bit that the gift was a way of having the last word in our argument from several weeks earlier. "I told you so. Noise-canceling headphones are what you need, and I'm going to prove it to you."

However, after I sent the paranoid 3-year-old who lives in my head to bed, I decided that was an ungenerous interpretation and discarded it.

And it has turned out that the headphones are great — they do, in fact, make it easier for me to concentrate at work, and they've inspired me to listen to a greater variety of things while I'm working. I have found that I can even walk away from my desk and keep listening to whatever I have on. They also work very well with our TV at home when I want to watch something Maureen would rather not listen to.

All in all, an excellent, if unintentionally early, birthday present.

So, Maureen, if you're reading this, here's a present for you: You told me so, and you were right. As you usually are.