Elf Acceptance?

“Why don’t you write about hearing laws?” my wife Kendra suggested recently. 

Was she thinking more about laws governing public hearings or criminal proceedings, I wondered. Was she suggesting that I talk about the guidelines and codes of conduct set up by various organizations for the way their members conducted hearings? 

And then it occurred to me that I know nothing about the subject. I’m not a lawyer; I’m a retired English teacher. And then, in a flash, the answer. Hearing Loss. She didn’t say, “Why don’t you write about hearing laws?” She said, “Why don’t you write about hearing loss!”

I first noticed my hearing loss in classes I was teaching. I could hear loud booming voices just fine, but I had trouble hearing soft, whispery, higher-pitched voices. My first solution, of course, was to blame it on others: “WHAT?” I said a lot. “Stop mumbling. Speak up so we can all hear you,” I said, assuming that no one else in the room could hear them, either. My second solution was to move around the classroom a lot more, walking back and forth across the front of the room and moving up and down the aisles, always hoping to anticipate and then get closer to the next person that was going to talk. That certainly helped, but it didn’t solve the problem.

Hearing aids did. 

I knew I didn’t need hearing aids. I wasn’t an old, doddering codger, after all; I was a reasonably healthy, reasonably average middle-aged man. But it became increasingly clear that the only way to get Kendra to stop telling me I couldn’t hear was to get my hearing tested and validated as normal in order to prove her wrong.

“Can you hear that?” the audiologist asked, playing a tone through the earphones she’d placed on my head.

“Sure,” I said.

“How about this?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I said.

“This?” she asked.

“Umhmm,” I smirked.

“This?” she asked. Nothing. Ah ha, I thought. This is the check. She didn’t play a tone in order to see if I’d been lying about having heard the other tones.

“Nope,” I answered smugly, onto her little trick.

“How about now?” she asked again.

“Nope,” I said again.

“Now?” she asked, as she played a perfectly normal-sounding tone.

“Yes,” I said.

“OK,” she said. “You have moderate-to-severe hearing loss.”

“But I heard all those tones,” I said.

“No,” she said, “you only heard them up to 2,000Hz, and you missed a few that were below that, too.”

So there it was, validation. Just not the validation I’d expected. 

Years earlier, I’d gotten drugstore reading glasses. That was no big deal to me. Ever since elementary school, I’d seen kids around me wearing glasses. College professors wore reading glasses halfway down their noses. John Lennon, for pete’s sake, wore those little round glasses! Glasses seemed to connote intelligence, coolness, glamour, seriousness of purpose. 

People buy glasses frames to contrast with or complement their face shapes, their complexions, their hair and eye colors, wearing different glasses with different outfits. Glasses, in short, could represent part of a person’s overall fashion statement, as well as helping them see better, I thought.

Hearing aids are just the opposite. I buy them not to stand out but to blend in. I don’t want anyone to see them or know I’m wearing them. I want to fit the smallest unit possible out of sight behind my ears. Then I choose the color that will best blend with my skin or hair. My first request to my barber these days is “keep my ears covered, please.” I want my hearing aids to be invisible.

In my version of the world, glasses can have a cool factor; hearing aids never do. 

Kendra thinks that the solution is to call attention to rather than hide the impairment. Her idea is decorative ear trumpets (remember ear trumpets that, before hearing aids, people put up to their ears to amplify the incoming sound?) in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, shifting stigma to status. So far, though, no groundswell of support.

Turns out my hearing problem’s not that special; it’s just a bit more severe. The most common hearing problem is the loss of or reduction in the ability to hear high frequencies, that is frequencies above 2,000 Hz. People who have diminished ability to hear those frequencies have more trouble hearing women and children, telephone voices, and doorbells; they have more trouble separating speech from background noise, too. 

I wake up in the morning, put my hearing aids in, and think, “What a coincidence: the birds started tweeting at the exact moment I put my hearing aids in!” I look outside and see puddles of water everywhere. “I guess it rained overnight,” I say. “Didn’t you hear it?” Kendra responds. “It was pouring! Sounded like a hurricane!”

That’s me with and without hearing aids.

Here’s my first grade understanding of what happens when we lose our hearing. 

Tiny hair cells in your inner ear help transmit sounds. And the hair cells that transmit higher frequency sounds tend to get damaged more easily than those that transmit lower frequencies. “S” sounds are among the first to go. We hear what we hear and try to make sense of it. “Sanitarium” becomes “anitarium.” Do I know someone named Anna Tarium? “Self defense” becomes “elf defen.” There’s no such thing as elves: What does elf defense have to do with anything? 

It’s not just the sibilants, the “s” sounds, though; it’s also certain consonants: P/B, K/G, T/D, and Th/Sh, for example. “Tears” and “deer” sound the same to me: “Right around sunset,” a friend tells me about her neighborhood, “there are deer everywhere,” and I’m thinking, “There are tears everywhere? Why? Are people so sad because the day is ending?” 

Sometimes, based on context or on what does or doesn’t make sense, I’ll guess correctly and just continue with the conversation. Sometimes, I guess incorrectly and give the person I’m talking to something to laugh at. Sometimes, I ask the person to repeat it and try to tune in better both to the words and the context. And sometimes, I just nod politely, as if I understood, even though I don’t have a clue.  

I love eating out: Petit Louis, a French bistro with wonderful food and urban-romantic atmosphere; La Food Marketa for a kobe beef hot dog “with chili lime mayo, and cotija cheese;” Abbey Burger Bistro, for an antelope, camel, or kangaroo burger. Yum! But I don’t go to those places, anymore, or lots of other restaurants that I used to frequent or that our friends tell us about. They’re just too noisy. I’m so busy trying to hear what people at my table are saying that I forget to enjoy the food and often leave with a headache from trying to concentrate amid all the noise. And how can people even function in Starbucks and other coffee stores where those grinders and steamers obliterate every other sound?

That’s me with hearing aids.

Sometimes, I’m concentrating so hard on hearing and following conversations that I forget about the nonverbal cues I’m sending — lack of eye contact and posture, for example. Am I facing the speaker in order to read lips and expression, or am I aiming my EAR at the speaker and looking somewhere entirely different? Or do I tune out because I’m just exhausted from trying to follow the conversation? I used to be a talker. Now, it can easily appear to others that I’m no longer interested because I don’t appear to be participating the way I used to.

Back when I used to teach audio production (speaking of ironies!), I talked about the difference between the human ear and a microphone. The ear (the brain, actually) tries to figure out what sounds in the environment are important, amplifies those, and turns down the volume of the “unimportant” sounds. So, for example, when someone says, “listen to those birds,” we identify and then turn up our mental volume of the bird sounds while turning down the volume of the traffic and other extraneous sounds. A microphone, on the other hand, is stupid: it picks up birds and traffic and kids playing and the coughing of the person holding the microphone and transmits them equally with no sense of which sounds are more or less important. And that leads to cacophony, an assemblage of sounds that don’t go together. When your ears and brain are unable to distinguish and prioritize different sounds that occur simultaneously, you get cacophony. That’s hearing aids, amplifying everything, not differentiating the important sound from the unimportant sound.  

Of course, there have been advances in hearing aid technology. You can adjust your hearing aids to your environment: different settings for restaurants, children’s voices, movie theaters, etc. You can adjust them from an app on your smartphone. And because your hearing aids are connected to your phone, you can use them to listen to phone calls and listen to your phone’s music library and books on tape and even television. In fact, modern hearing aids function as wireless earbuds. And if we thought of them as earbuds — which millions of people wear all the time — instead of hearing aids, maybe some or all of the stigma and self-consciousness would disappear. But it hasn’t yet.

And then there are the catch-22s. If I’m outside working in the yard or jogging on the treadmill at the gym, I work up a sweat. And then my hearing aids get wet and stop working. And unless I take them out, take them apart, and dry all the pieces right away, the tiny little metal battery terminals and wires and internal circuitry corrode and stop working. And then I have to take them to my audiologist who sometimes can fix them and sometimes has to send them back to The Factory, during which time I’m either without hearing aids entirely or if I’m lucky, get a loaner set that aren’t tuned to my ears, don’t work with my phone app, and take different batteries.

And the batteries. My hearing aids batteries need to be replaced about once a week. After having been stranded, battery-less often enough, I did what I could to make sure that I always have fresh batteries at the ready. That means I keep a pack in each of our cars (knowing that during certain times of the year, the car’s extreme heat and cold will significantly decrease the life of those batteries), and a couple spares in my wallet, as well as my main stash at home. And even though I’m usually prepared to replace my hearing aids’ batteries, they don’t always die at the most convenient of times. Sometimes, they die in the middle of a phone call, and I lose the connection when I replace the battery. Sometimes, they die in the middle of a dinner conversation or a business meeting, at which point I say, “Excuse me, I missed that last thing you said, but don’t say it again ‘til I tell you to,” meanwhile pulling a hearing aid out of my ear, taking the old battery out, taking my wallet out of my back pocket, rooting around trying to find that tiny little battery and hoping I didn’t use the last one that was in my wallet without replacing it when I got home that time, tearing off the little orange tape tab that activates the battery, inserting it and closing the hearing aid’s battery compartment, putting it back in and over my ear, and waiting for it to turn itself back on, all the while trying to look attentive and engaged.

I’ve unconsciously become more dependent on reading not only lips but facial expressions. Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself say “train” and then “drain,” “thirty” and “sturdy.” You can probably not only hear the difference; you can see the slight difference in the way your mouth forms those initial sounds. Me, too. If I’m looking at the person that’s talking, I don’t miss as many words as if I’m not looking at them. That’s why when Kendra says something to me from another room, I usually stop her mid-sentence, walk into the room, face her, and ask her to start over. 

Living in the current masked, Covidian world has only made things worse. Being in a store full of other people, touching grocery cart handles that haven’t been sanitized, waiting in line to check out are stressful enough these days even under the best of conditions. Now add masks that mute voices and make lip reading impossible. The person in front of or behind you makes a casual remark. Do you ask them a couple times to repeat it and speak up, or do you ignore it completely, conveying either unfriendliness or obliviousness on your part. And then when you do get to the head of the line, the cashier’s question “Is this lettuce regular or organic?” amid the Muzak and the other ambient noise also requires a few repeats, making her feel frustrated and making me feel like I have no business being out in the world.

In the 1970s, we all laughed watching Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live playing little old Emily Litella, wondering why people were so upset about violins on TV, why in the late 20th Century Congress was talking about the need for better horse spittle insurance, or why the Supreme Court was hearing a case about the deaf penalty (“That’s terrible,” she said. “Deaf people have enough problems as it is!”)  Granted, it was dated humor, but we all laughed. As recently as last summer, I wrote a story in which one of the characters was hard of hearing, mistaking “choking” for “joking, “addition” for “audition,” etc., all mistakes I’ve personally made, by the way.

The lack of sensitivity aside, it’s funnier in a comedy skit than in real life. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s plenty funny sometimes in real life too, for example when Kendra says, “Gracie (our dog)’s been drinking,” and I say “what?” imagining Gracie staggering around the living room with a lampshade on her head, and she says, “Gracie’s been thinking,” and I say, “what?” and she says, “Stinky! Gracie’s being stinky (i.e., flatulent)!” and I say, “Oh.”

Or the day after my annual physical when my doctor calls to tell me my labs are fine, and because I don’t have my hearing aids in, I think he’s telling me that my abs are fine, which, on some level, I’d have preferred hearing.

It’s funnier in a comedy skit than in real life. But considering the alternative, as they say, aisle steak kit.



Image: by hedera.baltica, licensed under CC 2.0.

Jon Shorr
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