The Hearing Test

I was talking with my shrink, explaining I had recently enjoyed a nice dinner date. He asked where. Sometimes an hour with my shrink is a conversation about restaurants and Armani. I never know if he’s a foodie or just a guy who likes to be seen out wearing Italian. I replied that we’d dined at Mad Platter near my home. He made a mild face. “You ain’t gettin’ your hip card stamped in there.

I forgave him for the card metaphor, and I did what you’re supposed to do to make your shrink feel needed. I got defensive. I explained I do not care for the stylish joints as much as I once did.

For one thing, hip restaurants have people hipper than me in them. How can I enjoy a meal with an inferiority complex going on? I’d rather go to Midtown, where a decent pair of jeans makes you look like you’re a edgy entrepreneur, or, as I said, Mad Platter, where I can actually carry on a conversation. The stylish restaurants are reverberatingly loud. I had always taken that as proof I am not the half-deaf post my father was, because the buzzy places have the noise level of a high school basketball game to me, only with marrow bones and quinoa instead of hot dogs and soda. The waiter explains the day’s specials above the din, always in great detail, including where the ingredients were “curated,” the wagon in which they arrived and the happy horses and so forth, but I never hear a word he’s saying for all the hubbub.

It shouldn’t have shocked me when, a few days later, a colleague had the cheek to announce in a partner meeting, “You need to have your hearing tested.” I was very annoyed, but I also made the appointment. “PLOP…” I harkened to the echo of another droplet in the bucket of indignities which accompany maturity.

On its subsequent ripple, my memory floated to a segment I’d recently heard on the radio. An audiologist was talking about Q-Tips. She said, “Never, ever, EVA put them into your ear.” I turned up the volume. When the host asked, “Well, how do I clean them?” she explained that the skin in your ear canal actually migrates outward, carrying the earwax with it. Nice. I decided this may explain why your ears also get bigger as you get older. I had just come upon an old head shot from my radio days, and my ears were one of the first things I noticed, along with my fabulous Alexander Julian striped shirt: “Fuck, look at them! They’re tiny. I should be able to hear like a radio telescope.”

The doc was a cheery, businesslike woman who put me into a little booth that felt like the scene in 2001 when the astronaut spins off into the void. It wasn’t just silent; it felt like all vibration in the world was being sucked out by some grand, universal force. I’ve heard that some like to meditate in isolation chambers, but if this is a taste, I’ll stick to a mat at the Y. Twenty-seven years of working as broadcaster conditioned me to think of dead air as something terrible to be filled with the sound of something, anything, quickly. To this day, when I hear the dead space between segments on NPR, I think of a sarcastic expression we’d use around the radio station, where dead air was anathema: “Hey. You know we can sell that air time, right?”

There were headphones, and a window through which I could see Ms. Audio operate a few controls. I put the headphones on. The quiet got even quieter. Then, her mic popped on, her voice crisp against the roar of the room on her side of the glass.

“Can you hear me?”

Smartass coulda-shoulda: it would have been funny if I’d ignored her. Or if I’d said, “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” Only thing was, my funny was out there in the world of ambient noise. When you are at the hearing aid doctor, as my grandparents called them, you are so terrified you’re turning into a person whose tufted elephant flaps aren’t enough to catch the reprimand of your girlfriend (Are you hard of hearing, or do you just not give a shit what I’m saying?) that your wit and guile desert you. A life of orthopedic shoes, Cialis, and naps in a La-Z-Boy with the Weather Channel is all you can think of.

My brain went into hyperdrive. I think the temporal lobe started growing new cells on the spot.

“Yes, I can hear you.”

She explained that she would send some tones into my right and left ears, and I should raise the corresponding hand when I heard them. Easy enough. The first thing I thought of was cheating. I’m sure audiologists are hip to that, just like the dental hygienist knows you’re lying when she asks, “Are we flossing?”

The whole test took about five minutes. Beep, right hand. Boooop, left. Biiiiiip, left. Buuuuup, right. And so on. I was sure I was hearing everything she pumped into the cans, which was a relief, since another thing about my radio career is that I wore headphones at airliner volume for a couple of decades. I also always ran the studio monitors at decibel levels that would cause shirt-sleeves to flap. It was my way of keeping people out of the studio. Someone would walk in, and I’d crank ’em up to 11, and glare. Only the bravest would walk all the way in and let the studio door close. If I was having a bad show, I’d occasionally throw an LP or tape cartridge just to keep my aim sharp. I was always heavily caffeinated in those days, when I wasn’t drunk, and I never drank on the air. So I’d be wired as hell when you walked in there.

Finally, she cut her mic on and announced, “OK, we’re finished,” and invited me back into the ambient world. Lo! I had super ears. I could hear the HVAC system and the receptionist rescheduling an appointment in the next room. Even my feet on the carpet sounded like subsonic effects in a movie soundtrack. Have you seen Flight with Denzel Washington? There’s a quiet scene before his inevitable alcoholic relapse where he hears the compressor in a hotel room bar fridge kick on in the dead of night. The audio producers nailed that sound effect perfectly. That’s what everything sounded like as I sat down to be told my results. I was sure I could hear the saliva in her voice clicking against her front teeth. I KNEW I was in the clear.

And so I was. Yet I was caught off guard when she showed me a graph of my hearing curve and said, “Oh, you don’t need hearing assistance now, but it’s only a matter of time.” She explained the frequency range of human speech and where I’d missed certain frequencies, right in the mid-range where voices live. In effect, the chart said I can hear Salemtown subwoofers 5 blocks away from my north Nashville porch and the mating call of a cricket across the river in East Nashville, but the sound of Katie explaining a court case in a moving car was beginning a long, slow fade, like the final piano note of the Sgt. Pepper album.

“Oh, it probably won’t be anytime soon,” the doc said, reassuringly. “It happens to all of us. And they have so much better devices now. No one will ever know you’re wearing a hearing aid.”

At least, I think that’s what she said. I wasn’t listening. In my mind, I was already at lunch at Marche, the waiter explaining the day’s ethically sourced local preserves, the Benton’s belly ham, the greens from a pasture near Sewanee, and eggs from a happy chicken tended by solemn Mennonites. It was going to be an exceptional day, and I planned to savor every word.

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