Sunday, July 26, 2009

Huh? What?

Since prattling on about my brother’s sensitivity to noises it got me to thinking about my own ears. For the past several years I have been known to say “what?” more than the average person. If there is competing background noise when someone is speaking to me they need to enunciate and speak at a determined volume. Otherwise they get my “I’m sorry…what did you say?” Or the more familiar, “huh?”

Over the years my ex got increasingly annoyed with my frequent “whats?” Fearing her nasty retorts to my “what?” I started to wait a few seconds after being the recipient of her mumbled utterings….thinking to myself, “ok Mer, you think she said ‘please take all my cash’…but that really doesn’t make any sense cause we are in the middle of cleaning the kitchen – hmmm, what sounds like cash? Oh! She said ‘please take out the trash!’” I didn’t always get it right and would often be forced to sheepishly ask her to repeat herself, which she did, often with derision in her voice.

The day finally came when I said to her, “Hey, my ears are bad from going to too many clubs and concerts when I was young! I am not ignoring you! I just can’t fucking hear!”

Eager to prove myself an attentive listener with damaged equipment I made an appointment with an audiologist to have my concert-club-iPod-beaten ears tested. The day of my appointment I arrived at the modest office and was greeted by a young and very attractive doctor of the ear. Dr. Ear explained the series of tests she was going to administer and politely escorted me to a sound-proof booth and instructed me to put on the headphones sitting on the chair inside. She closed me in the booth then subjected me to a series of tests where I had to identify various sounds under different circumstances, including identifying a sound in one ear while noise was piped separately into the other ear.

After all the tests were completed Dr. Ear lead me to her office and sat behind her desk with my test results in front of her. She looked at me and smiled and then said, “Marie, you have excellent hearing.” She showed me a sheet of paper summarizing my results which were all above normal or excellent. I was stunned and asked, “Well then how come I am always struggling to hear what people say?” She again smiled and said, “You can hear perfectly you just have a hard time processing what you are hearing.” My jaw dropped and I blurted, “oh great, my problem isn’t my ears, its cognitive degradation?!”

Dr. Ears smiled and patiently explained that it was not cognitive degradation but rather a reduction in the effectiveness of the mechanism that processes the hearing inputs from my ears. She assured me that my cognition, by all appearances, was just fine. She continued that such processing problems are common in people in their 40s and that in effect this is experienced as difficulty hearing. I made several more self-deprecating jokes about my apparently waning mental abilities and watched the hot Dr. Ears laugh, then I shook her hand, thanked her, and headed home with my stereo blaring Sublime.

I came home, my excellent hearing results in hand, and explained to my ex that I have a processing problem. She listened patiently and acknowledged that my “whats?” were not a personal affront to her. A few minutes later she yelled at me from the other room, “will you please go to the store?” I was puzzled, “what do you need at the store?” She poked her head around the corner, smiled and said, “I said would you please close the door, I am cold.” I closed the door and she stopped mumbling quite so much.

Death, Dying, Surfing, and the Absurd (Oct. 2008)

Life, at times, can be relentlessly serious. A family member of a friend (who has already suffered a disproportionate amount of loss in her life) is weeks away from dying too young….she has actually already gone and soon her body will follow as her loved-ones sit and wait, and hopefully, make some kind of peace with it all. Another dear friend has just come through a final surgery and is thankfully recovering from cancer and embracing life with a fierce, new gusto. And my adopted Jewish Grandmother, in her 80s, has just won her second battle with breast cancer and is worried about her pending trip to Europe, hoping she will be well and strong enough to share the adventure and joy with her granddaughter. This is the stuff of life and death and love…the looming of the inevitable while we work to appreciate the now. These are some of the dramas that are personal to me right now.

And then there is the “out there” I read about and watch on the news. I watch as the Atlantic Ocean launches cyclonic bombs at the islands and the southern coast. I watch as the banks fail and the value of our houses and retirement funds plummet. I watch as the price of gas skyrockets while oil companies reap record profits and the politicians babble on about what to do. I watch as McCain gains in the poles and the war rages on and on. I note again and again the conspicuous absence of reporting on the death tolls for non-Americans in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And last night I made the mistake of watching the chilling documentary, “Witness 911” (I should not have done that). And I listen to the pundits pontificate…and I watch as the debates narrow into ridiculous sound-bite slinging….and I marvel at the absurdity. And yet, I don’t want to write about these things. In fact, I can’t write about these things.

On Saturday my friend Deb and I headed to the beach even though it was overcast. We go where Deb has been going for decades, Scotchman’s Cove on the Newport coast, a picturesque stretch of clear water and rugged bluffs hugging a sandy beach peppered with rock reefs and jagged outcroppings. As we pulled into the parking lot we noted a large party of surfers putting on wetsuits and unloading their longboards…unusual for this particular beach. We grabbed our stuff and headed down the steep stairs to the beach and pitched our spot in the sand. We gabbed about this and that and the sky slowly cleared as the sun burned away the marine layer.

Then Deb suddenly says, “Look, it’s a funeral.” I turn around and sure enough there are about twenty-five surfers paddling out past the break towards a small power boat sitting in the calm sea. The surfers paddle into a circle next to the boat and Deb and I sit and watch in silence. A group of people stand at the stern of the boat apparently addressing the circle of surfers. After a few minutes the surfers begin cheering and splashing in unison. They are out there in the circle for some time remembering and celebrating…and then they paddle back to shore. They collect on the beach and eat and drink….the living remembering.

When we leave Deb and I walk along the water and we see the flowers, roses and plumarias everywhere…a beautiful littering of sentiment washed up along the edge of the great Pacific Ocean. I turn to Deb, my friend of 32 years, and say, “If I die before you, ask folks to paddle out for me, ok? Use my boards and spread me over the sea.” She smiles and nods, “Of course.”

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tales From the Bungalow: Jimmy is Tortured by What Only He Can Hear

My brother Jimmy has very sensitive ears, which, if you knew him as a young boy, seems a bit ironic. He was a loud young lad. Very loud. His favorite TV show was Emergency, that 1970’s series that chronicled the do-goodings of two competent young paramedics working the streets of Los Angeles. In those days common was the sight of Jimmy sticking his head out the window of the family station wagon wailing like an “Emergency” siren. We used to joke that so compelling was his siren imitation that cars actually pulled over for the would-be emergency vehicle. The boy could belt it out.

Since those early years it is now well known in the family that if one shrieks or yells in close proximity of Jimmy, he will immediately sport a pained expression and seek to get away from the offending sound-source. He regularly, after getting into my car, turns down the stereo while making faces like an annoyed little-old-lady, declaring, “that is just too loud.” Granted, I tend to play my music quite loud, especially in the car….but Jimmy, we’re in our 40s, not our 90s dear brother!

On several occasions while on a road trip with my brother he has suddenly demanded, “Do you hear that? That rattling noise?” while frantically moving things around the car, shifting CD cases, opening and closing the ashtray, pushing on various panels trying to identify the source of the offending noise. There is no peace until the situation is corrected which sometimes involves pulling off the highway and shuffling things around in the car. I am not kidding. I am not exaggerating. This has happened. More than once. Anyway, you get the picture. The guy is sensitive.

A few months ago a PG&E energy audit of my little bungalow identified my ancient refrigerator as an abominable energy waster and suggested that a new cold box would quickly pay for itself in electricity cost savings. So I decided to buy a new Energy Star fridge, my contribution to saving the planet. Besides, with Jimmy now living with me, we needed more room for his beer and a better setup cause we are both not the greatest bachelors and will forget about food we have bought if we don’t see it front and center. And forgotten food goes bad. And it stinks. Wasting food? Not good for the planet. Stinking food? Not good for impressing would-be girlfriends.

I took Jimmy with me to Sears to pick out the refrigerator. Like some strange Bay-Area couple we checked out the various fridges, contemplating styles, cost versus function, etc. I knew I wanted a bottom drawer freezer with an ice-maker. At last we decided on a nice Kenmore which was delivered and installed a few days later. Ah, a nice new fridge with plenty of room and the food stuff all up top so we could see it and remember to eat it.

The next morning, a Saturday, Jimmy walks into my bedroom and with me bleary-eyed and still in bed he asks “Do you hear that?” “What?” I respond. “That.” I listen hard. “Nope. I don’t hear anything.” I ask him what the hell he is talking about. Jimmy has that pained look on his face and says, “The ice-maker….I heard it all night.” I can’t hear a fucking thing but we head into the kitchen and he opens the freezer drawer, points at the ice tray and explains that after the fridge makes the ice cube it drops noisily into the plastic tray. And the sound is driving him nuts. Now mind you, the fridge sits on the other side of my bedroom wall. I hear nothing. Jimmy’s room is down a short hall away from the kitchen. He is tortured.

In the days following, when hanging out at home, Jimmy would suddenly erupt with, “There it goes! Did you hear that?” Usually I did not. But one night I did catch the little clink of the cube of ice landing on the other little cubes of ice in the plastic tray. Ok, Jimmy is not crazy. At least not for that.

Then one day I come home, open the freezer drawer to grab some ice for my drink and discover a dish towel draped across the ice tray with a few ice cubes resting on top of it. I look at Jimmy inquisitively and he explains that the towel absorbs some of the sound of the ice cubes falling into the tray. He is sleeping better at night with the little makeshift padding strategically placed in our freezer drawer. Weeks pass. Then the other day I went for some ice and saw that the towel had disappeared. Now that the tray is relatively full, it seems Jimmy’s life has gotten a little easier here in the Bungalow. Meanwhile, I still don’t hear a fucking thing.