Excuse Me?

You know, by and large I’m pretty content with being old… Well, not old as in wrinkly and cane-bound -more like calendarially acquisitive. However, there is one thing that I have lately discovered that greatly inhibits my social intercourse –a design flaw, I think: hearing.

It’s not that I can’t hear things –I am very attuned to volume and the background melee in which they seem invariably embedded -it is more the interpretation thereof. Indeed, the backcloth seems to swallow words, and dissolve them into a meaningless pap that I am forced to process later at my leisure like a cow. You would think that Evolution would have issued ear-cuds, or something, but I suppose Darwin couldn’t think of everything.

Evolution takes time of course, and yet I’ve learned it sometimes also takes short cuts; that gives me hope. Exaptations they’re called –the use of a pre-existing mechanism for something other than its original function. Jury-rigging it. Feathers, for example, which once-upon-a-time probably served only for thermoregulation and maybe sexual attraction, were then adapted, as time and circumstance allowed, for flight –a kluge. Why design something new, eh? So, given that I didn’t get in on the feathers, I figured maybe I’d be up for second prize.

I realized quite recently that most of my trouble with interpretive hearing loss tends to be self-inflicted, however -it seems particularly bothersome when I wander into people-infested areas. Starbuck’s springs to mind… Brien, too -when he’s not receiving visitors on his porch, he consents to meeting me for a coffee every so often. But although he is a man more comfortable with grunts and head nods, I still have trouble making those out from across the table in the noisy room.

So I decided to exapt. I’m actually kind of embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it before. And nothing very complicated, or anything –I think it’s better to go basic when you first try something. Sort of feel your way around. The concept I settled on was proximity –if you can’t decipher what someone is saying over there, go over there. I hadn’t counted on Brien’s reaction, though, and as I leaned closer to his face to decipher the sounds, he countered by receding. His back was to the wall, and when he finally realized there was no more room to recede, he pushed me away with a vigour he’d never demonstrated on his porch even when he thought I was reaching for the biggest cookie.

I immediately grasped the fact that not all exaptations succeed –or at least not at first. Proximity needed a little work. But as I thought more about it, I reasoned that since mouths form words, and lips can be seen from a distance, maybe I could fashion my own kluge: translipping, I suppose you could call it -lipping for short. The added advantage is that from a few feet away at least, the person observed thinks you’re really looking in his eyes. This makes him feel you are actually paying attention. I’ve come to realize that it works better with a gender imbalance, though, because when I tried it with Brien in the crowded Starbucks venue a few days later, he again backed away and kept turning his head. He needs to get out more.

But when I was lipping, it seemed to help a bit. I think consonants work best, though – probably because of the need for larger and more demonstrative lip excursions. It reminded me that originally, the Hebrew alphabet was an abjad­ and consisted only of consonants. Maybe they used to have hearing problems in those days too, so they figured they’d make it easier for people in the bazaars, or whatever. Brien didn’t think that was right when I told him my theory, but neither of us are Jewish, so we left it there.

There was some progress, however, so I thought I’d expand the potential and try distance-lipping. Brien encouraged this; he said it would feel like he’d got his face back.

“Try it on that woman over there,” he said, pointing like a child in a supermarket when we were next in Starbucks. His target, when I eventually grabbed his arm and lowered it, was an attractive brunette with long shiny hair and curls that danced on her shoulders each time she laughed. Her eyes were almost as alive as her full, red lips, and every so often I’d earn a hint of sparkling white teeth when she looked with growing concern in my direction. She’d started out with the expected balance of fricatives and labiovelar articulations, but as she began to glance my way, I noticed an increasing frequency of velars and labiodentals. Her eyes, too, began to harden. Soon, I had four lips to practice on, because her boyfriend –I didn’t notice a ring- began to velate. I was right on the cusp of decrypting their meaning when he stood up and swaggered over to our table. Brien pretended to have dropped his little paper napkin on the floor, so he missed the eye-boxing I received.

“Why were you staring at my wife?” the man said angrily.

That was unfair –I mean he wasn’t wearing a ring, or anything. “I…” Actually, I was so alarmed, I couldn’t think of an answer that would defuse the situation.

“He’s almost deaf,” Brien replied for me, coming up from under the table au moment critique. “He’s learning to lip sync..”

“Lip-read,” I corrected him. Sometimes you probably shouldn’t be too pedantic.

The man stared at Brien for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well… practice on somebody else, eh?” he said and walked back, somewhat subdued.

I risked a quick glance at them after he’d sat down again. Their faces were huddled together, but I was pretty certain I could make out lip for ‘handicapped’ before I hurriedly tore my eyes away.

“You’ve got to get a hearing-aid,” Brien said, as soon as they left, but he said it slowly, as if I were foreign to the language, and he opened his mouth like he was singing in a choir and made his lips over-perform with each syllable. I hate that.

Anyway, I’m okay on his porch when the only other sounds are Sheda, his tree, rustling in the wind, and the occasional rattle of his dentures when he eats cookies with nuts. So a hearing aid seems over-kill.

I’m waiting for the ultimate kluge that I read about in the BBC news. I found an article on the brain’s solution for making sense of speech in a noisy room: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38381915  I didn’t understand it really, but I gathered that scientists have found the area of the brain that not only processes sound, but is able to focus on different parts of noise to make it more intelligible. There must be a way of exercising it, I figure -maybe doing purpose-built Sudokus, or being strapped into a specially equipped seat in Starbucks or something. Brien is all for it.

Dog Biscuits

There is something deeply redemptive about walking a dog. It’s not that I feel in particular need of absolution, or anything, but like paying off a mortgage, every little bit counts. Just the feel of the empty leash in your hand, the wind in your hair and the little recyclable compost bag in your pocket in case you get caught is truly freeing -not to mention exhilarating.

I’m fortunate to live near a forest that is almost empty of decorum, so neither I nor my dog pay much heed to protocol. Not for us the urban fences and posted restrictions; we roam the trails like pioneers, exulting in the freedom to do whatever we wish, as long as nobody is watching. My job, of course, is to make sure.

I often walk with a friend for extra eyes –my dog is old and sometimes gets confused if she happens upon a scent that beckons more seductively than my own. Deaf, cataract-laden, and hip-restricted, I should probably be taking her in a wheelchair, but some of the trails are not equal-opportunity accessible. And anyway, she seems to enjoy padding along behind, engrossed in an olfactory experience those of us with clothes have long ago eschewed.

But there is an awkward moment of encounter at least once on any trail when I am asked her name. I know people are just being polite; I know they are really asking me to ask them their dog’s name so they can show off some clever celebrity sobriquet. But, even though I am now retired and expected to immerse myself in a popular culture I am too old to understand -the culture I am relegated to appreciate by proxy, I suppose- I do not enjoy the thrill of surrogate intimacy with the rich and famous.

I was by trade, a gynaecologist, and I fear my epithetical leanings are definitely gynaecological. So, in the case of my dog, I am constantly confronted with the need to explain the embarrassing anatomical coordinates of the name. The same with my cat, actually, but it saved me undo mortification by running away. As you read this, it is probably in protective custody somewhere, living under an alias. But to each her own. My dog seems to like her name, and back when her ears worked, actually perked them up when I called.

My friend, however, seems convinced that she is suffering from a type of psychological stress-deafness akin to Freud’s hysteria. Either that or, I am assured, she just ignores me in the throes of humiliation. I honestly don’t know why I continue to walk with this person.

I’ve kind of solved the deafness issue, though. Although she can’t hear me yelling at her, there are politer solutions on offer -loud whistling, for example. While I can do a fair, albeit rather sibilant, rendition of the first few bars of Ode to Joy, and have, on occasion, won praise for my thrilling, but unrecognizable version of Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C# minor, I am congenitally unable to produce anything louder than a soft hiss in the whistle department -certainly nothing that would command any attention, let alone respect. I did try one of those dog whistles in a pet store. The sign said it was supposed to use a higher frequency than humans can detect, and I couldn’t hear a thing when I blew it. I took that as a good sign. Mind you, my hearing is not what it used to be either, and I can certainly sympathize with presbycusis in the dog. Still… it didn’t do what the sign assured me it wouldn’t, so I bought it. Unfortunately, the first time I used it, my friend claimed it was both audible and painful, so I had to put it in my pocket. I still bring it with me, however, because although the dog can’t hear it, I figure it might come in handy if my friend wanders off.

The method I find myself using to attract the dog’s increasingly apparent attention deficit disorder, is the clap. Not to be confused with the dated, and highly derogatory alias for the condition that used to get you sent to the nurse’s office in high school, I am referring to the simple, yet forceful meeting of the hands. The dog seems to respond to clapping, although to get her attention, it has to be repetitive -as if I were applauding something terribly interesting in the trees that nobody else can see. People nearby avert their eyes as they approach, or scan the woods in search of the performing squirrel or wind ensemble that may be hidden somewhere they hadn’t noticed. I usually try to explain as they hurry past, but like the apocryphal tree falling in the forest when nobody is around, I get the distinct impression they’d rather not hear it.

I have recently come to the reluctant conclusion that my dog is entering a phase of cognitive decline, however. I see in her bouts of decision paralysis, hints of doggie dementia. She will, on occasion, sniff the same rock twice, as if she’s forgotten the olfactory message and her own contribution to the gestalt. She seems perfectly happy with the result, and I suppose I shouldn’t read too much into it, but as a fellow mammal, I worry. It’s a cross cultural thing, I guess.

Confusion is a big issue in a society based on obedience like ours. It is imperative that you know who to obey for a start –the rule of law depends on it. And it’s no different for a dog. Befuddlement is probably the heaviest weight I have to carry –not mine, you understand, although my friend sometimes has to fetch me if I wander off the trail thinking I see my car in the bushes. But that’s just when I’m tired and I don’t think dogs can use the same excuse. So when she disappears, I worry it is because her GPS is broken and not, like in my case, that she has just forgotten to turn it on.

I take her deficit personally t00, because I see it on the menu for us all. And if, in some uncharted time ahead, I should happen to wander off down another trail, or follow someone strange thinking it is myself, I hope my keepers will not be unduly distressed, or feel I have betrayed their trust. As with my dog, I hope they will be patient with my errant ways. And in the end, if clapping doesn’t work, there’s always the leash.