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.

Pardon me?

I like to think that I’m observant, but maybe I went through some sort of hiatus a few years ago –a vigilance tunnel- and when I emerged, blinking into the sun, everybody had strings hanging from their ears. In fairness, I suppose it was a gradual thing -even normative behaviour has a break-in period.

The concept of a personal soundscape is as old as earphones, I guess, but those were big and clunky compared to earbuds -delivery trucks instead of sports cars. And they often drew unwanted attention to the head, thus requiring special grooming of which the nerds of the era were incapable. But the ability to dampen your thoughts in music as you walked or ran through life was an unmet need. It seemed the perfect antidote to a reality the young were just discovering. And yet, there was an unvoiced requirement to reject it while swimming in its benefits, so when the less-obtrusive earbud was invented as a compromise niche product, it became the norm. It became the cake they could also eat. The non-drug drug.

It took a while for the middle-agers to accede to the fashion –perhaps because they felt that the bulk of the phone and the length of the cord would spoil the look of their outfits- but eventually they, too, were draped in staidly coloured wires that led to purses and leather briefcases –teenage wannabes without the orange hair.

The community of elders was the last to adopt, as usual. I put that down to their hearing aids and the resulting lack of ear space, however -not to mention the widely known risk of cord entanglement because of their increasing visual issues. But with the advent of special, age-sensitive seating arrangements on most of the city buses, and therefore the opportunity to hand-hold the buds, this problem has largely been overcome. In fact, I’ve noticed more and more of them enjoying what I have come to believe are private podcast services offered by some local churches. I stopped sitting in that section, though, because the hymn leakage was hurting my ears. And I hate humming.

As for me, I’ve never had any particularly Ludditic tendencies, and like my younger contemporaries am now quite at home on a smart phone -although I have to admit I hate Siri and tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid constantly summoning her until my son showed me how to kill her… He described it differently, of course, but whatever! It seemed to reseal my mobile version of Pandora’s box and made me realize I was perfectly willing to listen to my own advice and, by extension, to appreciate what my environment offered for entertainment. Sorry, iTunes.

But in Retirement, I evolved –or at least changed. I’m not sure evolution is even permitted at my age… it’s frowned upon at any rate. Anyway, although I’ve never liked the idea of being imprisoned in a little tailor-made sound envelope, I figured it might come in handy at parties where I don’t know anybody and don’t really know why I was invited. So, on the off chance I might actually be asked to one, I decided to practice earbudding.

That’s when I discovered I had funny-shaped ears. Uhmm, let’s be clear, there’s nothing abnormal to look at. I mean I don’t have to wear a toque over them or anything. They don’t come to a point like Spock’s, nor do they hang down like flags on a windless day. I have no reason to suspect that they are asymmetrical –although my hair usually gets in the way when I try to measure them in the mirror, so I suppose it’s non liquet. I did reassure myself that they’re both about the same height above my shoulders, though, so that was a relief.

No, my ears are both libertines -well, one of them at least: the one that can’t hold an ear-bud. At first I was terribly embarrassed, albeit not particularly inconvenienced. I spent a good deal of time and money experimenting on different models, different sizes, and even different colours – I mean you have to look good in a bud, eh? Nothing worked in that ear, however –not even the luscious purple ones with the little ear-hooks that were supposed to suspend the things in the right area. All one side did was swing like a trapeze, though, sowing its sound like unwanted seeds on anybody close enough to complain.

Then I figured maybe it was cord-drag that was acting like an unwanted weight on the earbuds, so I went cordless. But no, the overly expensive Bluetooth ones were no better. The little thingy that joined the buds and told them what to do kept snagging on my collar for some reason, and whenever I turned my head, they’d both come off. They were never adequately anchored in my ears anyway, and I lost my last pair in the rain on the way to the bus stop.

Maybe some ears are just not designed for earbuds –a sobering thought, to be sure, and one with undoubted fashion consequences if I ever wanted to fit in… Which, of course, I don’t. What’s retirement for anyway, if it doesn’t allow you a polite escape from the permutations and combinations of realpolitik? Or at least, the office.

I briefly reconsidered earphones, but on sober reflection, I realized they might further stigmatize me at the parties to which I never get invited. And besides, they make it difficult to find a hat that would still look good if I decided to take them off… Not that you can wear a hat at a party, or anything, but I occasionally get invited to weddings or funerals -the sort of event where you’re expected to sign a book to show you attended and indicate whether or not you brought gifts or flowers. You have to attend those.

So, I’ve decided to remain ear-naked, and rely on hair to cover the defect. I’ll go back to imagination like the old days -and maybe birdsong, if it’s available. We all have to adapt, eh?