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.

The Newness of it All

You know, by now you’d think I would have seen it all; tasted all the flavours on the menu; touched at least the edge of the weft and weave the rainbow has on offer. But there is always something new, I find. Something fresh. Something unexpected. And just when I decide the day has run its course, a new one dawns inside my head.

Perhaps I expect too much of sleep –too much of the waning light. Maybe there is no refuge from the New: the message in the cricket’s song; another way to feel the dark… A different voice in memory’s store.

But is it all a mirage –an oasis dream in the parched wasteland of my aging brain? Is it neural loss or neural gain that facilitates my reinterpretation of the Old and makes it garden-fresh? Or have I discovered, in my dotage, the elixir of youth that forever eluded Ponce de Leon: the art of seeing like a child?

I awoke one morning with that dream still coursing through my head and so I thought I’d run it by my friend Brien. The world always seems a wonder to him.

Each time I visit him on his porch, new surprises tend to bump me like people passing in the mall. Sometimes it’s his hair –it is a cherished and precious commodity, divided into separate pastures with which he is constantly inventive. Like farmers with their fields, he has a rotating system of combing that rations which section he will use that day. Sometimes I even think he pencils in any discrepancies -but fallow, he never leaves it.

On other, all be they rare occasions, he will seem to have mastered the button system on his shirt, and neither one too many, nor one too few will greet the final hole. There will be other anomalies to compensate, to be sure, but he faces them as everything else, with equanimity, and a beer. You have to take things as they come with Brien. Life moves at a different pace on a porch.

It is perhaps why Brien is a large man, and although I accept that there may be a chicken-or-egg component to the observation, I’ve always thought he seemed specifically designed for porch-life. Everything about him says ‘veranda’; every change is contextually driven, every surprise adaptive.

I found him on the porch as usual, legs extended from his lawn chair, staring at his favourite tree. It’s always awkward greeting someone who doesn’t see you from a porch –a form of ocular trespass perhaps, so when he finally mustered his eyes I smiled and sat on the steps for a moment. You have to give him time to adjust.

He glanced at his watch. “Wondered where you were,” he said finally, as if I were late for a meeting neither of us knew about. But at least it was an acknowledgement, I suppose, so I dived in.

“Brien,” I said with the enthusiasm of a child at recess, “Do you ever wonder whether it’s possible to run out of New as we get older?” I immediately realized I had phrased it poorly –he does not see the world in metaphor.

He tore his eyes from the bottle he was holding, and I almost heard them ripping off bits of label as they left to walk up and down my nose like a sidewalk. “You mean so we have to go to the store more often?” Brien was nothing if not well-hardened concrete. I shook my head but his face had already turned inward for a moment as if it was looking for something it had missed. Finally, it emerged triumphantly. “No,” it said with conviction, even though the rest of him didn’t seem so sure.

Then one hand flew up like it had another idea in class. “Oh, like new words?” He considered the fresh possibility with a forehead muscle I’d never noticed before. “No,” he said, this time with some emotion. “There are still plenty of sounds left…” He stared at his bottle for a second. “I mean that’s how they made up words in the old days.” From his tone, he made it sound like he was quoting from Wikipedia.

I had no idea why he thought I’d been talking about words. I felt like I had wandered into a class on non sequity -if that’s a word. But, curiosity got the better of me. “How on earth do you figure that, Brien?” I said dismissively.

He shrugged and looked at me as if I had sustained some sort of head injury. “Put a couple of sounds together, point at something, figure out how it should be spelled, and bingo, a new cave-word,” he said smugly.

“That’s not how it was done, Brien!”

“Sure it is!” He tends to dig in his heels once he’s decided something; I should have known.

I sighed rather dramatically, I’m afraid. “Okay,” I almost shouted, “Give me an example of a random sound that is also a word…” It seemed like a suitable challenge under the circumstances and for a split second I thought I had him.

He shrugged. “Dog,” he said and smiled.

That caught me off guard, I must admit. “The word probably has deep historical roots,” I mumbled staring at his now empty bottle for a moment. “And anyway, nowadays we tend to adapt old words for new purposes…” I realized I was on pretty thin ice here. “…And besides, we wouldn’t just make up new words with any old sounds…”

His smile grew alarmingly large. “Yes we would.”

I started to shake my head vigorously but he held up a finger like a Philosopher King as a mild rebuke of my childishness. “Bling,” he said and went into the house to get us both a beer.

Maybe the Ponce should have talked to him…

What did you say?

Language evolves; that’s what I like about it. New words keep popping up all the time so we don’t have to stick with the mouldy old mossbacks we were taught in school. Some of them, like say, LOL, are marvels of brevity and look good on a page even though nobody over forty has the slightest idea what they mean. Others, such as ‘choss’ are kind of catchy and begging to be used. Personally, I prefer the long ones because they presuppose some erudition and some of that clings to the user like an expensive scarf. I’m thinking here of ‘isms’ I suppose: eliminationism, or perhaps internalism -I don’t want to appear choosy. And yet I’m kind of partial to the ‘inters’ too –‘internaut’ springs to mind- however they do seem a little New Age and that’s passé now. But some are simply clever assonances such as Masshole (pardon the inadvertent phonological resemblance); pithy combos of different things of which ‘vog’ is a good example; or borrowed words like ‘tenderpreneur’, or even ‘yaar’ –which rolls nicely off the tongue.

But we have to be careful in our attributions, though. Most young people assume that words arise fully-baked from social media –spelled wrong, perhaps, but they’re easier to write that way. Texting does that to a language, of course, but I want to point to an even more fertile womb of neology: Retirement.

Neologisms are the undisputed prerogatives of the aged –make that elders. In fact, vocabulary, and its bejewelled use of new and hitherto forgotten permutations, are almost the sine qua non of respect for seniors. After a certain point, we simply cannot remember the common word for something in time to complete a sentence, so we have to futz around in the pot of syllables and come up with something tout suite –and make it sound natural. If you can perfect that, you are an elder; if not, you are just another doddery old person to be humoured. But sometimes we are judged, rather shamelessly I think, on our verbal performance -our repartees and the like. Our capacity to engage… In fact, inability to come up with a clever response is one of the key criteria that families use to register their parents in Homes –in loco parentis or something.

I can think of no better place to experience this semantic slight-of-tongue than in a Starbuck’s after the morning rush hour, when the kids and the workies have left enough tables for those of us who don’t eat and run –or can’t… I sometimes sit in the corner pretending I’m reading my iPhone and try to remember the words. I found myself inadvertently swimming in waters beyond my usual depth last week, when Joshua accosted me in the washroom lineup, however.

“You too?” he said a little too loudly. As a rule, I don’t like to let the baristas in on my personal activities. I figure their duties are to serve me, not watch me. Joshua was unfazed, however. He seemed to revel in the attention.

“I think the heightened lavatorial requirements are a function of age, don’t you?”  I said, trying to impress him with my command of bathroom words.

He shook his head. “Prostate,” he replied, trying to outmaneuver me by switching into anatomical mode. “It’s a function of hypertrophic dissonance.”

Whoa. This was getting serious. I nodded quickly to let him think I agreed, but actually it was to buy some time to find another, better phrase. “Obstructive uropathy can certainly be a problem when you’re over a certain age, eh?”

His eyes narrowed; the game was on. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, drawing out his words in an all too obvious delaying tactic. “Coffee is a diuretic even for the testosterone replete.”

I awarded him a slow, contemplative nod. “But they seem to come with larger holding tanks, don’t you think. There’s no one in this line who hasn’t fall’n into his sere, or his yellow leaf.” Shakespeare usually trumps, and I could see him stagger mentally for a moment.

Then the quick twinkling in his eyes. “So must we only look to have curses, not loud but deep, or mouth honor…?”

He knew he had me on that – you only get to quote Shakespeare once each from the same soliloquy. I lowered my head, so it must have looked to him as if I were speaking through my eyebrows –a Ciceronian technique I hope he caught. “Well, at least I’m not standing here in need and desperation; I’ve come prophylactically. Better three hours too soon, than a minute too late,” I said, but I knew in that moment he had me. I’d used the Bard twice, albeit this time from The Merry Wives of Windsor which I figured he’d never read.

I could see triumph in his eyes as words formed slowly on his lips. They were peeking out from inside his mouth, eager to slice me to the ground when the toilet door opened and an old man sauntered out casually feeling to check if he’d remembered to close his fly. Joshua was next in line; he had no choice but to leave me there, bleeding, but not defeated.

As the door closed behind him, I saw my opportunity to escape mortal combat, and took another road to leave ‘just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear’. And as I left Starbuck’s I couldn’t help feeling sad. I would have had him on that one…