Michigan Ear Institute, it’s no surprise, is a noisy place. I’m sitting in the waiting room when Mr. Robinson walks in. He steps up to the check-in window, signs in, and waits. The receptionist looks up. Her lips move.
“What?” he says.
“What?” he says, again.
“HAS ANY OF YOUR INSURANCE INFORMATION CHANGED, MR. ROBINSON?”
A dinful chat ensues. He eventually takes a seat near me and settles in for the wait. Around us, in the crowded waiting room, there’s the hum of sotto voce talk, some of it not too sotto. I’m here this morning to receive my device, a hi-tech hearing aid that will make life easier, a device that, I am told, will bluetooth to my phone, to the tv, to the world.
As a gag, I decide to document this long awaited moment for my family, who have been putting up with my gradual hearing loss for years. (Last night I thought my wife said something about “deep fleck.” Then, from the bathroom I heard her say: “My upper right bodger is hurting.” When I repeated those exact words back to her, not without relish, she was not amused.) I reach for my phone and try to take a photo of one of my ears, to send to her and the kids. It’s an awkward shoot. You vaguely aim at the side of your head. I consider yelling at Mr. Robinson, WOULD YOU TAKE A PICTURE OF MY EAR? And then think better of it.
Two or three clicks, and I look.
As body parts go, ears, like feet, are intricate but not beautiful.
There are exceptions. Babies’ ears, for example. And feet? A few weeks ago, standing in line at a hotel coffee bar, I complimented a woman on her feet. She was in her twenties. She had long, thin feet. Not swim-flipper-long; for her they were right-sized. She was wearing flipflops, so I could see they were slender and also nicely tanned.
“Can I tell you something?” I said.
She turned and looked a look at me that said, What?
“You have beautiful feet.”
She glanced down, then back at me, and said, “Thanks?”
After she left, I asked an older, hearing-aid-aged woman waiting for her coffee, if what I said was inappropriate. She said she thought it was quite lovely.
This is not a foot fetish. It’s more like a habit of mind–where I focus my attention, on shoes, on feet, on small details. A few years back, when I circled the 14th century hall at the top of the stairs in the Bargello Museum, I took pictures of feet, assembled a little gallery of my own on my iPhone, Studies in Feet. Pictured above, Adam and Eve’s feet, attached to the rest of our foreparents in a sculpture by Baccio Bandinelli. Below, the foot of a saint. I would not call this foot beautiful, but it has a kind of grandeur. It is a formidable foot. Like most people I am a photo idiot in museums, taking pictures of what I’m looking at, pictures that will tell me and others, later, I was here. “Hey, you saw the David?” (Awesome feet.) But perhaps unlike other people, I rarely photograph the whole painting or sculpture. I stand close and shoot tiny details, the two-inch tall kid in the corner of the painting, not the main character; the old woman touching her upper lip with a long thin index finger, a sorrowful man at the edge of the crucifiction.
At the hotel coffee bar that morning, I did not photograph the woman’s foot. That would have been weird.
The photos I take of my left ear in the Michigan Ear Institute this day are a little too close, not well lit. And, you know, hairs. And, you know, ear stuff and sluff. In a word, the images are kind of gross. I decide not to share.
A few minutes later, back in one of the office exam rooms, Elaine the audiologist shows me the device, two units the size and color of cashews, with thin wires attached to mini loudspeakers, one for each ear. I hand her my phone and she performs the setup, then explains how to toggle to various settings: all-around, restaurant, outdoor, ultra focus. I can also create custom settings I might need: for the grocery store, for the library, for the front seat of the car.
“Your phone will now ring to your hearing aid. Do you want that?”
I tell her I don’t know.
“Audio on your phone, like who’s talking to you, will automatically go to your hearing aid. Do you want that?”
I tell her I don’t know.
“Do you listen to music on your phone? We can stream directly to your hearing aids.”
“I’ve heard of that.”
“Some people like it.”
“Goodbye, ear buds.”
“Yup.” She pushes a button on one of the cashews, slips a hearing aid over each ear.
“Wow,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says, very audibly. It’s like someone turned up the treble. I tell her this. She says I’m going to hear things I haven’t heard in a while.
“Wow,” I say again, “you sound different.”
I make an appointment to return in a month.
In the car, the turn signal’s BLINK-a BLINK-a BLINK-a is deafening. I turn on the radio and turn it back off. I swear I can hear the hinges of my jaw, the smack of my lips opening and closing, the clack of my teeth. Who knew a head makes so much noise? When our son was little I used to hold my ear next to his cheek when he ate cereal, listening to him crunch and chew. My crunch and chew, I imagine, is going to be deafening.
At home the garage door closing sounds like a 747 landing. The sound of my urine spashing in the toilet bowl is startling, the flush as well. The wood floors and stairs crackle beneath my feet.
“How is it?” my wife says.
I open the app on my phone. “I have to learn this thing,” I say, meaning the app.
“But can you hear better?“
“I hear louder. Everything is sharp,” I say. “Everything crackles.”
Evidently my hearing deficit is in the mid- to high-frequency range. In the office Elaine showed me my speech banana (a term I warm up to immediately), which is a picture of frequencies and decibel ranges in and out of reach. I can’t hear whispers, I now understand, because a whisper is a high frequency sound. In bed at night, when my wife whispers something (and we still whisper in bed, even though it’s just the two of us), I have to turn, draw close to her, and present an ear. Did you lock the back door? WHAT? Did you lock the back door? WHAT? I can no longer hear her sweet nothings. Please state your sweet nothings, I want to say. But of course they would lose something.
The device corrects for these deficits, enhancing high frequencies–with a vengeance. Not in bed.
Just now she’s watching a rerun of Rachel Maddow. Rachel’s voice hurts. “Can we turn that down?” I say.
I could have used these things a few weeks ago. I was in a hotel coffee bar that morning looking at feet because I woke up in a hotel in Grand Junction, Colorado. We were on the return leg of a cross country road trip.
Car travel poses all kinds of problems for the hearing challenged, even the slightly challenged, which is how I would describe my case. In a 5000 mile drive, we rode over every imaginable road surface, the tire-to-surface sound ranging from hum to hiss to whine to growl to roar. Toss in a little tinnitus, sometimes quite a lot of tinnitus, and an acoustically imperfect Chrysler van (think echo chamber), and you have your work cut out for you. Each day, my wife would look out her window and remark on the scenery, often speaking in the direction of the window. I listened to the back of her head, wondering: Is she talking to me or herself? We clocked 6-8 hours a day in the car. Daily I clocked 50-100 requests that she re-remark. I drove leaning in her direction. What did you say? I didn’t hear that. Say again? Huh?
That got old, fast.
I am a firm believer in technological enhancements, especially in the area of travel. On a long flight I wear noise canceling headphones, attach them to the in-flight entertainment system or to my phone, and enjoy enhanced sound. Our whole road trip to California and back was on my phone, itinerary, route, hotel reservations, photos. The navigator on the dashboard was my friend. It predicted ten hours driving time from Mariposa to St. George, it told me when to turn left, it rerouted us around heavy traffic in Barstow.
But enhancements come at a cost.
One night in St. George, Utah, out of nowhere this guy says to me, “Hey, man, I like your shoes.”
So: someone is looking at my feet. A like-minded person?
My wife and I are standing in the entrance of a restaurant called the Painted Pony, waiting for a table. We’ve just driven 600 or so miles, a lot of it through the Mojave desert. It’s pushing 9:00 p.m. We’re hungry, tired, and crabby.
I don’t often hear compliments on my shoes, for good reason. I tend to wear shitty shoes. So this is a surprise, a lift. The guy is tall and thin, with a head of sandy-gray hair that reminds me of the desert we just passed through.
He points at his shoes, which are almost identical to mine. More sandals than shoes, with hard soles, they’re good for hiking if you don’t mind getting your feet dirty. I tell him we just drove in from Yosemite. When he asks what route, I shrug and say I turned left when the navigator said to. He nods me a slightly judgmental nod, which I feel I slightly deserve. Nope, I can’t name a single road we drove. After Fresno, I can’t even remember the name of a town we drove by, other than Las Vegas. When we get home I plan to read Pathfinder, a book I bought in Mariposa. It’s a biography of John Charles Fremont, a guy, the title suggests, who chose his own path. Well, not me.
Next time, this guy says, try 95.
That night before bed, I voice-to-text myself a note to that effect. Try 95. Then another note. Find 95 on a map. Then another note. Find a map, buy a road atlas. Here’s the problem: On my phone, on the dashboard navigator, you can zoom out, but the view is terrible, so minimal as to be altogether useless. This is not an enhancement. Sometimes you want to see the whole state. You need the global view to know where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going.
My wife asks one night, “What’s that noise?”
We’re home from our trip, relaxing. I have enhanced hearing. She’s sitting on the couch reading a book entitled Q, historical fiction set during the time of the Protestant Reformation, a period full of war, intrigue, and skulduggery. I’m listening to music.
I tell her I’m bluetoothing music to my hearing aid, which is what she hears. To her it sounds like sssssssssssss. To me it sounds a little like that too.
“Bongo Bongo,” I say.
“‘Bongo Bongo,’ by Carlo Valentino.”
“Am I supposed to know that song?”
A song I found when I was searching for alternate versions of “Via Con Me” (“Come Away with Me”), an alternative to Paolo Conte’s recording. “Bongo Bongo” is a wacky swinging number with horns and a slick steel guitar. I bought it for $1.29. I’m always grateful I don’t have to buy the whole LP, when I want just one song. In this way “Bongo Bongo” is kind of like Adam and Eve’s feet, choosing the part over the whole.
“Bongo Bongo” would be a perfect soundtrack for a cruise west on Route 66, which I can find on my phone, on my computer, on the car navigator, and now on the National Geographic road atlas, which Amazon Prime has just delivered. It’s a retrograde accessory. And I am thrilled.
But that sssssssssssss. On my hearing aid, correcting for my mid- to high-frequency deficit, the bluetooth music sounds like someone turned the treble up and dialed down everything else. It has a scratchy, staticky quality. What you get from a loudspeaker the size of the head of a pin.
“This thing needs a woofer,” I say.
“A what? Why? What are you talking about?”
My hearing aid and its hi-tech software correct for my speech banana, which is not the same as my music banana. “Bongo Bongo” does not sound good. I toggle to the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” Bad sound. I try a cut from the Paul Desmond LP, “Bossa Antigua,” which I downloaded (in its entirety) after hearing it that night in the Painted Pony. Desmond’s alto sax should sound like velvet. It does not.
Something gained, something lost.
While my wife reads her Q, I fiddle with app settings, adjust the EQ on my iPhone, trying to improve the sound. I raise the bass, dial down the middle, zero the treble, in order to achieve near earbud quality. It works, sort of. I save the settings, call it “Music.” I’ll be able to select that setting next time I’m at the Ear Institute and want to listen to the Wayward Sisters’ “The Broken Consort” in the waiting room. Just as I’ll be able to select “car,” the custom setting for when we get around and I’m listening to the back of my wife’s head.
Alas, no setting for sweet nothings. At least not yet.