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I Can Hear You Now!

(Confessions of a Former Semi-Deaf Guy)

by David Dvorkin

Tinnitus Has Nothing To Do with Tin

I first realized that I had a hearing problem during my sophomore year in college, but I became aware of what was probably an early symptom when I was a kid, and I really liked it.

That symptom was tinnitus. It has many causes, some of them still mysterious, but it seems to be a common side-effect of a deteriorating aural nerve or deteriorating inner-ear equipment. It's often described as a ringing in the ears, but for many people, including me, it's a high-pitched whistling sound. For some unfortunate people, it's a serious affliction - so loud and so constant that it ruins their lives and may even lead to suicide, for there's no other way they can escape it. Fortunately for me, it was never that bad, not even at its worst, when I was around ten. It's still with me (a friend for life!), but it's not constant, and it's usually at a low enough volume that I've learned to ignore it.

When I was a kid, my tinnitus was louder than it is now and I was very aware of it. It used to change pitch and nature frequently - whistling, warbling, high frequency, low frequency, constant, intermittent. It sounded a lot like the weird background noises of shortwave radio.

At the time, my family lived in South Africa. There was no television, and radio was limited both in terms of stations and diversity of content. (To be fair, we lived in a small town, and the situation might have been a bit different in, say, Johannesburg. At least with regard to radio. Television broadcasting didn't exist anywhere in the country.) Radio was also limited in terms of news and politics, because this was during the Apartheid era. So we often listened to shortwave radio programs from England, Europe, and elsewhere.

I was fascinated by those shortwave broadcasts. Not so much by their content, which I have to admit I don't remember and probably didn't pay much attention to at the time, but by their sound. There was always a lot of whistling in the background, constantly changing in pitch and nature, and often the voice or music of the broadcast would fade away, swallowed up by that background noise, and would emerge again after a second or two, as if the whistling had taken on meaning.

Like most kids, I loved fantasy stories of all kinds. Soon, that changed into a love of science fiction. I would lose myself for as long as possible in the vast distances of space and in daydreams about distant - and much nicer - civilizations. I became convinced that the sounds in my ears were some kind of alien shortwave broadcasts aimed just at me, that wonderful beings living in a distant solar system were trying to get through to me and tell me what I had to do in order to join them. This made sense to me at the time.

So I would listen intently to those sounds in my ears, waiting for the voice to fade back in, for the whistling to resolve itself into intelligibility. I would lie awake at night, listening, trying to decode the messages from my interstellar soul mates. It was endlessly entertaining. The only frustration lay in my inability to finally hear the clear message.

Then I hit puberty and starting thinking about girls all the time and stopped listening to the alien messages.

Sophomore Physics

I was always aware that both my parents had bad hearing. They listened to radio - and, after we moved to the U.S., television - at a volume that constantly annoyed me. They didn't hear what I or others said to them, or they misunderstood what was said to them in odd ways. What I didn't know was that I was headed down the same path but wasn't yet far enough along it to have the problems they were already experiencing.

Perhaps this means that my hearing loss is hereditary. Or perhaps constant exposure to ungodly loud radio and television destroyed my ears. Or perhaps, as I was told recently, my hearing problems are most likely due to childhood fevers, which I do remember having. In any case, as a teenager, I was convinced that my parents' inferior hearing was just more evidence of their moral inferiority to me. I was certain that I had excellent hearing and always would. The people I couldn't understand just weren't speaking clearly enough.

Eventually, I ended up at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, majoring in mathematics and taking a sophomore physics class. One sequence of lectures I found particularly fascinating had to do with sound. One day, the lecturer, Professor Whosenameiveforgotten, wanted to show us how the human ear can hear sounds within a certain range but not sounds outside that range. No doubt there was much more to the lecture than that, because this was a serious physics class for serious science majors, but that's the part I remember. Perhaps I was daydreaming during the rest of it. Given what a non-serious science major I was, that seems very likely.

"The normal human hearing range," said Professor Who, "is about twenty cycles per second to 20,000 cycles per second." Instead of cycles per second, or cps, frequency is now denoted by the hertz, in honor of the great 19-century German physicist Heinrich Hertz, one hertz being one cycle per second. At that time, the autumn of 1962, that usage hadn't yet caught on at Indiana University. Or at least, not with Professor Who. "Since you're all young," he said, "some of you will probably be able to hear beyond that range, especially at the upper end."

He set up a gadget on the desk at the front of the room. It generated a loud tone of a very pure frequency. He told us to hold our hands up if we could hear the sound and put them down if we couldn't. We all put our hands up. He dialed the frequency lower and lower, and suddenly we all put our hands down, pretty much simultaneously. "The sound's still there," he said, "but you can't hear it." We all nodded seriously. We're taking notes, Professor Who. See what good boys we are?

Now Professor Who repeated the process, but in the other direction, dialing the sound's frequency higher and higher. He kept announcing the frequency. "Four thousand cycles per second. Five thousand cycles per second. Six thousand." And so on. All the young hands stayed up. At eight thousand cycles per second, the sound suddenly stopped. I thought the machine had malfunctioned. I put my hand down. Everyone else's hand stayed up. Professor Who kept twirling the dial and reading off frequencies, and the hands stayed up, and I realized that the machine was fine and it was my ears that weren't working. Eventually, somewhere in the mid or upper teens of thousands of cycles per second, hands started coming down. As I remember, there were a few of my fellow students who still had their hands up when Professor Who reached 25,000 cps and ended the demonstration.

I was surprised and a bit disturbed, but I had a lot of other things to worry about, and I worried about them instead. In fact, even though my high-frequency hearing loss was already fairly severe, as that physics class demonstration had shown me, it didn't seem to be interfering with my ordinary life. My inability to hear frequencies that other people my age could hear was a curiosity, but it didn't occur to me that it might be affecting my ability to hear in general.

Constricted World

Years later, I was required to have a hearing test as part of the pre-employment physical for a new job. I must have been in my early or mid-thirties at the time.

In case you've never had such a test, here's how they work. You sit in a small, sound-proofed cubicle while wearing a set of earphones and holding a rod with a button on the end. Outside the cubicle, visible through a window or glass wall, a tech operates a switchboard which lets him transmit longish beeps of various frequencies and volumes through the earphones to one or both of your ears. He starts with a beep at a low frequency and a low volume, and then he increases the volume until you press the button, signaling that you can hear the sound. He repeats this process at ever higher frequencies. Sort of the inverse of what Professor Who was doing. After going through this process a few times, sending the beeps to both of your ears and repeating the process for each ear, the tech ends up with some simple graphs of frequency vs. the lowest volume at which you can hear the beep. For people with normal hearing, the graphs have a standard, age-dependent shape.

Mine were not standard.

Remembering that physics class, I wasn't surprised that, as he raised the frequency, the tech had to increase the volume quite a bit for me to hear the beeps, and that at the higher frequencies, I couldn't hear them no matter how high the volume. He seemed surprised, though. When we reached the frequency where I simply could not hear the beeps no matter what, he kept increasing the volume, as if convinced that this would break through some stubborn barrier in my ears. It didn't, but I did begin to feel quite a bit of pain both ears - a silent pain, a beepless pain. I glared at the tech through the window and he gave up. After the test, he showed me the graphs, exclaiming about how bad my hearing was. I think I had made his day.

I hadn't made mine, though. I started thinking about my hearing and doing some reading. I thought about my past and my childhood tinnitus, and I realized that my life had been far more affected by poor hearing than I had realized. Given that I was ahead of the curve - that many middleaged and old people suffer from the kind of hearing loss I already had - I knew that the problem would almost certainly get worse.

My eyes don't work, either. I've been nearsighted since some time in childhood. I can't say when, exactly, because for my generation (I was born in 1943), vision tests weren't common for children. This was true in South Africa, and it was true during the two years we spent in the U.S., in Chicago, when I was in third and fourth grade. My parents, and my teachers in both countries, assumed that my failure to turn in homework or volunteer to answer questions in class was due to inattentiveness, daydreaming, and laziness. They knew I was a bright kid, so they couldn't think of any other explanation. They didn't realize that I couldn't read anything on the blackboard and so never paid attention to assignments written on it, and, as I now know, I couldn't hear or understand much of what was being said. I was in fact inattentive and daydreamy, and I still am, but it could be that both of those characteristics stem, at least partly, from poor hearing and poor sight making me unaware of and detached from the social world around me.

Fortunately for me, when we moved back to South Africa when I was ten, a teacher at my new school realized that I had a vision problem and urged my parents to take me for an eye exam. I wish I could remember that teacher, because I ought to be eternally grateful to him or her. Instead, at the time, I felt huge resentment against the teacher, my eyes, the optometrist, my parents, and most of all the damned things I had to wear on my face. I was already a social outsider for a number of reasons (dorkiness, bookishness, Jewishness, and being the rabbi's son), and being the only child wearing glasses in a school full of eagle-eyed outdoorsy types didn't help at all.

In spite of those feelings, I was fascinated and amazed by what I could now see. I hadn't realized that objects have edges. I had assumed that everything really was blurred and blended in with everything else. I would stand outside and stare in wonder at the leaves of distant trees - wonder because I could see them, and the branches as well. There were low mountains far away beyond the houses across the street. Before I got my glasses, I had been only vaguely aware of them, although I had liked to watch the blurry red ball of the sun setting behind them. Once I had my glasses, I could see trees along the tops of the mountains.

Trees! So far away, and yet I could see them! I became convinced that the optometrist had made a mistake and had made my glasses too strong. Wasn't this dangerous? Wouldn't it use up my sight, wear out my eyes? I kept asking other people if they too could see this or that distant object. Members of my family started acting annoyed with me. In retrospect, I'm surprised that I didn't assume that the aliens, my soul-mates, had used their superscience to give me supervision, just like theirs, so that I'd be prepared when they came to get me.

No one, not even that perceptive teacher, realized that I had a hearing problem. Unless it approaches near-total deafness, poor hearing isn't so recognizable as poor vision. It's also much less common in children. I suspect that a lot of those kids I thought were eagle-eyed also needed glasses, and perhaps nowadays they'd be wearing them, but I could well have been the only one in the school with poor hearing. Even now, among adults, and despite the aging of the Baby Boomers, poor hearing is either far less prevalent than poor vision or its prevalence is far less recognized. That's surely why "nearsighted" is a common term in English (we called it "shortsighted" in South Africa) and "presbyopia" is creeping into the language, but for hearing problems we still have to use awkward phrases like, well, "hearing problems" or "hard of hearing."

Not that it would have mattered if anyone had realized I had a hearing problem. The technology didn't yet exist to correct or even alleviate my particular hearing problem, the inability to hear high frequencies. The art of grinding lenses to compensate for inadequate vision has been with us for centuries. The image of the aging man holding a huge horn or trumpet to his ear in a vain effort to hear what people are saying has also been with us for centuries.

So time passed, and the only change was that my hearing got worse. So did my eyes, but that could be taken care of by regular changes in my glasses' prescription.

Increasingly, I avoided groups, because it's even harder for people like me to hear - rather, to understand - other people when there's background noise, such as the buzz of multiple conversations. When I did find myself in a group, I'd try to understand people at first, but of course that never worked. Bad hearing is not a problem that can be overcome by listening more intently. I would tune out the incomprehensible hum of the crowd and escape into daydreams.

Even as a child, I watched people's mouths when they spoke to me, unconsciously reading their lips. That's extremely common among people with poor hearing. The need to read lips intensified as I got older and my hearing got worse. I could tell that some people were made very uncomfortable by my staring at their mouths. Sometimes, I would force myself to watch their eyes instead, but then it was as if their voices simply disappeared.

I kept withdrawing even more socially. I found it difficult to speak to people I didn't already know well. I avoided doing so, and I avoided making telephone calls. Often, when I answered the telephone, I couldn't understand the voice on the other end.

At home, this wasn't a problem. Our house was mostly quiet, and I could hear my wife, Leonore, and my son, Daniel. Both of them seemed to have no problem with speaking up so that I could understand them, although at times they seemed a bit annoyed, and then I'd feel guilty, and then I'd feel resentful. I'd also feel some resentment, but even more sadness, when we were outside and Leonore would stop and smile and say, "Listen. Can you hear that?" Crickets. The breeze. Leaves rustling. The twittering of birds. I was shut away from it all.

The world away from home was a different matter. I tried to communicate with other people as much as possible in writing, and then later by e-mail. From time to time, though, I worked with - or worse, for - someone who spoke very quietly. Like a lot of other hard-of-hearing people, I've always been afraid that if I keep asking people to repeat themselves, they'll get angry or will simply stop talking to me. At work, especially as I got older, I became increasingly convinced that if my exposed my handicap, my inadequacy, I'd lose my job and wouldn't be able to get another in the same field. So, also like a lot of other hard-of-hearing people, I developed a repertoire of twitches and grimaces that I hoped would make people think I understood what they were saying to me. As with lip-reading, this isn't something one learns to do consciously. It just happens. You watch those lips moving, with no sound coming out that you can hear, and you do these weird things with your face and shoulders, and you hope desperately that you're synchronizing your twitches appropriately with their inaudible words.

Of course, that doesn't always work. The other person frowns at you and repeats in a louder voice what you now realize was a question. "Um, I'm sorry," you say. "Could you repeat that?" You feel like a fool, and the other person obviously thinks that you are one.

Increasingly, I worried about the future. How could I keep earning a living? How long would it be before I was found out and cast out of high-paying high tech, a field in which, increasingly, everyone was younger than I and had much better hearing.

Leonore has had a cell phone for many years. She's a language tutor and does some of her teaching on a local college campus. The cell phone has been invaluable to her for conducting her business while away from home. Because I've had a telephone on my desk at work for years, usually with a direct incoming line, we never saw any reason to spend the money for a cell phone for me; this was especially the case years ago, when adding extra lines to a cell-phone account was somewhat expensive.

Then in 1998, Leonore developed breast cancer. She had a mastectomy on the left side.

One big effect of this on both of us was an urgent need to feel that we were always in contact with each other. When we were physically separated, we wanted to feel that we could speak to each other immediately at any time. Coincidentally, the company I worked for at the time Leonore was diagnosed with cancer had just made a deal with a cell-phone carrier under which employees could get two family-member cell-phone numbers at a cut rate. Also coincidentally, Leonore had been growing increasingly unhappy with her then cell-phone provider. We signed up for the company deal immediately and breathed a sigh of relief: we were in contact all the time!

Except that often I couldn't hear the phone's ring, no matter how high I turned it. I bought a belt clip and glued the corresponding bit of hardware to the back of the cell phone so that I could wear the phone on my belt, but I still couldn't hear it ring unless I was in an extremely quiet environment. If there was any background noise at all, the ring would be lost in that noise. When I did hear the ring, I sometimes couldn't hear Leonore's voice on the phone. That was surprisingly depressing. Even with this new gadget that I had thought would let me communicate with her, I was still cut off.

The Slow Creep of Technology

It's agonizingly slow. Yes, I know that some people thinks it moves too fast, that the world changes too quickly, and we're all suffering psychologically from the destabilizing, bewildering, alienating effects of this forward rush.


If you had spent decades watching for stories about breakthroughs in hearing-aid technology, waiting for the development of affordable gadgets that would make it possible for you to hear and understand other people, you'd know just how silly the idea that technology is moving too fast really is.

For years, hearing aids advanced by becoming better amplifiers. Those would have done me no good. They'd have amplified the background noise along with the sounds I wanted to hear, and the noise would still have drowned out the signal.

They really were ugly gadgets, too. I would have been willing to put up with the ugliness if they'd done the job for me, but on some level, I was glad that I didn't have to make that decision. I dreamed of something small and unobtrusive - unnoticed by me as well by everyone else. Those clunky things perched atop and behind the ear, with a plastic tube running into the ear, just didn't seem science-fictional enough. (Although that was before movie science fiction went retro. In the world of, say, the Dune movie, a clunky gadget behind the ear would fit right in.) Years ago, my father tried what seemed like a major design advance: hearing aids built into the frames of one's glasses. They still had the plastic tubes into the ears, but not the plastic caterpillar behind the ear. The frames were thick, heavy, and uncomfortable, though.

Hundreds of years passed. I remained semi-deaf. Finally I began to read articles about new hearing aids that could preferentially amplify certain frequencies and yet were small enough to fit within the ear. This was made possible by new circuitry and new software that were byproducts of rapid advances in the very computer biz I worked in. I thought that was a nice synchrony. Unfortunately, the new hearing aids cost around $5,000 per ear - and this was back when $5,000 dollars was worth, gee, I dunno, maybe $10,000. A new desktop computer cost a lot less than that, so I bought myself a new desktop computer and continued to feel sorry for myself.

More centuries passed. The circuits and software improved, the size of the hearing aids diminished, and the price sloooowly decreased. Finally, in early 2004, the various trend lines reached the point where I thought I could dig into savings and buy myself the ability to hear.

They Suck out Your Brains

I had a new and pressing reason for wanting to be able to hear.

After being laid off from a software developer job for the second time in just over a year, I had moved back into technical writing. Developers can isolate themselves physically to a degree and depend on e-mail, but that's much harder for a tech writer to do, as I'd discovered during a previous stint in that field. You need to talk to people. And - what a bother! - they assume you understand what they're saying.

So I took myself to a local company, Northey Audiologists here in Denver, and began the process. Northey had been recommended to me by our family doctor and proved to be a pleasant and professional bunch of people. It's a company so local that it's actually owned by a guy named Don Northey.

Don Northey administered a hearing test much the same as the one I described before, but he added a couple of interesting tests. One involved setting a kind of headphone directly against my head and running through the familiar series of beeps again. With this test, the sound is conducted through the skull, not through the ear. I think this was to determine if the malfunction was in the mechanism of my inner ear. My inability to hear the beeps with this test matched my inability with the standard test, indicating that my aural nerve is shot to hell. Both of them, actually. Equally shot. I'm a very balanced guy. The second additional test involved him speaking aloud a series of words heavy in sibilants - sounds particularly hard for people like me to distinguish - first while I could see his mouth and then while holding a sheet of paper in front his mouth. I had realized years earlier that I was reading people's lips, and this test confirmed that strikingly.

We discussed the models and prices of hearing aids available through his firm. Instead of the smallest, least visible model, I opted for one made by Starkey that has a small button you can use to switch between programs - one for normal situations, one for noisy backgrounds, and one to use while speaking on the telephone. The boy who had been programming computers for years would now be able to reprogram his ears on the fly.

We set up an appointment for a fitting, when he would make an impression of my ear canals. The impression would be used to construct the hearing aids. I joked to Leonore that the fitting would involve my being held down by a team of immense men while hot wax was poured into my ears. "Don't move, Mr. Dvorkin, or we'll have to start all over again!" In fact, the impression was made with some kind of high-tech (space-age!) binary goop which Don Northey injected into my ears with a gadget that mixed the two ingredients. The stuff is cold when it goes in and starts to harden when it's mixed.

It's a strange sensation to sit for the required period of time with the cold gunk filling your ears completely, making you deafer than ever. It felt even stranger afterwards when Don pulled the stuff out of my ears. It made a huge slurping, sucking sound and for a moment it felt as though my brains were being sucked out through my ears. It surprised me to see both how long the hardened impression was and how twisty it was. I had always thought of my ear canals as simple, short, straight openings. Don examined the two impressions and declared the shapes twisty and constricted enough to hold hearing aids in place. So you can see that our ear canals have to be deep enough to accommodate all the circuitry inside a modern hearing aid and twisty enough to keep the hearing aid from falling out. Just think: jillions of years of evolution have culminated in ears perfectly shaped for modern hearing aids! It's enough to make one a believer in Intelligent Design - of hearing aids.

Time crept even more slowly for the next couple of weeks, until my new hearing aids were delivered. I went to the Northey office to have them adjusted to my ears. To me, this is one of the most remarkable aspects of the new, programmable devices: that they can be adjusted so finely to your individual hearing profile - and then readjusted, reprogrammed as your hearing changes.

And so I left the Northey office wearing my new ears and stepped out into an astonishing new world.

O Brave New World, That Has Such Sounds In It!

My God, you people make a lot of noise!

Everything makes a lot of noise.

I started my car, and the engine roared. Was something wrong with it? Had it always sounded that way? The radio shrieked at me. I turned the volume down, but it still sounded strange. Someone - me, of course - had turned the treble way up and the bass way down. I set both to the middle, and the radio sounded a lot better. In fact, it sounded wonderful.

I played with the buttons, switching from classical to rock to talk (leftwing, of course) to a station that plays mostly music from the 1940s and 1950s. How amazingly great it all sounded! There were so many instruments playing, so many musical threads. I sang along. Hey, fella, nice voice! Who cares if you're tone deaf? It sounds beautiful.

I finally left the parking lot. It was a chilly day, but I opened all the windows and breathed deeply and smiled at all the other cars. Then I quickly closed all the windows again. Not because of the cold, but because of godawful noise of the traffic. It was deafening! How do people stand it?

Even my own car was making a surprising amount of noise. I love my 2001 Camry, but I have to say that when I was deaf (that's how I think of it: when I was deaf), it was a lot quieter. I used to brag about how quiet it was, how nothing rattled or squeaked. Ah, Toyotas! But now it has rattles and squeaks. That's disconcerting.

Later I would learn not to use my electric shaver or the electric toothbrush while wearing my hearing aids. What an amazing racket those little motors make!

But that's okay. The noisiness of the world is a small price to pay. While I was driving home from Northey Audiologists, I realized that I could hear my turn signal. Previously, when I turned a corner and the turn signal didn't turn off automatically, it would just stay on. When Leonore was in the car with me, she would warn me. Sometimes, I'd notice the light on the dashboard. Now I could hear it. Wow, it's a loud sucker.

When I got home, I stood in the driveway next to my car for a while, listening to the wind and to a dog barking far away. None of it seemed quite real. Of course I knew intellectually that all the sounds had been there all along, but on a visceral level, it seemed as though I'd stepped into another world, an alien one with more texture and color than the drabber world I was used to.

I was supposed to wear the hearing aids for a few hours the first day and an increasing length of time, in order to get my ears physically accustomed to them - a process somewhat like that of getting used to one's first pair of contact lenses. I forced things a bit, wearing them longer than I probably should have. Once they were in, once I was living in that bright, fascinating new world, I was reluctant to take them out and go back to the dull, old place.

For months, I listened to everything in much the same way I had stared at everything when I got my first pair of glasses. The most ordinary sounds took on new character and interest. I've always loved music, but now I love it far more. I can hear so much more of it. I even like piano music, most which I used to find just annoying tinkling. In fact, the higher keys on the piano used to sound only like a dull thumping. I suppose I was hearing the hammer hitting the string but not the vibration of the string itself. Now just the sound of a piano is intriguing and interesting to listen to. (I'm pleased to report that, even with my stupendous new hearing, I still despise jazz and country and western, er, music. It wasn't my not being able to hear them properly that made both of them merely ghastly noise. They're both merely ghastly noise.)

I tried not to bother people the way I had when I was a kid with new glasses. I didn't keep asking people if they could hear that sound. Still, I did find myself working my new hearing aids into conversations where they didn't belong. I was a bit like a kid with a new toy. "I gots a new bicycle." "That's nice." "Wanna watch me ride it?" "No."

In spite of all of that, I sometimes forget to insert the hearing aids in the morning. Our house is so quiet, that while I'm mechanically going through the morning routine, preparing to leave for work, I don't think about what I can't hear. It's not the same as putting on my glasses. I can't see without those, and it's hard not to be aware of that.

Sometimes, fortunately not often, the hearing aids make my ears itch. It's hard to take out your hearing aid and scratch your ear surreptitiously, but you don't want to do it visibly and offend people. ("It's just my new hearing aids. They make my ears itch. Say, did I tell you I gots new hearing aids?" "Yes.")

I've learned to keep a package of batteries in my desk at work, in case one of the hearing-aid batteries dies while I'm at work. They die rather suddenly. Everything seems normal, and then suddenly the hearing aid beeps loudly a few times. It's impossible to ignore. It repeats the beeping every few minutes and then utters a final series of quick, urgent I-told-you-I-was-dying beeps and shuts down. The first time it happened, I told Leonore that either my hearing-aid battery was dying or I was being summoned to go off on a dangerous secret mission, but I was betting on the first option.

Of course, the batteries are very small, so having spare packages of them in one's desk or briefcase or fanny pack is no problem. No one will even know they're there, unless you hold them up and say, "Look! I gots hearing-aid batteries! Wanna see me put one in?"

Imagine if they weren't small! Imagine if technology hadn't advanced to the point it has and if the batteries were, say, the size of ordinary flashlight batteries. You'd have to wear a battery pack, with wires leading up to your ears. Or you'd have to wear the batteries attached to your ears, perhaps to your earlobes. Even when you didn't have your hearing aids in, everyone would know you were a secret deaf person because of your long earlobes brushing against your shoulders.

The batteries probably aren't going to get much smaller than they are now, because it's already a bit tricky to handle them. The improvement I'm waiting for is longer battery life. Right now, they last about a week, or slightly less. Batteries that last a month would be wonderful. Perhaps some day they'll last for years and will be permanently enclosed in the hearing aids. If the price of the hardware gets low enough, hearing aids will be as disposable as the lenses in glasses. After a year or two, you'll simply replace your existing hearing aids. The new ones will have the power source - batteries, fuel cells, something else entirely - sealed inside.

The Morning After

The euphoria has worn off a bit. That's inevitable, I suppose. I'm getting used to all the sounds that fill the world, and I feel cut off and uneasy when I take my hearing aids out at night and the world becomes muted, just as I do when I take my glasses off and everything becomes a blur. It's the world I experience when I have my hearing aids in that now seems normal.

I've also had to accept that some hearing-related problems won't change. Some people speak so quietly that I still can't hear them. I watch their lips move and hear only a murmur, and I feel depressed at the limitations that still hem me in.

But there's more to it than that. Mental habits, or perhaps even neural pathways, laid down in childhood may be with us for life. I don't know if my tone deafness is a consequence of my poor hearing, but I do know that I'm still tone deaf. I don't know to what degree my poor hearing caused my social ineptitude, but I do know that I'm still socially inept. Even though I can hear most voices now, I still have trouble absorbing information well through sound. I still far prefer reading it. Trying to listen to and understand people takes a conscious effort. Without even realizing that I'm doing it, I find myself tuning out voices and drifting into daydreams, the way I did in the days when the voices were as unintelligible as the whistling of the shortwave radio.

"Depressing" is too strong a word to describe my reaction to all of this. "Sadness" is probably better. It's a small sadness. Just as the world's new noisiness is a small price to pay for being able to hear the world, so is the knowledge that I'm still cut off from part of the world of sound only a small shadow on my happiness.

Lend Me Your Ears

Listen to me! The world is wonderful! 'Cause I gots new ears!


I evangelize. I witness. I broadcast the good news. You know how converts are. I want everyone to have the same experience I did. From wanting the world to know about my new hearing aids, I've gone to wanting everyone with hearing problems to get their own hearing aids. Introduce me to someone with poor hearing, especially someone with high-frequency hearing loss, and I'll launch into a passionate sermon about how my hearing aids have changed my life and made me a new and better man. I'll speak loudly and clearly and make sure the poor semi-deaf person I've trapped can see my mouth.

Strangely, most such people don't react positively to my sermon. And I don't mean that they're put off by my wild eyes or the foam around my mouth. Rather, they tend to listen with apparent interest and then say, "I'm not ready for that yet."

Now, no one, in this day and age, says, "I'm not ready for glasses yet. I think I'll wait till I can see even less." Glasses are no longer a sign of age and decrepitude. It's been a long time since they were. Unfortunately, that's not the case with hearing aids.

Did everyone's eyes really get worse? Is that why more people wear glasses or contact lenses at a much younger age than in the past? Or did testing of school children simply become far more common? If we tested school children for hearing as we now do for vision, would we find that significant numbers of them need hearing aids? I don't know, although I do suspect so. I'm quite sure that if children who needed hearing aids got them, their lives would be immensely improved. Well, except for being called names and getting beaten up.

Grownups who can't hear aren't afraid of being beaten up if they get hearing aids. They're afraid of being marked as old.

I'm reminded of my mother, who, in her late eighties, refused to use a walker because, she said, "I'm not ready for that yet." So she fell a few times and broke bones, and her last years were far more painful and uncomfortable and unhappy than they needed to be.

Gosh, folks, we're all getting older. Our bodies are deteriorating. In many cases - perhaps most, because of the noisiness of the world - that deterioration includes diminishing hearing. While everything is sagging and collapsing and wrinkling, you might as well be able to hear. Or do you think that the frown of concentration, the cocked head, the intent stare at people's mouths, the constant requests that people repeat themselves, all make you look younger?

Please. If you have any suspicion at all that your hearing is less than perfect, especially if you have trouble hearing what others are saying in noisy environments, do yourself and those around you a big favor and have your hearing tested. You have nothing to lose, and possibly a great deal to gain. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that these new hearing aids, these tiny, inconspicuous, reasonably priced technological wonders, have transformed my life.

What Do You Hear?

I wonder what you hear. I wonder what people with normal, healthy hearing actually hear. I wonder what dogs hear and what birds hear and what insects hear, but most of all I wonder what other people hear.

What is normal hearing like? Even with my hearing aids filtering and tuning and modifying the sounds that enter my ears, I know that I'm still not hearing a lot of the sounds that people with healthy ears can hear. If the world is so much richer and fuller to me with my hearing aids than it was without them, what would it be like if I could take the next step and hear perfectly? How much richer and fuller!? How much more of the sounds of nature would I be able to hear? How much more beautiful would music be?

There's no way to know. I can guess, I can imagine, but that's all. No matter how much the technology of hearing aids improves, it can't fix the inadequacies deep inside my head. Will a fix for those inadequacies show up some day? Implantable hardware, nanomachines, a programmed virus . . . ?

It's an exciting and exhilarating vision. But that's a possibility for the future, and I'm not denigrating what I've already gained. The world is so much better and fuller and richer than it was just a few months ago. Because I can hear you now.

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