Friday, June 13, 2003

On Having An Ear

Part of a longer work-in-progress...

I have an ear for music, an ear for voices, and for certain other sounds. That may be because I have an ear for everything--- that is, one ear that hears. The other one doesn't hear anything at all.

No one knows exactly how I became half deaf, or deaf in one ear. It was officially discovered around the time I started grade school. I complained that I could not always hear the stories that Sister Kathleen told every morning---some of them charming little Bible stories, or fantasies based on the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, or more memorably, grisly stories about martyrs for God and those who suffered sores and risked madness to convert pagans in dirty heathen countries. She also told cautionary tales about otherwise good children who thought they could get away with lying and staying home from school when they weren't really sick, and having reckless fun with their bodies doing gymnastics on the bed, and wound up with broken necks as God's punishment. She described these horrors in a soft singing little voice, and it was important to hear every word, for my soul was at stake.

This problem of hearing rang a bell with my mother, who remembered noticing that when I put the telephone receiver to one of my ears to talk to my grandmother, I would immediately switch the receiver to the other ear. (I'm not saying which ear; such information could be dangerous in the wrong hands, and I'm not kidding.)

Hearing tests with earphones hooked to consoles in little rooms, as well as machines that looked to me like big old-fashioned radio receivers, confirmed it. I was almost entirely deaf in one ear, with better than average hearing in the other. It was a middle ear problem, and no treatment, device or surgery could correct it. Though I subsequently prayed for a miracle, once while staring at crutches stacked up at a particularly famous shrine in Montreal that we visited it in the course of a family vacation, the only change over the years is that the bad ear went from almost completely deaf to entirely stone deaf.

The doctors told my mother that I could have been born that way, or the damage might have occurred as the result of a childhood illness. Though I eventually got all the old-fashioned illnesses like measles, mumps and chicken pox, I hadn't yet at age six; but I can remember bad colds, sore throats and earaches before then. But I now think it was neither such an illness nor a genetic birth defect. Although my parents' descriptions were as vague as they were about most important things, I know I was born with an Rh factor problem, and required a blood transfusion shortly after birth. One of the side effects of the condition I probably had (or its treatment, for infants rarely survived without the transfusion) is deafness.

The result, as described by one of the hearing doctors consulted at some point, is that I would have some problem hearing that was chiefly directional---if I was on the wrong side of a sound source, or if the room were noisy. So there would be sounds I wouldn't hear at all, but mostly sounds I heard, but not well enough to interpret them correctly. That is, sometimes I wouldn't hear a person's voice, but mostly I would know the person was speaking but I couldn't understand what they were saying.

So when Sister Kathleen was told, she tried to make adjustments, such as seeing that I sat near the front of the room. There was only so much she could do: my first grade classmates and I were the sharing a classroom with the second grade, and they were all on the side of the room I should be in order to place Sister Kathleen in better range of my hearing ear. But after a solicitous few weeks, she forgot about my hearing problem, and so did I.

It was probably then, in the first grade, that I became aware of it as a problem, a disadvantage, but not a completely disabling one. Some activities were more difficult because of it, but there wasn't anything I wanted to do in my daily life that I couldn't manage. It was like being left-handed or skinny, though at times a bit more consequential.

Sometimes I had to remind myself to be aware of it. This became especially crucial when I started dating. If I went to the movies with a girl and somehow allowed her to sit on my deaf side, I would wind up smiling and nodding madly at everything she said.

I don't remember any change in how I heard at any point in my early childhood. At least as far as I know, it was always part of me. So everything I learned, everything I know about the world, every perception that involves hearing, has been affected, influenced, shaped, characterized, by the fact of having one working ear.

Only in recent years have I really thought about its larger effects. Guided by my ear, it's possible to rewrite my life. I think for example of the baby in his crib. Did he discover in the phenomenon of hearing from one side only, his first solitary game? With one side of his head on the mattress in his crib, the world was silent, or rather made up of muffled uniform sounds: the soft rush of his own blood, the rhythm in his temple. And when he turned over, the world turned on! Sounds: voices, footsteps, the gentle jangle of the mobile above his head, accompanying the music of motion, shadows, glinting light.

He could hide from mummy that way. He hears her talking on the phone, then turns over on his side, his ear pressed against the pillow and he is gone, into the shadows of silence. Then he suddenly turns over, and peekaboo! When he hears he is there, no longer hidden.


Folk wisdom has it that those deprived of one of the major perceiving senses often possess extraordinary powers of one or more of the remaining senses. That is, those who cannot hear can see with almost impossible acuity, and the blind can gauge the identity of a woman from the smell of her perfume. Scientists say it is nonsense but folk wisdom and anecdotal evidence is rarely wrong completely. It's probable that the sensory apparatus itself is not so much better in compensation for what does not sense at all, but that the quality of attention to the remaining senses is compensatory, and developed to an extraordinary degree.

In my case, being half deaf has not afforded me better vision. Perhaps paradoxically it has made me extraordinarily sensitive to sound.

Hearing less means I must listen more. My ear relentlessly listens for pattern, for the meaning in the sounds. Listening involves instantaneously shifting through the possibilities, filling in the gaps to assemble the patterns of meaning out of the fragments I hear.

This is not really different in kind from how others hear. The brain works by assembling images from sensory data. But with less data, it is a process that requires more work and perhaps more imagination: educated intuition, quick thinking, entertaining of multiple alternatives, provisional probing and playacting (to gain time, get more data, keep up the other's comfort level, or just rest awhile). At times it's so shambled and improvisatory that I've become conscious of the process. Most people are rarely conscious of all they go through to register a perception, to reconstruct the intended meaning out of another's expressions, be it garbled words or a horn blaring from behind you.

This requires a near constant state of alertness, and application of attention that requires expending a great deal of effort and energy. But it must appear to be normal. I must concentrate, decode, filling in the missing sounds, the meaning, but unobtrusively, while playing the game required by the circumstances. That is, seeming to be the person it's appropriate to be, in proper relationship to the person or people speaking.

Because not hearing is not understanding, and not understanding is evidence of stupidity. Deaf and dumb equal dumb and dumber.

But interrupting the flow with questions throws everybody off. It's often better to suspend judgment for awhile on the meaning of what's said until there are more clues, more cues, than it is to stop the speakers cold, make them back up, and start again. Something might get explained, but then they can get confused, unsure, suspicious. Of course there are times when this must be done, when it's crucial to clarify immediately. But it's best all around if there's not too many of those times. It's best to play along, to fake it if necessary. It's best if it is secret.

It's not an obvious handicap that both stigmatizes and separates, yet that's largely because it's invisible, unknown. But I know. It's an inner stigmata, that reminds me I am always separate, always nearer to isolation.

Guided by my ear it's possible to rewrite my life. I had an uncontrollable temper as a child. The biggest tantrum I remember from my preschool days was a birthday party for me at my grandmother's, a surprise party probably, begun with a shock of loud sound as shouting children suddenly appeared in their dependably and peculiarly quiet house. I was probably very upset by this, and confused by the delight of my mother and grandparents. In any case I remained testy and miserable for the rest of the party. I remember lying prostrate on the back porch stairs, kicking and screaming, my mother amazed-no one had ever seen a child throw a fit at his own birthday party. There are photographs of the moment.

What is the self other than the locus of knowing, of perceiving, discerning, ordering? It begins with the basic what's what, who's talking, what are they saying, what's going on.

The effort to hear is the effect to interpret, fill in, guess. And that effort so seldom pays off in anything much worth the effort that I lose patience and begin to despair. People are therefore exhausting.

Fortunately from early childhood I had my own room. It was sanctuary from the threat and violence that set me off. It was not the only violence I experienced acutely, but it was an important one: the violence of noise.


Noise is unintelligible sound. When it becomes insistent, a cacophony of multiple sounds from multiple sources, it is profoundly disturbing. It can represent the dangerous, mask sounds of danger, and if loud enough it is dangerous in itself to my remaining hearing. Noise turns the world into an attack and a confusion.

For the half-deaf, nothing is more disturbing than noise. When you can't hear as much or as clearly as others, the brain must work hard to process and interpret sounds, match them up with expectations and patterns, to make sense of the world moment by moment. Noise creates chaos and confusion and overload, the glands flip into fight-or-flight mode, or just generate dismay.

For me noise is exhausting because I must make sense of it, and out of what it masks. What others find easily intelligible, I must puzzle out with effort.

An odd constant of my life: when fatigued or overanxious, I am more sensitive to noise, more disturbed by it. In this sense I "hear" better. This again seems counterintuitive-could I really be hearing better? No, my normal defense is weakened-which is my ability to quickly sort sounds I'm hearing, or even half-hearing.

Noise is a scattering, of dissipation of self, of myself as center of order, of coherence, of paying attention. Noise, the exhausting onslaught, slaughtering me.

Noise is a deeply offensive and deeply personal assault; it assaults my brain formed to be so sensitive to sound and especially to ascertain its meaning; and it assaults me physically, with the fear of losing the hearing I have.

The world is mostly noise.

Guided by my ear it's possible to rewrite my life. I remember the home where I grew up as loud, as homes of the working class culture often are. Powerless voices must be loud to be heard. I fought with my sister, my father yelled, mealtimes were not especially pleasant.

Any group of relatives was loud, but my father's family was especially loud. When I was very young, my parents used to play canasta with them. I would sometimes hide in the closet to get away from the loud voices, but I would also hide there to listen to what they were saying.

We lived in a kind of suburb, and the noise around our house troubled me especially as a teenager. The quiet of the suburbs on a Sunday was a cruel joke, as motorized divisions of lawn mowers maneuvered all around. As motors became more powerful and plentiful, and as the arsenal began to include weed whackers and leaf blowers, the noise was maddening.

For me the need for a secure range in which sound is either absent or of my choice and controllable is part of my sense of personal space, my territoriality. It is necessary for my sanity.

Lack of sound space made me angry and full of aggression. From boyhood on, noise would drive me to my room and if I was still subjected to it, send me to pacing, helpless and furious.

Holidays became especially tainted. All holidays celebrate one thing: noise. From the noisemakers on New Years to the fireworks of Independence Day, to the lawnmowers and speed boats of Memorial Day and the tuneless bell ringing of the Salvation Army at every store entrance during Christmas shopping season. American can't seem to do anything without making a lot of noise.

For me there is always this layer. There is the layer of conviviality, of celebration, of festivals of color and music, and the warmth of smiling people. And constantly, below the threshold of consciousness, but almost inevitably coming into mood---to thread a layer of melancholy, or to dominate with impatience, gloom and the need to escape---it is all perceived as noise.

The ear is the least of it. Brain, glands, emotion react to the abrasiveness, the abuse that is noise. Noise is always threat. The cacophony, the loud chaos, blinds me to what could be attacking, even as it attacks, confuses, bewilders. In this context, an attack can be simply the demand for my comprehension and response: sounds I am supposed to respond to appropriately, which means I have to know precisely what they are, what they mean.

There is also the single, insistent noise. Even when identified---the whining saw next door, the throbbing bass from the parked car, the barking dog--- it won't go away, it forces itself on me, it rapes. It so overwhelms the rhythms of my internal music of thought that I am no longer who I am. I become mad. And in rage I become madness. There have been occasions when an insistent imposition of noise which I couldn't grit my teeth and tolerate has driven me beyond self control. If I cannot escape I've been known to lash out. It becomes a matter of self-preservation.

But noise doesn't have to be overtly loud to eventually become disturbing. For me, small talk can also be noise. I find my impatience is greater in groups, with a number of conversations or participants, but these aren't the only components of my impatience. In information theory, I believe, noise is simply that which isn't meaningful. Since understanding speech requires attention and effort, I'd like some payoff for my pains. My mind craves some nourishment, and I can put up with only a certain amount of talk that is nothing more than bonding ritual, or expression of personality.

I understand that small talk is social lubrication, that it conveys information through body-talk and so on. But at times its repetitive nature and essential triviality and banality of expression make me very impatient and testy, because it takes extra effort to understand speech, and I'd prefer some meaning or at least wit in expression for my efforts, something energizing rather than wearing and wearying.

But not all sound-not all noise really-is noxious noise to me. Some of it is a kind of background music, a soothing melody of the everyday. I enjoy sitting in a café especially, a relatively quiet one, but not noiseless: a minimal music, the suggestion of rhythms. The aural rhythms of comings and goings are accompanied by visual rhythms of color and movement. They might would help jog the rhythms inside, give me a beat and the suggestion of a melody, to which the instruments inside would improvise, would make songs these external hints evoked.

Hearing less means I must listen more, listen always. This in itself leads to idiosyncrasies. For instance, I don't know how people with two working ears can sleep. I can sleep only with my good ear muffled deep in the pillow. Otherwise I would be alert to every sound, my brain would try to register it. It would palpably disrupt my internal tempo, destroying the lulling rhythm of rest. Perhaps the brain of someone used to hearing well, and equally whichever way they face, has a "don't listen" switch. But I'll bet that brain has kept a subconscious monitor apprised of the kinds of sounds that would indicate danger or another's distress, or some other reason for juicing up into alertness. But my brain knows I might not accurately hear such a sound, and so it must listen harder, even if it means disturbing sleep.

Sleeping with my good ear cut off from most ambient sounds is just a trick, though. My brain is supposed to believe in the silence, and it usually plays along. But almost any sound loud enough to register will wake the monitor, and if the sound persists, the monitor will wake me.

Hearing less, listening more, is all very wearing. It gets exhausting. Alertness becomes anxiety. The paradox is only apparent, the irony a twisted staircase of emotion and pain: what might be thought the enemy of an unhearing ear is instead my haven, which is silence.

Fortunately such a sanctuary exists. You call it night.

My night time---I can concentrate after an unbroken period of quiet, and in unbroken quiet---the security of quiet. In an odd way, this security is probably also why in the daytime I gravitate to public places with minimal noise but lots of visual stimulation, like cafes. There is order, and privacy. The activity is neutralizing-none of it really necessitates anything from me, whereas at home, the quiet is an invitation for interruption by the phone, or something I should be doing. This is beyond conscious control, but I think it has something to do with how I am better able to focus and concentrate in these two situations-in the daytime in a public place, in the silence of night.

But such sanctuaries are easily violated. The more consistent the silence, the easier it is for noise to destroy. It takes only a single barking dog to lacerate the night. There are few dependable zones of silence left. Airplanes drone across the wilderness sky. Snowmobiles and dirt bikes desecrate the mountains and deserts. Here in far northern California, we quickly learn that the quiet of the country is a cruel joke.The sounds of motors carry far and loud through the echo chamber of the woods. And there are always motors.

Having an ear, I am especially attuned to sound, but others are not immune to its peculiar properties, and how it interacts with the brain, the mind, the heart. I don't believe our societal blind spot to the effects of noise as pollution is because noise doesn't affect even the evenly hearing. It may be that an extravagantly extraverted society, based on outrageously elaborate denial, on daily agreements that don't bear close examination, actually welcomes noise. Welcomes it as distraction. "Noise protects us from painful reflection," C.G. Jung observed. "Noise is so insistent, so overwhelmingly real, that everything else becomes a pale phantom."

In the sanctuary of night, in the sanctuary of my own room as a boy, I live in an intelligible universe. I can set the rhythms, I can hear the sounds; I can hear myself think. There is nothing that demands attention and interpretation and the correct response, nothing to fight off or contend. There is much to listen to.

It's a fantasy world, of words and pictures, of the umbra of light as I do my homework at the old dark wood desk, the radio tuned to "Nightwatch" on WHJB, the local station, which is the only station my supposed short wave radio reliably plays. There I can guide the lamp over the globe, performing the experiments from my astronomy book, and scratch out my science fiction novel and its illustrations in my brown notebook. It's the fantasy world of the novel I'm reading in bed, cold hands gripping the book over the covers, as I follow Stephen Dedalus through the sounds of his life and its duet with mine.

It's the fantasy world of the words I type and read on the computer screen, and of the worlds I construct in my head, that I see and hear come into the world when I write or sing or play the keyboard or guitar. For I do have an ear for music.

The movies I watch, the music and recorded talk I listen to, in the bright glow surrounded by darkness and silence. It's the worlds of books I enter, that I make in tandem with the author and with the silence and the night. It is the fantasy world I make in which I recognize myself, I recognize the rhythms and the voice, I hear from the center, and I find hope again.

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