Now Hear This

It’s a warm, sultry Summer evening. The sun has set hours ago. You step outside to enjoy a soft breeze and to watch the intricate dance of the lightning bugs. In the background is the sound of millions of Summer insects, from crickets to cicadas to god-knows-what. It is all very high-pitched and nonstop.

This is what I hear. All. The. Time.

Early on, I remember lying in bed late one night, listening to the insects chirping away. Then it dawned on me that it was midwinter and that there really were no insects. Not in the dead of winter! This is when I became aware of Tinnitus.

As I understand it, I have lost the ability to hear the very high, almost ultrasonic sounds. My own brain, trying to help, is “filling in” the upper frequencies with phantom sounds that only I can hear. But it is constant. It never stops. My brain is doing a crappy job of helping.

As with any constant sound, I sometimes lose awareness of it – it fades into the background (but never goes away). Most often, it’s because I’m paying attention to a rival sound – radio or TV or traffic noises.

(Naturally, as I type this, I am keenly aware of it – it is very much in the foreground.)

Along with tinnitus, I also have degenerative hearing loss, getting a little worse each year. Little by little, the range of upper frequencies that is lost to me increases. The very highest notes in music sometimes escape me. Blame playing the piano with the lid raised, year after year. Blame listening to Genesis and The Doobie Brothers with headphones turned up WAY too much. Riding a two-cylinder John Deere mower for two hours each week, unprotected, probably isn’t helping, either. Blame every loud sound that I’ve exposed myself to over my lifetime.

I’ve always had problems hearing the human voice in television and movies, especially British films with inappropriately loud music scores at a time when the characters are whispering. Or action movies, where explosions and gunfire are competing with the spoken word.

For many years, I haven’t even tried to hold a conversation in a loud bar or at a wedding reception with an ear-damaging DJ. I’ve never mastered lip reading, and there is simply no way that I can make out what anyone is saying against a backdrop of everyone else yelling to be heard.

A person with a well-modulated, well-enunciated speaking voice is a joy. There are many people that I talk with who are easily heard and understood.

Low talkers annoy the hell out of me. There are a few who poke their heads into my office and begin whispering something to me. I now cut them off immediately and ask them to speak up. Even so, after half a sentence, their voice begins to trail off again into obscurity, forcing me to blurt out, “Eh?,” like every other cranky old man. I’m always afraid that I’m going to “pull a Seinfeld” and agree to something that I didn’t actually hear. I am not going to be wearing a puffy shirt.

I wear headphones while watching the bedroom TV. I originally bought them so that my late-night TV watching wouldn’t bother my wife, who has to be up very early in the morning. But I find that they’re a godsend now. The headphones almost force the human voice bandwidth into my ear canals, so I can hear just about every word.

If I’m watching TV downstairs, I find that the surround sound speakers actually muddy the sound. There’s one center speaker that is allegedly enhancing the vocal range, but it’s not really helping. When voices get low, I find myself cupping my ears with my hands, pointing them toward the sound. (It helps. Really.) Even so, the lack of clarity and missed dialogue have me more and more lost as to what’s going on.

I watch MSNBC a lot. For the most part, this is one person speaking at a time, and that voice is the only sound coming out of my speakers. I find it easy to listen to and can pay attention to what’s being said. On the rare occasion when two guests begin arguing over each other and then the moderator joins in… Forget it. I can’t hear anything that any one of the three is saying. I can’t handle overlapping voices.

I listen to NPR all day at work. I use an iPod Nano and ear buds while I work, and, unless the topic is especially interesting, NPR is basically low background noise to distract from the tinnitus. White noise to combat white noise.

Unless I’m in the kitchen, I can’t hear a whistling tea kettle or the beep of a microwave. I’m becoming very good at guesstimating when things are going to be done.

My wife asks me if I can hear baby birds or peepers (pond frogs). Nope.

Why don’t I just buy hearing aids?

I will. Just not yet. I find that a good hearing aid can run $2,000 to $3,000. The little research that I did tells me that buying cheap gets you cheap, so I’ll get a very good, reliable pair when the time comes. No health insurance covers or subsidizes hearing aids.

Hearing aids are optional, it seems. A luxury. I’ll spend the money when I’m missing $2,000 worth of sound.

You’ll all just have to do me a favor. Speak a little louder than you normally do (you don’t have to shout), just a good-level inside voice will do. Don’t slur, don’t trail off, don’t mumble. In other words, speak to me the same way you’d speak to any other elderly gentleman.

And I sometimes find myself talking too loud, as though I’m talking while wearing headphones and am not aware of the volume. I think this is how I unconciously let people know that I’m having trouble hearing them. If I yell at you, I’m sorry. Let’s both compromise on the volume.

Here’s an ad for the new HTC cellphones. HTC incorporates a hearing test into the HTC 10, in order to maximize the “high definition audio” output for each individual pair of earbuds. They call it a Personal Audio Profile. Each time I plug in a set of headphones or buds, I have the option of taking a quick “quiz” that is used to equalize the music for my hearing. Or I can take a complete hearing test (you know, a series of high, medium, and low tones for both right and left ears) so that the phone can take my own weaknesses into account. As you would expect, the upper range is greatly boosted for my benefit. I hear things in the music from my phone that I don’t hear anywhere else. Every phone should have this feature, since every pair of ears is unique.

In the meantime, every once in a while I’ll enjoy a bit of silence. I’ll close my eyes, focus on the tinnitus, and picture myself standing out back, listening to the sound of a million insects chirping on a warm Summer evening.

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