Ear today, gone tomorrow 13

I totally left this poster at the bar. Sad Face McGee.

This is what I read at the December Monthly Rumpus. The theme was “A Night of Truth and Lies.” I think maybe it’s better performed than read, but waaaahtever.


I lie a lot. It’s almost always by accident though. I lie because I’m pretty deaf. Not profoundly so, but enough that it affects my life every day, and renders nearly all social situations difficult to impossible. In many ways, this is a hugely frustrating and debilitating obstacle. But I’ll also be the first to admit that it can be really funny. Like when my girlfriend and I were on a road trip, and the song “you make me feel like a natural woman” came on, except what I sang was “you make me feel like a mature old woman.”

Deafness runs in my family. Conversations with my mom are like trying to teach gerbils how to play mini golf. Nobody wins. She came to visit me in Chicago once, and we were trying to figure out what to do for dinner. I asked her, “Have you ever been to a tapas bar?” And her face changed so utterly. “Once,” she said. “And I did NOT enjoy it.” Okay, I said, trying to picture what kind of horrible fate she’d suffered at the hands of small plate Spanish cuisine. Then it dawned on me. She thought I was suggesting we eat dinner in a topless bar…which, to her credit, is not totally out of the realm of things I would suggest for us to do, so I can’t really fault her.

Being deaf isn’t all bad, of course. I hardly ever have to contend with hearing my roommates fucking, for instance. And when men shout things at me from cars, I can pretend they were merely saying, “Lovely day out, isn’t it?” There’s a certain bliss that comes from living with the world on mute.

In order to survive in the hearing world, I’ve developed a series of coping mechanisms, which sometimes help, and other times wildly confuse whoever it is I’m talking to. When I’m in a loud, crowded bar, for instance, my default I-didn’t-hear-you response is to nod frantically. This works really well when the question is, “You want another drink?” And less so when the guy who looked like The Situation from Jersey Shore asked me whether I had my “one-eyed snake permit.” Which, deafness aside, what does that even mean? You’re asking me if I can procure a document that would allow me to handle your penis? Why are you bringing bureaucracy into this?

If nodding doesn’t assuage whoever I’m talking to, then default number two is just to say something about Mariah Carey. It’s startling how often this works. Even if you only have cursory knowledge of her, she can pretty much be worked into every conversation. Someone could be like, “What does Mariah Carey have to do with helicopters?” And you could say, “Because she’s so fly, obviously.”

Another coping mechanism I use is for when I’m giving a reading and someone inevitably shouts something from the audience that I don’t hear. What I do is point in the direction the sound is coming from and look incredulous. This conveys an array of emotions, from amusement to gentle scolding to the elusive “I’ve got my eye on you.”

Even when I’m not accidentally agreeing to have sex with strangers at bars, my hearing makes actual consensual sex a lot more awkward than it has to be. It’s hard to lip read when you’re ass-up, and all you can see are the mattress and your future regrets. Nothing kills the mood more than an inopportune-timed, “You want to put what in my what?” Which is why usually I just default to grunting and hope it’s not wildly inappropriate. Nodding frantically doesn’t work here because of the risk that I’ll accidentally agree to some far-flung sex pose called the Anxious Manatee or to being photographed with a wine bottle up my snatch. Hypothetically.

I got my first hearing aid when I was 19. I was only able to buy one because hearing aids are ridiculously expensive.  They cost between $3-7,000 dollars. And they’re rarely ever covered by insurance, if you’re lucky enough to have it. So I could only afford one hearing aid the first time. The second one I bought a year later, with the help of a nonprofit called Hear Now, which took me in as a charity case.

But before they give you a hearing aid, they subject you to a barrage of hearing tests, which aren’t at all like the kind we had to do in elementary school where something beeps and you raise your hand. Hearing tests that measure anything useful are far more humiliating. Even though I know the audiologist knows I’m deaf, and that of course I’ll fail the test, I hate failing tests. Not failing tests is what I built my identity around, and no amount of incredulous pointing would help me overcome this.

What they do is put you in a soundproof booth, jam some yellow mushroom caps in your ears and ask you to repeat what they say. They start off at normal volumes and gradually decrease them. Eventually they add static to the background, making it nearly impossible to decipher the words from the white noise. “If you don’t know a word, just guess,” said Shawn, who also happened to be achingly beautiful, adding insult to perjury.

“Ready?” She asked.

I nodded.

“Say the word, yes.”

“Save our lord, yes,” I repeated, already confused. Since I was a charity case, did that mean I had to be subjected to Jesus lectures? Perhaps I should’ve better researched this organization.

“No no no, don’t say the first part, just repeat the last word.” Oh. Things were already going badly. Say the word door. Door. Say the word knee. Me? Say the word…and here she said what I could only surmise to be “merf.” And of course, I thought, merf is not a real word and couldn’t be what she actually said, but I only had a split second to try to figure out what word sounds like merf. Smurf? Girth? But then the time was up and I had no choice but to say merf, while looking over at Shawn imploringly, and trying really hard not to read the swimmer’s ear poster on the door in front of me for the thirtieth time.

After I failed the word response tests, (say the word, balls) Shawn measured my ear canal, which consisted of a barrage of beeps in rapid succession, something akin to an invisible wood pecker digitially knocking on the side door of my cranium. It hurt a little, but was oddly comforting at the same time, like having your internal pillows fluffed. Then she mixed this pink silly putty goo and injected it into my ear to make a mold of my canal. She continued to chit chat with me about my job even though I was plugged up. I nodded frantically. Once it dried, she took the mold out of my head and called it “beautiful.” It sat on her desk in front of us, for all the world looking like a confused and comatose elephant. I thought how often our insides resemble our outsides.

A week later, my hearing aid arrived, and after wearing them both for a few hours, I came to the depressing conclusion that they didn’t work, and all of my toils and money spent had been for nothing. They amplified the wrong things. The once gentle sound of my fingers typing on my keyboard became a cacophony of clangs, but the voices of my coworkers remained soft and mumbled. Worst of all, the sound of my own voice boomed inside my head like a monologue from God, if God were played not by James Earl Jones, but by a nasally, insecure teenager.

After a few months of trying to adjust and failing, I went back to Shawn and asked her what was going on. “You have the opposite kind of hearing loss that most people have,” she said, and pointed to a chart of my ear waves. “Hearing aids correct for loss of high tones, but you have difficulty with low tones.”

That first initial hearing aid disappointment didn’t stop me from trying, however. Every few years the frustration and despair would drive me to another audiologist. Each time I hoped technology would finally catch up to my ears, but each time, it was just as much of a letdown. I’ve gone through about four pairs of hearing aids. I’m 29.

Being deaf is an invisible disability. It’s not like blindness, which is obvious, and tends to invoke sympathy and chivalry in people who witness it. Deafness mostly inspires mockery or irritation, especially if you have to say “what” more than once for the same sentence. Usually after two whats, the person speaking gives up, which makes me all the more determined to hear their often trivial or inane comments about Dancing with the Stars, til eventually they’re screaming, “I SAID I THOUGHT RICKI LAKE WAS TALLER.”

If I’m in a group setting and no one is directly speaking to me, I usually can’t follow the conversation. But I have to appear as though I am following along, otherwise I’ll come off as rude, which after a while is really exhausting. It’s like pretending to be engrossed by a corn dog for an hour. Despite these efforts, I still tend to come off as either stuck up, or anti-social, not exactly someone you’d want at your next cheese and gherkin party.

More often than not though, mishearing people is just plain embarrassing. Witness a conversation I had recently with a friend who, after several whiskeys, put forth the existential and morbid question of whether I wanted to die. To my credit, it was a non-sequitur question. We weren’t talking about death. We were talking about what disappointments we were to our parents. But the question I heard was, Do you want to date? Panicked, I started rambling off reasons why I was undateable.

“Oh. Well, you know I’m pretty gay, right? I know that might confuse you since we slept together recently, but here’s the thing: my heart is solidly gay, but my vagina is less discriminatory.”

That’s about when my baffled friend stepped in and asked what the hell I was talking about.

“Oh, do I want to die? Why yes, as a matter of fact. Right now would be fantastic. Thanks. By the way, have you heard Mariah Carey’s new Christmas album?”

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13 thoughts on “Ear today, gone tomorrow

  • laurieanne

    That was a very sweet and funny essay. If we ever meet in a bar, We can pass notes back and forth and giggle and nobody will know what we are talking about.

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  • Theresa

    Anna, I am happy that you are able to see the humor in this. Since we share hearing loss, it makes it all the funnier to me when we misunderstand each other….what can you do? This essay is great and you made me laugh! Thanks. Love.

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  • the carie

    oh, me too! i never would have known that your world sounds like my text messages from my old phone. (“I have not consumed thig. I guts I hotels go though.”)
    i never got tested or hearing aids or anything as exotic or exciting, but i can’t tell when words end and begin. i can hear that noises are being uttered, but am usually at a loss for what’s going on without visual cues or being really familiar with the cadence of the person who’s talking. this phenomenon resulted in a timeless saying, forged maybe 13 years ago, in high school. i can’t remember what my best friend ACTUALLY said, but i HEARD: “I can’t hear irish in bad hemorrhoid land”… which is now what i say when we’re together and i’m having trouble understanding what’s going on. (like, for instance, last night.)
    so it’s good to know that i’m not alone in being unable to hear irish in bad hemorrhoid land. go us.

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  • john pulley

    maybe you could learn some basic signs and then maybe people would pick up on your disability. great article. wish we could have afforded both hearing aids. maybe we should have contacted Michael Moore

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  • devon

    i love love LOVE this. post a video of your reading? further proof that your calling includes moonlighting as a comic.

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  • susan huber

    Hi Anna, I have been HOH since birth and i have had some hilarious experiences…but unlike you I am able to wear hearing aids that only work for the mid ranges, all those birds chirping are lost…and best of all, i turn them off when driving long distances..love it…but my friends don’t like it…i have a hard time convincing people that i am hoh ..i have been propositioned by a playboy photographer once and after i explained that i won’t do it…he ended up giving me some film…LOL( am a photographer). Somehow, being with little hearing gets people really upset..i tell all not to effing SHOUT! What is cool is…people all accept that you will be almost in their lap to hear them…as in the swimming pool.. so that is great..i meet so many people that way and get real close…heheheheheh. I am pretty good at figuring things out…but in groups…I am lost, all my pals write things down esp.on specials at restos. The real problems with relationships is; without glasses and aids…kind of hard to figure out what the lips are saying….and yes, no sweet whispering…Please..LOL! so, you are not the only one having problems…on the whole…I am pretty happy..not hearing everything is ok…esp. in the cinemas and the pals turn to me and say what did they say?????…hehehe gotta read the lips baby!

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  • anna Post author

    Thanks for sharing, Susan! Yes, lip reading is my savior a lot of the time. Maybe we should collect stories about hearing-related misunderstandings 🙂

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  • Michael

    I’m glad I dug up and read this. I smiled the whole time. And felt so many different things! I hope someone writes *about* you some day. But nothing dull. A TV series, perhaps. With a happy ending. Or several.

    One other thing–Harriet Martineau (1802-1876.) Charming English novelist, economist, traveler. She and her ear trumpet toured the United States the first time in the mid 1830s. Like you, she was wise and deep and seriously hard of hearing. She may have been funny, too–I get that impression from her sometimes. You certainly are.

    PS: I am probably not the Michael Moore your father thinks you should have contacted. But I’m always honored when you do 🙂

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  • anna Post author

    I don’t know that novelist, I shall look her up. Thanks for the tidbit, and the kind words, as always. xo

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