My Ear Is Gasping for Breath

I have hearing loss. My right ear serves only for purposes of ornamentation. In 2005 I went into the Atlantic Ocean and came out with only my left ear working. I'm not alone in this condition. A colleague, a very able reporter in town, likewise went into

Feb 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I have hearing loss. My right ear serves only for purposes of ornamentation.

In 2005 I went into the Atlantic Ocean and came out with only my left ear working. I’m not alone in this condition. A colleague, a very able reporter in town, likewise went into the Atlantic off the coast of Florida and lost the use of his right ear. I don’t have an explanation, but I take consolation from the coincidence.

In my case, a series of infections developed, but only in my right ear. If something in the ocean caused the infections, wouldn’t both ears be affected? Once treated, the infections kept coming back. When at last antibiotics scored the final victory, my hearing showed no improvement.

My earologist propounded a series of diagnoses, only to reject each in turn: The bones in my right ear weren’t vibrating properly; surgery was in order. No, never mind. Allergies were causing blockage of the earway. But the medicine didn’t help. A hearing aid was deemed necessary, then ruled out. The last theory — at any rate, the one given the last time I saw this doctor — is that my right ear “doesn’t get enough fresh air.” With that information, I gave up. I don’t dispute that fresh air is good for living things and also conducts sound waves. But the diagnosis had the ring of “Out of Ideas.”

The prescribed treatment is simple and immediately effective. Clasping my nostrils shut, on doctor’s orders, I blow open my right ear. In an instant I hear twice as well. The effect can be disconcerting, the volume of the world changing from muted to maximum with no mid-range.

Not that it matters. After about 30 seconds, my right ear shuts back down. The only way to switch it back on is to pinch my nose and blast it open anew. In order to maximize the benefits of this modality, I’d have to pinch and blow pretty much all day. If I did this every 30 seconds, people might think I have a perpetually leaking nose or suffer some phobic reaction to the scent of other humans.

I therefore apply the old pinch-and-blow only on special occasions, when I want to be sure I hear every syllable. That doesn’t happen very often.

One of the things I’ve learned is that a great deal is said that doesn’t need to be heard at all. Often all it takes for people to feel satisfied is a simple nod, a wry smile or the all-knowing but utterly non-committal “Mmmm.” It seems the specific meaning of the words sometimes doesn’t matter; people just want to have the feeling of being listened to. I compensate by trying to position my good ear in the direction of the person I’m with. Some friends have habituated to my hearing loss, automatically positioning themselves to my left as we walk or sit to chat. This is thoughtful and somewhat ameliorates the fact that one of them calls me a “deaf old goat.”

But strategic ear positioning doesn’t always work, especially in group settings. All I can do is select a seat that allows me to aim at the most people possible. Sometimes it’s necessary to size up the one or two people in a group whom I most want to hear, an exercise that seems pompous at best. I tilt my head a lot.

While I can’t claim to be able to read lips, seeing them move is helpful. Other people’s reactions have been contrary to what I’d have expected. Strangers tend to be very accommodating when I tell them I don’t hear well. The people who get annoyed are people close to me. That makes sense in that they have to repeat themselves more often than strangers, but it makes me wonder about people who have more serious disabilities.

Do people who use wheelchairs feel they’re constantly in the way? Do people with mental illness feel that anything they say is disregarded? My hearing loss isn’t without its amusements. I sometimes make out words but not sentences, syllables but not words or sounds but not syllables.

The brain instantly tries to make logic of the incoming but distorted information. Thus I recently heard, “Do your goats need underwear?” In the moment, I couldn’t decipher the code. I had to ask for a repetition.

What had actually been said was, “Are you going somewhere?” Truth is a fine and noble thing, but what I thought I’d heard was more interesting than what was actually said. There are other benefits. When I lie in bed with my left ear to the pillow, I’m oblivious to the telephone and the alarm clock. Also to anything the person lying next to me might be saying.

But that isn’t a benefit. I’d never say it was. I don’t even think that way. I recently had the opportunity to transcribe an English translation of a religious discourse.

The symbolism of my difficulty was instructive. I had a double impairment in listening to this teaching. First, I needed a translation.

Second, I couldn’t hear some of the words once they were translated. The process of repeatedly playing the lecture — head tilted, CD player carefully positioned to my left, nose pinched tight and right ear blown open again and again — meant I had no choice but to pay attention and learn something. That more than compensates for the fact that I can’t even get a special parking pass.