Saturday, January 20, 2007


Did you ever have one of those assignments – mine was in a junior high school health class, I think – where you were supposed to pick a handicap and act out for a day what it would be like dealing with that in your daily life? As I recall, the teacher jokingly expressed it as “pick your favorite handicap” or at least that’s what it seemed like to me.

I refused. I didn’t want to “pretend” I was blind or deaf or crippled (someone in the class threw out “or retarded” as another option – everyone laughed). I didn’t want to play-act to experience what it might be like, living that way, whether it was because I felt it was making fun of those who already were or simply out of fear: what do mothers around the world say when kids make faces, “keep doing that and your face will stay that way”? Someone later would put it as “Don’t tempt God.”

Noise has always been a particular problem for me. When I was a kid, someone at a family reunion set off a firecracker under my seat because I was just sitting there reading and not having any fun. They thought it just scared me, but my heart was pounding and I could barely catch my breath for what seemed like hours. In college, I was walking along the street when a car backfired (it sounded like a gunshot to me) and I kind of passed out, going into a state of semi-conscious shock that lasted for several hours. It was later discovered I had a slight heart murmur which might explain those reactions, but I don't ever remember being treated for it.

I have never been comfortable around factory and machine noise: it’s physically painful to me. It is not the volume – I can enjoy listening to Mahler full-blast, let’s say, and not have a problem – but the steady exposure. While Mahler might be beautiful and exciting, there is nothing aesthetically redeeming about listening to the constant shriek of a vacuum cleaner.

This past couple of months, things suddenly have been changing and I’ve become terrified of damaging my hearing. As a would-be musician and composer, losing my hearing is my biggest fear. Not that the problems indicate “sudden deafness,” more like “continued exposure to annoying noises may result in hearing damage,” and in the past month or so, I’ve become more conscious of background noises and noticing that foreground sounds are “compromised.” I now suddenly find myself having to turn the radio or stereo up more than before. I get frequent headaches after a few hours’ exposure to the steady hum of the “noise-masking system” at work and in fact find it becoming painful even after a few minutes (they’ve toned it down a bit, I’m told, but it’s still annoying: I can rarely go five or ten minutes before needing to put in ear-plugs). It’s like listening to someone vacuuming in the next cubicle only they’re there for hours at a time, not even moving, the machine just running (“you’ll get used to it”). This past week, there were industrial strength fans roaring in the atrium, drying out the carpeting after a sprinkler malfunctioned over the weekend: walking past them was like having someone holding a high-speed drill to my head.

I’ve always been aware I had a “keen” sense of hearing – it comes in handy for a musician. For me, this is what normal is. But I’d never really been aware how “sensitive” it was. However, it had been 20 years since I last had a hearing examination, so I made an appointment with a hearing specialist – for this past Thursday.

Not that I expected them to find anything because they had nothing to compare their results to. According to the examination and the tests, my hearing is “perfect.” If anything, I have an increased level of hearing and there seemed to be some wonder why I would even be concerned about that. I couldn’t seem to impress on the doctor that it was at the expense of other, more important sounds. Music, for example. Yes, I could still hear an audiologist saying certain words against the pumped-in backdrop of a steady hum of noise, but it may have been easier to do that a few months ago, before these problems manifested themselves. That’s not a very productive way to listen to and appreciate music if there’s the steady hum of a vacuum cleaner, say, in the midst of the cello section.

So now I wait until April to return for a comparison follow-up.

The question, then, is do I spend the next three months not trying to protect my hearing just to see if it WILL do any damage or do I continue wearing my “ear-protectors”? That’s an earphone-looking thing that blocks out loud frequencies but still lets me know someone is talking to me (or trying to). It turns the roar of the noise-masking noise into a bearable drone.

Working in a radio station, most of my co-workers assume I’m wearing some cool radio receiver unit. “What are you listening to,” one of them asked me yesterday.

“Silence!” I said.

So if I don’t wear it (them?), I wonder am I possibly allowing my hearing to be damaged just to prove a point? If I do wear them, there’s almost no point in going back for the follow-up because I would expect if it’s working, protecting my hearing from potential harm, the test results should still indicate my hearing is “perfect” – or perhaps “good enough” by other people’s normal standards.

Meanwhile, I sit down at my writing table by the piano, look at the music I’m trying to compose and wonder: Can I continue being a composer? Why am I a composer? Why bother trying to compose? What’s the point? Who am I if I can’t compose, even if nobody else hears my music?

As if the sense of fear about my hearing weren’t enough, now I’m sent into a creative tailspin by the “inner critic” who has turned these fears into a panic. I know Beethoven managed to compose despite his deafness. I know Smetana did not. I also know I am no Beethoven, nor even a Smetana.

No one will notice if I stop composing. (Actually, probably very few people would notice if 90% of our composers today would stop composing, but that’s another issue.) It’s not like I have a “reputation” to maintain: I’d spent maybe 15 miserable years not composing before. I have no career as a composer. But it IS how I identify my self and it’s important to me, despite other people saying things that are the equivalent of “deal with it.”

Because I know I have to but I don’t know if I can accept that loss of identity again. I am learning to accept the pain in my back (yeah, that’s another issue: also awaiting test results to see if it’s anything more than “just” arthritis) and taking measures to compensate for it (like not sitting in chairs that feel uncomfortable no matter how ergonomically perfect they’re supposed to be). But my hearing is different, a more vital part of me – and it’s not like I have a choice, or at least an easy one.

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