Saturday, July 30, 2011

An Experiment -- featuring Steve Clarke and the Working Stiffs

I'm deaf. For some reason I feel I should point that out. That wasn't always the case. In fact, until three weeks ago I considered myself a functionally hearing person. Others, particularly those closest to me, who have dealt with my spiral into deafness for years, may have other opinions about how "functional" my hearing has been, but I think we can all agree that it's worthless for everyday purposes now.

But there will be plenty of time to talk about all that later... Tonight, right now, I am doing something that might be considered odd for a deaf person. At least, I would have considered it odd a month ago if someone had told me that a deaf person were doing it. I'm enjoying... a musical performance. It's a local jazz band, The Working Stiffs, led by my buddy Steve Clarke. They're playing at a small, local restaurant to a small but enthusiastic audience.

Oh, I'm missing a lot. I enjoyed the first number. It was a slow but lively piece, heavily infused with Steve's sweet, sweet sax. I didn't recognize the melody though. My wife Kelly informs me it was Makin' Whoopee. Now, mind you, I'm not a huge jazz guy, but I'm pretty sure I know the melody to Makin' Whoopee when I hear it.

Ah, says the inner bard, there's the rub. "When I hear it." I truly did enjoy what I heard, but the parts of it that I missed left me without enough cues to recognize that most recognizable of melodies.

I've been having quite a few experiences like that over the last few weeks, since the last of my functional hearing fled me. So while I enjoyed Steve and gang on a abstract level, a lot of what could have been personal associations were lost on me. I might have imagined, say, Michelle Pfeiffer sprawled over a piano or some such. Who knows? The moment was gone by the time I even knew what the moment was. An essential element of communication, and hence entertainment, and hence enjoyment, was lost for me.

The second number was more upbeat, more drums and bass, less sax. Enjoyed it immensely. Didn't recognize it at all. It was another standard, "Bye, Bye Blackbird" this time.

I lost most of my remaining hearing about three weeks ago. It was sudden and I can place it almost down to the instant. I was finished with work a bit late on a Friday. On the way out, at about 6:30pm, I stopped to, um, do what was necessary ('nuff sed, amirite?). At the end, I heard the toilet flush, loudly and distinctly. I heard the water running in the sink just as I had all my life. Somewhere between the bathroom and the outside door, a distance of about 20 or 30 feet, a switch flipped... off. When I got outside I noticed that it seemed awfully quiet. When I turned the key in the ignition, I didn't hear the engine. I could feel it through the gas pedal, but not a whisper of sound.

Okay, thought I, my ear is a little plugged. I thought "ear" instead of "ears" because I had actually lost almost all my hearing in my right ear 5 years earlier. Also a story for another day. So I was really at this point only concerned about my "good" left ear. On the off chance that I was just congested, I tried a gentle Valsalva maneuver. I'm sure I did it right; I was once a cadet at the US Air Force Academy and if there is one thing they make sure all their future pilots know how to do it is Valsalva.

No change. Not even a little bit.

The band is on break. I interrupt Steve briefly as he is talking to some other folks. He gives me a big hug. When I "announced" my deafness to my Facebook and Google+ friends a week or so ago Steve was one of the earliest and most compassionate of responders to that announcement. I tell him I'm really enjoying the show. Missing a lot of it, but enjoying it nonetheless. He tries to say something to me, which I completely miss. Getting used to that... But he doesn't give up. He half-shouts at my "good" left ear: "IS IT GETTING ANY BETTER?"

You see, my ENT doctor put me on a course of meds that are in fact helping... a little bit... a very little bit. Steve knew about that from the FB/G+ discussion.

"Yes," I tell him, "It is somewhat better, but not nearly good enough. They think now that I am more of a candidate for a hearing aid than I am for a cochlear implant. But the hearing is still changing. We have to wait for it to stabilize before we can do anything."

Meanwhile back in the past, back in the car... I hadn't just been sitting still through all this. By this point, I was in traffic, eerily silent traffic. I tried flicking my ear hole, you know, kind of like you do when you are clearing out water at the beach or the pool. Instead of hearing a dull thuk that you normally hear, I heard a reverberating spu-u-u-ng like an undamped kettle drum.

Oh crap, this is just like the right ear. When my hearing went in my right ear, back in 2006, there was a similar sort of resonance in that ear. Eventually it went away, but it is something that I always remember about that permanent hearing loss. Now I'm a bit scared.

Steve, still on break, makes it over to our table, gives Kelly a big hug and smooch, and gives me a sly look. Same ol' Steve. I mention that she had said she thought that his arrangement of Makin' Whoopee would be perfect for our (adult) dancer daughter. At that Steve and Kelly are off and running on their conversation. I'm missing all of it. I want to add that Kelly had said she was doing the choreography in her head as the song played, but she's probably already said that herself by now.

Steve is clearly very concerned about me. Of course. What could possibly be a worse fate for a musician to imagine than losing your hearing? For HIM it would be the loss of his main wellspring, his means of giving and receiving JOY. Maybe it is for me too. Hard to tell; I'm still too close to it. Too busy living it and dealing with it to stop and think about it.

Break is over. Steve and the guys are playing again. More music, all wonderful, none of it recognizable. And then, too soon for me, the show is over. We have some parting words with Steve before we go. I want to assure him that there is hope for me, that one way or another my hearing will get better. I get another huge bear hug.

A successful experiment on the whole. I'm happy that I truly did hear enough of the music to recognize and enjoy it as music. But there is no doubt that I lost an even larger part of the music than I got. Disappointing, but on some level... expected.

And now it's time to go home, so I'll wrap this up.

But wait, I hear you say, dear imaginary audience, What about the "off" switch? The drive home? Spu-u-ung?

Truth to tell, I don't really know much more at this point than I did then. We'll explore it together, I promise.


  1. My fingers are crossed that it will get better for you. Dad lost most of his hearing from unpressurized military and cargo flying as a foreign correspondent years ago, so I know how this is a little bit from the family side.

  2. Air travel figures into some aspects of my hearing loss too.

    Having been deaf for so long, I assume your dad knows ASL? Possibly you do too? Do you have any opinions about the best way for a newly-deaf adult to learn ASL?

  3. Very interesting read hearing first hand what this is like for you. I always assumed your hearing loss was military related - probably because I know several people around the same age with hearing loss and that seems to be the common cause. Good luck with the ASL - seems difficult at my age to learn something totally new like that - but I am sure necessity helps with the motivation.

  4. Something to consider, Todd. I'll remember to bring it up at the next appointment.

    I still haven't started on ASL, haven't really even figured out how I can or should approach it yet. But I want to try to open up all avenues of communication that I can. And I have to start planning now to make that happen.

  5. My thoughts are with you. As one who's recently started to experience tinnitus, hearing issues can be very....frustrating. Good luck. Maybe you'll end up with one of those cool bluetooth hearing aids.


  6. Steve, I have experienced some level of tinnitus in my right ear since the '90s, more and more as the hearing there got worse.

    I remember that it used to be very distracting, but now I'm at the point that I have to think about it to notice it at all.

    Bluetooth hearing aid. Oooooooo. Maybe I'll be able to use my phone as a phone again!