At some point when I was a child, it became apparent that I was a bit different to the other kids. Namely, I couldn't hear the things they heard.
This was somewhat expected, my mother being hearing impaired. I stepped into this life with the genetic code that dialed me down a notch or so when it came to sound. A childhood of constant ear infections only increased the damage.
At around 10 years, I was fitted with my first hearing aid; a single behemoth hanging off the back of my right ear. Not good for a kid in a school going though desegregation in a southern Virginia town.
It was a primitive device, but it was pretty amazing to me, even though I despised it. It was a simple amplification device, nothing more. It was expensive and delicate and a general pain for a kid to wear, but it was important to my folks, so I wore it. getting fitted for it was sort of fun; I got to sit in a soundproof booth and take a hearing test. I decided that this was a space capsule. It was dark, silent, enclosed; cut off from the world with just a single window out onto a control center manned by the audiologist.
I went through various combinations of hearing aids; right or left, power up or down.
Teenage years came and went, and so did the hearing aids. The sound was just too much. Straight volume; everything way too loud, with no discrimination. What's the good of hearing everything and not being able to sort it all out.
I'd had enough of them. I was tired of them. To a young man, they were an albatross of social stigma.
At around 26, I decided to give them another shot. Cosmetically, they had improved. They had been able to miniaturize the thing so it would fit sort of inside the ear. They were better than they had been, but were far more delicate. Mere sweat could fry these poor creatures. And they did.
Twenty years later, I took yet another chance. My parents and The Lady were worried that the world was passing me by. It was, in so many ways. I missed so much. Conversations in groups were mysteries wherein I was too embarrassed to confess my ignorance. Instead, I would learn tone, and follow the flow of the conversation. When people would laugh, then so would I. But I rarely heard the punchline.
So, another set of hearing aids. But this time, there was a marked improvement; the sound quality was far better, and there was a switchable program for two different environments. This was more like it. The aids were fickle, more expensive than ever and over the long term, very troublesome. But I stuck with them. I had to. I had reached over the threshold of being 50% hearing impaired. I was now dependent on those hearing aids just to get through the day and to earn a living.
Sounds were still mostly just amplified and just loud. But that was better than the alternative. So, I kept on keeping on, missing the world around me. Missing so much.
Recently, I became clear that it was time to get new hearing aids. The ones I got 5 years ago were giving up the ghost, and it was great trepidation that I went to the audiologist.
Once again, I sat in my space capsule.
The test was about what I expected; continued deterioration across the spectrum of around 5 dB. Ah, well. I'm used to it by now.
I had decided to get the finest aid available for my needs, and was ready to shell out the bucks for it. I didn't get my hopes up. After all, there was a lifetime of bittersweet memory ready to pursue me.
But then, something different happened.
In the last five years, the technology went sort of nuts.
The audiologist took the results of my test and input them into a program on her Dell laptop and dialed up the brands and models of aids that would apply to me.
Oh. Behind the ear. Damn, I thought. Come full circle, have I? Then the nice lady showed me what she had in mind.
The thing was an inch long and little over a quarter inch thick, with a very thin tube encasing a wire that attached to a transmitter in the form of flexible silicone earbud. No more ear molds.
She told me it was fully digital. Huh?
How long will they take to get ready, I asked.
Oh, we can do that right now. I do everything right here in the office. On this computer.
I asked how. She said, well, let's just do it, ok? That's the best way to show you.
She took out two aids, prepped them and popped them in my ears. At this point, The Lady was there watching.
She plugged the hearing aids into the laptop through a miniature data port in each device. I was hooked into her computer, with various clicks and snippets of sound breaking though the silence, as she set the programs for the various channels with which this device would service me.
Then she looked at me and said, hold on.
In my left ear, a sound like a starship engine cranking up blasted into my world, repeated in my right a moment later. Then silence. Then a little digital melody best described as a light variation on the Intel theme.
And then humming.
And I asked, what's that?
She smiled, and looked at The Lady. Say something, she said.
The Lady gave me a little look and said, Hey sweetie. And she started reading from a poster in the office.
I almost started crying.
I'd never heard her before. Not like this. Not this way. Not to the point of being almost normal. Her voice was pure sparkling clarity and oh so sweet.
I turned to the audiologist who said, the humming is the light fixtures overhead. I looked up and it occurred to me that the world was opening up in waves around me within this tiny office. I could hear the secretary a room away on the phone and the printer printing and a phone ringing behind me, and I knew right were it was.
It was overwhelming. I was like a child in a sonic candy store, grasping this way and that; lurching after sounds. Sounds that I could never have imagined in my wildest dream.
Sounds the rest of the world takes for granted.
That was 2 days ago. This morning, I picked up the aids after the requisite transfer of funds was completed. Essentially the cost of 3 very powerful laptops sit nearly invisible on and behind my ears, replicating the power of those very computers, analyzing sound to a degree that will continue to bogle my mind.
I have an automatic default setting that screens out sounds that are not of use to me if I don't need to pay attention. I went to work this morning with them, and as I walked along the kitchen's hot line, the sound of the hood fans faded out as I walked to the cook to ask him what his specials were today. I could actually talk to him on the line without the hoods drowning out the conversation.
On my way home, I was trying out the "music" channel on the car radio; switching back and forth between stations. A Spanish waltz here, new alternative there and Roger Daltrey wailing out on Who Are You to depths and highs I never knew existed.
I think for the first time, I really understand where Bill is coming from on the concept of singularity. In the mere passage of days, my life has blasted into another dimension; one where insects buzz, cats purr softly and tree frogs sound like an apocalypse of joy and sensation. Where a pair of devices smaller than the first joint of my pinkie whispers to me the leaves of trees in a summer evening breeze as I walk across the street to Domaine Mojo.
The future is hear.
Ok. Lots of you are asking about the aids themselves in the comments, both here and at Daily Pundit, as well as through email. BTW, my email is chefmojo-at-earthlink.net. Feel free to drop me a line, and I'll try to answer any specific questions you might have. In the meantime, however, I think I should try to anticipate some of those questions.
Keeping in mind, that this is reflective of my experience and your mileage may vary...
The hearing aids I have are Phonak microPower.
They are not inexpensive, but to me, they're worth every penny. They also have a future. What I'm trying to say is that because they are digital and programmable, I can take them in every now and then to get them tweaked, according to what my hearing is doing and the specific needs I have for them. Also, there are no controls on the aids themselves. Volume and channel control come via a nifty little remote control that goes on my keychain. I chose to go with a non earmold style with silicone "earbuds." I find them far more comfortable than the molds. One's ear canal, like other parts of the body, changes constantly, and the silicone is snug but flexible to bodily changes.
And while I'm at it, I'd like to send a big shout out to Marian Fredner at Albemarle Audiology for guiding me through this. She was up front, honest and professional as all get out. Completely informative. No slight of hand and no pressure tactics. How refreshing to interact with someone like that.
It's been a helluva ride...
(crossposted at Daily Pundit)