Listen Up

Telling the story of hearing loss is tough. It’s a disability thing. An old person’s thing. “Normal” people can find it hard to understand the impact of hearing loss on identity, self-worth, and, probably most important, relationships.

Several years ago I wrote an essay about an encounter – or lack of an encounter – with a young family at the audiologist’s office. A few weeks ago, I recorded the essay for the morning show of our local public radio station, WUWM, and it was aired yesterday.

Both the text of the essay and the link to the audio version are at this link: Wordless.

I’d love to hear what you think.

Mr. Tan Shoes and Me at KFC

The other night at KFC, an older guy came in while I was waiting for my order. His hair was completely white and he wore those tan orthopedic shoes that are popular with folks fed up with pretending. He ordered a big bucket of chicken and two sides. Just like me.

I hadn’t been in a KFC in ten years but the idea of fried chicken after a long day of helping a friend clear out her dead mother’s house seemed irresistible, so much so that I drove a mile past the KFC on the corner near her house and then made a U-turn, no mean trick in my husband new F-150 which has a turning radius of about a half mile. I went inside the KFC because ordering at the drive-thru makes me crazy. It’s indecipherable. Summed up as ‘what kind of sauce?’ What Kind of Sauce? WHAT KIND OF SAUCE? Screaming for food, I hate it. One of the queer life impediments of major hearing loss.

So I parked the silver bomber (aka the Chromemobile)  and went inside.

“You know it makes a lot more sense to just get a small soda and fill it up than to get a big one.” He demonstrated by filling his small cup.

“So true,” I nodded, although this lesson has taken me many years to learn. The wisdom of age comes in these tiny droplets. Buy the small soda and refill it. You heard it here. From me on the mount.

His talking about soda made me want to have one. Suddenly, at that moment, there was nothing I wanted more than a small soda.

So I ordered one. The KFC guy handed me a cup, just a tad larger than what one might pee in at the doctor’s. “That is certainly small,” I said. Then he handed me a larger cup. So now I had two cups. There was dialogue that went along with all these cups but I only caught part of it. I’m a week into my new cochlear implant and, man, there is a ton of stuff I don’t get. Which is somewhat a what’s new situation but not.

After I got my soda and tossed the smaller cup in the trash, I continued waiting at the counter with Mr. Tan Shoes. He smiled at me. It seemed like he was trying to come up with another conversational gambit since the soda size topic kind of fizzled out.

You know where this is going. You can see it coming down the highway like a semi-truck hauling one of those mobile homes, big flags on either side and a little car in front warning the world of an “OVERSIZE LOAD.”

“So,” Mr. Tan Shoes said, leaning on the counter like he was waiting for another round of jello shots at the Christmas party and nodding in the direction of the ‘kitchen.’ I waited.

He shrugged and I could feel him wondering if we would have this one thing in common. Maybe it would be the start of something.

“Extra crispy or original recipe?”

Our eyes locked.

“Oh, original recipe,” I answered, frowning and shaking my head like I found just the thought of extra crispy to be beyond the pale. Unacceptable. Unorthodox. Trifling with the KFC brand. “Definitely original recipe,” I added, just to make sure I was in the right column. FOR original recipe. AGAINST extra crispy.

Then my order came up. At exactly the same moment, Mr. Tan Shoes and I said exactly the same thing, making me wonder later if I’d passed on a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Have a good evening,”we chorused.

And we did, I think, each with our own perfect chicken.



Originally published 12/10/2015

Advent 16: Stamped

At the downtown post office, one of the clerks is a deaf man. He is very tall and heavyset. When he was younger he had a full head of blonde messy hair and he looked like a boyfriend I used to have.

So for years I would stand in line and part of me would hope that a different clerk, a hearing clerk, would say “next” before the deaf clerk motioned to me. But every so often I would get the deaf clerk and he would flip open a notebook full of questions and instructions tucked into protective clear sleeves.

“Hello. I am deaf.”

“How can I help you?”

Depending on what I was mailing, he would flip to a different page. It wouldn’t take any longer than a hearing clerk but it felt like more work, maybe because I would have to look through his book when I needed to find the right question to ask him but mostly the work was to not be an impatient jerk.

Today he had two linked keyboards with screens. He typed, “Hello. I am deaf.” And instead of answering, I handed him my two packages. Then I typed, “I’m glad to see this accommodation.” And he answered, “$1.75 is the cheapest.” And so I nodded and paid. He handed me my change and gave me two thumbs up with a questioning look. I smiled with a thumbs up. Our exchange was over.

When I walked away, I wondered if he saw my cochlear implant receiver on the back of my head. I wanted the message to be ‘I get it about being deaf’ but the truth of the matter is I don’t, not his kind of deafness, not profound, having to do one’s job in customer service for years with nothing but a looseleaf binder kind of deaf. For a moment, I wanted him to see me as a deaf compatriot but he didn’t, because I wasn’t. It was a good thing to think all this. It made me glad I was next in his line.


We were driving across town today and, just like that, my cochlear implant died. So instantly, in the space between one stoplight and another, I was back to being deaf.

Not hard of hearing, not hearing impaired, deaf except for maybe 10% of sound. We were picking up our son to go to lunch. He got in the car and I could hear murmurings of conversation between he and my husband but I looked out the window with no sense of what they were saying. None. In minutes, I had become cargo.

This has happened to me only once before. It was at a meeting to discuss kicking off a project to tell the stories of women who are homeless. The person I was meeting with, a long time colleague and wonderful person, was excited to move forward and I was encouraged by her endorsement, her great willingness to be the connection between me and women she was working with. She would be the person who would give me the legitimacy I would need to begin.

But then my implant died. Like today, it was a problem with the battery not charging adequately overnight. And so, right in the middle of our very intense conversation, I went deaf. And I couldn’t continue. I tried to explain but it is so peculiar to be a person whose life in the hearing world is so dependent on a battery. “I’m sorry but my battery died.”

My battery died so I have to run home because I have suddenly become a fawn in a forest full of cougars and bears because I can’t hear them sneaking up on me and I shouldn’t even be driving a car because I can’t hear people beeping their horns or a siren or know where the siren is coming from, I am a hazard to everyone, a witless, unknowing, unaware, incompetent former whole person.

It is just a technical problem.

At home, I switch to another battery, this one perfectly charged. The sound doesn’t immediately activate so I unscrew the battery and try again, all the while imagining that maybe something worse than a battery is broken. Maybe the mechanical stuff in my head is broken and within seconds I am on the operating table while they swap out the defective parts and put in new ones but this time they don’t have to drill a hole in my skull because it is still there, hidden behind my right ear.

All is well now, though. I hear myself typing on my keyboard. I hear the music downstairs, my chair creaking, and the dog standing to rearrange herself in her bed. I don’t take any of it for granted.

99 New: The Memorial Service

This morning I went to a memorial service for a woman who went by the name Shorty though her given name was June. She had been homeless many years when she died although it probably wouldn’t be fair to say homelessness caused her death but surely sleeping outside on the ground night after night, year after year, hadn’t helped her many chronic health conditions.

Shorty was extremely small, wiry, very animated. She moved with a group of friends who came together into the warming room where I volunteered last winter. I steered clear of her, like I did almost everyone, still being so much inside myself about my hearing issues and unwilling to risk mistakes. I kept to myself and my morning task which was gathering and folding blankets that had been slept on the night before in the cavernous gymnasium of a Lutheran church.

The service today was in the same Lutheran church. I had never been in the church’s sanctuary before; its lobby was mid-century modern, angular with square-cut sofas and glass partition, the sanctuary was sweeping and majestic with all the light centering on the urn containing Shorty’s ashes and an array of red and white flowers. The pastor had already begun, his voice loud because he was using a mic, but mashed a bit for me, the words often lumpy and indistinct. I watched him hard with all my heart. I wanted to know what he was saying and be completely present in that moment.

Everything about the service would counter what you might think about people who have been homeless a long time. Her friends, homeless themselves, described Shorty as generous, kind, and stubborn, so stubborn, the most stubborn person I know, one said. And I remembered being told she had refused an offer of supportive housing because her dear friend couldn’t come with her. Those of us out here, in the housed world, probably think that’s crazy. I would have thought so a year ago. But I don’t anymore.

She loved her friends and didn’t want to leave them. And it was clear today that they had loved her; they’d created a family that was probably as strong and resilient as any family living on this block, this street, this town. They sure seemed to grieve as deeply as any of us might if our own kin died.

The memorial service was arranged by Street Angels, a group I work with and a group that knew Shorty well from years of interacting with her, bringing her meals and hand warmers, and spending time getting to know her. I envied them their knowledge of Shorty and her life but realized I’d cut myself out of knowing much about her because of my own stubbornness. Shorty was the second woman from the warming room to have died in this past year and I hadn’t let myself know either of them. I regret that.

I am glad that I went today. It’s a good thing for people who’ve lost someone they loved to turn around at a funeral and see people who cared enough to show up. I had nothing to offer but being physically present and listening. And I listened hard, as hard as I possibly could.

99 New: Tuned In

I was on Wisconsin Public Radio this morning.

Along with a local county supervisor, I was on a half-hour segment of The Morning Show, part of the Ideas Network. The topic was menstrual equity. I was asked to participate because of my work with Time of the Month Club. The segment is here.

The news isn’t that I was on the radio. The news is that I agreed to be on the radio in the first place. I said yes because I figured I could sit in a studio with a host and read his or her lips if my hearing crapped out on me, which it never does anymore but it did for years so I’m always dreading it. And then my friend, the county supervisor, would be there as well and could cue me if I missed something. So going on the radio seemed like a safe thing to do plus a wise one. If I want to promote women’s right to have access to decent menstrual supplies, this would be an important way to do it.

It was 7:15 am when I arrived and the radio station’s offices were empty with just a single person, a young friendly-looking woman, sitting at the front desk. She led me to the studio and handed me headphones.

“There’s a host, right? I asked her.

“There is but he’s in Superior.” We were in Milwaukee. Superior is a town on Lake Superior that borders Duluth, oh say, about 350 miles away. So the host was going to be remote, as they say, extremely remote. No reading his lips.

“And the county supervisor? She was going to be here.”

“She decided last night to call in on the phone.”

And so my plan to have someone to take care of Deaf Jan evaporated.

Through the headphones I listened to what seemed like whispers, the host was wrapping up the segment before ours. Little teeny panic started to sprout. Everything about this interview would have to happen through my ears, through my cochlear implant in one ear and my hearing aid in the other and the headphones over everything. Maybe the young woman could write the questions down for me. Insane. Quit being such a fucking head case, Jan. Ask her to turn up the volume, for Christ’s sake. You come in to talk about menstrual equity and removing barriers for women and then sit here all baffled and defenseless without a designated ‘helper.’ Jesus.

So we adjusted and readjusted the volume until it seemed loud but right. She got up to leave but I asked her to stay, you know, just in case, and she sat listening and smiling at me for the next half-hour so I ended up having a tender but a modest one, more like a security blanket so I wasn’t ashamed of myself, I just considered it good disability coping.

I did the interview with the headphones and all my other fantastically expensive electronic hearing gear without missing anything that anyone said, even the three women who called in with questions. And when it was done I felt like a million bucks. I walked out of the building, down the street to my car, and smiled at the homeless guy walking toward me. He was smiled back, a gummy smile with just a single tooth in front. He almost seemed to laugh. “You look like you’re having a good morning,” he said. And I was, he was right.

99 New: Ring Ring

“Three years, Jan?”

I’d written a comment to a fellow cochlear implant recipient hoping to console him about not using the phone a month or so after his implant. Oh heck, I said, I haven’t used the phone yet three years later! And he responded by saying this.

“Three years, Jan?”

Actually, it’s probably more like seven years. I actually remember one of the last conversations I had. It was with an editor asking me very picky questions about a piece I’d written.  I heard most of what he said and just said yes to the rest.

“Three years, Jan?”

I’d stopped getting embarrassed about not using the phone long ago. Screw it, I thought, it’s very hip not to use the phone these days. Everyone texts. I’d tell people I don’t conduct business on the phone so if they wanted any business-like response from me, they needed to send me an email.

“Three years, Jan?”

Telephone conversations were hell for years leading up to my cochlear implant – hell, total hell, flaming hell, indescribable hell. But much of conversational life was so it was hard to isolate the telephone as a particular evil. Still, it was one I could ditch. So I did.

“Three years, Jan?”

A cochlear implant basically replaces one’s natural ear with an electronic one. It’s programmed to hear stuff, a lot of stuff, actually it’s programmed to hear everything. So since getting a cochlear implant three years ago, there really has been no excuse for not using the telephone.

“Three years, Jan?”

My blogging friend’s comment shot right through me.  What precious little duckling are you that you got a cochlear implant and you are still not using the phone? He didn’t say that, I just read it into his three-word comment. Indeed.

“Three years, Jan?”

Yeah, so, two calls in the last three days. Long ones, too. With an actual human being. Conversations like one might have in a living room. Dialogue, back and forth, shooting the breeze, gabbing.  I got my little phone attachment charged up, everything synced, Bluetooth heaven, clear as a bell, yessiree. Jan is talking on the phone. But don’t call me. It’s too complex. I’ll call you.


Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash