Episode 5: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
There’s no polite way to put it. We live in a noisy world, filled with a constant over saturation of sound. Between media, machines and the people around us, there’re not too many places one can go to give their ears a rest, or even a bit of a break, which makes it pretty rough for us creatives who depend so much upon our ears to make our art happen. I’m Michael E. Russo, and we’ll talk about our ears, hearing, and how one deals with all of the “noise, noise, noise!” on this episode of the Creative Care Unit.
Both of my parents were born in 1930, Children of the Great Depression, and by the time I met them in 1962, both of them were smokers. They were not exactly unique among their generation in that respect. According to the Gallup organization, 43% of the adult population in the United States in the 1940’s were smokers. I’m using the word “adult” in the loosest sense, because I think both of them started smoking when they were 14, hardly an adult in in any society. By the time they graduated high school in 1948, they were full-fledged smokers. By 1971, they’d quit.
Part of the reason they quit, I’d like to think, was that I was a nine-year-old nudge who was in love with television and was particularly infatuated with commercials. There was something about those short stories that really got to me (there’s a particularly embarrassing story my parents used to tell about me, and my mother still does, about my love of commercials when I was a toddler. If you think I’m going to tell that one here, forget it. Wait until Mom does her own podcast called “Dumb Stuff My Kids Did”.). I particularly paid attention to those public service announcements (also known as PSA’S) that seemed to run more frequently in those days. I remember one in particular about a bunch of teenagers who “borrowed” a car whose owner had left the keys in the ignition, and it ended with all of them dying in a car crash. There were also a lot of PSA’s about smoking, and I must’ve taken those to heart, because I became like the lead character in the comic strip “Curtis”, who every so often gives his father grief about Dad’s smoking at home (Curtis’ Dad also gives Curtis grief about his choice of music, which kinda reminds me of my childhood as well). Now my parents had always given up smoking for Lent, and in March of 1971 they did so again. This time, it was for good. Funny thing is, I didn’t really notice it until my Dad pointed it out to me one day. I guess they enjoyed my not saying anything about it too much to ruin it by giving me a chance to say “I told you so!”
While they weren’t exactly fussy about what they put into their lungs, they were a lot fussier about what was going into my ears. To say that my parents were not exactly fans of rock ‘n’ roll is a bit of an understatement. Their musical tastes run toward the smoother sounds rather than something a bit more gut bucket. You’d never find any Louis Jordan releases in their record collection, but you WOULD find Bing Crosby, Mantovani, 101 Strings and the soundtrack from “Man of La Mancha”. By the time I was becoming aware of music on the radio, the big band sounds that they grew up with had disappeared from the mainstream pop stations (the older you get, it seems, the more the music you grew up listening to gets segregated away from the general populace. The local oldies station now proudly proclaims. “Nobody plays more ‘80’s!”, which makes me feel older than I should). Rock ‘n’ roll, with its greater emphasis on the backbeat than swing, really turned them off, and no prodding of mine could ever make them converts to these new sounds.
Their misgivings about my musical tastes notwithstanding, they did indulge me by buying me a set of Slingerland drums, which I still have to this day. They were in our basement for a while, but eventually they made their way into our attic, with its newly installed floor, which is where I played along to Beatles records (the walls weren’t installed until much later. At that time, the silver backing of the pink insulation was still visible. Dad only put in sheet rock after I kept puncturing the insulation with my drumsticks, the slanted ceilings where the drums were being pretty low in that space). The great thing about having them up in the attic was that once the attic door was shut my parents could hardly hear me, and if they wanted me to come to dinner, all they had to do was turn on and off the light at the top of the stairs and I would be at the dinner table shortly thereafter.
The thing about playing in that attic, with its low, sheet-rocked ceilings, was that it was LOUD, even with the low powered stereo I used to listen to my records. And as much fun as it was to do all that playing, it also hurt my ears. This wasn’t much of a surprise to me. When I was in the elementary school band, they sat the trumpets right next to the percussion section during concerts, and that snare drum just cut right through me. I even took to putting cotton in my right ear so that it wouldn’t hurt quite so much (I also jammed it in way too deep, which meant that tweezers needed to be employed to remove the cotton when I got home). So, whenever I got behind the drums and cranked up the speakers, I was wearing swimmers ear plugs to minimize the damage. Much easier to take in and out of my ears than the cotton I used in elementary school.
I got so used to wearing the ear plugs that I even did so at the first rock concert I ever attended: Cheap Trick at the Calderone in Hempstead, NY a 2500 seat venue that used to show movies before they staged concerts. We didn’t exactly have great seats-they were near the back of the house-but we had a great time. There were technical problems during the show (which prompted guitarist Rick Nielsen to say at one point, “Why couldn’t this happen to Fred Zeppelin?”), but otherwise it was a great introduction to the rock concert experience. The next day, we went to Beatlefest, a convention sort of like Comic Con, but for Beatles fans, complete with dealers, lectures, bands and other whatnot. While walking through a very quiet gallery of fan art, my friend turned to me and whispered that his ears were still ringing from the concert the night before. I felt better about having taken the precautions that I did.
Years later my wife and I saw The Marshall Tucker Band at The Colonial Theater, the place where they shot scenes from “The Blob”, that sci-fi classic starring Steve McQueen. My boss had tickets that he wasn’t using and I got to go with my wife and some co-workers. I’d seen Tucker at the Nassau Coliseum in the early ‘80s, and they were playing with the same amount of gear, and the same amount of volume, that they did back in the day, but in a much smaller space. Thank God we had the earplugs! We were in pretty good shape afterwards. My co-workers were in pain, having no ear protection at all. Talk about suffering for art…
And now it’s time for me to take the headphones off, give my ears a rest and do some bowling. We’ll be back to the Creative Care Unit in just a moment.
Welcome back to the Creative Care Unit.
Now with all of the music I’ve listened to on the radio and on record, as well as all of the bands I’ve been in, all of the shows I’ve performed in, you’d think that any hearing damage I’d have incurred would have been from those sources. Nope. While I don’t think that listening to loud music helped at all, I honestly feel that damage from being a phone rep in a call center did far worse things to my ears than did The Who.
I spent twelve years or so as a phone representative for two different companies. When a call comes in, the first thing that you hear is a rather loud BEEP that’s meant to get your attention. Once you give the stock greeting the company wants you to use without any deviation whatsoever (“Thank you for calling Hernbags Are Us. How may I help you?”), you adjust your headset volume depending on how loud the customer’s phone is. Most of the time you can leave the volume knob alone, but sometimes you can barely hear what they’re saying, so you have to crank it up to ten. Once the caller hangs up, the next customer in the queue BEEPS in, and if you’re like I was, you haven’t adjusted your headset volume down, so that BEEP damn near takes your head off. Now, multiply that by on average one hundred times a day over an eight-hour shift, and you can understand just what the ears get exposed to on that job.
Add to this the ambient noise in the room. If you’ve ever talked to someone in a call center, you can hear in the background other phone reps talking to their customers. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as most call centers are just large rooms with cubicles whose walls don’t allow one to have much privacy. Everyone can hear everything that’s going on around them. While this is helpful if, say, I want to get the manager’s attention so that they can listen in on a call that I think is suspicious (I was really good at smelling out fraud), it’s hard sometimes to focus on what the customer on the other end is saying to you. In those cases, you compensate by turning up the volume as needed. Is it any wonder that the volume on my car radio when I got home was louder than it was when I left the house that morning?
I pulled out from a file that I keep old medical information the results of a hearing test I’d taken about a decade ago, which was provided by the company whose call center I was working in. What I noticed was that there was a sharp drop off in the upper end of my hearing range. I knew that something was different, and now I had the evidence to confirm my suspicions.
These days I’m more conscious than ever about protecting my hearing. Part of that comes from the fact that my wife is extremely sensitive to sound, so much so that if something is too loud, she can’t understand what is being said. The TV volume generally doesn’t go above a particular level when were watching a program, though when the audio is particularly soft, like on the PBS News Hour, I do have to crank it up. Movies are usually watched with the captioning function on, especially superhero movies with lots of explosions in them, so that my wife and I can keep the volume lower overall and not miss a word of dialog when the actors are speaking softly in more intimate scenes. When we’re out somewhere at a place where we have no control over the volume, like movies or concerts, we wear earplugs. It would not be good for me as a musician to need hearing aids, and so I’m vigorously trying to avoid that fate.
My current place of employment, what I call my Hideous Survival Job, isn’t exactly easier on my ears. The job is in the low end of retail, and no money has been used to make the environment sonically friendly. The floors are concrete with linoleum tiles, the shelves are all metal and the ceilings aren’t too high. We do have a sound system to play music through, but it consists of two speakers that are kinda loud when you’re right near them, but don’t distribute the sound evenly throughout the store. On most nights, my ears are ringing as I fall asleep. They recover a bit by the morning, but then I go back to work and the cycle starts all over again.
I sometimes wonder if I have an undiagnosed case of tinnitus. Web MD defines tinnitus as “the sensation of hearing ringing, hissing, buzzing chirping, whistling or other sounds.” When I was a kid, sometimes I would hear a high-pitched tone for a few seconds when I was in a really quiet place, like the bathroom. Nowadays the sound is more of a continuous wash of high-pitched white noise, with the occasional long tone mixed in. Or maybe I’m hearing that background wash because my ears are clogged. I’ve always had cheap sinuses, and every time I swallow, I can hear the sound of that swallowing in my ears. Of course, all of the crap in my ears could be a self-defense mechanism against all of the crap trying to damage my ears, kind of a natural set of ear filters where I hear lots of different kinds of sounds with a minimum of damage.
What I do know is this: like everything else that’s gone wrong with my body, I’ve learned how to deal with it. I do what I have to in order to minimize the damage, and I try to be aware of what’s going on within me and without me. As for as my ears are concerned, I can still hear the clacking of the keyboard as I type this, and in the early hours of the morning, when the meds I’m on insist that I go to the bathroom rather than have an unbroken night of sleep, I lay back in bed and I listen. I can hear the car of the delivery guy dropping off the local paper. I can hear the clicking of the baseboard as the heat comes up. I can hear my wife’s breathing as she sleeps. All of this over a wash of white noise that isn’t as loud as it was when I went to bed.
If I’m really lucky, I can get a few more minutes of sleep before the day starts. In any case, the silence is a blessed thing. And I enjoy it.
Uh-oh! Time to act like an announcer. Roll the credits!
Support for this podcast is made possible by my long-suffering Wife (who lets me do this), copious amounts of caffeinated beverages and listeners like yourselves. If you’ve enjoyed this program, please like our Facebook page, which has links to our transcripts of the show blog and links for you to make a donation to keep this show going.
Creative Care Unit is recorded in The Danger Room Studios of Glimmer Productions, located in the heart of Bucks County, PA. I’m Michael E. Russo. We’ll see you next time, and until then, stay well.