The sorry side of middle-age. When I hold open the door for a stranger, he always says “Thank you, sir.”
Grey hair, wrinkles, balding. Oldish. But I’m not actually old. Not yet. I’ve got years ahead of me. I’ve got kids living at home. I’m still trying to build a career. These things keep me young.
In fact, I’m the youngest person I know who wears hearing aids.
Fresh out of college, my father gave me a graduation gift to get me started in the adult world. He made a down-payment on a car. I say down-payment, he really paid half-half of two thousand dollars. This was a long time ago. Cars, lacking any safety features save a seat-belt, cost way less back then. And this car was nowhere near new. A high-mileage, many-year-old Datsun 510, a mustard-colored four-door sedan, hardly the cool ride of a recent college graduate. But I loved that car.
I immediately made it mine. I drove it to my favorite record store and bought some bumper stickers that I thought were hip. Multicolored Grateful Dead bears dancing on a white background; A five-inch square Public Image Limited [PIL] sticker; and “Bad Dog: I brake for nothing.” I installed an unnecessarily over-powered stereo. A high-quality tape deck and four large speakers to shake my tiny car. The stereo was too loud to turn all the way up; it made my head spin. I got one of those pine tree air-fresheners to hang from my rear-view mirror, just to be ironic.
Over the next three years, I drove that car into the ground. A long daily commute, road trips, beer runs, multiple weekly jaunts into the city to bar hop; and non-city nights, deep out to the ex-burbs to play indoor soccer. I spent hours in my car every day. Each trip, the stereo as loud as I could tolerate. I was a head-banger. Speed-metal, thrash, punk, death. It wasn’t enough for me to be deafened by the music. I wanted the drivers of the other cars to enjoy it as well. All the conversations in my car were shouted above the stereo.
As a young adult, my favorite weekend activity was live music in Washington, DC clubs. These shows, two per weekend, were earsplitting. To get a good view, I typically stood in front of the speaker-tower on the edge of the stage. This was always the least crowded spot in the theater. Sure, it left my ears ringing, and once, at a Sonic Youth concert, the music was so loud I actually became disoriented. But at least I could see.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is turn on my stove-top espresso maker. I pad barefooted and shirtless into the kitchen and turn on the burner—the pot already filled with espresso and water the night before. Then, I brush my teeth and get dressed. About the time I return to the kitchen, the percolator is sputtering. The coffee is brewed. And I sit, reading the news, drinking a mug (almost a bowl) of super-strong coffee. Around the end of my first cup, my wife Susan joins me at the table. We say good morning, but we don’t otherwise talk. I can’t hear what’s being said.
Susan and I drink a cup together and then my kids get up for school. This is when the conversation starts in the morning. This is when I go to put in my hearing aids. I get lonely not being able to hear. Plus, everyone gets annoyed with me.
Certain voices occupy a register that I can’t clearly pick up. My son Eli is one of the people I have trouble understanding. It’s frustrating for both of us, and at times, it affects our relationship. He loses patience with me and just stops talking. The receptionist at work is a problem as well. Every time she talks to me, I need to move closer and concentrate on hearing.
As the day gets old, my hearing aids bug the crap out of me. they start to feel like tiny forks crammed into my ears. I’m sure they’re much more comfortable than they once were, say, ten or fifteen years ago. But like an amputee with an ill-fitting prosthetic, I can’t wait to get rid of them for the day.
I try to hold out, extend the day, keep my hearing aids in as long as possible. At least until my family settles in for our nightly independent, quiet time; when everyone is winding down for the evening. Susan and I read in our sunroom, the kids hang out in the living room and watch TV or do homework. There’s a room between us, but our house is open and not so large. Everyone talks to each other periodically throughout the evening, yelling from one room to the next. Everyone but me. My hearing aids are out. I shake my head and look to Susan for translation.
Recently, I found a blog written by a young woman who seems similar to the younger me. She blogs about local music in Minnesota. About alternative and punk bands that haven’t made it to the national stage. In one of her posts, she writes about how a recent show was so loud it left her ears “ringing” for days. Now I’m recounting my days of audio immaturity.
When I was twenty-three years old, I dove off the stage at a hardcore punk show. The goal of a stage-dive is to land harmlessly on the waiting crowd and to be lowered gently to the floor. When I dove, my legs were inadvertently pushed straight up into the air, and I plunged head-first to the gritty, wooden deck, landing on my eye. Besides a deep and ugly hard-to-explain shiner, I wrenched my neck terribly, requiring weeks of recovery, leaving me feeling lucky that I wasn’t paralyzed or dead.
My failed stage-dive set off a round of self-reflection that ultimately led to a more cautious me. It seemed ridiculous for me to seriously and needlessly injure myself for no reason whatsoever. My stage-diving/slam-dancing (what is now called moshing) days were over. Yet I continued to blast my car stereo, to stake-out a spot in front of the speaker-tower, for another twenty years.
Previously published on Jefftcann.com.
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