First things first: I should tell you I'm a little obsessed with ear wax. Not in a sexual way, mind you. In a sensual, Germanic sort of way. I'm attracted to ear wax for the same reason I harbor secret dreams of someday becoming a dental hygienist. Because picking things free of debris and revealing the smooth, natural state beneath gets me all squirmy with pleasure.
When I was little, I used to have this idea that if I let enough ear wax build up, it would eventually create a perfect mold of the inside of my head, one that I could carefully, ecstatically dislodge and put on display for the neighborhood kids. I had similar fantasies about my nostrils, but I'll leave that for another day. Today's story is about going deaf.
Pete Townsend and Me
My ears have been ringing for about four years. Until recently, it was only a nighttime thing. I'd be fading off to sleep and then I'd notice it: a high-pitched whine like something sampled from the hearing tests we took in elementary school. It was disconcerting, but not unbearable.
Then I started going dancing more often. And one night, last October, I came home with a special surprise. Thanks to some especially expensive sound system, my head was now producing two notes. Two angry notes that battled like clicking, shrieking insects for control of my cochlea.
At that point I knew I was in trouble. But laziness being what it is, it took me until last week to finally do something about it. That's when I found my way to Kathy Peck's H.E.A.R. (Hearing Awareness for Rockers) clinic. Peck's been running the nonprofit group for thirteen years, ever since ear-ringing brought her music career to a screeching halt.
H.E.A.R. used to have a real, honest-to-goodness office, but because of last year's rent spikes, the whole operation is now located in Kathy's Victorian flat. The apartment is nice--all burgundy and leather and fresh flowers--and it's frantically orbited by Kathy's pet, a little dog/cat hybrid with the face of a fruit bat, named Chu Chu.
Peck runs clinics a couple of times a month, where nonrockers like me get to come in, talk to volunteer audiologists, and then get a custom set of earplugs made. The earplugs cost $120, but unlike cheap foam versions (or wads of toilet paper), the plugs lower the volume without muddying the sound. And anything that might keep a third insect from migrating into my ear seemed like a good deal to me.
Quiet Is the New Loud
While I waited for the audiologists to set up shop in the drawing room, Kathy and Chu Chu did this amazing routine where the dog (it turns out Chu Chu is a long-haired Chihuahua) bleated out a passable semblance of "I love you" in exchange for treats. I was scheming up ways to fit Chu Chu into my backpack when Ken Billheimer, my volunteer audiologist, came to claim me. I wasted no time in getting down to business.
"So what's the deal with Q-tips?" I ask once I am seated. "Are we really not supposed to put them inside our ears?"
"No," he says, carefully socking a small foam ball against my eardrum. "Don't use them."
"But if they're so bad for you," I say, "why isn't there an audiological uproar against them?" "There is," Ken says. "But they have more money than we do. Johnson & Johnson does... I've seen some pretty gruesome Q-tip injuries."
Ken then takes a syringe and fills my ears up with silicone. Three minutes later, he pops out the casts, and there they are, the things I've dreamed of since childhood. Perfect models of the inside of my noggin. They look like headless, plucked chickens, miniaturized and cast in pink bubblegum.
"Wow," I say, turning them over in my fingers. I'm disappointed by the paucity of wax that came out with them, but they're pretty neat all the same. I go in to Kathy's living room to pay, and the sofas have filled up with hipsters waiting for their turn with Ken. It feels more like a party than an audiological event. And Chu Chu is way into it, running from person to person, eventually getting so agitated that he begins humping his dog bed.
Kathy, busy printing out an invoice, responds to his grunts. "Say 'I love you,' Chu Chu," she says without turning around. "I love you."
Chu Chu, enraptured by the attentions of his bed, doesn't hear her.
To learn more about hearing damage, or to make an appointment for custom-fitted earplugs, contact Kathy Peck at H.E.A.R., 415-409-EARS. Or visit the Web site at www.hearnet.com.
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