Who Knew the World was so Loud?

My mother couldn’t hear. My father couldn’t hear. So it’s no surprise that as I’m about to turn 68, I can’t hear as much as I used to either. Back in the day, I used to say I could hear a bee sneeze. Now I go to a meeting or a poetry reading and I miss half of what’s said. I go to a yoga class and if I’m in a posture where I can’t see the instructor, I don’t know what to do next.

My mother waited too long to get hearing aids. My father never got them. He missed so much. I’m not doing that.

Therefore, welcome to my first pair of hearing aids. They’re the fourth most expensive thing I have ever purchased, behind the house, car and my master’s degree. I have known since 2016 that I needed them. Medicare and private health insurances do not cover hearing aids, and I just didn’t have the money.

The Hearing Loss Association of America reports that 20 percent of Americans and one in three people over 65 report some degree of hearing loss. Only 20 percent of those who could benefit from hearing aids use them. On average, they wait seven years to get them. Why? Because the cost is ridiculous, and the results are less than satisfying.

The people I went to back in 2016 wouldn’t take credit or time payments and refused to accept my answer when I said I couldn’t afford it. They sent me home with loaner hearing aids. I’m sure they thought I’d be so thrilled I’d come up with the money. Those hearing aids were not programmed for me, and they came with no instructions. I wasn’t even sure I had them in right. I could hear my clothes swishing against each other, but when I went to a poetry reading, I still couldn’t hear the readers. When I tried to talk to people, it was like talking underwater. I couldn’t wait to give them back.

But I knew hearing aids were in my future. I could tell that my hearing was getting worse. Thanks to my inheritance from my father–who should have used his money on his own hearing aids–I could buy them now. Enough with nodding and pretending to hear what I couldn’t. This was a different experience. William Beaver at Miracle-Ear was understanding, supportive, and excited about what I’d be able to hear.

The first couple days were a rush of new and remembered sounds, but on Sunday, I wanted to throw them across the room. Playing and singing with the choir at church, everything was TOO LOUD, even when I turned them down. My ears itched like crazy. At home, I was annoyed by the roar of the gas fireplace, which I thought merely hummed. The ice maker dropping ice into the tray scared me. Annie’s nails clacked on the floor. Even these computer keys made little clicking noises. Clearly, hearing aids are a mixed blessing.

I like quiet. Sitting in my backyard yesterday, I loved the songs of the birds I hadn’t heard in ages. I hated the neighbor’s motorcycle and the helicopter warming up at the nearby airport. But later, when I turned on my tablet to watch a movie, I could hear it without headphones. When I turned on the TV, I could turn the sound down from 40 to 29. With nobody else living here, how would I have known if it was crazy loud? I remember how I could hear my dad’s TV clearly from the backyard and occasionally wore earplugs if I wanted to watch it with him in the living room.

I can hear the stove timer now when it shrieks. Before, I would just get a feeling it might be going off. I can hear the washing machine chugging. If someone knocks on my door, I’m thinking I’ll hear it. This is good.

Hearing aids are not like glasses, which I have worn since age 16. With my glasses on, my vision is 20/20. You cannot get 20/20 hearing. It will never be like it was when you could hear naturally. Some sounds that wouldn’t normally be loud are exaggerated. In a crowd, the clamor is confusing.

Today’s hearing aids are infinitesimally more sophisticated than those of the past. You can program them for all kinds of special sounds. We’ll be working on getting the music part right. Right now the acoustic piano is too loud, the classical guitar sounds twangy, and my voice sounds like I’m hearing myself through a microphone, which I am. I can control volume, direction and treble or bass with an app on my phone. It’s another machine to get used to, and yet another thing to plug into a charger at night, and I’m tired of machines, but I can hear what I couldn’t hear before, and that’s good.

I probably won’t wear my hearing aids to play at church next time—the music is loud, and Fr. Joseph shouts, but when I go to that next meeting, workshop or reading, I will be delighted to hear what the others hear. When I visit the family, I will be able to hear the soft-talkers as well as the ones with big voices. The next time I take a yoga class and the teacher says to close our eyes, I’ll be able to hear when she says to open them again.

I’m sad that I have lost the good hearing I used to have and will never get it back. I don’t want to deal with any of this. Getting used to my hearing aids is frustrating. But I’m grateful I can hear so many things again.

If I seemed to be ignoring you when you spoke to me, maybe I couldn’t hear you. Try me again.

I welcome your hearing aid stories and advice.

Quick, What Pitch is the Smoke Alarm?

11464274 - fire alarmMy dryer buzzes a Bb. My oven timer sings out a high D and the microwave offers a B above middle C. The doorbell ding-dongs a pleasant F down to D, but the tea kettle, old and weary, starts at F# and tends to go flat. My house is very musical. I’ll bet yours is, too.

I’m a little nuts, but as a musician, I can’t help checking out the pitch of things I hear. I ping the crystal glass with my fingernail and find myself humming and running to the piano. What is it?!! I have pretty good relative pitch, so I am usually close, but I’m not sure until I check. It’s the D next to middle C, very pleasant. I try my ordinary water glass: A, not bad. I check the seat belt warning beeper in my car: C above middle C, very annoying. The Honda horn: a blatty G#.

I’m on a roll. Why write when you can Google stuff? It turns out there’s a science behind the sounds our possessions make. Sound engineers actually work hard to find the right sounds for the right purpose. Higher pitched sounds are more unpleasant and therefore get our attention. They’re used for alerts and alarms. A low-pitched siren would not have the same effect and might not cut through the other noises in our lives. Lower-pitched sounds are more pleasant and are used for notifications, things we want to know, but it’s not a matter of life or death.

Sound designers look for sounds that will get our attention as needed. If the house is on fire, you don’t want a low A hum. You want a shrieking high G# that will wake you up. The typical bing-bong doorbell is a pleasant interruption. But think if the notes were changed to something minor or clashing.

I have noticed that, with the exception of my tea kettle, everything is right on pitch. This is quite amazing.  picture some poor guy trying to tune an over or a dryer. No, that’s not it. Beep. Not quite. Beep. Almost. Beep! Damn, now it’s sharp.

Maybe you’re not a musician. Maybe you’re not obsessed with determining the pitch of everything you hear. Maybe you agree with the yoga sound healers online who say that if you have to know what pitch the sounds are, you’re not going with the flow. They’re probably right. I can see me jumping out of my full lotus in the middle of a session to look for a musical instrument or use the pitch pipe on my phone. It’s a Bb! Okay, we can continue.

Sound healing is a real thing. You can buy bowls, bells, and gongs that are said to affect the different chakras—energy centers along your spine. Just close your eyes and feel the vibrations. Don’t ask what note it is. It’s actually very pleasant. You can read up on sound healing at http://www.dreamweaving.com/dwalsg.htm or https://www.devpreetkaur.com/sound-healing-instruments.

But back to the sounds in our houses. Pitches are sound-wave frequencies, measured in Hertz (Hz) and Kilohertz (kHz). The human ear with normal hearing is capable of detecting sound waves from approximately 20Hz to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz). One to three kHz is said to be the sweet spot where human hearing is most sensitive.

Up until the 1950s, manufacturers didn’t have the same options for sounds that we have in our computer-operated world. Think tiny hammers hitting tiny bells in a telephone. Today’s computer-powered cell phone ring tones can be virtually anything from an old-time bell to your favorite song.

Did you know you can listen to common sounds online and even download them to use on your website, movie, or recording? You can get buzzers and beeps, a duck quacking, a dog lapping water, or the noise of a busy restaurant. Visit www.freesoundeffects.com or https://www.soundsnap.com. You can buy sounds at 123rf, the same site where I often download pictures for this blog. At YouTube, search for “common sounds” and go crazy. You might want to wear ear buds or headphones for these; they’re not very loud.

I tried to figure out what pitch Annie speaks in. We had a long song session. She was trying to tell me to leave the computer alone and take her for a walk. She started with very low sounds, but as I tried to match her tones, soon we were all over the sound spectrum. That dog has a huge range compared to my tiny human one. Having won the sing-off, she dragged me down the street for a while, where we enjoyed the whoosh of the wind, the chirp of the birds, and the bark of the neighbors’ dogs.

You might wonder if I have more important things to do. Nope. I do the research so you don’t have to. What are you hearing at your house?


Text copyright 2017 Sue Fagalde Lick, photo copyright: jerryb7 / 123RF Stock Photo


Can you find one square inch of quiet?

I’m spoiled. The place where I live is quiet. Sitting in my back yard, I hear mostly birds and the wind. Occasionally a plane or helicopter flies over from the small airport a half mile south, and sometimes I hear a truck gearing up on Highway 101. Sometimes the ocean whispers and sometimes it roars, but overall it feels quiet. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t hear as well as I used to. As noted in earlier posts, I have a measurable hearing loss typical of people my age. But in my yard, I can almost hear the quiet.

Gordon Hempton, author of a wonderful book called One Square Inch of Silence, would disagree. He would say it’s pretty good, but it’s not truly quiet here in South Beach. If he measured the sound levels here, he’d probably come up with about 35 decibels coming from cars, waves, and miscellaneous mechanical sounds that I don’t notice. When a helicopter passes over, it would go up to about 90. Wherever we live, we become accustomed to a certain level of noise: cars, lawnmowers, TVs, appliances, dogs barking, people talking, and so much more. Some of us even become uncomfortable if it’s too quiet. We reach for our iPods or turn on the TV. I confess that sometimes I sleep with the radio on.

Gordon Hempton specializes in sounds. He makes his living mostly from making and selling recordings of birds, beaches, and train whistles. But his favorite sound is no sound at all. He prefers quiet, quiet enough to hear your own footsteps or the chorus of birds that greets the new day. But quiet is hard to find. Even places billed as quiet are filled with the noise of cars, planes, trains, and people. He’s on a mission to set aside one square inch of silence in Washington’s Olympic National Park, making it a place where people don’t speak and planes don’t fly over. As part of that mission, he drove across the country to Washington, D.C. in a VW bus, measuring sounds in cities, parks and wilderness areas. His book is the story of that journey. I found the book fascinating and enjoyed the way the science is folded into an engaging story. I also learned a great deal about sound.

Did you ever think about the fact that our hearing is designed to keep us safe, that most animals depend on their ability to hear predators coming so they can react to protect themselves. Animals won’t nest where it’s too noisy because they can’t hear, Hempton says. For us people, that might mean hearing a car coming so we don’t get run over, hearing a rattlesnake before we step on it, or hearing someone knocking on the door. We need to be able to hear a baby cry or a loved one shout for help. We need to hear each other in order to communicate. Hempton says we don’t have “ear lids” because we need to be able to hear all the time.

But it’s getting to be so noisy we can’t be sure we’ll hear anything. On his travels, Hempton visited a symphony hall, the Indianapolis speedway, and a basketball game. All were so loud it was nearly impossible to converse and the sound levels were high enough to cause damage to people’s hearing. Even in many of the restaurants he visited, it was too loud to talk. The roar of conversation, kitchen noises and Muzak added up to an audio attack. Even in places where people assured him it would be quiet, places like national parks and areas deep in the wilderness, Hempton found planes flying overhead every few minutes and power plants roaring 24/7.

All of this makes me glad to live where it is relatively quiet. Of course, there’s a price to pay. Mid-morning on my street, I’m the only human around. It gets lonely. At my desk, I hear a hum from the refrigerator, I hear my computer keys clacking, I just heard a fly bounce off the window. If I pay attention, I can hear myself breathing. But as soon as I get in my car, I turn on the radio as I ease into a world of noise, a world where quiet is becoming harder every day to find.

Find out more about Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence campaign and watch a video at his website, onesquareinch.org.

I found a free app for my phone that measures sound. It rates the sound here in my office right now as a whisper. Is it quiet where you are? What kind of noises surround you? Do you notice them most of the time? Let’s talk about it in the comments. Quietly.

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