Reel Life

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Losing One's Senses

Losing one's senses without losing one's senses.

I watched the classic comedy HARVEY last week and was reminded of the rigors and losses of old age. I was worried when I felt my own deafness coming between me and the rest of the world. I anticipated sitting around with an ear horn bigger than my head. But as if by magic, modern hearing aids reconnected me. I barely miss my original ears, other than hooks to hang my glasses from. I now have two pairs of aids and several sets of bifocals and trifocals to help me find them and the tiny batteries that power them. Enabling my hearing is far easier now than it was a few generations ago when my father and both my grandmothers struggled with it.

At first, I made the mistake of buying small, transparent hearing aids that no one, including me, could spot. Now I want people to see my hearing aids so they will speak up and I can hear them more clearly. With my hearing aids and the acoustics in my private inner office, I can hear impeccably (except on a cell phone.) With my trifocals, I can see at any range. But even then, I can't hear conversation, no matter how loud, no matter how close, if there is a television set somewhere on that block.

If there is not only a television set, but one that has angry news commentators who are either paranoid, manic, or in a foul mood, I'm glad to be deaf. Or if some hyperactive teenaged weightlifter tunes the radio at the health club to Heavy Metal, I dive for the radio mute button before the teenagers get there. I fear they will turn it up to attack force and blow out the delicate machines in my ears. The use of television as background noise is a quite different matter from filling the background with Mozart, Haydn, Hank Williams or Ella Fitzgerald, i.e. civilized sound screens that structure the brain.

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Fortunately I can hear the symphony, except for the violins and flutes, of course. But I can also hear strange people far away in the balcony whispering over the Beethoven. I try to sidestep movies about people blowing things up. I loved HURT LOCKER , which was as real as dirt and blood while, by contrast, AVATAR, with its cartoonish colors and sounds and all that unnecessary unreality, was just childish. In HURT LOCKER, the tension was enormous but few of the anticipated bombs ever blew up in my face or in my ears, and I thank the HURT LOCKER people for that.

I grew up expecting my hearing problems. My father was far deafer by my age. He ran a cotton mill where he was always being barraged by heavy machinery and the workmen screaming to get his attention. By contrast, in my job I only have to take in the human sounds of those who feel imperfectly married or parented.

Before the advent of television, we came to life with our conversations with one another. Then in the 60's, TV came in and we deeply missed the silence that preceded it. Dad, accustomed to noise, kept three TVs blaring with a different baseball game on each. It was only recently that I realized how much concentration it takes for the deaf to look as if they are listening. Dad learned the hard way: His mother, Gran Pittman, was quite deaf, which worked well for her, as she was an undertaker. But Gran was also the organist, and like Beethoven, she lost the ability to hear even her own music. It was intermittently loud at the funeral home, but it did not wake the dead.

Across the street, Grandmother Boyd had been deaf most of her life. She edited the town's newspaper and preferred reading to listening. She had abandoned efforts to drive a car after "the Assault." According to family mythology, Grandmother got behind the wheel of a car only once in her life, back in 1915. She set forth in her new topless car to take my 6-year-old mother to school. Grandmother failed to hear the horse coming up on her. The horse was at least as disoriented as Grandmother, as the mighty beast leaped into the open back seat. From then on, into her 80s, Grandmother walked half a mile to the newspaper office each day, but she never again got behind the wheel of a car.

Horses are rarely seen in back seats of cars these days, even in Griffin, Georgia, but Grandmother continued to be impressed with people intrepid enough to take that risk. She wore an enormous hearing aid, the size of a double deck of canasta cards, hanging on a silk cord. Her late husband was Baptist, and Grandmother went to the Baptist Church once. She never returned and said the fire and brimstone talk made her nervous. When she had to go to her husband's funeral, she flipped the switch on her chunky aid and listened, in silence, to the sweet and familiar and Episcopalian hymns in her head.

All of us, as we lose our senses, seek ways to accommodate unless we just decide to stop listening or stop the ongoing comment about the events transpiring around us. Gran, the organ playing grandmother, brought her grandfather to live with us in his last days. "The Old Gentleman" as he was called, just sat in his overstuffed chair at the front bay window and watched the world go by without help or comment from him. One afternoon when I was 6, I was "babysitting" the Old Gentleman. As I sat beside him, he dropped the bolus of fire from his pipe down into the stuffings of his chair. It began to smolder and smoke and stink and The Old Gentleman showed no signs of hearing or seeing or smelling.

I didn't know what to do. I tried calling for Gran, who was busy at the organ at that moment, so I took the glass of beer on the table beside him and poured it into his smoking chair. Afterwards, the Old Gentleman did not know how his chair got wet. My words of explanation were just so much babble to him. He not only couldn't see or hear, he could barely smell. I was disappointed that I got fussed at for spilling the beer rather than praised for saving the Old Gentleman himself. I just wanted someone to notice my act of heroism. I was just a kid. It never came.

Grandmother Boyd lived across the garden from her Cousin Karo, who didn't hear a lot better than Grandmother, but was more concerned with the darkening of her vision. Cousin Karo hated the dark, and offered to brighten the fine old oil landscapes in Grandmother's upstairs hall. We don't know what Cousin Karo said to Grandmother or what Grandmother thought she had said, but Karo got an easel and a set of artist's oil paints. She touched up each of the landscapes with such brightly colored strokes they looked just like Disney cartoons. Both Karo and Grandmother were thrilled and proud. This was the way the world had looked to them in gentler times. Karo and Grandmother were so proud they offered to "restore" the other darkened Old Master paintings around the neighborhood.

Of course there are some people who recoil from the sights and sounds and smells that come on too strong for them. They seek a low level of impact with the world.
In the 1950 movie HARVEY, Jimmy Stewart's imaginary buddy is a 6 foot 3 inch invisible rabbit with magical powers. Harvey, as the rabbit is called, can stop a clock, permitting people to go wherever they like, with whomever they wish, and stay as long as they want and no one can object. Stewart explains Harvey's power to cautious old psychiatrist Cecil Kellaway, who muses on the matter and decides that of all the places on earth, he would most prefer to go to Akron. He would sit under a grove of maple trees with "a strange woman, a silent woman, a gentle woman who would mop his brow, bring him cold beer, and whisper to him for two weeks: "Poor thing, poor, poor thing."

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a psychiatrist/family therapist in Atlanta., author, international lecturer and film critic.

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