What I Hear

Life with hearing loss

The Walking Deaf

Look around you. And let your mind wander.

For many years, my favorite form of exercise was a long walk, usually two or three miles a day. I live near a park and there’s a perfect 3-mile loop, which helps keep me going to the end point and back.

From time to time I have had a walking partner, someone I would usually meet at a fixed point along the way. We’d walk and chat, and the time passed quickly. I had two walking partners in fact, one in the city and one in the country. Both walked at my pace and both had lots to say and because we were in motion conversation came easily. (Have you ever noticed how much more voluble your teenagers are in the car than when you try to talk to them at home.) For a while I walked with a friend who was recovering from cancer, more slowly but still lots of good talk.

When a walking partner wasn’t available, I listened to books or music. Mostly books. The very first recorded book I listened to was Moby Dick. As you can imagine, even at three miles a day (about 50 minutes) it took months to finish Moby Dick. But I couldn't wait to get back to it in the morning, even when I was in the long section about different types of whales and whaling, and I rarely missed my walk. I also listened to Anna Karenina, a book I had read when I was young and found intensely romantic. This time around I had far less sympathy for Anna, who seemed like a classic narcissist. Sometimes I listened to Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard and found myself laughing out loud.

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 But then I went deaf. Or, more accurately, deafer. I no longer could year with headphones. Around the same time, my walk partners dropped away for one reason or another and so I was often left walking alone with my thoughts. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I’d even take a notepad along in case I thought something particularly brilliant.

 But thinking – brilliant thoughts or not – was not enough to get me out day after day. So I got a dog, a puppy. Suddenly I was walking four or five or six times a day. As he got older we resumed my long morning walk, with shorter ones in between. I still have plenty of thinking time, but now I have a reason to go the whole three miles. The dog would happily go five or six and I can rarely persuade him to turn around and go back before the 1.5 mile mark.

A dog prompts ad-hoc conversations and despite my hearing loss I’ve made new friends and a slew of new acquaintances. It’s always easier to hear in the open air, and sometimes we strike up conversations sitting on a bench at the dog park, sometimes while the dogs romp, sometimes just a wave and a hello. 

Now that I'm one of the Walking Deaf, I’m much more in touch with people – and the environment -- around me, no longer isolated by my headphones. I miss the recorded books but it’s more than made up for by new friends, dogs, cherry trees in the spring, bare branches glittering with ice in the winter, sitting on a park bench with a casual acquaintance in the heat of the summer. And by the creativity and intellectual energy all that thinking engenders. I may be deaf but I'm more alive mentally than I ever was when I could hear. 

 

Katherine Bouton, a former editor at The New York Times, is the author of Shouting Won't Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can't Hear You.

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