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Art Lee: ‘Huh? Whajasay? Talk louder so we can understand you!’

Back in high school my older brother enjoyed telling this particular joke:   “So there were these three elderly British gentleman riding together on a train heading for London. As the train slowed down while going through a small city, the first one looked out the window and said to the other two:  ‘Could this be Wembley?’  The second man replied, ‘No, it’s Thursday.’  The third man then added: ‘Thirsty?  So am I. Let’s have a drink.’”  End of story. My brother and I — and most listeners — thought the joke was funny then. Today?  Not so much. Times change and change us.

As kids, when we would be at some public gathering and when there was someone speaking, it was common for our one frustrated neighbor to interrupt the speaker by his near-shouting “Huh? Whajasay? Talk louder so we can understand you!”  Our childhood reaction to his predicament was to find him half-amusing, half annoying. However, even then we had some grudging acceptance of his plight as afterall, our neighbor was an old man. Almost 50! But why doesn’t he just listen harder?  Isn’t that the solution?  Listen up!? Nope. Only many years later, as older adults ourselves, we remember those complaining/pleading words of our neighbor, but this time view them as appropriate because now we can fully identify with his frustrations.


My brother would now likely change his opinion; his old joke would be less funny because today he wears not one but two hearing aids. And my other brother uses two hearing aids. My late sister wore two; I wear only one —for now. Enter genetics into explaining the problem as this inheritance- trait has not been kind to our family for three genertions.  My mother began losing her hearing before she turned 25. As little children we were taught to look at Mom directly when we spoke and to talk loudly and slowly. All these pre-talk requirements would be necessary for her entire lifetime. Essentially she read lips as much as heard words.  Multiple hearing aids over the years did allow my mother limited communication connections but by the time of her passing (at age 96), she had found it most difficult to hear anyone or anything. For her (and later for us) hearing loss was and is “all in the family.”

My Mom was one of eight children (her father was a Lutheran Pastor) and only one of her seven siblings maintained good hearing throughout her lifetime. All the others had severe hearing impairments and one of her brothers became totally deaf before age 20. Back then the word “stapendectomy” did not require us kids to pick up a dictionary; we already knew the meaning because  ear operations were  a common family experience — and still are. (One of our daughters has already had one.)  At Mom’s family reunions we attended, there was also considerable sign-language occuring amid other high decibal conversations.


Loss of hearing is “sneaky” and, unfortunately, “steady.”  Hearing does not get better, of course, as one ages; it gets worse. At some point along this path, one realizes and has to admit that the fault is not those other people mumbling so softly, it is simply you who can’t hear well. This initial grudging admittance leads to decision-making heretofore never considered. Your social life changes.  For example, planning to attend some public lectures now depends less on the topic under consideration but whether the speaker can expected to be heard and understood. Attendance at public gatherings often depends on getting a seat near the front. And always the concern anywhere: How good is the sound-system?  Going out in public becomes a constant challenge that sometimes works and often not, e.g. trying to be present to enjoy a three-act play has sometimes led to leaving the theater after the first act ends. Alas, for all of the aforementioned planned gatherings, and many more, it’s always too easy beforehand to make the decision to just stay home.

Having a spouse who is having the same hearing problems actually has its merits only because each person understands the predicament of the other. It’s also easier to laugh at some of the goofs created by the one “listener” missing just one or two words, e.g. the husband who said:  “The fishin’ is great,” and the wife responding: “What’s this about Michigan State?”  Of course too many missed words —and botched conversations — can result in annoyance, with each party secretly wishing the other one’s hearing aid was working better.

For the hearing impaired who go away from home, there’s a too common situation that is part deceit, part charade, part mime-at-work.  For example, while walking down the street,  a person on the other side of the street recognizes you and hollers something at you that you cannot understand. You have not the foggiest notion of what that person has said. Maybe he’s telling you that you are the dumbest cluck who ever walked the planet. Who knows?  Whatever, your “response” to this missed wording is just to wave back and nod your head in agreement and smile and move on and wonder what in the world that was all about. Probably the person who made the comment is wondering if you are suffering from insanity or enjoying it.


It is not unusual to meet someone who spies your hearing-aid and says: “I’ve got one of those, too.”  And then the question:  “Where is it?  I can’t see it.”  Answer (after his Whadjasay?):  “Oh, I don’t wear it anymore. It’s back home in the dresser drawer. Never could get that damn little thing to work right. I gave up on it.”  (That “damn little thing” in his drawer cost him $3,000.)

There is only one time that I have experienced when lack of hearing is beneficial  —and it’s a stretch of an illustration. However, It happens in a location and situation where it’s crowded and everything and everyone around you are loud and getting louder and the decibel count starts heading off the chart to the point where even those near you are covering their hurting ears for protection. People then don’t talk; they shout!  Compounding the non-hearing problem is a sound system from the ceiling that pounds forth screaming, canned, alleged music played by 44 electric guitars, each trying to out loud the others. The result?  Painful misery. It is then when one can move the pointer- finger back to the ear, push one little button on the hearing aid, and then the blaring, deafening cacaphony enveloping your head and cowering body instantly becomes calm and quiet again. Just sit back and smile. Ahhhhh, in the middle of Armagedon, Blessed Silence.

P.S. So how should one respond to life’s setbacks? What should one do/not do? Are there simple solutions? Nope. Are there answers?  Yes. Several.  My personal “answer” (and for many others) came many years ago in a strange way and under odd circumstances. I was home on vacation from college and we were playing a family-game of Whist (is there any other card game that Norwegian-American families play?). The cards being dealt to me were terrible and I kept continuously and loudly grousing about my hands — “Oh poor me” — until finally my father must have gotten tired of listening to his whiny kid. He leaned over toward me and said quietly but very firmly: “Don’t complain about the cards you get. Complaining does no good. Just do the best you can with whatever you’re given.”  To date, that simple metaphor, with its obvious ramifications, continues to serve many of us well.