Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tommy, Can You Hear Me?*

At what point, exactly, did I become a senior citizen?

Okay, that might be pushing it a little. I likely have at least a quarter century of life before grown-up diaper era begins. But still....

I'm in Baltimore this week meeting with a major manufacturer with whom my company has an ongoing licensing relationship. It's a relationship we've had for 20 years, and I visit here every couple of years to visit the brand managers and meet other licensing partners who also have partnerships with the mother corporation.

This manufacturer is one that keeps its marketing group very young in both chronological age and spirit. There are half a dozen of them that form the interface for all us partners. ONe of other brand partners from the west coast and I were ruefully wondering where this company puts employees when they turn 50....we sure can't see any around. The brand managers I worked with 20 years ago, although they're said to still be with the company, are nowhere to be seen anymore. Perhaps it's because they've been promoted to higher profile jobs. Maybe, but there is also the uncomfortable hunch that older workers are kept out of sight simply because....well, because they're old.

At dinner tonight with all 11 of the branding partners from around the globe, I realize that whereas yesterday (20 years ago) I was a young kid on the block, today has dawned and I'm now the fellow talking knowledgeably about what is like to have grown children. I find myself treated with the deference that young people offer their elders. Whoa, how did this happen?

I don't really FEEL all that much older, but the evidence is all around me. The corporate colleagues who I once drank with late into the night have now gone on to....other places. I don't really want to drink with these...youngsters.

I may well be the only person in the room who has clear memories of the day JFK was killed. The brand manager across the table vaguely remembers being in highschool when the space shuttle Challenger blew up on take off. He says this, outright. He says this the way our kids will mention the world trade center towers.

At the evening meal, I found myself again cocking my head and looking directly at folks as they speak around the dinner table. I have had this mannerism for a long time. This gives me the appearance of being whimsically interested in what everybody has to say, but the truth is that this is what allows me to follow conversations, what with my advancing deafness. Looking at people directly as they speak allows me the visual cues that comes with amateur lip-reading, and cocking my head, I find, creates a kind of stereo effect that clarifies speech for me in noisy places. If I can't see people's lips as they speak, I no longer understand them at all, and I wind up nodding and smiling, and hoping they haven't asked a question that requires a direct answer. When the mental effort becomes too great, I take a break and go to the lobby to check E-mails and text messages. I'm not that important, really, but it gives me an excuse to take a break from trying to hear.

In truth, this deafness is not a matter of age, really, though it has certainly become worse over time. I was only 15 when they identified some pronounced hearing deficits, but it is only now, with the financial obligations of raising kids just about done, that I can finally do something about it. Hearing aids are damn expensive. It just wasn't an option while I was paying for kid's braces, for college tuition. I have, I'm told, about 40% of normal hearing over much of the audio spectrum, so it is long overdue. It's also somewhat a matter of consideration for others, as I'm quite sure my work staff and family will greatly appreciate me being able to hear.

It does make me feel old, to be subscribing to assisted hearing. My dad was just eqipped with hearing aids recently, and he is 78. But my final session at the audiologist last week——the session where I actually got to wear hearing aids for the first time-- put a whole new light on the issue. I tried several different models in live action tests, and a couple of times found my eye welling up with emotion at what I was hearing.

It was a stunning revelation. I felt like a partially blind man suddenly given eye glasses. I had no idea the world sounded so nice, so crystalline. Nor did I know that simple conversations could be something other than a strain and a challenge. For decades now, virtually every conversation has been a source of tension, because it takes considerable mental effort and focus simply to understand. I have greatly preferred phone calls to in-person conversation, for example, because my phones have volumes controls that can be turned up to let me hear.

My new hardware arrives next Tuesday. Old I might be, but soon I'll hear again, in a manner I've not known since I was a teenager.