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Marietta Pritchard: Now hear this

What she was telling me in slightly euphemistic language was that I could use a hearing aid.

This pleasant woman was Tomma Henckel, audiologist at the UMass Center for Language, Speech and Hearing, where I had gone to have my ears checked. I’d noticed a bit of a hearing problem, but though it was annoying, it didn’t seem all that serious — having to lean farther over the table to hear a friend at lunch in a restaurant, occasionally asking people to repeat a sentence, some trouble catching what was being said on the other side of the tennis court, not hearing young people in a classroom, not catching our choral conductor’s jokes.

Oh well, I had been thinking — and hoping it was true — chalk that up to loud music in restaurants, people not speaking clearly, the boom and echo of an indoor tennis facility, the speed of youth speech, the understated subtlety of a witty man.

No, said the pleasant woman, don’t chalk it up to those things; rather, put the chalk squarely where it belongs — in my own diminished and perhaps diminishing hearing.

It was not the most serious blow that can come to a person in her eighth decade, but it knocked me back a bit nonetheless. And so I did what I usually do in such situations — I began doing research. Mostly that’s involved talking to people who have the dreaded devices. I already know about one variety at more or less firsthand, since my husband has been using hearing aids for the past year. Well, not exactly using them, more like avoiding them. To put it bluntly, they drive him nuts.

As my neighbor at a particularly loud dinner explained to me recently, though hearing aids are now small and computerized, these devices are still pretty crude. They mainly amplify everything and have not yet started sorting foreground from background noise the way our ears and brains can do. He was an engineer and had already removed his hearing aids in the din of a reunion of old friends who’d had a few drinks.

It’s probable that I come by this affliction honestly, since my father lost a good deal of his hearing before his death at age 92. It was hard on him as well as the rest of us because he was a man who enjoyed nuanced thought and conversation, and it was frustrating to be speaking to him in words of one syllable. Like many others, he did not like his hearing aids. Putting them in or adjusting them was especially difficult since he suffered from a strong tremor in his hands. And like my husband, he often chose not to wear his amplification.

As I ponder the question of what to do next, I’ve been rereading David Lodge’s high-spirited and laugh-out-loud novel, “Deaf Sentence.” You guessed it, the hero, a retired professor of linguistics, is hearing-impaired. And naturally, this leads to complicated results: A misheard conversation at a party gets him into an unintended assignation with a young woman, and the plot thickens from there on. But in the midst of describing his hero’s various blunders and embarrassments, Lodge manages to convey a fair amount of information about deafness and the people who suffer from it.

I learned, for instance, that there is something known as the Lombard reflex, which we are all familiar with but probably never knew had a name — the tendency to speak more loudly in a loud environment. I also learned that the hero (and author, I assume), suffers, along with me, from what’s called high-frequency deafness, which means he was missing consonants, and that often resulted in mis-hearings that amounted to rhymes. Consonants, he explains, are voiced at a higher frequency than vowels, but it’s the consonants that we depend on for meaning.

He quotes from “Alice in Wonderland”: “ ‘Did you say pig or fig?’ said the Cat. ‘I said pig,’ replied Alice.” It could be, comments Lodge, that the Cheshire Cat was a bit deaf.

So there you are, or rather, here I am, trying to decide what to do next. Most likely I will return to the audiology clinic, get educated about the various choices among these devices, and, yes, most likely submit to amplification.

Marietta Pritchard can be reached at mppritchard@comcast.net.

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