Inhuman Swill : February 2000

Just got back from the doctor's office, and through the miracle of medieval medical science I can hear again!

I am, as Dr. Kong terms it, "a little waxy." "I am too," he said. "Some people have no wax at all. It's amazing. But you and me . . . like a beehive."

I try to swab regularly, and when things get a little too clogged, I use some Debrox ear drops to dissolve the wax. (It makes a pleasant little cracklings sound in the ear, like Rice Krispies, and the drops sometimes foam right out of the ear canal.)

Last Friday morning, though, I was swabbing and I guess I went a little too deep in my left ear. Tamped the stuff right down, like tobacco in a briar pipe. Even the Debrox, applied twice a day since Friday, didn't make a dent.

The last four days have been extraordinarily annoying. It's amazing how much we take our hearing for granted. I could hear non-directional environmental sounds just fine, but if someone walked up to me on my left side and started talking, I'd have to tack around like a schooner to understand.

Also, my left ear is my telephone ear, since the telephone is to my left on my desk at work. Inevitably, I would put the phone to my left ear, realize I couldn't make out what was being said, and then have to stretch the cord awkwardly across the keyboard over to my right ear.

I had several social engagements during those four days, too, including Laura and I having dinner and drinks with a really interesting couple we don't know very well, and whom I still don't know very well, because I had a lot of trouble following the conversation in the loud Lower East Side restaurant.

The stereo sound on my headphones at work was decidedly right-channel-heavy too, and I missed some of the lyrics I was unfamiliar with at the "Weird Al" Yankovic concert I attended at the Beacon Theater on Sunday night. Bummer.

It's been hell in meetings here at the office too, but the worst was to realize that thanks to the ear problem I was not very well attuned to danger on the street. We rely not just on simple hearing, but on directional hearing for a whole lot of cues about our environments, as you discover when your sense of hearing is impaired.

Anyway, I made an appointment with the doctor this morning to have him look at my ear. Dr. Kong pulled out his trusty speculum and stuck it in his ear and said, "I can't see much of anything in there. Too much wax."

Yeah, exactly.

"We're going to have to flush that out and see what's what," said Dr. Kong. He left the room and returned with what I can only describe as an instrument of medieval torture.

Okay, I'll try to be more specific than that. He returned with a stainless steel "ear syringe," which looks like an oversized cake decorating tool—long fat barrel, tapering snout, big-as-heck plunger with circular grips for the fingers. Wait, you're putting that thing in my ear? I thought this was the year 2000!

But I trust Dr. Kong, so I didn't complain. He had me take off my sweater and put on a protective gown, then he piled some paper towels on my shoulder. He handed me a small kidney-shaped stainless-steel trough. "Hold this against the side of your neck for me, just below the ear," he said. "We don't want this going everywhere."

What? Blood and tissue? It looked like the tray in which he would deposit the cartilege of my outer ear after he blasted it from my skull.

Dr. Kong donned a long protective apron, drew plenty of warm tap water into the syringe, placed the cold snout into my ear canal, took up a riveter's stance, and said, "This is going to feel a little weird."

Like it didn't already.

Then he slammed in with the plunger.

Weird was right. It felt like sand blasting my inner ear. The pressure differential between the two sides of my ear made me feel as though I'd sucked a bunch of water into my sinus cavity, and my teeth ached like I was hearing fingernails on a chalkboard. The water felt like it was coming in rapid short bursts. Then the water ran out, and Dr. Kong refueled and did it again.

I could hear the water, of course, but dully. And then, miraculously, on the third or fourth dose, there was a sound like rocks sliding over each other and suddenly I heard the water—a firehose in my ear, a white-water rapid, a Niagara Falls. Dr. Kong removed the syringe and I said, like a healed believer at a revival, "I can hear!"

"Look at this," said Dr. Kong, taking the trough from my shoulder.

I won't describe the water in the trough, except to say that it was really unpleasant to look at.

"Ugh," I said.

Dr. Kong peered through the speculum. "There's still more. Hang on."

A couple more blasts and the doctor declared me clean. Whereas the first batch of watery sludge was light brown and silty (okay, I couldn't help describing it), this time what he dumped into the sink was chunky and black, like rotted pencil erasers. I couldn't believe all that gunk actually fit in my ear canal.

But now I can hear. I'm sitting here with my headphones on, listening to Jim Hall's Concierto, recorded in 1975 with Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Ron Carter, and Steve Gadd. Bliss. Every note is sharp and clear and sweet. I'm walking around with a huge grin on my face. I'm asking people to talk into my left ear.

I am healed. And all with an instrument that looks like something Torquemada would have had fun with. Amazing.

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