Ben Tanzer

The Sound of Metal and the Failure of a Narrative Wrapped in a Failure of Sound

"Tidens naturlære" (Nature of time) 1903 by Poul la Cour, Ill. 40. [public domain]

Ben Tanzer continues exploring the many facets of “failure.” In “The Sound of Metal and the Failure of a Narrative Wrapped in a Failure of Sound,” he looks at hearing loss. 

 

There is a moment, a series of moments really, early in the movie the Sound of Metal, where Riz Ahmed’s character Ruben is plunged into and out of silence, and the experience is violent, an otherworldly violation of his personal space, an assault on his senses, and ours, the sheer intensity of the quiet approaching a kind of horror.

And how couldn’t it?

Ruben’s very being revolves around his role as a drummer in a punk band.

He is a pulsing, tensile vessel for the band’s music, primed and shaped to produce sound.

Loud sound.

But then those jagged moments of silence enter the picture and Ruben doesn’t know what’s happening, only that his grasp of sound is first inconsistent, then, not at all.

He is cut off from the world as he knows it.

It is a failure of his body to produce what most of us take for granted, the ability to hear.

It is also an assault on Ruben’s identity.

What else is Ruben if not the guy who drums loudly?

~~~

My wife Debbie and I are sitting in a fancy office on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.

We may be holding hands.

We do that.

The office is neat, light.

Nice couches and chairs.

Blonde hardwood floors.

An aquarium.

It’s peaceful.

The windows offer a view of a city packed with buildings that climb into space.

The staff is young. Everyone is young now.

Also, blonde.

Smiling.

We’re not smiling, we’re worried, though in the dissociative way one worries when one knows something seems to be wrong, though not exactly what or why.

“This is what we want to see,” the doctor at the center sitting across the desk from us finally says pointing to Debbie’s chart.

There are two lines, one red, one blue, running horizontally across the page in front of us.

“This,” she says pointing to my chart, “is a concern.”

Looking at a chart I’ve never seen before, written in a language I don’t recognize, ensures that I have no idea why anything in front of me is a concern.

That said, I knew I needed to come here in the first place.

I had concerns.

And here we are.

The tagline for the center is, “Changing Lives since 1984.”

We’ll see.

What I know is that the lines on my chart start off running horizontally as well, but at some point drop precipitously down the page, in tandem, and in freefall, and that can’t be good.

~~~

After being asked to leave my long-time job—“redundant” I was informed, as in I am, or was—I believed that I would go out in the world and keep doing cool, if not great things.

I’m accustomed to doing cool, if not great things.

That’s ego speaking, and privilege, though also the reality of a good professional run.

It just didn’t work out that way, not at first.

There are a lot of reasons for this.

Some of it was not being as sophisticated or as good at some things as I thought I was: managing databases or crafting marketing plans. Some of it was the type of work I started doing, writing newsletters and press releases, which took me away from the things I enjoyed and excelled at: facilitation, strategizing, training, idea-making.

It was also possible that I’d grown tired of offices and bosses.

Though maybe that was always a thing, and it was the narrative I had wrong. That what is more accurate, is that I had a need to be in an office, have structure, regular paychecks, predictability. It was never quite natural, but something I adapted to so I could have the stability I believed I wanted and probably did.

Plus, I really had worked at a place, Prevent Child Abuse America, where the work was important to me and most of the people I worked with over the years were pretty great.

But even as I found new work, I couldn’t find a similar feeling of fulfillment or joy.

That wasn’t all, though.

There was also confusion.

I suddenly could not quite understand what people wanted from me.

I assumed it had something to do with all of these other reasons.

The inability to find a mission that truly excited me.

A poor match for my skills.

Not finding people I liked.

My own desire to just be elsewhere doing my own thing.

All of that felt true to me, and I decided to stop chasing the next big full-time thing and look for small, cool opportunities focused on training, branding, strategizing, teaching.

Stepping back, at least in the short-term, meant being home a lot more, which meant a lot more time where Debbie and I were in the same space, and I quickly noticed I was having problems following things we were talking about. And not only with Debbie, but our boys as well. Debbie and the boys talk fast and cover a lot of topics in a rapid flow of words and stories, but this had never seemed like much of a thing to me.

It was now, though, and I was feeling confused.

I was also feeling a little crazy, something I had started to feel on these jobs I took but didn’t want to acknowledge.

That I didn’t expect to feel this way at home made sense to me. I was experiencing a mid-work crisis, not a mid-life crisis. I wasn’t interested in leaving my family, finding someone new, needing space, or a cool car. I had no interest in disrupting my personal life, work was not working, and that needed to be addressed.

But now things weren’t working anywhere, and I had to wonder whether I had forgotten how to concentrate or be attentive?

I also wondered if I was broken in some way.

~~~

It doesn’t much matter what kind of world we construct for ourselves, or what kind of narrative we’ve constructed about ourselves if things fall apart.

Which they will.

How we put them back together, though, is everything.

Ruben is an addict.

Ruben has constructed a world that allows him to manage his addictions.

We don’t see what it looked like before he got sober.

But we see what is required of him to stay sober as he awakens in his Airstream tour bus.

The ritual, habit, and repetition.

The regimentation.

The intensity of his morning exercise.

The attention to detail and precision as he prepares his healthy breakfast and shake.

His focus when he makes love to his partner, the lead singer of the band.

How they move on to a new city.

Play the next show, and the one after that, selling merch, doing sound checks.

Rinse, repeat.

It’s idyllic in its way.

Controlled.

Safe.

It works.

He works.

Until Ruben suddenly can’t hear.

When it all blows up.

I know all that.

I don’t know addiction; but not hearing, shit blowing up, watching your narrative self-destruct, and realizing that the structure and control you’ve needed for so long now fail you?

I got that.

It’s not as dramatic as Ruben’s experience, but my life isn’t a movie.

And I’m not Riz Ahmed.

~~~

As Debbie and I stare at our charts, the doctor says to me, “You’re suffering from significant hearing loss. It’s not an issue of volume or low-pitched sounds, but high-pitched ones, such as women’s or children’s voices.”

“What would cause this?” Debbie and I both ask.

“I’m going to need to run some more tests,” the doctor says, “there could be some structural or physical issues, or a virus, which we can address. But it may just be that the little hairs in your ears that carry sound are damaged, and that might just be age.”

Huh.

I knew something was wrong as soon as I sat down in the little room where we were taking our hearing tests. I’m not even sure you would call it a room. It was more of a glass box or a container. I wore headphones. I was on one side of the window, trapped, staring at Debbie and the doctor waiting for someone to do or say something, anything.

We started with a test where I had to listen for beeps of different pitches and volumes that were coming at me from all directions.

Is direction even the right word?

That’s the thing, what is hearing and what does one even know about how it works?

Or maybe everyone knows how hearing works and I don’t?

The funny thing about losing something is that, for most of us, we assume everything will work as it always has and should. We take that for granted, and if we don’t think about what actually needs to work to do what we want to do, we certainly don’t know how things work before they become damaged and start to fail us.

I once knew that I wanted to run, and so I did and still do, and I took for granted what it was like not to have arthritic knees. It was something I didn’t have to think about. I got out of bed, put my running shoes on, walked out of the house, and ran like the wind. Unbridled and pain-free. When I run now, or even when I merely wake up, my knees are all I think about, every step a potential jolt of fire that shuts down my brain.

When things fall apart, though, we become experts, at least about ourselves and our problems. And so, hearing. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “Hearing depends on a series of complex steps that change sound waves in the air into electrical signals. Our auditory nerve then carries these signals to the brain.”

Sound waves to electrical signals.

More distinctly, it looks something like this:

  1. Sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through a narrow passageway called the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum.
  2. The eardrum vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear.
  3. The bones in the middle ear amplify, or increase, the sound vibrations and send them to the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure filled with fluid, in the inner ear.
  4. Once the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling wave forms along the basilar membrane. Hair cells—sensory cells sitting on top of the basilar membrane—ride the wave. Hair cells near the wide end of the snail-shaped cochlea detect higher-pitched sounds, such as an infant crying.
  5. As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections bend and this bending causes pore-like channels to open up and chemicals rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal.
  6. The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain, which turns it into a sound that we recognize and understand.

Which is to say, that a lot has to go right for hearing to work.

Then again, a lot has to go right for most things to work.

~~~

This is not the first time I sat in a container like this. When my son Myles was two and a half we were concerned about his speech. We had a specialist from the state come to the house to test him and I wrote the essay “Underwater” from my essay collection Lost in Space:

“What might have caused this?” we ask. “What could we have done differently?”

“I’m not sure,” she says, “a child who speaks like this would have no matter what. It might have something to do with the earaches, though.”

“Why the earaches?” we ask, thinking about all the times it took us a couple of days to realize he had one.

“It’s like he’s been underwater when you have been speaking to him,” she says.

In the essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris talks about having to attend speech therapy as a child. The speech therapist makes it her goal to get him to say a word that starts with “s” so that they can work on his lisp. He refuses to do so, doing everything in his linguistic powers to use words that are similar to those she wants him to say, but don’t begin with “s.” The speech therapist finally breaks down and, as she cries, she tells him that she feels like she has failed. Sedaris says, “Sorry,” and the therapist smiles, before saying, “Gotcha.”

Speech problems exist as one “gotcha” after another.

We are all in a battle with ourselves to own language and say things as we wish to say them. But our brains are all too happy to fail us and, when they do, we have lost something profound: the chance to express ourselves.

Myles still had to receive a hearing test, though, not unlike what I’m doing now. I also wrote about that:

It turns out that Myles needs to receive a hearing test at Illinois Masonic. This had not been discussed during the assessment, and we wonder whether we should be concerned. A hearing test for a two-and-a-half-year-old is a big deal, isn’t it?

I don’t want to be worried, nor do I want to be selfish, but I do want Myles to be fine, and I want him to do whatever he will do as unencumbered as possible. We go to Illinois Masonic and are greeted by the audiologist. We are led into a soundproof room with a big window. On either side of the window are speakers with stuffed animals on top of them, one a gorilla with a drum, the other a teddy bear. The audiologist stands on one side of the window and looks in on us. I sit in a chair in the back and Myles sits on Debbie’s lap in a chair in front of me. I begin to feel sick. What if something is truly wrong? The test starts and the sounds begin. There are different tones, pitches, and volume, and Myles catches every one of them, high, low, left, or right, saying “there” and pointing in the appropriate direction each time he identifies where he has heard something. Myles’ response in turn prompts the corresponding stuffed animal to jump up and down, or clap its hands, actions I am repeatedly tempted to take myself.

Myles didn’t have a hearing problem.

We were relieved, it was one less challenge for him.

Debbie reminds me that, as I sat in the room with them, I struggled to follow the beeps.

I have no memory of this.

~~~

Let’s say one was only dealing with hearing loss, which is to say you suddenly can’t hear as well as you once did.

That would be a challenge.

Let’s say, in my case, my hearing challenges are related to high pitches, which, for example, can take the form of a doorbell. Which I don’t have. Or women and children’s voices. Which I do. I spend most of my time with Debbie and our two children. This was already heightened by working at home. But with a pandemic, it’s been endemic to my nights and days.

That is problematic enough, especially when the people I live with don’t talk slow, make eye contact, stay in the room as they speak, or confirm I know they want to converse with me.

A specialist told me recently that any of this could be challenging, but that the connection between the brain and hearing brings additional challenges.

For example, say I can’t hear a specific word, my brain will get stuck trying to figure out that word, and only that word, which means I can’t make sense of anything else being said. My brain has to understand what that word is at the expense of everything else. I can ask someone to repeat themselves, but that doesn’t matter, I will not be able to make sense of it.

My brain has failed me at that point, and I find myself on a path that I cannot exit.

What I have to do is ask people to rephrase the word I can’t translate, freeing my brain to hear differently.

That’s not all of it, though.

There are other concerns associated with hearing loss. As Carson Hearing Care shares on their website, one must also be concerned with:

  • Cognitive Decline—There are connections between hearing loss and memory loss. The brain continually encounters sound, filters it, and comes to count on this interaction. But when you start to lose your hearing, the lack of stimuli stresses the brain and can bring about a cognitive decline, raising the risk of dementia.
  • Mental Health Problems—People struggling with hearing loss have a tough time communicating with others, and they can stop trying to do so when they can’t effectively communicate, which leads to psychological strain and possibly depression.
  • Relationship Issues—35 percent of people with hearing loss have trouble maintaining relationships, with 37 percent of women reporting frustration that someone with hearing loss wasn’t listening to them, and 35 percent of men only agreeing to seek treatment when pressed to do so by their partners.

Hearing aids help, if that’s an option, as it is for me. It’s not for Ruben, though.

~~~

The doctor said I should let her know when I heard beeps, but I knew immediately that too much time was passing between them.

Which is to say, I knew the beeps must have been coming, but I couldn’t hear them.

This was glaring enough to me, but then the doctor asked Debbie to read a list of words into a microphone that I needed to recite back to her.

These were simple words.

Window.

Door.

What have you.

I had to ask Debbie to keep repeating herself, though, despite as the doctor later noted, Debbie was trying to help me by talking slowly and enunciating the words in ways more akin to a Shakespearean actress than the person I’ve actually been living with for twenty-five years.

Debbie has always made it clear that what she wants from a partner is someone who listens to her. We all want that, but she told me early in our relationship that this was important to her. I have always tried to take it seriously and be present for her, which doesn’t mean I always have been. I can be distracted by my own issues, not to mention the television, my phone, you name it. Nor am I always attentive to the ebb and flow of our respective moods and how they affect the rhythms of our conversations, because for a long time I couldn’t understand why one can’t will their life to be smooth, or at least consistent, much if not all of the time. Minimal ebbs and flows, two lines, running horizontal, onward and upward. There are also times that instead of listening I’ve tried to fix things Debbie didn’t want fixed. When all she wanted was someone to hear what she was saying without comment. Which, again, is all she asked for in the first place.

All of which I’ve tried to address.

It’s just that before this, I was able to count on the belief that whether I was doing a good job of being present or not, I could at least hear everything she said.

~~~

Ruben’s hearing is shaky for a moment.

It’s here, it’s not, and then it’s gone, just like that.

Silence.

Ruben has been holding it together and staying sober by becoming a version of himself that is focused all the time on self-care, intentionality, his partner, their band, and performing.

It’s what he is.

Or was.

His sponsor finds Ruben a rehab program in a rural community for the deaf.

Because Ruben is now deaf.

It’s all silence.

But can Ruben sit with that silence?

Will he allow himself to experience his newfound isolation?

Can he adapt to this new reality?

And what will have to be his new identity?

Ruben finds joy and connection during this time, especially when he teaches music in the children’s school affiliated with the program he’s entered.

It’s hard-fought.

Everything is.

But while he owns it, is it enough for him?

~~~

“This could have been going on for a while,” the doctor says a couple of weeks after running some more tests and excluding issues related to bone density or ear infections, “and it could have just snuck up on you. What this means is that if you’ve been talking to someone, and you didn’t hear something they said, and then they moved on to other topics, you would have fallen behind as you tried to figure what you missed. And while you might have tried to catch up with the person speaking, you wouldn’t have been able to. You would have missed the entire conversation.”

Huh.

“Can you operate,” Debbie and I both say, “can this be fixed?”

“No,” the doctor says, “but you can start wearing hearing aids and they will train your brain to adapt to the hearing loss and create new pathways.”

The doctor then places a pair of hearing aids in my ears.

Everything is surprisingly crisp and vibrant, every sound and movement, both inside and outside of her office—people talking in the hall, cars honking, sirens, footsteps, the heating ducts overhead—popping and pinging around my head.

There’s a buzz in the air.

A hum.

It feels like energy.

Life.

As I sit back, I realize that I can’t remember the last time the world sounded so alive and present. It’s the most clarity I’ve experienced in some time. It means that I may not actually be going crazy. It also means that I am no longer exactly the person that I thought I was and that I have to revisit the narrative I’ve constructed for myself.

~~~

You can watch the Sound of Metal to find out whether Ruben is able to embrace the joy and connection he finds and whether it’s enough for him.

But is enough ever enough?

My hearing is now compromised.

As I write this, I can hear the song “Pulling the Pin” by Run the Jewels, which is playing in my headphones.

It’s clear enough.

And I’m not wearing my hearing aids.

Hearing aids don’t replace what’s lost, though.

They’re not magic.

What they do is amplify sound.

Which isn’t nothing, it’s just not everything either.

In real life, there’s a lot of residual static in the air, car horns, leaves crunching underfoot, children screaming, birds chirping, the sounds of the every day, and I’ve always enjoyed that, a world that is messy, scuzzy, and full of reverb and crunch.

I’m losing access to much of that.

If I’m at a cocktail party, there’s inevitably a moment when everyone around me is talking and suddenly it’s all fuzz, I can’t hear the person in front of me and it doesn’t matter how present I am. I miss something, I try to focus, but it’s just lips moving, I give up and nod.

I also don’t always hear my family if I’m lost in a book or an edit and they’re not standing in front of me. Not that this wasn’t a problem before I started to lose my hearing. Still, now when they turn their back on me as they walk away and keep talking, or shout from another room, it’s just unformed sound, a shape thrown at me that I ought to know but can’t define.

It’s just a thing.

What it isn’t, is an assault such as Ruben experiences when he’s plunged into silence.

I haven’t been removed from anything.

It’s more of a failure to understand everything that’s happening around me.

Not that this is easy.

I always believed I was a person who understood everything happening around me.

Never missing a thing.

Not a random sound or an inflection in someone’s voice.

I wasn’t all-knowing, just present for all of life’s gutter glory.

I’m not anymore.

It’s not terrible, but it’s different, and, like Ruben, I’m still figuring it out.

 

Ben Tanzer is the author of several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans, the essay collection Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back AgainBe Cool—a memoir (sort of)and Upstate.

 

Ben Tanzer

Ben Tanzer is an Emmy Award-winning coach, creative strategist, podcaster, writer, teacher, and social worker who has been helping nonprofits, publishers, authors, small businesses, and career changers tell their stories for 20-plus years. He is also the author of the newly re-released and refreshed short story collection UPSTATE, several other award-winning books, and a lover of all things book, taco, gin, and street art.

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