Playing by Ear | People & Places | Smithsonian

Playing by Ear

People say the darndest things. At least I think they do

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Ok, I’m in a restaurant and the waiter asks me if I would like marbles on my pizza.

"Sir, you are perfectly mad," I’m tempted to say, a derisive grin on my face. "Who do you know who eats marbles on a pizza?" Instead I suppress my howls, cup an ear in the speaker’s direction and wait for the next zinger.

These days, bizarre questions like the waiter’s are commonplace. You see, at 52, my hearing is slipping. It’s not that I’m deaf, I just don’t hear as well as I once did. The other night, in the midst of a heated debate about the Middle East, someone asked me why his duck turned bank robber. Another serious discussion hijacked. In my mind I imagined a mallard, a Beretta in his bill, waddling out the bank door. I tried to smother my laugh.

Now you might think I would be upset about this turn of events. But to be honest, at least for the moment, I find it amusing. I was getting a tad bored with the predictable arc of conversation, the déjà vu of most tête-à-têtes. These days, I scarcely know what anyone is going to say as conversations veer off in all directions. Not even Lewis Carroll could have imagined such absurdity. The silliness that comes out of the mouths of the pompous, the profanities that angel-faced children blurt out; no, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

In fact, I can’t even bring myself to ask for clarification. Who knows, maybe it was "olives," not marbles, the waiter was offering; a bit more digestible perhaps, but not nearly as colorful as a good cat’s-eye. As for that sober talk of the Middle East, it was probably not a bank but the West Bank that got twisted into a canard, if you’ll pardon the pun. Maybe, if I could compose myself—which I can’t—I might get out a "What?" when these inanities are uttered. But why spoil the fun? Only if others repeat themselves is the matter made clear.

"What kind of cheese do you like?" asks my 12-year-old as I bring in an armful of firewood. "Cheddar, feta, Swiss," I respond. "I hate blue and Gorgonzola." He looks at me with bewilderment. "Daddy!" he scolds. "What kind of trees do you like?" Oops.

It’s not always easy keeping a game face. The other day I was sitting in a somber faculty meeting, yawning at talk about rhetoric, when all of a sudden an esteemed colleague disclosed that his gums are shiny. Next thing I knew I was snickering in the corner, barely able to control myself. All eyes were upon me. What could I have said, that I was chuckling over the idea of shiny gums? I think not. Besides, it’s my good fortune to find any humor in a faculty meeting.

Of course, in my other profession, that of journalist, creative ears can be something of a liability. A little word like "not" falls by the wayside, and next thing I know I have an exclusive story that has eluded all my younger colleagues. A fellow I interviewed not long ago about the CIA whispered that the Agency was secretly planning to turn Osama bin Laden into a lamp for orchards. Now, who, I ask you, came up with that ingenious plan?

My wife, poor soul, suffers the most. She’s constantly having to repeat herself, a habit she perfected even before my recent impairment. She suggested I get my ears tested (at least I think that’s what she said). But why would I give up so special a gift? This is, after all, my revenge on the world. I’ve always felt it didn’t understand me, that I was the one getting the sideways looks and raised eyebrows. Well, my friend, what’s good for the goose is hood for the panda, if you get my meaning.

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