Sound Puzzles

by Tina Blue
September 4, 2004

          In "Talking Back to the Toilet," "The Sweet Harmonies of--Electric Sanders?!," "A Train Is Growling?" and "Stop, Hey, What's That Sound," I tell about some of my experiences with trying to interpret those sounds that I do hear.  But those of us with significant hearing loss know that these experiences are not just amusing little occasional adventures. Oh, sure, they usually are amusing (though sometimes they can be more frightening than amusing), but they are not really occasional. In fact, it seems that almost every day I must try to solve some sort of sound puzzle. 

          What is that sound?  Where is it coming from? These are questions I frequently ask myself or others.

          At about 2:30 yesterday afternoon I was walking home from campus when I began to hear fairly loud barking.  I looked around for the dog, but I couldn't find one. I looked in all directions, too, because one of my ears hears so very little that I find it difficult to get a directional fix on any sound.

          As I continued down the hill, I kept watching for evidence of the dog.  I wasn't really worried. The dog had to be pretty big, from the sound of the bark, but the barking was so incessant that I assumed the animal must be in a fenced yard or tied up somewhere. Dogs walking on leash just don't go on like that.

          But where was the darned dog?  He had to be nearby, from the sound of the barking, and yet I could not spot him anywhere.

          By this time my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I stopped a young man who was on his way up the hill to class.  "I'm sorry to bother you," I said, "but I am really puzzled. Can you tell where that barking dog is?"

          "Dog?" he responded.

          The dog had not stopped barking for more than a couple of minutes at a time, yet the idea of a dog had apparently not even crossed his mind.

          I knew immediately from past experience what sort of error I had made, so I rephrased my question.

          "Do you hear that loud repetitious noise?" I asked. 

          "You mean the hammering?" he responded.

          Oh, the hammering.

          If I had gone a few yards farther before asking about the dog, I would have saved myself the trouble. (I won't say embarrassment, because I am always amused rather than embarrassed when my hearing impairment betrays me like this.)

          The large trees to my right were blocking my view of the men on the roof of the nearby apartment complex. Once I got past the yard with the trees, I could easily see the workmen pounding away on the roof.  And when I listened to the "barking," I could now tell that it was too consistent in its rhythm to really be barking.

          But even knowing that it was hammering, and seeing the very hammerers, I still could hear the "barking" in the hammering, the same way you can still see both images in an optical illusion, even when you are fully aware of the trick.

          Until this summer my next door neighbor had a bulldog named Georgia. The windows to the bedroom where I use the computer are only about 15 or 20 feet from the fenced backyard where Georgia would spend her time outdoors. Georgia was a fairly barky dog, so I often heard her while I was working at the computer.

          Often, I would hear Georgia barking for an hour or more late at night, and wonder why on earth Julie didn't bring her inside.  Then I would look out the window to see if Julie was even at home, only to discover that Georgia wasn't outside at all. Quite the contrary, in fact, since we would be in the middle of a raging rainstorm, with thunder booming repeatedly in the distance. Just as with the hammering, I had mistaken the distant thunder for the barking of a nearby dog. And since my hearing is so bad, I hadn't even heard the rain, though I could see (once I looked) that it was fierce enough that it must be making quite a lot of noise. 

          Last Thursday night, I was warming a frozen dinner in the microwave when I heard a loud, ominous rattling sound.  I had my hearing aids in, because I had been watching TV coverage of the Republican National Convention (I watch all convention coverage during an election year), so the loud rattling seemed even louder than it otherwise would have.

          It sounded as if something large and metallic was falling apart and falling down.

          What was that? I wondered. And where is it coming from?

          That's part of the problem, of course.  With almost no ability to pinpoint the direction a sound is coming from, it is much harder to identify the sound.  If someone with normal hearing is startled by a sound like that, he will simply look at the place the sound is coming from and find out what is making so much racket.

          But not me. I can't go to the source to identify it, because the source could be anywhere. 

          So I began a familiar procedure: systematically searching the entire kitchen, from one corner to the next. I finally found the source of the startling and somewhat frightening sound. The large, powerful fan I have on the floor of my kitchen had something in its blades. 

          I turned the fan off to look, and discovered a big, plump grasshopper, one my cat Gabby had undoubtedly brought in sometime during the day.  I often leave the door open so she and Lila, my other cat, can go in and out at will. Sometimes they bring in live grasshoppers--or moths, cicadas, mice, baby birds, adult birds, squirrels, and even baby rabbits.*

          Of course I rescue the live birds and mammals and release them outside, but I usually let them keep their grasshoppers. They are very careful not to kill them.  They just play with them until the batteries wear out.

          But this one had somehow jumped into the fan, probably during a part of the day when I had turned it off for a while.

          Three years ago I was troubled for several days by a strange beeping sound. At least I thought it was a beeping sound, but I couldn't be sure.  It might have been a squealing or squeaking sound.  Or maybe a crying sound. All I could tell was that it was high-pitched. As is typical, I could not tell where it was emanating from.

          For days I hunted for the source of the beeping/squealing/squeaking/crying sound, but I simply could not locate it. I was really worried that one of my cats might have brought in a live animal that had escaped to an inaccessible spot--perhaps under the bed, which had a drawer, so the cats would not have been able to get to it.  I took the bed apart. I moved the dressers around. I hunted high and low for this animal. What if it died before I located it? Then I wouldn't even have the sound to go by, and I wouldn't find it until it started to smell.

          In desperation I called my son Michael and asked him to come over and help me find the injured animal before it expired.

          When Michael arrived he walked through the rooms listening.  "I don't hear anything," he said, returning to the living room.

          "Just wait," I replied. "It doesn't sound all the time, but it will again soon."

          "Squeak!" it came again.

          Michael immediately walked into the bedroom and pointed up at the smoke alarm over the dresser.  "There it is," he said. "That's the sound they make to let you know to replace your battery."

          Amazing.  He had recognized the sound the moment he heard it, and he had known exactly where it was coming from. Magic!

          So when I heard loud squeaking sounds again the next summer, I went right in to check on my smoke alarm.  I climbed up on a step stool, turned my "good" (ha!) ear toward it, and listened--to nothing.

          Once again I initiated my systematic search protocol.  Under the bed. Behind the dresser. In the dresser drawers. In the closets. Room by room, corner by corner.  First the bathroom, then the living room, starting by the front door.

          I was so intent on my search that I didn't raise my eyes until I got close to the table in the small dining area near the kitchen.

          But when I did raise my eyes, they went immediately to Gabby, on the table by the window, with an adult bird in her mouth.  The bird was, of course, protesting its capture in the loudest voice it could muster.

          I grabbed my Little Old Mighty Hunter (she was 16 years old when this happened two years ago) and rushed her outside, where I forced her jaws open to release the bird.  Even as it flew away, Gabby squirmed from my arms and leapt into the air, very nearly recapturing the bird on the wing! She really is a heck of a hunter, especially for such an old girl.

          People with normal hearing can't even imagine what it is like for us who hear some but not enough.  If we heard nothing, the problem would never arise.  But since we hear some things, but not well enough to be sure what they are or where the sounds are coming from, we often have to treat our limited sound environment as if it were a puzzle, the aural equivalent of an optical illusion.

          And when we get it wrong, as we so often do, it can be pretty funny.


*If you like to read amusing animal stories, visit my Pet Tales website.

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