You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 28
november/december 2006


From Clark Johnsen’s Diaries: Curlicue Canals
by Clark Johnsen


johnsen_typewriter_web.jpg (4673 bytes)

In the current (January) issue of Stereophile, John Atkinson discusses his recent experience with earwax. This reminded me (of course) of a piece I had written nearly a decade ago concerning similar adventures of my own, presented here somewhat revised and expanded.

Tonight I write in grateful recovery from a horrifying experience, although not one as terrible as this morning's, when I had to call 911 to get an associate hauled off to the loony bin. But let's save that one for later.

History: Back on a mid-Eighties winter Saturday evening I was sitting in my comfy kitchen, playing the table radio and absorbing a novel. Heat, was why I was there, the kitchen then being my only room that could get really toasty. Savoring Black Angus and Sierra Nevada, I noticed that the sound had faded so I turned the volume up. Then again, later. Damn cheap transistors!

Along about midnight there was no longer any denying it: I was going deaf.

Huh! Well, better deaf than death! I thought, guffawing at my little joke and pouring another one. Besides, there are some things I'd hate to lose a lot worse!

By one o'clock the silence was complete. I found this condition eerily comfortable. Bundling myself up, I took a stroll outdoors. Nary a peep! My body floated on an aural void. Sounds of the city and of nature too were entirely absent. The only reflections occurred inside my head.

And what occurred to me was this: Hell! If Beethoven, the greatest composer, could go deaf and become world-renowned, why not an audio engineer? We’ve had a blind audio engineer (Roy Cizek)—and most of ‘em are deaf already anyway! That made me laugh too, long and loud... wondering whether anyone heard.

Next morning my hearing miraculously returned, now accompanied by a high-pitched whirring that dug a ragged furrow through my brain. Covering my ears did nothing to help. Later I knew this affliction as tinnitus, to avoid the worst cases of which, people have killed themselves.

My own story has a happy ending, however. The condition departed almost as rapidly as it had arrived, but I was left without a clue as to its origin. Until, that is, a few weeks later when the same thing happened in my left ear alone! This time I saw my doctor, who removed an alarming amount of ear wax (which I still possess as a trophy).

God! You don't suppose that poor Beethoven only had... well…

After a couple more incidents I learned the signs of incipient wax accumulation and began to take preventive measures, some effective but many, I know now, contra-indicated. That means, any procedure involving Q-Tips, tweezers or fingers. The hydrogen peroxide, the warm water, the white vinegar, the flushing bulb, are all OK, but not the solid implements that only serve to pack it in tighter. Gentle dissolution, be the name of the game. Gentle, and regular.

(The Straight Dope, by Cecil Adams: "The wax coats the outer parts of the car canal, trapping germs and debris and preventing them from reaching the eardrum. If you didn't have any your ears would, at a minimum, itch like hell.")

Even still I do occasionally get caught out, like last summer when visiting family in Iowa and Nebraska and staying in motels with pools on sunny days, for several afternoons playing the human amphibian: Reading, diving, swimming, reading... With that amount of imbibition at the very moment when the wax was poised to swell, it swoll magnifi­cently! This happened on my final morning away and plagued me on both flight-legs back to Boston. I seriously considered whether I should ground myself in St. Louis, the discomfort was that great, and airliner pressure variations (or worse, the possible loss of pressure) were no consolation. I was half scared, I admit.

To add to the horror, I was about to meet Keith Herron for the first time, courtesy of the Disc Doctor, Duane Goldman, during my lengthy stopover. With the two fellows flanking me in airport row-seats, I had to swivel my head rather markedly to hear each of them, although Keith on my right still came through only faintly. Foolishly I had not bothered to confess my weird condition.

Recklessly I soldiered on via TWA and before nine o’clock ended up back home with ears throbbing in pain and my body suffering severe chills in August. But ever the self-reliant sort, I popped a brewsky and contemplated my predicament: the ER or self-treatment. Dashing upstairs I grabbed sleeping bags and pillows; down in the kitchen I turned the oven on full blast, swallowed four aspirin and wrapped myself up on the floor.

The radio played as before and again I could barely make out its tune. Lying on one side then the other, miserable yet dribbling peroxide and warm water into my ears, I soon was lost to the world.

Next day I awoke with a start. Christ! It’s hot in here! Who turned the goddam heat on?!... Oh! But the chills and the pain at least had subsided, although the hearing was still dim.

Now tonight I'm home from my medical health-care provider (p.c.-ese for nurse) fully suctioned once again by a torturous-looking tool of the trade—I still cringe upon seeing it. Also I'm stabilized with antibiotics; an infection had developed, which in adult ears can be rather dangerous. And I'm thinking about how best to tell people to care for their own ears, and about that dreadful incident today where I helped commit a woman I hardly know, to the maws of the "mental health" system. Almost hourly I’ve tried to contact her new protectors, but they aren't returning calls.

Quite the thing. I can't imagine which I would rather wish on anyone, having recently experienced both: The agony of tinnitus and deafness, or watching a good, kind person of whom you have become temporarily in charge, go quite bonkers. We’re talking, sharp knives here.

One more thing: My doctor tells me that I have complicated ear canals. Of course! That explains everything! But, what exactly? Why I am more interested in timbre, than in "imaging"? Why nevertheless I do hear the bird fly out overhead and down around inside my skull, in this very special record, a rock'n'roll version of Peter and the Wolf (Brian Eno on synth), when others do not?

Could all variant aural opinion be just undue wax accumula­tion and curlicue canals?

A final word to the wise: KEEP 'EM CLEAN!

Now, an announcement: A new audio product. EAR-BRITE!™ Spray it into both ears weekly for finer results! Only $24! Dealer enquiries invited.