August 23, 2012People aren't talking clearly anymore. They mush their words together. They leave out syllables. They mumble. Nobody knows how to make themselves heard and understood.
Oh, and I'm also 61 years old.
So maybe everybody's talking as clearly as ever, and the problem is my hearing.
I've seen elderly people who were almost completely cut off from the world around them, because unless you were facing them so they could see your lips as you spoke, they missed half or more of what you were saying.
You don't really have to miss many words before you have no idea what's going on. I remember when I first arrived in Brazil as a missionary. I had studied Portuguese in high school, I spoke Spanish reasonably well (the grammars are nearly the same, and much of the vocabulary is related). I really aced the language training they gave missionaries. I was ready.
Except I couldn't understand anything. Only if people spoke slowly and deliberately separated their words could I understand a thing. And even then, if there was a single word in the sentence that I didn't understand, I could be completely lost.
Think of a simple sentence like, "I think you spilled something on your jacket." What could be more clear? Unless you never learned the word "spill" or "jacket." I mean, I was trained as a missionary. I could talk about religion all day. But "spilling" didn't come up much.
So I would hear that sentence as "I think you blglftzed something on your mrmepoggle." What would I make of that? The grammar was clear. There just wasn't any meaning.
But because of my study and a certain knack for accents, I spoke fluently and sounded like somebody with way more experience in Portuguese than I had. So people would hear me talk and assume that I could actually speak the language.
So one of the first sentences I learned to say was, "Lentamente, por favor." Or "Palavra por palavra – não entendo bem."
To which (because my accent was so deceptively good) they would say, "Voce é surdinho, então?" ("You're a little bit deaf, then?").
Which brings me back to being 61 years old in a world of mumblers. Hearing loss can come on you gradually. You miss a word here and there. You get tired of asking people to repeat themselves – after all, most of the time what they said wasn't worth hearing.
(No offense, please: Most of the time what I say isn't worth hearing; why should you be different? Half the time we talk more to touch bases with other people than to actually convey useful information.)
It doesn't take long before you're missing everything. You hear a lot of words, but like that sentence about spilling on your jacket, you miss a couple of key words and all the meaning leaks out of their language. It's just empty grammar.
And the more you ask them to repeat or speak up or whatever, the more annoyed they get.
This is one reason why I absolutely hated those mandatory airbags. As our youngest was growing up, she had to sit in the back seat all the time. But she was a quiet introvert. So what with the normal noises of the car, we often missed what she said.
Yet when we asked her to talk louder so we could hear her, she clammed up. In vain did we explain that we really, really wanted to hear her, but she had to talk louder.
The problem is that as soon as you're asked to repeat what you said, you actually have to think of what you were saying, and the second time through, it sounds dumb.
Well, it sounds dumb if you're a contemplative person. So you realize you didn't want to say it after all.
That kids-in-the-back-seat rule cut us off from an awful lot of our daughter's childhood conversation. I'm still ticked off about that. I would rather have had her in the front seat, where I could hear her, and then drive very carefully, than to miss all that talking time.
Our older kids grew up pre-airbags. So time alone in the car with one of our kids could be filled with hours of good conversation.
I once took my older daughter with me on the two-hour commute to App State when I taught an evening class there. On the way up, she talked almost nonstop for two hours. On the way back she slept and I listened to books on tape.
It's how I got to know her. We talked about anything and everything. It was some of the best time of my life.
But airbags and my younger daughter's quietness deprived us of any chance of such conversational opportunities.
We sometimes think that our eyes are our most important sense organs. We have to see where we're going. We have to be able to see oncoming traffic (or, in an earlier era, sabertooth tigers).
But when it comes to being part of the human community, language is everything.
And it's so convenient! You can talk while you're doing other things. Psychologists are now saying that multi-tasking is impossible, but that's ridiculously false. We all multitask constantly. We do all kinds of routine, habitual tasks with our hands and feet – you know, driving, walking, crocheting, cooking – while talking nonstop.
Language flows out of us; and it flows into us. Unlike the moronic actors in movies, we don't take our eyes off the road to give long meaningful looks to the person sitting next to us – we just talk and talk, looking forward and never seeing them at all.
Language, to be truly effective in our lives, doesn't – or shouldn't – require eye contact. It's one of the best things about language. You can talk to someone whose back is to you. You can call out warnings to somebody 20 yards away. You can whisper to someone beside you while both of you seem to be reading an assignment.
But not if you can't hear. Not if you require lip-reading to help you grasp what other people are saying.
Socially, hearing loss is worse than loss of sight – though loss of sight is worse for making your way unaided through the world. Without the ability to use language routinely, rapidly, smoothly, you get more and more cut off from other people. You might be able to see them, but it's hard to make any real connection.
That's what I've seen happen to elderly people who didn't even realize just how much they were cut off. They could hear. They just had to tune out conversation that wasn't specifically directed at them, face to face.
Cellphones are the worst. Reception is shoddy even at the best of times. If people speak rapidly, you can miss everything. That's why texting is better even when you're both at the same party. So much language becomes unintelligible when you have even a 10 or 20 percent hearing loss – which often happens with cellphones.
And people think that they need to talk louder when a cellphone chat is hard to understand. No, shouting doesn't help when it just makes your speech fuzzier and less distinct to the person listening through a lousy little cellphone speaker. You have to slow down and separate your words – just as if you were speaking to a foreigner.
Elderly people often find themselves going through the world as if all their conversations were on a cheap cellphone with bad reception. Yet because it happened gradually, and because they can still hear most of the words, they don't think they're deaf.
"I'm not deaf! I can hear you fine right now!"
Yes, because I'm facing you and speaking with my superb, trained-actor articulation. But you didn't understand a word I said a minute ago when I was talking normally.
"I heard you talking! I only missed a few words here and there."
Exactly. And so we didn't actually have a conversation until now.
Having seen this happen with other people, I didn't want it to happen with me. If I need a hearing aid, I want to know it. I have no vanity about it. I don't care if it hangs off my head like a mango. If I need it in order to remain part of the human conversation, then attach it to me and switch it on!
So on my recent visit to Utah to drop my daughter off at the university she's attending, I got my sister-in-law, a school audiologist, to recommend an audiologist to test my hearing. She obliged, and I drove to Springville to meet with Dr. Jared Young.
In Utah, if someone is named Young you assume he's related to Brigham Young. He was, and that meant he was a cousin of mine. (Brigham Young is my great-great grandfather.) However, that actually means next to nothing – half the population of Utah is related to Brigham Young.
My last hearing test was many, many years ago. They've added a whole lot of useful tests to the process now. They test your hearing not just through your ears, but also through bone conductivity – the "headphones" for that test are placed crosswise, with one "phone" on your forehead and the other on the back of your head. But it allows them to detect whether your hearing problems are in the outer ear or deep inside.
Also, Dr. Young was able to show me my ear canal and eardrum in realtime on a computer monitor. That was cool – especially because I had weird bubbles on my eardrum that he couldn't identify.
But it turns out that the bubbles weren't interfering with my hearing. I was well above the line that they use in schools to determine if a kid can hear well enough for normal participation in class. The only hearing loss was a deadening of the very highest notes in one ear – but not the other.
Nor was my tinnitus a real problem. It's at such a high register that it doesn't interfere with normal speech and music. It might keep me from hearing the fine points in a piccolo performance, but that doesn't come up much. And at night, an ocean-surf soundtrack keeps the tinnitus from keeping me awake.
So on the whole, despite all my ear infections over the years (I dare not fly with any kind of sinus congestion), my hearing is perfectly normal. In fact, through most of my range, it's better than average.
In other words: The problem isn't me. It's you.
You really are mumbling.
Nobody values clear speech today, and nobody tries to teach it. When I was a kid in the days when California schools were the best in the world, we had to recite. Memorize poems or speeches and then pronounce every word clearly for an audience. It was great training in articulation and communication.
But now, if you dare to criticize a kid's mumbling, incoherent speech, you're apparently interfering with his "identity" or some such.
So we have two generations of adults and kids who have never learned how to enunciate and articulate with any kind of precision. All we know how to do anymore is just get louder instead of clearer. That's why people yell into their cellphones.
This is not to say that I won't get deafer as years go by. I'm looking forward to using a hearing-horn and saying, "Eh? Eh? Speak up! Talk into the bell of this thing!"
Or maybe I'll get those deeply-implanted Lyric hearing aids. I mean, I don't mind having people see that I need a hearing aid, any more than the thinning of my hair to the point of baldness bothers me. But if the implants work better and don't have to sit on the outside of my ear, why not?
Meanwhile, I'm relieved to know that when I can't hear half the dialogue in a Dark Knight movie, it's because they didn't do a good job of recording the actors, and not because I'm going deaf.
I was such a fan of Lie to Me – one of the best TV shows ever – and I read the books about deception that the science in the show was based on.
But when I picked up Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception, by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, Susan Carnicero and Don Tennant, I saw that they claimed that their method was much more practical and effective than the Lie to Me stuff.
Now, I once had a long conversation with a military interrogator who had gotten very good results from his interrogations of various captured Bad Guys, and he told me that (a) torture doesn't work reliably, (b) lie detectors tell you nothing about lies and only a little about stress and (c) it's not just about knowing when you're being lied to, it's about knowing why.
So I was prepared to accept the idea that CIA interrogators might know something about getting the truth from people who want to conceal it to you – and without torture or heavy machinery.
The book has the ring of truth. For one thing, the authors have given lots and lots of classes and seminars and people who use their methods have a lot of success – though no system is foolproof.
The problem is that it's not an on-the-fly methodology. You can't just look at people and tell whether they're lying.
Yes, there are indicators of stress and even of deception; but the only ones that matter happen within five seconds (usually sooner) of the question that causes stress. But those physical indicators don't tell you what the person is trying to conceal, or even that they're concealing anything.
A question can be stressful for lots of reasons.
That's why whenever they see signs of stress or deception, they say, not that they have caught the person lying, but that they have "more work to do." They have to go back and question further on the subject that aroused the stress.
Sometimes they find that the stress has nothing to do with what the questioner is looking for – it just happens to have triggered something in the person's mind. Or they're concealing something, but it's some unimportant embarrassing thing that you don't care about.
They also point out that a single stress indicator usually means nothing. You look for clusters of stress indicators.
More important, though, is the fact that you have to phrase your questions very carefully. You can't just blurt out a question – you have to shape it so you aren't introducing a lot of irrelevant variables.
You have to sound neutral and nonjudgmental and unsurprised. If you pounce on something or look shocked or angry, you are bound to increase their deceptiveness.
But if you act as if it's no big deal, they'll often blurt everything because they have lost their fear of consequences. You've heard their secret and you didn't act horrified or angry so ... it must be OK.
Then the officers waiting outside arrest them. But you didn't! It was no big deal to you.
It's a short and fascinating book, but if you are reading it as a practical guide rather than mere informative entertainment, you better read it twice and then practice writing the kinds of precise questions they use as examples. This is a hard, hard job, interrogating people, and not everybody is going to be good at it.
When I lived in Utah Valley, it was pretty much a restaurant wasteland. Any place that was worth eating at either went out of business or changed management and got worse.
This is not really a surprise. Mormon culture – which dominates in Utah Valley far more than in Salt Lake Valley – is dominated by a big-family, one-income-per-household ideal.
That means that there's not a lot of money for fancy dining. If you're eating out, you want lots of bulk and food that will please children.
Those who are looking for superb quality and inventive, pleasant-surprise dishes are in a small minority. It's hard to stay in business when there are only a few hundred customers who are willing to pay what that kind of cuisine costs.
But maybe the numbers are growing, because I've found several really inventive places. Top of the list is La Jolla Groves, a California-cuisine restaurant in a delightful outdoor shopping center. The decor inside consists of tree trunks reaching to a ceiling painted like the leaves and boughs and fruit of an orange grove.
The menu is even better than the decor, and even the boldest combinations were quite successful. The watermelon-cucumber salad alone would be worth the trip to the restaurant, and when a dozen of us had a big dinner there the other night, every single person was impressed and pleased by every dish. That's quite an achievement.
And the desserts were wonderful – nothing overdone or too sweet or too rich. Perfect portions, just the right note to end the meal.
Downtown Provo was as dead as downtown Greensboro, but it seems to be coming back as a restaurant center. There's a Navaho place I'm looking forward to trying, but the best find was a pair of innovative health-food-type restaurants with lots of vegetarian selections.
In Greensboro – and most of the country – such restaurants have a sort of "liberal" vibe. You expect to see Obama stickers on all the cars in the parking lot.
But in Utah, the dividing line isn't left/right, it's Mormon/non-Mormon, and so vegetarian/health food restaurants seem to have a definite non-Mormon vibe. It really makes no sense.
After all, Mormons have it as an important doctrine that we're supposed to take care of our bodies. No alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, no illegal drugs. And the scripture that created this rule also urges us to eat healthy food and to eat meat "sparingly."
Well, we eat for the food, not for the vibe, and I found that a little place called Guru and its sister restaurant, Enliten are probably the restaurants that our college student daughter will enjoy the most while she's living in Provo.
And even though she hates chocolate, I don't mind admitting that the chocolate eclair I had at Enliten was filled with excellent Bavarian cream, and the pesto mayonnaise on my sandwich was exactly right.
It's very promising that Utah Valley has a growing number of restaurants with real pretensions to excellence instead of bulk at low prices. Of course, Guru and Enliten are new – we'll see if they're still there next summer. Meanwhile, La Jolla Gardens is a restaurant I wish I could bring home with me to add to our regular rotation. I'm going to miss that watermelon-cucumber salad.