The ears have it

All fall I’ve had an annoying tickle in the canal of my right ear. They say that when your ear itches or rings or buzzes, that means someone is talking about you. Can you imagine how annoying that must be for people like President Obama and Taylor Swift? People are constantly talking about them.

I surfed the internet to learn more about that old saying. It turns out that it is very old—the first writer to mention it was Pliny, and he wrote about it roughly two thousand years ago. There are Chinese versions of the saying as well as Roman versions and American versions. One version says that if your right ear itches or rings, people are saying good things about you; but if your left ear itches or rings, people are saying bad things about you. At least I have that going for me: only my right ear is feeling tickled.

Many of the internet pages about buzzing or ringing described the symptom called tinnitus. I am familiar with tinnitus, as I have that symptom off and on since childhood. I hear a high-pitched steady tone, but I generally I only notice it when things are otherwise quiet. I also have “floaters,” small clumps of matter floating inside one or both of my eyeballs, creating the illusion that large pieces of dust are moving around in front of my face. I’ve had those since childhood, and when I was young I learned to play with them, moving my eyes to make the floaters change directions. Because of floaters and tinnitus, I have learned not to trust my senses absolutely; I often see and hear things that are not really there.

I do not “hear voices” in the sense of hallucinations, but my mind does convert random sounds reported by my ears into language. We have one kind of bird in our neighborhood that I call the “secret bird” because its call sounds like “secret, secret.” Another kind of bird must be from India, since I hear it calling, “Krishna, Krishna.” When the air conditioning or heat comes on, sometimes the motor sounds to me as if a radio or television is on in the house. Only if I concentrate do I realize that the sound I hear is not voices speaking words or music playing. We have a vent on top of the house that turns in the wind to air out the attic. Under certain conditions it creates a buzzing sound. Until I tracked down the source of the buzz, I feared that a swarm of bees had somehow entered the house and started creating a hive—more than once, I walked all the way around the house to try to find where the bees were entering and exiting.

Several members of my family—including me—can hear sounds too high for most people to hear. We can hear noises from light bulbs or from refrigerators that other people insist must not be happening, since they can’t hear them. Some members of my family can even hear the dog whistle at the end of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It is a mixed blessing to hear sounds other people don’t hear. I can usually anticipate when a light bulb in our dining room chandelier is about to burn out, because those light bulbs emit a high whistle for a day or two before burning out. On the other hand, when some of us hear the refrigerator sing while others cannot hear it, people can start losing patience with each other because of the difference.

I am who I am and I hear what I hear. I’m grateful not to be President Obama or Taylor Swift, whose ears ring constantly. I shall endure this mildly annoying tickle, especially since it is in my right ear. And if the whistling in my ears gets too annoying, I’ll just start singing to drown it out. J.

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