Turning Up 'American Idol'

By Josh Swiller
Sunday, June 18, 2006

The names that rolled off the "American Idol" assembly line -- Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia Barrino, Ruben Studdard -- sounded like the secret identities of new Marvel superheroes. Can't you picture a plucky Ms. Carrie Underwood in the newsroom, a pert blouse and dowdy glasses serving as cover for her crime-fighting tights? The contestants stared at me from the gossip magazines and "Entertainment Tonight," wielding toothsome smiles and shrinking bodies, secure in their possession of it, that special something, the "X factor," as judge Simon Cowell would say. I'd read about their voices: Ruben, like a big, sweaty, pillow of love; Fantasia, a gospel choir distilled into one being; Kelly, with a set of pipes that could shatter windows a Zip code away. I was a hard-core fan. But I'd never actually heard them sing, because I was deaf.

My father's family carries a defective gene -- my youngest brother and I, along with one cousin, are all hearing impaired. I was born with a moderate hearing loss that became profound by kindergarten, and learned to speak and read lips through years of study. My speech pathologist, the late Adele Markwitz, was a master at her art. Starting when I was a 6-year-old in Manhattan, she sat me down five days a week and helped me grapple with this strange beast called English, with its odd silent letters, c's and k's that went from soft to hard and back again, vowels that changed length on a whim. Frustrating business. But Adele had the patience of a saint.

"This sooks! I can't do it!" I'd yell.

"No, darling," she'd say. "This sucks."

Adele took her work seriously. Decades later, when her cancer was terminal, I treated her to lunch, and she wanted to take George W. Bush behind the woodshed, not for the war or the deficit, but because of his enunciation.

"Nu-clear. Nu-clear. How hard is it to say?" she asked.

I couldn't resist. "He sucks," I said.

She smiled. "Wonderful."

After 10 years of working with Adele, I got to the point where I could speak clearly and, using hearing aids, understand about 20 percent of what was said. Lip reading boosted that number to 70 percent, but was severely compromised by thick beards, foreign accents and overly cheerful women who talked through their smiles.

What's 70 percent like? It's hard work. It's always hearing the laughter but rarely catching the joke. One-on-one you can hear pretty well, but big gatherings -- high school parties, say -- are just noise falling on top of noise, like ocean waves in a storm. So you develop techniques to feign understanding, limit embarrassment and somehow stay afloat -- the smile-and-nod, the thoughtful lip purse, the "Oh, I have to talk to that guy; great to see you, though." (I didn't learn until years later that this is how everyone, hearing or not, gets through high school.)

I buried my head in books and did well enough for my parents to blow a hundred large on four years of Ivy League education, most of which I spent in a dull haze of smoke around a nightly poker game. Complaints? I had a few. My friends could easily carry on conversations across a table, could talk on the phone, could chat up pretty girls in noisy bars. But I didn't dwell on that. I had a little hearing, and a little can go a long way. I could watch "Cheers" with closed captioning on. I loved listening to music -- mostly slow Pink Floyd tunes, instrumentals and Enya-type wordless yodeling with no complex words to decipher, but still -- and could follow lyrics if I had them written down. (Except for the likes of mumbling Bob Dylan, who, according to Adele, really should be ashamed of himself.) I split the Ivy scene as soon as I graduated, becoming a forest ranger in the California redwoods and then a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Zambia, and traveling through Africa, Europe and Asia. All in all, I visited or lived in 24 countries and owned every album by Van Morrison by the time I was 27.

Then, a few years later, I lost what was left of my hearing. After nearly 30 years of high-powered amplification shoved right up my ear canals, the membranes that hold the inner ear fluid had worn out. They couldn't take sound anymore. Medically speaking, they went kaput. It was 2003, and I was 32, working for a plasterer in New York City. I was on the job, sanding the living room walls of David Bowie's SoHo penthouse, when someone dropped a bucket and the sound -- unbearably loud -- knocked me over like a falling brick. From then on, even the purring of a kitten felt like rough carpentry nails running across the surface of my brain.


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