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Now ear this loud and clear

It must have been about a year ago that Wife started accusing me of doing bad Emily Litella imitations. "Why would Chris want to go to Boston?" I answered her one night as she spoke to me from the kitchen. "And stop mumbling," I added.

"I said," she shouted in that irritating manner that people have when they think you are hard of hearing, "that I think the fish is defrosted."

"Oh," I said, sounding much like that Gilda Radner character on Saturday Night Live. "Never mind."

Emily, you remember, was the poor woman who got Soviet Jewry mixed up with Soviet jewelry, violence on television with violins on television and endangered species with _ well, you get the idea.

She wasn't making fun of deaf people, but maybe taking a kindly and well-deserved jab at those of us who should go get our hearing checked and who refuse to do so out of vanity or fear or a deeply held conviction that maybe it really is most of the nation's population that has begun to speak indistinctly and not our sometimes-aging ears that aren't quite picking up the vibes that they used to.

"That's outrageous," I found myself shouting the other night. "That is the worst, most blatantly racist, most insensitive, most obnoxious television commercial I have ever seen."

Wife looked at me suspiciously as the rest of the cookie commercial played in the background.

"What," she said patiently, "is it that you think you have heard?"

I explained to her that the video on the commercial had showed a mixed chocolate and vanilla cookie, while the voice-over had the temerity to call the cookies "mulatto."

"That's not even a term that racists use anymore," I said, "to have a cookie company dredge up that kind of sick ... senseless ..."

"Milano," Wife said.

"What?" I asked.

"Milano," she said. "The cookies are Milano cookies. Not Mulatto. Milano."

It was as I reflected on how fortunate I was that Wife straightened me out before I wrote the letter to Pepperidge Farm and not afterward, that I decided it might be about time for me to drop over and see my friends at the Sertoma Speech, Language and Hearing Center about a hearing test.

I knew when I developed tinnitus (ringing in the ears) a couple of years ago that it was a condition frequently associated with some degree of hearing loss, but I didn't notice any other difficulties _ immediately. At first I just thought the crickets outside were abnormally loud _ 24 hours a day. Then I sort of got used to the noise and decided it was soothing. It was something to listen to during management-staff meetings, election-year cocktail party conversations or Wife waxing enthusiastic about a new Billy Idol album.

I knew that years of loud music and earlier years of being around loud explosions probably hadn't done my ears any good, but I seem to have a selective hearing loss. I can pick up almost undetectable conversations on a two-way radio turned down to minimum volume and actually make out words in the lyrics of an Aerosmith song, but I have trouble with normal conversation unless it happens to be a couple of bozos whispering behind me in a movie _ then I seem to be able to hear every word.

The effect is noticeable enough, however, that I don't want to miss hearing something like a siren, a fire alarm or a car horn while I am crossing the street or a breathless invitation from somebody named Bambi. (I didn't say I'd accept; I just said I didn't want to miss it.)

I overcame my vanity 16 years ago to start wearing glasses _ and again a few years after that to start wearing bifocals and again a few years after that to go shopping finally at a big-and-tall store. It takes guts to admit you are myopic and tall.

If hearing assistance is what I need, I easily can live with that, also.

It dawns on me that it might be nice having a volume control on the world.

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