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A Perfect Spy

I have bionic ears. I can hear the song on the car radio three streets away. The bass two seats down is actually singing in tune. I can even hear when people are about to speak.

Spy Camera (Hearing Aid Charger)

This is all due to a sweet pair of Danish hearing aids called the ReSound 761, which allows me to stream podcasts into my inner ear. Not that I ever do that, but it's cool that my kids think I can. Instead I use it to have actual conversations with actual people. Like the person in the dog park last week: where on previous walks I would normally guess what she was talking about and nod at the appropriate places, I found myself engaged, making eye contact, laughing about some mutually understood observation or other. I walked back home admiring my new friendliness.


I knew it was time when I had to rewatch our shows (The Crown, Watchmen, His Dark Materials) with the captions on. I went to the Eye & Ear Institute and got an Audiogram that proved that five years in front of the second trumpet had blown out my right ear.

Spy Recording (Audiogram)

Also that I couldn't pick up any phonemes on the high frequency end (f, s, th). I managed to get the test, get fitted, and put them on all without Janette noticing, which is the first time I've ever managed to pull the wool over her eyes about anything since I bought that seersucker jacket from Brooks Brothers while she was in another shop and hid it in the trunk of the car. It's not for nothing that I have a whole shelf devoted to the works of John Le Carré:

Here's what they don't tell you about hearing aids: they make you a better person. Janette always used to tell me that I'm interrupting her - I now discover that not interrupting is a feature of accurate hearing. You can hear the intake of breath that will begin a phrase, and instead of trampling over the beginning of a thought you can stop yours before it starts. Instead of being the surly person who barely pays attention to what you're saying, I'm actually engaged in what you have to say. I'm notorious for always saying the wrong thing at the most inopportune time, and even before it really got out of hand I was seeing a life coach to try and prevent it from happening. Cicero apparently had the same problem: he spoke before he thought so often that he was said to have "hot coals in his mouth." My friends and family call it a form of Social Tourette's, and for many years I thought there might be some truth to the diagnosis. Why else would I catch myself saying the one thing I shouldn't have said, over and over again? "Any luck with the inspectors?" I ask the friendly restaurant owner who allows us to use his back room for free for the Beckett meetings, unaware that the woman behind him is from the Columbus Restaurant Inspection Services. "Not a good time," he says, and glares at me. That's one of the more repeatable ones: I've offended kindergarten teachers, horrified veterinarians, been thrown out of a pub in Dubrovnik, and reduced professors to tears. Now with my new bionic ears I can hear the inspector before I see her uniform, and hold back the killing phrase. The next time someone invites a risky remark I can hear the threat before it lands. Sometimes, John Le Carré says in his new one, "you get caught for sins you haven't committed." Now I can stop committing those uncommitted sins.

The restoration of a sense is an extraordinary gift - Janette always says that when she was fitted for glasses as a young girl she was amazed at the details on the leaves, the quality of the clouds, the richness of her new world. Retirement is that gift: a new sense that you can reverse time. On the Friday after Thanksgiving I went with my mother to Beck & Orr to get the 12 volumes of The Works of Samuel Johnson rebound. It was closed but I went back the next Monday. Beck & Orr is not where you would expect - you drive down Broad St. past Franklinton and Hilltop to get to Westgate, a little oasis in a world of boarded-up America. For block after block you see the effect of the absence of hope, of the inability to move beyond the walls of inequity that Columbus has built around its precincts, the supporters who have been convinced to vote against their own interests. This is the America that will lose the election.

Beck & Orr (since 1888)

Beck & Orr, though, has been where it is since 1888, and hasn't changed much. Ron (pictured left) has been there since the beginning, and his son Skip has been there since 1903. (That's Skip's joke, not mine.) When you go in, Skip says "Bibles? Dictionaries?" He's not expecting the grandson of an Oxford book collector with an edition from 1816. "Did you get this on eBay?" he says, as we agree on a price of $75 per book. "No - my grandfather left these for my aunt in Oxford, who died two years ago. They were in such poor condition that I agreed to take them and see if I could restore them. If I pay cash can I avoid the tax?" "It depends. Are you wearing a badge?" "No, I don't like people with badges." "Me neither." Another sparkling conversation, processed effortlessly by the ReSound 761.


And then on to Eric the Dent Guy in Grandview. Teddy's car got hit in the grocery store parking lot while he was here for Thanksgiving and I've agreed to get the dent fixed for his Christmas present. Eric also accepts cash, and is happy not to provide a receipt. It's a wonderful world, Columbus, where everyone is one step ahead of the tax man. Eric works behind the Moo-Moo, in the kind of warehouse that you expect to find on "Storage Wars," or in films starring Liam Neeson about human traffickers.


Safe House (Dent Pro Services)

Each garage door hides a dream behind it: these are all the small businesses that would be out of business if it wasn't for the Affordable Care Act. He's in with some impressive company, like the Alpha and Omega Building Services, and something called the These Are Things Studio, both of which are either Joycean think tanks or laundering services for local mafia hit men. But Eric is legit: he banged out an earlier dent in Teddy's VW two years ago, and wouldn't let me have the car back until it was perfect. "I'm having some trouble getting the look right." Eventually I had to convince him to let it go. This time, he took care of the dent lickety-split: three hours and $175 later it was as good as new.

Before and After


A restorative day, I thought to myself. First the old printer's shop, then the car place. And I can hear again. Maybe in retirement one is not so much doing new things as restoring old ones. Mum marveled after her trip "how hearing aids can transform a person into someone I had lost touch with since earlier days." It's something, to be turned into a warm person through an app that filters out the noise in restaurants. You could almost say I had come in from the cold...


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©2019 by Sebastian Knowles