People often ask me about the risks associated with surfing: Drowning, great whites, giant squid wrapping their slimy tentacles around your neck and sucking you to the bottom of the sea. Regretfully, the aspect of surfing that bedevils me most is far lower on the totem pole of badassery.
It’s called surfer’s ear, or, as my doctor calls it, bone exostosis.
Years of surfing in the frigid waters of Santa Cruz, Calif., has resulted in abnormal bone growth in my ears, leaving an opening the size of a pin hole. Add a dash of wax and sand and my canal becomes microscopic. If I surf without ear plugs, I will often hear a loud “slurp,” and my canals will hermetically seal, sometimes for days.
Last week I forgot my ear plugs and surfed anyway. A fateful mistake. After my first duckdive, I felt my ears shut like an elevator door and have now been more or less deaf in both ears for seven days.
I can hear a little bit.
It’s like trying to understand a shy foreign exchange student at a highschool kegger.
I have a doctor’s appointment later today. He will suck this crud out of my ears, put me on antibiotics, and hopefully life will return to some semblance of normality. If the bone growth is too substantial, I will undergo surgery to have it chipped out. (I have already had this surgery once, but the tenacious little bastard grew back.)
For now, though, I write this without being able to hear the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.
I once participated in a week-long silent meditation retreat. It was outside of the Santa Cruz Mountains in an old-growth redwood forest. Each morning monks prayed at a shrine and the smell of incense filled the air. I meditated for six hours a day and left a more patient person.
Now that I’m deaf, I just yell all the time.
If you drew a graph of someone’s hearing loss over time, then overlaid it with another graph of when that person started to exhibit curmudgeonly behavior, the two charts would be as correlated as C02 and melting ice caps. I would go so far as to say that loss of hearing is the primary reason some old folks get cranky.
I say this because over the past week I have mutated from a 30-year-old surfer with a gratitude journal to a cantankerous old hound who loves three things: rocking chairs, revolvers and Rush Limbaugh.
I used to be an avid skateboarder, but now I firmly believe that the little roller-demons should all be rounded up and shipped to Guam! Speaking as a deaf man, having one of these little fuckers whiz by without warning induces abject terror and leaves me clutching a lamp post like it’s the earthquake of ’89.
Because I can barely hear myself talk, I now use my stage voice everywhere, hoping that the person I’m speaking to will respond with the same emphatic decibel. The other day while shopping at Safeway I may have made a meek young lady cry when I shouted, “WHERE CAN I FIND NAIL CLIPPERS?” then leaned in for her answer.
It doesn’t help that everyone wears masks, giving them the vocal clarity of someone speaking with a mouth full of marbles. But what’s more strange is trying to speak through a mask while barely being able to hear my own words. It’s like living in a nerfed dream and I need to bite my tongue to remember that I’m awake.
A new round of antibiotics and the screeching, honking, chirping, mowing, laughing world will come rushing back in, and this will have marked a muted blip in an otherwise noisy life.
Living with surfer’s ear is like going on a free silent meditation retreat, without the mindfulness.