Sunday, March 29, 2009


One hot summer day some years ago, I went to visit my friends Alan and Hana. I’d pulled my hair back into a tight ponytail, just to feel the breeze on my neck during the bike ride over.

When I got there, Hana’s eight-year-old niece studied me briefly and said, “You shouldn’t wear your hair that way. Your ears are too big.”

What she’d said had merit: my ears are indeed unusually large, and the ponytail had exposed them for casual inspection by eight year olds. Too large in some absolute sense? It would be hard to say. Too large for someone my size? Very likely. They’re some big ears.

I think someone—her mother, perhaps—admonished her to not say such a thing.

“No. She’s right,” I said. “I shouldn’t wear my hair like this.”

It wasn’t exactly one of those adorable ‘kids say the darnedest things’ moments. Nothing adorable about some snotty eight-year-old giving you personal grooming tips. But it was a turning point, one in which I decided that my ears required some sort of persistent cover. Camouflage even.

If the eyes are windows onto the soul, what are the ears?

I believe the ghost in Hamlet alludes to the porches of his ears, so perhaps my ears are the verandas onto my soul; my ears do have a certain deck-like quality (minus the Adirondack chairs), especially since they protrude on the sides.

But for Shakespeare, the dead King’s ears are only incidental—they’re just a place to pour in the poison, a literary device to move the story forward. The only writer I can think of who waxes rhapsodic over ears is Haruki Murakami. The women in his stories often have exquisite shell-like ears, delicate in form, unspeakably lovely. Inspirational ears. Mystical ears. Erotic ears.

“I’ve been told my ears are my best feature,” they say in their profiles. And for them, that’d be an understatement.

“My ears inspire poets. They drive the emo-inclined to the brink of Cure-like weepy poesy.”

“My closest friends spread out their checkered tablecloths and have picnics on the porches of my ears.”

“Six demure Latinas celebrate their Quinceañeras on the wisteria-entwined plump pillows of my earlobes.”

Given the scope and reach of the Internet, I’m sure there’s even porn devoted wholly to ears. There’s got to be. Ear Porn. You’ll have to look for it yourself on XTube; I’m scared of what I might find.

Why, you might ask, am I so focused on my ears today? Now that I’ve learned to keep them in an undisclosed location on the side of my head (yes—I keep them both on one side, much like a flounder’s eyes), you might think there’d be no particular reason to dwell on them.

But that’s not so.

When I was younger and less self-conscious, I flirted with the idea of piercing my ears. But even back then, piercing both lobes seemed too ordinary. My BFF Carol and I decided we’d each pierce one lobe in a gesture of friendship and solidarity; besides, that way we could split the cost. Irony played a role too: her research involved earrings in the Late Bronze Age Aegean.

It was a lovely theory and a sensible plan. It was cost-effective, social, and required only minimal effort. Did we do it? Of course not!

I googled Carol recently to see whether she’d gone ahead without me. A photo reveals that both of her ears are pierced. And a quick look in the mirror reveals that neither of mine is. Not with an ordinary dainty hole in the lobe. Nor with the hardware store assortment of studs, clips, and rings that are so common now. Nor with the 0 gauge plugs or 4 gauge steel claws that make me so squeamish when I see someone with them down in the Castro. Come to think of it, I’m probably the last adult in San Francisco with nary a body modification.

But none of this has anything to do with why I’m obsessing about my ears.

It’s the earbuds.

You heard me: earbuds. Oh. Maybe you’ll have to shout to tell me if you heard me: I’m wearing my earbuds. I never thought I’d be one of those people who walk around plugged into a portable music player, oblivious to what’s going on around them.

What makes matters worse is that I’m not even listening to music like most of the students one encounters on every college campus, wandering to the dining hall or to their afternoon class in Eastmost Hall. Instead I’m listening to podcasts. I don’t subscribe to just two or three podcasts; I listen to an extensive network of natterers, some of them broadcasting in twos and threes, using conversation to fill the time, others monologuing from the barest of notes. Many of them know each other and cross the porous podcast boundaries the way Petticoat Junction characters would sometimes show up in Green Acres.

It drives Mark crazy.

“I’m competing with your friends in the plastic box,” he says, annoyed that I’m listening to strangers, and am unavailable to him when he shouts at me from another room.

I switch off the player, leaving the earbuds dangling from my ears.

“I can hear you.” I tell him. “I can hear you! I’ve turned it off. Now say what you want to say!”

“I don’t want to talk to you now. I just want to be able to talk to you.”

“It’s more fun to do the dishes when I’m listening to podcasts,” I whine.

“I think you like your friends in the plastic box better than you like me and Lumpy.”

“That’s so not true!” I switch the mp3 player back on so I can return to Michael and Kevin on the QCast Connection or Walt and Holly on We’re Mean Because You’re Stupid. “You know it’s not true.”

But I don’t just listen to podcasts while I’m doing the dishes or taking out the garbage. I listen to them other times too. When I’m gardening. When I’m cooking. When I’m walking to the store. When I’m driving. When I’m shopping.

I most certainly crossed a line though when I started wearing the earbuds to bed. I can’t help it, really. The podcasts help me sleep. In fact, they’ve helped me conquer a period of almost profound insomnia, insomnia that would not yield to benzodiazepines or Nyquil. There are a couple of podcasters who are almost preternaturally boring—they narrate their lives, right down to the time they spend snuggling with their partners, cleaning their apartments, clipping coupons, installing software, or eating macaroni and cheese—and if even they let me down, there’s always that old standby, NPR.

A little Terry Gross or a dose of Archer goes a long way to curing even the most intractable sleeplessness.

In fact, I have a special pair of earbuds that I wear at night. They don’t stay in my ears very well, but if I sleep on my side, they don’t dig in and cause injuries like my daytime earbuds do. Instead they fall out harmlessly and get tangled in the bedding.

If I wake up in the middle of the night, instead of dwelling on something unfortunate that happened during the day, I start up the player again, click-click-click-click, until I find the place in the podcast where I finally drifted off to sleep. Something that put me to sleep once is very apt to put me to sleep twice, a third time, and a fourth. Often I’ll listen to the same five minutes of rambling talk over and over again all night long.

The problem is, the cat hears the clicking. Even the single click that’s the minimum interaction necessary to start the podcast playing again is enough to alert Lumpy that I’m awake and perhaps might be persuaded to replenish the kitty buffet in the kitchen.

He meows quietly when he hears the click. He knows that if he wakes Mark up, he’ll get locked in the garage until morning; it’s the current feline behavior modification strategy. But Lumpy also knows that I’m too softhearted—and too nearsighted—to hustle him downstairs and into the garage for a timeout.

So, in his quietest possible kitty-voice, he says, “Cathy? Cathy? You awake?”

Click. Click. I’m clicking through the menus on my mp3 player, trying to settle on something fresh to listen to. Something that’ll send me back to blissful sleep. Click. Click.

And now there’s a second set of meows that means something like, “Quiet now. Let’s sneak into the kitchen and check out my food bowls. Oh! Don’t make too much noise. You’ll wake him and he’ll lock us in the garage.”

Click. Click. I’m trying to fast-forward through the portion of the podcast that I was listening to before I fell asleep. Click. “Shit!” I mutter. Fast forward is non-linear on my player, and it advances increasingly fast: 1-2-3-4-5-6 seconds. 20-30-40-50-60 seconds. 2-3-4-5 minutes. 1-2-3 hours. Whoops. Because there is no 2 hour mark for most podcasts—even the most marathon talkers of the bunch seldom go beyond 1 hour—I’m sent to the beginning of the next podcast. And that means backing up and starting all over again.

Click. Click. Click.

The cat is increasingly restive. All of this clicking confirms that I’m actually awake. His sweet quiet little meows stop, and he starts a second game, hunt the earpod cords, which are tangled among the sheets and lead to the player which is under my pillow. He grabs the cord with his sharp claws and attempts to chomp down on it.

“Lumpy! Damn it! Stop!” By now, all three of us are wide awake. Lumpy is meowing extra loud at the injustice of being yelled at. I jam the earbuds back in my ears and click-click-click the volume button on the player until it’s loud enough to drown out the cat. It’s doubtful any of us will be getting any more sleep.

Except—at about 7:15, a few minutes before I should be getting up and at ‘em, I fall into a deep sleep. And I don’t wake up again until 8:30. An episode of Pod is My Co-Pilot is playing full blast and I wonder how I could’ve slept through it thusfar.

When I get out of bed, I swap my nighttime earbuds for my daytime ones. These fit a good deal better—they don’t keep falling off—but they interrupt the solid curtain of hair and only serve to emphasize that my ears have been built to a different scale than my other features.

The funny thing about all of these pairs of earbuds is how long the cords are. My mp3 player is tiny and the cords are long, long, long, and oddly prone to complicated tangles and unfathomable knots. I’ll take out the earbuds for a few seconds—say, to pull a sweatshirt over my head—and when I go to replace them in my ears, the cords will have snarled into the worst knot possible.

“How did this happen?” I ask Mark as I try to unsnarl the cords.

The cords have become mysteriously braided with the Honda’s seat belt and looped around the gear shift. They have slipped between the steering wheel and the steering column. The player itself is clipped to something too. But what? It is nowhere in sight. I start frisking my pockets and following the cords with my fingers, hoping to find their point of origin.

Mark is angry, but he’s trying to be patient. He eventually locates the recalcitrant mp3 player and starts to untangle the cords himself.

“Drive,” he orders me.

It surprises me how often the cord tangles itself around something that has nothing to do with me, nor with my mp3 player, nor with podosphere in general. I’ll get up to de-plane, groggy from hours of minimal oxygen, and the cord will be insidiously snagged on the armrest of my airplane seat. Or I’ll bend down to feed the cat (a motion undertaken many thousands of times each day), and the cord will snake itself around poor Lumpy’s neck. Or the cord will have threaded through my clothing during the course of a day in a way that seems at first blush to be topologically impossible. Or I’ll be trying to proceed through airport security in a calm and well-organized way, and the cord will be doing its level best to wrap around my knee and trip me as I slide my shoes back on.

It’s never ending.

I’m sure that all of the Mac-ophiles would attribute most (if not all) of these problems to the fact that my mp3 player is an off-brand, a Sansa, the Radio Shack special, instead of the real-deal iPod. In fact, most of the podcasters seem to fetishize their iPods and iPhones (if not the entire Apple brand) and attribute to them magical life-changing properties.

“If you had an iPod, the clicking wouldn’t wake up the cat.”

“If you had iCords, they wouldn’t try to mate with your seatbelt.”

“If you had an iPhone, you’d be hip in spite of the fact that both of your ears are in an undisclosed location on the side of your head.”

But I’m afraid that in addition to having very large ears, I’m also a cheapskate. A stubborn cheapskate. I just don’t want to pay extra for my player to support Apple’s doubtlessly pricey advertising campaigns. And I like John Hodgman much better than the snarky hip Mac dude anyway.

Most recently Mark has suggested that I simply have the earbuds permanently implanted in my ears.

It’s not a bad idea. I’ve got the ears for it.