The Perils of Listening In

26 Apr

2000irises: The Perils of Listening In

This piece ran on smartly. Chicago on April 25, 2011:

Remember the last time you were sitting in that café, minding your own business, chatting with a friend? You were completely focused on one another, catching up on recent events, sharing traumas and victories, emotions, fears. It was a wonderful conversation, wasn’t it? Personal and satisfying, meaningful, refreshing.

Yeah. I remember that too. I was listening the whole time.

I possess the dubious superpower of Super Hearing. (Imagine concentric red lines emanating from my ears.) I’d rather have Super Strength or Eidetic Memory, but I suppose I’ll take the hand I’m dealt (or ears, if you will.) I haven’t yet used my power to thwart criminal masterminds, but I totally will if the opportunity rises.

Like most superheroes, I have a love/hate relationship with my super ability. Generally, I use it for good. After all, Super Hearing can be practical and useful. For example, when I waited tables, I always “magically” knew what my guests needed before they asked. Imagine the tips! Later, as a teacher and professor, I easily discerned whispered conversations, the rustle of passed papers, the pucka-pucka of cell-phone keypads. A glance in a student’s direction usually sufficed to bring them around. You can also easily imagine how handy Super Hearing can be for a mom.

Beyond its benefits to maintaining order, though, Super Hearing can be vexing. You see, I can’t turn it off. There are many, many conversations I just don’t want to hear. For example, recently I’ve been unwittingly privy to:

* “She thought it was hidden, but I found her diary under her mattress. She called me a bitch.”

* “I’ve been clean since I got out of prison, but it’s hard. I’m lonely a lot.”

* “Oh yeah, she’s hot. I’d love to get my hands on that ass.”


All this wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t also ridiculously empathetic – another “talent” I can’t turn off. Sometimes others’ whispered confessions and harrowing stories bring me to tears or inspire such fury, I have to escape to the safety of my car and cry. There have been times when I’ve heard things so awful I’ve considered whether or not to contact authorities. Occasionally, with students in genuine need, I have intervened, but mostly I keep my nose out of other people’s business.

Instead, I compensate. I never leave home without my iPod because I don’t want to hear your hushed argument with your boyfriend, your regressive political views, or your cell-phone conversation with your divorce lawyer. I don’t want to know the details of your sex life, drug habits, medical issues, bank account balances, or relationship with Jesus. I always wear my noise-canceling earphones in the café, in doctor’s waiting rooms (deadly), in the library, on public transportation – anywhere bored people are prone to chit-chat.

Originally, I cultivated my Super Hearing. As a young child, tuning in to others’ voices served me well if things got dicey. But I no longer need this skill. Voyeurism holds no allure for me. I’d happily trade my Super Hearing for, say, Time Travel or Super Speed. Super powers never come free though. As Spiderman, Batman and Catwoman have demonstrated, there’s always a cost.

I imagine old age will eventually dull the constant din of other people’s voices, especially as I’ve spent the last twenty-five years listening to loud music through earbuds. In the meantime, know that I honestly don’t want to eavesdrop, but if I’m sitting nearby without my earphones on, I’m listening.

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