I really wish I could hear like a normal person. Usually my hearing aids do a tolerable job of making up for the deficit, but there are notable exceptions.
In early November 2012, shortly after we arrived at the South Pole, station residents hosted an Open Mic Night. Polies entertained their colleagues with music, stand-up comedy, poetry, or any act they wished to perform. A cosmologist played several fast-fingered classical guitar pieces. A young woman in our cargo department–a hippie at heart with a taste for large, colorful earrings– sang for us with her beautiful Norah Jones voice as she plucked her guitar. Our station manager–a rugged man with a short graying beard and a tendency to sport green plaid flannel shirts–performed a few songs on the guitar, too, strumming background music while his deep voice spoke poetic and rhythmic stanzas. One song he wrote himself employed the word “scrotum,” to the delight of the woman hosting the event who giggled about it at least twice during the remainder of the show. Our fire chief, Andre, read us a comical story he had written about a childhood incident involving hornets. The spectators reclined in the couches brought in for the occasion, hands wrapped around cold beers and smiles on their faces.
After the show, Keith and I returned to our berth and took some pleasure in what Keith likes to call, “extracurricular activities.” Our two twin-sized beds join together to make a king-sized bed, which is erected at approximately the height of a bunk bed, giving us some extra living space underneath. We really need stronger bracing under our bed. It tends to knock about during “extracurricular activities.” This particular evening it rocked back and forth, hitting the wall at the head and the closets at the foot, knocking boxes and toiletry items to the floor.
The next morning, as I stood in the galley filling a cup with orange juice, one of our heavy machine operators walked over, thumbs hooked onto the straps of his overalls. “Did you sin last night?” he asked, grinning. I thought I detected a twinkle in his eye.
Oh, no! I thought in a panic. My face felt suddenly hot. His room must be next to ours; we kept him awake with all the commotion! Still, it was an odd way for him to ask. In fact, it was peculiar that he should ask this at all.
“Did I do what last night?” I asked cautiously.
“Sing!” he repeated. “Did you sing last night?”
“Oh!” I said. “Haha! Sing! No, I didn’t!”
A week or two later, I saw a new face at dinner and decided to welcome him. “Hi, my name is Lily! What’s your name?” I sat down next to him with my plate of food.
“Say that again?” I asked.
“With a D.” I noticed a slight edge of impatience in his voice.
“Dary?” I proposed, a bit tentatively. I tried to get a good look at his stubble-strewn face in case I could gather a clue by lip-reading.
The new person paused, eyeing me askance from under the brim of his baseball hat, apparently trying to ascertain whether I had an IQ high enough to wipe the galley tables in a competent fashion. “Eric with a D.”
“Erid?” I ventured.
But it was a dismissive “yeah, sure,” and I knew his name really wasn’t Erid–he was just tired of repeating himself to a half-witted dining assistant. After he left, a friend helped me out. “His name is Derrick.”
Yes, my hearing loss makes me look mentally challenged sometimes. It can be amusing to watch people begin to grasp the reality, over time, that I am actually a reasonably intelligent person.
One day during work I went to take a bathroom break. As I approached the door, a technician put up a hand to stop me. “Just a warning,” he said. “It’s kind of gross–there’s a big geek in there.”
“There’s a big what?” I had mental images of an eleven-foot-tall man, ballooning to fill up half the room in a Honey-I-Blew-Up-The-Kid style, with thick-rimmed glasses taped together over his nose.
Despite a Master’s degree and a fairly extensive professional work history, I work in the kitchen here at the Pole, washing dishes and pots, wiping tables and filling the juice dispenser, among other mind-numbing tasks. I told them I would do anything to get down here to Antarctica, and don’t regret it because I love the mix of people. Truly, I live in one of the world’s most unique places and I am proud to support the world-class science that happens here. To be paid to be at the South Pole when most people spend $50,000 (give or take a few grand) to visit, is a real privilege and a fulfillment of a life goal. Usually the work hours go by quickly, but after a former job in which I commanded a fair amount of respect from everyone around me, made a lot of major decisions, and worked very independently, picking up a mop or scrubbing a pot, taking orders, and working all day without really having to use my brain can be humbling. To amuse myself, I sometimes mislabel the juice buckets. Apple juice is now Agile Puice. There is also Frapegruit juice and Drape Goose. The milk, which we reconstitute from powder using an industrial-sized handheld blender that sounds like a dentist’s drill–at least to my imperfect ears–from the dining area, is dubbed “Moolk” or “Bovine Product” or “Moo Juice.” Plates, bowls, cups and silverware treadmill through the dish pit at each mealtime. Soon, one begins to recognize individual plates and bowls though ostensibly they are all from the same set and therefore “identical.” “Oh!” I might exclaim as a bowl with four characteristic dots on it passes through the dish pit for the third time in a meal. “There’s Dottie!”
Sometimes a chef will come in and ask for an item to be prioritized if they need it for their cooking. Chef Brown came into the crowded dish pit one day wearing his usual “Cooking at the Bottom of the World” baseball cap atop his neatly trimmed goateed face. We had just brought in a cartload of pots from the kitchen. He pointed vaguely downward toward where I stood on the other side of the cart. “Shit pants,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?” I most certainly did not shit my pants. And why is he swearing all of a sudden?
“Sheet pans. Could you get to them next? We need them in the kitchen.” He pointed down again, to the stack of large, flat pans on the lower shelf of the cart.
“Sheet pans! You bet!” After he was gone, I cracked up laughing. At least it’s amusing, not being able to hear.