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Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow

A True Story of Love, Hearing Loss, Heartbreak, and Redemption

John J. Geoghegan

First Edition

Published 2018


All rights reserved

The rights of John J. Geoghegan, as the author of this work, have been asserted in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

No part of this book may be re-printed or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now unknown or hereafter invented, including photocopying, and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the Author and Publisher.

Cover design©Pete Cunliffe

Front Cover author photo courtesy of Emil Petrinic ©

Copyright © 2018 John J. Geoghegan

All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: PART I HEAR TODAY: The Empire Strikes Back*

Chapter 2: Getting the Message*

Chapter 3: The Tokyu Express*

Chapter 4: Greed is Good*

Chapter 5: Sharp Objects*

Chapter 6: On the Rocks*

Chapter 7: Madge*

Chapter 8: Listening Skills*

Chapter 9: Paradise*

Chapter 10: Trouble in Paradise*

Chapter 11: Crazy in Woodside*

Chapter 12: No Problemo*

Chapter 13: All I Need is the Air that I Breath*

Chapter 14: A Second Chance*

Chapter 15: PART II ALLIE: First Contact*

Chapter 16: Father Knows Best*

Chapter 17: Reunion*

Chapter 18: The Morning After*

Chapter 19: Allie’s Confession*

Chapter 20: Twin Rivers*

Chapter 21: Scene of the Crime*

Chapter 22: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?*

Chapter 23: Giddyup!*

Chapter 24: Dr. Squeaky-voice*

Chapter 25: Danabling*

Chapter 26: Complications*

Chapter 27: PART III OFF THE RAILS: Marin*

Chapter 28: Cross Country*

Chapter 29: Sugar and Spice*

Chapter 30: The Dutch Boy*

Chapter 31: Work*

Chapter 32: Beauty in the Breakdown*

Chapter 33: Slippery Slope*

Chapter 34: Limo Driver*

Chapter 35: Fixing My Ears*

Chapter 36: Coming Unglued*

Chapter 37: The Great De-Accessioning*

Chapter 38: Moving Day*

Chapter 39: Gone Tomorrow*

Chapter 40: The Glock Retirement Plan*

Chapter 41: PART IV REDEMPTION: Arrested Development*

Chapter 42: Hillcrest*

Chapter 43: Trapped*

Chapter 44: Freedom*

Chapter 45: Beauty Hides the Thorns*

Chapter 46: Las Alamedas*

Chapter 47: Healing*

Chapter 48: Russell House*

Chapter 49: Catch and Release*

Chapter 50: Afterword*

About the Author

Chapter 1

*PART I HEAR TODAY: The Empire Strikes Back*

It was September 2006, another glorious California day, and I was sitting in my office at LucasArts awaiting an important phone call.

As Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing for LucasFilm’s videogame division I had a spectacular office. The view from my window confirmed as much. No expense had been spared landscaping our new, $350 million, campus in San Francisco’s Presidio, the former Army base turned national park. A carefully groomed lawn sloped towards Lombard Street while the Palace of Fine Arts sienna-tinted dome poked over the tree tops. San Francisco bay sparkled in the distance.

With a life-sized Admiral Akbar, the rebel trout leader, standing in a glass case outside my door, and a bronze statue of Yoda near the lobby, I had no trouble remembering I worked for George Lucas, the Star Wars impresario.

As I tapped my fingers impatiently waiting for the phone to ring, I mused over the conversation I’d just had with our president’s assistant. He was running late, she informed me. Our weekly meeting was delayed. She’d call when he was ready. Since my boss valued punctuality in his subordinates more than himself, I sat chained to my desk waiting to be beckoned.

I’d worked at LucasArts for nearly two years. Though I didn’t consider myself a huge Star Wars fan, I’d enjoyed the first three films like everybody else. But the much anticipated fourth film had been so disappointing I hadn’t bothered seeing the fifth. Now I found myself hawking Stars Wars video games in the months leading up to the release of Lucas’ sixth installment: Revenge of the Sith. At 49 years of age I was a bit long in the tooth to be chasing space aliens.

Though I’d only met him a few times, there was no doubt George Lucas was unusual. Of course, anyone worth $4 billion is allowed their eccentricities, but I suspected his had been there from the start.

In case you’re one of three people on the planet who don’t know what George Lucas looks like, he’s short and relatively slight with a head of curly, dark hair and an unkempt beard. Every time I saw him he was dressed like a junior in High School. In the few meetings we had together, he’d always been reserved. I didn’t expect him to be warm and chatty. After all, he was a world famous celebrity. But he projected such a formidable force field he didn’t bother making eye contact. It took less than a minute to realize that even though you worked for him you meant nothing.

George, as everybody called him even when they didn’t know him, was deep in post-production on Revenge of the Sith and had put on a lot of weight. He now sported a strange, bubble-shaped gullet that was hard not to stare at when he talked. I took this as an indication of how much pressure he was under and cut him some slack. It’s amazing what some celebrities can get away with.

Still, people loved working for George despite his remoteness. This meant he could get away with paying below market salaries since young people would do anything for a piece of his cachet. In other words, working at Lucas was like working at Versailles with a lot of fawning courtiers.

By way of example, the first thing you noticed was how everyone professed to know what George liked, George felt, or George cared about; just saying his name seemed to make you special. But the truth was we barely saw him. Occasionally, he’d pop into the commissary with someone like Steven Spielberg in tow, but when he did, you had to pretend not to see them.

The biggest problem was that it was nearly impossible to get George to make a decision before it was too late. I’d been present at more than one hastily called meeting only to hear that George had blown up yet another storyline for one of our videogames. Since we were never invited to meet with George, we weren’t privy to his reasoning, which meant it was back to the drawing board without understanding what had gone wrong in the first place. Fair enough. George owned his companies outright. He could do what he wanted. But it made for a strange work environment.

One story I loved was how George hired Lawrence Halprin, the noted landscape architect, to design the grounds of his new Presidio campus. Halprin didn’t work on a budget. You paid him what he charged or he didn’t take the job. He was a lot like George that way. Neither man negotiated. While designing George’s Presidio campus Halprin found a creek in Sonoma whose sound he fell in love with. George bought the creek from the farmer who owned the land lock, stock and barrel. Then, each rock was numbered, dug up, and relocated to the new campus where it was reassembled to replicate the original right down to its babbling brook-ishness. It must have cost a fortune, which made me wonder: if George would spend that kind of much money just for landscaping why didn’t he pay his employees better?

Of course, George spent what he wanted safe in the knowledge that almost anything with Star Wars on it sold insanely well. In fact, he made way more money licensing the brand than he did from the movies. I had the opportunity to see this first hand while marketing his videogames. It never ceased to amaze me how much fans would spend on a Star Wars game even when it sucked.

I soon learned after arriving at LucasArts that the company had a history of selling crappy videogames. As a result, the division was in poor shape. I’d been brought in by the new president to serve on his management team and help turn things around. After being told to lay off half my staff I set about developing a marketing and sales plan for our new slate of titles. I was also responsible for convincing retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, and Gamestop to take another chance on us.

I may have been new to the videogame industry, but peddling Star Wars was a breeze compared to some of the other products I’d marketed. Still, turning LucasArts around was like changing a tire on a car going sixty miles an hour. We were always undermanned with limited budgets and little time for planning. I spent many long nights either at the office or traveling, despite being married with two young children.

Much of our success I attributed to our division president whose call I was awaiting. We’d started our careers at the same Madison Avenue advertising agency and had kept in touch over the years. When I’d heard Lucas’ VP Marketing job was open I’d contacted him, after which he invited me for an interview.

Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. After twenty years in advertising, LucasArts seemed the right combination of prestige and stability for that stage of my career. I didn’t understand just how much the place was run by kids. In fact, I was the only “adult” on the management besides my boss.

As it turned out, LucasArts was a high-profile, high stress job that looked a lot better on paper than it was in reality. Then again, that’s true for a lot of companies.

The fact is I had nobody to blame but myself. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to get ahead. I’d put up with grueling hours, unrealistic demands, personal abuse, and a chaotic work environment if the path led to success. I could even be an asshole when required.

But there was one significant drawback. My boss had a temper. He was not only mercurial, he was abusive. He swore and threw things. Employees called him Darth Vader much to his undisguised pleasure. That’s when I realized the only people crazier than ad execs worked in Hollywood.

I had no doubt my boss was a talented executive; even brilliant. I believed in his ability unquestioningly. Physically larger than life, he was over six feet tall and bordering on obese. How much does obese weigh? I’m not sure but I know it when I see it. He was an accomplished pianist as well as having played football in college—an unusual combination. If this wasn’t impressive enough he’d also held his own working with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. After five years heading up marketing for LucasFilm there was no doubt he knew what he was doing.

I may not have been happy about my boss’s behavior, but it did get results. It also made our weekly meetings stressful. At best, he made me feel like I wasn’t working hard enough. More often, he yelled at me for doing something “stupid.” It was a merciless way of motivating people but it worked in my case. I constantly strived to please him.

One reason I was willing to put up with all this was that LucasArts was a chance to launder my resume. After fifteen years managing advertising agency offices for Saatchi, WPP, and IPG, I figured a few years working for George and I could go anywhere I wanted.

A couple of things had me worried, though. First, the position I’d interviewed for was VP of Marketing, but since the VP of Sales job was also open my boss decided to combine the two. I didn’t have the requisite sales experience, so I questioned my ability to handle both jobs and told him as much. Sure, I was game to learn, but I didn’t want to get in over my head. But my boss wanted to eliminate a salary and urged me to take both jobs, so being ambitious I said yes.

That had been two years ago. Since then we’d gone from having the biggest loss in company history to earning more profit in one year than the company had earned in all of its years combined. I was proud of how much we’d accomplished and enjoyed the work though I continued struggling with the sales aspect of my job. It helped that things were heading in the right direction. Then one day everything changed.

I hadn’t noticed it at first but I was having trouble hearing. It was my colleagues who pointed it out to me. I did okay in one-on-one conversations but anytime two or more people were in the room I had trouble understanding what was said. Our Tuesday morning executive meeting was especially difficult. That’s when I reported on the past week’s sales results. My presentations were fine, but I couldn’t hear the questions people asked me. I also realized I was having trouble on the phone.

And there were other signs. Straining to listen is physically taxing. By the end of each day I was exhausted. At home, my wife complained I had the television on too loud. This was strange because even on the highest setting I couldn’t hear the actors. I relied on the captions instead.

Hearing loss is a bit like Alzheimer’s: you can’t always tell when you’re slipping. I already wore hearing aids, having been diagnosed with a slight hearing deficiency when I was 29. But my hearing had been stable for two decades. Now, things had suddenly got worse.

To compensate, I turned my hearing aids to their highest setting. But more volume doesn’t mean more clarity; it just means distortion and an embarrassing amount of feedback. It didn’t take long before I realized there was no point on the amplification spectrum where I could grasp human speech. Meanwhile, my twin hearing aids whistled like tea kettles.

I should have known something was wrong, but like the slowly boiling frog I found it hard telling the difference between difficult and impossible to hear. What I did notice was that departmental get-togethers, client dinners, and even lunch in the commissary were painful to navigate. I even started hearing words that hadn’t been said, the most dangerous thing that can happen in a business setting.

Partial hearing won’t cut it in an industry where the difference between selling “9,000” and “90,000” units could cost you your job, yet they sounded the same to me.

It wasn’t until my presentation at an all-staff meeting that the severity of my problem was revealed. I was reviewing the marketing plans for the launch of our Revenge of the Sith videogame and the presentation was going well. The entire company was gathered in LucasFilm’s beautifully appointed Premier Theater. I could feel the attention of hundreds of people on me and enjoyed it. But as I introduced our new slate of television commercials I mispronounced the name of Chew-bacca, the famous Wookie pilot, calling him “Chew-y-bacca” instead.

OK, maybe I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, but I knew who Chewbacca was. I also knew how to pronounce his name. But my hearing had declined to the point where it was starting to impair my speech. I could no longer hear myself well enough to pronounce all my words correctly.

Mispronouncing the name of a seven foot tall Wookie, once referred to as a “walking carpet,” was not the kind of mistake that went unnoticed at LucasArts. My boss, in the front row, raised his hand, stopping my presentation and demanding I pronounce Chewbacca’s name correctly. The embarrassing thing was I couldn’t hear him well enough to understand what he was asking. All I could divine was the stunned, silent look on hundreds of faces.

I was by far the most experienced marketing guy LucasArts had ever had, but it’s hard to overcome a hearing impairment as severe as mine, particularly when I was intent on minimizing it. Oh, sure, people knew I had trouble hearing. After all, they could see my hearing aids. But hearing loss is the invisible disability; people have no way of knowing just how much you can’t hear. I’d been able to mask the full extent of what felt like an infirmity for over a year. Now the whole company knew.

If my behavior sounds strange, it’s not unusual for someone with a hearing loss. Often we hide it, too embarrassed to admit we have a problem. We’ll even pretend to understand what you say when we clearly don’t. This allows for any number of embarrassing situations, including the one I’d just suffered.

In case you don’t know, the medical community groups hearing into four categories: mild, moderate, severe, and profound. My loss had started out as mild, become mild to moderate, and was now in the moderate to severe range. But something had recently changed. Instead of a gradual diminishment, my hearing felt like it had dropped off a cliff.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time I’d suffered what is called a “precipitous hearing loss.” In my case, speech comprehension had gone from a high of 92% in my right ear to a low of 40%; and from a high of 60% in my left ear to an abysmal 28%. In other words, my ability to understand speech had suddenly been cut in half.

What people don’t realize is that measuring hearing loss is like measuring an earthquake—a change may appear numerically small but it’s a magnitude of difference. LucasArts was a fast paced environment with lots of conference calls, high-level meetings, and international travel. To be VP of Global Sales and Marketing while not being able to hear was a game changer. My usual strategies of arrive early, work late, and manage upwards didn’t help. Every time I walked into a meeting, took a phone call, or met with my boss, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to understand what was said.

Finally, my phone rang.

When I picked it up, I guessed at as much as heard what the assistant said.

“He’s ready for you now.”

After that I headed for the door. A minute later I was sitting on my boss’s couch.

As I’ve said, my boss was a big man. Bent over his computer studying an email his body appeared mountainous, his head its summit. I killed time taking in the movie poster of George C. Scott playing General Patton that hung on his wall. Then, without warning, he swiveled in his chair to face me, his countenance drained of expression.

“So, what’s on the agenda?”

“Well,” I replied, “I’d like to talk about increasing the salary for the secretarial position we’re trying to fill. As you know, we let the last person go because you didn’t like her, but we’re having trouble filling the position at that salary.”

My boss blinked impassively.

“We’re not here to discuss salary,” he said. “Salary for the position remains the same. We’re here to talk about your performance.”

“Oh?” I said. “What about?”

“I’m firing you.”

And you know what, dear reader? My hearing was so bad I asked him to repeat himself. Twice.

Chapter 2

*Getting the Message*

That night I parked the car on a street near my house afraid to go inside.

I had good reason to be concerned. I faced a significant financial commitment with no idea how to meet it. Not only did I carry a $1 million mortgage, I had two young children, one in private school, with many years of expenses ahead of me. I also owned two luxury cars, only one of which was paid for, a part time nanny, gardener, and cleaning lady, and $20,000 in property tax coming due. How was I going to pay for it all?

I’d always gone for the high risk, high reward jobs, so this wasn’t the first time I’d been fired. But the financial comfort of my family was in jeopardy. Finding another job at my salary level would not be easy. I had no idea what to tell my wife.

It took me an hour to work up enough courage to go inside. When I did, my family was the picture of domesticity. My wife was busy in the kitchen making dinner, and my two daughters were lining up their animal figures in a nightly ritual they called the parade.

I motioned to my wife to step into the den so we could talk in private. When she did, I closed the door, trying to find the words to tell her what happened.

“You’re home early,” she said.

“I got fired.”

My wife paused a moment then screwed up her face.

“How could you!” she hissed. It was more an accusation than a question.

I wasn’t surprised my wife was upset. Most people marry their spouse for richer not poorer. She’d grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle; adjusting would be difficult.

My wife was Japanese and Japanese wives have a saying: the best husbands are healthy, working, and far away. I’d been the perfect Japanese husband up until now. Still, her reaction made me feel fired twice in one day.

There’s nothing like the stomach-clenching, freefall sensation of losing your job. I’d be less than honest though, if I didn’t admit to struggling with corporate life for a while. I’d done my best to conform. Whoever I really was, I’d made sure to tamp down during my 20 year career. Conformity was the rule. But I was kidding myself to think I could ever be anything other than who I was. Yes, I’d been super focused, super driven, and super ambitious, but my nonconformist self kept getting in the way. Now corporate life was sending me a message; a message I ignored at my peril.

My situation was further complicated by the fact that the further up the food chain I got the more I realized I didn’t have what it takes. You don’t get to the top of an organization without a killer’s instinct. I lacked that gift and though I’d done my best to imitate it, I didn’t have the heart.

Importantly, it seemed the longer I stayed in corporate life, the less I got out of it. I don’t mean salary, there was plenty of that. I mean a sense of purpose and satisfaction. But with a wife and two daughters, I didn’t have a choice. I was in it for the duration.

Sometimes we do things because we believe we should rather than we want to. In my case, it wasn’t just my hearing that hindered success, it was realizing I was no longer succeeding as I once had.

When your career turns bumpy it’s important to ask why. As long as I believed there was room to climb the corporate ladder, I’d shimmy up that pyramid no matter how steep. But I soon realized there was little chance of reaching the top. Not only was I never going to be the boss, I was always going to work for one. There was nothing more discouraging.

After years of striving, I was unemployed approaching 50 with little heart for the corporate life I had chosen. It was time for a change.

The first thing I did was look into a cochlear implant.

Surgeons have been implanting a device to improve hearing with varying results since 1972. The procedure’s now so routine they have you in an out in a couple of hours. But there’s a catch. You have to “qualify.” Test results confirmed I’d lost the ability to distinguish most speech, but I was still “borderline” for an implant. I was advised to wait.

Wait? I was already missing most of what people said! Did I have to become telepathic before I qualified? Meanwhile, my bank account imploded.

After months of looking for a job, a friend invited me to join his Executive Recruiting firm. It was April 2007 and I thought headhunting might be a good fit since it required many of the same skills I’d developed in advertising. Best of all, you were your own boss. There was also a strong correlation between how hard you worked and how much you succeeded. For once, I’d be the captain of my destiny.

Unfortunately, the telephone turned out to be mission-critical for a headhunter. At least 50% of the job was spent qualifying candidates by phone. Given I couldn’t hear, I had to find other ways. At first I used email to contact people, but that didn’t work because email was easy to ignore. My next solution was to meet candidates in person, but since I might have to qualify a hundred people during the early stage of a search I found myself driving all over the Bay Area just to meet applicants. It was not only inefficient, but doubled the time of a search. On any given day I might rack up 200 miles driving in heavy traffic. It wasn’t a sustainable strategy.

At first I invited candidates to Starbucks. This proved untenable because their latte machines drown everything out. Eventually, I shifted to hotel lobbies which were quieter, but there wasn’t always a posh enough hotel nearby. Nevertheless, I operated this way for more than a year.

As time passed, one-on-one conversations grew increasingly difficult. Once, when I accompanied a partner on a credentials presentation, I found myself answering a question different from the one the prospect had asked. I only realized this from the mystified expression on my partner’s face. I can backpedal with the best of them, but it made me look dumb not deaf.

It’s fair to ask why I didn’t tell my partners about the extent of my hearing loss. The answer is simple. Though my partners were good people, nobody wants a deaf headhunter on their team. It’s like asking a blind person to referee a football game. It’s a non-starter. And just as my partners wouldn’t have knowingly taken on a deaf recruiter most companies wouldn’t hire a headhunter with a hearing deficit. I knew. I’d worked both sides of the aisle. No one said it to your face, they always find a non-discriminatory reason to pass on you, but you never get the job. And how could I complain? Not even I would recommend a candidate with my severe hearing loss. My clients wouldn’t have stood for it.

Sadly, most of my clients preferred talking by phone rather than in person. I remember one hotshot CEO calling me from his car to talk about a search. I’d already suggested we meet in his office since sales pitches are best done in person. But CEOs of Silicon Valley start-ups are too busy to meet with “vendors.”

In my Maslow Hierarchy of Things I Don’t Need phone conversations were near the top, cell phone conversations were worse, but nothing beat someone calling from their car. One thing I knew for sure, I needed this search. I had a big payment due to my partners and funds were required at home. It was crucial I win the business.

The conversation started out fine since it was a simple exchange of rote pleasantries, which of course lulled the CEO into thinking I could hear perfectly. It wasn’t long though before I found myself straining to understand what he said. Fortunately, the CEO was a talker, which provided much needed cover, but the moment he asked a question I was dead.

At best, I was getting twenty-five percent of what he said one moment and 5% the next. And since he was talking about the search, I was missing important information. I tried thinking of ways to turn the situation to my advantage, but the phone wasn’t helping. In fact, it was my mortal enemy.

Unable to divine more than a few words of what was said I began to panic. My breathing turned shallow as my heart raced. It wasn’t long before I started blinking back tears. Finally, the CEO paused, meaning he’d asked me a question. Unfortunately, I had no idea what it was.

“You’re breaking up!” I improvised.

“Really, I can hear you fine.”

“I’m losing you!”

“Problem’s not at this end.”

“Let’s meet in person…”

“Haven’t got time. We need to do this now.”

“Hello? Hello?”

Then, I did the unthinkable. I hung up on him.

I was hoping my prospect would think we’d been cut off, but when he called a few seconds later I let him go to voicemail. Needless to say, I didn’t get the search.

After that, when a client called I put them on speakerphone and asked our office manager to sit in. As the call progressed, she’d pass me notes so I could follow what was said. When I missed something, she jumped in to cover.

It’s a terrible feeling knowing you’ve run out of options. Sure, I asked for a captioned telephone but our phone network couldn’t accommodate the technology. Besides, for all of its high mindedness the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a joke. Yes, there were instances where a deaf or hearing impaired person can do a job better than a hearing person but that wasn’t my case, at least not as an executive recruiter. Besides, what the law considers a reasonable accommodation for deaf people and what deaf people need are often two different things. And even if it weren’t, getting a corporation to take a chance on me when there were so many excellent recruiters to choose from made the question academic.

I hung on as long as I could, but my days were numbered. The strain of hiding what felt like a disability took its toll. By the end of most days I was so debilitated I went home, had dinner, and went to bed. I was not only exhausted from trying to hear all day, I was on the brink of despair.

I tried making my situation work, but I needed a job that didn’t require hearing. Unfortunately, few jobs fit this description. And who should know better than me, an executive recruiter paid an exorbitant sum to place people? Like it or not, my time had run out.

Chapter 3

*The Tokyu Express*

My mood soon took a nose dive, but since depression bears a stigma in the hearing world worse than deafness I did my best to hide it.

I can’t say it was the first time I’d been depressed. When I was young, I didn’t have a name for it. Later, when I was older, I bulled my way through. In fact, I had such a high tolerance for being depressed I considered it one of my finest qualities. But once my hearing made it impossible to work I began to founder. Being deaf was a problem I couldn’t ignore.*

Knowing I was in trouble, I confided my feelings to a primary care physician who wrote a prescription for Wellbutrin. I’d never taken Wellbutrin before but since it was an anti-depressant I was keen to give it a try.

I waited a month for the drug to take effect. When November 2007 rolled around and I wasn’t feeling better, I called my GP. She explained the drug took a while to work, so I should keep taking it. Wanting to be good patient, I complied. Meanwhile, I’d never felt worse.

My wife had plans to take our kids to visit her mother in Tokyo during the Thanksgiving vacation. I’d been looking forward to the trip, but once I got to Tokyo things fell apart.

The only way to describe it is that a hole had been punched into my subconscious and only the darkest, most hideous thoughts were leaking out. I did my best to hide them. I took my kids to the neighborhood playground every morning and watched them go down the slide. But I had to keep my head turned away so they wouldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.

*It’s important to note that being connected to the Deaf Community would have significantly helped me with my depression, but it would take me many years before I discovered them as a resource

Years of depression had toughened me, so I kept taking the Wellbutrin and hoped for the best. Mornings I spent reading on the tatami-mat floor of my mother-in-law’s house. Afternoons, I traveled around the city interviewing people for a magazine article I was writing in my spare time. More than that, I couldn’t handle.

The point of medicine is that you take it to feel better. When you don’t, you keep on taking it hoping it will kick in. But sometimes the reason you’re not getting better is because it’s the medicine that’s making you sick in the first place. The moral of the story? Be careful when messing with brain chemistry.

I knew I’d reached the end of my rope when, standing on the platform of the Setagaya station, I felt an overwhelming desire to jump in front of the train. Since Japanese trains are timed to the minute, I knew precisely when the express would arrive. As the station clock ticked down I thought how best to make my jump. Then, edging past the yellow line marking the platform’s edge, I waited until the twin headlights of the Shibuya Express came into view. It was just a matter of timing.

As I watched a silver and red-striped train round the curve and head into the final straightaway I picked the section of track I planned to land on. I could feel the platform vibrate as I steeled myself to jump.

My intention must have been clear because as I stepped forward a station attendant in blue shirt and navy pants gently placed his white-gloved hand upon my shoulder and said in the most extreme form of Japanese politeness:

“Please step back from the edge of the platform, sir.”

Suicide is a national epidemic in Japan. Most people do it at home to minimize inconveniencing others, but a dismaying number of salarymen end their lives by jumping in front of a train. It’s because of this Japanese station attendants are schooled to spot suicides before they happen. I’d been made as one of them.

A lot was communicated by that stationmaster’s touch. We both knew what I was thinking. Nevertheless, he wasn’t going to embarrass me by saying as much. Instead, he saved my life, bowed slightly, and moved on.

Embarrassed I’d been caught, I stumbled back to my mother-in-law’s house where I wrote a long, rambling email to my brother-in-law explaining my life was one long series of failures and I was better off dead. After hitting the send button I curled up in the safest place I could imagine, the bottom of the guest closet where the futons were stored, and went to sleep.

A few hours later the telephone rang. It was my brother-in-law calling. I remember being impressed that he’d managed to obtain my mother-in-law’s number despite the fact he lived in California and didn’t speak Japanese, but that’s how crazy my email sounded.

My brother-in-law was calling to say he’d talked to a psychiatrist who said I should stop taking the Wellbutrin immediately, and get on the next plane home. When I arrived in San Francisco the next day my brother-in-law was waiting. He drove me straight from the airport to the psychiatrist’s office where I was diagnosed with Wellbutrin-induced psychosis. Shortly thereafter, I was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Stanford University Hospital for a ten day stay. I was relieved to be under a doctor’s care, but even then I couldn’t stop thinking:

Jesus Christ, it’s bad enough I’m deaf! Am I crazy, too?

Chapter 4

*Greed is Good*

I was first diagnosed with hearing loss in November 1986. I was working in advertising at the time, a business where listening skills are considered essential. My supervisor had been encouraging me to have my hearing tested for a while. Like most people my natural inclination was to wave it off. After all, you don’t know what you can’t hear. But I couldn’t ignore my boss, so I finally made an appointment to have my hearing tested.

The first time I didn’t like the results, so I looked for a second opinion. The second time my results came back the same as the first. I had what was called a “bi-lateral sensorineural hearing loss.” This means the nerve running from my inner ear to my brain was damaged in both ears. Even so, my hearing was pretty good; my left ear was slightly worse than my right but both were close to normal. Unfortunately, the loss was smack in the middle of the decibel range of human speech. Any further deterioration and I’d be in trouble.

My audiogram indicated I had a “mild” loss in both ears, but the diagnosis was surprising. No one in my family suffered from hearing loss, and when I was screened for the gene associated with deafness, I didn’t have it. But the smoking gun wasn’t hard to find. Like vision, hearing loss varies from ear to ear. My impairment was atypical in that I had virtually the same level of loss in both ears. Perfectly matched hearing loss suggests a drug-related cause, so when my doctor took my medical history I told him about the antibiotic I’d taken every day from the age of twelve until I graduated from college. Nobody knew Tetracycline damaged your hearing back then; they just thought it prevented acne. In other words, I’d sacrificed my hearing in the name of vanity. It wasn’t a tradeoff I’d have made given a choice.

Not every doctor was confident Tetracycline had caused my hearing loss. This was typical of my experience with Otolaryngologists, or hearing doctors. Not only couldn’t they tell me the reason I’d lost my hearing, they didn’t know how quickly it might progress, or even whether I’d eventually go deaf. This shouldn’t have surprised me given it was the medical profession that caused my hearing loss in the first place. Still, the lack of certainty was annoying.

One thing the doctors could tell me was that my cochlea nerve had a number of tiny hairs called stereocilia that were either dying, or already dead. Since these hairs transmitted the signals necessary for my brain to convert electrical impulses into sound losing them was non-trivial. Without them my hearing was screwed. It was about the only thing the doctors could tell me for sure.

It’s bad enough losing your hearing at a young age, but when a doctor recommends you wear hearing aids it’s horrifying.

“Hearing aids? At 29? Are you kidding me?” I demanded.

The truth is I felt insecure. There may be something sexy about a woman taking her earrings off at night, but there’s nothing sexy when a man removes his hearing aids. It’s just plain gross. As far as I was concerned, hearing aids were for the old and disabled. I wasn’t even 30. Just the thought made me cringe.

The good news was my hearing loss was mild enough I could get by with a discreet, in-the-ear type of hearing aid. And so I spent several thousand dollars to purchase two, one for each ear.

My hearing aids were small, putty-colored plastic that you tucked inside your ear where they were out of sight. They may have been invisible, but I knew what people thought. I’d had the same thoughts whenever I’d seen someone with a hearing aid and it wasn’t kind.

Aesthetic considerations aside, it took a while to get used to my hearing aids; sometimes your brain needs to adjust. And though I felt self-conscious, I wore them every day until it was second nature. I have to admit, it was nice getting part of my hearing back even if sounds were sometimes so loud they hurt. My problem wasn’t solved, though. I still had difficulty hearing.


The 1980s were a go-go time in America. Ronald Reagan was President and “greed was good.” It seemed like all you had to do to make money was live in New York and work hard. I fit right in.

Advertising was still glamorous before industry consolidation, and the Internet, robbed it of fun. My first agency was Doyle Dane Bernbach, which true to form was on Madison Avenue. To be smart, young, and ambitious in a business priding superficiality over depth was like a shot of adrenalin. My days were spent working on national ad campaigns for the Hershey Chocolate Company while nights were spent chasing all the young lovelies advertising had to offer. At 26, it doesn’t get better than that.

But by age 30, I was sleeping on a fold out couch in a studio apartment I could barely afford. Meanwhile, my college friends who’d gone into finance were buying second homes in posh resorts. I needed a way to turbo-charge my career.

Believe it or not there are limitations to how fast you can ascend in advertising. What I needed was a competitive advantage, an accelerated learning curve to vault me past my peers. And I wasn’t going to let a minor hearing loss hold me back.

So, I left Doyle Dane to go to work for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising on their Tide account. Tide was Procter & Gamble’s billion dollar laundry detergent, and one of Saatchi’s biggest accounts. It had a reputation for brutal hours, but working on Tide was the equivalent of getting an MBA. It wasn’t just a competitive advantage, it was the accelerated learning curve I was looking for too.

After three years, I got my big break when Saatchi won their first P&G assignment in Japan: the introduction of Head & Shoulders shampoo. It was news to me the Japanese suffered from dandruff, but when Saatchi asked me to move to Tokyo to set up the business, I jumped at the chance.

The only thing I knew about Japan came from Godzilla movies. Not exactly promising. Still, it was the kind of fast-track career move, not to mention salary boost, I was hungry for. And so I moved half way around the world to a country whose language I didn’t speak and whose culture I had little interest in simply because it moved me up the corporate ladder. As it turned out, dandruff, or fuke in Japanese, is a major problem in Japan, and P&G was prepared to spend serious money treating it.

The biggest surprise came when I realized how much I loved living in Japan. If the 80s were capitalism’s go-go years, Japan was a gold rush. Tokyo not only had all the wealth, power, and culture of New York City, it had terrific art, food, and literature. I grew so attached to Japanese language, history, and culture I couldn’t imagine returning to New York.

My hearing was stable during this period. It made learning a new language difficult, but I did a passable job. Importantly, buying custom-made suits, jetting around Asia, and staying at five star hotels proved immensely gratifying.

I was 33 now, a time when many men want to settle down. I’d justified my bachelorhood by telling people I’d skipped the first wife and was waiting for the second, but that was a lie. The truth was I didn’t want to get married. My parents had had a terrible marriage, so I hoped to avoid the problem by never getting married. There was one problem, however. I was lonely.

My co-workers encouraged me to date a girl in our office, and though I refused at first I eventually gave in. She was a nice girl: pretty, slim, and five feet tall. Since her father worked for a major Japanese trading company, she’d grown up around the world. Her English was fluent and she seemed interested in many of the same things I was. Best of all, she worshipped me, which was as seductive a mindset as I’d ever encountered.

It was the fall of 1990 and we were having dinner at a Tokyo restaurant on a Saturday night. I must have known something was up because I got way more hammered than usual. I don’t remember much about the evening other than my date was wearing a rope of freshwater pearls I’d bought in Hong Kong.

For some reason there was a photograph of Jimmy Carter on the wall behind her, which stared at me throughout the meal. Why the President of the United States had eaten at a fish restaurant in Roppongi was beyond me, but his toothsome grin was unnerving.

I hadn’t planned on popping the question, but at the end of the meal, overcome by liquor and poor impulse control, I found myself proposing. Nobody was more surprised than me. But my future wife accepted, claiming she was “the luckiest girl in the world.” She was wrong, of course, but it would take a few more years for her to realize it.

I awoke the next morning with a massive case of regret and a hangover to match. A few weeks after I was transferred to Bangkok and I sent her a letter calling the whole thing off. Her response was to fly to Thailand and move in with me. Coward that I was, I folded.

A lot of arranged marriages turn out happy, so to justify my cowardice I decided to think of my marriage as arranged. I was kidding myself. Getting married because you’re lonely rather than in love is never a good idea. All marriages have their problems, but that one is a non-starter.

Chapter 5

*Sharp Objects*

I was admitted to Stanford’s psych unit seventeen years to the day I’d proposed to my wife. Just in time, too. On my lone drive to the hospital I kept thinking how easy it would be to stop on the Golden Gate Bridge and jump off. That’s a good indication of what a mind hijacked by Wellbutrin is like.

I’d never been hospitalized before. It was November 2007, the week after my trip to Japan, and I felt so ashamed I didn’t tell anyone I was committing myself. After filling out the necessary paperwork, a nurse led me into a small, windowless room where my bag was searched for anything I could use to hurt myself. Now, in addition to feeling ashamed, I felt embarrassed.

Stanford was not some Malibu rehab facility but it wasn’t Cuckoo’s Nest either. The hallways were wide enough for two beds to pass each other, and the wallpaper was wipeable for when someone hurled dinner across the room. There was also a 24 hour nurses’ station and an atrium where patients congregated to watch TV, work a puzzle, or stare into space.

After confiscating my razor and toothbrush, the nurse issued me a powerful anti-psychotic called Zyprexa. I was depressed not agitated, but took it thinking if I cooperated they might let me out sooner. Instead, I was transformed into a zombie who barely who knew his name.

The first thing you realize once you’ve admitted yourself to a psych ward is how much you want to leave. This is not unusual, but the clinicians persuaded me it was in my best interest to remain. Since I wanted to get better, I complied, but I still wanted to flee.

I didn’t speak to anyone my first two days because I wanted nothing to do with them. They were crazy. By the end of the week, however, I learned my roommate was a well read ophthalmologist who suffered from depression. His bedside tower of books was so impressive they easily passed my scrutiny. I also met a handsome black kid who turned out to be a second year medical resident coming apart at the seams. There was also a woman who never relinquished the stationary bike that was friendly and talkative. After a few days she confided it was her third stay.

A Wellbutrin-induced psychotic break may have been the reason I was in the hospital, but hearing loss had as much to do with it as my problematic marriage. Admitting they were problems helped, but I was a long way from being cured.

I wasn’t allowed visitors at first, which was fine. I didn’t want anyone knowing I was there, especially my kids. As for work, I told them I was in the hospital and wasn’t sure when I’d get out.

There were any number of activities designed to restore our sanity. These included group therapy, individual counseling, and the much dreaded art and craft session. But the thing that helped me the most was writing.

Writing has always been my greatest love. My first job out of college was working for a regional magazine. I’d also freelanced for the New York Times and edited a weekly newspaper.

But after five years of being poor the siren call of money lured me into advertising. I’d never stopped writing, though, and once I was a headhunter I used my spare time to revive my freelance career.

It didn’t take long before I was contributing to the New York Times, Smithsonian Air & Space, Popular Science and WIRED. None of my editors knew about my hearing loss. Since we communicated by email there was no reason they should. If one of my stories required an interview I conducted it in person, or did it by email. As strange as it may sound, I soon realized writing was the one job I could do that didn’t require hearing.

We’d gone to Japan to take my kids to visit their grandmother, but another reason was so I could interview a former Imperial Japanese Navy officer for a story assignment I’d pitched to Aviation History. I wanted to write about a fleet of giant World War II submarines purpose-built by the Japanese to launch a surprise aerial attack against New York City and Washington, DC as a follow up to Pearl Harbor. Virtually no one knew about these subs, which had been envisioned by Admiral Yamamoto, the brains behind Pearl Harbor. They seemed so marvelously counterintuitive I couldn’t resist their story.

In between my crying jags and desire to jump in front of a train, I’d managed to interview the captain of the flagship sub. I gave thanks for my high pain threshold because the more research I did the better the story got.

Once the Wellbutrin wore off I wrote my article. Each day, while my ward mates watched TV, I worked on my laptop. Ten days after admittance I was ready to be discharged. When I sent my article in, it was not only accepted, it was made the cover story.

Since the bills were mounting I went back to work as a headhunter, but an interesting thing happened. My writing career took off. The article I’d written about the Japanese submarine led to a PBS documentary. In the meantime, I sold more articles. When I realized there was more to the Japanese submarine story than my article or the documentary had uncovered I decided to write a book.

It was November 2008, a year after my hospitalization, when I took a week off from work, wrote a book proposal, and sent it to a list of literary agents. Within six hours I had my first yes. Before the end of the week, five agents wanted to represent me. The agent I chose was an experienced pro who sent my proposal to a dozen publishing houses. Ten expressed interest. A week later I was meeting them in New York to talk pitch my story.

A strange thing happened before my first meeting, though. I was sitting in my agent’s office when I asked how I should handle my hearing impairment. He looked surprised.

“Don’t mention it!”

“Why?” I asked.

“You don’t want a publisher thinking you can’t do promotion. It could kill your deal.”

“Oh,” I said, not wanting to kill anything.

My meetings went well because I did the talking, meaning I didn’t let anyone ask a question I might mishear. Within a week I had a six figure deal to write my book. What had once seemed impossible now seemed likely.

Needless to say, once I had a book contract I quit my headhunting job. It had always been my dream to write a book. It may have been foolish to roll the dice, but the way I saw it hearing loss didn’t give me a choice. There was one important obstacle, however. My wife hated the idea.

Chapter 6

*On the Rocks*

Statistically, you stand a better chance of contracting Ebola than earning a living as a writer. According to one recent study only one in ten authors earn a living by writing. That’s not surprising given approximately 80% of all trade books fail to turn a profit.

But my decision to become a writer was not as rash as it sounds. Since I’d revived my freelance career I’d begun making a name for myself writing about unusual inventions that fail in the market despite their innovative nature. I called these inventions “white elephant technology,” and since most were from the past I spent my time researching in libraries. In other words, I rarely had to interview anyone, which was ideal for someone losing his hearing.

Though I made more money from headhunting, my articles on white elephant technology began appearing regularly. Plus, I had a six figure book contract. If that didn’t make me a writer what did?

Still, writing was chancy. At the very least it necessitated a drastic lifestyle change; something my wife did not relish. I thought it was doable. If we radically downsized we could stretch the publisher’s advance the three years it would take to write my book. It would involve selling our house and dropping out of the upper class, but it was an investment in our future. If we deferred gratification, payout would come. As far as I could tell, we didn’t even have to leave town. We could rent a nearby apartment and keep the kids in school. I’d seen a hundred start-ups operate on the same principle, why not us? Besides, what choice did I have? I was at the age where it’s difficult to find a decent job, and my hearing wouldn’t make things easier.

My wife had a point, however. In many respects, it was late to be starting over. I wasn’t a fresh faced college graduate; I was 51, a time when my peers were at their peak earning capacity. Pursuing an alternate route was risky. Nevertheless, I was determined to make it work.

Still, my wife thought it a foolish idea. We had two daughters both under ten, and many years to go before we were free of a sizeable financial commitment. As an alternative, she suggested I keep my job and write on the side. But this was my chance to realize a dream. If not now, when, especially since my hearing might worsen?

Rolling the dice never seemed easier.


My marriage, like my hearing, was stable in its early years. After settling in Bangkok, where I managed the Saatchi office, we enjoyed all the benefits of expat life including a house, a cook, a car, and a driver.

But after three years my life began to grate. There’s little glory selling disposable diapers in third world countries to people who neither need nor can afford them. The fact that we successfully introduced yogurt to the Thais, who are lactose intolerant, was nothing to be proud of.

So in 1994, after eight years with Saatchi, I returned to the States where I took a management job in the San Francisco office of J. Walter Thompson. Meanwhile, my hearing continued to decline.

I was tested annually, and upgraded to better hearing aids as technology improved, but the number of times when speech sounded garbled was on the rise. In fact, my hearing loss progressed to the point where I was beginning to lose vowel sounds. Aspirates like “p’s” and “t’s” also sounded the same. And there were other problems. My marriage was falling apart.

The dissolution of a marriage is never pretty and mine had been coming unglued for a while. It didn’t help that its underpinnings were shaky. It came out in other ways, though. My wife, who lacked confidence, always felt bad about only having an Associate Bachelor’s degree, so I encouraged her to go back to college. When she did, she dropped out after a year. When she said she wanted to work, I helped get her an interview with a company that paid handsomely for Japanese language skills. When she got the offer she turned them down flat.

I also resented the fact she didn’t have the social skills necessary to entertain my clients. It wasn’t her fault she couldn’t hold her own with men and women older and more accomplished than her, but I worried it held my career back. As time passed, I realized an inequity had crept into our relationship. It hadn’t been obvious in Bangkok, but now that she was a stay at home wife in the U.S. I felt the pinch.

Part of our understanding had been that we wouldn’t have kids. But after a decade of marriage my wife wanted a child. I resisted for as long as I could, but eventually gave in. After our first daughter, my wife told me she wanted a second. Like Hitler in Czechoslovakia she now wanted Poland. It turned out to be the best decision we ever made but I fought her like the Allies.

It’s unfair to blame my wife as the problem. I was hardly a model husband. The farther I climbed up the corporate ladder the more pressure I felt. I worked all the time, was never home, and barely there when I was.

Furthermore, instead of addressing the problem I repressed my resentment which led to expressing it in other ways. I began getting curt and condescending with my wife. I started calling her idiot, stupid, and cunt. As my frustration grew I pinched and pushed her. I even slapped her once or twice. This was reprehensible behavior. There can be no excuse. And yet I couldn’t stop.

We tried marital therapy. I even took an anger management course. When I didn’t get enough out of it, I repeated the class. Unfortunately, marriage counselors are incentivized to keep you together even when it no longer makes sense. After a few years of this behavior, we moved into separate bedrooms and communicated only by email. Things were so bad I worried about the kids.

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