As a child I remember being reprimanded a lot for not listening, as though turning off my ears had been a conscious decision. Adults swore they had told me something important, and I had nodded acknowledgement, but all details of the conversation eluded me. I remember a lot of conversations ending with, “Do you understand what I just told you?” or “Did you hear me?” and I knew I should always nod yes, even though I had no idea what had come before these questions.
This is why I don’t blame my seven-year-old, The Fonz, when he says he didn’t hear me calling his name or telling him not to eat out of the garbage, because I understand. What I don’t understand is why he seems to have supersonic hearing for some noises–like the opening of a candy wrapper, while tuning out other noises–like the sound of his name.
I am absolutely not exaggerating when I say The Fonz can hear candy being opened on the first floor while he is in his room on the third floor. We know because Mrs. Good Greatsby and I have actually conducted experiments. We’ll sit at the kitchen table on the first floor while The Fonz is on the third floor, tear open a corner of a Skittles wrapper, and he’ll come bounding down the stairs within five seconds.
“Hey, guys. Just came downstairs to give you a hug. Whatcha eatin’?”
The next night we’ll tear corners from a piece of printer paper. No Fonz.
We’ll crinkle aluminum foil. No Fonz.
We’ll tear strips of cardboard. No Fonz.
We’ll tear a corner of an m&m’s wrapper and within seconds we’ll hear the sound of The Fonz bounding down the steps and landing with a thud on the landing after clearing the last six stairs in one leap.
“Hey, guys. Whatcha eatin’?”
If we’re watching a movie as a family and eating popcorn, and I very slowly sneak an m&m, convinced no one has heard any difference in crunch volume, he slowly rotates his head around from its favorite position blocking the TV from the rest of us, arches his eyebrow and shoots me a cold look that sends chills down my spine.
If I drink soda while he’s away at school, I put a towel over the top of the can to muffle the opening pop–even though he’s miles away, but still when he gets home he asks what I did at work that day with a certain inflection that tells me he heard. He always hears.
Just like some sounds attract The Fonz, some sounds repel. When Mrs. Good Greatsby and I want some privacy to discuss Christmas presents, The Fonz’s birthday, or new ideas for embarrassing him in front of the girl he likes, we just start clanking the dishes together in the sink like we’re about to ask somebody to wash them, and he goes running like he’s heard a fire alarm.
We’ve also found the tearing of a garbage bag’s perforated edge as it’s pulled from the roll–warning him somebody is about to be asked to take out the trash–is the quickest way to convince him to jump into the bath as a defense against us asking him.
And here’s the kicker, here’s the things that amazes me, here’s the thing I need science to explain. How can The Fonz achieve such feats of supersonic hearing yet he can’t hear his name called to him repeatedly from two feet away? “Fonz. Fonz. Over here. Over here. Look up. Look over at dad. Fonz! Fonz!”
What accounts for this selective hearing? How come he can hear a candy wrapper being opened from the third floor, but he can’t hear me calling his name from the second floor? My wife and I considered opening a package of m&m’s every time we wanted him to come running, but we counted the number of times we weren’t able to get his attention per day and realized the cumulative cost of the m&m’s would be more than we planned to spend on his college education.
We’ve decided we can only use the m&m’s in case of emergency and instead of hiding a key under a rock in our front yard, we’ve hidden m&m’s, just in case there’s a fire and we need The Fonz to wake up and shimmy two floors down the drainpipe, taking the final floor in one single shimmy.