Ca(r)nal Desires

By Bridget Robin Pool

We don’t choose our obsessions; they choose us.  I have no love affair with exercise and no urge to change my own oil.  I feel no compulsion to vacuum or maintain organized finances.  Nope.  No such productive activities rule my thoughts, guide my life.

I am fixated on earwax. 

Not long ago I had control over my relationship with my ears.  I used Q-Tips recreationally, but I had no idea that these innocent tools could be a gateway to more serious abuse. 

I tried to follow the advice of experts who warn against tampering with one’s ear canals.  “Yes,” I admitted to the mirror as I plunged the Q-Tip into my head, “Bulbous wads of cotton, no matter how soft and cushiony, are ill-suited to remove foreign substances from a tunnel of a similar size.”  Then I pulled the stick out, comparing today’s lode against various shades and textures and quantities of gunk that I had victoriously liberated from my aural orifices over time.

“No more,” I told myself.  “This time the stuff was dark enough and hard enough and abundant enough.  No more.” 

But a week or a day later, my ears itched and begged for attention.  I succumbed to the urge to wield a bleached cotton swab and have it emerge with a satisfying yellow stain.  The dangers of pushing wax further into the canal seemed minimal compared to the fulfillment of my desire to see what lay inside. 

I tried to dissuade myself from tampering with my ears.  I conjured the chiding image of my mother; I envisioned impacted plugs preventing me from hearing.  But even as I imagined anatomical cutaways of the ear which revealed the simple magnificence of the unadulterated human body, I fantasized about the gobs of treasure I had left behind. 

“The last stuff was so good.  There’s probably more trying to get out.  I’ll just do a little, just a little bit . . . No!  The human ear is self-cleaning!  It’s a work of art!  It doesn’t need me.” 

Within a few minutes I had remembered that ovens are self-cleaning too, but they always need some help.

I probably would have continued on in that self-punishing cycle of Q-tipping if my roommate hadn’t received an odd gift. 

“You got what?”

“Earcandles.”  I pictured a small, buttercup-colored votive flickering on the dining room table. 

What are earcandles?”  Every nerve and tiny cilia in my ear canal stood at attention (except for those mired in wax), waiting to learn about this innovation. 

“They’re these cone-shaped things that you light and then stick inside your ears.”

“You light it on fire and put it in your ear?”

“Yeah, it cleans out the wax.” 

After grilling my roommate about the process, I concluded that if Mrs. Kimbrell, my high school Physics teacher, had introduced us to earcandling, I’m sure my interest in the class would have improved.  Of course, my lab partner would have had to do all the hard work of conducting the experiment, but she wouldn’t have been able to reap the benefits.  Kim Pitts wore far too much hairspray to make it safe to light a fire near her head.  Consider the “Procedure” on the lab report: 

I stretched out on the lab table, lying on my side.  My partner held a slender, hollow cone composed of linen and beeswax.  The device was about 10 inches long.  The wider end was the circumference of a quarter, and the smaller opening was about the circumference of a shish kebab skewer.  As a precautionary measure to protect my hair and face from flame and falling ash, my partner cut a hole in the center of a paper plate and guided the larger end of the taper through the plate before placing the smaller opening in my ear canal.  I lay flat with one ear against the table and the other sprouting a blazing taper while she stared at the flame, observing the smoke spiraling down and back out and keeping a close watch on the ash forming at the wider end, trimming it when appropriate.

I could have indulged my earwax obsession during school hours, and we both would have gotten A’s on the lab.  Kim’s so smart that she would have figured out that earcandling works because it creates a vacuum which sucks the smoke in.  This softens the wax, lifting it out gently.  At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

I was a tad cautious to try earcandles, so I searched the internet for more information and was reassured that earcandling is an ancient practice that can be traced back to early Egyptian civilization.  Why did I find comfort in medical practices from thousands of years ago that are not common today?  I’m not sure.  Some websites suggested that earcandling would improve my hearing, ease my TMJ, realign my chakras, and remove earwax.  Of course, there were skeptics.  Some cautioned that the candles were quackery at best, harmful at worst.  I didn’t care.  I just wanted to get that wax out and have a look at it. 

I bought my own set of earcandles; after a couple of embarrassing exchanges with ignorant salespeople, I found them hanging in the Health & Beauty section of an organic grocery store.  I was ready to begin.

Safety didn’t concern me much, so I didn’t use the protective paper plate.  I just wet my hair down a little, touched my lighter to one end and stuck the other end in my ear. 

Jamming a flaming torch in your ear is remarkably relaxing.  There’s a warm sensation accompanied by a crackling sound, almost as though you are sitting close to a fire.  I enjoyed the feeling, but my mind remained fixated on the true purpose for this event:  wax harvesting on a grand scale.  As I lay on my side, I savored visions of golden hunks of matter being drawn upwards against gravity.  I dreamt of holding these hardened pieces.  The packaging had warned that the candles did not act as a medical treatment but merely as entertainment, and I intended to get my 7 bucks worth. 

Several times during a session, users are supposed to extinguish the flame and cut off the ash into a bowl of water to keep sparks from falling.  I was desperate to witness the goods.  Thus, before relighting and continuing the process, I poked a straightened paper clip into the cone to explore the insides of the remaining taper.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Crusty lengths of jaundiced cerumen clung to the sides of the cotton.  I greedily pushed it onto a flat paper towel and examined it, fascinated to finally face my foe.  And when the candling was done, I savored the enhanced quality of Q-Tipping over the next several days.

Earcandling became a monthly habit.  I proselytized.  Some people cautioned that I would light my hair on fire or burn my ear canal, but others joined my cult.  One skeptical friend agreed to experiment, and we passed an afternoon laughing at the flaming tapers projecting from our heads.  Upon witnessing the quantity of matter that thudded from my candle compared to the dust that fell from his, he proclaimed that I suffer from “a Condition”—the technical medical term that the earcandle instructions apply to those who benefit from the product.  I wonder if the ancient Egyptians had Conditions.

One day last fall the Condition caused my ears to itch and scream.  I hadn’t used the candles for a long time, but I indulged in my normal treatment.  To my disappointment, curiously little wax appeared in the candles.  For the next couple of days, my head felt clogged.  I heard shifting air and little else, like I was trapped inside a conch shell.  The doubters laughed, justified in their long time criticism, and I smiled along with them at this ridiculous situation.  Why had I relied on this absurd treatment?  As discomfort yielded to pain, I postulated that I had softened some wax and allowed it to reharden and block the canal.  Damn those candles.  Waste of money.

I returned to the yuppie supermarket to purchase another set of earcandles in hopes that they would finish the job.

It didn’t work.  My ears felt worse than ever before.  I couldn’t hear well enough to go to work, and my ear canals were raw, burning.  I was broken.  I just wanted to end the whole fiasco.  I found myself telling a Higher Authority that I would never stick anything in my ear ever again and would never touch another earcandle and would dedicate my life to making sure others followed my example if I could just feel better this time Amen.  And that’s how I found myself in the doctor’s office the next day. 

“I think I have an ear infection.” 

My physician picked up his otoscope.  “Do you know what caused it?”

Cough.  I’ve had a cold.” 

He peered into the canal, his voice distant and muffled even though I could feel his breath against my cheek.  “I can’t tell about the infection.  You seem to have an awful lot of wax in there blocking my view.  That might be the problem.”

“Really?  Wax?”

“Yup, both ears.  We have two options.  I can send you to an Ear Nose and Throat doc and have him use some of his toys to take out the debris and then see if you have an infection—or I can try to irrigate it here with some water.  The only problem is that if you do have an infection, then flushing it could hurt.  A lot.”

I generously agreed to try the irrigation.  I sat on the cold table, clutching a kidney-shaped bowl against my tilted head.  I shut my eyes tightly and screwed up my face in anticipation of the water and the pain. 

And then I had a vision.  I imagined the plugs of wax nestled in my ears being popped out of their cozy home and flooded into the bowl I held.  My fear of the dousing evaporated.  I wanted to see my enemy. 

Dr. Sager looked at my ears again.  “You have small canals.”

“I do?”  At last:  vindication.  It’s not my fault that I’m this way.  I have small canals.

He shot multiple syringes of water into my head.  The small basin I cradled under my ear was useless, and water sloshed on my hair, my face, my body.  Soon, my shirt was drenched.  There was lots of water but no wax.  My ears felt worse than before; my head became a painful fish tank.  I heard his distant, burbling voice as he handed me a towel and a referral to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. 

Dr. Silva had a more advanced tool for irrigation, a pump that sprays a steady stream of warm water.  His nurse shared my enthusiasm for the process, and she recounted war stories about other patients’ earwax removal.  I confided that I had used the candles.  She nodded understandingly.  While we waited for the doctor, she tried to flush out my ears with the squirter, but after several minutes, she conceded defeat and opted to wait for the doctor to return from surgery. 

I was beginning to feel proud of the earwax inside my small canals.  It was tough, resistant to even professional intervention.  Still, a part of me felt sorry that the water hadn’t worked.  If the doctor had to intervene, I wouldn’t see any yellow gobs.  He would vacuum it out.

Dr. Silva glanced inside my ears and asked me some questions.  His voice sounded like conversations my sister and I used to have underwater in our backyard pool.  He donned something akin to riot gear, slipped a thin metal tube into my canal, and turned on the vacuum. 

He got the gunk.

I went home with antibiotic drops and a promise to myself to leave my ears alone.  After all, they are self-cleaning—just like ovens . . .


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