Monday, December 27, 2010

Input: Invalid

As of today, I've almost reached the six-month mark since I got my CI turned on (minus two days). I have my six-month remapping appointment later this week, and I'm excited to see what progress I've made and what the sound quality is like afterwards - especially since it's already so good.

But six months? Wow. My experience of the world has been transformed since those days in late June. My hearing aid sounds downright depressing now, and the dynamism of the CI is like being continually seduced. Let's face it: I'm addicted to sound. And whenever I'm feeling discouraged or just plain short-circuited (like when life starts sounding too chaotic - i.e., almost every day), I need only look back to that time to appreciate how far I've come. Six months: a heartbeat, and yet an immeasurably long stretch. It's impossible to compare my perceptions then to my perceptions now. My horizons have broadened, my sense of the possible has exploded. Yet, these days, I get the sense that I'm approaching a new threshold.

Let me expand: my brain, in its absorption and data-gathering over roughly 26 weeks, has reached the point where it can observe and interpret sound considerably well for where I started out. Except that relying on auditory information is not its natural instinct. Noise has never made sense to it before now, and so its innate tendency is to rely, as it always has, on sight. Since I've gotten home from being abroad, I've discovered that, when my parents or other family members intentionally speak to me from where I cannot lipread, I can understand them. I can do it! How astonishing. But this is only after much repetition, only after I forcibly shift gears and coerce that long-deafened brain of mine to listen. It can do it, it just believes that it can't - and, when lipreading is the faintest shadow of an option, it automatically seems to tune out noise and choose to watch instead. My mind is like a computer: in its long history of programming, sound input has been an invalid command. Now that the CI makes listening possible, the hardest part is going to be convincing my brain to trust what it hears, to actually use those long-neglected pathways.

So, I'm teetering on the brink of using my ears and not my eyes, and this process has been ridiculously difficult because it requires a literal reprogramming of my experience. But yet, the sensation of having a conversation (however predictable and simplified) and actually hearing and understanding has been... mind-boggling. In all senses of the word. I have to repeat what I've heard to myself as if to prove that it was real, that it sprang into being from a mind not my own, that it makes grammatical sense. It's happening! I just need to teach that brain of mine to believe in sound as clear, accessible, trustworthy - as much as sight. The ground is not going to crumble beneath its feet. This is an unprecedented challenge, and after twenty years it is is bound to be difficult - but here's to having arrived at the point of subtle mind games, rather than being-hit-over-the-head-by-a-blunt-object ones!

Monday, December 20, 2010

ASL, Revisited

As I think I've written on this blog before, one of my biggest qualms about getting the CI was that it would represent a literal rejection of myself, a capitulation to the idea that I wasn't good enough to lead my life just as I was. In making my decision, I felt like I was casting aside the "deaf" part of my identity, which hurt regardless of the struggles associated with it. Six months later, however, I find that certain aspects of that identity will always endure, irrespective of whether or not I can hear. Sign language, especially, lingers with me in gratifying and unexpected ways.

I don't know how to classify my attitude about ASL before the CI. It had always somehow seemed like a crutch, a reminder of my inability to communicate like everyone else. I grew up with virtually no other deaf people in my life, and in my awkward preteen and adolescent years using my hands to converse only emphasized how different I felt from the world around me. Now, even though I am still far from an auditory communicator, I'm a skilled enough lipreader (and, increasingly, my CI is a helpful enough tool) that I've been able to distance myself considerably from ASL. When I am not in class, days pass in which I see no sign, in which I get along reasonably well (if not perfectly) in one-on-one interactions without it. As my hearing progresses, I find myself feeling more and more linked to the hearing world.

And yet, I am not. Not entirely. This has less to do with the fact that I will likely always need interpreters or other communicative assistance for some situations (and might as well accept it), and more to do with the fact that sign is wired into who I am. Now that I've experimented with other options, and come to see ASL as a bit more of a personal choice than a strict necessity, I feel freer to embrace its charm. I think in English and prefer to speak most of the time, but I cannot abandon the wonderfully deaf part of myself. Oddly enough, the CI has made this clearer than ever.

As much as I'm learning to be auditory, the truth is that I'm predominantly a visual learner. I retain information better when I see it - as with sign rather than mere lipreading. When I introduce myself to strangers, I find myself tempted to fingerspell and then give my sign name, and have them do so in return. Ditto for when other people do not understand what I say; surely I will make myself clear if I only spell it out? My hands writhe and itch by my side. A few times, absurdly, I've started to fingerspell to strangers before I've checked myself. (For the record, I've come to think that everyone should be able to fingerspell at the very least. It would make life infinitely easier.) When I am across a noisy room from a friend, I impulsively want to wave, to sign; shouting feels ridiculous, pointless, and tires me out besides. Sound notwithstanding, I cannot divorce myself from these inclinations.

When I settle down with my writing, sometimes I cannot think of the word that I want, at least not in English; however, I often find that I can sign its exact concept, its exact nuance. I lean back at my desk making sweeping gestures into the air, willing the English version to come. ASL, in all honesty, was my first language, and maybe this only comes across at such moments. Sometimes, when I am alone, I converse with myself using my hands. They become extensions of my thought.

Most importantly, though, sign language is what often defines many of my closest relationships. I've come to realize that, however comfortable I feel with lipreading a person, I often do not feel completely at ease with him/her unless he/she signs. I associate lipreading with strain, hyper-attention to detail, and continuous guesswork and exertion. Under such circumstances, it's possible to communicate well, but it's very difficult to relax. It's a subconscious association at times, but often the people with whom I feel most myself are the ones who sign, giving me confidence and dispelling my tension. Speech can make me feel trapped, painfully aware that I am at a disadvantage compared to my hearing peers, and confined in my ability to make friends only with the people I can lipread well. (Moving forward, I'm interested to see how the CI influences this.) But ASL is like a comfort food or a favorite book by the fire: in its presence, I can exhale and unwind.

Communication, clarity, security: regardless of whether I can hear or not, I've come to realize that I have the sort of fondness for ASL that stems from its being a part of my identity. It's hard to explain this to some hearing people, who, upon asking "Can you lipread?" and receiving my affirmative "Yes," ask no further questions about my communicative means and do not seem to wonder after my visual, secret self. For indeed ASL belongs to the most private part of me; perhaps this is part of why I avoided displaying it more publicly at a younger age. Or perhaps it was because sign language was too often questioned, too often stared at, too often made fun of or used as the brunt of crude jokes. Too often in my childhood, other kids would mock me with empty hand gestures and made-up signs. Even now, I find that my peers too often display interest in only the "obscene," "amusing," or "random" signs that add entertainment value to their lives, rather than true communicative meaning. (This is true for any language, I think.) If I have been reserved about sign, perhaps it is partly because I've gotten tired of this horseplay.

As I grow older and become a more skilled communicator in a variety of ways, and as I discover new horizons with the CI, I realize all of this more articulately. My identity with ASL is a quieter, more self-contained sort than that waved about by the strictly nonverbal, Deaf crowd, but it suits me well. Even if I woke up to hear perfectly one day, I don't think I could ever shun sign language completely. And that's reassuring.

Finally, one of my friends passed along this link not too long ago:

Even though I admittedly sometimes dream of nothing more than reducing my dependence on ASL and interpreters (again, there's something tricky about it being a choice), reading this article was sweet and satisfying. If more people are learning sign language, if more people are considering a perspective, communicative means, and experience of the world so different from their own, then all the better. I used to be one to scoff at hearing people's naive and overly romanticized notions of ASL being "breathtaking" and "like hands dancing," but in the end, there's no language like it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Same Place, Same Sound - Or Is It?

Coming back to familiar places, you always notice that they do not feel quite the same. The reason, in most cases, is you: you've been away, you've changed, and you're returning with a different perspective. This has been true for me in many ways since coming back from three months in Europe - but perhaps the most striking difference about home is that it sounds different. It sounds better! Having a baseline to compare to, I'm reminded of just how much my hearing is progressing.

Take airports, for instance. From my many travels back and forth to California over the summer, I've come to associate airports and airplanes with tune-ups in hearing. At first, they almost made me physically ill. That first flight back from California, almost six months ago, is something I shudder to think about. A great shapeless blob of sound hovered over my head, roaring and pulsating, so that reading - concentrating - thinking - became impossible. But now, the thrum of activity, and even of the engine, is just there, keeping me company. Now I can hear the different sounds in that large roaring cacophony, from when the engine gears up to when the wheels screech as they land to the various footsteps and announcements and voices in the airport. Loud and clashing, yes, but more subtly so.

The same is true for my house: not only are its noises more tolerable, but they are more complex. The new whirs and clicks and noises I'm noticing have me confused, and I have to go through the whole process of racing around figuring out what they are. I'm hearing more noises from farther away, and I've found that when I'm sitting in one room I sometimes know exactly what's going on in another, just by listening. How strange and amazing. It feels almost like ESP. This is not the same house that I knew three months ago.

My first day home, I sat down at our piano and struck a note: middle C. It rang forth, smooth and so beautiful that I literally gasped. Same house, same piano, and three months later it sounds so wonderfully pure and resonant, so different from the almost mechanical notes I heard over the summer. My brain is starting to interpret music as, well - music.

In the yard, the chickens roam about, clucking and crowing. I recognize their noises instantly as chicken sounds. But here, too, something is different. I'm hearing them from way, way across the yard, and they sound more richly layered, more complex, more - I don't know - chickeny. I'm noticing more different tones and subtleties in their clucking, almost as if I can interpret their moods. Too bad this doesn't stop them from being annoying. I'm still apt to shout, "Shut up!" when one rooster gets his tailfeathers into too much of a wad.

Who knew one place could feel so different, so much richer, based on the quality of sound I find there? My ear is working on finer and finer auditory skills, and the amount of texture that gives the world is astounding. It's starting to be a little more than just "noise." Now I've just got to listen to some of the specific songs I heard over the summer, return to some of the same listening exercises, go to more familiar (but yet changed) places, and see where all that puts me!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Public Service Announcement Number One

Our minds really fool us into accepting an illusion of mediocrity. It works something like this. You pull yourself along step by step, tied inextricably to the present, feeling that all of this is too slow. Things aren't changing, not really. You've put in the hours, but your efforts seem to whisk off with the next strong wind. What you're building is as of yet a fragile thing - resilient, yes, but so delicate that you wonder if it'll ever be of use. You want to give it room to grow, but at the same time you keep questioning where its limits lie. You are too used to the limits you've always known, and in your heart you wage a battle between idealism and habitual resignation.

Yet the boundaries do expand, invisibly. Time and again you discover that your brain has been working all along, beneath your notice, and that you're acquiring skills you never anticipated. Time and again your newfound knowledge strikes, and you experience a single moment that shocks you with its revelation, its clarity, as life roars back and exposes the vista on which you stand.

This happened to me again today - a tiny gem that a hearing person would hardly have noticed, but that for me was a startling breakthrough amidst a scenery that had come to feel mundane. It was on the bus to London. I had been staring out over the clouds and city, lost in thought, still ten minutes from my destination. The bus shuddered to a stop to let some people off, and at that moment, I heard the driver say over the intercom, "Shepherd's Bush."

Wait, what - Shepherd's Bush? The words had come out of nowhere, but flashed into my mind as clearly as if I had read them. I looked out the window at the bus stop. There, on the side of the road, were those very same words printed on a sign. Shepherd's Bush was the name of the stop. Inside my heart stumbled, then pushed itself back up in disbelief. I hadn't anticipated or even concentrated on the driver's announcement, but I had heard it, and the sensation of hearing was as wonderful as a soft light diffusing through my mind. The noise hadn't been awful or distracting or meaningless; I had actually understood. It was the first intercom announcement that has ever meant anything to me. Hypothetically I knew that disembodied voice must be saying something, but that impersonal rationalization cannot compare with experiencing it personally.

Over the next series of stops I sat tense, quivering, trying to connect the harsh sound with some external meaning. And, yes, I could connect the very moment that it said, "Notting Hill" or "Marble Arch," though those times the sound was blurred by the engine. I felt as if a veil had been briefly drawn back, allowing me to glimpse the objects casting shadows on the other side of it. Flutter closed that veil might, but the more times I part it the more heartened I feel. Understanding: I can't describe how superbly sweet it is.

And here I've been climbing mountains, even while I've believed myself to be trudging over level fields...

Monday, November 29, 2010

An Encounter With Beethoven

The scene: Christmas orchestra concert in Magdalen College chapel. My first such event since the CI. I enter to the sound of instruments warming up. My brochure says that Mendelssohn and Beethoven's second symphony are on tab. Okay, I'll take it.

The light inside is soft against the vaulted stone, the air outside dark and cold. Promptly at 7:30, the conductor walks in, straight-backed and taut. Everyone comes to attention: the audience, the orchestra members. The space of the chapel is intimate, the bass player sits only five yards away from me. Bows are poised. They begin.

The sound washes over me, but at first I am all eyes. I am too used to seeing. The sweep and flow of the conductor's arms fascinates me, seems to imply what I should be getting out of the music, and soon it occurs to me that in the rise and fall of the orchestra I can hear various instruments come in. I am supercharged, trying to watch what I'm hearing, rather than simply hear. I see a bow rise: my eyes rush over. The course of the piece seems to change: I glance through the seats and the instruments, trying to figure out why. Mendelssohn's energy is there for me, tangible, but just out of reach.

Then, slowly, I settle. There comes a time at the end of the piece when I realize that, without meaning to, I have stopped watching. The sound rises before me, becomes dominant. I don't need to fixate on the conductor conducting or the instruments playing. My CI volume is turned as high as it can go without my head splitting. The music calls me into meditation.

Next, Beethoven. I am absolutely struck by how different each movement sounds from the others. Allegro, larghetto, scherzo - I have no idea what these mean, but they each launch off with a different mood, a different energy. Yet by the fourth movement I can vaguely sense how each has built on the one before it, even if I can't describe how. I can't describe, either, what the music is about, or what it expresses, but I feel its tingling movement. It is full of grappling tension, the ebb and flow of a compressed intelligence. Parts give me chills.

The instruments layer and come together, then part ways and divide, but my favorite parts are when only one or two instruments can be heard, in a sort of repose, a light thread of melody. The rest is almost too complex, too flurried and impenetrable. The only exception is when they all quicken. At such moments, I seem to quicken too.

It strikes me at one point that, sitting here six months ago, I would have been bored. Fidgety. Looking into the faces of my fellow audience members, trying to assess what value they found in this. This is what I remember from all the other musical performances I've attended (or been forced to attend).

But it's not that way anymore. It's not about the past, or even the future. The music calls me into the present moment. It's hard for me to stop thinking analytically, but eventually I do. I respond to what I am hearing at that instant before it glides and morphs into something else. I sit absolutely still, almost like I've lost consciousness of my own body, of everything but this strange new sense.

I walk out at a loss for words. I really don't know what I have just experienced. I'm just glad that I am no longer missing out.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Unexpected Insight From George Eliot

"At first when I enter a room where the walls are covered with frescoes, or with rare pictures, I feel a kind of awe - like a child present at great ceremonies where there are great robes and processions; I feel myself in the presence of some higher life than my own. But when I begin to examine the pictures one by one, the life goes out of them, or else is something violent and strange to me. It must be my own dulness. I am seeing so much all at once, and not understanding half of it. That always makes one feel stupid. It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not to be able to feel that it is fine - something like being blind, while people talk of the sky."

- Dorothea Brooke, in George Eliot's Middlemarch

Rereading Middlemarch this weekend, the above quote seemed to pop out and slap me across the face. Though Dorothea here is speaking to Will Ladislaw about paintings and art, I realized that this is exactly the way I've felt about sound since the CI. The things I'm hearing are so numerous and overwhelming, and I have so little knowledge with which to make sense of them. When I try, they slip out of my fingers. My appreciation of sound derives mainly from a sense of being overawed, as one present at an unprecedented spectacle, not from a true educated subtlety. That subtlety will come with time, but as of now the things I hear are indeed "violent and strange." Yet what an ineffable, seductive strangeness it is.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Extreme Usefulness of Computer-Generated Listening Exercises

Over the last few weeks and months, most of my concentrated listening practice, aside from reading audiobooks, has consisted in using a computer program from Cochlear. Called "Sound and Way Beyond," it has a fairly wide range of listening exercises, from background noise appreciation to voice differentiation and word/sentence recognition to music appreciation and pure-tone discrimination. All of these have been helpful tools for me to practice with, but honestly - whoever came up with this program had to be a bit odd, to say the least. I'd much rather sit down with a real person and try to listen in a real, applicable context, instead of putting up with some of the ludicrously random things the program throws at me. A few gems:

From the environmental sounds module:

- A snowboard. Maybe for an Olympic skier - but really, this noise is that important?

- A person saying, "Ouch." Thus enabling me to immediately recognize and help someone in need.

- An elephant trumpeting. Because, you know, in real life this might save me from being inadvertently trampled.

- A bat noise. Ditto; can't be too careful about those bats.

- Tree falling. Again, computer program is helping me avoid life-or-death situations.

- Dentist drill. This one isn't as ridiculous as the others, but it's a bit traumatizing.

From the word discrimination module:

- In the color category: amethyst, camel, garnet, ochre, vermilion. Because I use these words oh so often.

- In the family category: fraternal, heir, Dutch uncle. Creative.

- In the time category: everything from a mere "two o'clock" to sunset and Mountain Standard Time and the Ides of March. Try to take it all in, why don't you.

From the everyday sentences module (note emphasis on the word "everyday"):

- "A zestful food is the hot cross bun."

- "Dispense with a vest on a day like this." Yes, because everybody talks like that.

- "It's a dense crowd in two distinct ways."

- "The slang word for whiskey is booze." All right, so someone might say this to me in college.

- "Smile when you say nasty words."

- "Note closely the size of the gas tank." Hmmm, impending explosion?

- "Pluck the bright rose without leaves."

- "The rope will bind the seven books at once." This doesn't even make any sense.

- "Thieves who rob friends deserve jail."

- "Always close the barn door tight." Finally, something that almost relates to my life.

It's helpful in theory, but how on earth is some of this supposed to be practical? And shouldn't practicality be the main point right now? (Yes, at least the minds behind this program were creative. Props to them.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Me, the Burglar

I've never been very good at being quiet. In fact, because I've never really been able to hear myself, my tendency is to be rather loud. Just ask my family: at home when getting out of bed at night and in the mornings, I stomp around, bang the doors, and slam the lid on the toilet, to the extent that my little sister can't stop giving me grief for disturbing her sleep. My loudness is a constant joke in our house. Before the CI, my bantering strategy was to jeer that I wasn't really that noisy, that I was trying to be quiet, that hearing people were too sensitive and should just suck it up, etc. In my own mind, I honestly did think I wasn't loud.

But that, well, was because... I couldn't hear it. These days, as I've written about, background noise persists in being a real problem for me, so that if a piece of paper so much as rustles in an otherwise quiet room I sometimes want to jump up and scream. Never mind doors closing and people stomping around in the hallways outside. Shudder. I haven't learned to tune - it - out. These days, also, my morning routine is different, characterized by an almost painfully charged awareness of sound. Now, I'm a morning person, something that's a bit odd for a college student, and if I sleep past 7am I feel as if an essential part of my day has been wasted. So, because I'm usually up before my roommate, I've gotten practice in sneaking around in the mornings. But quietly this time. Or at least, trying to be.

Now, being quiet (for a deaf person) is a funnier thing than you might think. And I've noticed a general pattern that has been surprising. Obviously, when I wake up I'm enveloped only in silence. I shower and dress hearing nothing but the rhythm of my own thoughts. At these times, it's easy to become lost in my own mind, and admittedly in old habits, so that sound (and my own noisiness) seems less important. Pooh, I'm not being that loud, am I? But the moment the CI goes on - wow. Roar. My perspective undergoes a 180-degree shift. I've been absorbed in my illusions of a still, quiet morning, but it turns out that even this dark room is pulsing with so much sound. Every movement I make seems amplified, and when I freeze I find that I am still making noise, just by breathing. My attempts at being quiet seem nearly futile, because everything makes noise. Nowhere, I find, can I approach the total silence that, without the CI, I know so well. There's no escaping it: sound exists, and goes on existing whether I am aware of it or not. This may seem simple, but it's a profound realization that keeps hitting me over the head, day after day. The only thing I can say: I really would make a very poor burglar.

Funny how we don't think about things when they're not directly influencing us. For me, without the CI it's perfectly easy to go about as if sound ceases to exist for everybody else, and not just me. Only when I receive that audible check, that reminder of the world outside my own mind, can I stop and think, oh yeah. Right. That hearing perspective still feels so quirky and unnatural.

Now if only volume control were available for everybody else - for me it's a lifesaver!

Friday, November 5, 2010

How to Have a Conversation With Someone When You Have No Idea What He/She Is Saying

Okay, I admit I do this more often than I would like. It happens everywhere, but especially in the UK, where the accents can be formidable for me to understand. Here goes:

1. At first, ask for repetition. Lots of it. When person looks startled or puzzled (since most hearing people aren't used to repeating/ making themselves clear), apologize and explain that you are deaf. Point to space-age-looking CI for "proof."

2. Explain to person that you need him/her to slow down, etc. Chances are he/she won't do this longer than about two seconds, but try anyway.

3. Focus as hard as possible, mentally scolding CI for flitting off to ooooh and ahhhh at noises several yards away.

4. Apologize some more when the conversation starts to seem non sequitur.

5. Realize, with a sinking feeling, that person is going to be impossible to lipread. Wonder if you should tell him/her this, then decide that this bluntness would be rude. Start thinking of alternative strategies to salvage the situation until you can extricate yourself.

5. Alternative strategy number one: watch person's face and nod encouragingly at strategic moments. This is known as the "deaf nod." (Oh, how you hate it.) Add "yeah," and "okay," and "right," when deemed appropriate.

6. Alternative strategy number two: keep the focus off of yourself. Ask questions. Try to figure out what person is talking about, if possible, and ask who/what/where/why/how/anything at all. As long as person is talking, he/she will be appeased. Even if you are not.

7. Alternative strategy number three: change the subject constantly. Make arbitrary comments and ask person what he/she thinks about them. Control the ball, try to ease the conversation into a place where you can feel comfortable.

8. Inevitably think about how ridiculous this is getting. But you've gotten through worse, so take a deep breath and keep going.

9. Alternative strategy number four: parrot person's words back to him/her, watch for validation that this is indeed what he/she said. If you're right, run with it. If you're not, back to square one.

10. Alternative strategy number five: if other acquaintances/friends come along, gratefully pass the conversation off to them. Let the group ramble along, insert a comment or two whenever possible, but otherwise sit and silently reassure yourself that you're okay, that silly situations like this don't reflect on your self-worth.

11. Alternative strategy num - heck, forget these strategies! This isn't working, and you're tired of pretending and wasting your time. Come up with an excuse to leave. Walk away feeling somewhat abashed, even though none of this was your fault.

So, most of the time the CI still hasn't quite kicked in for speech comprehension, especially with an unfamiliar speaker. The most frequent problem is simply that I can't pick out a person's voice from amidst other distracting noises: objects being moved around, other people chatting, cars passing, etc. Overstimulation leaves me unable to focus. When background noise isn't an issue, the CI does help guide and ease the pressure from lipreading, but it still can't stand alone in terms of understanding everything. That auditory memory of mine is developing, yes, but slowly. I'm realizing how much of a baby brain I've got to work with. That brain tries very hard, but it needs time. This is certainly an exercise in being patient!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dance, Dance, Dance

It's Halloween. And what hearing people do for Halloween is dress up and go out dancing. Now, the dressing up part (and the carving pumpkins, and the eating candy) is definitely not foreign to me, but... music? dancing? These are things I've resolutely avoided since those awkward high school days, when I remember standing on the edge of the dance floor, sort of feeling the music thrumming through the floor, but not feeling at all inspired to move to it. Whenever I tried, I just felt stupid, like I was play-acting or pretending to be something I was not. The beat could be vaguely pleasant, but there was nothing exciting, nothing interesting at all in music for me.

Fast-forward a couple of years, to last night. My first time out at a dance party since the CI. I find myself in a dim room full of spinning disco lights and swaying bodies. Yes, I am in costume, as is everyone else. The speakers loom yards away, and my group of friends has started dancing right in front of them. The beat roars, pulses, rushes through my head until I almost cannot think of anything else. It tingles at my feet and up through my spine, more real and alive than it has ever been. But though I step back and forth from foot to foot, I realize that I do not know how to dance at all. I haven't done it before, and though I like the music my body does not know how it should respond. The bass is so heavy it roots me to the floor. I want to stand here and close my eyes and breathe. There's no tingling melody, and I cannot understand the words even though everyone around me is singing along.

Still, I dance. Not well, and often feeling like the song will wrench away and leave me stranded, but dancing nevertheless. Slowly my body loosens up, and although the noise teeters on the overwhelming (if only someone would explain what all this music is doing, what it's saying, where it's going), I find that I'm enjoying myself. I enjoy seeing how the other dancers interact, how they respond to the pulsing beat all around us, enjoy wondering how and why my body wants to move the way it does. I am stepping, moving, and though it feels strange, it is also exciting and new.

For a time, that is. After half an hour, my pleasure is ebbing. Everything at the dance club has suddenly become too much: the heat, the bodies, the light, and above all this music rattling through my head. My long-deafened brain can't take it anymore. Overstimulation is looming, and gasping I yell to my friends (thinking all the while, if only they signed, I wouldn't have to yell) that I'm done, I'm going out.

Weaving through the crowd, then outside into the cool night air, I reach up and rip off the magnet. The tension in my head releases as the CI dangles loosely in my hand. Ah, yes. Let there be silence.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Noises That Stimulate Wonder

Crunchy, crunchy leaves...

Contrary to my last post, not all sounds make me nuts - more often than not, it can be exhilarating to have my concentration disrupted, to have the world tug at my attention and insist that I perceive something, regardless of how small, in a wondrously different way. Of course, this has been happening all along with the CI, but here's the most recent chronicle.

This is my first fall of experiencing such vibrant, dynamic sound. Thus, when I walk outside, I find myself directly experiencing the things I've, until now, only read and heard about secondhand. Yes, I knew leaves crunched, and maybe I could hear that a teensy bit with my hearing aid - but then it was only a dull whisper, not like this. Not this crisp, crackly, amazing noise that so perfectly matches the chill edge in the air outside. I've taken to walking - no, stomping - through them whenever possible. Around me I can hear branches rustling, birds, other people talking as they pass, doors closing, occasional cars. When the breeze picks up, it is one of my favorite sounds, so soft and whistling and elusive. I feel like I could listen to it all day. There's a lot of cobblestone on the roads around here, and my most recent game is stepping from one surface to another, from smooth sidewalk to bumpy stone to cracked asphalt to gravel, and seeing how the sound changes. I shuffle my feet, tread lightly, stamp, vary my gait, and the fact that I hear something different each time is just... stunning.

Even while I'm inside, noises sneak up on me when I don't expect them. Last night, while reading for class with a pencil in hand, it suddenly struck me that each time the lead touched the page, I heard something. Even from way down in my lap. Scratch. Scratch. I was mystified at first, and then felt as if a light bulb had switched on - the scribble of a pencil! But of course! Suddenly jubilant, I scrambled to find a piece of scrap paper, then sat scribbling, scribbling, writing my name and other random words, scrawling out in cursive versus print, listening and grinning like a fool. It was only a pencil, but hearing it was like extending my reach even farther into a world I'd never really imagined. Other sounds keep making me feel the same way: the peel ripping off an orange or a banana, the constant rustle of clothes, the stir of my hair in its ponytail, the squeak of my hands on the glass or the china, the umbrella popping open. Each time the thrill of discovery is the same. It is this thrill that I love most about the CI, this sense of wonder that seems inexplicable (and maybe incompehensible) to anyone but myself.

How amazing, that the world has sounds like these! And how lucky I am, to be able to experience them!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Noises That Ruin My Concentration

Oh, there's a noise over there? Really? Okay, let's look. Oh, another noise? Wait, that one was only the door closing, not that important. Thank you for being so attentive, but let's concentrate now... I said let's concentrate! Yes, I know something else just happened in the corner, but it's not important either - are you listening to me? I said, are you listening? Come back over here! No, I don't know what that noise was, but I don't care - stop! We have more important things to do! All right. Thank you. Sit down. We are reading this book right now, and - yes, I know someone just coughed. At least, I think it was a cough - no, we are not looking! We are focusing! Hey, come back and sit down!

This is the way my CI makes me feel in the library. After four months, the noises that most fascinate my brain are the small ones, the rustlings in the corners and the muttered conversations far away - just the noises that, unfortunately, most distract my studies.

I used to think libraries were quiet places. Wrong. In principle everyone is working to keep the silence, but that doesn't stop the constant influx of sudden noises: floorboards creaking, doors clicking shut, pages rustling, people coughing. Aaargh! How am I supposed to think like this? My brain becomes hyperalert, my thought processes shatter. Never, never has studying been like this. In desperation to shut out all the clutter, I'm driven to music - which in itself can be distracting. (The other day I sat staring out the window and listening to Ravel's "Bolero" for ten minutes before I realized I wasn't reading.)

Forget the library! I'll try other places instead. But, even in my room, the sounds of the house creep in. The heaters and pipes and fans, plus who knows what else. Last week I went nuts for several minutes before realizing that the voices I was hearing (which I'd been worried I was imagining) were in fact wafting up through a crack in my window from the patio outside. There, when I looked, two people were talking in normal voices twenty feet below. Wow, and I heard that?

Even in a public place like a bus or a train, my mind is not completely my own. It keeps cavorting off to investigate murmured conversation many feet away, or the sounds of people heaving sighs and shifting in their seats. I'm reminded, moment by moment, that I am not alone or in isolation, but surrounded by others who are as functioning and alive as me. That's reassuring, in a way. But... but I like cutting the world off sometimes and sitting inside my own mind!

Too bad. Everything that moves makes a sound. That's been the rule from day one. Now - focus, focus, focus!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Advocacy, Really?

The older I get, the more interested I become in disability advocacy - mostly from wanting to apply my personal experiences toward positive change. Right now, though, I'm a bit frustrated (disillusioned?) with the advocacy scene in general.

Here's why. Today I attended a meeting for a disability advocacy group I'd gotten wind of, keen to contribute my abilities and perspectives. Of course, I went expecting no help from sign language or interpreters, and expecting little general deaf awareness - but, hey, since these people were already passionate about accessibility, wouldn't they be likely to really "get it" and communicate efficiently anyway? It turns out, no.

The scene, I thought, ended up being a bit ironic. Here's a small group of sharp, able-bodied people sitting and conversing avidly about how to solve disability and accessibility-related issues - all while forgetting the elephant in the room, that there is a disabled person in their midst, a person who is still struggling to engage despite all their well-intentioned talk. Argh. They all came across as inconsiderate - even though I am sure this was not their intention. And, from my end, asking people to slow down and speak in turn only goes so far. People forget, get wrapped up in their own ideas. All my CI did to help was pick up on the traffic noises outside, plus the bartender pouring drinks, wiping counters, and sliding chairs across the floor. Thanks a lot.

I won't go on, but I will say this at least. True inclusiveness requires action, directed toward the people whose needs are most immediate - not only theoretical strategies. Walking the talk, so to speak. General "advocacy" means nothing if it's impersonal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Seeing Another Language

During a rest stop on a road trip this past weekend, I glimpsed some hands moving across the room. When I looked up, my eyes fell on five or six deaf guys sitting at a table, signing animatedly to each other. A few tables down from them, another group sat, also signing. Immediately my heart leapt - as it always does, at seeing sign language used so fluidly and openly. But, of course, both groups were conversing in British Sign Language, which is completely different from ASL.

Oh. That's right, this is the UK.

If it had been ASL, I reckon I would have approached and struck up a conversation. But BSL was completely foreign to me. The facial expressions were natural and similar to ASL, and some of the gestures seemed intuitive enough. (Ha, my hearing friends are always demanding that I explain, "Why do you sign ___ this way? It doesn't make sense!" - yet this was exactly what I found myself doing yesterday.) As I watched, I realized that this was the first time I'd seen a group of deaf people since getting my CI, and I couldn't even understand them. How strange that felt. I'm far too used to having the meaning of speech evade me - but never, never sign.

That said, I've started learning the BSL alphabet (which seems ridiculous - a two-handed alphabet, really?) and hopefully will make some progress soon...

Monday, October 4, 2010


Something very, very cool happened today.

I had been looking around a small clothes shop in Oxford and was about to leave when the proprietor asked if I needed help finding anything. I said I was fine, thanks, and turned to walk out the door when I heard his voice behind me. I was not looking at him, but it said, quite clearly and distinctly, "Have a good day."

What? I could not believe my ears. It had been as simple as that. I heard him, and I understood. Snap, in an instant. There was no uncertainty, no frustration, no in-between struggle. Barely containing my own astonishment, I told him, "You too," and stepped out onto the bustling and noisy High Street.

Now, this exchange might sound trivial and not worth reporting, but for me it was a jaw-dropping breakthrough, a moment in which I literally functioned like a hearing person. That's just... unimaginable.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

National Disability Awareness Month

The month of October is National Disability Awareness Month in the U.S. (how can it be October already?!). Actually, as designated by Congress it's National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and anyone who has talked to me about my school and work experiences knows how strongly I feel about disability and level-playing-field accessibility vis-a-vis the common buzzphrase of "diversity."

But, that aside, I'd like to take a moment on this blog to promote real disability awareness - not only in the workplace but everywhere else. All too often, awareness is the crux that allows us to see past our first impressions to grasp a person's true substance and character. And all too often, a "disability" is just something that requires a change in perspective or lifestyle, not a tragic or overbearing handicap.

From my own standpoint, I see my disability not simply as that, a disability, but as one of the strongest shaping forces of my experience. More than anything else, being deaf has allowed me to better understand the things that are important in life, as well as the people who are truly worthwhile. So, in that regard, I can consider myself fortunate - and also obliged to help others find their way, even as I keep experimenting with mine.

Off my soapbox now. But never underestimate the impact of an open, inquiring, yet discerning mind.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sounds of the UK

In London, the frequent sound of police sirens. Oh yeah, this would be part of living in a big city. Soon I notice and recognize them even when tucked away inside a building, through several walls. Sometimes when walking down the street I hear them and stop and look, startled and somewhat enthralled by how they pierce my ears. The hearing people around me keep moving, their heads down. Hey, it's only sirens.

The screech of the metro (or "tube") rails, especially around corners. This sound makes me feel more nervous about being suspended on such narrow tracks, under the mass of earth that supports the roaring city above. I can hear the cars rattle. Click, click, click. It's the sound of my own motion, rushing headlong. At the stops, the sound of an oncoming train makes me squint down the tunnel's dark hole even before the headlight has rounded the turn into the station.

Walking beside the Thames river at morning - wait, what's that? It sounds like it's coming from above, sounds like a pulsing honking noise, unlike anything I've heard before. I stop, whirl around, and look. Nothing. But as soon as I've given up on the sound and continued on my way, a spectacular flock of geese, at least fifty of them, swoops right down on me and glides across the water, spreading their racket as they fly. Those birds making that noise? And I heard it from that far away? Wow!

On the same walk, an eight boat goes streaking past, the Oxford rowers pulling their oars in unison. And I hear them chanting from across the water, stroke by stroke. In. Out. I can't make out the words, but I stand and watch them, listening until the sound fades at several hundred yards. When other boats go by I can hear the cox's voice. Now I see what people mean when they say sound carries over water.

At dinner, someone proposes a toast. He clinks the wine glass right beside me and it is ringing, ringing, surprisingly bold and clear. All around the hall, people fall silent and turn to look. It's only a glass, and I would once have wondered how it could penetrate so many layers of conversation. But now it's clear to me why they're lookng; the sound literally fills the corners of the room.

In an old wood-paneled chapel, someone is upstairs playing the organ. The pipes are huge, stretching up to the vaulted Gothic-style ceiling, and the sound is slightly unearthly. Ringing, resonant, a bit disembodied. (In Paris, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, my sister said the organ sounded like an exorcist.) Again, the sound fills the room. I played the piano many times over the summer, but this instrument sounds like so much more.

The constant bells that fill the city of Oxford, especially when within hearing range of the many churches and cathedrals. Some deeper and clanging, others small and tinkling. But always bells, always tracking the time of the day. On that note, I am startled to hear the huge hands on the clocks ticking dozens of feet above, as I stand gazing up from the cobblestone street. It strikes me that I am hearing the rhythm of life going by.

And the tang of British accents, of course. More on that another time.

Friday, September 17, 2010


The summer is almost over; my return to classes and university life is imminent. This change of pace, I feel, commands a bit of reflection.

Looking back, I am not the same person I was in June. This statement, of course, is true after almost any summer, but mine has been unusually enlightening. It was not a summer that I looked forward to, at first. I only saw the void of the unknown, combined with mundane home life and a separation from my friends and independent lifestyle. Yet I emerge from it having discovered so much, and feeling so eager to go on discovering more.

Only now do I have the presence of mind to look back at myself, pre-cochlear implant, and realize just how much I was struggling with. At times, I remember feeling as if I had the entire weight and expectations of the hearing world on my shoulders. As highly developed as my skills were, I couldn’t quite handle that burden, and I don’t think even I realized how unhappy I was at times. Now, challenges still lie ahead, and my listening skills are still far from perfect, but I’m empowered by the thought that I can change, that I can progress. This in itself has brought unexpected peace.

I had my three-month checkup and remapping this past Monday. In the days and weeks immediately before the appointment, I’d become increasingly dissatisfied with the sound quality from the CI. I’d had a while to acclimate to that program, so that as a result the volume felt diminished, sometimes making me strain to hear. My head was no longer full of sound – a feeling which, in all honesty, I’ve come to crave. During my appointment, I must have sounded like a drug addict – more, give me more! But, interestingly, my audiologist explained that the purpose of this remapping wasn’t as simple as turning the volume up. It was time to tweak in other ways, and to begin negotiating the fine balance between volume and clarity. A huge leap up in electrode volume would likely have negatively affected the clarity from the CI – just like, when a person shouts, the increased volume doesn’t make his/her voice any clearer. Often quite the opposite. (This is something hearing people frequently don’t realize; shouting at me doesn’t help.) The bottom line is: I have to continue learning how to use what I’ve got.

Still, we did increase the electrode input, and adjusted the balance of stimulation across the array. And, since then, the subtle improvements in the sound quality with the CI have left me amazed. Music – oh, music, who would have thought I’d feel the notes so physically and personally? A friend of mine recently challenged me to think about dominant chords and the tension buildup and release inherent in any musical piece. I still don’t really understand how or why one chord can be “dominant” over another (C versus G? what?), but while listening to classical right after my remapping I felt that tension – felt the chords building, swelling, then abiding. I can’t quite describe what it sounded like; I experienced it more in the form of a physical response. In any case, it was a real “wow” moment! In the days since, my iTunes (fleshed out with a compilation of songs from one of my best friends) has gotten rather heavy use…

Since the remapping, even people’s voices are sounding smoother and more natural than ever. I was startled to discover how rich and resonant the reader on my audiobooks sounded – quite different from the mechanical robot (slash duck) I heard at the beginning! Who’d’ve thunk it, there’s a real human voice on that CD! I keep noticing other environmental sounds poking through, too – the boink-boink of elastic bands, my fingers rubbing against the grain of wood, other people chewing food across the room (slightly gross). The last few days and weeks have really marked the first time that the CI has started feeling like an inherent part of me. By all accounts, this normalization does tend to happen at around three months – hurrah, the worst is over! And I still have a steep learning curve ahead. I still tend to set the bar a little too high while practicing, and resultantly come down too hard on myself – but who would have thought I’d feel this optimistic, compared with the unpleasant chaos of two months ago?

All that said, this is the last post I will make on this blog for a little while. I’m currently preparing to leave for a quarter abroad at Oxford. (Follow my travels at Upon reflection, my hearing experiences this summer have prepared me for this further leap into the unknown – for what could be more unknown to me than sound? Comparatively, living in a foreign country seems like a piece of cake!

Now we’ll have to see how my baby CI helps me cope with those British accents!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Piece by Piece

The practice continues. But now, instead of listening to words like “banana” and “corn,” over and over again (or, even more tediously, “shhh” and “mmmm”), I find myself vaulting to giddy new heights. The last few weeks have brought an explosion of words to my auditory memory, skills to my repertoire. Listening exercises, instead of being a frustrating chore, have become a way for me to open the door ever wider into the world of sound. I now practice a wild variety of sentences, and even verge on short open-set conversations. Just think, me having a conversation through listening alone! And understanding! Granted, these conversations are about very familiar topics, with very familiar family members, but this doesn’t stop me from wanting to dance around the room.

These triumphs, though, don’t come without a good deal of drill and repetition. Our exercises have encompassed a range of categories, words, and ideas – and the exciting part is that I cast my net out farther with each day. Animals. Food. Flowers. Pieces of furniture. Sports and hobbies. Names of family members, friends, and pets. Numbers, months, days of the week. Social occasions. American states. Foreign countries. Random adjectives and verbs. All of these – framed in short sentences such as “I am traveling to ____ in ____,” or “Bob likes to eat ____” – are working their way into my auditory vocabulary. Some of them I now get easily, even lazily. Others, particularly new words I have not practiced before, I find flabbergasting at first. But the common pattern, ever astonishing to me, is that once I’ve heard a word once or twice, thereafter I can understand it almost without effort. The other night, I faltered when my mother said “flower arranging” in one of our practice sentences. But, several minutes later, when it came up again – snap. I knew. My brain had latched onto those words, formed some kind of neural connection already, without my conscious input. Isn’t it amazing?

Eventually, the hope is, I’ll be familiar enough with these words that they’ll flow in and I’ll grasp them without thought. But, I’ve discovered, this will not be the whole story. Another unexpected challenge is retaining what I’ve heard – not only recognizing the pieces of the puzzle, but holding on to those pieces long enough to assemble the entire picture. Now, I’ve always had a good memory, but I find that it sometimes fails me as far as hearing goes. Case in point: practicing random phone numbers. If I see a phone number written down, I remember it easily. But hearing it – that’s a different pathway, one that my brain has never had to use before. The numbers streak by, but as soon as I’ve grasped one, another is on its way. At the end of the string, I’ll stammer and say, “Wait – I understood that when I heard it, but now it’s not there!” It’s amusing how hard this is, and I often resort to spluttering, “Eight-something-seven-something-twotwothree!”

Even funnier, to me, are my auditory faux-pases. I’ve long been used to misunderstanding what people say, through lipreading, but I’ve rarely been able to find it amusing rather than embarrassing. Now, though, I’ve been blessed with the ability to laugh (sometimes uncontrollably) at what my brain thinks I hear, before it’s learned a word properly. Take these gems from a conversation with my sister Leigh:

L: I eat mangoes. Wait, why are you laughing?

R: It’s… never mind. Say it again.

L: What? Tell me!

R: It – it sounds like you said, ‘I eat my legs!’

[Later, after we’ve calmed down again]

L: I eat watermelon.

R: You eat Ronald Reagan!

L [laughing]: They don’t even sound the same!

R: Yes, they do – say it fast, watermelonRonaldReaganwatermelon!

[Later, approaching the edge]

L: I eat apples. Okay, what is it? Tell me!

R [laughing]: You eat bottles!

Other gems abound. Sometimes the sounds are somewhat close, other times they’re way off. Where does my brain dig up these things? Once it has fastened onto a supposed ‘meaning’ for a word, it stubbornly casts that nonsensical meaning onto that word every time. Even as I protest that that can’t possibly be right, that it doesn’t make sense. I’m at odds with myself. And yes, there are lasting consequences – even though I can now recognize “watermelon” for its true meaning, I still can’t hear it without thinking “Ronald Reagan!”

At the end of the listening road (wherever that is), along with an impressive arsenal of words in my auditory dictionary, I could have some very interesting mental connotations…

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"My Son is Deaf, Finally!"

A few days ago, a good friend of mine sent me this link, and even now, I keep revisiting it in my mind. For me, it's troublesome, provoking, even irrational - but, sadly, not really surprising. I've met plenty of Deaf people who have this attitude about CIs. Be sure to watch to the end:

Still, expressed in this light, this man's sentiments come across as extreme. I keep wondering if he's totally justified in feeling the way he does. Maybe so, in that there is indeed a "double standard" between deaf and hearing people. While it's expected (and taken for granted) that one will conform with the hearing majority, it's not nearly as acceptable to be deaf, and to live as a Deaf person.

But the analogy doesn't quite hold up. Hearing is more than a bias: it's a wonderful ability that enables us to connect more fully with our world and the people in it. While being Deaf may be a culturally rich lifestyle, and while it may carry a unique communicative heritage, embracing Deaf culture will never fully stamp out the isolation that derives from not being able to hear. The two scenarios aren't completely equivalent.

So why the anger? As a recent CI recipient (albeit one who did choose for herself), I can't help but feel bothered by this example of reverse prejudice. This pent-up frustration, directed toward the hearing world, is upsetting. Yes, hearing people very often ought to understand more than they do. But, instead of this pointless antagonism, how about pursuing real acceptance and accessibility?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

What's in a Word?

Really, by far people's favorite question to ask me is: "So. What did that sound like?"

Always this question - whenever there's a new sound in the environment, or whenever I come across a word that my ears find unfamiliar, or whenever my face looks slightly puzzled. (I guess I must look puzzled pretty often these days.) Oftentimes, I find myself casting out in vain for an adequate description. The sound quality of the CI is changing and improving all the time, but it's still not equivalent to what hearing people hear. What did that sound like? Ha, I don't know! Language fails me, especially since I have no previous experience to compare with. Depending on the situation, maybe it's:

Rough. Tweety. Mechanical. Cartoonish. Fuzzy. Damped. Squashed. Gravelly. Blaring. Blurred. Quacking. Flat. Crackling. Robotic. Squawky. Breathy. Cottony. Out of focus. Hissy. Murky. Distorted. Grating. Hollow. Muted. Roaring. Whispery. Screechy. Chirpy. Droning. Thin. Layered. Vibrating. Electronic. Chopped up. Warbling. Blunted. Dulled. Garbled. White noise.

So. What can a well-chosen adjective convey?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In Which Silence Makes an Unexpected Reappearance

An interesting thing happened today. While listening to Chopin’s Etude in G-flat major on my work computer, my CI battery died. Abruptly. Whatever the reason – that it didn’t charge correctly, that its life is diminishing with use – the result was silence. Total and uncompromising, where piano chords had rolled only an instant before.

My reaction was ironic – and, I soon found, amusing. Stupid, stupid battery! I was enjoying that song! Now I have to wait hours to hear again! Why couldn’t you wait until I had a spare? [Prod, shake, shake, shake, tap, frown.] Ha, I would never have felt this way several weeks ago, when all I wanted to do was tear the CI off.

What arose, this time, was a sudden feeling of being severed from part of my world. How dependent I’ve become on a battery and a bit of silicon. I still had my hearing aid in my right ear, of course, but it was comparatively useless. I sat at my desk, expecting to hear the sounds I’ve learned since the end of June, the sounds I’ve come to take for granted. They were not there. Or, they were still there somewhere, but not for me. What I could hear was muffled and diminished, rather than sharp and bold. My surroundings, besides what I could immediately see and touch, seemed detached. Even in my quiet office, I’ve grown used to hearing people walking down the hallway, the air conditioning humming, fax machines and printers whirring, phones ringing, vacuum cleaners roaring. The world living, moving, thrumming. Now, without sound, it was as if that world had retreated, leaving me sitting alone inside my own mind.

This, I thought, is the way it used to be. This was my reality. Amazing, just how much the CI has embedded itself into my experience and my expectations. Though silence is fine with me during intentionally solitary moments, I’ve come to crave sound. Anything less is disappointing.

And it’s only been two months!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Is music somehow inherent to the body? Is it something we all intuitively "understand" on some level, something which shapes us at the same time as we shape and create it? Can musical fluency arise even in those for whom hearing is not natural - in other words, in deaf people like me? I've been considering these questions a lot lately. In that light, and especially considering that I've just discovered the novelty of exercising while listening to music, I found this New York Times article interesting:

For me, the most thought-provoking part of this piece is in the last sentence: "Our bodies are made to be moved by music and to move to it." Before the CI, I would have scoffed at such a concept - I moved just fine without music, thanks very much. But now, I've seen the strange innate responses that I can have to musical elements. Rhythm, beat, tempo: these are things I already understand. They are things not limited to music or to sound, things I find in nature, in physiology, in conversation and the give and take of ideas, even in the flow of an excellent piece of writing. Now, I can find them in a song. and consequently match them with my own body. Are our physical selves indeed wired to seek out rhythm, to synchronize with the ebb and flow of the world around us? If so, hearing is just another way of processing that innate rhythm, and music is some sort of outpouring of an element (emotional or otherwise) that already resides within us. Recognizable as an externalization of our vital functions, such as a heartbeat.

All right, I'll stop philosophizing... But still, it's intriguing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

If They All Go Deaf, Will There Be More Signbooks?

So, it turns out, technology can be a good and a bad thing. Today, I came across two deafness-related stories in the news, both connected with technological advances, but with far different repercussions.

The first is a study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that reports that one in five American teens have some level of hearing loss, much of it noise-induced. The proportion of teens with hearing losses has increased in the last 15 years, as devices like iPods and MP3 players have entered the mainstream.,0,559994.story

I found this story alarming, besides a bit of fleeting amusement at visualizing myself suddenly surrounded by more deaf friends. Hearing loss is not easy. And, trust me, it's definitely not worth it for some amplified music in this already noisy world. From recent personal experience, I've found it surprising just how loud iPods can get. My CI conveniently lets me adjust the volume of anything I hear, so the volume control on iPods is secondary, but the level of noise that does blast out of those tiny things is mind-blowing! (At the same time, it reassures me to know I'm not at risk - no hair cells left to lose! All the CI can do is give me a headache.)

The next is a neat piece about - no, not an audiobook, but a sign language-narrated book! (Signbook? Haha.) It's a new iPad multimedia application that allows viewers to watch the story "Danny the Dragon Meets Jimmy" in sign language. Multimedia isn't just for hearing people anymore! And who knows, maybe future developments like these could get more deaf children interested in reading.

How cute. I sure could have had fun with this while I was young!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tapping My Feet to the Music

(What I don't need anymore, hopefully)

Mozart. Brahms. Wagner. Andrew Bird. The Eagles. Imogen Heap. Dave Matthews. Norah Jones. Jesse McCartney. Carrie Underwood. Okay, okay!

For a deaf person, music is a veritable Pandora’s box. It’s an unknown realm filled with so many impressions and styles, so much history, as to make the prospect of listening rather daunting. Before the CI, I already had a sense of speech and environmental sounds, based on years of therapy, observations and experiences in the hearing world, and the books I’d read. But music? That was largely uncharted territory. Only recently have I started to open the box, to glimpse whatever lies inside.

As a result, music is on its way to engraining itself in my life. “Wow, Rachel likes music now!” my little sister said the first day I stole her iPod; this exclamation, in various forms, has been echoed by several friends since. But really, now that I’ve got the tools to listen, what’s not to like? Even if I didn’t know what to expect, my musical journey has already changed my personal landscape in striking ways. I no longer view iPods as foreign objects, although navigating iTunes is still a novelty. While driving, I like the radio loud: beware to whoever gets into the car after me! Playing CDs at work has become routine, making the time go faster and more pleasantly. I write better sometimes while plugged into music, when not distracted by an odd beat or melody. (And yes, I still remember asking my hearing friends in bewilderment how they could think with all that noise.) I’ve found, to my amusement, that I can multitask and hold a conversation (via lipreading) even while my head is pulsing full of some rock song. A few weeks ago I sat down at the piano for the first time in years, plinking around trying to hear the differences between notes, chords, and octaves. Recently I’ve progressed to trying to play a few songs; those long-ago piano and guitar lessons have to be good for something. And just yesterday I discovered the rewards of plugging into an iPod while working out. It really is easier to roll through those push-ups with a strong beat pulsing through your head!

Yet I keep realizing how much I don’t know. I keep asking questions that must seem na├»ve and somewhat dumb (“If they’re playing the exact same note, how do you tell the difference between a saxophone and a flute, or a violin and a cello?”). Music truly is like a different language.

Still, my baby ear is developing. I keep wondering how hearing people first encounter and understand music, because for me it’s been a bottom-up journey, from the fundamental beat all the way up to the lyrics. The first time I heard any type of song, post-CI, was in the car with the radio on. Even though the quality of that sound was awful, I still remember my astonishment at realizing that I was hearing a definite, strong, rhythmic beat. Unless the volume was turned up to deafening levels, I had never experienced this before – and, when I had, I’d found it unpleasantly overwhelming. For several days after turn-on, the beat was all I could hear in any given song, before I started hearing the melody as a strange, staticky, grating noise. No thank you! Since then, though, practice and several remappings have helped my brain make more sense of what I’m hearing. The sound quality is much improved, and the assortment of notes fits together into a more dynamic picture. Lyrics are slowly coming through, depending on the song. When I can make them out, though, the singer sometimes sounds like he/she has laryngitis. Hopefully this will go away!

As far as pure instrumentation goes, I often can't distinguish between the different instrumental and vocal parts of a song, which can make some music (especially pop) sound slightly muddled and chaotic. At a friend’s recommendation, I’ve spent more time listening to recordings of single instruments, seeing if I can follow the direction of one melody. Classical is especially good in this regard, though the string instruments can sometimes sound screechy. I’m hoping to get my hands on some a cappella recordings soon. Rock is fine, though it sometimes makes me feel like I’m about to blow a fuse. I haven’t listened to much jazz or country or heavy metal. No rap yet, either. Really, I don’t know what I’m listening to half the time!

An interesting step in my musical experiments – last night, my cochlear implant and I took a trip to the Santa Fe Opera. Greeted by splatters of rain, billowing clouds, and spectacular views of the sunset over the Sangre de Cristo mountains, we took our seats in the sweeping theater, open to the night air outside. My father had only come with us after some persuasion, complaining that it “wasn’t his cup of tea” to listen to “people screaming pretending that they’re singing.” Admittedly this was what I had once thought of opera, my experience being limited to one elementary-school field trip to a small performance in an Albuquerque theater, in which I watched the singers’ faces turning red, didn’t hear much, and decided that the whole concept was rather silly. Last night’s outing ended up being more fun! The night’s performance was an apprentice’s showcase featuring different scenes from various operas, and although I wished I could have witnessed an entire opera instead of these fragments, it was an excellent introduction to all that opera can be. A few off-the-cuff observations:

1. Many of the apprentices didn’t have the range of voice that I expected, but the few good arias over the course of the night gave me a weird sensation, as chills rippled down my arms and my insides stirred, trying to cling to the sound. I haven’t experienced that feeling yet with other types of music.

2. Several times, I squinted down trying to lipread the singers when I realized they weren’t singing in English. Whoops. That said, I seem to enjoy opera better in other languages; the singing sounds better and more poignant.

3. My CI battery started to die near the end – nooo! I thought, wanting to grasp the sound and pour it, amplified, into my head. Strange how subject I’ve become to a gadget. Next time I’ll bring a spare.

4. The electronics title system (which the opera house had, on each seat, instead of supertitles) is excellent! Why don’t live plays, speeches and events, movie theaters, etc., all have that?

5. Opera, it occurred to me, seems to be driven by raw emotion, by an effort to make those sentiments concrete. Which, it also occurred to me, is probably true of most music, isn't it?

6. Who ever knew you could make an opera scene extolling ice cream? I thought it was all about doomed, star-crossed lovers. Which we saw, too.

My musical discoveries, ongoing as they may be, have consistently raised the question: what defines good music? I honestly don’t know. I’m a big reader, and I know what defines good writing. I have some background in art, and am able to evaluate a visual piece of work. But music? Hmmm. I keep listening, puzzling, trying to pinpoint exactly what it is. I like it, and I want to hear more, but I don’t know exactly why. Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had since the CI have been about music; I’ve seen sides of my hearing friends that I haven’t seen before. A few of those friends have tried to articulate to me why they like to listen to the music they do. Their descriptions make sense intellectually, even if I still have to discover those ideas personally and emotionally. So, for the readers of this blog, I extend the question to you: what makes a piece of music good? And why?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Phone Home

“This won’t work,” I told my mother. “I’m not ready yet.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “But might as well start practicing.”

This is crazy. I heard the door close, then a set of footsteps down the hall, leaving me alone in the room with the telephone. I stared mistrustfully at it. Despite seeing phones for my entire life, I still perceive them as strange objects that only hearing people talk on. Not me, certainly. The thought made me want to laugh. A few seconds – a noise penetrated the room. Yes, yes, the phone was ringing!

I let it ring again before picking it up, positioning it awkwardly by my ear. “Hello,” I said, half-expecting to hear nothing back – or, at the most, a mangled sound. To my surprise, I heard my mother's voice, tiny and squeaky as though inhaling helium at the far end of a tunnel, but unmistakably saying the words from our prearranged script.

“You sound like a duck,” I said, bemused. “I mean, like the duckiest duck I’ve ever heard. Hold on.”

Turning up my CI volume only helped the squeakiness a fraction, and made my own voice sound painfully loud, but at least I could follow what she was saying. We had a short, scripted conversation, then hung up. Then she called me again. Then we hung up again. After several rounds of this, I tried her cell phone, which sounded clearer than the landline – or maybe I was getting more used to phones in general? Another milestone, in any case!

I don’t know if I’ll ever properly talk on the phone, but it’s an exciting thought, and my recent progress makes it more conceivable than ever before. Although, still, the idea of picking up a receiver and instantly understanding the caller is nuts! It’s like believing that, one day, I will learn to fly. But I try not to set limitations on what I can and can’t do; after all, this is a new reality, isn’t it? I had my first-ever Skype conversation without sign a little while ago, letting the sound of my friend’s voice supplement my lipreading when the screen wasn’t too blurry. This would not have been possible with hearing aids, and logging off I felt exhilarated. Now if my listening comprehension progresses to the point where I’m not so reliant on lipreading (and hence not so vulnerable to the clarity of the video connection), I could be able to skype any friend I want, not only those who sign! My daily listening practice has progressed to more and more semi-open exercises, in which I know the general category of what someone will say, but not the exact words. The other day, I was able to have a passable conversation with my mother without any set defined at all. Although I had to ask her to repeat some phrases, I was able to understand others right away. My auditory memory is slowly beefing up. I’ve even listened to a song or two and followed the lyrics.

Still, my recent foray with the telephone makes me think of the role that other technologies have played in my life. No, I’ve never been able to use some everyday devices like the phone, but other innovations more than make up for that. Really, there’s never been a better time in history to be deaf. Email, texting, instant messaging, and the Internet all offer text-based ways to communicate instantly with people, making a hearing loss all but irrelevant. Perfect for me since I’ve always preferred to express myself through written words! Perhaps it speaks to the true novelty of text messaging that, young as I am, I can remember the days when none of my friends texted at all (even though I did), as well as the frustration of trying to find a nice cell phone with a QWERTY keyboard. (Today, with Blackberries and iPhones, that problem is obsolete.) In those bygone days, I would rely on the relay system to contact people – one or two of my longtime friends still remember how horrible that was! Then there’s also closed captioning, which allows me to access television and movies unlike deaf people of generations past – even though it still has a ways to go. The gradual introduction of captions to YouTube videos is encouraging, but now if only live streaming video, newscasts, and movie theaters would get their act together! (Not to mention live events and performances.) More on that another time, maybe…

The crux is this: as long as the accessibility is there, people will engage and communicate. Now I’m hoping I can learn to engage in an entirely different way!

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Brain That Changes Itself

I know I’ve written about neuroplasticity on this blog before, but it continues to be a subject that fascinates me – partly because of my interest in biology and psychology, partly because I’m experiencing its repercussions every day. In that vein, I recently finished a book on the subject that I really, really recommend: The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge.

This book is more than nerd reading. Sure, it delves into the complexity of brain systems and neural anatomy, which was enough to make the biology student in me leap in glee. But it does something more: it lends scientific credibility to the idea that our thoughts do make a difference, that we can change ourselves in unprecedented and positive ways, if we put in enough effort. To an extent, we have a stronger hand in shaping our own minds and our own fates than we sometimes think. This happens not only on an abstract level, but also in terms of concrete physiological change. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I admit I found Doidge’s assessments and anecdotes genuinely inspirational.

The book is a nice blend of scientific insight and personal stories, some of them verging on the bizarre. We meet a woman who functions astonishingly well with only half of her brain, stroke patients and children with cerebral palsy who have been able to overcome many of their obstacles, plus people who have been able to correct learning disabilities and self-destructive behaviors through concentrated therapy and practice. Although cochlear implants are only mentioned briefly, this book’s exploration of neuroplasticity is closely related to what I am going through. And, dare I say, learning to hear is nothing compared to what some of these people have experienced!

To reiterate, learning to hear (or to do anything else) is not about the ear, it’s about the brain. That my brain can radically change its architecture so late in my life, that it can accept new input and form increasingly complex neural connections, in order to gain and fine-tune a sense that I’ve never had before: amazing. (The book talked about colorblind people who can learn to “see” color through hearing specific tones, about visual cortex prostheses to assist with blindness, about a device that uses the tongue to restore the vestibular system, about triggering specific sensations through electromagnetic stimulation. Mind-boggling. I love biomedical engineering.)

In a nutshell – I am not static, I am dynamic and receptive to change. That’s an empowering thought. When I first started reading this book, it was during the difficult early days with the CI, a time when everything seemed to have been turned on its head. Look, the pages said to me, just because change starts slowly does not mean things won’t get better. It’s like picking a trail up a hill, step by step. Each step seems to accomplish little more than the one before it. But within a surprisingly short amount of time, you raise your eyes from your feet and find yourself atop a bluff, marveling at how far you’ve climbed. On to the next peak!

Some days, I needed that encouragement badly. I think everyone does. Isn't change motivational?

Monday, August 2, 2010


Last Thursday marked my one-month checkup and remapping with the audiologist at Stanford. I’m getting used to the tune-up process: sit down, discuss my progress over the past few weeks, plug into a computer program, adjust the sound levels to a new place where they’re louder, but more even and comfortable. I’m still with the Fidelity Hi-Res program like before, but have been told that I’m currently ramped up to three times the volume that I had at my very first mapping (which I’ve come to think of as electric shock day). That’s rapid progress, and the audiologist was very pleased, but I got the sense that I’ll soon approach a plateau in which more increase in volume input won’t be necessary. In other words, the first major hurdle is nearly past, and now my major challenge is learning how to use what I’ve got.

Which I still feel like I don’t do very well. My appointment involved an audiogram test in a listening chamber, an exercise which I’ve always disliked but tolerated out of necessity. (No one likes to be reminded too often of what they can’t do.) Beep. Raise my hand. Beep. Raise my hand. B – wait, was that really a beep? Or am I going crazy? Heck, raise my hand anyway. Same old drill. Although the CI has allowed me to take a huge jump up in what I can hear, pure tone-wise, I was discouraged by the fact that I still can’t make much sense of those sounds without visual input. They’re loud and dynamic and grating, but holding on to them is like trying to fold origami from water. On sentence and word comprehension tasks, I scored nearly 100 percent with lipreading – no big surprise. But when I judged by sound alone, the meaning was not quite there. Even less so than usual. Perhaps the audiologist’s voice was unfamiliar and jarring, perhaps my mind was under pressure; I won’t make excuses. I haven’t had the time to form the neural connections to make sense of what I’m hearing. I can accept that, and commit to more practice, yet I left the audiologist’s office with a tang of disappointment. Ah, the curse of being a perfectionist!

My day also involved a visit with an aural therapist in San Jose, who explained how my rehab might progress and the tasks I might tackle moving forward. In short, it’s now time for me to move from single-word listening exercises to entire integrated sentences and phrases. I felt pleased to be given a new direction; I function well with a definite task, goal, and purpose. My family has also been advised to sign less with me, or not to sign unless it’s clear I don’t understand, which will be a huge step away from the norm. Our house has been a sign-filled refuge for so long (even if I personally prefer to speak), and changing that alters the entire family dynamic. Watching my parents practically sit on their hands, in order to stop themselves from signing, amuses me so much that I sometimes do miss what they’re saying! But then again, I already know – too well – that the daunting norm in the hearing world is absence of sign. I’d best adapt to that with the CI, hard and unnatural as it might feel.

But, structured progress aside, practical experience is still the most useful (and enjoyable!) way of learning to hear. On the way back from California, I got more of that experience under my belt. Instead of driving the direct route back, south to I-40, we detoured and stopped in two places. The first, Yosemite Valley, is a destination I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. The scenery, needless to say, was stunning. I found it a real treat to combine the spectacular sights with the drama of the sounds unrolling around me. Jays calling in the trees, nature sounds playing in the visitors’ center, the river lapping by, the wind threading through the trees. My world felt three-dimensional and alive. I was tingling. The sound of the waterfalls, swooshing and rushing against the towering rock, especially took my breath away.

Our second destination also took my breath away, but for a very different reason. Las Vegas is a cacophony of voices, music, trinkets, tones and ring-a-dings, attractions, and flashing lights, all racing toward the cliff’s edge of overstimulation. Admittedly I’ve always become overwhelmed by visual excess, but that was without sound thrown in! I witnessed (and heard) it all with curious objectivity, and for five or six hours it was amusing. Amusing, but enough. Soon I wanted my own mind back. After watching a rousing musical show on Fremont Street, in which graphics, musical notes, and video clips flashed by on a gigantic ceiling, I staggered into the hotel and up to bed. I’ve never fallen asleep so fast.

Not to mention the endless audiobook-reading and music-listening that went on in the car!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

One Month!

Just a quick post to celebrate a milestone: four weeks ago today, I started on this crazy hearing adventure of mine. Already a whole month! Where does the time go?

These weeks have been simultaneously thrilling and hard-won, eye-opening and frustrating. They've taken me through a roller coaster of emotions, discoveries, and novel experiences. But, now that the worst days are past, I feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, stepping breathlessly into a world of Technicolor. The more time I spend with the CI, the more I find it dynamic and thrilling. And the world of hearing is so new and wonderful that, without it, I indeed feel like I've stepped back into dark sepia tones. (Don't get me wrong, the silence is still reassuring; it's the hearing aid that suddenly feels disappointing, like a glass of flat soda.) I much prefer Oz to dust-bowl Kansas!

These splashes of color have already changed my life in startling, concrete ways. I've discovered the joys of driving with music blasting in the car. I'm constantly plugged into some audio device, be it an iPod or a book on tape. Subtle sounds that I never heard before, I'm now taking for granted. With surprise, I discover that listening to people's voices is really improving my lipreading. I smile more often, fascinated by the smallest of things. I seem to be becoming a freer, happier, more confident person. Already I'm wondering how introverted I really am, and how much of my personality has been shaped by circumstance. Yes, I am still the same person I was several weeks ago, yet at times I find myself almost unrecognizable.

And this is still only the beginning. I'm willing to let this ride take me where it will - bring on tomorrow!

Saturday, July 24, 2010


How odd, having a magnet stuck to my head. The researchers who developed CIs were certainly ingenious about the whole concept of electrical-signals-transmitting-sound, but I wonder if they realized how much of a pain the external processor can be.

Now, hearing aids are relatively easy: stuff the earmolds in, turn the thing on, go on your merry way. In a sense, the CI is even easier – it eliminates the hassle of getting earmolds fitted, for instance – but it's introduced a whole new set of logistical complications I’m still adjusting to. First of all, every time the external magnet sticks to its twin on my head, it completes the circuit, rocketing me from silence into full-blown sound. Sounds simple enough, but the ensuing ROAR makes for many noisy surprises. If only I could ease the magnet into place, rearrange my hair, get comfortable, and then turn it on. This, unfortunately, isn’t possible. As soon as the magnets touch, the power of Magneto takes over, and all constraints are off – brace yourself! I cope by turning the volume way down before unleashing Magneto, but sometimes this backfires and I find myself gasping like I’ve been plunged into a tub of icy water.

Once the CI has been on for a few minutes, though, I settle naturally into the thrum of the sound. It’s as if my nerves need time to get humming, to remember what all this means. That is, until the magnet falls off. Wait, why did everything go quiet all of a sudden? I’ll wonder, only to feel an unmistakable cord and object dangling against my neck. Dang. It doesn’t take much sometimes. Pulling a shirt on, straightening a stray wisp of hair, flicking my fingers so they catch on the cord anchoring the magnet to the processor. When Magneto comes unanchored, I stick it right back on, only to feel myself jolt back into the world of sound. ROAR. Sometimes I switch earhooks (from the one I use for audiobooks and music to the standard T-Mic), only to find that the volume is so loud it's making my face contort in shock. No harm done, once I shift down to quieter places, but not pleasant either.

Magneto may be all-powerful, but hold on when I'm exercising? Never! Stretching, running, biking, working outside – all of these have introduced problems, and I've concluded that CIs just weren’t designed for athletes. Headbands help keep the thing on, even if the result looks strange, a bulge on the side of my head like I'm sprouting an abnormally large goose egg. Hats and helmets don't fit too well anymore, what with that magnetic bump, but I've found ways to cope. We tailored my riding helmet to have a groove on one side, where the magnet nestles inside (although it still tends to shift around, screeching and then going suddenly quiet, when I'm on my horse). I'll have to keep working on that.

Not only Magneto insists on parting ways when times get tough - my BTE processor does, too. It's at least twice as big and heavy as my hearing aid, something which made my ear cartilage sore at first. And, since there's no earmold holding it in place, when it decides to tumble to the ground, there's no stopping it. Tilting my head to rest on my hand, bending down to pick up something, the aforementioned forms of exercise - all of these are enough to make the BTE jump ship. (Interestingly, sometimes it's only Magneto, along with headband, that keeps the whole thing from crashing on the floor.) I'm determined not to become sedentary because of these new challenges, though!

So what do I think of myself as Magneto? I admit, getting used to this new self-image has been an adjustment. I glance in the mirror and see someone who looks like she’s been plugged into a computer, silver and glinting. Literally bionic. I didn’t like the look at first – it’s more obtrusive and space-age than hearing aids – but if I can hear and function well, who really cares? Amusingly, I’ve already been asked by strangers and passersby, “Is that a cochlear implant?” They ask it with an air of fascination. No one was ever this curious about hearing aids, I suppose because they're associated with the elderly and senile. The CI, on the other hand, is cutting-edge. The conversations that arise are interesting, and I realize that I'm settling into the role of CI poster child. Who'd ever have thunk?