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.


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!