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?