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!