Monday, August 13, 2012
Novus Modus Operandi
There is so much that continues to be unfamiliar to me. My brain continues in its attempts to be plastic – and sometimes it quite astonishingly is, while at other times it runs up against its longtime limitations. This summer, I've continued to notice how my preferences and modus operandi translate into my default interpretations of the world. As I've written about before, given a choice between seeing and listening, my brain's gears seem to be stuck in sighted mode. They grind as I try to prompt them toward sound. Sometimes I find this very frustrating: history stands in my way, through auditory memory but also through the habits formed from experience.
Still, I've noticed that the "half-and-half" approach that manifests itself in my daily conversations is continuing to improve. (It's probably not actually half-and-half. Maybe seventy-thirty, but with decreasing margins between sight and sound.) During meetings at my internship this summer, my coworkers know to face me when they're talking, but occasionally they forget. They'll look down at a computer screen, or away at a whiteboard, or start talking before I can properly see them. At first a part of me grows tense and prepares to ask for repetition. But that's before I realize I've actually heard and understood the words they said in that visionless gap. My brain has switched between modalities, sight and sound, and somehow the information ties together seamlessly. Not always, and not with people who I still find tricky to understand, but often. How dynamic is that?
Another trend from this summer: as I live at home for probably the last time before grad school and real life, my parents have been becoming sneakier about that sight-sound equilibrium. My mother often doesn't make sure I'm looking at her before asking a question anymore. She'll sometimes launch right into speaking, on purpose, often when she knows I can't see her. Sometimes she'll refuse to let me look at her after she begins speaking. After the first twenty years of my life, this is different from the norm. I still remember days when excessive hand-waving and shoulder-tapping was common in our household, and still remember going to deaf camp and other deaf gatherings where session leaders would flash the lights in a room, stamp their feet on the floor, or drum a fist on a table (in addition to waving) when they wanted to get everyone's attention. That's just the way things function in the deaf world. For a long time my natural strategy was to wait for some visual input implying that I should pay attention, then zone on to the new speaker or object with my eyes and all of my energy. My peripheral vision was usually on alert, and still is, but sound played a secondary role. If anything, it could only alert me to some unseen change in the environment that I should look at. It rarely told me what that change in the environment was. I couldn't pay attention to something, or gain any knowledge of transmitted information, without seeing it.
Now, those rules are changing, and my internal rules need to change also. The only thing is, the time it takes for me to shut down the visual sense and start paying attention to sound is about equivalent to the time it takes me to swing my head around and look at it. I hear; I look. I don't hear and listen. Listening needs to become a more primary way of taking in information, but as of now it is still not. My knee-jerk response overrides auditory processing, and by the time I hear someone speaking and then remember to listen the sound is gone. I can't access that sound through memory; I fumbled my real-time chance.
However, if I'm prepared, if I switch off the sight instinct and focus on auditory processing, I can do it. We got back to the car after dinner one night a few weeks ago. My father had forgotten his glasses in the restaurant, so as he ran back inside my mother and I sat in the darkness. One rule of my existence up to this point has been that I don't talk in the dark. I haven't been able to, and I don't think to try. Sitting there, me in the back seat and she in the front passenger seat, my mother started talking. "Turn on the light," I said automatically.
"No," she said. "Listen." I understood that part, and sat silently. No cheating now, in the darkness. My mother kept her phrases and questions short, ten words or less. They addressed parts of our day or our lives at that point in time. But they were otherwise open-set, and I kept on getting them. Actually, I got them with astonishing ease. My focus turned to my ears, we sat there in the dark silence, I listened to her familiar voice: everything seemed to glow with the force of its own unexpectedness.
A few other times, I've sat down at home and intentionally said, "I'm going to have a conversation without looking at you." I need to do it intentionally, to override those old habits. Otherwise I'll never listen instead of seeing. We haven't gone as far as sitting in the dark, but we might as well have. Again, in silence with that familiar voice, knowing that I can ask for repetition if needed: the surprise of being able to do it sneaks up on me every time. I would never have thought, three years ago before I considered getting a cochlear implant, that someday I would be able to talk to my mother just by listening to her. It's far from effortless, but at the same time it's surprisingly easy, given my expectations. I even need to say it out loud to make it feel real: "We're having a conversation. Not just listening drills, but a conversation. And I'm not looking at you."
Now maybe I need to sit down in the dark and the quiet with a few other friends. There I can run my ear over their voices, see what those voices feel like, and start to listen when I can instead of watching.