Tuesday, April 23, 2013

O Alaska!

Things are starting to accelerate. I went to see my auditory therapist this morning and, after working on a few fine-tuned open-set short-phrase exercises that targeted specific sounds that have been more difficult for me to recognize, we moved to what has honestly become my favorite listening exercise: open-set paragraph information. If you'd told me not too long ago that I'd be able to listen to streams of speech, understand them, glean new information, and actually savor the stimulating challenge of such moments, I would have told you, Are you crazy? The crowning moment this morning: my auditory therapist read me a few short informational paragraphs about a random subject. In this case, the subject was Alaska, but that's all I knew about what she would say to me. She stepped behind me, where I couldn't see her at all, and began to speak.

I now know that the U.S. purchased the Alaskan territory from Russia in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars. I know that Alaska is twice the size of Texas. I know that Alaska is home to a multitude of natural resources, particularly ore mines, and that it was a destination for the gold rush after California in the late nineteenth century (although many people who went there went broke, even if some found gold). I know about the colorful flowers that appear in Alaska in the summer. And so on... I couldn't have told you any of those things before this morning. They were not familiar tidbits for me to recognize.

I learned all of these things by listening alone, without any context or any other information.

AND I got them all on the very first try.

Sitting there and listening to these foreign pieces of knowledge enter my mind, and somehow penetrate and linger there, gave me a feeling of total wonder. This is what language does. This is what language is. Being able to listen to it, learn from it, and use it, all in real time: wow is all I can say.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hitting the Radio Waves

I still find this deliciously ironic: earlier this winter, I made a radio appearance. And talking about my experience listening with a cochlear implant, no less. The show aired several weeks ago via Stanford's KZSU station, but it's now available online:


Aside from my main segment, scroll down to the bottom to catch the "bonus" piece - something I helped make with a good friend, and former roommate, of mine when she made an audio essay for a class last year. It's my favorite of those two if I do say so myself, particularly because of how special it was to work on the piece with her.

Listening to the show air was a remarkable experience (aside from the fact that I was on the radio to begin with!). A friend of mine works as a producer for the Stanford Storytelling Project, which airs these "State of the Human" radio shows each week, and on the night this particular show went live she invited me to the campus DJ station to sit amidst all the machinery and big speakers and listen to it on the air. Of course, she also graciously offered me a transcript, both for my piece and everyone else's. Following along wasn't hard at all with those printed words to read from, and I found myself getting into the music, sound effects, and vocal inflections. A very different style of storytelling than I'm used to, but still very engaging. I got to put on headphones, which I've never worn for longer than a few seconds because they used to feel uncomfortable and used to make my hearing aids squeal. I was surprised to find that they worked very well, sometimes too well, with my CI's T-mic microphone. The sound was direct, crisp, and booming, something I could get used to. (Worked less well on the hearing aid side, because the aid kept squealing per usual. So nothing has changed.)

Overall, the night not only introduced me to something new and challenged my sense of the possible - it was fun! And I've always perceived radio as this very foreign, very alien thing... Never mind that I turn on radio music all the time in the car now. I even have my favorite stations to listen to. :)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

100th Post!

When I started writing this blog almost three years ago, in late May 2010, I could never have imagined the experiences and milestones I've since achieved. And, in celebration of that sentiment, and also in celebration of 100 posts, here's a story from this past weekend that epitomizes what those three years with the CI has been able to do (and that also epitomizes the budding sense of potential I feel perhaps more strongly now than I ever have before):

I went home for Easter during the latter half of spring break and, being a low-key person by nature, was fortunate enough to get to spend much of that time chatting with my parents and some good friends. I'd gone home feeling excited about some of the progress I've made recently in auditory therapy, and warned my mother in advance that I'd "make her be mean to me" while at home by talking to me while not letting me look at her. A few times over the weekend, we did it. Sitting side by side in the quiet living room at home, I'd stare at the ceiling or across the room while we entered into a conversation. Each time she fell silent for a few moments then began speaking again, I instinctively turned my glance in the direction of her voice, as always wanting to see, to lipread. Then, as always, I forced myself away from her face and clung to the wavering thread of that voice.

It was more robust than ever, at least because I felt more able to grasp it than ever. During one conversation in particular, I found myself thinking of the days, during the summer of 2010, when we'd sit down and do endless renditions of "I like watermelon" or "I like apples," semi-closed-set exercises that despite their predictability sent me into spirals of frustration. Words sounded unfamiliar, elusive, and my brain ground its wheels and sent sparks flying just to understand the simplest things. One syllable, two syllables, foreign shapeless noises blaring at me, raising tides of pent-up energy as I reached for them but knew not how to hold them in my hand. This time, in the quiet with that oh-so-familiar voice, we actually achieved some semblance of conversational flow.

My mother would make an observational remark, and I'd get it quickly enough to say, "Oh really? How did that go?"

I asked her to repeat words here and there, but always within the context of what I'd heard: "The dog is doing what?" or "She said she'd see you when?" Listening wasn't perfect, but nor was it completely incoherent: in the dense jungle of sound, my mind always had a few strong vines to grasp, and my brain was always able to trace a terrain map of what it had heard.

Toward the end of the conversation, I realized that this kind of fill-in-the-gap is something I do all the time while lipreading. Even in this quiet conversation with a familiar voice, I was able to approach the comprehension threshold that I already achieve with sight. That sound, that listening would ever carry me there! Stunning.

In the past, we've stuck mainly with familiar subject matter even in our open-set conversations, and even that has felt stilted and difficult. This time, we were able to expound upon subjects that I knew very little about. She told me about people she'd recently met, stories they'd told her - completely open-set, unknown material to my ears. Finally, here I understood: acquiring new information through hearing, through language. Is this how it feels?

There was no more - or very little - stumbling back-and-forth through short, disconnected statements uttered only for the purpose of exercise. No more listen and repeat. "Today is Saturday." "Tomorrow is Easter." "I am tired." "You are on vacation today." None of that. I listened to fuller, more complex and coherent sentences and - I can't describe how wonderful this felt - kept up with 80-90% of what my mother was saying. It was like being liberated from elementary beginning-to-read books into the world of prose and literature. That's the only way I can think of to describe it.

Finally, the most exulting, the most elusive feeling of all: the feeling of being able to move beyond meaning to engaging with actual content. The words came more easily to me when I heard them, and I lingered less on their meaning, spent less time slamming my head against the shadowy surface of each word before its sound waves vanished forever. I heard; I understood; I formulated a response. My brain felt increasingly able to process meaning in real time. Returning to the jungle analogy, it was like swinging through the forest canopy on vines, reaching the end of each arc and actually finding another handhold there instead of swinging backward to where I started - or, worse yet, missing and falling to the underbrush below.

Conversational flow: understanding what someone else is saying, easily and effortlessly enough to respond and feel comfortable with the give and take of words. It may not have been perfect this past weekend, but it was far better than I have ever experienced. That sensation of electric auditory back-and-forth felt like a gift. A gift of that mysterious black box inside my skull, calculating sound frequencies and piecing them together and presenting them back to me in a wrapped package. I still don't entirely understand how it happens, still can't entirely believe that it could happen to someone like me.

Three years ago, I would have found this kind of experience incomprehensible. Here's to my nearly three-year-old baby ear (and more posts, like a proud parent, to chronicle its progress)!