Friday, September 30, 2005

Auditory Dilemma

So, I went back to Neverland (aka the NYU Cochlear Implant Center) yesterday to have Michael Jackson remap my implant. Thing was set too dang loud. Everybody sounded like they were shouting and keyboard strokes sounded like gunshots. When a bus drove past my brain exploded in six million pieces. My ear was ringing like a broken fire alarm. Unsurprisingly, I had a headache. This regrettable situation stemmed from a simple yet intractable phrase.

“Tell me when the sound is loud but comfortable” Mr. Jackson had said during the mapping on Tuesday.

I tried to oblige him, failing to say what came to mind: how can a sound be loud but comfortable? If it’s loud, it’s not comfortable. If it’s comfortable, it’s not loud. You can’t have both, so, unsure of what to do, I went for loud.

Yesterday, at the remapping, I opted to voice my concerns.

“Tell me when the sound is loud but comfortable,” said Mr. Jackson again.

“Mike, Look,” I explained. “Loud and comfortable are diametrically opposing forces, repelling each other like differently charged subatomic particles, and like said particles, cannot occupy the same spatial location. Even from the standpoint of intelligent design, if that’s your prerogative because I don’t want to offend, light and darkness, sound and no sound, loud and comfortable, were set in opposition 456,003 Mondays ago and cannot occupy the same Godspace without catapulting the universe into disarray. Ergo, cogito et sum. If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit. You feelin me?”

Michael nodded. “I have an idea.”

Then he did something. Which he explained like this (and forgive me if I confuse you, because I myself am confused): there are two ways to increase the size of the electric pulses that the implant sends to the auditory nerve. The more straightforward way is to increase the height of the pulses – the higher the louder. But the other way, the midnight genius fourth-dimensional way, is to increase the width of the pulses. More sound, but not more loudness. All this is besides that megahertz business I've been going on about.

“So you’re increasing the width of sound?” I was flabbergasted.
“Sort of,” Mike answered. “Hello, hello, hello, hello…How’s that?”
“Huh. It’s loud,” I said. “But comfortable.”
He slammed his fist on the desk. “Do not mock my powers!” he yelled.

Actually, he didn’t say that. And actually it’s still tilted towards the loudish axis, as the concept of loud but comfortable still confuses me. And actually (a triple actually!) my head cold yesterday was in the midst of developing into a full body smackdown which today has me pining for that one great thing that salves all wounds: ma’s chicken soup. But it’s better. It’s trial and error. Lesson of the day: don’t browbeat your auditory nerve.

So it’s not all single malt and puppy dogs. Greenland is melting. It’s cool that I can hear everyone in the library computer room typing, but I can see it getting real annoying…right about now. I’m about ready to crawl to bed until Sunday. And I have to wait four weeks for the next mapping session to get dialed back (I’m definitely going for comfortable then). I emailed Sam and the two of us commiserated.

Sammy’s also going through a tough spot, stuck between a hard rock and a space. It’s difficult to get acclimated to the implant if you’re wearing a hearing aid in the other ear, but Sam can’t keep up his business responsibilities without his hearing aid. He’s been having some difficulty with ringing in the ear as well, and, with mixed success, has been working with his audiologist to figure out which electrode is the culprit. In addition, last weekend, the quarterback of our favorite football team faded back to pass and then threw his right arm into the stands. There go our hopes for the Superbowl.

On the other hand, Sam's girlfriend’s extremely cool – loud, but comfortable. It tends to even out like that. I’ll see how it is when I wake up.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Wisdom of Michael Jackson

The headaches have come back a bit. Hopefully they’ll fade, but they are doing a number this week. I’m going to blame my cold, fatigue, and George Bush and see what a few ambien can do. I’m also taking the I’m not going to think about it approach which works great for when get my student loan statements. The headcold was brought on by trying to attend classes, keep up my duties at my social work agency, rehabilitate my knee and religiously follow the Yankees all while learning a new way to hear. The cheap beer I drank in the rain at an outdoor bar in Brooklyn on Friday night may not have helped.

I was amazed at how well I could hear at the bar. The rain made my hair slick so the magnet kept slipping off whenever I turned my head, and I got caught faking like I heard more than once (old habits die hard) yet noisy as the bar was, with lipreading and the implant, I could follow a lot of what was being said.

Then last night I went to a fundraiser for the League for the Hard of Hearing. The food was spectacular. There were some famous people there, but only moderately famous, the kind of people you know you’ve seen them somewhere but you’re not sure if it was on the television or in the elevator. I also met a recent graduate of law school who was implanted in August and turned on September 2nd, a day after I was. She’s doing great with it, though we both had a similar auditory impression of the fundraiser: this is a lot of noise. We went to the same college, ten years apart, so we talked about that.

“Did you have captioning for your classes?” she asked. “Did you have interpreters? Notetakers?”
“No, they didn’t offer those things back then. Or I didn’t know about them.”
”So what’d you do?”
“Slept in.”
‘But what about class? Didn’t you have class?”
“I’d like to think so.”
She rolled her eyes. “I have to find my parents,” she said.

At lunch today, I went in for a mapping session. Michael the mapper boosted my sound levels again, playing around with each electrode to see what sounded comfortable and clear. He set the program at 900 mhz.

”More megahertz, more,” I protested. “More megahertz is more clarity, Mike. I read the books.”
“More isn’t always better with implants,” he said.
“Try it.”
He shrugged and set the implant for 1800. “I’ll play both programs. Tell me which sounds clearer.” He played the two programs. The first one sounded echoey and gooey, the second was clear as a bell.
“The second one definitely," I said. "I told you more is better. The first one is all echoey and indistinct.”
Mike smirked. “The second one’s 900, I switched them.”

More isn’t always better I guess. I had been thinking for three weeks about what things would sound like at a higher megahertz setting (to recap, the number of mh is the number of times per second the implant conveys information to the auditory nerve). Now it turns out a lower setting is clearer. So much for expectations.

With the new program I could carry out a conversation with Michael while he hid his mouth so I couldn’t read his lips.

“What would you like to talk about?” he asked.
“I have a question for you.”
“What is it?”
“What’s it like being named Michael Jackson?” I asked.
“It’s ok. It’s fine.”
“It’s fine?”
He spoke quickly. “Look, of course you have your people who ask if my sister’s named Janet, or how’s my brother Tito and then there are people who think its sooo original to ask if I can moonwalk and if I like working with kids, and the ones who say ‘wow your last surgery looks much better, very natural,” and then there are the really really clever ones who say, ‘I knew you were innocent, I’m so glad you got off.’ But no, doesn’t bother me.”

It was quiet for a minute.

“K,” I nodded, not sure what to say. “Nine hundred seems pretty good.”

We finetuned the implant some more. Sound was causing a stinging sensation so we went back and tested each of the 22 electrodes individually and found that five of them (numbers 13-17 to be exact) stung when stimulated. Turns out that the electricity at those electrodes was stimulating a nearby pain nerve. We slowly turned the electricity down until that sensation stopped.

“That’s freaky,” I said.
“What’s freaky?”
“We’re pumping so much juice in there that were popping random nerves.”
Michael shrugged. “That’s nothing, some people's faces start to twitch. The electricity comes in contact with their facial nerve.” He demonstrated the twitch.
“You might be enjoying this too much,” I said.
“It’s my job,” he smiled. “I like my job.”

Walking down Second Avenue to the subway afterwards, I found that I was again in a new sound world. Things sounded so much more like themselves – cars, voices, construction workers yelling at each other. It made me tearful -- I hadn’t realized how much I missed them until I heard them.

But also, I really, really needed a nap. More later.

A Quck Philosphical Digression

Something to consider: if sound is, as the implant experience shows, your brain’s ability to read sounds, and sight is, as Oliver Sacks writes, your brain’s ability to read the information of the optic nerve, and if, I would imagine, a similar definition follows for smell, taste, and touch -- for all sense perception -- well then, where does the world end and where to we begin? We assume that we are separate from what we experience, that noises and sunsets and breezes are OUT THERE, while we are inside somewhere, with all these crucial thoughts to figure out and jobs to get through and cringe-inducing credit card bills. We assume that we are individuals living out our individual lives, and the world is something we have to figure out and conquer – well maybe that’s true, but how can it be the whole truth? An implant says that sound exists to the degree we can hear it -- that any noise in the world is not separate from our own minds. It’s all one thing.

One thing. Hmm?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

In Sam's Words...

"What does it sound like?  It sounds like a broken Atari game.  Maybe Pong. And the voices...think of Darth Vader's wife: high and synthesized.  But these questions about what it sounds like miss the main point. The real question is what does it feel like to have an implant.  Here the benefits are real and immediate: it feels real good.  The mere act of taking these hearing struggles head on and forging my own fate with technology as my wingman is incredibly liberating.  Like breast-beating. Like telling it to the mountain.

"Almost as strong is the experience of sound when both my coch and my hearing aids are on.  Through the right ear, the hearing aid brings warmth, weight, organic produce, tomatoes, barley grass and peet moss. A full, lush, three-demensional oil-painting kind of sound.  Through the left ear, the coch provides steel and structure.  It's airy and cool, a skeletal metal sculpture, solid and sharp. The two sound worlds come to meet in the center of my head, and if i move too quickly, they messily and nauseatingly collide.   But when I sit still, there's balance.  And there, it's just starting to get interesting."

Bootifu Dawtas

Yesterday Sam had his second mapping, which he said boosted the volume of his implant to something he could work with. The previous week, his first since being turned on, all he could really hear was machines and the mouse clicking (but that does make a nice clean click).

"How do voices sound now?" I asked him
"Rounder," he said.
"Instead of a collection of beeps, they're a steady composition of notes."
"Oh. Okay. Makes sense."

Actually, that makes no sense at all. Actually (double actually?) it does. Because one parallel to the experience of sounds coming into focus, evolving into words, is of listening to random white noise and then slowly realizing it's music. One day a sentence might be "There nnonc waah keey wwo eeee daughters." The next day its "There once waah king wao three daughters."

That's from a fairy tale my speech teacher recorded for me. I listen to it on tape every afternoon to improve my hearing. Carl is a good sport about this -- he points out to me the speech teacher's New York accent.

"Tha king ha' three dawtas," he says.
"He does," I agree.
"They ah bootifu dawtas."

The coolest new sound of the day: I was standing on 8th Avenue waiting for a light when, in a lull in the traffic, I heard an ominous distant rumbling, the kind of sound that in movies announces that an enemy army is lurking or a killer T-rex is on the hunt. I looked around trying to figure out what could make that noise. There were no big trucks passing and besides the sound was much too deep for a truck. Then I realized it was coming from underground. It was the 1/9 subway chugging uptown.

Other cool new sounds of note: turn signals, the goofy music leaking from the walkman of a guy on the bookstore escalator, the crisp kalunk of a pencil being put down on a desk, and random perfectly clear words from conversations of passing strangers (My favorite so far -- a girl on line in Whole Foods with her hands on her hips saying "Excuse me, mother" into her phone in the unmistakable tone of, mother, you are not excused.)

Not cool sounds: fans, my god. Plastic bags (I had no idea they made so much noise). The racket I make when I do the dishes. The man down the hall at work putting packing tape on four hundred boxes.

Hearing really does bring you into the world, and the world, I'm finding, is very welcoming when you come over to it. At Union Square this afternoon, a massively muscled black man built like a newspaper stand and squeezed into a tiny pair of bicycle shorts was, for a small fee, doing pushups in sets of ten with people standing on his back. When he didn't have any takers he danced to the music from his stereo. I watched him for a few minutes – he really looked like someone who could crush things just by touching them -- than he came over and asked for a cigarette.

"I don't smoke," I said.
"No problem," said the man. "Want to get on top of me?"
"Uh, no thank you," I said, quite thankful I could hear him.
He nodded. "You have nice hands."

Time to go and catch my train, obviously. But still when you've spent the last three years hearing less and less while fighting a constant headache, even that conversation is alright. I feel blessed.

Finally, and most importantly: a heartfelt congrats to Sarah and Andrew on the birth of Anna Rose. Sister of Esther, grandchild of Raphy and Richard, niece of Becky and Ben – she's a bootifu dawta, I'm sure.

Sunday, September 18, 2005


Sunday morning and the experience continues. Had my first session of speech therapy on Friday – I'm about where I was with my hearing aids as far as sentence recognition. There's plenty of room for improvement. Right now deep vowels give the most trouble, especially when paired with soft consonants. So, for example, "word" might as well be "herb" or "blerb" but I can tell chicken "shit" from chicken "salad."

Read this weekend an essay by Oliver Sacks on a blind man given the gift of sight after fifty years of cataracts. Sacks makes the point over and over that sight is not what you see. Sight is the brain's ability to make sense of what the retinal nerves are seeing. This point transfers directly over to hearing. Deaf children who are implanted in their first few years have, with training, the ability to hear within normal range. Their brains can learn how to get as much information from the mutterings of 20 or so electrodes as normal hearing people get from 30,000 hair cells. Pretty incredible. On the other hand, deaf children who grow up dependent on sign gain visual acuity far beyond the norm as larger parts of their brains are requisitioned by sight. That's cool too.

The third group, deaf children who grow up in between the two worlds (aka the sortas), tend to be extremely handsome though prone to messiness. Science can't yet explain this.

Anyway, there've been some questions in the comments section and in email so I thought I'd run through them quickly:

Can I hear on the telephony?

Nope. That's still probably a ways off. (A ways is longer then a bit, less then far.)

Does hearing all these new loud noises lead to fatigue?

Yes, but nothing like the fatigue of straining to understand people without hearing aids, so its cool.

Would you ever use this blog to announce that you are single, healthy and have all your hair?


How strong is the implant magnet?

Pretty weak. I tried to stick a variety of refrigerator magnets to my head this morning without any success. The danger with having a strong magnet is that it might pull the implant (the transmitter part not the electrode coil) right out of my skull. Seems like that could be painful, but might be a cool bar trick.

Are you going to get a second implant?

I get this question a lot – I guess it must seem unbalanced to have one ear turned on, the other ear deep asleep. Bilateral implants are getting more and more popular these days, but they are not a huge improvement on having just one implant. You don't hear twice as much with a second implant. To put a number on it, you hear maybe twenty percent more and can locate sounds better. At this point, one implant gives me plenty and I have no desire for a second one. In ten years though, I'm sure science will have come out with a combined implant/GPS system/x-ray vision/garage door opener or maybe even the ability to regrow inner ear hair cells so maybe then…

But ten years…I mean, who knows what direction freedom will have marched by then?

How, if you've never heard a scratchy voice before could you tell that Rebecca has a scratchy voice?

At first, she sounded like she had a bad sore throat. It took a while to figure out what I was hearing when she spoke. When I made the connection, it was obvious. A lot of new sounds over the last week have been like that. I'll hear a noise and then spend five minutes walking around the room trying to figure out what it is. Generally, it's a computer, an a/c or a ceiling fan -- I had no idea these things make so much noise. In its own small way, this is very similar to how infants learn to hear the world.

So how is Sam doing?

Good question. Unfortunately, he's been locked in the bathroom since Thursday so we'll never know.

Thanks again for all your support and interest.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Checks In

So I get an email from Ari, he’s in town for the weekend for a conference being thrown by an ex-president, the one with a brain. I’m not sure I understand the goals of the conference, world peace is involved and environmental issues, but a good deal of it seems to be about crossing your fingers that the planet will still exist when Bush gets off the stick.

Ari and I meet and take a seat at the Sheraton Bar and the Emir of Qatar walks by dressed in a giant tissue. We talk (I can't divulge the things we discussed, but suffice it to say when he rules the world we will be much better off) then Ari gets a call on his cell.

“I have to get this,” he says, “It’s the mayor of L.A.”
“I understand,” I say.

He leaves the bar to take the call in the lobby. A woman walks past wearing enough jewelry for a record label. Ari comes back.

“I want you to meet someone,” he says.

We go out into the hallway, towards the front entrance. Jesse Jackson is standing there, quite a bit taller than I expected -- he must have been able to dunk back in the day. We wait for him to finish an interview with a young reporter writing notes on a pad.

“This is my brother Josh,” Ari says to him.
The Reverend turns to me. He’s big, but he has small lips and tiny teeth – hard to read. He has the eyes of a man who has seen a lot of things.
"Arrrgh ffflllwh gggrump gadommp vurrm," he says.
"Uh, thank you," I say.
"Gaadoom, grump, gggeeeblueh, rrrgh," he adds, pointing at Ari.
"Yes, I’m proud of him."
"Aggahdah daggah duhhm," he nods. It's quiet for a beat.
"Hey, great job in New Orleans," I say.
"Gggah duggah duggah duh!!"

He shakes our hands and leaves through the front door with his assistant. Ari and I walk back to the bar.

"What he say?" I ask Ari.
"You didn’t hear him?"
"Not a single word."
"Really? I thought you did."
"Hey, I’m a pro."

I couldn't hear Rev Jesse because of background noise. Background noise is the bane of any person wearing any kind of hearing device. One of the many remarkable things about the (working) human ear is it can pick out one voice out of a sea of voices all the same volume, and hear that voice. This is done completely unconsciously. An implant or a hearing aid doesn’t have that same capability to focus, so every voice is amplified equally. In noisy environments like the lobby and bar of the Sheraton, with dozens of conversations and music blaring even Rev. Jesse is talking gibberish -- though it must be said that he talks it with style.

Which brings me to the blog question of the day: What the heck is the deal with background music? Why is it blared everywhere? At the bar and in the lobby, ok, but also in the elevator, and, I learned this week, in the bookstore. The bookstore? Why are they playing technopop at Barnes and Nobles? That seems to go against the whole idea of reading. Is it that dangerous to leave people alone with their thoughts? One of the great things, I think, about deaf culture is that people are alone with their thoughts a lot which fosters a natural empathy.

Back at the bar, Ari introduces me to a few other people: a man, I think from Pakistan, a couple with as much money as Pakistan, and a woman who takes my order and brings a martini the gods would envy.

”I like her best,” I say.
“Let’s see how Sam’s doing,” Ari says, as Sam had just been turned on a few hours before.
We text message Sam and he writes back “This stuff sounds strange.”
“Have you met up with Morpheus yet?” we ask.
“Not yet, but it’s like that,” Sam writes.

I think Sam and I may have very different experiences with the implant, at least initially, because he can still hear through a hearing aid in one ear – the new computerish sound through the implant must sound doubly weird when compared to sound through the hearing aid. I can’t wear an aid so I don't have that problem.

Ari and I say goodbye and I get on the subway and go home.
“I just met Jesse Jackson,” I tell Carl, my roommate. “He's tall. We talked for a couple of minutes.”
”Nice,” Carl says. “What'd he say?”

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What's your frequency?

Apologies on the delay in updating…I was going to write yesterday, had all kinds of ideas (now forgotten) but…uh, well, good news – implants work regardless of blood alcohol level. Actually, I'm not convinced on this point and will do more research –I'll let you know. I did notice last night that with an implant it's less likely I'll say "a chicken burrito" when the waitress asks what I want to drink.

Meanwhile, with some exceptions, sound gets more distinct every day. Female voices are much clearer then male ones at this point, as they are in the higher frequencies of which I have some auditory memory. Men sometimes sound like electronic gorillas hooting and growling over bananas, but that is changing. I'm noticing subtleties and inflections to voices that I never noticed before – for example I found out on Sunday that Becky, my cousin the film director/maestro normally sounds like she smokes three packs of unfiltered a day. I had no idea and spent the first ten minutes after we got together looking through my bag for a cough drop.

"Are you sick?" I asked her.
"This is what my voice is like," she said.
"Wow," was all I could think to say. "Does your mom know?"

Becky and I went to Prospect Park that afternoon and while she filmed I sat and tried to discern what things I was hearing which is a little like trying to improve your vision by staring directly at the sun --- this city is LOUD. Horns were honking, trucks were trucking, kids were crying, radios were playing, cicadas were doing whatever cicadas do and, no lie, jets passed directly overhead every thirty seconds.

"What are you hearing right now?" Becky would ask from behind the camera.
"Describe the noise?"
"Uh…loud noise?"

Computerish loud noise, I should say. The cicadas sounded like a kettle coming to a boil, and passing strollers made a noise like an old hard-drive grating painfully. And at first it seemed like whenever Becky laughed a bank of elevator doors dinged. Between that and her growly, smoky voice I barely knew who she was. It really was bizarre listening to this person I've known my whole life speak in a stranger's voice. It's like looking in the mirror in the morning and having some weirdo look back at you -- actually, bad example considering my family, but you get the point.

Anyway, the word for the week is megahertz. I'm not sure if that's the correct spelling, and I barely understand them but they are the key for the next phase of programming the implant. Phase one of programming is training the brain to take in more noise. Phase two (and of course there's overlap), is increasing the frequency that information is sent to the brain every second – which is measured in megahertz. I started at 500 mh per second, and at the last session was boosted up to to 1200 per second. The increase in information gives voices much more depth and inflection. Eventually, the implant could be upped to 3500 mh per second.

It's facts like that blow my mind: a two centimeter coil in my cochlea is firing off 10,000 pieces of information (20,000 in Sam's case) in the time it takes to read this sentence – that's just…dang. I mean, if they can do that, rocket backpacks can't be that far off, right? And hydrogen cars?

Speaking of Sam -- some have noticed that updates on the Sammy have disappeared. This is true. He claims he's been really busy with this thing called "work" which I think is code for "the mets have lost seven of eight, what do you want from me?" But I bring him up because as I write -- at this very moment -- he is sitting in an office in DC (might be Baltimore, I keep forgetting) getting his implant turned on. I am eager to hear how it goes and to welcome him to the matrix. I am sure he will have an interesting take -- Sam has handled deafness with much more grace and wit then I ever could. As an example, once, a few years ago, I asked him, how do you follow the conversation at a dinner party with a lot of people? He said, easy, just don't stop talking.

Good advice. But that was then.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Wall of Noise

Hey. Still here in this new sound environment, trying to make sense of it. It's big and strong and needs a name -- Gleep World? Tron World? The cyborgasm? -- I'm open to suggestions.

Things are loud -- keyboards, keys hitting a table, a truck horn on Broadway. Everything's pretty much at rock concert volume, except voices. I'm having trouble hearing voices and it's hard to clarify other sounds. I'm having trouble because the sounds I'm hearing actually aren't that loud, they're just new. I've never heard them before. The newness of them overloads my unaccustomed, unprepared brain cells. It's astonishing, all this new sound. You too would spend five minutes staring at the subway gate, listening to it ding, waving at frightened latino mothers, if it had never made such sound before. My brain is starting to make new neuron connections with the auditory nerve, connections which better understand the implant generated sound. This will take time -- weeks, months, maybe even years.

But every day, every hour, there are new hearing firsts: first time I heard the microwave beep from another room. First time I heard the toilet flush from down the hall. First time I heard someone drop a pen from across the room. First time I walked down a NYC street and clearly heard a woman walking the other way say into her cellphone, "Well, I'm sorry. But I still really think that color doesn't agree with you." First time, Maria Sharpova and I went to dinner together and compared forehand grips by candlelight. It's amazing stuff. It's like a child's first words. Good times.

On another note: yesterday I went to visit the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, where I worked counseling children last year. More then seventy percent of Lex's students come from immigrant families and ninety percent live at or below the poverty line. Many of these kids technically have more hearing than Sam and I do, but deafness is a disease of class as much as decibels and their families never had the time or resources to teach them oral language. They rely on sign. And now the rapid improvement and spread of implants is shrinking their community smaller and smaller, pushing it further to the margins. (I highly reccommend the movie "Sound and Fury" about this situation.)

It felt strange to be at Lex with this chip in my skull blasting noise 12-15 hours a day. Last year when I was there, I was losing my hearing and learning in new ways to be deaf. Now, all of a sudden, I'm learning a new way to be hearing. Sam and I are going to have to form a new community: the sortas. Sorta deaf, sorta hearing, sorta strange.

"Did you hear what I said?"
"Did you like the movie? Are the dishes clean? What do you want with your burger?"

I realized at Lexington that one thing I'd like this blog to express is just what a gift sound is. We don't usually wake up and think, cool my feet just made a clunk noise when they hit the floor and by the same token, we don't usually take time to appreciate that hey I have feet -- that's amazing! We take feet and noise for granted and then fill our minds with reasons why life isn't adequate or fair. Lord knows, I'm guilty of doing this. (Reason number 340 life ain't fair in my book -- I can't dunk. Number 3,458 -- the guy next to me in the library keeps picking his nose and wiping it on the desk). But I hope these updates on learning to hear all over again inspire you to take a few seconds to marvel at your own ability to hear and to marvel at all the experiences sound brings.

In Times Square today, a man asked me if I'd made the choice to accept Jesus into my life as He was the way.

"No," I said. "He owes me money."
"Then who are you voting for?" the man said.
"Excuse me?"
"I said, 'Seigel is the best choice for advocate.' Vote on Tuesday."
"Ah, yes. Yes you did," I said. "Thank you for that."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Good news

Yep, the title ain't lyin. Went in for mapping today and was actually able to withstand enough volume to start the mapping process. Wearing the implant non-stop last week even though it was just a jumble of static got my brain used to the idea of what sound would sound like from here on out. Sound doesn't sound like sound (I like that sentence), but it is something, and it no longer gives me headaches. It's pretty hard to describe. We did the beep boop test and there, in the middle of my brain, appearing like faces in a dream, were beeps and boops.

The thing that was causing my headaches the first week of the implant, close as we can tell, is low frequency sound. Low frequency is where my hearing was worst, so in effect, I'd never heard those sounds before. My brain didn't know what to do with them. I still can't hear them really, it's more like I can feel them. It will take time for my brain to read them as sound.

As Michael the Mapper summed up: "Your brain can't yet understand sound at that level. All these years you haven't heard low frequency sound and you've instead used your body to feel it."
"That's why I can dance so well, baby."
"My name is Michael, not baby."

But this made sense. Deep voices through the implant sort of disappear when I listen to them, they become a physical sensation, not an auditory one.

Right now I'm at the NYU library and the world is astonishingly loud. But Mike has programmed this loudness so it is not causing headaches (knock on wood) and eventually we will be able to slowly increase my tolerance of the sounds that do cause headaches (knock again).

So what does what I'm hearing sound like? Well, voices are still just the idea of voices, but now I can guess how many syllables are in the idea. I got about six or seven out of the ten colors Mike said while covering his mouth. But I wouldn't say I heard them clearly. I heard something, like a long gleep from a spaceship from Alpha Centurion and then I sort of puzzled over it.

"Mike, did you just say white?"

Strange. With a hearing aid, I always felt like I was taking in input from afar, studying it in some antechamber and then bringing it into the living room and taking a guess at what it was. With the implant, the information just pops up out of the fireplace and sits on the couch uninvited.

Another reason I had so much trouble last week was that for the last three years I've rarely worn my hearing aids for more than an hour or two a day. Them things hurt. I'd been taking the implant off every couple hours or so to give my ear a break, but Mike explained why I shouldn't do this.

"Your brain needs to learn to interpret this new information. You need to wear the implant twelve to fifteen hours straight a day."
"Twelve to fifteen hours?"
"What if I'm on the subway?"
"Keep it on."
Then he remarked, "You know, I think part of why you're having trouble adjusting is that you are an amazing lipreader. You're great at it, the best I've ever seen."
"You have a great stick resting in your jeans?"
"That's not what I said."
"Yeah, I know."

I shook his hand then and went outside and walked/rode the thirty blocks to NYU trying to make sense of new stimuli. I could pick out bus brakes pretty quickly, car horns, and elevator dings. I heard the ding when I slid my metrocard through the subway gate. That thing dings? (I think that will be my slogan for the next week). Why does it ding? The light goes on. Sheesh, there's a lot of noise in the world.

When I arrived at the NYU library after my first walk in the new world, a comely young woman with a clipboard came up to me.
"Would you like to give a donation to Greenpeace for cleaner oceans?" she said. Her voice came through the white noise as clear as a yellow comerant landing out of a white cloud. I almost gasped.
"Wow, I've never heard you before," I said and walked inside.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Turn on, turn off, wax on, wax off

Greetings, my partners in the great American crime.

Haven't felt up to blogging this last week, as I got caught up in the decline of our civilization, forgetting that this decline has been ongoing pretty much since the civilization's started. I mean that what rises must fall with the notable exception of certain greenhouse gasses. Still, these are strange days. I'm finding watching hours of US Open tennis is a good respite from the news, though I recommend changing the channel when they ask the players what they think of what's happening outside the baseline.

"What do you think of this tragedy?"
"Me hit ball."
"Excuse me?"
"Uh, me hit ball hard? Yes?"

Strangely enough, President Bush said the same thing at a news conference last week. But probably best not to go there...So, keeping in mind that in the grand scope of things this bionic blog isn't worth a hill of beans, and I don't much like beans unless they're doused with hot sauce – it still is my hill, and, more importantly, ma insists, so I will continue…

Thursday I was turned on. The implant was powered up and we started testing the boops and the beeps, at which point I keeled face forward onto the audiologist desk. Becky was there filming, she can attest to this – the new stimulus instantly brought on vertigo and headaches. This subsided somewhat and after a couple of hours I left the office with the implant set very low and not mapped at all. Not mapped meaning that the settings weren't individualized for me because I couldn't withstand enough sound to do that. Now three days and one more mapping session later, I am still on the same page pretty much – the device can't be programmed because I can't withstand enough sound.

So the first step of learning to hear with the implant will be a slow one of learning to withstand sound, which I am doing by wearing the implant at a louder volume each day. I feel I've made some progress on this point, but can't really tell yet. It's tough work, sorta like playing chicken with my head: seeing how far I can go before it hurts. I notice that this isn't so different from working through a six-pack so I might look into combining the two. There is the small possibility that I won't be able to withstand louder sounds despite all these efforts, in which case y'all just have to like me for my looks.

I have time on my side as well as well-paid doctors and a compassionate and skilled camera crew, so I do feel that I should be able to adjust eventually and begin to wear the implants without headaches. Once I reach that point, we can being mapping to improve the sound quality. Right now everything sounds a little like the noise from outer space that scientists in sci-fi movies are trying to decipher. ("Their coming! You hear that?" "That's the microwave. Your burrito's ready.") Still, despite the slow start, when I have the implant on a couple sounds are coming through more cleanly then I've ever heard them before: my fingers hitting the keyboard for one, 'sh' and 's' sounds, and the heavy hush of a loud exhalation. The noise that I do hear is also evolving pretty rapidly – my brain makes more sense of it every day; so that every day more things are like I remember. Water in the sink for example now sounds like water in the sink, not a TV on a dead channel. Voices are still just the idea of voices at this point, not even close to being discernable. Again,it will take time and mapping to get them to where they make sense, at which point I will have to adjust all over again to the sad fact that no one really has anything interesting to say.

For diversion, I went to the US Open yesterday and saw about 50 six foot blonde and tan Russian teenager amazons run around and sweat in their underwear. I recommend it. Also paid about six bucks for an ice-cream bar, but that's par for the course. Saw some amazing tennis matches though I have to say I wonder about the legitimacy of a sport where the best player in the world would be solidly beaten by a wall.

My next mapping will be this Thursday instead of in two weeks, as the audiologist and I are eager to see if the sensitivity will have faded enough to begin programming. I promise to be more prompt with my updates, though when the news isn't good, it occasionally tends to be bad. But freedom's on the march.