Friday, November 30, 2007

O, traveler. Traveler!

What a week that was.

Ten days ago I gave a talk about The Unheard at the League for the Hard of Hearing in downtown Manhattan. Not long ago I worked there, and it’s a good place though it has recently been painted an unfortunate muppet green. The color makes you think of special effects screens, Kermit the frog, bad acid. The talk was in stuffy room full of people with every variety of hearing loss and every kind of assistive listening device. It was hot and I was sweating through my sweater, which made me wonder, for the thousandth time, why they’re called that.

“I would have been afraid,” someone says.
“Don’t be afraid,” I say, or words to that effect.
“I would have come home,” someone else says.
“That’s alright.”

The audience microphone makes its way to the back of the room.

A young man stands. “I feel alone,” he says, and I know him before he talks -- his face. “I’ve just lost my hearing. What do you do when you feel alone? What do you do when you feel shut out from the world? What do you do when it all hits you?”

He is far away and it is hard to hear him, but I know every word.

Traveler, excuse my words, I am sorry, words are all I have. Your story is my story. Your wound is my wound. We are sweating through lives we did not expect or place orders for, through losses we never saw coming, seeking connection, seeking happiness. Can you embrace your loneliness? Become the love you seek. These pitiful words. Would that I could take you in my arms.

“Last question,” the moderator says.

A tall woman in the last row stands up. The moderator brings her the microphone.

“So do you see yourself as a deaf person or a hard of hearing person?” she asks. Neither, I answer.

Later she sends me an email: “Because you take no position,” she writes, “how can I trust you?”

But pick, and what is lost in the choosing? Is it just what you have chosen against? Or is the real loss that your choosing has partitioned the one complete world into two, so it will forever be beating against itself, seeking to again be made whole?

A week later, I’m at Gallaudet, back for the first time in more than fourteen years. It’s a beautiful day. Fall, my favorite season (along with winter, spring and summer, my other favorite seasons) has come and been disposed of in a week. The campus has aged well, but the school has not. Stunned by the rapid technological and societal changes of the last decade, Gallaudet has struggled to figure out its role. And when it has figured it out, the moment has already passed. Like no other institution of learning in the world, its future is a mystery. The school stands at the start of an unpredictable journey.

But what is deafness but a journey? Traveler in a foreign world. But then when the world traveler can go back to his hometown, where does the deaf person go?

“All I’d like,” says my beautiful guide, “is for all deaf to get along. No more divisions. No more definitions. No more labels. Can’t we all just get along?”

I’d like to think so. But according to the news today, the original get-along guy, Rodney King, was shot. He was hit on his face, back, arms, and torso. How then the analogy? This, more or less, is what nine or ten of us talked about in a roundtable discussion in a small windowless room near the campus store. Ramming against a glass ceiling hung so low that it might actually be a coffeetable, we’ve been knocked down, they said.

But what is that ceiling? What if the limits we see in the world, are not in the world but in the seeing? Love -- what is the frequency?

My interpreter looks exactly like the wishy-washy guy from The Office. The deaf-blind man who I wrote about in The Unheard is still doing laps on the university track. I encourage the roundtable to reach out further, even though they’ve been hurt. The next morning the bright sky is the color of washed out denim. After breakfast with the school provost I say goodbye to everyone and board the bus to the train station. My guide worries that I will arrive there safely, and I explain to her that I’ve been on other journeys.

It’s been a good week. So many questions but much has been learned. Such as: you can pay an extra 70 dollars for the Acela and it still gets in late. Hearing and deafness are like two stray hairs on a blind man’s face. All journeys seek the same thing. And everything you touch turns to gold.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thank you

Aight. Turkey day in the rearview and a pound of leftovers slowly digesting in my tummy so its time to spread some good cheer.

First off, thank you to everyone who read the book, took the time to tell others about it, took the time to drop a note.

Thank you also to the woman who wrote from Australia to talk about The Unheard, to the woman from South Africa who wrote to share her story of deafness. Thanks to the man in New Mexico who, after hearing my interview with Scott Simon on NPR, dropped me a line to ask if I was ok and to say that, hey, life happens and is hard for everyone.

Thank you for the Democratic presidential debates. Intelligent people who can speak in complete sentences and really care about the future of this planet! Who are fighting to have responsibility for this mess! It warms my heart.

Thank you for brothers. Thank you for dogs. Thank you for Fall. Thank you implants, for the sound of several thousand leaves getting hit by a sudden strong November wind and whiplashing to the ground.

Thank you for Al Gore. Thank you for modern cancer treatment. For E-Z pass lanes, for the guy on the corner who, while I was taking the dogs for a walk the other night, peed against a closed storefront, turned around and said “damn, it’s cold. That a pit bull?”

Thank you for laundry machines, for a lamp shaped like a duck, for sitting on the subway and suddenly remember a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.

For memories. For the realization that memories are an extension of this current moment. For the realization that all of life is but this moment. For being startled out of a funk by that realization, and then passing gas loudly just because.

For a friend out serving and saving the world and now living in an air-conditioned windowless shipping container in Djibouti.

For turning on the TV last night and catching the last hour of Rocky IV, the most ridiculous cheesefest ever filmed. For taking a walk at night and seeing the moon directly overhead, round and large and close, the old man in there smiling like someone’s told a dirty joke. (“What is the joke, old man? What is the joke? Is it on me? Tell me!”)

For family, for friends like family. For friends like friends. For strangers. For strangers like friends. For family like strangers. And what about acquaintances? And enemies? And enemies that were once friends, friends like family? I’m lost. Thanks for them all.

For sports. For aches and pains. For ibuprofen washed down with a sip of whiskey.

For days with nothing to do. For days with too much to do. For days you step in doo-doo because your neighbor (friend? Acquaintance?) doesn’t clean up after his bull mastiff.

For the woman I get to share my life with, whom I not worthy of, but who, hopefully, won’t catch on.

There are a few events in the next couple weeks and some big and exciting book fairs in the spring – all the information is on (or should shortly be on) the appearances page of the website. Around Xmas, I’m off to spend a month at Yaddo, a writer’s colony upstate at the foot of the Adirondacks, to begin my next book. I’m excited about the opportunity and the project and look forward to telling you more about it when the time comes. Thank you – please feel free to add your own thanks below.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Long time. I had visions. Crazy visions. Cities roasting, winds blowing, trees on fire, bullets falling across a flat desert like rain. Headless leaders claiming that their sight was perfect, and that perpetual war was God’s loving choice for us. By the light of divine love, thousands must be slain!

Crazy visions, friend. Highways choked with cars, cities choked with smog, the future choked on the present until it keeled over and expired, splay legged by the roadside, still years from its destination.

Maybe it was the head injury. I don’t know. The other day I was at a bat mitzvah; there was an eight piece band fronted by professional party facilitators, a photographer who could instantly apply your image to a mouse pad, a vegetable buffet set out on skewers in a field of grass so that it looked like a miniature movie set of so much prehistoric foliage awaiting brontosarial jaws.

On the dance floor the facilitators facilitated, and the music was so loud I turned my implant to the lowest setting above complete silence, the one where I could just hear my own voice, and that of the woman closest to me.

“Dance with me,” she said. And I took to her the floor, wading through a thong of thirteen year olds starting the party on the facilitator’s cues.

“Hold me,” she said. “Love me. What’s wrong?”

(AJ says she didn’t actually say this, FYI.)

Midnight I was driving north on the Jersey Turnpike, cruise control set, a venti coffee by my side. A few cars were on the road, their red taillights gleaming and disappearing like stray thoughts.

Where are we going? What can be done? I turn on the news.

”I am an optimist,” the candidate says in the national debate. He points a stern finger at the moderator. “I am optimistic about America. Dammit, Wolf (because that’s the moderator’s name, though really what kind of name is that), don’t tarnish our dream; don’t tell us that it isn’t possible to have everything we watch on the TV because its been mortgaged to pay for the SUV. We’d trade that thing in for a Prius in a heartbeat. We’re gonna start fresh. Look, the future is so bright I’m blinded!” He stumbles off the stage. “Blinded!’

Across the aisle, the other candidates’ debate takes a different tone.

“I will kill the most brown people,” one promises. “No, I will,” says another. “God created the earth and then started killing brown people,” says a third. “Please,” says a fourth, “I’ve been killing brown people since before you were born. Why just this morning I was getting a hazelnut coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and nailed two of them behind the counter. And look here,” – he reaches into his suit – “my gun is big.”

The moderator whistles. "That's nothing," says another candidate. "I killed brown people on 9-11."

My mother looks up from her sketchbook, where she has been drawing beautiful chrysanthemums in colored pencil. Their irises come in and out of focus, like distant explosions in a hall of mirrors.

“So,” she says “Who do we vote for?”

Click the mouse and there are websites where you can watch videos of people killing themselves.

At a school for the deaf in rural Massachusetts, the first question a senior English class asks me is, “Does your brother Zev feel bad for how he treated you?”

“Let me ask him,” I tell them. I text Zev. “Fuck no,” Zev texts back five minutes later.

”He does,” I tell the class.

In Portland, I have a heckler. A twitchy, nervous gentleman who sits in the front row and shakes his head and laughs in disbelief at everything I say.

“I won’t buy your book,” he says when I'm done, “but here’s five bucks for talking.” He pushes the money in my shirt pocket and walks out.

Five minutes later he walks back in. “I decided I will buy your book,” he says. “But I promise I won’t agree with any of it.”

“Ok,” I say.

”Give me back my five dollars,” he adds.

Brunswick, Maine, I’m watching a high school theater troupe perform Alice in Wonderland. Morristown, New Jersey, I’m in front of an audience of 600 students without any notes. Bed Stuy, New York, I’ve just driven a U-Haul truck into a gate. “Oy,” says a young Hasidic gentleman, “did you hear me say don’t drive into my gate?” Downtown Manhattan, in a radio studio, live on air, the interviewer asks if the Peace Corps had me dig wells because I was deaf and no good for anything else.

How did I get here?

Otis chews his tail until it looks like a Slim Jim. I pull three woodticks out of my chest, leaving scars like bullet holes. Atlanta’s going dry. LA is on fire. They’re striking on Broadway.

And then the news from Africa: In Angola, there is a beauty contests for landmine survivors. First prize is a prosthetic leg. In Somalia, the human suffering now eclipses Darfur according to the UN. But in Congo, the ceaseless civil war has enabled bonobo monkeys to flourish. Bonobos of course are famous for their tireless and creative copulation, for making love not war…and now, beautiful irony, our war has given them the opportunity to make more and more sweet, sweet love!

And finally, in a small village in the Rift Valley, a young boy steps out of his hut, stretches, takes in the magnificent vista, the steep, faraway hills emerging from mist like a herd of jackalope bounding from a streambed. So beautiful, he thinks, so much…how can anything be lacking? How could I ever doubt that the nature of creation is intrinsically good?

Even in its decay is its goodness. In pain is the end of pain. I must never forget this, and if I do, I will forgive myself quick-quick, and remember. I must always try to see this world with fresh eyes.

He scratches a mosquito bite on his forearm and heads to the river. Across the planet, on the steps of the state capitol, beneath azure skies, the governor of Georgia kneels and prays for rain.