Thursday, December 20, 2007

Otis Slayeth the Dragons

A true story. Happy Holidays Everyone!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Calling Mr. Jere

(With deep thanks to Summer)

I have been waiting many years to hear your voice

This is how it goes, without adornment.

A man in Lusaka drops a line: I have read your book and would like to help you find Jere. I work out here in Zambia and it would mean a lot to me.

Please, I write him. Go. God speed.

Two weeks later he, a friend of his, emails a phone number for a cell phone in Mansa, capital of Luapula province, and a note: he is expecting your call. For a day and a half I stare at the number. It has a strange number of digits -- twelve -- split in odd groupings -- 3-2-3-4. Where are the parentheses? The dashes? I looked at the number, sometimes through tears. Sometimes it just sat there and laughed dryly, “yes, this is where the road ends. How did you think it would be?”

I didn’t know. A letter, a hug, a drink, a game of chess; not a phone call. I was scared I wouldn’t hear. But so long! I picked up the phone and dialed.

“Is this Mr. Jere?”
“Mulishani Mukwai.”
“Yahhh, this is Josh?”
"Ah, heh, heh, heh.”
“Heh, heh, heh.” Pause. Is he crying or laughing? "Ah, heh, heh, heh."
"This is Josh."
"I know."

We talked for fifteen minutes. It was so beautiful but so frustrating! The voice was as I remembered, or more accurately, the voice triggered memories. But even though I could hear it, I could barely make out the words it carried. It was like having a child who thinks “no” is the greatest sound in the world -- we talked, and made headway, but it was a lot of repetition and needless difficulty. I thought, ah, deafness, my old friend, you occasionally stupid fucker. Why now? Why not during a call from my student loan company? Capricious bastard. The conversation became about the distance and not the connection. I could hear Jere’s laugh, but not the things he laughed at. Arrgh.

Once in a mountain village in India, I watched two swallows making love beneath a lemon tree. Two hours of chasing, two-tenths of a second of coupling. Then they disappeared. This is what came to mind. But I could hear his laugh!

I shook my head to clear it.

“You wrote a book, I hear.”
”Yes. You may have a small part in it.”
”You will send me a copy, yes?”

I told him a little about the book and then a little about my life. Bits of it -- where to start? How to start when you can’t hear? I got him to promise to set up an email account.

“Greetings to your brother. And greetings to Ba Rose,” I made out that much.
“Greetings to Palije. And how many children now?”
“There are five. Three boys and two girls.”
“Wow,” I said. “Five.”

A pause.

You know, I have been waiting many years to hear your voice.

I have never stopped thinking of you.

You will come to see us soon.

After a while, his wife gets on the line; her voice too is familiar and indecipherable. So close and yet so far. But so close! I know she doesn't know any English but just wants to hear my voice. And I realize, good enough -- for her, for me. I repeat the longest Bemba phrase I can remember -- "My friend, I want to drink many beers with you." Yes, sir, she says.

I look up and the faces of those around me are shining. I see the woman I love.

They are alive. That familiar chuckle. I will come to see them soon.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Small Mercies

So, birthday in two days, and I had the thought, I know, I’ll commemorate it by sitting around, looking back on my life and finding it lacking.

But the dogs needed a walk.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Gallaudet, in English

Got some complaints about my last blog post; rightfully earned. I’d written about my visit to Gallaudet without saying what I really thought about Gallaudet. Or actually I did say what I thought, and it’s in there, but it’s hidden in strange 2:00 am prose and oblique metaphors. I enjoy that kind of writing, but sometimes, it’s better to be straightforward.


Gallaudet is at a critical point. For whatever reason – maybe that it gets most of its money from the federal government, maybe that its historically had a patronizing relationship with hearing academia – the school has not adapted and innovated to keep up with the rapid technological advancements of the last few decades. Every university needs to evolve to meet the times, Gallaudet probably more than most. And while it has in some ways, becoming one of the most wired campuses out there, it hasn’t in others. Cochlear implants and their ilk are the future. By some accounts, ninety percent of children born deaf now are implanted. Is Gallaudet ready for that?

Michael Chorost wrote that the university could ensure its relevancy by becoming a laboratory of sorts for the new technological age. He sees development of such sort as imperative -- who knows, he writes, with all this rapid evolution, if in 50 years, sign language will even exist as we know it? What then is the deaf community without its language? Is there such a thing as the deaf community without its language? And so Chorost pushes hard for Gallaudet to expand its vision of itself in order to persevere.

Understandably, Chorost’s questions about the future of sign language created a lot of controversy. When he came to Gallaudet in March of 2007 to deliver his presentation he was bitterly interrogated afterwards. And his ideas were one of the first things I was asked about on my trip – that is, do you believe, Josh, like your friend, that sign language will die?

No, I said, but I think it’s important to entertain the possibility. Doing so will force the community to think outside of the box and to become more adaptive and prepared. Failing that you have stagnated, reactionary thinking and defensiveness.

And there is a lot of defensiveness at Gallaudet. There is a deep resentment in some corners of the signing deaf community towards oral deaf individuals that I think is self-defeating. The oral position is rejected offhand. But to exclude others because they have chosen a different path or because they you feel they don’t understand you is to set yourself up for exclusion. Rejection can hurt the rejecting more than rejected – before you know it you’ve defended yourself right into a corner.

I think it’s time to reach out, in every way possible. To take the first step in doing so, and maybe even the second and third. Why is the focus always on our differences? On our grievances, on defending itself from being hurt? Being deaf is getting hurt. Being alive is getting hurt. Go through life with no pain, no difficulties, and you end up like Paris Hilton, flashing your coochie at everyone in some strange effort to find a point to your existence. As Gallaudet faces its momentous challenges I think the question that needs to be asked is the most important thing to avoid being hurt? Or is it to foster deeper bonds and deeper understanding?