Thursday, March 27, 2008

Really Interesting Article...

About the first deaf player in the NBA. Smart as a whip, yet his old coach had him tested for learning disabilities. Sound familiar to anyone?

Only Connect

Been across the world a couple times, but never to San Francisco. I’d heard they had earthquakes, home run hitters on steroids, and curio shops with six foot bongs and mementos to free love – all interesting things -- but hadn’t really had a reason to go. Then I traveled out there last week to give a talk to the California Alexander Graham Bell Society. Old Alex, it is not so widely known, in between inventing deaf-mocking devices like the telephone, considered himself first and foremost a friend of the deaf. His mother was deaf, as was his wife. He had strong opinions about deaf education and the power to put them in action; he believed that oral learning was the way and signing should be discouraged at all cost.

Not surprisingly, he’s a figure of tremendous controversy in the deaf community today.

Anyway, I got to San Francisco on Wednesday and stayed with Mike Chorost and his catdog Elvis, a white cat with a black pompadour and a hip wiggle. San Francisco is like an artist’s idea of a city; something Italo Calvino would have imagined, bound by water and parkland, with street after hilly street of two story homes fashioned by Keebler elves. Summer is colder than winter, commerce is an afterthought, and the skyscrapers are built on springs.

Thursday, I took the BART to the end of the line at Fremont and visited the School for the Deaf there. The Fremont School is the center of a vibrant and growing community. It’s also the center of quite a bit of controversy and uncertainty – it’s a strongly ASL focused school and this is an oral world, and now there’s this device called a cochlear implant which many see as the passageway between the signing world and the oral one, and others see as the barrier. Salvation or annihilation – either way, big change is coming.

Which is a subject that came up quite a bit on Saturday, during the AGBell conference. As I spoke inside the conference room, out on the lawn in front of the hotel, a hundred or so people gathered to protest the event.

Protest might be the wrong word; rally, better. They were rallying in defense of sign language. They had a valid point: since Alex Bell’s time sign has long been seen as the enemy of oral learning, when it really doesn’t need to be.

The rally’s strongest argument was its good humor and kindness. When I warned a purple-haired protesting woman that the cops were empowered to arrest and strip search anyone they felt like, she volunteered to go first.

“That’s brave of you,” I said.
“Anything for the cause,” she responded.

She then came inside to attend the conference. And therein lies the rub: more of those inside should have been out, more of those outside should have been in. As Mike put it on his blog:

Some of the people in the hotel should really have been out there on the grass. A child who has grown up with 110-decibel losses in both ears will never be able to speak and listen to English with the ease and grace of a native language, no matter how well he or she can read and write in it. It is not the better part of wisdom to ask them to forever try...And some of the people on the grass should have been in the hotel. Fifty percent of the profoundly deaf people in the U.S. are unemployed, and it has nothing to do with their intelligence.

Sometimes, I told the AGBell attendees (and I’ve written elsewhere on this blog), This signing versus oral feud seems like Crips and Bloods fighting over a corner in Watts. The rest of the world could care less, and these gangs, no one else but other gang members can understand their experience, no one else has walked in their shoes– they should be working together. Instead they’re fighting to the death. We’re not so different, or more accurately, our differences are inconsequential in light of all we share. This is what I learned in Africa, and the quality of my life has a direct correlation to the quality of my remembrance of this truth.

“We must work together,” I said to the conference attendees. There were nods of agreement. “We must work together,” I signed to the people at the rally. There was a round of applause. But those inside stayed in and those outside stayed out. And the distrust each had of the other was palpable and sad.

The purple-haired protestor, at least, was smiling:
“Nice speech. Still no strip search,” she signed, with a gesture of disappointment.

Back in San Francisco, I had dinner with a worldclass beatboxer and later met up with a legendary ballet dancer and with a musician with an elbow made from his hip, stomach, foot and thigh. The Musician had been in a car accident and had feared that his career was over, but the doctors had given him a new arm using parts from the rest of his body. I was reminded again that there are really no limits to what medicine can do. But erasing limits isn’t always the same as solving problems.

What then?

Only Connect. This phrase by E.M. Forster came to mind while I spoke at the conference and I looked up the source when I got home. It was better than I remembered.

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

Monday, March 17, 2008

Two links...

One fun, one to make you think.

The first, is from Goofy Cleavage, an LA blog of a sort. The writer came to the talk at the LA library on Wednesday the 12th and had a kind of unique, but entirely appropriate, experience (be sure to read the comments).

The second is from a link to an article in The Economist, "borrowed" from Michael Chorost's always brilliant blog. Very thought-provoking piece on the future of cochlear implants.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

TV Appearance

It's late notice, but I'll be on Connie Martinson's Talk Books on Saturday at 12:30 pm. Talk Books is on PBS's cable channel. In Westchester, that's NYCNY, channel 22; it's a similar channel in the city. It's in most major markets at a similar time and I'll post the rebroadcast info when I get it.

Connie and I had a nice half-hour interview followed by a wild fistfight. Hope you can see it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Put me in, Coach!

Yesterday, the first legally deaf player was signed to an NBA contract. It was supposed to be me but that didn't work out. Lance Allred has joined the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He had this to say about his hearing loss:

''I am able to hear most things. Every now and then I will miss hearing a teammate, especially if he is behind me. I've been wiped out on some screens in my career. But that means I have to pay extra attention and be very visually aware and sometimes that actually helps me see things before they happen.''

Well said. Allread has bilateral cochlear implants, by the way.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

LA Times

Here's a link to a really nice piece in today's LA Times. Beautifully done. Leo -- the rights are available! Have your people contact my people.

Love and the Game

Greetings from sunny Los Angeles! City of unbridled blue skies and happiness! This is ridiculous, this weather. It’s like straight out of the paradise factory. Locals here have been telling me with a straight face that they’ve actually had a pretty severe winter this year.
“I don’t believe you,” I told them.
“No really,” they insisted. “It rained for a week.”
A week! The horror! When I left New York on Saturday, it should be pointed out, three inches of rain had fallen in the last twenty-four hours. Everyday was another shade of gray. When the sun actually poked out, it was like a cockroach caught in the kitchen lights. It quickly hid behind another cloud. Depressed weathermen and women had taken to drinking Scotch on air.

But enough about weather, let’s talk about hookers.

No, let’s not. Or if we have to, let’s just say: damn. The hearts of men are very complicated places. Often what drives us is what we despise in ourselves. And is that such a bad thing? To heal the world we have to feel its pain, its flaws, as our own. Otherwise we end up declaring war so we can stare down daddy at the dinner table.

Been staying with my older brother, Ari, his wife Martha, and their two lovely daughters, Olivia and Annie. In between unsuccessful attempts to come to any kind of consensus about the upcoming election (Other than: AHHHH! AHHH! They better not win again!) Ari and I sat down and watched the final episode of The Wire.

What a show. I loved that show and will miss it and took a moment from my normal obsessions to gaze deep into the crystal ball and gauge the future of several main characters:

Bunk: Love, alcohol, work, death, love.
Michael: Death, death, death, love.
Dukie: Child of God, forgive us. You deserved all.
Carcetti: Was it worth it?
Slim Charles: At night, his disembodied voice hovers about the streets of the city like fog.
Barack Obama: Keeps his dignity. No small thing.
McNulty: Love, alcohol, alcohol, alcohol, death, love.
Baltimore: The same, only worse. What a show.

In Pennsylvania, one senator alludes that another senator will sell us out to the turbaned hordes as soon as possible. Such is the game that the willingness to massage truths until they are, more or less, lies, is seen as a strength. In other words, in The Wire’s words: its all in the game. All in the game.

But why can’t we change the rules?

That’s all by the by. This here ain’t a political blog; I hear the internets might have some of those. Today I visited the Echo Horizon School in Culver City, Los Angeles. Echo is unique in the state, perhaps in the country -- there are about 25 implant and hearing aid wearers in the school of 280 or so (K to 6), and they are folded seamlessly and ingenuously into the regular classes. In this format, the hearing impaired children are pushed to learn at the same pace as everyone and, perhaps most importantly, they and their classmates learn to see hearing impairment as irrelevant – not that it isn’t there, but that it doesn’t matter – the world is wide and open to all.

A point I tried to get across during two presentations in the school library. Afterwards, I took questions. Hard ones.

“Can you wash your hands with aloe and vinegar to prevent diseases?” asked one boy.
“Do they play soccer with rocks in Zambia?” asked another.
“Do you like me?”
This was Sam – the same Sam from the reading at Dutton’s last fall. Sitting front and center in the crowd of fifty students, his smile as broad as always.
“Yes, Sam, I like you,” I replied.
“Have you ever tried a Shamrock Shake from McDonalds?”
“Were you scared of catching diseases?”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, Sam.”
“What did the people in Africa think of your hearing aids?”
“What was the most important thing you learned in Africa?”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Sam, please…”

Sharp kids, tough questions, but all of it done with a smile. Can the world really be such a mess if we’re giving kids such a future? But then you think of the kids in The Wire...and...damn.

Well, this is late notice, but if you’re in the LA area, tomorrow night there will be a reading and interview at the LA library. There will be sign language interpreters and tickets are still available.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Some further thoughts on the Times

So it comes down to this again: angry emails from deaf individuals claiming that I have betrayed my identity, that I have misrepresented crucial positions, and promoted misunderstandings and unrealistic hopes. I’ve been in this position before. Why is that people expect a short article in the New York Times to capture the nuances of the sign--oralism debate, especially when to hearing people those nuances are inconsequential? And they are, on a level, inconsequential. The fratricidal battles being fought in the deaf community are self-defeating. We should be celebrating each other and our differences. Sometimes the signing-oralism debate reminds me of nothing so much as the Crips and Bloods fighting over a street in Watts. There is a whole wide world out there; why get lost in the focus on a few blocks?

“You have proven,” one man wrote me in an email, “that you don’t understand us.”

Really? What is there to understand? The basic human need to connect, to feel worthwhile and loved is paramount and similar in all of us. Why fight over the methods?

My grandfather was a Rabbi. He died young, eight years before I was born. When I was a teenager I thirsted for information about him and once my mother showed me a box of his letters. What came across in these letters was his sterling penmanship (how times have changed in that regard), his intelligence (he had a law degree in addition to a Rabbinical one) and his kindness. Every letter of his had the same signoff: relax and enjoy.

Relax and enjoy. Here, friend, is the message I would hope people carry from what I write. Please don’t go looking for evidence of one school of thought over the other, one approach over the other. Encourage in people the freedom to live the lives that they have, through no fault of their own, been born into. Do they want to hear even though they were born without working ears? Do their parents want that for them? Do they want the opposite, to be left alone in silence? Fine. Either way, it is no judgment on you.

UPDATE: Here is a link to an impassioned response to the Times piece by Julie Hochgesang, a Ph.D. student at Gallaudet.