Thursday, March 27, 2008

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.”


Anonymous cat said...

yes josh. only connect.

michael franti, who is a musician and a peace activist was asked a question about what can one do to make a difference? (in spreading peace) he said the only way he knows how is to connect with the person next to him. i dont have the words since it was said in the power to the peaceful rally.

since then, i've always felt it was a truth. to love the people next to you and connect them in what way you can. it is the only way to fend off barriers...

as for the AGB/DBC, there is one thing i would love to point out. a lot of the DBC rally goers did go inside the hotel while we (AGB goers) ate our lunch. some of the AGB'ers got up to chat with the DBC'ers and that made me smile through my meal. i couldnt believe at how one woman was a teacher of all of my elders (former teachers) and it felt good to see them reunite. it didnt matter what side they were on, they hugged the beejeezus out of eachother and that, to me, matters the most.

after the conference, a few oral/hard of hearing attendees came out to meet with us. out there on the grass and underneath the trees, some of us have actually mingled and gained new friendship. how can it be a sad thing? a year ago, this was unimaginable. now? connections are in the makings... have been made. change is happening and in all these years of our struggles, this uncertain change is the best felt. i should browse mike's blog. hmm...

so much to say but yes, josh. nutshell it into, "only connect"

come back to SF soon :)

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea that we should "only connect" is kind of off the mark. As they say, you can't have it both ways--or you can't have your cake and eat it too. You're either this or that, one or the other. Would you tell Conservatives and Liberals, or Republicans and Democrats to just get along? Let's come together and be nice to each other! No, it doesn't work that way. We are who we are--and we are going to stand up for what's right for our circumstances. Also, the Crips and Bloods analogy is pretty extreme. The orals and the signers hardly pay attention to each other--we just go on with our lives. And that's how it should be. Are you still trying to be a peace-making idealist, like in your book? Didn't that almost get you killed?

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Clare said...

Hi Josh :)

to the Anonymous poster:

"The orals and the signers hardly pay attention to each other--we just go on with our lives."

You're kidding me, right? We ARE paying attention to each other, not just paying attention but we're trying to be opposite of each other. I don't think we're twiddling our thumbs and saying, "oh we're just going on with our lives" but we're more of having sticks up our butts and saying "them wrong! them bad!"

I agree with you, Josh's analogy of Crips and Blood is pretty extreme however, your analogy of Democrats, Republicans and whatever else political is, ahem, ineffective.

Look at Hillary and Obama, they're from the same domain yet aren't so nice to each other. Their trade-insults tarnishes the ideal of Democracy and possibly leads us to another Bush era (McCain that is).

What's wrong with connecting? Also, what's wrong with being nice to each other? I mean, you could be nice to someone you don't like and it takes a lot of respect to do that. I guess it takes a cynic to overlook that concept and a peace idealist to understand how it works. Too bad this world is almost full of pompous cynics.


10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the "Some deaf people that are in the AGBell conference should be on the grass and vice versa" comment seems to conflict with your original message.
You want us to work together, but that comment makes it seem that you are "categorizing" where we should fit based on the speaking/hearing abilities? Is that your intention? I couldn't agree more on the two words: just connect.
Just curious.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Deana Gurney said...

Hi Josh,
Thanks for including the link to Kid Beyond (world-class beatboxer)! Love it!

8:50 AM  
Blogger Abbie said...

It would be great if we could all connect instead of being so disconnected from each other.

9:58 PM  
Blogger lizzie said...

this post reminded me of one of my most favourite proverbs: "ubuntu," an african proverb.

bill clinton spoke about it at the RIT commencement ceremony last spring and from there i've, perhaps, become obsessed with the word. we're all connected, whether we like it or not. we're all in the same universe and yet we all, individually, life our lives differently. perhaps, we forget that we're all connected.

we don't have enough of the bridge building between ourselves. one person can only do so much, but it takes the other to mirror the same desire to bridge as well.

ubuntu, look it up.

7:50 AM  

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