a day in Eyeth

There’s a legendary world in Deaf culture lore. It’s like Earth but it’s for people of the eye, so they call it Eyeth. (get it? EARth, EYEth) In this world, people listen with their eyes with the comfort of being normal, typical, just the way life is, unlike the heavily mediated existence of a Deaf person on Earth. Mediated through hearing devices, pads of paper, interpreters, lip reading, gestures.

I got a small peek into what Eyeth might look like last weekend. I jetted down to Louisville, KY at an unearthly hour in the morning on Saturday. When I got there, the biennial meeting of the National Association of the Deaf was wrapping its week-long meeting and they were launching DeaFestival, a day of arts and fun. My goal was to catch as much music and time with musicians as possible, especially with the Deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare.

When I stepped across the crosswalk of the streets bordering the convention center, I crossed the threshold into a Deaf world. Everyone around me was signing. Every restaurant in the vicinity had a pad of paper on its counter, a few brave servers had learned some signs. I have been in Deaf environments before, like at the Deaf school. But this was different, like a small town, adults conducting business in ASL. There were interpreters and CART at all the events, but it was very much a Deaf majority.

At first I was a little worried. I have a hard time meeting new Deaf adults. As everyone has their own voice, everyone has a unique way they sign, and my receptive skills take a little while to adapt to a new person. Once I got into the groove, though, I found myself able to understand more and more, many different people and many different signing. And my job for the day was listening (LISTEN-EYES in ASL).

A break in the afternoon allowed me to approach the drummer of the band, “let’s talk.” He says “Ok.” And I’m whisked into a conversation about music with total strangers. He pauses in the middle “Are you getting this?” Just barely. A woman about my age said she’s never liked music, she never understood it, and it wasn’t fun to try to lip-read bands. Her friend said, “oh, you need to learn how to feel it. I love music! It’s like a drug!” She’s open to being convinced.

All afternoon I’m whisked around the vendor booths of the NAD meeting, following drummer guy who often introduces me to random Deaf people whom he may or may not know. Another woman was “forced” to take music classes in her mainstream education. (A mainstream education is something to be pitied in Deaf culture.) Many Deaf people haven’t had opportunities to experience music so it is nothing; others love it and over and over again I heard “Once you connect what you’re feeling with what’s going on on-stage, it’s amazing!” After a few hours I was exhausted, had an unanswered list of questions, but had met more Deaf adults than I ever had in one place and learned more about drummer guy (including the fact that he does not ever stop).

So I turned to the bass player, “let’s talk.” We sit down. It was 104 degrees under the tent. He tells me again how much they want to reach out to their Deaf culture with music. He said that things have changed more recently for Deaf culture. I assumed he meant post-Gallaudet protest of 1988. But he said, “No, since Obama.” This surprised me. I asked him if it was the captioning law Obama had passed, and he said, no, that now there is a greater sense of acceptance for Deaf people since Obama. I found it interesting how strongly he felt about Obama that he would put so much strength in this tide of change. Bass player also teaches in a Deaf school. He has middle and high school students and is experimenting with teaching them how to feel different sounds. Like “ear training” for the hands.

There are many more stories, but you’ll have to wait for the article. Much more to process.



The other story I wanted to share from This American Life is the recently rebroadcast of a 2005 Father’s Day special, Go Ask Your Father.

The first major story is about a man named Lenny who finds out that he was conceived through artificial insemination when it was just in the earliest phases of development. Over the course of 20 years, an uncle’s secret revealed, and a DNA test, he finds out that he not the biological child of his father. His uncle most likely is his father. Lenny describes the difficult relationship he had with his father, how he was always being pushed, shamed, upbraided for not being a particular kind of person. Lenny walks the audience through the emotional stages of finding out about his true genetic identity later in life. This is the story. It was moving, interesting, provocative. As Ira Glass is signing off he mentions that “Lenny” is Lennard Davis and a professor at the University of Illinois. That’s it.

I happen to know that Lennard David is a Disability scholar and child of deaf parents. This father that he spent so much time talking about in the TAL episode is Deaf. All the interactions he describes in the episode are in sign language. In his memoir about growing up CODA (child of deaf adults), Davis talks about how his parents pushed him into the hearing world…not to be held back by the social disadvantage that being deaf in the 1950s brought them. The TAL episode doesn’t mention deafness at all. I even listened to it a second time to see if it had been intimated when I was paying as close attention. (The memoir Davis wrote about the experience does mention deafness.)

So many thoughts went through my head as I made the connection between Lenny of This American Life and Lennard Davis, the scholar and CODA. The story that aired would have had to have been so different. So many different shades of communication. Layers added to the complexity of the relationship between Davis and his father. Why wouldn’t he mention deaf in a story about his father? He’s very outspoken about his connection with the Deaf community now. Maybe it was merely to keep the story simpler…to keep the story line harnessed into one track without introducing another. Maybe it doesn’t always have to come out; one doesn’t always reveal that one is Jewish or Italian. But perhaps one would if being an immigrant (and that is best analogy, I think, for this situation) significantly shaded one’s relationship with one’s parent and the episode was about one’s relationship with one’s parent. It was interesting to listen to the episode a second time with this extra shade of information.

je pleure

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been working on an abstract for a conference. It’s supposed to be about technology, music cognition, and society. So I decided that now was the time to explore the puzzle piece of the cochlear implant in the story of the deaf musical experience.

I have written so many drafts of this abstract, each trying to get at the cognitive and cultural nuances of the experience. I met with a professor this afternoon to help me talk through it, and before i knew it, i was sitting there sobbing in his office talking about how I took Ellis to his first concert last Friday night, and how he hated it. (Nevermind the practical considerations: it was after 8pm; he’s 6.5 yo; and it was a recital for violin, soprano, and piano.) Part of me felt crushed, that I wasn’t going to be able to share music with him–that the CI wasn’t going to mediate that experience for him. It wasn’t the right music to listen with the balloon we brought.

This professor is very good at asking questions that break down personal barriers that I confront in the deaf music project. I cry. He offers me a napkin and some dried fruit. Then I get back to work, learning how to negotiate the personal and the researcher.

on vulnerability

A couple of weeks ago I uploaded a paper to dropbox. This paper is part of a seminar session at an upcoming national conference. We will all read each other’s papers, prepare responses, and, at the conference, spend the time discussing more than presenting. I’m excited about this kind of conference format. I think I will be able to learn more in this kind of a environment. Since I’m at an early stage in my research, I think it will be greatly beneficial.

What I didn’t expect is the sick feeling that’s been sitting in my core ever since. Vulnerability. I’m in a new field, offering somewhat new perspectives. I don’t know how the paper will be received. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about that too much. It’s just that, for the first time, I’m personally connected to my research material. I wouldn’t be in disability studies or deaf music at all if my son hadn’t been born deaf. I spend a good chunk of my research time crying. Not because I’m sad, because I’m overwhelmed by so much. I’m overcome. My work feels raw. I believe in my topic like I’ve never believed in a topic before.

It’s been two weeks now since I sent it off. I’m starting to feel better. The bundle of nerves is starting to soothe. It is such a strange sensation to me, to feel so personally connected to my work.

Feeling Beethoven

In Susan McClary’s controversial book, Feminine Endings (1991), she semiotically inscribes sex onto musical events. When I read the bit about the violence a certain Beethoven recapitulation wrought on the virtuous ears of his listeners, I snorted. No, Susan. You may have got Madonna right, but not Beethoven. When I got to a certain “violent” part, I heard a deaf man pounding the floor for our attention. I know the gesture. I have done it a hundred times on a hundred floors, to see my little boy’s eyes turn to meet mine.

I have to be careful with the terra sancta of Beethoven. I haven’t delved yet into the literature on Beethoven’s deafness, of which, I’m told, there is quite a lot. I’m almost afraid to. Will they get it right? Will they understand that hearing loss in general is so much more complex than one man’s hearing loss?

I haven’t overcome my reluctance yet, because right now I’m enjoying my private exploration. One thing I’ve been working on is describing a deaf experience of music. There’s a physiological aspect and a cognitive aspect. The former is a bit easier to describe–it’s a matter of noting that as sound waves hit our ear drums, sound waves hit our bodies, and a deaf person is so much more tuned in to that experience without the distraction of auditory hearing. A deaf experience of music is fundamentally embodied hearing. But what is the next step, the cognitive aspect, where our brains make sense of musical sound? That is harder.

I recently taught Beethoven in the music history survey that I’m teaching. I indulged a little and talked about deafness. Since I’ve been concentrating on deafness and music recently for a conference paper, it seemed a pity not to use some of that work in the classroom. I had the students place their hands on their desks, palms open facing down on the desk. I played the opening exposition of Beethoven’s Fifth, loudly. I hadn’t planned on this exercise, it kind of came to me in the moment, and I went with it. So I did the same thing, not knowing what really would happen. The sensation I was left with was the short-short-short-long motive. You know, the germinal motive that ties the whole symphony together? It was always placed in a position of maximum vibration. When I tuned into the vibrations, albeit, in a rudimentary manner, what I felt was short-short-short-long. I don’t want to make critical mistakes of semiotically inscribing deafness into Beethoven’s music, but I did find the experience curious and a little thought-provoking. At some point, I will have to come to terms with the scholarship on Beethoven’s deafness, but for now, I will just feel Beethoven.