Thursday, September 6, 2012

An optimistic investment

by Karen Graham

There are few things in life that are as much fun as rollerskating. I learned to skate from my father whose idea of "learning" was taken from some medieval torture periodical and it involved a lot of "falling" and "tripping." Really, my father's philosophy was: You must face the worst circumstances in whatever it is you're doing and learn how to overcome them. Then you can say you've mastered something. So learning to skate meant a fair amount of time on the ground, avoiding being killed by other skaters, and learning how to bounce back. Literally.

So my father would take me to the roller rink. He loved the bouncing organ tunes, the roar of skates, and the cheap snacks. I was 8 or so and being a short guy he was not that much taller than me. He'd learned to move people around the skating rink by gently putting a finger on their waist and maneuvering them wherever he wanted them to go. It was disarming but effective. So we'd careen onto the rink accelerating from zero to 60 within a half of a lap. He'd be moving people out of our way before they even knew some middle aged guy was swatting them away like tall grass. Occasionally my dad would purposely trip me. This encouraged quick lessons in getting back on ones feet and avoiding getting killed by other, usually larger, skaters. And we would go fast. Very, very fast. So fast that it was all I could do to hold my breath and hang on to him. My hair flying straight back I had the feeling like this is what it must be like to be a human motorcycle.

Then we would dance. Skating rinks offer certain songs where couples could go out and do a Fox Trot or a Waltz. My father could do these all - I guess this is what teenagers did during the Depression for fun. Skate-dancing requires both parties to skate in many directions, so I learned to flip my skates to go backwards, sideways, all the while keeping in time to the vibrating pipe organ music. I have to admit it was fun. Loads of it.

My father stopped skating when he got cancer and had an ostomy bag. He worried about plastic pieces flying off and causing a scene. I kept skating. I Rollerbladed across campus during college. I skated up and down the lakefront of Chicago in my 20's. I skated with my children during their elementary school parties. They were horrified when I'd skate faster than their friends, using my father's waist-maneuvering technique. But I didn't care because weaving through a sea of little skaters with my hair rippling in the wake is my definition of fun living.

Somewhere along the way I forgot that people get too old to Rollerblade. I accompany my husband on his runs - he on his feet, me on my blades. Up and over the community trail avoiding twigs and brush - bouncing to tunes in my head. I used the Rollerblades I purchased after college for over 20 years. They finally broke and I decided to get new ones - blue and silver, shiny and new. My mother mentioned that she thought it was quite optimistic for a 56 year old woman to buy new Rollerblades. Yes, I have osteoporosis and arthritis. My one and only concession to safety is to wear wrist braces. Otherwise I am the teenager on skates zooming by the rest of them.  Wind in my face.

I'll do this as long as I can. There is nothing quite as freeing as doing something you've always done. Something that makes you feel young, limber, fast and slightly crazy. Something that pulls you back into that element that is and has always been you.

Clearly I'm doing something wrong

At left is a photo of what is promoted at Disney Land as a ginormous display of mind-bending lights projected on a wall of water. And it is. Except to my children who took turns not watching it (after sitting on the sidewalk waiting for the show for 60 minutes) - largely to irritate me. Much of life seems like this today.

What am I doing wrong. Although I have scads of employment experience I can't seem to focus on working at anything that would bring me some meaningful daily activity - and money.  I can't seem to feel well. Are my kids doing okay? Or not. I simply have no idea.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mary Clark: Be Thankful for the Little Things

Mary Clark entered ALDA about eight months after we started a self-help support group in Chicago for people who became deaf as adults. One of Mary’s friends who had heard about the group had harassed her for months to go to a meeting. But Mary resisted--she was young, in her early 30s, and didn’t know anyone else who had become deaf in the prime of life. She envisioned the self-help group as a bunch of old people sitting around trying to hear one another talk about their grandchildren. But her friend kept at her, and partly to shut her up Mary came to a meeting.

That first night Mary had obvious anxiety and tiptoed into the room, sitting down near the door if she needed to flee. The rest of us were actually about her age, which must have given her some comfort, but she didn’t say much at the meeting. We tried to make her feel welcome and encouraged her to come back the next week. She did, and then the next week and the next. In a month or two she had become a fixture of the group and was well on her way to becoming the charming, talkative, and fun-seeking person ALDA came to know and love.

There are many enchanting anecdotes involving Mary from the early years of ALDA. She helped define the organization as not only a place to find personal support but also a place to have fun socially. For most of us, ALDA was the only place we could party and not feel on the periphery. We smiled and laughed together and laughed some more, and Mary was always near the center.

Those were good times--wondrously good--and I’m sure many of ALDA’s old guard will share their zany or poignant memories of Mary in the weeks and months to come. But the memories I hold dearest are more recent and personal.

Over the last few years, Mary communicated most frequently and expressively by email. She shared her life with many friends, and for whatever reason I was one of her mainstays. Almost daily I received a stream-of-consciousness email from Mary chronicling her activities, thoughts, and feelings. She sometimes rambled but her writing was always elegant and evocative, and more than not sprinkled with humor and insight. 

I (and I know others) received hundreds of engaging emails from Mary during this period. She didn’t text, so on some days the ancillary emails could amount to a dozen or more as well. And, as always with Mary, there was zaniness at times. Quite often Marylyn Howe, Larry Littleton, and I were all included on the same email thread from Mary. At one point Larry began to send me private messages wondering why I hadn’t responded to something Mary had written. “I never got it,” I replied. “Sure you did,” he said. The puzzle continued for at least a month until Larry noticed that Mary was addressing some of her emails to, whereas my email address was In other words, another William Graham was receiving the uncommonly personal emails Mary had sent. We told Mary about the mistake but she continued to make it, occasionally sending AOL Bill chapter and verse about her daily activities, her bucket list, and her ALDA-centric views on life. I won’t be surprised if AOL Bill sends a donation to ALDA in Mary’s memory.

Mary deeply loved her family, and she shared that with us, too. She often forwarded long emails from her father that had stories about her when she was young. Her dad is an amazingly gifted and spontaneous writer, with an incredible memory. Although I had never personally met him, I did know him personally, if that makes sense. Mary’s writing, energy, and memory mirrored her dad’s, as anyone close to her can attest.

When her mother died Mary emailed saying that she remembered a piece I had written for ALDA News after my own mother’s death. She said she really connected with my words. I was surprised she remembered it 20 years later, and of course was greatly touched that she did. Mary asked me how long it was before I got over the loss of my mom. I told her that even five years later I’d regularly tear up. After I said that I momentarily wish I hadn’t because I thought it might make her disconsolate, but it had the opposite effect: It consoled her that the intense love she felt for her mom would endure in memory.

Mary and I had an email exchange the last day of her conscious life, apparently just a few hours before her accident. Our conversation was unremarkable, about mundane activities on what amounted to a bad hair day for her. But in the framework of what happened afterwards, her last words to me beautifully capture her perspective, acceptance, humor, and spirit, and contained the perfect exit line. She wrote:

So I take it day by day.  Will get through today.....clean up the dog mess....put some pennies aside and let the rest go.  Plenty of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer too.  Be thankful for the little

She left with a smile. I’m sure that’s how she’d like to be remembered. Just like we remember her.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Westerns on My Mind

My story is no different than that of many others who grew up with normal hearing in the 1950s and 1960s and became deaf as adults. As a kid I watched television—a lot of it—with family or friends in the living room. Back then I could hear, and I laughed or said “Omigod!” during shows at the same time as everybody else. TV was a vast wasteland perhaps, but also the quintessential American experience, a shared experience that I took part in fully.

It seems utterly impossible today but a good number of the shows I watched were Westerns. And I wasn’t the only one watching: Almost 50 different Westerns appeared on TV during the 50’s and 60’s; for years Gunsmoke and Bonanza dominated the weekly Nielsen ratings. There were only three major commercial networks then and people pretty much watched the same shows. If you’re my age, male, and don’t know who Pa Cartwright is, you might as well be from Mars.

This common cultural heritage was impressed upon me a few months ago during an email exchange with John, a late-deafened friend in my age bracket. The topic was his crappy golf game and he said in exasperation that he’d reached the end of his rope and it was time to take the 3:10 to Yuma—in other words, in the parlance of the movie of that name, put an end to things. I emailed him back, typing simply: “Johnny Yuma was a rebel.” His response: “He roamed through the West.” Me: “Did Johnny Yu-MAA, the rebel.” John: “He wandered alone.”

Those lines form the chorus of the theme song of The Rebel, a TV Western from our youth. The song was sung by the legendary Johnny Cash in his trademark languid way, and after evoking it in our emails John and I couldn’t get the song out of our heads for hours—okay, days. Increasingly obsessed, I found a video on YouTube of Johnny Cash performing the song live. John found another. Then we began digging up the themes of other immortal (to us) Westerns: Maverick (“Riverboat, ring your bell….Fare thee well, Annabelle…Luck is the lady that he loves the best…”), Have Gun Will Travel “(Paladin, Paladin, where do you RO-oam?.... Paladin, Paladin, far far from ho-ome.”), Rawhide (“Rollin', rollin', rollin', Though the streams are swollen, Keep them doggies rollin', Rawhide!”)the list went on. And here it is months later and the songs continue to carousel through my head when I should be pondering how to find a full-time job with benefits. I’m about ready to check out the train schedule to Yuma myself.

All of this means absolutely nothing to most of you, but in a way that’s the point. Broadcast media—in this case, the theme songs of television shows—can uniquely frame and cement personal relationships. John and I would be great friends even if I’d watched Petticoat Junction instead of Death Valley Days and Wagon Train, but the fact that we both devoutly watched and, especially, listened to these TV shows before deafness came along adds another dimension to our friendship.

The 1970s and early 1980s were my own private wasteland years, when I struggled ignobly with deafness. Shame, denial, withdrawal, and fear were some of the self-directed arrows in my quiver of dejection. The lack or scarcity of television captioning during that period contributed to my sense of isolation, although I didn’t realize how acutely until much later.

Some necessary background: During the mid-1970s Saturday Night Live became a hit television show, actually a cultural phenomenon. The show gave impetus to weekend parties. On Saturday nights, friends gathered for drinks and banter and to watch the show. At least my friends did. As airtime approached they’d all position themselves amphitheater-style in front of the TV set. Trying to preserve my status as a fake hearing person at the time, I stood at the back of the room so nobody could see I wasn’t enjoying the comedy sketches, which I couldn’t hear. I’d try to will the hands of my watch to midnight, when the show ended. Needless to say, this wasn’t a high point in my life.

Flash forward to about 1990. I’m married now and my wife Karina notices that an early Saturday Night with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi was being aired.

“Oh, let’s watch it!” she says.

“Nah,” I shrug.

“Why not, Guillermo?” she says. “John Belushi!”

“I won’t understand it, for one thing.”

“But it’s captioned.”

“It’s captioned?”


“Oh. Okay. I guess.”

So we put the show on. About ten minutes into it, Karina throws back her head in laughter and looks at me. And… I’m crying. Megatears coursing down my cheeks.

“What’s the matter, Guillermo?!” she says.

“I don’t know. I’m crying.”

“I see that. But why?”

“I don’t know. Something…I don’t know.”

But I did know. It was the specter of Saturday nights past, when I stood at the margins of parties, full of angst and foreboding. When that particular show first aired, I probably hadn’t understood a word. And now there were captions. Belushi, yes; Aykroyd, yes: they’re funny. My tears flowed from a mishmash of sudden, unexpected feelings: distress, relief, resentment, gratitude.

That night is a moment frozen in time. I never again reacted so primally to captioning on television. Today, my attitude is probably just like yours: I expect perfection and am annoyed by recurring typos or when captioning lags behind. And when there are no captions at all, I get upset and may raise a fuss.

But I’m not likely to forget how fundamental captioning is to my sense of wholeness, community, and belonging. I watch television with my hearing family and friends, and we laugh and say “Omigod!” at approximately the same time. Maybe watching TV together is no longer a quintessential American experience (only Facebook is), but it’s still a cherished one. And when Clint Eastwood reprises his breakthrough role as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide I’ll be able to understand him, just like old times. Not that I’ll actually watch the show: I’m done with Westerns. Done. Now how do I get all those theme songs out of my head?

“...Natchez to New Orleans....Livin’ on jacks and queens....Maverick is a legend of the Wessst....”

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Grim Grinning Ghosts

Two weeks ago I went shopping with my son for a Halloween costume. For him, not me; in terms of net ghoul gain, it makes no sense to buy one for myself. Tony is 12 and still has a few good years of Trick or Treating left, apparently. His sweet tooth compares to the canine of ancient tigers. And he knows how to stalk and attack sugar-blooded prey, especially chocolate.

For example, when I worked at Microsoft, on Halloween the workers would leave a bowl of candy on a chair outside their office. In the late afternoon, kids of employees went from office to office putting a candy or two into Windows XP tote bags. One year Karina and I found ourselves in my office as evening came and all the kids except ours had left. Tony was off roaming, which was and still is his nature. Then he appeared with a guarded smile, dragging his two-foot-deep tote bag behind him, filled almost to the top with candy. He had made a Sherman-like march through the halls, emptying all remaining candy into his bag. The bag weighed at least 20 pounds and I had trouble carrying it to the car for him. Looking back on the four months that followed, I still ask myself why I did.

Anyway, two weeks ago we went shopping at a store called Spirit of Halloween. This is one of those places that magically sprout in an empty storefront every September and have a lifespan of two months. The store is like a wax museum of famous and legendary faces sprayed with fake blood and cobwebs. If he had a charge card, Tony would shop there all day.

But let me stop a moment here and confess something that never fails to elicit horror: I don’t like Halloween. In fact, I hate it. Yes, oh yes indeed: I hate Halloween. It’s my least favorite holiday of the year by several powers of 10.

I have good reasons. When I was 7 years old half my house burned down on Halloween night. My mother awakened me about 2 a.m. and by then the smoke filled the house almost down to the floor. I had to crawl through two rooms and out the front door boot-camp style. It was a chilly night and I sat shivering in my father’s car as the back of our house went up in a spectacular torch of flame. That was one Halloween.

I lived in a fairly tough blue-collar neighborhood. On Halloween there was always a posse of punks out to get the non-punks, who included me. Their arsenal included eggs and black shoe polish. One year my mother made me a ridiculous pumpkin costume out of hangers and crepe paper. I looked like an orange Michelin Man and had trouble walking, the hangers strafing my thighs. I had no chance at all against the punks; My friends got away but I got pelted. I ran home crying, egg and black streaks on my clothes and face and my costume in shreds. That was another Halloween.

My brother Mike’s birthday was on Halloween. We always could fill the piñata. In 2000 Mike contracted a rare disease and died two weeks later. I think of him the most on Halloween. That’s every Halloween.

Then there’s my deafness. Before I learned sign language I relied almost exclusively on lip-reading to understand what people said. It’s hard to lip-read a mask. Masks don’t sign, either. They just quiver a bit when the wearer yells “Trick or Treat!” and then stare vacantly at you, waiting.

But when our kids came along, I had to get with the program. My kids—like every other kid in the history of the world except me—love Halloween. So I dutifully went around with them when they were small, nodding approval when I wasn’t looking at my watch, smiling and expressing gratitude to the cheery folks who gave treats but doing a silent thumbs-up when a house we passed was dark. Without kids, that house would be mine.

My kids can be quite cute in their costumes, the only part of Halloween I like. Once my daughter was a giant mustard dispenser—voted second-best costume in her class--and last year she was a sexy pirate, which got my vote. My son has been, among other things, a jester, a ghost (for the Microsoft heist), and a vampire without $25 fangs because he lost them before he put on the rest of the costume.

This year my daughter, again living large, will be a giant crayon. She chose green as her color, a clear shot across the bow at global warming, but maybe I’m projecting. My son, meanwhile, exited Spirit of Halloween with a long blond wig and plans to go treatin’ as Lady Gaga. I gave tacit approval--Tony is characteristically brazen and headstrong, and often risqué—but, um, we’ll see.

Where I grew up, a giant green crayon and Lady Gaga on the street at Halloween would constitute open season for punks. But I live in the suburbs now, wholesome, somnolent, and safe. I could probably wear my crepe-paper pumpkin costume here and not raise any eyebrows. Well, maybe not: That costume really sucked.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Page I Won't Read

I went to a funeral the other day. My friend Tom’s father died. He was a much-beloved former principal of a local high school. The crowd at his wake snaked out the church door and down the sidewalk. The online obituary about his life and death drew many e-comments from colleagues, former students, and people who didn’t know him but wished they did. The church service and burial had gravitas.

As always happens at funerals, my mind drifted to the important people in my life who have, as my ALDA friend Larry says, “graduated”--my parents, a brother, my father-in-law, other relatives, friends from all periods of my life who died far too early in their own life. Death happens.

I’m not particularly phobic about death. I’ve seen it up close and I don’t avoid ICUs or wakes. I’m sort of okay with my own death as long as the Cubs win the World Series first. Make of that what you will.

But one thing that spooks me is obituaries. I’ve skipped the obituary pages of newspapers my whole life. That’s not surprising when you’re young and six or seven decades of separation from death. But I’m not all that young anymore (which is surprising) and still I move gingerly around and through the section that carries the death notices.

When I was growing up, if my father wasn’t doing the daily crossword, he seemed to look at nothing in the Tribune but the obituaries. I’d walk in the kitchen and he’d have the obit listings spread out before him, a newsprint graveyard with entries arranged like headstones in columns down the page. I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the page until I was older, but I did learn the words “nee” and “in lieu,” terms found almost nowhere else on Earth in a complete sentence.

My mother also scanned the obituaries when she wasn’t buying high-fat foods. She was our primary herald of death, telling my brothers and me when a family friend or relative had died. You could tell by the sigh in her voice when bad news was coming; it was either a death or she’d seen our report cards.

During my carefree, indestructible 20s and 30s, I did the sports pages and comics, not the obituaries. The world wasn’t particularly big back then and deaths were conveyed by phone tree; because I became deaf the tree branched to my brothers or friends, who brought me the news in person. I actually went to an awful lot of wakes those years—my parents, parents of friends, relatives, even some of my own friends, suddenly gone—but I didn’t find out about a single one of those deaths by reading the obits.

As gray crept into my beard and my 10k times slowed, my brother Bob became the new herald of death. He’s an ophthalmologist with many elderly patients, and he reads the obits religiously to keep track of them. Bob also knows most of my friends from days gone by, and provides me with secondary coverage in case I don’t hear about a death from somebody else.

Why do I avoid the obits? Why will I read every page in the newspaper except that one? Probably because I don’t want people I know and love to graduate, to die. It’s irrational and semi-irresponsible, but if I don’t see a death notice then the fabric of my life remains whole, unchanged, young. It’s the kind of fantasy world thinking you find in Faulkner and Sendak. Let the wild rumpus start.

Not too long ago I noticed that my wife was reading the obits every day. When I first realized this, I said:

“Why are you reading the obits every day?”

“To find out who died,” she said.


So now I have secondary coverage in the kitchen.

Actually, Facebook and other social networks are the only secondary coverage any of us need these days. Obits have never traveled so fast. A second or two after someone dies, the news appears at the top of our queue, just above an entry like “We are sunnin’ and funnin’ in Cancun! Woo-hooo!!”

But seriously, it’s easy to imagine a site like Facebook replacing the funeral parlor, church, and cemetery as the definitive place for mourning. A status of “Dead” will trigger the ultimate wake, with comments from hundreds of Friends, along with photos, videos, and selected posts by the departed. The burial--official removal of the person’s account—will prompt a notification both to Friends and to People You May Know.

We all need to prepare for this future; we need to revise our wills with instructions on how we want to be memorialized on Facebook. After several days of contemplation, I think I’m ready to get the lawyer and the notary. When I graduate, I want my Facebook status to permanently read: “Bill Graham, nee Superstar….[yadda yadda]…in lieu of burial change Profile to say, in bold face, Summa cum laude.” And put a tassel on my virtual urn.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Out, Out, Brief Candle

“What do you want for your birthday?” Karina asked when I picked her up at O’Hare recently. Karina is my wife. Her given name is Karen but I haven’t called her that in 20 years. Karina is more exotic.

“Nothing,” I said quickly, moving around an Avis shuttle that blocked half a lane.

“Well, what do you want to do?” she said.


“Do you want to go out for dinner?” Karina said, exasperation creeping in.


“What can I make for you then?”

“Nothing!” I said, eyes darting at the rear view mirror. “Nothing. Okay?”

She let out a sigh that said “What a jerk.”

“Okay," I said. "Make enchiladas. Whatever. I’m trying to drive.”

Karina then turned on the radio loudly, and she let me drive.

Although we are both half-Polish and thus agree on practically everything, Karina and I are Poles apart on what constitutes best practices for birthday celebrations. There’s no disagreement on how to celebrate the kids’ birthdays, of course--gifts, cake, candles, The Song, and immunity from being grounded are universal traditions dating back to the earliest laser tag parties in Olduvai Gorge. But our cultural lockstep veers wildly when it comes to birthdays of adult family members.

In Karina’s family, adult birthdays are Mardi Gras events that can span several days: gifts, cake, and The Song with the nuclear family; a repeat engagement with the extended family; and maybe dinner at the kind of restaurant where after the meal a posse of servers clap, chant, and snake dance around booths bearing a complimentary dessert with a sparkle candle.

In my family, birthdays pass without hoopla. It’s a good year when we remember to email one another, and a great year when we get the date right. The acknowledgement is always welcome, while the greetings go something like this: “Happy birthday, brother. Hope you have a great day. Did you get a job yet?”

Similarly, for many years the gift-giving practices of our respective families—particularly at Christmas—bore no resemblance to one another. Ironically, in this case it was my family that hemorrhaged excess.

In Karina’s family, everyone asks each other what they want for Christmas. They then go forth to stores or catalogues and buy the requested gifts. On Christmas Day the gifts are unwrapped and the recipient exclaims: “Oh my God, it’s beautiful! Thank you so much!!” “You’re very welcome,” the giver responds. “I knew you’d like it.”

In my family, on the other hand, exchanging gifts at Christmas involved surprise and intrigue. The giver might spend days or even weeks independently analyzing a person’s interests and needs before springing for a gift.

My brother Pat was the undisputed King of Family Christmas Shopping. Pat took extraordinary pride in finding the perfect, most delightful gifts for each family member. Most years he began to research well before Thanksgiving; he’d visit dozens of stores by foot, bike, and bus—he didn’t drive—finally compiling a short list of candidates over which he’d agonize for days. His final selections were always clever, unexpected, and fanciful. So fanciful in fact that upon opening Pat’s gifts at least one family member would invariably ask: “What is it?” Pat would then explain at length just why the gift was so delightful.

I ranked second only to Pat in my gift-giving efforts. I didn’t spend quite as much time shopping as he did, but I prized myself on creativity and an exquisite finishing touch. For each gift I created a riddle and taped it to the wrapping paper. People read the riddle and tried to guess their gift. It was great fun, especially when they guessed wrong.

One year, trying to out-Pat Pat I bought him a rock for Christmas. Not a glitzy souvenir-shop geode or gemstone--which I knew his nonconformist streak would find mundane--but a dull brown sedimentary stone about the size of a fist. It had numerous bicolored pockmarks and an interesting shape but was otherwise mundane, which meant Pat might like it.

I wrapped the rock in a small box stuffed with paper to make it less identifiable. Then I composed the obligatory riddle and taped it on. I don’t remember the riddle, but something like this would have been typical: “This gift is hard to guess, it came from Sly Stallone, if it hits you in the jaw, you’ll be bleeding to the bone.”

Pat pursed his lips and ran a hand through his hair. He raised an index finger in the “wait” sign, closed his eyes, and swayed back and forth, summoning his muse of logic. Finally, he opened his eyes and with a maniacal grin thrust his finger high in the air. “A ROCK!” he said triumphantly, to my dismay. But I too could claim victory: He liked the damn thing.

My family’s Christmas gift-giving tradition has, fortunately, evolved. Children came along and nobody had the energy or time for suspense. Now we are assigned one person and one person only to buy a present for. Creativity has languished; gift cards to Target are not uncommon. Nevertheless, my brother Pat refuses to observe the new rules and continues to buy unusual gifts for us all. He doesn’t have kids though, so he can be forgiven.

But back to where we started: birthday celebrations. I hate to be curmudgeonly about this. It’s bad enough to turn a year older without also turning into Andy Rooney. But unless it’s a big round-number age, adult birthday celebrations annoy me. On my birthdays I don’t want hoopla and I don’t want several encores of The Song. (Raise your candles, more time!) Acknowledgment, Karina, the kids, and maybe a small cake work fine, and enchiladas would be delightful.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Cry

I cry a lot. I’m sorry, I can’t help it. Oh, I don’t mean the kind of crying where tears run down the face and leave a trail like snail slime on the cheeks, although I do that too on occasion. My crying tends to be more subtle, a gradual accumulation of mist in both eyes that calls hay fever to mind or an attack of pepper spray.

Just about anything remotely cry-worthy can get me going. (The look on my wife’s face typically says: “Oh, no…”) I probably have a hormonal/mood problem that involves low levels of endorphins. I could take pills, I guess, or stay on a tread climber all day to counteract the condition. But I choose to accept my tears as evidence that I’m human, something I try to validate whenever I can.

Although the sheer range and versatility of my crying truly set me apart, my tears most often fall into two traditional boo-hoo categories: the kids and movies. For most parents, kids are the slamma jamma dunks of crying jags. Our kids are 12 and 14 now, ages at which they figuratively drive us to tears. (I know, I know: it gets worse.) But if I dwell on memories of them as little people—the cake-smeared birthday faces, the Santa Clause letters, the unconditional nature of their affection—real tears form and can achieve snail-slime status as long as Chuck E. Cheese isn’t involved.

And it’s not just the past: thinking forward in time to the kids’ inevitable departures from home also makes me choke up. Unless I get my act together fast, I’m going to be an utter wreck when they go off to college, much less graduate. Almost any school milestone melts me. Take last spring when the kids left the house to take the bus to elementary school together for the last time. They were 30 feet apart walking down the sidewalk and sniping at each other as they always do, but my tear ducts decided this was a lachrymal event. If my wife hadn’t been there with a demeanor consistent with feeding the dogs I might have lost it entirely.

While lots of people cry at movies, few span as many genres as I do. I cry at musicals, monster movies (King Kong utterly slays me), action and adventure movies, chick flicks, disaster films, romantic comedies, utter crap (I mean, Shark Boy and Lava Girl?), every animated film made since Snow White (1937), and any movie with a happy ending, which means 95 percent of movies rated PG-13 or under, the only kind I’ve gone to for the last decade.

Probably the most brutal film on me in recent years was Marley & Me, about an impossibly rambunctious Yellow Lab puppy that becomes the mainstay of a somewhat unsettled family. I love dogs and have had many in my life. One of my special favorites was Martha, a Black Lab our kids remember as their first dog. She had a quiet dignity, intelligence, beauty, and gentleness that won everyone’s hearts, even our cat’s.

I was responsible for exercising Martha, and we played Frisbee and ran trails together for years; when she got older I walked her on the same half-mile route every night, rain or snow. The whole family adored Martha and when it came time we all huddled around the vet’s exam table and pet her as she died. When we got home my wife and I walked Martha’s half-mile route in tribute, as I wept openly.

Except for his wild, destructive puppyhood, Marley reminded me of Martha: a Lab, about the right size, about the same smile, a six-letter name that started M-a-r. The movie moved along sweetly enough until Marley started to gray around the muzzle and there was still 30 minutes to go in the film. Then it became clear where Marley & Me was heading: to Old Yeller Land. Marley was going to die, which I hadn’t prepared for.

After another ten minutes of increasing discomfort, I couldn’t watch the screen anymore. So I looked away--at the ceiling, the wall, my watch, the beverage cup. I sang songs to myself, clenched my lips, fingered my Blackberry, bit my tongue, sang more songs. But nothing helped: my faucets started running full blast. And the tears kept flowing through the credits scroll. It didn’t help that my son was bawling in my wife’s arms when the lights came up.

As we left the theater my daughter glanced at me and stopped in her tracks. Then she touched my elbow and said: “Daddy, you’re crying. I’ve never seen you cry before.” And I’m thinking: “Where have you been all these years, Sugar? No wonder I can’t get you to clean your room. I have to cry to get your attention?”

Maybe so. Maybe so. Snail-slime style.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

They Said I Was High Classed

When I was growing up my house was relatively devoid of song. My two oldest brothers learned piano from my mother—who could, as they say about top athletes, play—and my other brother took violin lessons. But I, the baby of the family, only made music with a baseball bat in my hands. I played a pretty mean basketball as well.

My parents just didn’t do songs. My father listened mostly to talk radio, although he loved Perry Mason and The Jackie Gleason Show on TV; mom enjoyed the run of afternoon soap operas but very little else. That was pretty much the extent of what passed for pop culture in my house. Not particularly memorable unless you liked Raymond Burr and Joe the Bartender.

We had some record albums in the basement, largely the Mitch Miller sing-along kind. I played them occasionally and learned the songs. Singin’ in the Rain, Heart of My Heart, Yellow Rose of Texas, Ain’t We Got Fun--these are the nerdy tunes that formed my musical fundament, and many of them I couldn’t get out of my head after I became deaf and could no longer make out lyrics. You might call them a follow-the-bouncing-ball form of tinnitus.

I did learn songs on my own and through my friends, of course. I liked folk singers like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Kingston Trio. And when rock took off I took off with it, so the early Beatles also comprise my musical memory. The last song I remember learning all the way through with my ears was Light My Fire by The Doors. You know that it would be untrue, you know that I would be a liar, if I were to say to you that I memorized any subsequent song without seeing the words on paper. All these other songs, I like to say, are after my time.

At ALDA conventions, Saturday night is karaoke night. It’s an ALDA tradition, and many would say the hallmark of ALDAcons. Most ALDAns grew up surrounded by song, and karaoke brings it all back, often with stunning emotional force. With the support of other deafened people singing badly, even a song-deprived person like me gravitates towards the karaoke dance floor and stage. Nobody requests Mitch Miller, but Puff the Magic Dragon and Love Me Do—two very golden oldies--are universal favorites that get me going.

This year, like most years, I put in a bid to the DJ for Hound Dog, an Elvis staple. The song carries special significance for me since every time we go to Six Flags, my young son Tony does a Hound Dog solo on the karaoke stage. If the cheers and high fives he gets from the crowd are any indication, he’s quite good.

I had passed around my Blackberry showing photos of Tony doing his Six Flags gig when the ALDAcon DJ spun Hound Dog. I impulsively dashed onto the stage and grabbed the mike. Like son, like father. And I proceeded to give it my best, which basically means I sweat through my shirt and underwear.

Afterwards a number of people said “great job” and I got a few high fives. I think there might have been applause, too, but I was too busy searching for a dry napkin to notice.

It wasn’t until I got back home and saw Dave Litman’s video of Hound Dog that I realized I had been singing solo on the stage. Ken Arcia and Marylyn Howe were on each side of me playing what amounted to air guitars and Tess Crowder, a CART writer, had provided hip-swiveling dance accompaniment. But I was the only one singing into a mike. Jeez.

The whole thing blew me away. Even some hearing people had complimented me, which meant that it wasn’t just sweat that had won the kudos but also, astonishingly, my voice. They said I was high classed! In just three minutes, I had disproved the long-held notion that deaf people can do anything hearing people can do but sing.

I’ve been back from ALDAcon almost a week now but karaoke songs keep spinning through my head, a tinnitus of the soul. I have plenty of other good memories from the convention, but I have to say the Hound Dog thing is my favorite. And next year I’m going to top it and once again refute dogma. Against all odds, I’m gonna catch me a rabbit.

(Well…that was just a lie. But don’t write me off.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Crappy Sign

Several years ago I quietly dubbed my style of signing “ALDA Crappy Sign.” The term derived from the Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA), where other people sign just like me, or even worse. Recently Howard Rosenblum, the brilliant incoming CEO of the National Association for the Deaf, suggested that my term be made more generic and called simply CSL—Crappy Sign Language. That made good sense and now I too refer to persistently vague and misguided signing as CSL.

I used the term CSL for the first time in a public forum last week while speaking at the ALDA convention in Colorado Springs. It got laughs, as I knew it would, but afterwards people came up and thanked me for calling a crooked spade a crooked spade. I guess it validated their own fractured efforts to sign and made their world safe for mediocrity.

For many deafened adults, there’s undeniable practicality in using CSL. When I communicate verbally with others, there are many words I can’t hear, lipread, or guess at correctly in context. In such cases, miming, exaggerated mouthing and facial expressions, and exceptional slowness in connecting signs with words—the key characteristics of Crappy Sign—often come to my rescue.

I probably speak for Crappy Signers everywhere in saying that the most important factor for understanding a conversation is pacing. We cannot, repeat: cannot, follow fast signing. Even one fast sign in a sea of pokey ones can upset the applecart of comprehension.

Most sign language interpreters don’t get it. They are trained in rapid-fire ASL, perhaps the most elegant and evocative mode of communication ever invented. By association, interpreters are elegant and evocative when they use it. And the faster they go the more elegant and evocative they become. But in the CSL universe, speed kills communication. That road kill on the ASL Highway is my brain.

I’d love to be fluent in ASL, but I never will be. If I worked really hard I could maybe move up from CSL to BSL (Better Sign Language), but I doubt I’ll find time to try. Crappy Sign will remain my native method of signing, and in my eyes it’s a beautiful place. Hands move slowly, mouths go wide, and almost always I understand. Ah, home.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Badder Than Better

I have bilateral cochlear implants. One is my good CI, implanted in 1996. The other is my bad CI, which found its way to my right cochlea three years ago. In relatively quiet places one to one, I hear quite well with the good CI; with the bad one I’m lucky to make out “Daddy!” face to face in a soundproof booth.

My friend Patrick likes to put a positive spin on my CI situation, calling the 1996 model my “better” CI. But I’m more absolute: one of my CI’s is good and the other one is bad. I mean, we have two dogs in our family, a black/tan one that poops in the house and a chestnut/white one that was declared housetrained years ago. When Mr. Chestnut comes at me wagging his tail I don’t say “Better dog, better dog.” Likewise, when Mr. Black gifts me in the dining room, there is no way around the word “BAD.” So it is with my CI’s: the good one is well-trained and the bad one still poops, and very likely always will.

Anyway, I recently attended the annual conference of the Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA) in Colorado Springs. ALDAcon is a love-in where people who hear badly have a remarkably good time. They do karaoke, snake dances, and other uncustomary activities and forget to be embarrassed.

Two days before the conference my good implant stopped functioning. I’m still not sure why. I had tried my best to protect it from moisture and dog drool, and our cat hadn’t batted one around in years. The good CI just up and died. I prayed for its resurrection, but when I lifted it one last time from its Dry-Aid crypt before leaving for the airport it was still lifeless.

That left me with only my bad CI for the trip to Colorado. Under the circumstances, there was no better place for me than ALDAcon. A good many ALDAns communicate badly, and others communicate worse. I wasn’t quite in the latter category because I understand slow-moving sign language (as opposed to the machine-gun form deployed by most interpreters). Nevertheless, minus my good implant, I found myself bluffing at the Con like a newbie to deafness, and tending to avoid people who couldn’t sign at all or signed too fast for me.

Eventually I put pride aside and asked people to write things down for me. And they did so, without rancor. Frankly, I understood those conversations better than many others I had using voice or sign language. It was kind of neat, actually. It evoked for me the earliest days of ALDA when Babel reigned supreme and the simple act of communicating with pencil and paper seemed so precious. I got a bit of that buzz from the paper pads at ALDAcon.

Which is not to say that I don’t want my good CI or its replacement online soon. I do. As soon as possible. Please. Because when all is said, signed, and written, I love it to death. The bad CI? Let’s just say it keeps me honest.

Friday, January 2, 2009

All I Want for New Year's Is My Front Tooth Back

On New Year’s Eve my family played a game called Wits & Wagers as the hours slid toward midnight. With guests from Texas staying with us, we had seven players around the table, pushing the limits of the game’s scorecards, pencils, chips, and other playware.

Wits & Wagers is a game that the whole family can be competitive in. A question with a numerical answer is asked, players write down their answer, and then bet on the answer they think is closest to being correct. My 12-year-old daughter won one round and her 74-year-old grandmother won another. Even I won a round, which means that Tinky Winky and La La would probably have a fighting chance.

So there I am in our fifth or sixth round, sitting next to my wife and her mother and hating their guts because they’re beating me. Again. I’m vigorously chomping on a bowlful of Tostitos with Hint of Lime. “What percentage of the world’s population lives in the United States?” says our Texas emcee. As I begin my always tortured thought process, I put another tortilla chip in my mouth, crunch down, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a tooth, dislodged from its moorings in my upper mouth.

Here let me explain: In addition to bilateral cochlear implants I also have a tooth implant, my upper left front tooth to be specific. I lost my biological upper left front tooth about 12 years ago in a rather unique way: I hit my head on a tree trunk while running up a mountain.

The tree had been downed during a windstorm and had fallen across the trail, about 5-1/2 feet above it. My exercise partner Andy, who’s a few inches shorter than I am, ran ahead of me. I ran looking down at the trail to avoid tripping on exposed roots and rocks. Andy didn’t break stride when we came to the tree; he just ducked a bit going under it. But I didn’t see it coming. I hit the trunk head on and it knocked me flat on my back. Stars and  exclamation points swirled above me.

“You okay?” Andy asked.

 “Yeah, yeah, I guess." 

“You don’t look okay.”

“No, no, I’m okay,” I said valiantly. “Let’s go.”

I staggered to my feet and we continued up and down the mountain. The next day, when I woke up, I found that I could wiggle my upper left front tooth. I kept wiggling it with my tongue and finger for several days before I surrendered and went to the dentist.

“How did this happen?” the dentist asked.

“I ran into a tree trunk,” I said.

“A tree trunk?....Okay,” she said. “Open wider.”

She peered into my mouth and with her fingers pulled the tooth out easily, like you’d snap off a match from a matchbook.

“Gee,” she said, shaking her head. “Why didn’t you come in earlier?”

“It didn’t hurt,” I said.


To make a long story short, I ended up getting a tooth implant. This involved having a dental sadist called a prosthodontist drill a metal screw into my upper jawbone, attach a small metal post to the screw, and then install the replacement tooth over it. Except for being a tad whiter now than the rest of my mouth, it’s served me well for 12 years.

But there it was in my hand on New Year’s Eve, our party in full swing, the clock ticking closer to midnight. I didn’t think the dentist would be up for this right then. I wasn’t up for this right then.

Karina said, “Let me call Dorrie and see what Lloyd does when his tooth falls out.”

Dorrie is a friend in Cincinnati. I didn’t know her husband had an implant, too. Apparently dental implants have become as common as c. i.’s, and will soon be available at Sam’s Club. 

So Karina calls Dorrie in Cincinnati who says that Lloyd used PoliGrip to keep the tooth cap in place after it falls out.

My mother-in-law shakes her head: “PoliGrip? Why would he use that? You have to reapply it every day. Use Super Glue.”

A discussion ensues.

“Glue it.”

“But it happens to Lloyd all the time, and he uses PoliGrip.”

“It happens all the time beCAUSE he uses PoliGrip. Glue it.”

“Let’s call the dentist's emergency number.”

“Mom, let’s play the game.”

I consider both sides of the argument and decide to do nothing. I just stick the tooth back on the post.

“But you won’t be able to eat,” says Karina.

I look at my watch. It’s almost 11. “Well, it’s all drinking from here. No problem.”

We put the game away and watch the movie Holiday Inn on television, switching to the local channels during commercials to see the countdown to midnight. Bing gets the girl, the new year begins, and everybody wanders off to bed except me. I’m looking in the bathroom mirror at my upper left front tooth. I pull it on and off a few times.

I rummage through my desk for an adhesive, and come up with some Krazy Glue. I put a few drops in the socket of the tooth, slip it back on, and hold it there a few minutes. Then I put my bite guard in so the tooth won’t end up in my stomach, and go to bed.

The next morning, New Year’s Day, the tooth is still glued to the post. I eat, I drink, I try to be merry. I’ll go to the dentist today or tomorrow and get it fixed. Or maybe Monday. Why ruin the new year any sooner than you have to?

About 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States. Just so you know.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

My Name Is Legion

I was the fourth boy saint in my family. We lived in Chicago, where Catholics are the indigenous religious group. My parents named all their children after saints: Saint Patrick, Saint Michael, Saint Robert of Bellarmine, and me, Saint William. By the time we were three years old heaven was no longer an option, so we became Pat, Mike, Bob, and Bill.

Mine is a celebrity name. By luck of baptism, I have been associated with famous people my entire life. The first and most enduring connection has been with Billy Graham the evangelist, who became an internationally known figure when I was very young and remained so through my adulthood. While I was still a toddler, his immensely popular crusades landed him on the cover of Time magazine. (I’ve periodically used that cover as my profile photo in Facebook, hoping to get heaven back in the picture should God become one of my online friends.) And he stayed in the limelight for decades as a spiritual advisor to presidents.

My association with this Billy Graham is hard to get away from: When I’m first introduced to someone, there’s a 50-50 chance the person will say something like, “Oh, Reverend Billy Graham?...Billy Graham the preacher?” and ask me to bless them or invite them to a revival meeting, smiling like a colon, right-parenthesis emoticon.

Other people have become celebrities after changing their names to mine. I came across them in different ways. As an adolescent I and some of my friends became fans of championship wrestling. We’d watch matches on television together, debating if they were real or staged. We’d mimic the manic interviews with villains like Pretty Boy Bobby Heenan, Dr. Moto, and Mad Dog Vachon, acting nasty, brutish, and daft. We’d play act their signature moves, such as Black Jack Lanza’s devastating Oklahoma Stampede, executed by carrying the opponent completely across the ring over his head and slamming the guy down. One…two…three…he’s gone.

Near the end of my fascination with championship wrestling Superstar Billy Graham came to prominence. This golden-haired, steroid-rich humanoid was actually born Eldridge Wayne Coleman, a name that would have had his back pinned on the canvas every night. But as Superstar Billy Graham, he won several world wrestling championships and the adoration of hundreds of thousands of nutcases just like us. Consequently friends started to call me Superstar, a name not entirely inappropriate since I had reasonably good athletic skills. This nickname, albeit with a bit of self-promotion, stuck. To some of my friends I have been Billy Superstar Graham ever since, although today “Superstar” often is shortened to the somewhat less virile “Soup.”

 Then there was Bill Graham, the rock concert promoter, whose real name was Wolfgang Grajonca. A Jewish immigrant to the United States who fled Nazi Europe, he took the name Graham because it was close to Grajonca in the New York City phone book. Where “Bill” came from is unknown. Maybe the telephone people kept shouting it at his door. Until he died in a helicopter crash in 1991 I had never heard of this Bill Graham. But his death made the front page of newspapers, so he was certifiably famous. I was probably unaware of him because most rock music came along “after my time”—that is, after my deafness kicked in.  If he had been a karaoke promoter, I might have been a fan. To many baby boomers, however, he was quite well known, and some will say “Oh, the rock concert guy” when they hear my name.

Being associated with famous Bill/Billy Grahams becomes tiresome. But in the big picture I got lucky. For example, my famous name is associated with people who generally are regarded in a positive light, rather than someone evil like Adolf Hitler, John Gacy, or, especially, Steve Bartman. Plus, people tend to remember my name because of the celebrity connection and because it is relatively short and straightforward. That’s a heckuva lot better than having a long, uncommon name that is impossible to pronounce, much less remember. I mean, who’s going to remember a name like, say, Rodney Blagojevich. That’s a real loser. Life is good.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

O Night Divine

It’s Christmas, a time when almost all bloggers feel compelled to share a Christmas story. I usually try to avoid orthodox behaviors, but I’ve got Santa looking over my shoulder here, so today I’ll go mainstream.

This story took place three years ago, a few days after Thanksgiving. My brother Bob was getting married at his house on the near north side of Chicago. My family lives in Cary, about 40 miles northwest of the city. To avoid the drive and eradicate global warming, Karina and I decided to take a commuter train downtown, walk five blocks through the Loop, and take the subway to my brother’s neighborhood. We thought it’d be nice for the kids to see the city’s towering Christmas tree on Daley Plaza and take in the window displays at what was then still Marshall Field’s (now it’s Macy’s, a fact few Chicagoans acknowledge).

So we did this, and it was in fact delightful. The tree was as tall and beautiful as we remembered it from our childhood, and the kids squirmed their way through the crowds huddled at Field’s windows, getting their noses up close to the glass. Then we went over to the subway entrance and walked down the long flight of stairs.

As we slowly descended, Karina and I chatted with each other in sign language. Like many late-deafened people, I have to pay close attention to understand signs and I become oblivious to everything else in the surroundings. About halfway down, Karina motioned me to look in the direction we were heading.

There at the bottom of the steps stood a black man, like an apparition, looking directly at us. He wore a frayed brown fedora and a rumpled tweed sports coat several sizes too big, a person obviously down on his luck. He continued to look at us intently as we descended. Then with hesitance he finger spelled the words “Bill…Bill Graham.”

Startled, I cautiously signed “Yes.” Only gradually did I realize that I knew this person. I knew this person finger spelling my name. He smiled and with big signs and voice said “Good to see you.” “Hi,” I signed weakly, trying to place him and remember his name. He saved me by saying “Morris.” He finger spelled it as well.

Morris, I thought to myself….Morris…How do I know him? Then came the dawn of recognition: “Morris!” I shouted. “Morris Haynes!”

Morris had been in my very first sign language class at the Chicago Hearing Society almost 30 years ago. A hearing person, he took the class because he had a deaf cousin.

We shook hands warmly, and I introduced him to my wife and kids. He smiled broadly.

“This is wonderful,” he said, and with a waggle of his index finger signed: “Where are you going?”

I told him about my brother’s wedding, and he again said: “This is wonderful.”

Then he paused a moment in thought.

“I would like to sing your children a song,” he said finally.

I looked at Karina, who nodded. “Okay,” I said.

Morris led us over to a post where a cigar box lay on the platform. He positioned himself next to it and told the kids to stand right in front of him. Then he began to sing. It happened to be one of my favorite Christmas songs, “O Holy Night.”

Morris looked at my kids while he sang, his eyes never leaving their faces, his voice echoing off the tunnel walls. “….The stars are brightly shining…..A thrill of hope….For yonder breaks…..O hear the angels voices!.....O night divine….Led by the light……He knows our need……Behold your king!....”

 We could hear the train coming from down the track. In a minute or so we would be on our way.

“O HEAR the angels VOIces! Oh night divine….”

The train roared closer, building to a crescendo. Morris sang louder. 


As he finished the train rolled into the station, like it was carefully planned.

Morris said to our kids: “Did you like it?” They nodded.

“That was beautiful,” Karina said, signing.

“Thank you,” I signed.

Awkwardly, I took out my wallet. I removed a ten dollar bill and placed it in his box.

“Thank you,” I signed again, and we hugged.

“Have a merry Christmas,” he said to me, and then to my family.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, as I started to walk away. “You take care.”

“Merry Christmas, Bill.”

 “I hope to see you again.”

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

Karina and the kids waved me onto the train. I boarded and stood at the door looking out. Morris had moved to another area of the platform. As he positioned his box, our train began to move and quickly gathered speed. Soon we would be at my brother’s wedding.

I turned to Karina and she signed: “He has a really beautiful baritone voice.”

“That was wonderful,” I signed. “Wonderful.”

Morris will probably never know how special his song was. Or that he’s been in my heart on Christmas ever since, his voice resounding in the tunnel as that train approached the station.

Merry Christmas, Morris. Merry Christmas. I hope you’re well.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Catch Me if You Can

I travel a lot because I live in Chicago and my job is in Seattle. That’s a long story that friends already know and I’m not inclined today to explain it to others-who-really-don’t-care-but-want-to-know-anyway. I’ll leave that stirring drama of heartbreak and triumph for another blog. The blog I’m writing today is far less ambitious, and therefore very much like myself. It’s about having bilateral cochlear implants and going through airport security scanners.


As all c. i. users know, when they walk through airport scanners they have a terrific opportunity to educate TSA employees and travelers waiting in line with their shoes off. When the guy with the badge peers at you curiously and says: “What’s that on your head?” you should respond “It’s a cochlear implant” and explain in appropriate detail how the device works and how it benefits you. Then the badge says, “That’s really great. But you can’t take that can of Red Bull through, sir. You’ll have to leave it here.”


Well, I’m a lousy implant evangelist. I just want to get through the scanners without a hassle after the mind-numbing cattle drive to get there. With my first c. i. this is no problem. My hair is long enough to cover most of the headpiece and I don't use a T-mic, so the c. i. looks no more than an outsized hearing aid or Bluetooth gadget.  Plus, it has never activated a scanner's alarm. Typically I get through without breaking stride or attracting attention. I then grab my shoes, my keys, my wallet, and other terrorist threats from the portable bin and high-tail it to the terminal. Gate C-26 lounge here I come. Yesss!


Now I have a second c. i.; this one has a T-mic that hangs down at a slightly odd angle from my ear. After a year, I still don’t feel comfortable wearing it in tandem with my golden oldie. Part of the reason is that I haven’t gotten notable benefits from C. I. No. 2 yet (another epic blog there…be patient, my friends). So functionally the c. i. is more like jewelry than a life-changing hearing apparatus. And, much to my wife’s distress, I’m not big on jewelry. I’d feel uncomfortable with a flashy lapel pin, cufflinks, or nose ring, too. You can take the boy out of the South Side of Chicago, but you can’t take....etc. etc. It’s true.


Another reason I’m uncomfortable going through security two c. i.'s at once is that my bilateral condition seems to capture the fascination of the whole airport community. The first time I did this on a trip the implant set off the scanner and two or three badges converged on me with intent to pat down, looking directly at my head. With forbearance, I explained to them the kind of heat my head was packing. Perhaps they were having simultaneous bad hair days but none of them smiled and said “That’s really great.” Instead, with Buster Keaton miens and barely perceptible nods they sent me on my way. Same to you, guys. Wait’ll you become deaf.


Anyway, now when I fly I take off my second c. i. as I approach the scanner. I put it in the bin with my shoes, my keys, my wallet, and my Blackberry, and let it ride on the conveyer belt to the place of safety. Meanwhile I walk through the scanner wearing only one c. i., as I have for more than a decade. The badge looks at me dispassionately, checks my ticket, and motions me through. And that’s it: I’m free to gather up all my stuff and head to Gate C-26, unmolested.


As I walk down the terminal reattaching my second c. i., I contemplate wearing both c. i.’s through the scanner next time. And if I get to the other side without setting off a convocation of badges, I’ll very likely say to myself: “That’s really great.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Deaf Driving

Tony’s cheerleading team did great the second day of the competition and they finished 0.07 of a point behind the team that was Grand Champion. That point spread looks very Bond-ian, and Tony certainly was surrounded by enough girls to make the connection relevant. Watching cheerleader girls fawn over him every practice and competition makes me wonder what my life might have been like if I’d been a cheerleader instead of a dugout/bench/court rat. Maybe I’d be the highest late-deafened roller in Monte Carlo right now or get to use cool weapons. Or maybe I’d be dead. Hmmm. I guess baseball, basketball, and tennis had upsides, too.

The trip to Indianapolis turned out better than I expected. I car pooled with another Cheer Fusion mom…I mean “a” Cheer Fusion mom…which in hindsight was pretty smart. Although I’m functionally deaf in conversations with multiple hearing people, I can handle most 1:1 conversations pretty well. Plus I drive a hybrid that is pretty quiet unless there are two relentlessly noisy cheer children in the back seat, which there were, but let’s not quibble. It was still a better situation than five cheer moms talking fast in a restaurant.

Indianapolis is four hours from the Chicago suburb where I live. I can’t consistently understand a passenger without some lip-reading, so for much of the drive my head was at a 90 degree angle and I wandered between the lane divider and the shoulder at over 70 mph. And, oh yes, I occasionally checked and sent messages on my Blackberry to make things a tad more challenging. (My equal rights statement to bad-driving cell phone users.) With two kids in the back seat, I should have been arrested, but hey, that’s just how deaf people drive. Even late-deafened people can get the hang of it if they’re foolish enough to work at it.

Stephanie, the cheer mom who bravely accompanied me, is a lawyer, and when we left her driveway I thought the trip would be a conversation disaster. She talks fast and tends to turn away when she finishes her remarks. I had to educate her about my needs—namely, talk s-l-o-w and look at me. I’ve been in this situation a zillion times and half a zillion times the outcome has been a bust despite my best efforts. Fast talkers tend to remain fast talkers even at gunpoint.

By the time we were ten miles into the drive I probably had told Stephanie to please slow down maybe five times, which averages to approximately 35 please-slow-downs per hour or about 140 please-slow-downs to Indianapolis. But Stephanie caught on better than many people I’ve known, and by the Indiana border we were doing fairly well. So were the kids, since she had provided melatonin pills to help them fall asleep. Tony never had one before, and he quickly conked out. Veronica, Stephanie’s daughter, had apparently developed some immunity to the pills as she only briefly went silent.

In any case, Stephanie and I had a really nice discussion for 3-plus hours. I learned more about the Cheer Fusion program than I had in the last ten months combined. I learned about the various conflicts and intrigues among the moms, which was worth the price of gas right there. For example, one mom is a real pain-in-the-ass and wants to start her own gym and bring the coaches with her. That’s good information to have if there’s an IPO. I also learned the names of a lot of the other cheer moms and their daughters. And I learned a lot about Stephanie and her family.

After we arrived in Indianapolis I went out to dinner with Stephanie and another cheer mom and her daughters. They mimicked Stephanie’s way of interacting with me, and so I got to know them, too. The rest of the weekend I periodically hung around with Stephanie and got to know other moms and even one dad who actually showed up on his own volition. All of this made me feel more a part of the dysfunctional Cheer Fusion family and I only read half of my New Yorker magazine while I sat in the stands over the two days and 12 hours of competition. They don’t have dirt about pain-in-the-ass cheer moms in the New Yorker. But the cheer mom grapevine does.

So when’s the next big meet with a long drive? I want to car pool again.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cheer Mania

I’m here in Indianapolis at a cheerleading competition with my son Tony. Tony, 10, is a cheerleader for Cheer Fusion, a cutting edge program that costs a lot and involves sacrificing your life to driving and meets. There are 52 teams here with over 200 individual squads. Every so often I take off one of my cochlear implants to stop the ringing in my head. Fortunately most of the cheerleaders are girls and I don’t hear high frequency sounds very well. But some of the parent groups, including ours, use thunder bats to assist their lungs when the team comes out and then it’s like a rock concert. 


My daughter Eva, 12, is also a Cheer Fusion cheerleader, one level higher than Tony, but she’s back in Chicago this time for a school cheer competition. So it’s just me and the boy at this two-day spectacular in the Indianapolis Convention Center. The convention center is downtown and everything costs a fortune: parking is $50, in-room Internet goes for $10, orange juice costs $4….and no disabled discounts. If the cheer program itself doesn’t break you, the meets will.


We may be the only father-and-son tandem on site. I know we are the only father-with-bilateral-implants-and-son tandem here. And I’m rotten with background noise….I mean really rotten, maybe in the lower 10 percentile among c. i. users. With the thunder bats going, verbal communication is pretty much impossible. I have magazines along to ease my pain.


I haven’t missed a meet all year. I plan out-of-town business trips around meets so I’ll be there. The meets are full-day events--sometimes two days like this one—and I often sit for six hours to watch my kids perform for two minutes. I’m usually with my wife who I can talk with in sign, but we tend to run out of things to say to each other after the fourth or fifth hour. This weekend I have a heckuva lot more communication down time to burn.


But this is one of those father-son bonding opportunities. My boy, truth be told, communicates mostly with my wife. He doesn’t know many signs—an outcome of the very common signing-dad-with-implant-signing-wife-with-hearing conflict—and for the last year he (and the rest of the family) have been increasingly frustrated because I continue to practice with my second c. i. singly and I’m not doing very well with it. So it’s good for me to go out on dates with Tony when there’s no recourse but to talk to me. I know I should do this more often, just so it isn’t a cheerleading meet every time.


Ooops, time to end this blog and wake him up. Get him dressed, eat breakfast, check out of the hotel, and then onward to the big second day of competition. After Day 1, his team is in first place among 26 others in his division so they have a shot at Grand Champion. He doesn’t care if he wins or loses (an attitude I wish could be preserved in amber), but I’ll be thrilled if they do. I’m more competitive than he is, and I want my money’s worth after 12 hours of sitting and hundreds of dollars of Indianapolis. And oh yes, those thunder bats. I’ll hear them in my electrodes for a week or more.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Once More Unto the Breach

A lobby half full of ALDAns stretched out before me. Stiffen the sinews, Bill, conjure up the blood. Diguise fair nature….No, no, this isn’t war. Relax. Deep breath. ALDA conference. Karaoke. Think fun. 

But 15 years away from ALDA had eroded my composure. Did I really want to plunge into the pool again? What if the water was cold? I glanced quickly around  but didn’t see anyone I knew for certain. There were a few faces I vaguely recognized, like indistinct, lingering images of a dream. But I couldn’t attach names to the faces, and I didn’t want to stop and guess. With Vaughn close behind, I strode briskly towards the reservations desk. 

I felt relief when I got to the counter. I've stayed in a lot of hotels over the years and know the check-in routine by rote: "Graham; GRAham; yes, William; four nights, (give credit card), (sign slip), one key is fine, where do I go?, thank you." Piece of cake, even if the clerk has an impenetrable accent. This clerk seemed a bit uneasy to communicate with me, maybe because with two c.i.'s attached to my head I was obviously one of t-h-e-m. I saw a card with the fingerspelling alphabet on the desk before him and playfully said “Good luck with that!” to which he smiled. I then reflected that his likely slowness in fingerspelling a word would actually be a perfect pace for many ALDAns, not necessarily excluding me. 

Before I got to "where do I go?" I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned warily to see who was tapping and...Phil Bravin!...Phil!...PHIL!!...I sprung forward and gave him a big hug, Deaf style. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!?” I said-and-signed in disbelief. Phil fails the litmus test of late-deafness by a country mile. He is what people call strong Deaf, from a multigenerational-ASL-forever Deaf family. Not strong ALDA at all. So why was he at ALDAcon? Then I remembered Phil had become a consultant for CSDVRS, one of the video-relay titans, which had an exhibit booth at the conference. His crafty-fox grin broke into a hearty chuckle.

Phil and I go way back, all the way back to my ALDA heyday, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. We served many years together on the Gallaudet Board of Trustees--he was board Chair; I, an acolyte--and all the years he was there we had these little bowls of M&Ms around the boardroom table during afternoon sessions. After he left the board, the M&Ms unexpectedly left too. I mourned both losses. 

We hadn't totally lost touch: He returned to Gallaudet occasionally while I was still on the board, and he always sends me his annual Christmas letter, which becomes longer every year as his extended family multiplies. (Each letter includes a Bravin family photo, now possible only with a fisheye lens.) Although we had our differences about what happened at Gallaudet two years ago, my respect and affection for Strong D Phil has never wavered. So when I saw him there at the Doubletree, I broke into a slaphappy smile that utterly demolished my unease about attending ALDAcon.

"Sir, the elevator is behind you." Still smiling, I looked at the desk clerk and said: "Thanks!" Suddenly that lobby of conference-goers looked a helluva lot more inviting. Sweetheart, get me rewrite: little d Bill has landed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Return to ALDAcon

Three weeks ago I attended my first full ALDAcon in 15 years. Although I had taken part in several committees planning the Con, I felt uneasy about going to it. I had never attended a Con as a normal human being, only as a leader or a keynote speaker. When you lead or keynote, people expect you to have super powers that can save the day or at least a plenary luncheon. You always have to act like you know what you’re doing or saying, even when you don’t. But as a late-deafened adult, I excel at that sort of bluffing, and I like to do things I am good at. Leading or speaking gives me an opportunity to deploy my special skills, not to mention satisfy my lifelong need to be the center of attention.

But as ALDAcon 2008 bore down on me, with growing anxiety I realized that I had no role to slip into other than conference-goer. Oh sure, I was co-presenter in one plenary session, but I still had more than 25 other hours to fill. I’m just not the kind of person who goes to conferences without a predetermined role. Conferences cost a lot of money, for one thing, and--perhaps because I spend so much time on the margins of hearing society--I’m comfortable being a loner. Attend conferences? I’d rather sit through six-hour cheerleading meets, high in the stands far from the crowd, doing a crossword puzzle while waiting for my kids to perform their two-minute routines. Or so I told myself.

My friend Vaughn came in from California for the Con. He stayed at our house on Tuesday, the day before the conference began. Vaughn hadn’t been to a Con in almost as long as I hadn’t, and it took extensive goading to get him to come.

Now if you know anything about Vaughn, you know that this fellow loves to golf. On any given day, he’ll happily golf till the cows come home and are asleep in the barn. Since I live on a golf course it was predictable that I’d suggest we play golf on Wednesday, even though it was 45 degrees outside. That’s just common hospitality, but in truth it was also a conscious effort on my part to get to the Con a little later than planned and chip off a few hours of all that conference downtime that awaited me.

Before I left home for the Con, I confessed to Karina that I really didn’t feel like going. She stifled a sigh and gave a semi-exasperated nod. After 18 years of marriage it’s fair to say she knows me and my cold feet well, so her "Oh c’mon, Guillermo" demeanor was like a reassuring hug and helped propel me out the door. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

Vaughn and I took a commuter train downtown, about a 65-minute trip. He has a cochlear implant and I have two, but I couldn’t understand much he was saying on the noisy train. So by the second station I had my nose in a magazine and he was playing with his sacred iPhone. Soon enough we were downtown and in a cab on our way to the Doubletree Hotel, the site of the Con.

When we got to the hotel, my angst returned as if on cue. I saw people in the lobby signing badly together or straining forward with obvious difficulty towards the person talking to them. These were ALDAns. No doubt about it. What now?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Curse of the Volunteer

I wake up early and stare at the ceiling a lot more these days. I haven't asked my doctor yet but I know exactly what ails me: I'm an ALDAcon volunteer.

Each morning the ceiling asks me the same questions: "Why are you doing this, Graham?" "Don't you know better by now?" "What nonsense will you attempt today?" "When will this stop?" "Do you know where your family is?"

And I stare some more.

A long time ago, before I grew up (or thought I had), I was an ALDA slave. 100 percent chattle, my mind and body owned by the Big A. My days went like this: wake up, ALDA; walk dog, ALDA; red light, ALDA; commuter train, ALDA; boss not looking, ALDA; wife on phone, ALDA; walk dog, ALDA; can’t sleep, ALDA. And so on, and so forth.

But that was 20 years ago, when my relative youthfulness and unregulated lifestyle could explain away my blind obsession, my unbridled zeal, my feverish delusions about ALDA. Now I’m older and have a family, a working stiff with single-minded focus on a 529 college-savings plan and retirement. Then two months ago, in a moment of astonishing madness, I volunteered for ALDAcon. Why get older if you don’t get wiser?

There's no mistaking it: I'm once more under the spell of the dreaded and always disabling Curse of the Volunteer. The signs are all too familiar: Do a bit of work for one ALDAcon committee (Sponsorship), notice a point of intersection with another (PR), and gradually get pulled in deeper (Scholarship) and deeper (Program) and deeper (Planning) until there you are flat on your back, contemplating the bedroom ceiling. It's deja voodoo all over again.

And I see the curse all about me, vivid, alarming. Kathy does IM jigs around her day job, Carolyn scours through the ALDAcon policy manual for answers to obscure questions, Kathryn fixates on ALDA values in long rambling emails, Miguel stays up well beyond bedtime his Blackberry buzzing uncontrollably...And just as sleep finally descends in the Eastern and Central time zones, Christine checks in from Seattle with a laundry list of talking points that can keep you up all night if you read through them all. So you do.

The curse! The curse! I stifle the urge to scream. Then, I scream. The delirium builds each day: Karina snaps her finger, no response; my kids float in a fog around me; deadlines at work loom and pass unnoticed...I must break this spell, I must!

On a night when the Moon is waning, I take a blood root and throw it onto the doorstep of Mary Clark, the fiend who asked me to volunteer for ALDAcon. And I chant: “This spell on me I return to thee, To thee who hast so ill-asked me. So might it be.” I improvise with a sign of the cross and some yoga asanas, and then leave. Free at last. Again.

After I get home, I wander with relief to my formerly cursed computer and log on. But there--at the top of the queue--is an email from Lois, chair of the Sponsorship Committee, musing on who to approach next: "CTIA, AOL and A T & T - up for grabs!" Hypnotically, I hit the Reply button and type: "CTIA...maybe I can do that one." No, Graham, don't. GET...A...GRIP! Don't! Don't! But my hand moves robotically to the mouse and I slowly move the cursor until it hovers over! Auggghhhhh!

I'll try candles, garlic, and wolfbane next.