Hannah Merker called me from Bristol last week to ask a few questions about how I write my columns and where I get my ideas. I told her my motto is “Make a week’s pay off everyone you meet” and warned her that she might easily turn into a column. And here it is.
Hannah Merker is a veteran freelance journalist. She has written for Newsday, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, even The Forecaster and, having lived aboard sailboats on Long Island, N.Y., for 20 years, a whole fleet of boating magazines. More to the point, however, Hannah Merker is the author of “Listening: Ways of Hearing in a Silent World,” a 1992 account of how she learned to cope with a sudden loss of hearing suffered in a skiing accident. If you’ve never had a telephone conversation with someone who can’t hear a word you say, you should. It’s a wonderful adventure.
Hannah called me because she is being kind enough to review my little book of these columns for the Island Institute’s Working Waterfront publication. I wasn’t home when she called, so she left a message asking me to call 711 and then to give the operator her phone number. I am embarrassed to say I had no idea what 711 was.
“Is this your first voice carry-over call?” the operator asked me. She then explained that 711 is a national relay service that enables the deaf to make and take telephone calls.
I was instructed to listen when Hannah spoke, then, when she said “Go ahead,” to speak slowly enough so that the relay operator could transcribe what I was saying for Hannah to read. When I was finished speaking, I was to say, “Go ahead.”
This low-tech communication process was disconcerting at first. I kept hearing myself reflexively reply to what Hannah was saying only to realize it wasn’t my turn to speak. I wondered whether the operator, who was in Wisconsin, was transcribing my involuntary “Unh-huhs” and “Mm-hmms.” And when it was my turn to speak, the operator had to keep reminding me to slow down so she could keep up. This awkward, but ultimately very human, three-way verbal-written conversation went on for a half-hour or more.
In the course of our conversation, Hannah mentioned that she had made an effort after her accident to keep up her speech, but 30-some years later she didn’t know what her speaking voice sounded like. For the record, Hannah Merker has the clear, strong voice of an intelligent and articulate older woman with a slight New York accent – Bronx, if I’m not mistaken. There is nothing impaired about it. I wouldn’t have known she could no longer hear from the sound of her voice.
As we talked about how journalism is changing, we two oddly coupled ink-stained wretches commiserated about the decline of print, newspapers in particular. Neither of us had much good to say about the on-line media that is replacing print journalism. Though much of what she has written and what has been written about her is available online, Hannah has resisted getting a computer. I wish I could do without one, but then, as soon as the conversation ended, I googled “Hannah Merker” to find out more about this interesting person with whom I had just been speaking.
On one hand, as much as I bad-mouth new technologies, I suppose Hannah and I could have carried on the interview via e-mail, instant messaging, or text messaging without my even knowing she is deaf. I rarely hear the voices of people with whom I am in contact all the time, namely the editors for whom I write. And there are actually people I have “known” for years I have never actually spoken with. We communicate entirely via e-mail.
On the other hand, in this age of virtual reality and on-line “communities,” there is an appealing directness about hearing a human voice in your ear, something I probably took for granted until I talked with Hannah Merker.
The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.