Sunday, March 28, 2010

Listening to the deaf

It does not surprise me at all that for decades nobody -- priests, cops, prosecutors -- would listen to, let alone believe, those 200 boys and men who repeatedly charged that they had been molested by the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin.

For millennia the deaf were not considered fully functioning human beings. Society thought they had nothing of importance to say. They had no credibility. Not even the people charged with their care and education took them seriously.

Black Americans once faced this dynamic. They were considered unworthy of the vote. But things changed, and now one of them is president of the United States.

Things are slowly changing for deaf people, too, as they shoulder aside prejudice and ignorance to become doctors and lawyers and journalists.

It's still an uphill battle. Individuals increasingly are accepting the human potential of the deaf, but it will take longer to overcome the inertia of society and its institutions.

Those Wisconsin lads have at last burst through the smothering, arrogant and ossified hierarchy of their church. People are now listening to them. It is a small breakthrough for all of us.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Frank Deford looks back

There is nothing sadder, or more self-serving, than an aging hack sportswriter looking back on a life misspent in print. But when the memoirist is Frank Deford, one of the few diamonds in a rough trade, the result can be both illuminating and enchanting.

Deford, in case you didn't know, was for decades the cleanup man in Sports Illustrated's murderer's row of brilliant writers. He has been a fixture on National Public Radio and is the author of 15 books, including the novel Everybody's All-American (1981).

In this week's Sports Illustrated, he has executed a shapely mini-memoir of his career, and the best way to show you how beautiful it is is to quote three passages:

I always thought that reading Red Smith in the New York Herald Tribune for the first time was like being in Delft around 1660 and stumbling on Vermeers: perfectly framed little portraits with just the right touches of light.

* * *
I've never felt altogether comfortable in a locker room. I always feared I was intruding on someone else's privacy. The point was brought home to me when I did a story on the Boston Celtics' opener the year after John Havlicek retired. He had come to the game as a civilian, and we were standing outside the locker room. As I started to enter, John said, "I'll see you later. I can't go in there. I don't belong there anymore."
Excuse me: John Havlicek didn't belong in the Celtics' locker room, but I did?

* * *
Unfortunately, being a sportswriter is like being Oscar Wilde's picture of Dorian Gray. You age as all around you the players stay forever young. You stick around while your contemporaries grow old in sports years and fade away. "I'm sorry, I'd like to be your friend," Bill Russell told me when he retired, "but friendship takes a lot of effort if it's going to work, and we're going off in different directions in our lives." And so here comes the next cohort, only now they're not your peers. Your portrait ages some more, and now the coaches are of your vintage. As you grow older, in fact, you gravitate toward stories about coaches, not just because they're now your new contemporaries but because they've lived longer, more complicated, lives. They're simply better stories. Coaches are plots. Players are snapshots.

Now there is a writer both humane and literate.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Promoting 'Pig"

In these economically worrisome times, an author just cannot be shy and diffident about Boosting the Product. The alternative is publishing oblivion. Here, therefore, is the University of Illinois' Press's promotional copy -- it'll also appear on the cover -- for the second edition of my first book, What's That Pig Outdoors?, coming in August. The U of I folks just finished touching it up.

What's That Pig Outdoors:
A Memoir of Deafness

Henry Kisor
with a new epilogue by the author
Foreword by Walker Percy

An updated version of the memoir that changed perceptions of the deaf

"A liberating document--and a heck of a good read."

"May well become an American classic."
--New York Times

"Genial and moving, sharp and witty."
--Publishers Weekly

"I love this book. It is witty, profound, and unself-pitying. It is the best account of growing up deaf since David Wright's Deafness."
--Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

Henry Kisor lost his hearing at age three to meningitis and encephalitis but went on to excel in the most verbal of professions as a literary journalist. This new and expanded edition of Kisor's engrossing memoir recounts his life as a deaf person in a hearing world and addresses heartening changes over the last two decades due to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and advancements in cochlear implants and modes of communication.

Kisor tells of his parents' drive to raise him as a member of the hearing and speaking world by teaching him effective lip-reading skills at a young age and encouraging him to communicate with his hearing peers. With humor and much candor, he narrates his time as the only deaf student at Trinity College in Connecticut and then as a graduate student at Northwestern University, as well as his successful career as the book review editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News. Life without hearing, Kisor says, has been fine and fulfilling.

Widely praised in popular media and academic journals when it was first published in 1990, What's That Pig Outdoors? opened new conversations about the deaf. Bringing those conversations into the twenty-first century, Kisor updates the continuing disagreements between those who advocate sign language and those who practice speech and lip-reading, discusses the increased acceptance of deaf people's abilities and idiosyncrasies, and considers technological advancements such as blogging, instant messaging, and hand-held mobile devices that have enabled deaf people to communicate with the hearing world on its own terms.

Henry Kisor is a retired book review editor and literary columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He is the author of Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America and Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet, as well as three mystery novels, Season's Revenge, A Venture into Murder, and Cache of Corpses.
So it goes, even though it feels immodest.

Friday, March 19, 2010

'Pig' trots ahead

Two more bits of news about the new, updated edition of What's That Pig Outdoors?, coming from the University of Illinois Press with an official August publication date:

1. The proposed jacket/catalog/promotional copy arrived in the e-mail yesterday. Aside from a couple of minor glitches, it read very well to me.

2. My agent e-mailed me that she'd been told that the first copies would be off press and at the U of I Press warehouse by the end of May.

The birth of a book, like a human, takes about nine months (not counting the actual writing). These two events are minor, if necessary, steps in the process, but they're like a late-pregnancy doctor's exam -- they chiefly remind one that all is well with the enterprise.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mystery bloom

Can anyone tell me what flower this is? I bought a bunch of them a few days ago at the supermarket for a dinner-table centerpiece, and tried out a new ring light for my camera's macro lens with them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cool stuff I read this morning

"Hey, I'm no scientist. I'm not an engineer either, but if I asked 100 engineers whether it was safe to cross a bridge, and 99 said no, I'd probably try to find another way over the ravine rather than loudly siding with the underdog and arguing about what constitutes a consensus while trundling across in my Hummer."

-- Charlie Brooker, on climate change, in The Guardian

"What happens is that some Protestants cherry-pick edicts out of the Bible that support their prejudices and then, in a neat bit of mental judo, spread their arms wide and claim their religion is under attack if anyone contradicts them. "What about tolerance for ME?" they cry. It's as if I seized a copy of the Bible and began beating someone over the head with it and, when you try to stop me, I accuse you of failing to respect my faith."

-- Neil Steinberg, on religious bigotry against gays, in the Chicago Sun-Times

"In requesting people to anchor a plan in the distant future of a month hence, you are demanding a kind of navigation that Americans increasingly do not practice. We prefer to remain flexy, solidifying our plans incrementally as the date approaches. Let’s talk tomorrow. I’ll call you when I’m on the road. Cellphones in hand, we microadjust our schedules as they unfold around us. We’re like the air traffic controllers of our own lives."

-- Rand Richards Cooper, on why Americans no longer RSVP, in the New York Times

" . . . The vast majority of Walmarts carry a large range of affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. And Walmarts serve many “food deserts,” in large cities and rural areas—ironically including farm areas. I’m not sure I’m convinced that the world’s largest retailer is set on rebuilding local economies it had a hand in destroying, if not literally, then in effect. But I’m convinced that if it wants to, a ruthlessly well-run mechanism can bring fruits and vegetables back to land where they once flourished, and deliver them to the people who need them most."

-- Corby Kummer, on Walmart saving the small American farm, in The Atlantic

"So it seems to me at least possible that easy access to public self-expression tends to make people more bad-tempered and ill-mannered than they would otherwise have been. It releases people from inhibitions, and allows them to breach psychological barriers. Even wit suffers, for it is far easier to insult than to think of a really damaging, but amusing, witticism. To write to Professor Dawkins that one feels ‘a sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails down your throat’ is easier than to explain succinctly why he is wrong, if he is wrong.

"Moreover, the fact that one can vituperate using a virtual rather than a real address promotes such verbal intemperance."

-- Theodore Dalrymple, on refusing to publish nasty comments from Internet readers, in New English Review

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Geezer's hike back into deep time

MOAB, Utah – A “moderate difficulty” hike, they call the half-mile round-trip foot trail to Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park, but for me it was like climbing an Alp – in reverse.

I had little trouble scrambling up to the rocky viewpoint overlooking the spectacular geologic oddity three miles wide and 1,200 feet deep that some geologists think is a collapsed salt dome and others a massive meteorite crater in the sandstone cliffs of southeastern Utah.

Coming back, however, severely tested my bad knees and terrible sense of balance, and only a dead slow pace and the help of two stout trekking poles allowed me to get back down without tumbling keister over teakettle on the steep, stony and mud-slicked trail.

This was, by God, an accomplishment, even if I do say so myself.

The trek to Upheaval Dome was the high point of my four-day stay at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, a rugged twin desert wonderland of tall spires, soaring stone arches, gingerly balanced rocks and deep box canyons. Mini-lessons in elementary geology abound everywhere, carrying the awed visitor into a land where time is measured not in seconds and minutes but epochs and eons.

The place turned out to be a perfect week's vacation for two aging train lovers from Illinois who'd rather take Amtrak to their destination than fly – and its glorious sights were more than negotiable even for a gimpy geezer like me.

In both places paved roads lead to short and level trails designed to take even the lame and halt to vistas overlooking the eroded rock layers carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers thousands of feet down through high mesas that were once sea beds hundreds of million years old.

To reach the parks, the Lady Friend and I rode Amtrak's California Zephyr from Chicago to Grand Junction, Colo., stayed overnight at the Hampton Inn a few walkable blocks from the station, then rented a car for the drive to Moab, headquarters village for the parks.

Moab is 114 miles west of Grand Junction by way of Interstate 70 and U.S. 191, a 1 3/4-hour drive, but we chose to take the breathtaking “back way” from I-70 down Utah 128 along the Colorado River. That took an extra two hours because we stopped numerous times to photograph the striking rock formations rising high above the river.

The narrow road is full of steep hairpin turns, and I wouldn't want to drive it during either the traffic-choked high season (mid-March through October) or in a winter snowstorm. But in early March Route 128 was high, dry and nearly deserted.

(The Amtrak stop at Green River, Utah, is closer to Moab – only 52 miles, less than an hour away – but no car rental agency keeps shop there.)

Moab is a typical kitschy-touristy Western resort town, its main drag chockablock with fast-food joints, adventuring shops and downmarket chain motels, but it also has a number of cozy and reasonably priced bed-and-breakfasts as well as upscale resorts outside town.

We stayed at the Cali Cochitta in town, a charming and comfortable B&B that had come well recommended on TripAdvisor, and were delighted with it. Its proprietors, Kim and David Boger, are friendly folk and David, the chef, does a first-rate eggs Benedict as well as a heavenly quiche.

For lunches and dinners we liked both the Moab Brewery and Rockslide Cafe, both of which feature enormous servings. One entree easily fuels two senior citizens.

I should mention that both parks are also naturals for youthful and athletic backpackers who want to escape civilization in the back country. The particularly adventurous can go river rafting, hang gliding and even ballooning, and the more sedentary can enjoy sedate boat cruises on the Colorado.

I recommend going during the off season (high season runs from April to October) to avoid the crowds that choke traffic on the roadways as well as the scorching desert heat of summer. The first week of March was perfect for us; most of the snow had melted, and the temperatures rose into the low 50s. We practically had the place to ourselves.

Arches and Canyonlands are also an amateur photographer's dream, as you'll see in the selection of pictures to follow on the other blog in the next week or so.

One can use a car to reach almost all the sights in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks that are worth seeing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Of windows, wi-fi and salads

A speedy window cleaning crew attacked the grime during the Denver stop. They were partly successful.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado – In my role as self-appointed Junior Inspector General of Amtrak, Long-Distance Train Division, I hereby offer the following report on my journey this week from Chicago to this town in western Colorado aboard Amtrak No. 5, the westbound California Zephyr:

Our departure from Chicago was inauspicious. The wi-fi in the Amtrak first-class lounge in Chicago Union Station was down again, and the cars of the Zephyr were caked with a thick layer of dust. I resigned myself to taking photographs only outside at long station stops; the windows were too filthy. Amtrak, I figured, still has trouble with the details.

My sleeper, one from the original Superliner order of the late 1970s, clearly was getting long in the tooth. Edges were worn and panels beginning to discolor from age, tarnish and corrosion. The car needed to be retired and replaced before long, as Amtrak has proposed in its latest capital equipment request. But the plumbing and heating still worked --even the shower -- and the interior car cleaners had done their jobs well.

Shortly after departure on time at 2 p.m., the conductor announced that we would be two hours late into Omaha because of slow track orders that would cut our 79-m.p.h. mainline running to 60 m.p.h. in several places. I hoped that did not mean an equally late departure from Denver the following morning, causing us to arrive in Grand Junction, a town unfamiliar to me, in darkness. I would have to walk to my hotel (Grand Junction reportedly has only one taxi) following a Mapquest printout, and it's easier to find one's way in the day.

I awoke at 6 a.m. in western Nebraska, the train running three hours late. We had left Omaha the forecast two hours behind, but lost another hour while a broken rail was replaced west of McCook. We arrived in Denver three hours 15 minutes late.

During the 45-minute layover there, four female window scrubbers – two for each side – proceeded apace down the train, one wielding a 10-foot mop and one a similarly long-handled squeegee, removing the worst of the dirt from the windows. This was the first time I'd seen the Zephyr windows cleaned at Denver since the early 1990s, when Amtrak still used mechanical car washers.

Photography still wasn't going to be good but not as bad as I had fretted.

We departed Denver still 3 hours 15 minutes behind – and 20 minutes later stopped on a siding west of Arvada for more than an hour, owing to a slow Union Pacific freight with a sick engine. When we finally got under way, the delay had grown to 4 hours 30 minutes.

The dining-car victuals were as expected – reliable American Road Food, hardly anything to praise but nourishing and sometimes even tasty. The first night out, the steak was tender and juicy, the rice and vegetables perfectly done, the lemon sorbet excellent. The roast chicken I had the second night seemed a little lackluster in comparison, but was OK all the same.

The breakfast quesadilla was fine and so was the veggie burger at lunch.

Only the salads (as they always are!) were lacking – a few shreds of lettuce and one lonely plum tomato. Why Amtrak bothers with them is beyond me. Surely it wouldn't hurt the railroad's bottom line to add a slice of cucumber and one of green pepper, or leave it to the chefs to spice up the salads on their own?

This was the third consecutive Amtrak trip I'd taken since the end of January in which the on-board service crew was uniformly excellent. The dining-car attendants all were cheerful and attentive, and I've never had a sleeper attendant as hard-working as Paul, who seemed to pop his head into my compartment every hour on the hour asking if I needed anything.

Nor have I ever seen sleeping-car facilities as clean as the ones Paul kept. Every time someone used a bathroom, Paul fell upon it with disinfectant and mop, so much so that his passengers wondered if he was an obsessive-compulsive with a can of Lysol. Not that any of us minded.

No. 5 arrived at Grand Junction after dark, three hours late (the schedule is loose enough so that some time can be "made up"), but I was able to find my hotel in the dark without much trouble.

If my return trip is as satisfactory as this one was, I will tell you this: Things are looking up for Amtrak. If it could only keep the windows clean, the wi-fi working and tart up the salads a little . . .

MARCH 9: Indeed the trip home on the eastbound Zephyr was just as good. Robert, the sleeper attendant, was both jovial and attentive, and so was the diner crew -- and the conductors. Amtrak, I learned elsewhere, has been re-training its personnel with emphasis on customer service. That seems to be working out well.

Incidentally, No. 6 was delayed 3 1/2 hours at Dotsero just east of Glenwood Canyon by an avalanche that buried the tracks in snow, stones and small trees.

While Union Pacific crews labored with backhoes and chainsaws to clear the mess, we worried that if time went on, the UP would have to drag the train back through Glenwood Canyon to Glenwood Springs so that passengers could be "bustituted" to Denver and points east. That would mean a 200-mile detour north, because just the day before, Interstate 70 between Glenwood Canyon and Denver had been closed by a massive rock slide in which a semitrailer-sized boulder punched a deep hole in the westbound lanes and tore up part of the eastbound.

The conductor kept his passengers informed with frequent updates on the progress of clearing the slide on the tracks -- a nice touch of customer service that often in the past has been missing when the elements delay trains.

The only negative of the homebound trip was a visit to the coach immediately following the lounge car. The ancient car itself was in such bad shape that it seemed right out of the Third World, and the view wasn't helped by the unholy mess the passengers -- some of whom were rough trade -- had made of the interior and especially the bathrooms. Amtrak badly needs replacement coaches and sleepers, but there isn't much the railroad can do about certain members of its clientele.

I say "rough trade" advisedly. At two points the lead service attendant came on the intercom to announce that remarks about race, religion or national origin would not be tolerated and that offenders would be put off the train. We discovered later that anti-Semitic epithets had been hurled in the lounge car.

And oh, yes, on this trip the chef added croutons to the salads. Every little bit helps.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Taking the high iron again

Double-O Arch in Arches National Park, Utah (Wikimedia Commons).

Tomorrow I'm off on another railroad-borne safari.

This one is on the California Zephyr (if my count is correct, it'll be the 23rd time I've ridden this Amtrak train) from Chicago to Grand Junction, Colorado.

There I'll rent a car for the two-hour drive to Moab, Utah, headquartering at a bed-and-breakfast there for photographic forays to the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks nearby.

After much thought (and weight trials with a camera slingbag), I'm packing two Pentaxes and three zoom lenses -- a 10-20mm, a 17-70mm, and a 55-300mm. That ought to cover just about anything the desert has to offer.

Why Canyonlands and Arches? Partly because Ken Burns' recent PBS series on America's national parks spurred my interest in them. And partly because I can get there (or almost there) by train, for my money the sole remaining civilized conveyance in the United States.

Will I work on Hang Fire, the novel-in-progress? Maybe. Probably. I'm taking the new netbook along, and maybe excessive precipitation (the Utah forecast is for rain one of those days) or a little inspiration will squeeze out a few more pages.

I'm also interested in seeing whether the first-rate service on my last two train trips (one on the Texas Eagle and the other the Southwest Chief) was just luck or real evidence that the esprit of Amtrak crews has improved over the last couple of years. Not long ago conductors, attendants and waiters could be lazy and snarky, but maybe new labor contracts and the Obama administration's support for the national railroad have changed their outlook.

Full report soon.