Henry Kisor’s Pain in the Ass

Henry Kisor had been talking about his deafness, but at the end of our lunch at Riccardo’s he wandered into the gloomy subject of college tuition. Well, what can you do with tuition but try to laugh about it? As Kisor pushed away from the table, we started to say something funny.

And stopped. Unless we tapped his shoulder and looked him in the eye, he wouldn’t know what we were saying. And because we’re hard to lip-read (he’d told us that), we might have to repeat the joke once or twice before he got it.

We let it go. And later we sent Kisor a letter asking him if he feels shortchanged on banter in his life–a life that is otherwise steeped in language, he being the book editor of the Sun-Times. And if, by the same token, idiomatic English is slow to reach him.

“I honestly don’t think I’ve missed out on banter any more than I’ve missed out on any other form of oral communication,” Kisor wrote back. “My children and I exchange japes, pointed or otherwise, every day. Jack Schnedler and Marvin Weinstein and I indulge frequently in the sort of amiable abuse you hear in a newspaper office every day . . . .

“In short, banter among old friends is easy. Banter among people I don’t know well is more difficult. How much am I missing? I guess that can be measured by asking how often I am among strangers. (No more than he has to be. “I hate crowds and I dislike meeting strangers,” he says in his new book.)

“As for idiomatic English,” Kisor went on, “I probably miss more owing to age than I do deafness. Any old fart on the verge of 50 is not going to encounter the hip vernacular of MTV very often. I do pick up a lot of the current idiom from reading–the papers . . . and the weeklies . . . . Maybe I’m a step or two behind the freshest of the fresh. But in recent years a good deal of the new idiom that comes out of the movies has become more accessible to me through the medium of closed-caption video–I’m something of a video-movie junkie these days.”

Part of the experience of meeting someone like Henry Kisor, who is stone-deaf yet leads a successful, even worldly life (despite his shyness), is pondering the specifics of his situation–the little things, not the big. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” tinkled out of Riccardo’s sound system as we talked, and made us reflect that Kisor, who has missed the world’s great music, got to be 49 without hearing Burt Bacharach either.

Kisor lost his hearing to illness when he was three years old. He does not remember music.

“I was a precocious child. My parents tell me I was a good singer,” he said at lunch. “But music is not a part of my life. People ask me if I miss it. No, I don’t. I don’t miss what I never had. But when I write, I write by ear. I sound out the words. But it’s an inner ear.”

He said an interviewer for the Today show asked a good question: how would he spend the time if his hearing were restored for one day? “Listen to Beethoven, listen to Mozart, listen to rock music,” he now told us. “All those things are part of our culture. I am curious. I would like to know what the Chicago Symphony sounds like.

“Having said that, I am not so sure I would like to get my hearing back permanently. I would have to learn hearing all over again. I would have to learn to discriminate sounds. A truck in the background–the hearing can tune it out. It would drive me nuts.”

Kisor now posed an intriguing question of his own. “Am I proud of my deafness? No,” he said. “But it is part of my personality. Also, if I weren’t deaf I might never have written a book. Then where would I be?”

The book is What’s That Pig Outdoors? A Memoir of Deafness, which is arriving at bookstores just now and which, to Kisor’s astonishment, promises to make him a celebrity–Today interviewed him, so did People, and Pig is a Book of the Month Club alternate. (The title refers to a hilarious family moment when Kisor’s young son said, “What’s that big, loud noise?” and Kisor misread his lips.)

Perhaps, we said–thinking of what he’d discover and then give up–you wouldn’t really want one day of hearing.

“Certainly I would,” Kisor replied. “I think hearing for one day would fill some gaps–the only way I can learn what public culture is about is by reading it . . . . I would like to hear an Elvis Presley song. Elvis Presley is an icon of popular culture, and I have never been able to understand how people can devote their lives to his music and to the tribute that has grown up since his death. To me, it’s outlandish. They say you’ve got to be there. I’m sure they’re right. When you read the lyrics to a popular song, they read like bad poetry. I’d like to know what it is about popular music that makes people do stupid things–my children included. I’d like to hear the voices of my wife and children. . . .”

Kisor knows no sign language. He has always made his way in our larger world–reading lips, learning to speak intelligibly, and then attending classes and now working each day alongside friends and colleagues who hear. It has not been easy, as his memoir, for all its understatement, makes clear; remarkable parents, an extraordinary teacher, his own wit, and those first three years of hearing made a phenomenal difference.

If his own child were born deaf, he told us, “I probably would opt for sign language. I think it is really important for a child, an infant, to have language from the beginning. As soon as the child was old enough, I would try to teach it English, spoken and written. I would try to make the child bilingual. I don’t think a deaf child will have a very good chance of making it in the world unless he masters English. A lot of signing deaf will disagree with me.”

In deaf circles around Chicago, the name Henry Kisor apparently takes a beating. “When my name is mentioned among members of certain organizations for the deaf in the Chicago area,” he writes, “it often is dismissed with the comment: ‘Henry Kisor doesn’t admit his deafness.’ And that’s true by the standards of the New Orthodoxy. . . . To a large number–perhaps the majority–of those who live and work in the world of the deaf, one cannot ‘admit’ one’s deafness unless one embraces sign language and joins the deaf culture. Not to do so, they say, is a tragic self-denial that approaches apostasy.”

Kisor isn’t having any of that. Even so, when students at Gallaudet College for the deaf–where sign language is required–hit the bricks a couple of years ago demanding a new president who was deaf, “I began marching with the Gallaudet students in spirit if not in person. After all, right was on their–our–side.”

Their cause was his cause. What all the deaf, however they communicate, have in common, according to his book, is “an indifferent (and sometimes hostile) hearing world” that doesn’t think any of the deaf can amount to much.

“Deafness is a pain in the ass,” Kisor told us. “I don’t think of it as a handicap. Everybody has a pain in the ass.”

The Pete Predicament

As soon as Pete Rose copped a plea, the debate started. Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Does he belong in prison?

We heard The Sportswriters trying to thrash it out. One pundit said Rose should be allowed to work off his debt to the IRS. How? we wondered. What kind of job can a Pete Rose get? As furniture at Trump’s Taj Mahal? As somebody’s doorman? He’s through in baseball. Going to prison might do Pete Rose the kindness of obscuring the fact that he’s unemployable.

As for the Hall of Fame . . .

It is clear that many a press-box solon intends to do the right thing and turn Rose away. For the rules do say that “voting shall be based on the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the team or teams on which he played.”

Dubious as always about high-mindedness, we called the Hall of Fame and spoke with its associate director, Bill Guilfoile. As we suspected, Rose is already in the hall. Bats that Rose used for his 3,000th and 4,000th hits and during his 44-game hitting streak are on display, Guilfoile told us, plus a bat from his MVP year in ’73 and the uniform he wore when he broke Ty Cobb’s career-hit record. “Some very significant memorabilia,” as Guilfoile observed. Shall the press corps now try to unwrite this history?

Sportswriters whose consciences tell them to slam Cooperstown’s door on Pete Rose might ask themselves why they should be the ones guarding it in the first place. Chicago’s political writers pound away at the boodlers who keep getting elected to the City Council, but they don’t elect them. Yet sportswriters not only decide who’s MVP and rookie of the year and what-have-you–each a big story that they then turn around and cover–but they pretend that theirs is the power to confer immortality itself. No doubt this illusion makes the chore of approaching some sullen lout paid $5,000 a hit somewhat easier.

As for Rose–what should be done? He faces a maximum of six years in prison. We think the judge should show him no mercy. Sentence him to spend every last minute of it in some hellhole like Marion–no time off for good behavior, no hope of parole. Give small boys and their dads a long moment to gasp in horror.

And then President Bush should step in and pardon him. “He isn’t worse than Nixon,” Bush could tell the nation, “and he’s a lot more likely to just go away.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.