Sunday, July 19, 2009
Sign of the times
The longer that I go without a voice, the more I realize that I should develop more means of communication than scribbling in a notepad and holding it up to people's noses.
Learning American Sign Language has long been on my to-do list, ever since I joined a bicycle training ride for deaf and hard-of-hearing cyclists a few years ago. I'm about 50-percent deaf, and I was eager to meet other cyclists who are hard-of-hearing. But when the group stopped for breakfast at a café along our route, and spent the meal excitedly conversing with one another in ASL, I felt like the odd man out.
I decided then that I wanted to learn ASL, and I even shared that goal with a few others, who were immediately supportive.
I'm pretty skilled at nudging life goals to the back burner, and
like any language, ASL requires time and discipline to learn. So I've flaked out on my ASL ambitions.
Quite by surprise, I caught the ASL bug again on Saturday night.
Every summer, the clinic where I work hosts a fund-raising bash featuring dozens of restaurants and beverage servers, scores of wineries, mystics, a DJ and other kinds of entertainment to ensure that our guests have a good time.
I was hopping from booth to booth taking photos of the servers at the event, introducing myself by handing them a note asking permission to shoot and getting their names.
One of the servers read my note and then handed my pad back to me. Rather than talk to me, he began to sign.
I wrote another note, explaining that I could hear —I just couldn't talk. He apologized for presuming that I knew sign language, and said that I was welcome to take photos. His name was Tyler.
Late in the evening I passed the booth again. The crowd was thinning out and there was no one in line at Tyler's booth. I walked up and handed a note to him asking how the evening had gone.
Tyler asked me my name, so I wrote it in my pad.
"I'll show you how to finger-spell your name," Tyler said. he removed a rubber glove that he was wearing on his left hand and made the symbol for "P," then "A," then "U" and finally "L."
"Now you try it," he said.
I held up my right hand and mimicked Tyler's symbols. I have a gimpy right thumb that doesn't extend properly, so I messed up a few of the letters and I hope I didn't finger-spell a four-letter word that was offensive.
I know a little about the deaf community, so I wrote another note to Tyler. "Don't deaf people have 'deaf names' that aren't finger-spelled?" I asked.
Tyler nodded. "I used to have hair down past my waist," he said, "so my deaf name is a gesture that suggested 'long hair.' " He went on to explain that a deaf person doesn't come up with their own deaf name; they have to be given their deaf name by another deaf person. I remembered learning that a few years ago.
"OK, now, here's the alphabet," Tyler said. His left hand formed the symbol for all 26 letters, and he watched my hand as I struggled to follow his example.
It was pretty frustrating —especially with that damn gimpy thumb of mine— and some letters were easier than others. But I didn't fall flat on my face.
Tyler took off his right glove and extended it across the counter. "Good luck to you," he said. "Maybe I'll see you here next year."
Maybe we will see each other next summer. And who knows? Maybe by then, I'll know a thing or two about ASL.