The Shape of ASL


My daughter is involved in her high school’s plays and musicals.  I’m deaf, and still attend and catch what I can; usually I am able to piece together quite a lot between attending several shows and reading the script.  Recently, the director started providing ASL interpreters for one performance per run.  This is wonderful and a great example of how access can be win-win-win; the interpreters made the show accessible for me, brought in additional deaf attendees who would not have otherwise bought a ticket, and delighted the hearing audience as well.

Several hearing people came up to me after the show to say how fantastic the interpreters were.  They mentioned things like inclusivity (I agree, so important!), professionalism (awesome!) and what a great job the interpreters did.

That last one always gives me pause.  These are hearing people who don’t know American Sign Language at all.  What are they judging the performance of the interpreters on?

Their grammar?  Their use of space?  Their fluency?  How can people who don’t know any ASL judge these things?

The answer is: they can’t.  There are elements of ASL that non-signing hearing people (a group that used to include me – I became deaf as a teenager) just find cool.  There’s the apparent lack of inhibition in their facial expressions and body language, there’s the beauty of the dancing fingers.  There’s the little added frisson of reacting approvingly to something that is seen as “other” and “abnormal” – that’s good, right?  Being nice to disabled people?

It’s hard to criticize this impulse – saying that ASL is awesome and they love it is certainly better than the alternative, right?

It is.

At the same time, this view is limiting and problematic.  It creates situations where deaf creators – those who are actually fluent in ASL – are pushed aside for those who provide the “pretty” version of ASL that hearing non-signers find so attractive.

The 2018 Best Picture winner, “The Shape of Water,” featured a hearing actress who plays a woman who can hear but who cannot speak, and who has been using ASL her whole life.  The sign language is halting and amateurish, but the people who are judging it are not judging her ASL on its linguistic merits.  They’re judging her ASL on its appearance, more akin to dance than language.

I recently had a conversation in the comments of a Facebook post with a person who said she loved ASL but she would only do the hand movements – she refused to “do the over the top facial expressions.”  She was just uncomfortable with it.   I asked her if it helped to just think of the expressions as grammar, and she reiterated that she is “an emotionally reserved person,” unable and unwilling to use “big facial expressions.”

I said,

I get what you’re saying, so sorry if this is repetitive, but can you separate it from “emotion”? It’s just plain information without emotion attached to it. It’s like, the letter “H” in British Sign Language is the same as the sign for “clean” in ASL – the same motion has different meanings. So raising your eyebrows or widening your eyes means one thing in “hearing nonverbal communication” and another thing in ASL. The same motion means different things in different languages. Does that make sense?

She agreed that it did!

But this attitude – not universal among non-signing people, but common – that ASL is worthy when it is pretty and constrained, but alarming when it is more expressive and “ugly,” contributes to a situation where native deaf signers are marginalized.  Non-signers don’t get to claim that they love a language and then demonstrate that what they value is a sanitized, agrammatical version of it.  ASL-Lite is not a language, and valuing it over ASL – and over deaf talent – is a disservice.

Trump, Deez Nuts, and the Need for Liberals to Chill

Over the last few days there has been so much soul-searching about HOW DID TRUMP GET THE REPUBLICAN NOMINATION OMG!  How did the pundits get it so wrong?  What is HAPPENING?

There is this idea that the pundits are completely separate from the voters.  The voters are in their little zoo, wandering around and making decisions and casting votes, and the pundits observe from afar, making notes and predictions.

I think the reality, especially now, is more complex and intertwined.  The pundits don’t seem to realize they’re right in there with the voters, and that the voters are taking note of what the pundits have to say.  (To a greater and lesser extent, of course.)

So rather than being as simple as the pundits getting things wrong — misreading the tealeaves — I think the pundits sometimes actually help shape what’s going on.

Especially, I think the Trump situation went something like this.

Phase One: “Fuck ’em all”

It’s summer of 2015 and the Republican voters hate all of their options.  There isn’t a single one who they feel like they really could get behind.  Donald “You’re fired!” Trump is a hoot but it’s not like he could actually get the nomination, of course.  But hey it’s funny to say you’re supporting him, when asked by pollsters and such.  Ha.  Take that, establishment!

Phase Two:  Could happen1440073282976.cached

Lots of people had the same idea.  Some of them went the “Deez Nuts” route — same idea, different target.  But since fifteen-year-olds can’t actually become president, that led to — what if Trump actually got the nomination?  That would be hilarious.  The pundits are saying it’s impossible.  Oh yeah?  Just watch.

Phase Three:  The Rallies

This is where things really took off, IMO.  The first phases had to happen so the rallies were big enough to be powerful and “winning.”  But then the rallies became a safe space for a certain kind of person who was tired of having to be so CAREFUL all the time.  So much to tiptoe around to avoid being called a sexist or a racist or a homophobe.  At Trump rallies, they found their people, and it was glorious.  They could be sexist or racist or homophobic and not only would they avoid censure, they would get encouragement!

That was heady.  But there were more layers than that, too.  It’s not that the rallies are only for horrible people, or for people who are only horrible.  There was also a sense that Trump was listening to them in a way that other candidates were not — this is how you see people who say that they support Trump OR Bernie.

At any rate, the rallies started to shift Trump from the Deez Nuts category to the serious contender category.

Phase Four:  The Contempt

The punditocracy was not having that.  Trump?  A serious contender?  HAH!  And the irony is, I think this blatant contempt helped solidify his standing.  This sneering from the elites — the media, the Republican establishment, the establishment in general — strengthened everything that was going for him.  The outsider cred, the authenticity, the scrappy underdog-ness… even if he committed something that in most presidential campaigns would be considered a “gaffe,” for Trump it was a feature, not a bug.

Phase Five:  Oh Shit

That’s where we are now.  And I think the previous phases have shown us that the more the elites try to tell the great unwashed not to be so stupid, the stronger Trump gets.

I’m of the firm opinion that Trump backed into this and that there is no grand plan or evil scheming — just a serendipitous combination of timing and persona.  I’m not even convinced he actually wants to be president — how boring! — but I’m not sure how he backs out of it at this point.  Perhaps he’s just planning to foist all of the governing on to a vice president if he wins?

At any rate, I think the A #1 thing for us to do is, while taking him seriously, don’t panic.  Don’t give him the oxygen.  Don’t do things like endlessly mock this:



Sure, it’s stupid.  But what does it really matter?  Despite early squawking about how the Trump Tower Grill doesn’t even serve Taco Bowls, there is another place in Trump Tower that actually does serve Taco Bowls on Cinco de Mayo.  I think Kevin Drum has it right re: how this will play with Trump’s supporters — “a perfectly sincere appreciation of Mexican culture.” Banning Muslims and calling for mass deportations is the actual scary stuff.  Stick to the substance, not the style.

He’s an idiot.  The only way I see him winning the election is if the other side builds him up as such an anti-them that a coalition of the racists, the working poor, and the “damn he’s got balls haha” bros will eke out a majority.  So, let’s chill a bit and just let him do enough scary stuff to scare them away.

Nerdcon: Stories

I left Nerdcon: Stories on Saturday afternoon (yes afternoon, even though it went until Saturday night!), but it’s been taking up a whole lot of mental real estate and I’m going to try to write down a little bit of why.

The people
Nice!  So nice!

And just so CHILL.  I’ve been to events with John Green before and people were totally freaking out.  I was in the story circle and Hank Green kind of meandered out as a guy was telling the story of how he got a job working FOR HANK GREEN, and Hank kind of smiled in a slightly confused way and everyone remained seated and I took out my phone to maybe take a picture?  And my daughter (age 15) gave me a stern look and said that would be rude.  And everyone else seemed to be on her wavelength ’cause Hank just kept meandering and everyone smiled and waved and there was absolutely no freaking.

The access
I’m deaf.  My daughter wanted to go to Nerdcon: Stories because four of her favorite people in the universe are John Green, Hank Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Maureen Johnson, and she wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to be in the same building as all four of them at once.  I wanted to go because of my book (see below for details).  I’d gotten a myintent bracelet that said “STORY” as a reminder both to focus on the book and to remember that everyone has a story.  A month later, Nerdcon: Stories was announced and I was like yeah, gotta go.

But, I’m deaf.  I put in my request for an ASL interpreter right when I bought tickets, but didn’t hear back.  I followed up about six weeks before the con, and got a response this time.  No.  Sorry for the inconvenience.


Long story short, there were several exchanges in which I tried to be nice about the fact that this isn’t really something you can legally say no to and looked into paying for interpreters for at least one session myself (because I desperately wanted to have access to “The Benefits of Diverse Stories” panel because hello?!) and eventually got a yes.  Yay!

It’s so delightful when karma is instant.  The interpreters were fantastic and became superstars in and of themselves, especially David.







(And that’s just a selection! There were way more.)

I’m so used to accompanying my daughter to events where I get the general gist but miss almost all of the details. It was so lovely and incredible to be right there laughing along with her (the bagpipes thing… DAMN that was funny) and not miss a single thing. Not to mention that I got to be right up front for everything! I truly feel like I was just kind of hanging out with all of these wonderful people for a couple of days. Pat Rothfuss especially seemed really interested in the interpreters and how they did their job — in the “Is This a Kissing Book?” panel, I noticed a couple of times that he would say something, glance at the interpreter to see how he signed it, then glance at me to see my reaction.

It was great. Thanks so much Hank, Nick, and anyone else who was responsible for providing full access.

The book
I’ve been writing a book for the past couple of years.  I know, who hasn’t, right?  This thing started out as a single chapter written in a fit of pique.  I’d read a quite popular YA book on my daughter’s recommendation, and man did it STINK (not by any of the authors at Nerdcon btw) and I decided that “I could do better than that!” was, while fun to say, empty if I didn’t in fact do better than that.  So I rattled something off, a beginning to a story that had been sloshing around in my brain for a while, and it was super-fun.  And kind of credible.  And my daughter read it and said “OMG YOU MUST WRITE THIS BOOK!”  And then she showed it to some of her friends and there was more OMG-ing.  And I went hmmm.

I do have a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing.  I’ve always wanted to be a writer — it just seemed like something that was vanishingly unlikely to actually HAPPEN.

But this chapter, book, story, whatever it was, just wouldn’t really go away, even though I had no time for it.  I’d get back to it whenever I could and slowly the characters stopped being people I was creating and started being people.  It wasn’t that I was telling them what to do, they did stuff and I recorded it.  (Does that sound weird?  It sounds a little weird.)

And then I had a couple of mind-blowing plot point revelations.  (Well, they blew my mind.)  And a real-live book started coming together.

I had hoped to have the entire first draft of the manuscript done by the time I went to Nerdcon; I know that’s the first step, and I can’t contact agents or do anything else really until that happens.  Didn’t quite manage it.  (I’m using Scrivener and I have like 400 pages total but a lot of that is character notes and research and crap like that.  I have probably 3/4 of the book writing done.)

But now, post-Nerdcon, I am SO MOTIVATED.  It was just so incredibly… clarifying.  To see these authors, to see them speaking and thinking (the seeing-them-thinking part is in my book — it happens).  To learn about the process, to identify with so much, to start to feel like I’m not a breed apart from these exalted people, necessarily — it might be more degree than kind.  And that if I apply that nose to that grindstone (that’s really a pretty icky idiom isn’t it? gotta be bloody), this is something that can actually happen.

So.  Thank you Nerdcon: Stories (and thank you Rainbow Rowell, whose “Fangirl” I read the day after and which added to and reinforced all kinds of writerly feelings).  I’m gonna do this.