Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Its not just music" and other emotions

So many changes, so many events, so much to catch up on.   In American Sign Language (ASL) facial expressions are extremely important.  The meaning of a sentence can change drastically depending on what you do with your eyes, eyebrows, mouth, checks, chin, etc. For example, using the same signs in the same order I can say "You are really old!" or "What's your age?"  The intended meanings are conveyed using facial  expressions (eyebrows up for the question, eyebrows down and mouth open in "O" shape for the former).  These facial expressions are also invaluable when describing the magnitude of an event.  I wish I could use ASL here, because I would say: "A lot has changed ('CHA')!" I can't really explain what all the  'CHA' expression means in English, but just know that the words "a lot" don't even come close to explaining the proper magnitude.  So here's my recent journey from careless and depressed to inspired and active, described as best I can for you using the limits of the written English language.

My first several days in the DC are were in spent the dark, cool basement of my aunt Lauri's townhouse in Silver Spring, Maryland.  It was 100+ degrees outside and I was exhausted from all the traveling I'd done in the weeks prior to the move.  I'd been in California, Nashville, Atlanta, back to Nashville, and then onto DC  all in a matter of 8 days.  My aunt and cousin (Serena) have been kind and generous hosts, but it was inevitable that I was going to feel a little uncomfortable in a new house, in a new city, around extended family members that I don't know all that well, after living alone for the last 6 years of my life.  (I won't even add to that what it was like to make the transition from living alone to to living with a 9 year old Deaf child who has more energy than anyone I've ever met... you can imagine that for yourself.) After a brief battle with the flu, some paralyzing anxiety about my upcoming ASL classes, a handful of nightmares, and Serena's critiques of my signing ability, I finally made a tearful phone call to my mother.  I was emotionally exhausted, and had lost all motivation and confidence to do this research.  (Tip: Never be too old to call  your mommy during a crisis.)  I told my mom that in my dream life I'm a trophy wife, and since that doesn't require a PhD I would just rather drop out of grad school, not do this research, never improve my sign skills, and move back to Nashville where I'd surely find some (likely old) rich country singer/doctor/lawyer/whatever to marry me and give me all his money. After I finished with my jokes, the real anxiety, sadness, and listlessness spewed out of me.  Mom patiently listened, and while she agreed that the trophy wife deal is probably the best idea I've had, she suggested that most researchers probably feel overwhelmed and lose confidence when they arrive in the field.  After crying out my frustrations, she helped me decide that I should just give it time and continue with my plans (keeping my eyes open for the right Mr. Rich while I'm at it).

In the next few days I made phone calls and had dinner dates with dissertating Vanderbilt grad students who confirmed my mom's suspicions that many people lose confidence and desire to conduct their research after arriving in the field, but that given time, confidence returns.  As per usual, I learned a lot from those conversations with my incredible friends.  I learned that whatever I'm feeling there's a movie or a song that explains the emotion perfectly.  I learned that laughter can always dry my tears.  And I was also reminded that a dissertation is nothing more than one component of a job application.  I decided to laugh away my fears and keep a broad view on what matters most in research, and in life.

With a new mindset (there is a sign for this concept that is so beautiful and descriptive its making me think that I should do a VLOG--video blog--instead of this blog) I signed up for the Gallaudet campus tour and bought my books for ASL class.   That evening after my tour Lauri and I were chatting on the couch when Serena walked over to her karaoke machine and plugged in her iTouch (around the whole house I see lots of evidence of music: the karaoke machine, large speakers, a toy keyboard,a  recorder, and CD's of music from Serena's favorite Broadway shows are all within eyeshot of the living room).  Serena pressed play on her iTouch and Katy Perry’s “Firework” began to blast loudly from the tall speakers in the living room. Then, without any prompting, she began to sign the lyrics.  I quickly picked up my iPhone and frantically searched for the video function.  I was able to record most of the song.  (Video below.)  It seemed pretty clear to me that Serena had done this ASL version of Katy Perry’s song before (perhaps for a school performance).  She remembered most of the signs, and only got lost a few times.

The beauty of the performance, its impromptu nature, the significance of the lyrics, and the fact that I had been feeling guilty for not working earlier in the day all came together for me and brought tears to my eyes.   Serena was beautiful.  The signs were beautiful.  The song's message:  be yourself, love yourself, and burst into the world with full force.  I'm sure Serena’s innoncence as a child would have been enough to bring me to tears, but the everything together was even more special for me.  I was reminded then and there why I want to do this project on music and Deaf culture.  Music is an incredibly powerful commodity for individuals, and I am certain its power is not limited to the ears of hearing individuals.  

It seems like fate that Serena was there to remind me of why I feel so passionate about this research and why I should continue it even through the valleys of lost confidence and depression.  After all, she is the one that started me on this path with her statement: "When I'm with Deaf people, I'm Deaf.  When I'm with hearing people, I'm hard of hearing.  When I listen to music, I'm hearing."

So, that was a lovely fairytale story with the a setting, characters, climax, and a tightly wrapped ending.  But we all know that reality isn't as neatly organized.  I've been thinking a lot about Serena's performance. My first reaction to its beauty is probably the typical hearing person's reaction: "Oh what a cute little deaf girl signing along with Katy Perry."  I know that culturally Deaf people's reactions to interpreting music would not exactly be favorable.  In fact, this kind of music appreciation has been looked down upon by many Deaf people as labeled "derogatory" to Deaf culture.  Serena's performance can be understood as a standard "hearing" way to consume music because its nothing more than a lose English translation.  Its been suggested that music does have a role in Deaf culture that is not just translation, and I see many examples of that around me (e.g., Signmark--video below).  But what is that role?  How does music function in the Deaf community?  What are the differences and similarities for deaf/hearing consumers of music?  Curious?  So am I.  I'll write a dissertation on that and keep you posted.  ;-)

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