ASL at the Seattle Men’s Chorus Christmas show

Last night Chris and I attended Cool Yule, the Seattle Men’s Chorus Christmas production. Before the show started Chris and I were talking about our favorite and least favorite Christmas songs. Turns out his least-favorite Christmas song is Silent Night. I don’t have any particular dislike of the song, but from an ASL perspective it’s pretty darn boring.

All shows are ASL interpreted and what I think is a first, the interpreter even gets billing and a blurb in the program (which actually is a bit unfortunate as he may be a great interpreter, but a terrible writer). Overall I was really impressed with the interpreting, expressive and fun to watch. As always, I would have done a few things differently but that’s pretty much par for the course with any interpreter watching another.

During the second half of Cool Yule, the Chorus performed Silent Night with an oboe. Beautiful but slow. Moreover slow, repetitive songs are really quite boring in ASL and this one is no different. Even worse, the interpreter had really simplified a lot of the signs making it even more boring to watch. And then it all became clear. For after the oboe accompaniment, the Chorus stopped singing and started signing with the interpreter! It was probably the most beautiful rendition with the only sounds in the entire auditorium was the quiet whisper of coat sleeves rubbing together as the Chorus signed. The interpretation wasn’t simplified by lack of imagination, but rather by necessity: the need to teach all the Chorus members the signs and that mass interpreting looks better with simpler signs.

The show was great, at times a smidge too campy for my tastes, but overall very fun.

Update: My good friend had asked why hearing-impaired people would go to a concert beyond supporting a friend or loved one. That’s a good question. IMHO, there are a couple of good reasons: 1) hard-of-hearing people may still have limited hearing and be able to make out the music, but not the words, and hence would be watching an interpreter 2) even completely deaf people enjoy the visual production and can feel the music in the lower range.

Barenaked Ladies – an impossible interpreting challenge

During my cardio workouts I listen to a custom playlist of fast(ish) songs to keep me going. The list has songs from Pink, Maroon 5, Lifehouse, Matchbox 20, Jimmy Eat World, 3 Doors Down, and Barenaked Ladies along with a few others. I’ve heard all the songs enough times that I’ve pretty much figured out how I’d go about interpreting them into ASL should the need ever arise.

[scene location: SxSW]
Panicked Cop: Oh my God, is there an ASL interpreter in the house?
Me: I’m an ASL interpreter.
Panicked Cop: You have to help us, we have an emergency!
Me: What’s wrong, is a Deaf person hurt?
Panicked Cop: No, much worse! Maroon 5 is about to perform and we don’t have anyone to interpret for them!
Me: Never fear – I’ve been training for this moment for months!

The one major exception is several songs by Barenaked Ladies. Do you have any idea what the lyrics to One Week actually means? Eg: “Hot like wasabe when I bust rhymes / Big like LeAnn Rimes / Because I’m all about value” Yeah, me neither.

Maybe that one is a little unfair. But it isn’t as if Some Fantastic is any better although I have a really great interpretation of “I can’t stand to wait in line long / So I built a new machine / It just measures up the distance / and then eliminates the folks between” that I’m just dying to share with someone who will appreciate it.

Alcohol is a better but still a bit challenging due to the personification and direct address of alcohol in addition to another person (“O Alcohol, I still drink to your health” is said to alcohol but “A Malibu and Coke for you” is obviously not). By no means is that unsurmountable but does take a careful reading of the lyrics to parse through it.

The take-away is that you shouldn’t come looking for me if BNL need an interpreter for their shows. Instead I’ll show up to sit directly in front of the interpreter to see what he/she does with some of that crazyness!

ASL music videos

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of Britney Spears — that job falls to my lovely husband. That in no way negates the awesomeness of the interpretation of the songs.

I came across these two videos today on YouTube of an ASL interpreter doing an amazing “music video” of two of Britney Spears’ songs Womanizer and Kill the Lights. I thought he did a really great job on both songs. I like some of his conceptual signs on Womanizer, signs that made me go “ohh, that’s a great way to interpret that”. He used a couple of signs that I’m not familiar with that I’ll be asking Tracy about on Saturday. I kept nodding when he interprets the chrous to Kill the Lights as I saw myself interpreting that very similarly.

Interpreting at Flatirons

This weekend I interpreted for Flatirons Community Church for the first time. Overall it went very well. A Flatirons’ service strongly resembles a service at Gateway: there are a handful of contemporary worship songs, announcements, the band plays a cover song, the sermon, and a final worship song or two. The order can change but the basic components are generally there.

The worship songs are fairly straightforward and you usually interpret them ‘frozen’ meaning almost word-for-word instead of conceptual. This is because the words are up on the screen and the Deaf are signing along with you. Everything else you can generally sign ASL which uses more conceptual signs.

The cover song can be literally anything. In Gateway I recall interpreting a Nirvana song for example. This past Sunday at Flatirons it was Dig by Incubus. Interpreting it was an interesting endeavor since it uses the word ‘dig’ in many different contexts: to pick on, to like someone, to move dirt. I try to honor the writer’s intent of such play on words with similar signs, hand shapes when doing signs, or movement between signs but in this case I had to toss it out altogether and go with just the concepts. I thought it turned out OK.

The announcements are usually a very straightforward interpreting exercise. This Sunday, however, they played a video of someone standing outside in the snow doing the announcements. He starts out “It’s really cold out here so this is going to be quick.” and then he starts speed-reading the announcements. Interpreting someone reading something can be challenging as people speak faster when they are reading something than if they are speaking normally. Interpreting someone speed reading something is oh-my-gosh impossible. I did manage to convey all of the announcements but for two of them I bailed and signed “see your program for more information”.

There are some distinct differences on how the Gateway production team interacted with their Deaf ministry folks (ie: me) compared to Flatirons, and I have to say that Flatirons has the upper hand. One important aspect is that I’m an interpreting peon and no longer a ministry leader — I like it better this way! Someone else (Tracy) told me when to show up and where to download the music and lyrics ahead of time. Another difference is that the Flatirons production crew sets up and breaks down our interpreting station (stool, music stand with music, light, and TV monitor!) whereas at Gateway we fended for ourselves. At Gateway I did have them trained to provide us with copies of the music there at the end, but everything else we had to set up ourselves — and often that involved finding a stand to use from the back. Flatirons does a full dress rehearsal prior to their first service. And I do mean full dress rehearsal — it includes all of the music, the announcements, even the sermon — everything but the prayers if I recall correctly. This was wonderful as you had a chance to sign the music and sermon and struggle through some of the hard concepts to convey before doing it live.

The downside is that you show up 1.5 hours before the first service starts. Add to that the 30 minutes it takes me to get to the church and the same amount of time back and you have a lot of time involved — about 3.5 to 4 hours. This is in sharp contrast to the 1.5 hours needed for interpreting at Gateway (during which I lived 5 minutes from the church). Another downside is that Benjamin is without a car during the time I’m away from the house on a Saturday evening (service is from 5-6pm Saturday). These aren’t going to dissuade me from volunteering but they will severely limit how much I’m able to volunteer my time. Luckily they have several volunteers and we should be able to space folks out accordingly.

The Deaf ministry folks are amazing. I really liked working with them and look forward to doing so again. They are warm, friendly people who I took a liking too immediately. They reminded me of my old Gateway interpreting posse (Terri, Cara, & Jan – I miss you!) although they could never replace them.

I’m looking forward to my next interpreting gig, whenever that time comes. All the interpreters are meeting Jan 11th to go over the plans for the year and I expect I’ll be able to volunteer for dates at that time.

Gateway: Interpreting and being Gay

On Friday, July 21 I received the following email from Ted, the Teaching Pastor at Gateway:

Your ears were probably burning last night, because we were talking about you at the Gay/Lesbian small group. Don’t worry. Everyone who knew you went around the circle and said what an awesome guy you are and what an example you are to them of a Christ-follower. We started talking about you because someone in the group asked about what would happen if a gay person wanted to lead at Gateway. I recalled a conversation that you and I had at Einsteins probably 4 years ago. You told me your story and about your desire to serve God through doing deaf interpretation. I explained to you that I was excited about that. Even back then, though, it was the policy of Gateway to make sure that all spiritual leaders were walking with God in a pure and healthy way and could serve as examples to anyone who looked at their lives. While I think you may have had a different opinion in regards to the application of that policy to gays, we both agreed that your role was not necessarily a spiritual leadership position.

Fast-forward to a few months ago . . . Gary Foran, our Small Groups Pastor, was introducing some people to you after a church service. I believe they had a son or daughter that was interested in studying sign language. Anyway, while you all were talking, you introduced Benjamin as your “partner” to these folks. These were people who didn’t go to Gateway, and Gary felt very uncomfortable about what they would think.

Hey, if I just met some people, and Stephanie [Ted’s wife] was standing next to me, of course I would introduce her has my partner to anyone. It’s just that in this case, it bothered Gary enough to bring it to our Management Team — John, Gary, Charles, and Ted. They started a conversation with me about your role. Some of them feel like it is a position of spiritual leadership — that you are communicating Scripture from up front. I told them that I don’t view it that way. You’re in a serving role, which you do faithfully and sacrificially and with excellence, and it would be a mistake for us to walk around disqualifying people from service just because we had questions about one thing or another in their character.

That’s about as far as the conversation went with those guys, but I get the sense that it’s going to re-surface soon. Recently we removed a woman from a prominent spiritual leadership position because she had an affair and was unrepentant about it. As would be expected, her response was, “What about this person and what about that person? Do you know what they do? Why are you focusing on only me?” And so the past couple of weeks we have been talking through different folks in leadership that we need to have hard conversations with. It’s not going to be pretty.

I can’t help but think that soon I’m going to be asked to have a “talk” with you. That would break my heart because of the friendship I have with you and Benjamin and because of my belief that you are not necessarily in a spiritual leadership position. It would further break my heart because of the ramifications it will have on many in the gay community, whose friendships I also cherish. So, I was wondering if you and I could talk things over unofficially before this goes any further. I want to hear your perspective, and even your frustration. Maybe together we can figure out some kind of solution.

Casey, you and Benjamin are an important part of this church. I’m sure it hurts you tremendously just to read this email. I’m sorry for that. I just think that before the current situation snowballs, we can have a dialogue and figure something out.

You are welcome to share this email with Benjamin, but please keep it confidential until you and I have interacted more about it. We can carry on this conversation via email, phone, or in person.

Wow, what a way to kill my weekend. I thought about it some and replied back with this few hours later, notice the attempt at humor, that’s often what I do initially to compartmentalize when I feel very hurt:

This almost feels like deja vu .

Last night Terri and I held another Silent Dinner for several folks who are helping out with the Deaf ministry at the church. It’s a chance for folks to practice their signing skills as well as for us to get to know each other better. One of the gals asked if I was planning on attending the Kids Quest Party out at the Massengale Ranch and I said that no, I wasn’t because I didn’t want to go without Benjamin and that I’m trying to ‘lay low’ about my sexuality so church leadership doesn’t ask me to stop signing. They asked what I meant so I explained about the standards for church leadership positions, how being gay didn’t fit in that definition, and that I was operating undercover until the church leadership decided that what I did was a leadership position and was asked to stop.

Looks like I didn’t lay low enough. I recognized that the conversation with Gary would probably come back to bite me but such is life.

I’ll tell you what I told the gals last night: I respect that the church *must* have standards for people who are seen as leaders, in fact – I as a layperson demand it. I obviously disagree where being gay falls into these standards but I accept that standards must be set. I’m wanting to ride this train of helping with the deaf ministry for as long as God has me on it. If God decides that he wants me doing something else (or somewhere else) then so be it. Will I be disappointed? Very much so. Will I be frustrated and heartbroken? Yes. Will I be bitter and jaded, only for a few hours :)

I hate to say it, but this really doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Because of that reason I have had some time to think about what I would want to do if I was asked to step down. Despite thinking about it, I don’t have any good answers at this point. Based on the conversation with the women last night and their reaction, I have concerns that the deaf ministry would be severely hindered. I also have some concern about Gateway’s reputation among the gay population who may feel as though they are being treated as second-class citizens (I’m not even sure that I would disagree with them). I hope and pray that neither happen.

Ho humm… not exactly the email I was hoping for on a Friday afternoon. I don’t mind getting together to talk about it if you’d like. I prefer email or in person as Benjamin tells me that my social phone skills are very very poor and that I don’t communicate well via that medium. I agree that keeping this between you, Benjamin and myself is an excellent approach. I appreciate you giving me a ‘heads up’.

On Sunday afternoon I sent him a second email:

Benjamin and his friend Eric were out at the clubs last night and saw Danny Harvill. Danny made a point of asking Benjamin if you had talked to me. My assumption is that Danny is a part of the GLBT small group. I’m curious exactly what was discussed such that they knew you planned to talk to me. According to Benjamin via Danny – a lot of the gay population will be very upset / possibly leaving the church if I am asked to stop. Not sure how much of that is Danny being dramatic (possibly) and/or Benjamin exaggerating (possibly) and/or it being true. but there you have it.

I shared your email with Benjamin. He took the approach that I thought he would and expressed his concern and frustration about attending a church where gay people were not allowed to be leaders. He said that he recognized that he doesn’t expect any church outside of MCC to be totally accepting of gays but he expected more from Gateway. He also said that while he loves the building, the people, the music of Gateway, that he doesn’t need Gateway to worship God and asked why we should attend or financially support a church that doesn’t support us. Granted, he can get pretty dramatic when he’s really passionate about something so take all of that with a grain of salt, but I can’t say that I disagree with his sentiments. [pause] I just want to talk to him about this paragraph and he said his essence is he feels now that he has been supporting a church via One Life that is indirectly working against him.

I reminded him that nothing had been decided for sure yet. After I said those words I had to think about it — the writing is on the wall. I don’t expect the church leadership to change their opinion on this matter so even if it doesn’t end up blowing up now it will always be hanging over my head.

The thing I found truly ironic was your message today. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good message (and a relatively easy one to interpret thankfully) but I found it ironic that here I was, a volunteer who’s volunteering days are possibly numbered, interpreting a message who’s goal was to encourage people to open their eyes to themselves and to God and to go through open doors to serve others either in the church or directly in the community. After the 2nd service today a deaf woman came up to me and introduced herself and thanked me for interpreting for her. She said I did a good job. A hearing woman came up and said that she didn’t understand sign but loved to watch me interpret, particularly the songs. Finally a young man came up and said I did a good job as well and that he was an interpreter too (both of his parents are deaf).

So there you have four rambling paragraphs full of some words but not getting either of us anywhere I fear. Being the analytical person that I am, allow me to make a list of possible future outcomes I can see from this point:

  1. No decision is made (or the decision to not make a decision is made)
    1. I continue interpreting, knowing that the decision might be made at a later time and still feeling like I’m really not welcomed there in my role.
    2. I step down from interpreting as I feel like I am no longer supported by the church staff.
  2. A decision is made to have me step down – I stop interpreting.
    1. I adopt a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy and only tell people why I stopped if ask.
    2. I don’t advertise, but don’t hide, why I stopped.
    3. I lie when asked about why I’m not interpreting (Note: this one won’t happen.)
  3. A decision is made to allow me to continue
    1. I continue interpreting
    2. I stop interpreting due to the knowledge that the reason I’m allowed to continue is due to a technicality of me not being a ‘spiritual’ leader, not actually due to being accepted.

Of course, those don’t really get us anywhere either. I guess the important thing I want to convey is that I don’t feel entirely welcome at the church any longer doing what I love and serving how I feel that God is leading me. That makes me very sad.

Regardless of the decision and outcome I want to ensure that the deaf ministry continues. I also want to ensure that the Gateway gay community stays and feels supported. Finally, I’ve decided that I want all the players in this decision to take responsibility for the final decision and the outcome thereof.

On Sunday evening Ted replies with the following

I really appreciate the thoughtful response in your past two emails. I am really impressed with your reaction — that you want to do what is best the folks in the deaf ministry, but you want the church to act respectfully and fairly. Yes, I can totally see the irony in your situation today. That would have been very hard for me if I had been in your shoes (or in Benjamin’s). I would be very tempted to say “screw it” if I were you, but I hope you don’t.

This is an important opportunity for Gateway to wrestle through what kind of church it is going to be, and I think it is also an opportunity for you to work through what sort of faith community you really want to be in. It’s just much more complex than people want it to be. Certain people on my team want a very black and white response to how we lead leaders and volunteers, a response that doesn’t take into account individual stories. On the other side, I sense from people like Danny and others that this is a very black-and-white issue to them — “You either accept us unconditionally in all aspects, or you don’t. We don’t care what other people think.”

I’m really hoping that all parties can have the courage to wrestle through the gray areas and not abandon the process. A lot is at stake here — a lot of hearts and some very foundational things about our church.

Casey, this is exactly why I came to you unofficially before I might possibly be asked to speak to you officially. I feel like you appreciate the complexity of this more than most people I talk to. And I hope you know that I am willing to put aside assumptions and the need for everything to make perfect sense. Remember, I’m the guy who was willing to meet with you and Benjamin to talk to you about your relationship? That was a risk, and there are many people at Gateway (unfortunately) who would be very angry at me for trying to help two guys improve their love for one another. All of that is to say, I hope I have enough money in the bank with you so that you know my intentions toward you are good. And while you have more at stake in this situation than I do, it still totally sucks for me, too.

Let’s take some time to pray about this and ask God for a wise solution. Are you willing to do that and stay in communication with me on what you are hearing from Him?

So there you have it. I’m not sure what will come of it or what I even want to come of it. There is no easy way out.

Signing Music

As some of you may know, I’m proficient (but not fluent) in American Sign Language (ASL). I regularly interpret for the deaf at my church on Sundays. While I’ve had no formal training, I have taken several classes as the Austin Sign Language School (mostly vocabulary classes) and have interpreted for a few deaf individuals. I’ve considered taking the test and becoming certified in Texas however my receiving (ie: reading ASL) is very poor due to my lack of practice.

One of the things I love to sign is music. I don’t have much of a singing voice (that’s Benjamin’s department) but I have been told by both the deaf, interpreters, and others that I have a knack for signing music. In fact, just last Sunday a hearing woman came up to me after the church service and said that my interpreting was so beautiful that it almost brought her to tears. I, personally, think that’s over the top — but apparently it does move some people.

I should probably take a moment and describe a little bit about our church for you to better understand the rest of this post. I attend church at Gateway Community Church. It is a non-denominational church here in Austin that is very uncontemporary. Each and every Sunday the live band covers a song that 80% of the audience knows and would hear on the radio. To give you an idea, I’ve interpreted at least one song from each of the following: Madonna, Matchbox 20, Hootie and the Blowfish, U2 (lots of those), Green Day, Nickleback, Sherryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, The Police, Sting, The Eagles, Coldplay, and many, many more — you get the idea, this isn’t your normal Baptist Hymnal.

Interpreting music is a bit different than interpreting someone speaking. Typically with music you get the lyrics ahead of time so you know what you’re going to have to interpret whereas with someone speaking you’re good to know the general topic. On the flip side, with someone speaking you just become a living conduit — hear what they are saying into your buffer, parse the meaning, translate that into sign (using a huge mental thesaurus), and sign it a couple of seconds after the speaker has said it while still filling new input into the buffer. The delay really isn’t that important as we’re obviously going for content — the delivery itself just has to be comprehendable. Music on the other hand goes through the same general buffer but to capture the true meaning of a song, the delivery can often be more important than the content being delivered. The interpreter’s movements have to mimic the music, not just convey the meaning, to be truly enjoyable to the deaf. I personally believe that a good song interpretation is part dance.

Interpreting music for the deaf is often very challenging. Think of the last song you heard on the radio. Do you actually know what every word was? If you actually do know all the words think quick: what did the artist mean with those words? Could you explain it to another person? How much of the song’s enjoyment is from the play on words? The rhyming? To interpret a song and do it well you have to break the song down into it’s core meaning and interpret that into signs that convey the same meaning in a way that is visually appealing. Just as a poet or artist might choose a different word to better fit their work, an interpreter might choose a different sign with the same meaning to better fit in with the previous and following signs to make it look better. Now imagine doing that on the fly while trying to maintain sync with the music. Without previous exposure to both the lyrics and the music this is virtually impossible.

There’s a very interesting article titled Keeping deaf fans rockin’ that I saw linked from Fark. I think the article does a great job of showing some of the challenges that deaf interpreters experience when signing songs for the deaf. The article discusses a great deal of the same topics that I’ve touched on although in a much more succinct way.

I’ve interpreted several concerts although all of them have been in a church setting. I’ve interpreted a mini-concert by Wide Awake, Malford Milligan, and others although their names escape me. Usually I have about a week’s notice of the concert and if I’m lucky I can borrow a CD or two from someone to listen to during the week and “get into” the music. I’d like to do more music interpreting but if I’m going to go down that path I really need to get certified first. No time for that now however.