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“The Deaf Guy”

Let’s talk about labels, shall we? You know, those quaint little terms people give to one another to justify demonization and dehumanization? Yeah, those things. Whether it’s third-grade bullies on the playground harassing the kid who’s a little different, or the former leader of the free world calling immigrants “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” in order to justify kidnapping children and placing them in cages, all of it really comes from the same dark place.

Humans have a disturbing capacity to attack those who are different. “Otherism” serves this purpose well and has been used to justify the most heinous acts in human history. It’s a power-trip, one-upmanship to the extreme. You want to control an individual or a group of people? Stick a label on them, preferably an unsavory one that dehumanizes them, and suddenly you have the power to destroy them because they are outsiders, interlopers, outcasts, others.

Religion and politics have a rich history of otherism and persecution of those who don’t belong to their specific ideologies. It’s been said that more people have died in the name of some god or other than for any other reason in history. Whether this is accurate or not is beside the point; a look around the world throughout mankind’s infestation of this planet shows that history is rife with persecution, torture and murder of those who don’t adhere to a particular religious system, no matter what system it may be. As for politics, we need only look at our own two-party system here in the U.S., where the party which is hell-bent on destroying democracy considers the other party a cabal of satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles and uses this dangerous and ridiculous cult conspiracy theory to justify its attempts to overturn our elections and overthrow our government, not to mention its constant dehumanization and labeling of marginalized groups such as immigrants, LGBTQ+, people of color, the elderly, disabled and poor and anyone else who is “different.” Again, a glance at history will show atrocities committed against others as a central thread of human evolution.

What does this have to do with a deaf blog, you may ask? A lot, actually (and thanks for asking).

I’ve been labeled for various reasons throughout my life. I was born and raised in a particular western U.S. state notorious for being dominated by one particular religious system. I don’t belong to that particular religious system, so there was plenty of discrimination during my school years. It was made clear to me early on that I was an outcast, a pariah, and would forever be an outsider unless I became “one of them” and ceased to be “one of the others.” Academically, athletically and socially, there was discrimination. I even had a “pet bully” who delighted in terrorizing me for years for no apparent reason. I was simply “the non-mormon kid.” I was also “the out-of-town farm kid,” which further disqualified me from any semblance of equality and inclusion in that tight little wad of happy humanity at school. My home life wasn’t much better– I was simply invisible.

Labels are sticky things, hard to peel off once applied, and when you find yourself covered in them, sometimes you begin to believe them. You become overly sensitive to them, and yet desensitized to them at the same time—a strange paradox. Some labels contain a kernel of truth but are applied in such a way as to exaggerate that truth into something monstrous. This is especially painful with regards to physical traits and can haunt these victims for life. Some may be a nod to some personality trait or other quirk and may seem humorous to some. I was “the brain” in school due to my academic efforts (trying to fit in, an exercise in futility). At home I was “the disrespectful kid” for standing up to my abusive father. At various other times I held other odd titles, some of which were sort of funny and others which weren’t funny at all.

Many years ago, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets and mopping floors (there are not a lot of options in rural areas for deaf people). I was known as “the janitor guy.” Of all the people who worked there, only one person ever took the time to learn my name. Otherwise, it was “Hey, Janitor Guy! Come clean up this mess!” The thing with labels is they’re lazy. It takes zero effort to make up some cute little moniker for someone in order to lop that person into some anonymous group of others, but it takes effort to see that person as a unique human being. To everyone in that store (except Arnie—thanks, man), I was just “the janitor guy,” a sub-species of Earth organism not worthy of attention or inclusion. Sure, I cleaned toilets, but that didn’t define me as a person. It was only something I did for awhile and had no bearing on my humanity and my place in the cosmos.

And now I’m “the deaf guy.”

Again, there’s a kernel of truth here (heck, there’s an entire cob’s worth of kernels), but this label bothers me on a particularly deep level. You see, I don’t want to be deaf. Deafness has taken too much away from me for me to harbor any warm, fuzzy feelings about it. It’s not a cute label (like being “the Star Wars fanatic” as a teen), and it’s certainly not something I cherish (unlike “brother” or “friend” or “uncle”). This label just cuts too deeply and has produced too many scars.

Whenever I interact with anyone, the first thing I must explain is that I’m deaf. This immediately creates the scenario of “Hearing Person and Deaf Guy: A Study in Frustration, Confusion and Humiliation.” Right off the bat, I’ve become the deaf guy, and this is how everyone who interacts with me remembers me. It’s inescapable and there’s no way around it and it forces me into that group of nameless others who reside along the periphery of normal human experience.

Man: “Honey, guess what I saw in the store today? A deaf guy!”

Woman: “A deaf guy? Oh! Was he deaf?”

Man: “Yes!”

Woman: “Was he confused?”

Man: “Yes!”

Woman: “Was he embarrassed?”

Man: “Yes. He was deaf, after all!”

(cue canned laughter and sitcom music as scene fades to commercial)

Obviously, I joke about this stuff (if I didn’t have a sense of humor, I don’t know how I could ever possibly cope with deafness or depression or anything else) but it’s to prove a point: the hearing and the deaf live in completely different worlds. For someone such as myself, who experienced late-onset adult deafness due to meningitis as a teen, I’m not only “the deaf guy,” I’m also a member of the sub-group of others called “the in-betweeners.” I’m too deaf to fit into the hearing world, but not deaf enough to fit into the Deaf world.

I have severe hearing loss in both ears. I lip-read but it’s all guesswork and I miss a lot of words to the point where I must rely on people writing or typing what they say in order to understand. I can still hear some sounds. I don’t know sign language, and even if I did, I don’t know anyone who’s deaf or hard-of-hearing or who knows ASL. So, yeah, I’m one of the “too something but not something enough” subgroup of others. I remember my normal hearing days and miss them. I know a little about Deaf culture (something I’ll write about soon) and there is virtually nothing in my rural area in terms of deaf support services or groups. I view my deafness as a disability, something that runs counter to the view of many Deaf folks. Perhaps if I’d been born deaf or lost my hearing as a young child, I’d be more inclined to embrace it as an identity rather than a disability. As it stands now, deafness has robbed me of my life’s dream of becoming a musician; it has resulted in isolation and the inability to relate to other people; it has damaged my sense of self and has resulted in a lot of pain and loneliness. I can’t view that as a good thing no matter how hard I try.

Alas, I have to accept it at some point. It’s the only way to achieving peace within myself. I don’t want to be the deaf guy forever. I want to be Mike, a guy who has value as a human being, who just happens to be deaf. No more labels. Just truth.

“Mountain Reflections at Saint Mary Lake”

Mountain Reflections at Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana (c) Mike Utley

In August 1996, I made a trip to Montana to see my buddy Jeff. While I was there, we visited Glacier National Park, a sprawling piece of heaven along the northern border of the state. We didn’t have much time—only one day to spend in the park—so making images was a challenge as I was at the mercy of the clock. In the late afternoon of this day, we drove past Saint Mary Lake and, upon seeing the spectacular reflections of the clouds and peaks on the water’s surface, we stopped for a few minutes and I ran across the road and set up my tripod. I wanted to capture the mountain and cloud reflections along with the shaded rocks in the immediate foreground, so my trusty 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens was used. The lake was nearly mirror-smooth, and the clouds were sublime. I like the understated personality of the foreground rocks and the overall blue tones of the image. Glacier National Park can’t be experienced properly in one day—indeed, it would take a lifetime to explore—but I did the best with what I was given and I have some good memories of the day. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Rocks & Tower at Big Spring Canyon”

Rocks & Tower at Big Spring Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Big Spring Canyon, located in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah, offers an intimate view of the majesty of the region’s canyon country. It’s a microcosm of the vastness and diversity of the park, sporting canyons, sandstone towers, sheer cliffs, overlooks, and a variety of geological formations. During this particular visit, I caught the late-evening light bathing the landscape in a warm glow as distant storm clouds hovered above the horizon beneath a sheet of cirrus clouds. The multi-layered cloudscape added character to the scene, and the blue sky contrasted nicely with the varied earth tones of the rocks. I like the way the lighter-toned rock in the foreground, replete with lichen whorls, stands out against the darker formations and anchors the scene as the distant brooding clouds ponder the arid landscape. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Lone Cone & Wild Flowers”

Lone Cone & Wild Flowers, near Groundhog Reservoir, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

The Lone Cone is a local icon in southwest Colorado. Located in the San Miguel Mountains about 24 miles from the town of Telluride, its 12,618-foot cone can bee seen from many miles in all directions. It resembles a pyramid on the horizon, and was clearly visible from the farm on which I was raised in southeast Utah. It’s a favorite local attraction of mine and I have several images of this peak. This particular image was made just beyond Groundhog Reservoir, about an hour and a half from where I live. It was early summer of 1995 and the wild flowers (mule’s ears, monkshood and lupine in this case) were just beginning to proliferate in the mountains. This vast meadow leading to the Lone Cone was awash in yellow and purple, and the late-afternoon sun warmed the flowers and the peak while a host of perfect summer clouds caressed the the sky.

This image was selected by the Bureau of Land Management’s Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colorado for the cover of an archaeology textbook and accompanying CD in the late-1990s. Art Director Wayne Rice used the image as a background and layered several graphic elements on top. The original cloudy sky was removed and replaced with a gradient fill to allow the text to stand out more effectively. I was given proper credit for the use of my photograph on the credits page inside the book.

Textbook Cover–Wayne Rice, BLM

In 2001, this same image was again chosen by the BLM’s Anasazi Heritage Center for a poster commemorating National Archaeology and Historic Preservation Month in May of that year. Once again, Art Director Wayne Rice replaced the sky with a gradient fill and added graphic elements to the image to convey some of the historic aspects of Colorado’s past. A total of 7,000 posters were printed for this project and distributed throughout Colorado. After the release of the posters, I was told that Gale Norton, then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior, had one of the posters on display in her office in Washington D.C. What a thrill this was for me! It’s next to impossible to see, but the last two lines in the credits at the bottom of the poster list my name as the photographer. As a perk for contributing to the project, I received five copies of the poster.

Poster–Wayne Rice, BLM

It was a pleasant experience to work with Wayne Rice at the Anasazi Heritage Center on these two projects, and I was honored to be recognized in the credits of both projects as the creator of the image. Seeing up-close the process of a single image making its way into a finished product was intriguing and satisfying. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“A Few Haiku (38)”

(c) 2022 by Michael L. Utley

(#223)

sorrow begets joy
from the ashes of my soul
a columbine

…..

(#224)

what can harsh words rend
that kind words cannot assuage
the healing rain

…..

(#225)

under starless skies
my heart sings a silent dirge
night wind in the trees

…..

(#226)

my regrets are mine
my shame wears my haggard face
my soul weeps alone

…..

(#227)

vagaries of life
my heart’s buoyancy in doubt
on my soulless sea

…..

(#228)

what my heart demands
my mind cannot comprehend
and my soul rejects

“Columbine Cluster on Talus Slope”

Columbine Cluster on Talus Slope, Alta Lakes, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

Alta Lakes are a handful of small alpine lakes in the Uncompahgre National Forest near the town of Telluride in southwest Colorado. Perched above 11,000 feet in elevation, these tiny lakes epitomize the wild, rugged beauty of the Colorado Rockies. As I hiked near the lakes one summer afternoon in the late 1990s, I came across a talus slope at the foot of a cliff near one of the lakes. The broken rocks were painted with multi-hued lichen, and navigation of the slope was treacherous (these rocks were real ankle-breakers). Columbines clung to life amid the slabs of stone, and this particular cluster nestled precariously on the steep slope. The overcast lighting was perfect to enhance and saturate the already brilliant colors of the flowers and lichen and to eliminate harsh shadows—perfect lighting for flower photography. I like how the blossoms and leaves are separated along a diagonal line, and how the textures of the stones just seem to beg to be caressed. The contrast between the harsh, rough surfaces of the rocks and the delicate softness of the blooms and leaves is startling, and shows how tenacious life can be in high-altitude alpine settings. There’s a timeless feeling to this place, a silence that permeates the forest and peaks, an almost reverential hush in which these flowers exist but for a moment in the eternity of the embrace of the mountains. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“A Few Haiku (37)”

(c) 2022 by Michael L. Utley

(#217)

clarity sundered
in the swelter and the din
of scorched memories

…..

(#218)

fitting denouement
thoughtless birds and bitter breeze
signify the end

…..

(#219)

I behold the stars
through the blurred prisms of tears
hope is beyond reach

…..

(#220)

holes in the pockets
of my soul; I lost myself
somewhere on the way

…..

(#221)

aloof stars shine on
while constellations of lives
perish on the earth

…..

(#222)

take my hand, my friend
do not cry, do not despair
you are not alone

“Sea Stacks Near Newport”

Sea Stacks Near Newport, Yaquina Head State Park, Oregon (c) Mike Utley

The town of Newport is situated along Oregon’s central coast and is home to a few notable attractions such as the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Yaquina Head Lighthouse. During my stay in Oregon in the mid-’90s, I visited both places multiple times. In 1995, Keiko, the orca featured in the film Free Willy, was a resident of the aquarium and I was able to see this majestic killer whale in person. It was both exciting and disturbing to see Keiko as he swam restlessly and dispassionately in his tank, his drooping dorsal fin a sign of possible illness, injury or stress from captivity. He was eventually relocated and reintroduced into the wild off Norway’s coast, where he succumbed to pneumonia in 2003. His story is a sad one, and I was fortunate to be able to see this wonderful orca up close. Yaquina Head Lighthouse is north of Newport and oversees the area like a sentry. On this December evening in 1995, I had my back to the lighthouse as I photographed sea stacks in the bay, with Newport in the distance. The soft lighting rendered the scene in a gentle lavender hue, and as I made this image, a nine-inch-long banana slug meandered by in its slow, lugubrious way to the left of my tripod, leaving a slime trail in its wake. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“A Few Haiku (36)”

(c) 2022 by Michael L. Utley

(#211)

the empty cistern
my poetry garden dies
in this wordless drought

…..

(#212)

that cur depression
skulks on the periphery
hyper-vigilant

…..

(#213)

thoughts bereft of words
prisoners inside my head
silent penitence

…..

(#214)

desiccated soul
slakes its thirst from murky meres
roams my sunless mind

…..

(#215)

mental exhaustion
I can no longer pretend
everything is fine

…..

(#216)

parts of me have died
that no one will ever know
nor will ever mourn

“Textured Boulder & Big Indian Rock”

Textured Boulder & Big Indian Rock, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Lisbon Valley is a red rock desert region in southeast Utah which lies a few miles northwest of the farm on which I was raised. Compared to other nearby desert areas such as Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, it’s rather nondescript, lacking the dramatic deep canyons, arches, pillars and rivers of its neighboring kin, yet it holds a special place in my heart. To me, the valley’s stand-out feature is Big Indian Rock, a blade of sandstone reaching above the sage- and boulder-strewn floor below. During my first visit there with my camera, I was fascinated by a huge, angular slab of red rock which had apparently broken off from Big Indian Rock in the distant past and tumbled to the flats below. This boulder was covered in an incredible array of pits, gouges and mottled patches of lighter and darker tones. My first reaction was to juxtapose this weather-etched pattern with the rock tower in the background. A 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens was used to exaggerate the distance between the boulder and the tower, and allowed me to get close enough to the boulder to record its dramatic textures while keeping everything in sharp focus. A polarizing filter was used to eliminate glare from midday rock surfaces in order to better record the colors of the stone, as well as to darken the sky for a more contrasting effect. This image was made in late-March of 1996 and there were patches of snow below the tower (barely visible in this shot), but I recall the day being delightfully pleasant, not just because of the weather, but because it was my introduction to Big Indian Rock and this intriguing “illustrated” boulder. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“La Sal Mountains & Lisbon Valley”

La Sal Mountains & Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Lisbon Valley is located in southeastern Utah and lies a few miles north of the farm on which I was raised. It’s a dynamic landscape of red rock desert and snow-capped mountains that rise incongruously out of nowhere. It’s a place of canyons and sandstone formations, sage brush and rabbit brush, cactus, cheat grass and fox tails, pinyon and juniper trees, as well as coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, jackrabbits and cottontails, mule deer, antelope and elk, hawks, rattlesnakes and other typical desert-dwelling fauna. I photographed this scene from a ridge where the landscape drops off into the desert valley below. Upheaval thrusts are visible, and the La Sal Mountains cling to spring’s last remnants of snow. This image was made in April of 1996 on a bitterly cold late afternoon, where the chill made for numb fingers and frosty exhalations. Metal tripods act as heat sinks during cold weather and freeze hands and fingers. Still, I’m fond of this image as it represents the varied landscape where I was raised. I’ve explored Lisbon Valley numerous times and felt at peace in the vast silence, surrounded by the scents of desert vegetation, warm breezes and clean air, as well as the stark, harsh environment of rock and sand and life that struggles to persist. Lisbon Valley is also home to a large open-pit copper mine (not visible in this image, fortunately) that is extremely unsightly and environmentally hazardous. Local ranchers are rightfully concerned about the high likelihood of contaminated groundwater, but corporate profits are all that seem to matter. Aquifers, habitats, wildlife and natural beauty are no match for some faceless company’s bottom line. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)