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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.

“A Few Haiku & Senryu (56)”

(c) 2023 by Michael L. Utley

(#331)

dusty stew pot
her memory lingers by
the cold hearth

…..

(#332)

a tiny sun
in this cold dark hell
golden suisen

…..

(#333)

strings of koto
from beyond the bamboo grove
my heart breaks again

…..

(#334)

don’t look at me, moon
I’m not who you think I am
dark night of the soul

…..

(#335)

from my window
the mountain; from the mountain
eternity

…..

(#336)

green silence
and the end of all things
sea of trees

(Note: A bit of a title change for this series. I’ve been writing senryu almost as long as haiku and I figured it was time to clarify that these little collections contain both. Haiku pertain to nature and seasons, while senryu address the human condition. The formats are virtually identical; the subject matter differs.)

“Pussy Willow Catkin on Twig”

Pussy Willow Catkin on Twig, near Trout Lake, southwest Colorado (c) Mike Utley

Trout Lake, near the small town of Telluride in southwestern Colorado, is my second-favorite spot on Planet Earth, just behind Heceta Head Lighthouse on the central Oregon Coast. I’ve posted a few images of the lake itself, snugly nestled in the laps of Sheep Mountain, Vermilion Peak, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob amid pine and spruce forests, aspens and a cornucopia of wild flowers. A dirt road circumnavigates the lake, wending its way closer to the peaks and through the woods and bogs. A narrow wooden bridge, which had fallen into disrepair the last time I was there, spans a creek halfway around the lake. It was here, near the collapsed bridge, while photographing elkslip and other wild flowers one summer evening in the late 1990s, that I noticed a lone pussy willow catkin perched on a twig.

I’ve always been enamored with these diminutive delights, tiny and soft and so aptly named (honestly, the term “catkin” is sort of giggle-inducing). There were no willows where I lived on the farm so I’d never had the opportunity to photograph these little guys until now. The light was quickly fading so I set to work. The compositional goal was to isolate the twig and catkin against the background by using a wide aperture setting to blur the background into a solid mass of color in order to make the subject stand out as much as possible. I wanted to express a little story with this image, too, a vignette of the early stages of life, its uphill battle to reach maturity, and the uncertainty that awaits all of us at the end. The catkin was placed on a power-point in the lower left, with the gentle upward arc of the twig leading across the frame to…what? What lies ahead? What of that sudden drop-off at the end of the twig? In life, we may think we have a plan, a goal for the future, but in reality we’re all flying blind. At any moment, our own personal twigs may end abruptly, plummeting us into oblivion. I envisioned the tiny catkin feeling trepidation at the beginning of its journey, leaning back in fear…perhaps steeling itself to perform a Naruto run to the end of the twig and take flight into the unknown. In this brief pause on the cusp of its decision, the air was utterly still, and not a sound came from the forest. Even the ever-present mosquitoes held their collective breaths as they awaited what was coming. I like to think the catkin was preparing itself, screwing up its courage, and calming itself in the cool air and verdant green silence of the woods. And then…

…it’s up to you to decide what happened next. I haven’t returned to this place in years. I hope the catkin’s journey was a happy one, and as brief as this blossom’s lifespan may have been in the grand scheme of things, its ethereal beauty fit right at home in the green silence of the forest, among elkslip, wild irises and columbines. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“A Summer’s Field in Winter” published at MasticadoresIndia

I’m happy to announce that my poem “A Summer’s Field in Winter” has been published at MasticadoresIndia. I’m so grateful to Terveen Gill and her team for their support and kindness in publishing my poem. Terveen’s enthusiasm for writing inspires everyone and is such a wonderful catalyst for creativity. I’m both excited and humbled to have my poetry included at MasticadoresIndia. Thanks so much, Terveen!

“A Summer’s Field in Winter”

“let us sift through summer’s solemn ashes
let us scavenge rusted hopes from twisted
hulks of yesterdays amid the swelter
and the din of frigid silence
as crows circle…”

I’d be grateful if you would check out the rest of my poem by clicking this link. Also, be sure to follow and subscribe to MasticadoresIndia—it’s a wonderful place for those who love writing.

“A Few Haiku (55)”

(c) 2023 by Michael L. Utley

(#325)

to write is to breathe
and I am suffocating
in silence

…..

(#326)

speak again of joy
and the warmth of summer days
your lies are comforting

…..

(#327)

pond ice
stretched thin as hope
and equally deceptive

…..

(#328)

some write of joy
I write of experience
would they were the same

…..

(#329)

pardon my sorrow
and forgive my weeping soul
a poet’s lament

…..

(#330)

hope comes and goes
and lasts for but a season
winter snow

Featured Blogger at Myths of the Mirror Blog

I’m particularly delighted to announce my good friend and fellow writer Diana Wallace Peach has chosen to feature my blog on her Weekend Blog Share at Myths of the Mirror blog. I’m deeply humbled that she chose to showcase my blog this week. Diana is an accomplished writer and poet and her blog is a treasure trove for anyone who loves good writing and amazing story-telling. She’s also one of the kindest, most supportive and encouraging people you could ever hope to meet. Thanks so much, Diana, for this honor. I truly appreciate it, my friend!

You can check out Diana’s Weekend Blog Share post by clicking this link.

“Sandstone Formation & Tree”

Sandstone Formation & Tree, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Lisbon Valley is a relatively nondescript region in southeast Utah near Canyonlands National Park. While its redrock sandstone formations don’t rival the majesty of those found in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, it has its own hidden marvels, its own unique personality. In the late 1990s, I spotted this rock formation while exploring one late-autumn evening. I was intrigued by several aspects of this scene: the contrasting, opposing oranges and blues; the split-personality of the formation, with half in bright sunset light and the other half in dark shadows; and the looming presence of the formation compared to the diminutive form of the lone juniper tree on the left. And above all, a contemplative stillness. Some might say there’s a David-and-Goliath theme here, a sense of immutable power being challenged by stalwart–if fragile–determination. However, I see something else here…a sense of sorrow, a reaching-out from weakness to strength as the tree casts its shadow on the base of the tower in supplication, as if seeking consolation. A sense of loneliness and isolation. I identify with that juniper tree. I feel deeply that sense of yearning to be a part of something but always finding myself standing on the outside, looking in. Try as it might, the closest that tree will ever come to connecting with that rock is by casting its shadow upon it once a day just before the cold night falls. Such is life in the desert; such is life in this world. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“A Few Haiku (54)”

(c) 2022 by Michael L. Utley

(#319)

the trees believed once
before they lost everything
the lies of winter

…..

(#320)

for whom do you seek
there’s no one here but me
long night moon

…..

(#321)

fetch the sickle moon
let us harvest ice blossoms
winter star fields

…..

(#322)

sorrows of autumn
kindle the warmth of winter
the blazing hearth

…..

(#323)

this bitter cold
reminds me I’m alive
and why I wish I weren’t

…..

(#324)

in each flake
a brief eternity
the grief of winter

“A Few Haiku (53)”

(c) 2022 by Michael L. Utley

(#313)

my world begins and ends
at my window
lonely winter moon

…..

(#314)

blood and feathers
the sky falls into my palm
a young boy’s shame

…..

(#315)

calligraphy of sorrow
etched on her wrists
autumn’s demise

…..

(#316)

fast asleep
in the heron’s belly
the stilt hut

…..

(#317)

one cup one bowl one spoon
and a thousand silences
winter’s bitter feast

…..

(#318)

when it’s time to laugh
I will laugh; until then
let me cry

“Odysseus” published at MasticadoresIndia

I’m delighted to announce that my poem “Odysseus” has been published at MasticadoresIndia. I’m so grateful to Terveen Gill and her team for their support and kindness in publishing my poem. Terveen is a writer’s greatest ally and her steadfast encouragement is a bottomless font of inspiration. I’m both honored and humbled to have my poetry included at MasticadoresIndia. Many thanks, Terveen!

“Odysseus”

“I saw Odysseus sprawled on the sidewalk between
The squalid little deli and the boarded-up
All-night video place whose weather-stained
Posters advertised GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS
Amid obtuse indecipherable graffiti and
A fallen constellation of multi-hued shards of
Broken glass that crunched underfoot like
Bone fragments
The patina of snow about him
Pristine in its absence of footprints from
Passers-by…”

I’d be grateful if you would check out the rest of my poem by clicking this link. Also, be sure to follow and subscribe to MasticadoresIndia—it’s a wonderful place for those who love writing.

“Blue Lupine & Water Droplets”

Blue Lupine & Water Droplets, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

There’s nothing quite like a country rain. In the region where I live, summer thunderstorms bring the arid landscape to life as everything seems to shimmer and glow, and the scents of wet sage, pine, juniper, earth and fresh air assault one’s olfactory sense like a heady brew. In this image from the late 1990s, this blue lupine had found refuge beneath a pinyon pine and rode out the storm relatively unscathed, unlike many others that were damaged by the intensity of falling rain and were left standing among tatters of petals. Macro-photography is fascinating, especially when exploring the hidden inner worlds of wild flowers, and this lupine made a perfect subject with its brilliant hues and clinging raindrops. I’m left with the impression of each individual blossom craning skyward, open-mouthed, in an attempt to drink in as much rain as possible. In an area that receives around ten inches of precipitation annually, summer rains are vital for the environment to remain balanced (and also pose the threat of wildfires). The beauty of wild flowers is exquisite and all-too-brief, so capturing these examples of nature’s haiku was a priority for me during my days as a nature photographer. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)