Last week while walking back to work from lunch with a colleague, I kicked a small dog. Hard. The owner shot daggers at me and of course, I was horrified. I apologized profusely but I was still pierced by the withering glare of the pup’s daddy.
It happened while we were walking along a typical New York sidewalk up 8th Avenue in Chelsea -not too wide and relatively crowded with other hurried pedestrians. I was intently reading Sarah’s lips and trying to keep up with our conversation concerning a business project -all the while navigating what I couldn’t see in front of me because my eyes and head were turned toward her face. Sideswiped someone’s grocery bag but not so much that they dropped it. Near-missed a wheel-chair ramp railing exiting a building -only mildly dinging my right hip against the metal pole. Almost stepped off a curb into direct traffic. And then on complete accident, I kicked the pooch that had magically landed in front of me just outside of my lip-reading periphery.
Let’s talk about lip reading. More importantly, the experience of relying on lip-reading. In my 38 years of living as a hard-of-hearing person, one comment I receive the most is how “amazing it is that I can read lips so well” and it’s usually followed by garden-variety comment such as “you could be a spy” or “what am I saying?” and that sometimes leads to the obligatory game of repeating back silently mouthed phrases.
“What’s my name?”
“Can you read my lips?”
“What am I saying?”
After the fun little game is completed, I debate whether it wouldn’t be inappropriate to hand over a t-shirt that says “I’m certified.”
Another droll routine occasionally occurs when I meet any random stranger and we have a conversation. Often times, at some point in the initial conversation I may have to explain that I am hard-of-hearing and that I need for that person to stop playing with their moustache or to remove his or her hand away from his/her mouth so that I can have full view of the two lips that are forming the words.
This is where the circus act comes in. When said person fully comprehends that I am indeed reading their lips, they do the worst possible thing. They start to articulate. And by articulate, I mean go into extreme slo-mo with wild, almost unnatural gelationous mouth movements. I suddenly think of Jim Carrey performing some obnoxious scene and it becomes very difficult for me to maintain a straight face -much less understand what is being said. Some will even offer some strangled form of hand-gestures that are supposed to pass for sign-language. And I don’t even know sign-language.
I gently explain that I don’t need for them to…ahem…articulate. After all, I was “reading” just fine moments ago. All that was needed was for that particular visual obstacle -such as a hand or a piece of masticated debris to be removed. Yet the eyes go wide and the extraordinary articulation continues. And the hand gestures don’t quite go….away. It’s in these particular cases that I want to hand the winning person a t-shirt that reads, “I”m certifiable.”
Lip-reading a large group can be likened to watching a hyper game of table tennis -with more than two players and more than two sides of a table. One of the challenges of effective group lip-reading is to find the person is talking among the bunch. This can be quite taxing in a larger group -especially when sitting around a square or rectangular table. So the trick is to settle your sights on one or two people who appear to be doing most of the talking and in the meantime fill in the blanks yourself so that you can remain an active part of the conversation -or at least have your contributions maintain some relevance to the current subject matter.
That trick, though, has a few caveats. At the very same lunch mentioned above, another classic lip-reading moment occurred. As it was a Friday afternoon that we went for our meal, we were all talking about our plans for the upcoming weekend. I asked a co-worker directly across from me if she was planning to go to visit her boyfriend in Pennsylvania. She replied yes and the conversation eventually led to the pro’s and con’s of living outside of the city -meaning NYC. More space, less people to deal with, less noise, cheaper housing….and so on.
I explained that we have two dogs and that we were lucky because we have a backyard, which is unheard of in Manhattan but we did not have a car. She mentioned that her boyfriend had what I thought she said a dog. I asked her what kind and she replied, “a Mercedes”. My brain automatically started to try to picture what a “mercedes dog” looked like. Troubled, I asked her how big it was.
She looked at me and said, “um…not that big”. I told her I had never heard of a mercedes dog and what did it look like? Her eyes went wide and she looked at me for a brief ten seconds. Suddenly, it clicked. She smiled and said, “He has a CAR.” Oh! A car. (shit.) We both snickered for a few moments and the conversation went on.
“Car”, “dog”. That makes sense. One syllable words with vowels that look the same in a darkened Mexican restaurant where the margaritas are flowing.
Moments later, I swung my eyes to another co-worker -employing the same trick of watching a person who is a lively participant to get a sense of where the general conversation was at. Someone asked her who she was going to an event with and she coyly replied, “My lover” but because I was not used to that type of reference and I knew that she had a boyfriend with whom she lived, I thought she said, “Meat lover”. I smiled at her and told her that I thought that was cute that she called her boyfriend “Meat lover”.
She and I gazed at each other silently. I ran through the possibilities in my head… “Meat Lover. Why she she call him ‘meat-lover’? What does that mean? Is it a pervy reference of some sort? Is it really that he just loves his meat? What kind of meat, exactly? Or wait, is he an extreme vegetarian?” My imagination went straight down and through the rabbit hole. Her eyebrows went up, she smiled wanly, pointed to herself and said, “My lover.” We both started laughing so hard because oddly enough, even though it was not what she originally said, “meat lover” still made sense.
Lip-reading has been a life-saver for me. I’m able to participate in a mainstream lifestyle with very little additional aid and for that, I’m grateful. But make no mistake, lip-reading absolutely has its hazards. Meter maid poles, fire hydrants, uneven sidewalks, car bumpers, scaffolding towers, conversational disconnects that lead to wild goose chases, misinformation and the maiming of small animals.