Sunday, April 10, 2005

Training You to Train Your Cat

From the diary: “August 16, 1981

“[Saturday] I rode to town on my bike and bought two cat books from the Sebastopol Book Shop [a used bookstore]. My original intention had been to go down and buy a sign language book from Copperfield’s Books [a new bookstore]. Unfortunately the books cost twice as much as I thought they did. So I bought Training You to Train Your Cat and The Cat Catalog.”

My fascination with Sign Language endures. Spring of ’81 my mother and I had taken a night course. It was a junior college class taught in a classroom of my high school. It disappointed me. I’d expected more than a manual code for English. I didn’t really get clear on the distinction between what that class taught – SEE sign (Signing Exact English) – and ASL (American Sign Language). My mother was taking the class because she was an elementary school teacher and did a lot of subbing in special ed classes. I wanted to sign because I wanted to learn lots of languages. The multiplicity of human languages holds me in thrall. And what could be more different and special than a language enacted on the hands? Sadly SEE sign isn’t special. It was a manual language invented to make teaching English to the deaf less difficult. You perform English in the air. Most ridiculous to me were adding “ed” and “ing” to signs. “I am going now” is I (hold the “I” letter form to chest) + AM (hold the “A” letter form at chin) + GO (hold two “G” letter forms together and tip them forward) + ING (the letter form for “J” backwards) + NOW (corresponds to the ASL). This sort of slow slow talk is just dull. The only useful thing I took from the class was training in the manual alphabet. Not until I started taking ASL classes at Santa Rosa Junior College did I learn how different and how beautiful and amazing American Sign Language is. It’s not just a language coded on the hands but a language built in space.

As to cats. I loved my cat. I liked the idea of getting him to do stuff. But, yeah, I knew he was no youngster so I never really tried the book’s techniques on him. I thought maybe we’d have a new cat soonish. Yes, another book I bought in hopes the book itself would help conjure the conditions for the thing I wanted. I’ve proved bad at teaching myself solely from books.

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