2017, books, dogs, language, San Francisco

Why, 25 Years After Its Invention, My Gibberish Childhood Language Doesn’t Feel So Silly Anymore

When I was five, I invented a gibberish language. It was only spoken, with few rules. Just lots of sonority—a melange of short vowels and palatal and bilabial consonants (“Jabashow oum abishish?”). The language was less about communicating messages, and more about communicating emotions. I never spoke the language as myself, but as my alter ego. I assigned characters to my parents and brother (my brother’s character was named Starlings), and insisted that whenever one person prompted it, everyone else spoke the language in character. And I was not the only one to prompt our gibberish-speak. The lengths my parents went not to stifle my creativity was tremendous.

Though I can’t pinpoint the exact date, my language, much like the Ethiopian Mesmes or Oklahoman Osage, went extinct.

Puppet Pepper

Shortly after the extinction of my language, my childhood dog Pepper was born and brought into our home. It only took a few months before my family and I were speaking for her—and through her. We gave her a high-pitched lispy voice and whenever we shared “her” thoughts, it was in this tone. Really, they were our own thoughts and emotions. My gibberish language had been excavated and revived as Pepper’s voice.

Though they (literally) sounded silly, the gibberish language and my dog’s voice were essential communication tools in my family. Being laughably poor at communicating our emotions, the silliness gave us each an approachable vehicle to do so. It was through Pepper’s voice, for example, that my dad told me that Pepper (really he) would miss me when I went to college—and through Pepper’s voice that I responded.

On Monday night, I attended Eileen Myles’ book reading for their new, Afterglow (a dog memoir). The narration leaps between their late dog Rosie’s and their point of view. One of the readings was from a chapter in which Rosie is a guest at a puppet talk show. The surrealness of the setting was entertaining, as was Eileen’s gestural reading of it (including their performance of Rosie moving her butt into her chair and getting comfortable).

Eileen Myles at City Lights Bookstore

One puppet, Oscar, interviews Rosie, and both commiserate about their plight of dealing with humans. Oscar describes the discomfort of a human hand entering him and forcing him to say what he wouldn’t otherwise, words that often are at odds with his beliefs. Humans are always speaking and deciding for dogs, too. Oscar goes on to criticize humans for their obsession with self-importance. The puppets have come to Rosie because they believe that puppets and dogs must band together to outnumber humans. 

Through the Candide-esque satire of this scene, Myles delivers their powerful critique on modern society.

Taking questions from the audience after the reading, Myles compared this work with their previous ones—poems and personal memoirs. “This book actually has substance,” they half-jested. “Previous ones were just about my life. So when people reviewed those works, they eventually turned into criticisms of me and my life. But this one is a dog’s point of view. Rosie’s. Now critiques are actually about the book and the writing.” The silliness of this dog memoir effectively delivers a serious message in a way unlike any of their previous works.

Young Linguist, L; Starlings, R.

Whether in the form of a gibberish language or fantasy, embracing silliness suddenly seems like an effective vehicle for earnestness. And as I reflect on it, I’ve recently observed it succeeding around me—a coworker wearing a glittery bug antenna headband when it’s time for the team to focus; a friend partially hiding her face behind a ludicrous monkey doll while describing a new routine in her current battle with depression.

There is a lot of serious stuff happening in the world, and likely in your personal and professional life as well. It can be all-consuming. Maybe the puppets are right. Maybe we can occasionally loosen up, while still effectively communicating our platforms. In the right moments, consider finding your way to buoy the heaviness. In doing so, you might find that you can get away with a lot less hand-waving.

books, community, friendship, reading

How Books Form The Spine of Human Connection

IMG_1389“The most beautiful thing about a book is that you bring it to life — the characters, the emotions, the arc, the resolution — every single time you open it.”

Though it was nineteen years ago, I still remember the exact moment I heard this romantic notion. I was in my seventh grade classroom, second row from the front, and my English teacher, Mr. Gelineau, was lecturing from the left corner of the room. The same way we can relive any book by turning its cover, I can relive this particular moment of my life on demand.

There was something so striking about Mr. Gelineau’s words that I knew I should never forget them. As the years went on, I was able to pinpoint the reason for their power: the foreverness of literature softens the fleetingness of real life.

Though my appreciation for books hasn’t changed since school, the reason I read has.

Weekend Breakfast

During my academic life, my literary consumption was determined by a menu of required reading for my classes. This also meant that at any given point, my peers and I were reading the same section of the same books, typically in preparation for a mandatory class discussion. We would read the books cover to cover regardless of our interest in the subject matter, the author’s style, or the literary genre.

The books I read back in school said little about me as a person.

But today, I have free will over the books I read.

I read books that come recommended by friends, those that receive meaningful awards, those whose summaries and reviews intrigue me, and yes, those whose covers I judge to be good.

This makes for book discussions quite distinct from those of my academic life. Now, the books I discuss with other people are ones that we’ve both read voluntarily. And whether or not we agree on our favorite part or appreciation of the literary style, we are connected by the fact that we chose to read the book in the first place.

Shared reading experiences bind us as humans.

Used Book Store Finds

In early January, I started reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It was irresistibly positioned on a used book cart downtown, and I couldn’t pass by without buying it. I had occasionally heard it referred to and I knew it was supposed to be a good book.

From the moment I brought the protagonist Okonkwo to life, my nose was buried in the book — on the bus, in restaurant lines, on the walk to work, and in parklets.

Reading on the bus one Saturday, I was torn from Umofia when a girl tapped me on the shoulder. “That’s a phenomenal book,” she said as she exited the bus. “Thanks, I’m loving it,” I responded, in a groggy haze similar to being unexpectedly awoken from a nap.

As I watched her walk away, I was struck by the fact that she had gone out of her way her way to talk to me, a complete stranger. She had broken the headphones-in-ear, nose-in-phone norm to engage with me about a book. She obviously decided the exchange would be meaningful enough to make the effort.

Later that week, I was pulled away from my computer by a colleague. Her eyes were alive as she looked at the copy of Things Fall Apart sitting next to me. “I loved that book. It is phenomenal.” Her enthusiasm was untamable. Having never exchanged anything more than pleasantries, we were now unstoppable in our conversation. Things Fall Apart put together the foundations of our friendship.

Both in the case of a momentary connection with a fellow bus passenger or a deeper one with a colleague, the book as an entity, outside of its plot-line, brought us together.

What’s beautiful about a book is that anyone who wants to can read it can do so (unless the book has been banned by her country, as is the case with Things Fall Apart in Malaysia). Unlike many life situations and experiences that are open to some and not others, a book can be opened by anyone who chooses to experience it. This is the power of literature.

Handwritten Letters

After finishing Things Fall Apart, I read Tiny Beautiful Things (recommended by a mentor), followed by Boys In The Boat (as part of a book exchange with a friend), Girl with a Pearl Earring (a used bookstore find), reread Charlotte’s Web (nostalgic for my childhood), and am now reading The Language Instinct (loaned to me by my brother).

Some I wished would never end and others I worried never would. But each elicited some reaction from me in the context of my life at the time. They are now a part of my life experience and serve as a vehicle for connecting with others who have or will read any of these books.

While the eternity of book plots may serve as the antithesis to our transient life plots, there’s a beauty in the way books establish bonds between people, both in the form of personal connection and global community. Though we may not be on the same page at the same time, we, at some point, experienced the same page.

And sometimes, that is enough.

blogs, books, breakfast, goals, Help, psychology, writing

How I made the decision to write a book

Breakfast is my absolute favorite meal of the day. Enjoying my first taste of the day while the sun’s rays, still warming up, stream in through the kitchen window, the aroma of fresh espresso swirls around me, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. For me, breakfast is a time for reflection, for planning, for learning more about the world around me, for reminding myself that today is a new day.

Unfortunately, my breakfasts aren’t nearly this romantic on a daily basis. During the workweek (especially as the week goes on), 3-minute breakfasts become the norm for me: Scrolling through my email for a preview of my day, flipping through my newsreader for headlines, scarfing down a piece of peanut butter toast simply because I need to eat something. Coffee? In a travel mug. I make up for this complete disrespect to breakfast with elaborate ones over the weekend. I’ll spend up to two hours eating an omelet, sipping coffee, reading all the articles that throughout the week I had saved to “read later,” and blogging. With little sense of urgency or stress, weekend mornings are my haven.

For a couple years now, a friend and I have passionately argued about how writing, journalism specifically, is changing in the age of Twitter and social media. Essentially, written news is moving towards the likes of television and radio news: headlines with the latest. My friend is in denial. I accept it, but realize that, just like my breakfasts, there is a time, place, and specific type of story that calls for a more involved piece with its flowery language.

Last week, I read a beautiful article in the LA Times expounding the importance of the “long sentence.” The author argues that the long sentence helps us to escape from “trite conclusions” and “reductionism.” He criticizes how “often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude.” He compares books, safe houses for the long sentence, to long conversations with friends. The longer the conversation, the less black and white things become. The more intimacy the more empathy. While of course, there will always be a place for the short-sentence, it can never replace the long one.

Over breakfast a few days ago, I came across The Business Case for Reading Novels (Of course, I only actually read it today since, pressed for time, I had saved it to read later). Experiment after experiment, the article shows psychological evidence for what your parents and teachers always told you when you were younger: that reading books is good for you. And not necessarily books about self-help or business or managing stress or biographies of successful people, but fictional ones. On vampires and girls with dragon tattoos. According to the data, “fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion.” Immersing ourselves in make-believe lands with make-believe situations actually improves our capabilities as social human beings in the real world.

I started reading The Help before the movie came out over a year ago. My intention was to finish the book then watch it in theaters. I finished the book last week, and the movie is already out on Blue Ray & DVD (just in time for MLK Day, at least). The novel follows the story of white 24-year-old woman who writes a book exposing the plight of the black help in 1960’s Mississippi. Setting aside the obvious themes of the story, there was an underlying message that spoke to me: that this 24-year-old woman, who had a passion for writing, went out and wrote a book.

I started this blog 4 years ago. This will be my 160th entry. Each post is a concise, bite-size, expose of some aspect of my life, my thoughts, or my values. Each article has some sort of ending. In fact, I spend quite a bit of time deciding how to conclude each piece. And the next article? A completely different thought (though my themes may be pretty consistent). So, for the sake of my growth as a writer and according to HBR, the empathetic growth of my readers, I’ve decided I want to write a book. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be about or how I’m going to get there, but the wheels have been set in motion to embark on an exploration of the “long sentence.” The first elaborate, weekend-breakfast of my writing career, if you will.

So to the run-on: Bring it. I have a pocket full of punctuation and I’m not afraid to use it.

books, discovery, exploration, fun, real world

All the Right Friends in All the Right Places

In elementary school, everyday after lunch was Silent Reading Time. Each classroom was endowed with an extensive collection of genres from science fiction to mystery to fantasy. When it came to books, we had the world at our fingertips and complete freedom to explore. Books were a big part of my life back then (reading them, mostly, though watching the Wishbone rendition on PBS counts too).

The best part of Silent Reading Time was that there was no pressure of teachers keeping tabs on my progress, no stress over an upcoming reading quiz, and nobody telling me what to read. Reading was truly fun. Those were the years I stumbled upon some of my all-time favorites including The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I was in the fifth grade when I first discovered the power of written word over human emotion. When writing moved me for the first time. That was the year I read Where the Red Fern Grows. I cried at least four times over the course of the novel.

My emotional attachment to books deteriorated after middle school, when I adopted a more stoic approach. It was starting then that my reading experiences became burdened with banal assignments: searching for themes on which to write an essay; focusing on insignificant plot details for an expected pop quiz; memorizing quotes for that Quote ID section on a midterm; reading the first and last lines of every paragraph and skimming the rest because that’s how to read in college. I could list these types of exercises forever.

Last weekend, maybe for the first time since Mrs. Congdon’s fifth grade class, I was reminded just how moving writing can be for its readers. I was at Penn and reunited with a good friend. He initiated our first topic of conversation: the string of my most recent blog entries. Your representation of the real world is so depressing! Every time I read your blog I want to cry. I almost stopped reading your most recent post halfway through because it was such a downer.

As is to be expected from someone with my background, I first tried to attribute his reaction to a psychological phenomenon. The Barnum effect suggests that we interpret general statements in the specific context of our own lives. My friend’s foray into the post-college world will also include the move to a different country. It’s not my writing. You’re probably just nervous about the upcoming changes in your life, I offered.

Unyielding, he began to rattle off one “depressing” post after another. I realized this was a battle I simply could not win (and if you know me, you know how much I like to win).

I also realized something else: Until this point, I have refused to openly admit the merits of the real world. On some level, I feared it would signal that I was beyond college. That I was “over it.” But you know what? Though I miss the college days, the fact of the matter is that yes, I have graduated. I am beyond it. And there is so much about the “real world” that I wholly appreciate.

For one thing, I can read for fun again. My bedtime reading no longer consists of lecture notes to cram for the next day’s exam. I also feel healthier – I am not constantly stressed about classes and grades. I sleep. I go to the gym regularly. And for now at least, weekends are literally weekends. Mine to enjoy however I please.

Above all, my network of friends spans a geographic distance larger than ever before, meaning that I can now visit people, not just places. Visit people in Boston, Philadelphia, and if I leave Debbie Downer behind, London. Visit people in Lost Angeles, New York, and several cities in between. This certainly wasn’t true for me a couple years ago. Of course the world is not your college bubble, but it is still small, cozy, and comfortable when it comes to the people you know.

In The Phantom Tollbooth, protagonist Milo leaves the confines of his mundane life to enter a fantasy land. He travels the road to Expectations but never reaches. He learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom cannot thrive without its two princesses Rhyme and Reason. It is this fantasy land that introduces Milo to intellectual stimulation and the world’s beauty. That transforms him from a Milo who just “has plenty of time” to one “who now knows the way.”

Though I finished reading the book fourteen years ago, it is more relevant now than ever. The fantasy land is a metaphor for the new life which I have been so reluctant to praise until this point. As is discovered by Milo, it takes an open mind and time spent exploring this place before you can know the way. And as long as you keep thinking and laughing, you simply can never get lost.

books, comfort, friendship

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

Old friends are like good books that you have relished thousands of times. Those novels you can open up to any page and know exactly what has just happened and exactly what is about to happen (but you continue reading anyway). You know every word, every sentence structure, every punctuation mark. And yet, every single time you read, there are surprises. Thematic elements that had been brimming beneath the surface now bubble to the top. Happenings that were once just happenings now symbolically foreshadow.

You never pick up the book hoping to reread it in its entirety. While you did give it your full attention the first time through, this time around you can only afford to read a chapter or a section. This predicament was initially disappointing but you’ve come to terms with it. Knowing that you’ve only got one chapter, you savor each word – swoosh it around in your mouth or perhaps achieve the 21 chews. Finally, you gently place the book back on that shelf in your bookcase designated for good books only. It’s that shelf at the perfect height for access in a moment’s notice, at eye-level so that you might glance up at the book bind to hold you over until the next read.Old friends are like good books that you know you can open up wherever you left off, whenever you want.

Old friends are the ones you can call up in a heart beat knowing there won’t be any awkward formalities or expectations. You may have hours, more likely you only have a minute, but either way, the old friend is totally and completely committed for that time. You listen. You talk. You laugh. You cry. You notice neither the time that goes by nor the time that has gone by since your last reunion. Old friends are the ones who you always want to bump into, but never do. It’s with them that friendship surpasses the bounds of ridiculous social rituals and networking ploys into something so inexplicably genuine. Old friends are the ones who will still be by your side when you are, quite literally, old friends.