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.

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2015, Amy Winehouse, birthdays, career, dogs, pet death, right path, San Francisco, time

What Amy Winehouse Taught Me About Turning 27

Every time August comes around, I have that “Woah, my birthday is soon,” realization. This year, the “Woah” wasn’t like the ones that preceded my 16th or 20th. This one, coming before my 27th, hit more like, “Oh.”

How boring a number it is, 27.

Initially, I attempted to find reasons it was special. Things like:

  • 27 is the official start to my late twenties
  • The last time my birthday was on a Friday, it was my 21st

I was like a sports reporter with interesting statistics that predict nothing. I eventually dropped it.

A week into August, I visited an Amy Winehouse exhibit curated by her brother Alex. In his introductory wall text, he writes,

“This is not a shrine or a memorial to someone who has died. […] Babies are born, people get married, they get old (should they live so long), and then they die. […] This is a snapshot of a girl who was, to her deepest core, simply a little Jewish kid from North London with big talent.”

Alex wants us to accept that during her time in this world, though unconventionally short, his sister lived, loved, and struggled, as we all do in some way, at some point, for some length of time.

Amy was 27 when she died.

The text reminded me of my earlier quest to make some random number special. It encouraged me to consider that perhaps no age, no time in our lives, is objectively meaningful.

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change, dogs, meaningfulness, memories, memory, psychology

How My Dog’s Death Changed the Way I Make Memories

My dog died eight months ago. Though she was cremated the next day, I can still see her whenever I wish — on Twitter, Instagram, or my camera roll. Just a glimpse and I can feel her presence. Smell and hear her. A single photo brings back a wealth of memories that are pleasantly nostalgic and abundantly beautiful.

When she was a puppy, I got her a wooden box and patterned it with clouds and dog bones. I used the box for her favorite dog treats. After she died, I kept the box as a “souvenir,” replacing the dog treats with her collar and dog tags.

IMG_6752I’ve only opened the box twice since her death, once seven months ago and once this past weekend. Both times, I convulsed, collapsing to the floor in tears, within minutes. By jingling her collar and tags, I could actually hear the sound of her moving, which made her absence that much more tangible. The physicality of these objects emphasized the disgustingly painful memory of her death.

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dogs, earthquakes, Pepper, pet death, stress, vacation

Somewhere, My Dog is Dancing With the Zebra

It has been a hard summer. Not just because of yesterday, but we’ll get there.The past several months have taxed me with a growing stress of trying to do and be too much. While some of this stress was self-inflicted, others of it were caused by forces outside my control. The worst part was that, as this stress multiplied like cancerous cells, I didn’t let myself slow down. How could I? There was too much to do. Too much to be.

With a relentless adherence to my routine, I ignored the friction between my heart and mind. At some point, my heart gave up. I became a person that I myself hated spending time with, anxious, sleep-deprived, and irritable.Three Mondays ago, I came home from work to my brother, who was visiting me.

“Hi, I loaded and started the dishwasher,” he greeted.

“WHAT. Why? It wasn’t even full,” I snapped. He was silent as I stormed to the spotless kitchen and stared at the dishwasher whose silent chug, to a sane person, is serene. My confused brother retired to the living room while I remained in the kitchen to make my dinner. What is wrong with you? He was helping you.

The episode was like an earthquake. I was a human earthquake, coming out of nowhere and shaking his world in the worst way imaginable. I had let everything build up for too long. Luckily, I went on vacation just days after. It rejuvenated me, but I shouldn’t have let my stresses mount to this magnitude in the first place.

The day before my personal one, San Francisco had a real earthquake. The largest since 1989. One that jolted most of us awake into a shaking world, wondering what was going on. It had been a while since we’d thought about earthquakes, let alone done one of those elementary school duck-and-cover drills.

That’s the thing about earthquakes — both personal and terrestrial. They are so few and far between that they seem to come out of nowhere. The build-up is not perceptible. When they occur, when we finally notice them, they are a big, scary jolt.

 
 

Yesterday, my dog Pepper died. She was old, so logically, her death was not a surprise. Still, it was unexpected on this day. It shook my world. In this case, the jolt signified not the start, but the end of an earthquake.

From the day Pepper officially joined our family on December 1, 1999, she shook up our lives, in the best way possible, every single day. Unlike mounting stress or fault lines, she never, not for a second, let us forget she was there. She was a perpetual earthquake.

In the early days, it meant frequent puppy crazies and chewing on everything. As she grew older, it came in the form of barks at human and squirrel passer-bys; a heavy head on your thigh under the dinner table; and a paw grabbing your hand down for a scratch. It came in the form of pillows on the floor and eyes of denial when we’d ask, “Did you sit on the sofa?” And when she was older still, it came with insisting that you present her with meals in the most ceremonious way possible — just dumping food in her bowl would never do.

Perhaps this was the only way she could get noticed, being a dog amongst humans. In the opening of The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein’s canine protagonist Enzo describes it best by stating, “Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively.”

While I can’t speak for fault lines, us humans can learn a lot from dogs. Dogs know how to listen to their own bodies and those of others. They know what they are feeling when they are feeling it. They act accordingly, immediately. There is no build-up.

They minimize the friction between heart and mind.

Pepper was, among many other things, my secret Richter Scale. She listened patiently as I slowly unloaded my stresses, then, with those knowing eyes, gauged how to respond — sometimes with a lick and sometimes by taking me for a spastic run around the house. She shielded the rest of the world from many of my personal earthquakes.

Pepper made a permanent mark on my heart. I cherished every opportunity to duck-and-smother her with love. What I would give for just one tiny aftershock!

Though I am sure it will get easier, this moment right now, is just so, undesirably still.

If you knew Pepper and have any fun memories with her, please share them in the Comments section below!

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dogs, elementary school, language, listening, politics, strengths

A good listener is a silent flatterer

It was just a typical day in my fourth-grade classroom. Our four-person table groups were working on a collaborative activity revolving around long division. As the session progressed, tempers began to rise at my table, mainly because I had a bumpy friendship with one of the boys at the table. We were constantly bickering, be it on the tetherball courts or during Language Arts. On this particular occasion, we were unhappy with the way the activity had played out. Our two other group members were probably cowering in fear as the argument between my “friend” and I escalated to what is the exact opposite of an inside voice. Completely consumed by the argument, I was suddenly brought back to reality when I caught sight of my teacher from the corner of my eye.

She was standing at the front of the room, on her fifth attempt at that call-response clapping thing that all elementary school teachers do when it is time to come back together. All the other groups and the two angels in mine had responded by the second call. The classroom had apparently been pin-drop silent as students enjoyed the off-Broadway performance taking place at my table. Everyone is dismissed for recess, my teacher announced. She then locked eyes with me. I’d like you and Aaron to stay back for a minute. I watched on as my peers filed out of the classroom, my heart pounding as I anticipated my fate.

That was the first time (and in my defense, one of the few times) I got in trouble at school. I still remember trembling as I filled out a very official form (complete with pink and yellow carbon copies) explaining the situation and my behavior. I didn’t listen to Ms. Pittock, I wrote. It was more than this, though. I hadn’t even heard her.

To this day, I am puzzled by the fact that I missed those call-responses. One minute everyone had been talking and enjoying the activity and the next, everyone was quiet as a mouse. Everyone except for myself and Aaron, of course. Classic cocktail party effect.

During one of our many conversations over the years of my college internship, my manager said to me out of the blue, You are a very good listener. I cocked my head to the side, as would a dog when addressed. I was puzzled as to why she had singled out such a basic skill, if you could even call it that. As if she had listened in on my thoughts, she continued with a knowing smile, You’d be surprised how hard it is for some people.

The internship opened my eyes to the absolute necessity of listening, no matter what industry. In this case it was listening to employee voices when designing our internal research sand box. Listening to customer needs and expectations when designing and redesigning our product. Consumers love feeling like they have power in the creation of products they use.

Politics is another arena in which listening is key. Yesterday, I stumbled across this op-ed piece in the New York Times, which asserts that in times of revolution, the most important thing we can do is listen. Simply put, people like to be heard. And in this age where instant response prevails, it’s and important fact to remember. In middle school, one of my friends ran for student body president. Over the years, he had come to be known has having “big ears.” His campaign posters sported a picture of his face and the tag line, These big ears are made for listening. This selling point addressed, what in my opinion, is the most important quality of a leader.


It’s the ability to listen that makes dog man’s best friend. And it’s this skill that has also advanced dogs as a species. A recent study has shown that a border collie’s ability to patiently listen to its owner has allowed it to learn about a thousand nouns and parse human language. We can learn a lot about listening when it comes to dogs. Listening, which is seemingly so passive, is quite powerful. Even if you don’t understand. Even if you don’t agree. The least we can do is hear someone out. Whenever I talk to her, my dog, through patience and eye contact, forms a meaningful connection that I sometimes have difficulty establishing with other humans.

There is nothing that frustrates me more than the darting eyes of someone with whom I’m speaking. Than the sound of key-tapping during a phone conversation. Than the constant interjection of someone who, rather than listening, is thinking about what to say next. In the most recent episode of Modern Family, Jay comments, “You can’t have a successful marriage without being a good listener. Sometimes it takes work, sometimes it takes a lot of work, and sometimes, it’s just excruciating.” If you ask me, this advice is applicable not just to successful marriage but to any successful human interaction.

It was on that fateful day in the fourth grade that I recognized the importance of listening. Listening to your elders. Listening to your peers. Listening to yourself. Thinking back to the vicious cycle in which my friend and I continually aimed to drown out one another’s voice with the sound of our own, I can say with certainty that the beautiful perk of being a good listener is that in turn, others will listen to you.

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