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.

communication, friendship, language, life lessons, Lincoln, linguistics, real world, US Presidents, writing

What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Us About Choosing (And Keeping) Our Words

There is an adorable elderly man with an ice cream parlor in San Francisco’s Western Addition. His eyes sparkle with authenticity; his smile glows with friendliness. He is the kind of the ice cream server you stop to see, even when your lactose intolerance says you shouldn’t. He is the kind of man who, when he meets your parents, will tell them that he enjoys your visits, but that you don’t visit too often.

No matter how my life changes, this man and his ice cream parlor have been my constant. His eyes and smile always the same. The flavors always the same (but always requiring pre-decision tastes).

Two weeks ago, as I was walked past the parlor on my way to dinner, some thoughtless impulse drove me to stop inside. There was no time, and it was not the time, for ice cream.

“Hello lovely lady. What will it be for you today?”

I immediately recognized the awkwardness of my having entered this sixteen-square-foot parlor with no plans to purchase ice cream.

“Oh, well, I’m just passing by on my way to dinner.” He was unsure how to respond, and looking for ways to fill the silence, I continued.

“What time do you close?”

“Today? Oh! I say, about, 9:30.”

“Okay, maybe I’ll come by after dinner,” I said reflexively.

Somewhat fatefully, I made it back to his parlor shortly before 9:30 PM. As he handed me a napkin, the old man looked me in the eye. “You are a good one, you know. Most people say they will come back but they never do. You stuck to your word.”

“I try,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt for the fact that my reason for returning was not necessarily because I said I would.

In the days after our encounter, I found myself thinking about the importance of words, and keeping our word, in today’s world.

From texts to email to pings to phone calls to in-person run-ins, most of us are inundated with messages requiring some response. While we may aspire to craft genuine responses back, at some point, for me at least, the queue becomes unmanageable and the ultimate goal becomes inbox zero.

Whether it’s the let’s get together sometime‘s or the miss you‘s I send and receive, I sometimes wonder if we place more value on giving and getting some response, rather than the content of the response itself — in both our digital and physical lives. Are we as deliberate in our word choice in social settings as we are in work email or professional meetings? Or do we just say whatever is simplest in the given moment? “I’ll come back later,” to the man at the ice cream parlor or worse, “We should do coffee sometime!” to that acquaintance on the sidewalk.

It is often said that San Franciscans are flaky. The man at the ice cream parlor has me thinking that perhaps we are not flaky. Perhaps we are just well-intentioned liars. It has come to a point where I, much like him, am somewhat pleasantly surprised when people keep their word.

Like ice cream taster spoons, words are so easy to give away, after all.

Abraham Lincoln on ReligionEarlier this weekend, I read this New Yorker article which describes how language has become a “central subject in Lincoln studies.” Over one hundred years after his death, the words used by and about Lincoln are being explicated and analyzed to help us better understand him as a person. The article’s author argues that “rhetoric and writing were as essential to [Lincoln’s] career as acts and orders and elections.” For example, in the hotly debated arena of his faith, we look to his utterances: “Yet, undeniably, as the war and his Presidency progressed, Lincoln spoke increasingly of God—inserted God, as it seems, into the Gettysburg Address—and evidently had some kind of complicated and rich sense of “necessity” and a supernatural presiding power.”

The article inspired me to think about the words I use in my modern-day exchanges.

When am I using words just to use them? How often am I “maybe after dinner”-ing people? (“I’ll try my best,” when really I won’t or “I’d love to do this again soon,” when really I don’t. “LOL when I’m not laughing at all.)

What do they say about me? Do they say what I intend for them to say? How do they come across to others? Are they authentically me?

This is not to say that I would ever err toward more “truthful” words that could harm another person. It is to say that by being more discerning in my word choice, I can effectively transform these otherwise overused phrases into rare, but meaningful ones (“I miss you like crazy,” when my heart truly aches, or “I would love to see you soon,” when I’m actively searching for a date and time to coordinate).

Though I am certainly not fool enough to believe that my words will still exist — let alone be explicated and debated — in the way that Lincoln’s are today, I am motivated to put more thought into the words I throw around today. To celebrate the words I choose, rather than the fact that I chose words in the first place.

And given the necessity of reciprocity in communication, I would love, it would be wonderful wouldn’t it be nice if I implore you to consider doing the same for yourself.

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.

communication, language

Talk Forever Just to Pass the Time

Language is absolutely beautiful. Sometimes it’s the romantic accent, sometimes it’s the way the sounds roll off the tongue, sometimes it’s the chills-inducing meaning of the word. Language effortlessly transforms our abstract thoughts and emotions into powerfully tangible entities. It starts wars, but also ends them. It takes control, steals the spotlight, in every situation. Language, I am your fan.

Despite its immense capacity, language is abused. It is ironic that humans, famous as a species for having created language, are also responsible for its demise. Sure, modern literary works are still comparable to the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer. But modern conversation, everyday language, is fast deteriorating.

My friends and I often joke about what “outsiders” must think when they are listening in on our conversations. They seem so ridiculous. But in the moment, to us, they are hilarious. And I have no problem with this. Nobody says we can only talk about politics and the economy.

I do, however, have a problem with empty words. The whole “talk is cheap” thing. Speaking just to hear your voice. Talking just to say something. Using meaningful words without meaning them. This is what makes language come crashing to the ground (think Jenga).

From contrived entertainment stories to propaganda to purposefully vague public statements to speeches written by some outside writer, in today’s world, every word has to be taken with a grain of salt. People can say whatever they want whenever they want while more often than not, overlooking the effects their words will have on others.

For our slide presentations in my thesis seminar, we get charged 10 cents per word we use on each of our slides. It’s our professor’s way of showing us how sometimes you can say more with less. And by using fewer words with more meaning, you can get more bang for your buck.

I live by the line don’t speak unless you can improve the silence. I can’t say that I always succeed, but I like the general sentiment. Improving the silence doesn’t mean spewing life-changing or philosophically deep musings. It just means that you put just a little bit of thought into what’s about to blow the silence into oblivion. As the Japanese proverb goes, a tongue is three inches long, yet it can kill a man six feet high.

adaptation, emotions, language

Nothing’s Turned Out How You Wanted

Evolved adaptations afford us to grapple with the problems that are posed by our environment. Calluses, for example, form to protect us from repeated friction to skin. Similarly, as the years of our lives go by, we become metaphorically calloused — jaded, hardened, and arguably stronger. We learn to resist the abrasions that, in our younger days, would have left deep wounds. The deep wounds heal to minor cuts which heal to scars. But the scar remains for life (Don’t get me started on Neosporin Scar Solution).

But no matter how secure and bolted we are in our daily public interactions, inside each and everyone of us is the newborn baby butt. That soft supple skin to which even a minor dent is foreign (in a world without diaper rash). And sometimes, the emotion and sensitivity uncontrollably starts ripping us apart, inside out.

There’s nothing like a good cry. The snake sheds the dry dead skin of its outer layer and slithers away. The droplets stinging your tear ducts, the stream burning your face, the warm blood inundating your ears, the frequent gasps of air interrupting the silence. Crying is such a paradoxically liberating feeling especially when we think we’ve forgotten how.

I’ll be the first to admit that crying does not solve anything. But sometimes, neither do words. They sound crass and insignificant. But with the tears flow your emotion, each drop encapsulating the toxins. Purging yourself of the emotion only means that it is no longer part of you. You are distanced. You can now face it without it gnawing at your insides. It is now part of that dry calloused world, not inside the supple eternal youth of your psyche.

Sometimes humorous, occasionally intellectual, and rarely quiet. But even behind that one, is a hermit having a good cry. No reason. No solution. And yet, liberated. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.” All due respect, Mr. Wilde, but the woman who does not cry, soul bursting at the seams with untamed toxins, can never be beautiful.

Yes, we’re strong. Calloused. Blistered. But sometimes it’s just easier to pop the blister than to walk on it. And besides, if we swear off crying, how will we ever express our tears of joy?