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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2016, community, humanity, pain, public transportation, San Francisco, soccer, sports injury

It’s Hard Out There With A Limp

Whether we can see it or not, everyone has pain.

Commuting in a city like San Francisco is not easy. Either you’re late or the bus is, or both. On the bus, you’re packed like a sardine next to someone whose music you can hear through their headphones through your headphones.

After a recent knee surgery, I dreaded the idea of commuting. Sporting a full-leg brace, I was barely able to move. How would I get a person’s attention to ask for a seat? How would I navigate through the masses? How would I stand up and exit before the doors close?

When I finally tried it, I was surprised to find that people pull out all the stops — at all the stops — when they see someone in need. They go out of their way to lend a hand, ear, or shoulder. My visible pain was met with sympathetic glances and in many cases, real conversation. Therapy, almost.

People asked me what happened, how I was coping, and how I was recovering. And then they shared. They shared their own personal stories of pain, coping, and recovery.

Pain, whether physical or emotional, unites us all.

 

Middle-Aged Woman, Nourish Cafe, Sept 2, 2016

Middle-Aged Woman, Nourish Cafe, Sept 2, 2016

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Safeway Employee, Market Street, Sept 6, 2016

Safeway Employee, Market Street, Sept 6, 2016

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Backpacker, Duboce Triangle, Sept 11, 2016

Backpacker, Duboce Triangle, Sept 11, 2016

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Lady with a short bob, Metro MUNI, Sept 14, 2016

Lady with a short bob, Metro MUNI, Sept 14, 2016

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War Veteran, Metro MUNI, September 15, 2016

War Veteran, Metro MUNI, September 15, 2016

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Young lady rushing down Metro steps, Montgomery Station, Sept 15, 2016

Young lady rushing down Metro steps, Montgomery Station, Sept 15, 2016

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Schoolboy with mom, Mission, Sept 20, 2016

Schoolboy with mom, Mission, Sept 20, 2016

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STEM-Happy Man, Metro MUNI, Sept 21, 2016

STEM-Happy Man, Metro MUNI, Sept 21, 2016

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UPS Delivery Man, My doorstep, Sept 22, 2016

UPS Delivery Man, My doorstep, Sept 22, 2016

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Woman with beanie, Metro MUNI, Sept 23, 2016

Woman with beanie, Metro MUNI, Sept 23, 2016

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Man who needs ‘ANY HELP,’ Montgomery BART, Sept 26, 2016

Man who needs ‘ANY HELP,’ Montgomery BART, Sept 26, 2016

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The next time you go outside, know that no matter what’s going on in your heart, mind, or body, you are not alone. If you see someone in need, challenge yourself to connect with her. You may be surprised at what you receive in return. We might call them strangers, but they aren’t that strange at all. We are all in fact, one and the same.

 

 

Originally published on Medium.

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beauty, coffee shops, mom, Mother's Day, San Francisco, simplicity, small things, toast

Why Artisanal Toast is My Jam

“Shhhh. Be quiet! You’re going to wake her up.”

“I’m trying! How many slices should we make?”

“Let’s make two.”

It was Mother’s Day morning, and I was ten. My then-seven-year-old brother and I were surprising our mom with breakfast. My dad was chaperoning under the guise of the reading the morning paper. We had ordered him to stay away. This was our thing. On the menu? Jam and butter toast with orange juice.

A toast to love

Ding went the toaster. “Eee! It’s so loud! She’s going to wake up,” my brother squealed. He was louder than the toaster itself. I stood on my tiptoes, transferring the toast from the toaster to a plate. I heaped butter onto the toast, watching it melt, before swirling the unmelted chunks together with my mom’s homemade berry jam. My brother watched.

Pouring a glass of orange juice as a final step, we were finally ready to deliver my mom’s breakfast — to her bed.

“We both have to hold it!” my brother insisted as we starting carrying the plate and the glass up the stairs. My dad and dog followed closely, both expecting us to drop everything, one dreading the moment while the other anticipated it.

When we successfully made it to my mom, she was “fast asleep” (I learned over the years that she typically awoke to noise downstairs, and enjoyed listening to it from afar). “Happy Mother’s Day!” we said in unison as my mom opened her eyes.

“For me?” she said in her best “surprised” tone, taking a bite of toast. Never mind that she never really ate nor enjoyed breakfast.

But she wasn’t pretending when she said she enjoyed the toast on Mother’s Day, delivered to her bed, giving her just a little extra rest and a lot of love. The effort and unbridled excitement that went into it was what energized her, not the carbohydrates.

Meanwhile, my brother and I were thankful that our breakfast specialty was one we really couldn’t mess up (it was the only breakfast item we could make).

The Mill, San Francisco

As I grew older, toast went from being my only culinary expertise to my easiest to my most comfortable. Peanut butter toast became my grab-and-go breakfast, my pre-soccer power, and my study date. There was nothing fancy or fussy about it.

So three years ago, when a friend told me that I had to try the toast at The Mill in San Francisco, I was certain I misheard her. “Like…bread toast?”

“I know it sounds like nothing but you have to experience it,” she said.

Well, I did, and regardless of whether or not you’ve been to The Mill, you know what I experienced because artisanal toast is everywhere you turn, San Francisco and otherwise.

I’ll pause here to say that if you think $4 toast is absurd, your opinion is justified (but also know that $4 toast is on the low end).

Still, I welcome it.

An at-home creation

Perhaps, as in the case of my mom on Mother’s Day, it is the luxury of having someone prepare you something that you could very well do on your own. Or perhaps it is the unassuming complexity of a well balanced bread. Or maybe it is the presentation,  versatility, approachable and comforting nature, or its knack for inspiring culinary creativity.

Last year, with time to spare and an eye for toast, I started an instagram dedicated to it. It was mostly a way to savor my experiences and recreate them in my kitchen. However, once I identified myself with something so mundane, I found myself thinking about it more and more. What really made artisanal toast so special (to me)?

Country White, Tartine Bakery, San Francisco

And then, as my follower count rose (very slowly, much like dough), I marveled at the community bred by toast — it’s a food everyone knows and anyone can enjoy, whether it’s because they’re hungry or because they want to geek out about the science behind creating that perfect loaf of einkorn. There’s little not to like or understand about this long-standing staple. It can be enjoyed simple or gourmet, as a main or as dessert, at home or dining out.

The answer finally came to me last Friday night, as I mashed an avocado on a generous slice from Tartine Bakery: Artisanal toast brings novelty to something simple. That’s all. It establishes a dependable beauty in the everyday.

And I can ($4+) toast to that.

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childhood, math, money, psychology, questions, real world, San Francisco

How Asking Questions Can Make You Rich

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Last week, someone tried to steal my money. Before she could run off, I caught her in the act and fought her off. My weapon? A simple question.

Now before you imagine any grand scenes of my fighting crime on the streets of San Francisco, let me explain. I was on the phone with an agent, signing up for renter’s insurance. I had already completed an online interview and received a quote of $10.83 per month. The next and final step was for me to talk with an insurance representative who would “help me get the coverage I need.” So as we talked on the phone to make it all official, I naturally assumed that she was on my side—there for me like a good neighbor. Finally, it came time to pay.

“You’re total is one hundred and thirty dollars,” she said.

“What?” Not one for mental math, I felt like the number had come out of nowhere.

“Of course you can also pay monthly,” she said, leaving me to infer that the first number was annual.

“I think I’ll go monthly,” I said. I like to track my monthly purchases, and a recurring item on my credit card statement would be a good reminder.

“Okay. You’re total is $12.83.”

“Huh?” Neither mental math nor some taps on my calculator app could explain this one. I knew I would need to ask if I wanted an answer. “How are these amounts being determined?” 

“There is a two-dollar setup fee for the first month.”

“Great. So then next month it would be $10.83?”

“No it would be $11.83.”

“Wait what?!” A third number. This was too much. I was feeling less and less assured by the minute. “Can you help me understand this?” 

“Well, there is a one dollar service charge each month when you pay monthly.”

Aha! Caught you! Aha aha aha. Our conversation had been like a wrestling match and I had pinned her down. “But there are no additional fees if I pay annually?”

“That’s correct.” I chose the annual payment plan and hung up feeling like I had saved a million bucks (when really I had saved about twelve).

Asking that one simple question had invited the agent to unpack their payment structure (probably one that she is encouraged not to explain) and allowed me to make a more educated decision.

 

I haven’t always been a questions-asker. I know now that “there is no bad question” and that “chances are someone else has the same question,” but for most of my life, questions were a bad thing. I feared them.

Questions were those things that my mom asked when she didn’t believe what I was saying. They were the things you asked when I was being disobedient (“but why?”). Questions were what those dumb kids asked the teacher when they didn’t understand what she was saying (but everyone else did).

Over time, these cues taught me that questions were not constructive or collaborative. They were cavilling. 

The pinnacle of my question-fearing came senior year of college. I was preparing for my thesis presentation, which would consist of a one-hour session where I would share my findings then answer questions from the department. In addition to practicing my talk, I spent hours praying that nobody would ask any questions. What if I don’t know the answer? It’ll make my thesis look weak. What if I don’t have an answer? It’ll destroy my thesis.

If you’ve ever been in a presentation of research findings, you know that my prayers went completely unanswered. Oh were there questions. I didn’t know the answers to some (“I can certainly look into that,”) but for most, there were no answers to begin with (“These findings can’t answer that”).

When we debriefed my presentation a few days later, I started out by apologizing to my advisor. “I messed up in the Q&A,” I said. “I should have been more prepared.” My advisor looked at me sternly.

“What are you saying? People only asked questions because they were interested in what you were talking about. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have asked questions. I thought it was a good conversation. Based on the energy in the room, I’m thinking we should do a follow-up study.”

It was with this conversation that I first reconsidered my beliefs around questions-asking.

 

As I’ve transitioned into my professional life, I’ve come to rely on questions as a sort of currency: They demonstrate the extent to which people are invested in what you are saying. When leaders participate in meetings, the best ones—the ones that seem to care the most—ask questions. When the most effective speakers stand in front of an audience, they leave substantial time for questions.

Today, my life is full of questions, both that I ask and that I answer. I live and breathe questions without which my personal and professional work would be far less stimulating or meaningful.

If you ask me, there are two types of people in this world: Those who ask questions and those who pay an extra twelve dollars in renter’s insurance each year. It hasn’t always been the case, but today, there’s no question I’m the former. 

In every situation, push yourself to ask the hard questions. Invite the hard questions from others. Because it’s these questions, not their answers or the answers that you already have, that will make your life a whole lot richer.

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2015, acceptance, adaptation, adventure, exercise, experiencing, gym, routine, running, San Francisco

What Quitting Running Taught Me About Living Life

Distance Traveled

This year, I ran from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

Well, kind of. I ran the distance between the two cities over the course of ten months. This certainly isn’t a lot for a professional runner, but it is a lot for a person who somewhat recently started running for running’s sake. Not on a treadmill, but outdoors. Not as “exercise,” but just because.

After graduating college five years ago, I found myself in need of a new form of physical activity. Up until then, I hadn’t ever sought out exercise. It was naturally built into my extracurricular life by means of soccer teams and dance groups.

Without a gym membership or really any idea how to exercise, I took up running.

At first, they were more like walks with a couple jogs sprinkled in. Slowly, they turned into huffy-jogs with a walk for a block or two, then jogs, then runs. My speed, endurance, and total distance concurrently increased over time. While running one mile without stopping was once an accomplishment, I was eventually running six or seven miles without even realizing it.

exerciseBy the beginning of this year, I was practically “blacking out” my runs. No, I wasn’t running drunk, but what I mean is that they were over before I even realized they begun. I couldn’t tell you who or what I had seen along the way. A few months into the year, I started doing weekend “long runs” and had my mind set on marathons.

And then, after a minor fall while on a hike in October, a consistent pain in my left knee ejected me off my runner’s high. Even a one-miler was a struggle. Unlike me, my knee didn’t appreciate frequent and intense runs up and down the sidewalks of San Francisco.

So, I quit running (for now).

The first few weeks were tragic. Unable to think about anything but running, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t remember a time that I didn’t just wake up and literally run out the door at least a couple of times a week. I complained to anyone who would listen. I felt sorry for myself. I lamented the impending loss of my fitness. Trudging around with a perpetual lump in my throat, I was slightly depressed.

When I finally accepted the reality (which required a “deal with it” moment from a friend), I opened my mind to alternatives like yoga and low-impact strength and cardio classes at the gym, activities in which I hadn’t participated in months or even years. While their novelty was uplifting, they couldn’t replace the feeling of a runner’s high.

Walking Workout RecordOne Saturday a few weeks after I stopped running, I woke up with a dire need to experience my weekend-run-long-route. Not the run, but the route. “Maybe you can just walk it,” I negotiated with myself. I decided that the walk would be the ugly stepsister of the beautiful run, but with no better choice, I did it anyway.

It took me one and a half times longer to complete, but still, walking my route was like an overdue reunion with a lifelong friend. Like an animal released from captivity, I turned my attention to every sight and sound. I noticed details like an apple tree, a Rothko-painted gate, whimsical decor, inspiring signage — for the first time. The walk was unpredictably refreshing.

And like that, I found a new hobby in long walks to and through San Francisco neighborhoods, especially ones I rarely frequent (measured by unvisited coffee shops). I walk further than I typically ran, effectively spending more time “exercising.” Notably, the walks provide me with necessary introspective time, allowing me to reset and refresh in ways that my “blackout runs” could never provide. They give me a new kind of high.

Love Life

Beyond forcing me to reconsider my exercise routine, my hopefully temporary running hiatus serves as a microcosmic lesson for living life itself.

It has shown me that distance traveled is sometimes more valuable than the time it takes. It has encouraged me to osmose the journey before arriving at my destination, if a destination must be set in the first place. It has proven to me that slowing down is not necessarily doing less. It has reminded me of the rarity, danger, and questionable benefit of an intense high. And most importantly, it has taught me how to discover and fall in love with little peaks along the way.

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