My 19-year-old son said recently that he was pretty rattled when he realized that he wasn’t special. All his life, he had been told he was special and he really took it to heart. At some point in his early teen years, it dawned on him that he might be unique, but he’s not special. Sure, he has great skills and talents in some areas. But nothing gives him a guarantee of success, no one is handing him a staff and crown, and his yellow-brick road isn’t lined with gold.
I apologized on behalf of his irresponsible parents for pumping him up and puffing him up too much, but said that’s what parents do. We want to instill confidence in our kids and pad their self-esteem when they’re little. But we also want them to not be insufferably snooty as they get older, so it’s a delicate balancing act.
Worker Ant Mentality
It might sound strange, but when I am disillusioned about the state of the world or I feel existential angst about my place in the universe, I feel better remembering that I am not special. In fact, I picture myself as an ant. That’s me. Small, insignificant, going about my business. Sniffing out food. Stopping to carry something ridiculously heavy. Jumping to attention when beckoned. Greeting my comrades. Milling about in a roiling mass of other ant bodies. Working toward the common good for the antdom. All with a pep in my step and a sense of purpose.
I’m cool with being an ordinary ant amidst more or less replaceable workers. I enjoy doing little favors for my buddies and being part of a small but mighty team. I don’t want to laze around like the ant queen does. And, besides, she’s under enormous pressure. She has to boss others around, worry about productivity quotients, reprimand the ne’er do well workers, and stress about her fertility. Talk about golden handcuffs! No thanks. At least from time to time I can wander my little lower caste ant self over to a clod of dirt and wave my arms around like I just don’t care.
If my ant metaphor isn’t working for you, all I’m saying is that it’s okay to just be without being special. It’s okay to have a 9-5 job that gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s nice to say hello to the same neighbors and friends we have known for some time. I mean, it’s also lovely to not get stepped on, go on vacation, have decent housing, wear cute shoes, and live past two years. So my ant analogy only goes so far.
What I’m trying to convey is that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying our simple day where we do simple things and find simple satisfaction where we can. Life is a wondrous, often bewildering, sometimes disastrous mystery—and we get to be part of it! That’s exciting enough for me.
P.S. This ant lady was made by the author’s positively unique but happily ordinary son.
Our communication mannerisms—such as speech, voice, and writing—can give us away. Try as we might, it’s very hard to change something imprinted in us since childhood. You can wear gloves to conceal your fingerprints and you can cut out letters from magazines to write a ransom note, but you can only run so far from your idiosyncratic speech traits and go-to vocabulary words.
With pandemic boredom came my obsession with true crime, mostly podcasts (“Hellooo, fellow Murderinos!”). With the pandemic also came my curiosity about other ways to apply my skills as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and former English as a second language teacher. Lo and behold, I realized that I am basically qualified to be a forensic linguist. Or, if not qualified, then at least justified to dabble in forensic linguistics.
What is forensic linguistics, you ask? Well, you see, there is a phonetic fingerprint left in audio recordings by criminals. Ransom calls, hoax calls, phone calls to emergency personnel. When run through a spectrogram—which analyzes all the elements of speech including phonemes, speech rate, pitch, and volume—valuable information can be gleaned. Linguists can measure things like the fundamental frequency of a speaker, a measurement of the vibration of the vocal folds that we hear as pitch and tone. Beyond the use of a spectrogram, there are other ways that speech and language can be analyzed and used in court.
Audio evidence, however, is best used as a way to corroborate other forms of evidence or testimony rather than be the sole determiner of guilt or innocence. Experts caution that our voice varies, depending on things like mental state. Two people can sound similar, background noise can degrade the audio, and recordings can be tampered with. For that reason, forensic phonetics techniques and other audio and linguistic evidence should be used with a grain of salt.
That doesn’t dampen my excitement over my new calling as a forensic linguist. This is basically what SLPs like me have been trained in: gathering speech and language samples, mulling over them with a fine-toothed comb, and drawing logical conclusions from the evidence.
What SLPs Know
SLPs, like other applied linguists, have super senses when it comes to speech and language analysis.
Do you say “carmel” or “caramel” when you order a caramel frappuccino? If you say “carmel” you’re probably from the western, midwestern, or northern US and if you say “caramel,” you probably grew up in the south, east, or northeast.
In addition to our speech sounds and voice quality, the grammatical patterns we use (aka syntax) are dictated in large part by the subcultures and regions in which we grow up. Case in point, a speaker of African American English and a white Appalachian speaker might say, “Them kids are hers” instead of “Those kids are hers.” The use of “them” as a demonstrative pronoun rather than the object form of a personal pronoun is a perfectly normal use of the dialect.
Some people can code switch effortlessly between dialects or languages, but many people are hard pressed to change how they talk. When someone has a speech or language deficit, it is especially hard to conceal.
Do you have a frontal lisp, where your tongue tip peeks through your front teeth? Do you have a chronically hoarse voice? Is your syntax filled with simple rather than complex constructions? Do you have challenges with word recall and search for the correct vocabulary? Do you have trouble understanding idiomatic expressions and interpreting implicit meanings?
SLPs and other trained linguists can hear it all: speech sound differences, dysfluencies, voice disorders, word-finding problems, social pragmatic issues, developing language proficiency, and more.
This is a critical clarification: a speech and language deficit or difference or any other type of developmental or acquired disability does not equate to pathological or antisocial behavior. There is no causation or correlation between communication characteristics and crime. Communication patterns are simply a unique piece of evidence, like a fingerprint or filament of hair, that can help validate or invalidate someone’s association with a crime.
Four cases involving speech and language expertise
Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, was a math professor at UC Berkeley. He was beyond brilliant as a mathematician, as seen by his 1969 Harvard PhD dissertation, where he apparently answered this thesis question in the affirmative: “If A is a given set in C of type Fσδ, and if φ is a function of honorary Baire class ≤2(A, Riemann sphere), does there always exist a continuous function f mapping D into the Riemann sphere such that A is the set of curvilinear convergence of f and φ is a boundary function for f ?” Kaczynski was also an unstable recluse who was eventually charged with killing three and wounding 23.
Over 17 years, from 1978 to 1995, while sending packages containing homemade bombs to universities and airlines through the postal system, Kaczynski scribbled hundreds of tormented letters to his family from a remote cabin in Montana. He also sent in a long manifesto railing against technology that was published in The New York Times and The Washington Post newspapers. An ability to compare Ted’s language in the letters to his family with the Unabomber’s language in the manifesto was a hail Mary for the investigators.
Kaczynski went to great lengths to eliminate evidence from his bombs: making his own glue from deer hooves, stripping the labels off batteries, and ensuring no DNA was on his materials. He may have had an IQ off the charts, and his mathematical reasoning skills suggest he knew all about complex patterns, but he wasn’t smart enough to realize that his language contained telltale patterns as well. It was James Fitzgerald, FBI investigator, who stumbled upon the field of forensic linguistics while cracking the case.
Kaczynski’s tendency to use certain phrases and grammatical structures can be largely credited for his undoing. “Negros, broads, chicks” all pointed to the lexicon of a man of a certain age, race, and generation. The spelling variation of words like “analyse, wilfully, instalment” were familiar Theodorisms. The archaic maxim “you can’t eat your cake and have it too” appeared in his letters. His erudite and unusual word choices showed up regularly in his writing, including words like “tautology” and phrases like “cool-headed logicians.”
No one can argue that Ted was a scholarly man with unusually sharp language skills. He also had extremely rigid thinking and obsessive themes in his writing that suggested psychiatric or neurodevelopmental deficits. An analysis of writing, and the authorship attribution that followed, was only one data point in the criminal investigation, but it was probably the straw that broke Kaczynski’s back.
Mary Katherine had a fuzzy image of who took away her big sister. She thought he was younger than he actually was (he was 48), she thought he had on light clothing (he wore black), she thought he was wearing a gold hat (he wasn’t), and she thought he had a gun (it was a knife).
Mary Katherine thought about what the kidnapper said. He was calm and soft spoken. She never saw his face clearly, but his voice sounded familiar. Four months later, while flipping through the Guinness Book of World Records that she had in her room, she paused at a picture of a muscular woman and a ‘Harley Davidson’ looking man. Her memory was suddenly triggered and she placed the assailant’s voice: it was Immanuel, a man the family had hired for one day to do work on their house. This voice recognition led to a new drawing from a sketch artist, which was widely dispersed on TV. Relatives of Mitchell saw a similarity in the sketch and were able to release real photos of him, which led to the eventual capture of Mitchell in Sandy, Utah.
It is astounding that a young girl could pinpoint the voice of her sister’s kidnapper after only being around him for one day and only hearing a few words. But no two voices are identical, and that’s why forensic linguistics is so intriguing.
The Delphi Murders
“Guys, down the hill.” Those are the chilling words of the suspected murderer of Liberty German and Abigail Williams that were recorded on German’s smartphone before they were killed in Delphi, Indiana in 2017. Richard Allen is the main suspect in the case. Four words don’t paint a clear picture of a person’s background. But they provide much more information to someone who knows the intricacies of speech and language.
Was the killer someone from Indiana, a Hoosier? In other words, was the killer a speaker of Midland American English, the region the girls were murdered? Midland American English is basically an in-between zone of the northern and southern dialects. There are some southern elements, especially in southern Indiana, and there are some northern elements, especially in northern Indiana. Delphi is in the northern-northwestern area of the map.
Syntax: All we have is a few words to go on, but he comes across as a man of few words. He didn’t say, “You guys need to walk down the hill” or “Walk down the hill, and no one will get hurt.” He chose an incomplete sentence instead of a full one: “Guys, down the hill.” This is a man who might be known as parsimonious in his speech.
Pitch, stress, and intonation: There was slightly higher pitch and rising intonation on “guys” and flat intonation on the rest of his phrase. His speech was sort of clipped. No vowels were elongated, and no words other than “guys” were stressed.
Pronunciation: The speaker’s short-i vowel on “hill” sounds close to the short-e vowel one would find on “hell.” Like the well-known lack of distinction in the southern pronunciation of “pen” versus “pin,” a Midland American English speaker blurs the two vowels. But he did not have a southern drawl on “guys,” which would make it sound more like “gauze.” We don’t have a lot to go on, but we can hear that the speaker could come from the area.
Semantics: “Guys” is commonly used to address more than one boy or girl in the US. That said, it’s used more in the west and midwest than in the south and northeast. We can infer that the speaker might not be from the southern part of Indiana.
My overall impression of the preserved speech is that the speaker could be from the Midwest or thereabouts. Three seconds of staticky audio isn’t enough to draw any conclusions, and my analysis is purely speculative. Comparing the four fateful words to other speech samples by the alleged perpetrator is definitely needed make headway on this case.
Richard Allen’s trial begins March 20, 2023.
Sometimes forensic linguistics can help clear a person’s guilt and establish innocence. In 1999, 18-year-old Antwuan Cubie was found guilty of killing his friend in Chicago. The police had a signed, two-page letter that they said was a word-for-word transcription of Cubie’s confession. The only problem is that it didn’t sound like Cubie’s speech. It sounded an awful lot like the detective’s.
In the letter, there were sentences with the adverb “then” that were unlike Cubie’s past writing samples. “I then told Jeremy to move his jeep to the end of the alley”; “we both then went into the building after ringing Jamie’s bell.” Cubie’s other writing samples had “then” as the first word in a sentence, or as a connector between sentences to establish sequential events. Cubie never used “then” in this stilted way right after stating the subject.
This transcript was supposedly a verbatim account of Cubie’s spoken words, but there were more than a few eyebrow-raising phrases. One such phrase that was not typical of an 18-year-old’s oral recounting of an event: “I met Jeremy at Cass Avenue and 63rd Street in Westmont at an unknown time on Saturday the 1st of June.” Again, “at an unknown time” might be how people write, but it’s not how many people speak, let alone an 18-year-old kid.
Cubie says that after being beaten by the police, he signed a blank sheet of paper and this signature was used by the police to fabricate a false confession. Cubie’s case remains in limbo while he is incarcerated.
There are times when it is quite apparent that the way someone talks during police questioning means they should be given special treatment. For example, an interpreter should be offered without question to a non-native speaker of the mainstream language. Another example is when a suspect or victim has poor receptive or expressive language skills.
Consider the case of Anthony Templet in Louisiana. In 2019 he admitted to killing his father, Burt. It is obvious that seventeen-year-old Anthony had language and literacy deficits, which were not taken into consideration at first by law enforcement. The trouble he had answering questions, retelling events, using age-appropriate vocabulary and syntactic constructions, displaying nonverbal communication, and expressing emotions all should have been telltale signs that he had developmental delays. When asked if he could write, for example, he said something like, “Yes, I can write all the letters of the alphabet.” Um, that’s what kindergartners do. That’s not how 17-year-olds describe their literacy skills.
Rather than being treated like someone with the cognitive skills and developmental age of a younger person, he was considered a stone-blooded adult murderer. It turns out he was kidnapped by his father as a youngster, had no formal schooling, was not given socialization opportunities, and had clear signs of neglect, if not abuse. Anthony eventually pleaded no contest to negligent homicide, which gave him a reduced sentence—five years of supervised probation—compared to the original charge of second degree murder, which could mean life in prison.
If law enforcement and lawyers had on staff a forensic linguist, or even just an experienced SLP, we could share our insights from the start. Instead, I’m over here shaking my head and yelling, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” while watching the story unfold on Netflix.
I guess it’s time for me to get off the couch and offer my language expertise to the legal system. My husband would agree that my skills are under-utilized, as they are only really evident while I binge watch dubious true crime shows and shout out random profanity-laced observations.
In 2020, I started blogging about my hunker-down thoughts during the pandemic while home all day and questioning my sanity. After a writing hiatus, I have come to terms with the fact that I am still in a hunkered down mode and that my sanity is still very tenuous.
Why am I still hunkered down and slightly bonkers? Partly because I work from home now in my virtual job. I continue to wear loungewear from the waist down and don’t have sufficient interaction with the outside world, i.e., “The Outsiders.” But mostly because I am alarmed every day about my Rapid State of Aging. So that’s where we find ourselves—“we” meaning both my psyche and this unreliable vessel.
Nothing makes you feel older than swapping notes with your friend about acid reflux. We have landed on the fact that we really shouldn’t eat anything with red sauce for dinner, like pizza, spaghetti, lasagna, and basically all delicious food. Those can only be on the lunch or breakfast menu now. We also can’t bend over at the waist because we can feel the acid rising up our throats. So we bend with the knees (though the knees are finicky too). And we should maybe do Kegels for our lax esophageal sphincters because we must have flaccid throats to go with Limp and Saggy everything else.
You may be 100% on board with stepping off the hamster wheel, but you still need some guiding principles in your search for a goal-less existence filled with wide open possibilities. It’s difficult to detach cold turkey from the expectation that one will always be a Productive Person. It’s hard to shed off Type A tendencies and ignore the feeling that you are judged for your accomplishments and busyness or lack thereof.
Removing expectations and objectives for yourself can let new paths emerge into view and fresh opportunities percolate to the surface. If you think it’s in your best interest to reboot and regroup, feel free to copy this admittedly loosey goosey 5-part self-discovery plan.
Note: A licensed career or life coach will have much more reliable information and a better structured plan than me! These are simply my first-person point of view musings.
1. Set aside some days to go to sleep and wake up when you want to.
I’ve always found myself to be a morning person. I am energized and able to tackle big jobs in the morning (perhaps all that caffeine helps). But other than that, I think I have been sleepwalking my way through my own sleep awareness, as it were. I don’t really know much about my own body’s preference for somnambulation.
Learning to take care of your sleep hygiene and notice your optimal sleep patterns is critical for your mental health. It’s important to tap into the innate flow of our bodies and allow our brains to take an occasional time out. Knowing one’s natural sleep and wake and super awake rhythms is valuable information. The observations can clue us in on a certain type of job, e.g., remote vs in person, salaried vs project-based, contractor vs employee, daytime vs graveyard shift, international vs domestic, etc.
Log your observations
Give yourself some time to turn off the alarms, notifications, and ringers and pay attention to your natural rhythms. Log your results. How many hours of sleep do you need to feel refreshed and rejuvenated? Do you sleep more soundly with a certain room temperature or are you more light-sensitive when it comes to sleep quality? Is something in your diet making you toss and turn at night? When there’s no alarm clock, when will your circadian rhythm nudge you awake?
You might need to send the kids to their grandparents or live in the garage for a few days, but it’s well worth it if you can pull off this informal little sleep study. If you can’t change your sleeping arrangements, maybe just experiment with cooling down the bedroom or installing a blackout curtain or cutting out alcohol in the evening.
Count your sleeps.
It might be my peri-menopause, but I am finding that I’m a “two sleeps” person by nature. In Shakespeare’s day, they say it was common for people to sleep in two shifts. So let’s say a person would get some solid Zzzzs from 10:00pm to 2:00am, then wake up and putz around for a while, then sleep again from 4:00am to 8:00am.
What happens in that putzing zone can be amazing and earth shattering! You don’t have to toss and turn and be frustrated that you’re wide awake. You can get up and get busy doing something that you’ve feel drawn to. Such as work on a mosaic tile Mona Lisa replica or crank out one award-winning play after another like Señor Shakespeare did!
Succomb to the nap.
Left unattended and unoccupied, will you take a nap? I learned something new: that I do like a very short afternoon cat nap after all. I thought I disliked naps because they disorient me and keep me in a prolonged state of torpor. Not true anymore! These days, it feels delicious and decadent to doze off mid-sentence in a book, mid-scroll on my phone. I couldn’t be more content to drift away with my trusty, napping dog at my side, legs twitching in her dream state.
2. Ask yourself if something is an obligation or a desire, mandatory or optional.
Look, there are some things that must be done, like laundry and taxes. But there are so many things that we think we should do—or that society tells us we should do—that are utter nonsense. The Earth will keep spinning and heads will not roll if we ignore or refuse to do many tasks. These three tips can help us prioritize and scale back many tasks in our overwhelming lives.
Follow your own heart.
I should cook an elaborate dinner. Nope. The kids will not become malnutritioned from occasionally consuming food that is freezer-to-table rather than farm-to-table. I should lose weight to be as fit and slim as my younger years. Not really. Getting pudgier with age is quite normal, as long as I have relative health. I should strive to climb up the professional ladder after all these years. Nah. I have climbed far enough to enjoy the view and get a little acrophobic toward the top. I’m cool at the lower rungs.
Instead of belaboring what I should do based on others’ expectations, I will follow where my heart and mind take me and see what floats my boat. (Though I really should mediate. I should add that to the obligatory list of laundry and taxes.)
Trim the list.
We try to do too much. I always tell my kids: “mandatory comes before optional.” It’s mandatory to do your chores and it’s optional to hang out with friends, so do A before B. I use this mandatory vs optional dichotomy all the time. But in truth, it can be really hard to separate the two.
Think about something on your To Do list. Is it absolutely necessary that it be done? Once you realize that it is ‘optional stress’ and you can opt out, are you good at saying no? Some people rarely say no for fear of disappointing people. Others just need to step back and ask themselves if they must do That Thing. You might find out that you can move something from your To Do list to your Not To Do list. Some tasks might stay on your To Do List but can be moved toward the bottom in that hazy To Do Eventually zone.
Keep the dog in mind.
When we’re about to reflexively commit to something, perhaps we can ask if we’re “shoulding” ourselves and not thinking through whether something is truly obligatory vs optional. We can be more in control of our life than we give ourselves credit for. Our instincts are strong; we just need to notice and acknowledge them. Then we can proceed with the knowledge that we are in control of our time and activities.
When we are the ones controlling the minutiae of our lives, we are like the dog wagging its tail and not the tail wagging the dog. The same goes for how we approach work. Are we taking ownership of our lives or letting other forces steer the ship? In our jobs, so often we find that the tail (i.e., our supervisor’s glare, our rote behaviors, our frivolous tasks) is wagging the dog (i.e, our values, our health, our satisfaction level). It’s time that we act like the dog and not its puny appendage!
3. Notice your feelings
I am pretty good at sorting things into the categories of mandatory vs optional, which helps me whittle down my To Do List and lessen my overwhelm. But I am still on a journey in terms of learning to sit with my feelings and true reaction to a proposal or idea. I’m convinced that tapping into my feelings is key to finding my way.
Go with the Hell Yes.
Do I truly want to hang out with that person at this time? Do I truly want to hang out with that person but not at this time? If I am double booked, is one event much more appealing to me than the other? If I say no to something, will I ultimately have FOMO or JOMO—fear of missing out or joy of missing out?
I’m trying to go with that emphatic “hell yeah” response (à la Derek Sivers) rather than stumble along passively with a semi-dissatisfied taste in my mouth. Maybe there are important patterns that we all can notice about what sparks joy for us. What makes us perk up, our hearts flutter, our cogs turn, our boats float? Maybe there are equally important patterns to know about what makes us recoil, wince, or groan.
Draw the happiness.
How do you feel deep down? You could take that To Do list from the section above and assign feelings to each item. Do you feel excited to tackle something on that list? Are you dreading doing it? Put a feeling next to each thing. Same with a list of job openings. Which ones attract you, which repel you, and which are neutral for you? Put a smiley, frowny, or neutral face next to each job on that list that you are qualified for.
You can cross out lots of things on your To Do List or Potential Jobs List that you don’t want to do or don’t need to do (or that someone else can do) and add things that you can do and are excited to do. Pack your To Do list and Potential Jobs List with things that require no motivational speech from yourself to go after because they already bring you happiness or satisfaction.
Find the patterns.
Stand back and look at those lists. Are there patterns to what you like and dislike?
I like things that are creative, intellectual, social, and physical. I dislike bureaucratic things that involve forms and numbers, like accounting, budgeting, bills, taxes, and paperwork. Which is interesting, because my professional field requires lots of administrative form-filling and organizational skill, and I’m generally good at it.
This is an opportunity to notice that “I’m good at it” is different than “I enjoy it.” I may not be able to find a job that ticks all the boxes of enjoyment for me, but I can sure try. When we like a task or activity, goals and motivation are less relevant. We can ride the wave of internalized pleasure that propels us where we’re meant to be.
4. Be Laissez-Faire
I heard something the other day along the lines of “a sense of urgency is trauma-based.” I don’t usually buy into sweeping generalizations like that, but it definitely stuck with me.
With America’s WASPy cultural and religious underpinnings, we’ve been traumatized by oppressive forces on all fronts to work harder, do more, go faster, acquire more, do better, be better, be perfect. Between pleasing children and parents, bosses, and the bill collectors, the fear that Everything Will Crumble Around Us keeps us on that Oh So Very Urgent Hamster Wheel.
Sometimes urgent things come up, but always carrying oneself with a sense of stress when there is no emergency isn’t good for the mind or the body (hello, cortisol!). And if we are in a constant state of stress and urgency over very basic daily things like shopping, cooking, and raising kids, then there’s something wrong.
Short of day drinking and getting stoned every day, certainly there are ways to have a more calm and nonchalant baseline demeanor. By embracing a Zen mentality, we’ll have more healthy heart rates and blood pressure, surges of endorphins, and flowing serotonin, making us happier and more sustainable in the long haul.
The opposite of “a sense of urgency is trauma-based” might be “a sense of calm is self-care.” Here are three of my reminders to embody the latter.
Reject the Rush.
Whether at work or at home, step off the gas pedal. Embed relaxed energy and a slow, methodical, reasonable pace into our work. Listen to music, nibble on snacks, and sing or chatter with friends and colleagues as we pass the day. When in doubt, take the long way rather than the short cut. Stairs instead of elevator, walking over driving, stopping to smell the roses. No amount of hurrying and scurrying will bring satisfaction. The faster you do things, the more things you’ll find to do.
Life doesn’t hand out breaks voluntarily, so you have to make them happen. Mix up the day with 15-minute dog walks, karaoke, yoga stretches, food prep, meditation breaks, weeding, reading, Duolingo lessons, whatever brings you a sense of rejuvenation. Instead of feeling guilty for taking a short break from work or childcare or whatever you have urgent feelings about, remind yourself that Chilling the Eff Out is good medicine and ultimately good for productivity.
Even if you’re introverted, try to occasionally swap out activities and tasks you could do alone (and often more quickly) for collectivist activities that are done in a group (and often more happily). You can sometimes be more efficient and proficient when you go it alone, but being rushed and manic about your own projects also tends to feed the Urgency Monster. Work parties with neighbors to clean up each other’s yards, paint each other’s houses, round up the trash and recycling, or host a potluck remind you that the journey is more valuable than the destination.
Many cultures are collectivists and work together to bring in the fish from the sea, harvest the crops, shuck the corn, mill the grains, mend the roofs. I highly suspect that a cooperative mentality lowers stress and an individualistic mentality increases it.
5. Be spontaneous and try new things
Along with scrapping a lengthy To Do list, I’m trying to stop over-planning in general. That’s the only way for exciting possibilities to crop up. A packed and preset schedule doesn’t allow for pockets of exploration. The creative self needs wide open space to daydream, ruminate, ponder. Novel experiences introduce the mind to new worlds. Running from appointment to appointment and event to event leaves no time for novelty or reflection or aha moments.
I also like spontaneity because there’s really no way to know ahead of time if I’ll be in the mood for that concert, that restaurant, that trip. I’d rather pounce on something when I’m feeling it rather than drag my behind out the door kicking and screaming because I made a commitment long ago to go to such-and-such a fundraiser or such-and-such a volunteer gig.
Here are some fun, last-minute things one could do:
In the mood for an escape to nature?
Try shinrin yoku. “Forest bathing,” as it’s known in Japanese, is when you go out into a forest and drink in the beauty and oxygen around you. You purge the toxic buildup of the modern world and immerse yourself in nature therapy. I asked my friends for recommended hikes not too far away, and they came through in spades when I was ready to dart into the forest.
Hankering for people?
Meet Up events tend to be smaller and more intimate than FaceBook events. Get on meetup.com to see what is happening in your community. I just saw meet ups coming up in my city for Walking Group, Singles Game Night, 80s Dancing, Adult Asperger & Autism, Fall Hike, Mushroom Picking, Book Club, and many more. There is something for everyone, including some very niche themes and eccentric activities!
Missing your artsy side?
If you don’t know where to start, you might try Airbnb Experiences. You log onto Airbnb and instead of looking for lodging, you can search experiences that are offered. They range in price and span all sorts of small group or private activities. I see someone local offering a self-portrait painting class, pottery wheel lesson, photography workshop, botanical watercolor lesson, and more.
Don’t Disrupt my Mojo: A Resolute Mindset
I know this period of semi-employment won’t last long, so I’m soaking up every soul-affirming moment I can get. A big hope of mine is that when I’m ready to relaunch this whole employment thing, I won’t fall back into old patterns that leave me overworked and zapped of energy.
Somehow, amidst my Demotivation Plan and Free-Floating Agenda-less Existence, I will need to come out the other end of these gap months with a clear sense of purpose. Chilling out isn’t enough. Joe Pinsker (2022) put it this way:
“Sabbaticals seem to help people heal from burnout, but they aren’t a comprehensive cure. ‘You can’t rest your way out of burnout, because burnout is about the relationship between your ideals for work and the reality of your job,’ Jonathan Malesic, the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, told me. If you don’t change anything about the way you work, he said, ‘you’re going to end up in the same miserable condition again.’”
I know good things will come of my sabbatical if I pay attention to my internal state and ward off external pressures. One external pressure is my ever-comedic husband. In between my self-care activities and experiments, he has been disrupting my mojo. He likes to remind me of the high pay for plasma (or is it platelet?) donation and offers to set up regular clinic visits for me. I think he’s joking—he’s a real ham, that guy—but he may not be.
Sorry, Honey, I’m committed to being uncommitted for a few more months, and that includes prescheduled plasma donation appointments. Try to hold down the fort while I take a nap.
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Pinsker, J. (2022). What is life like when we subtract work from it? The Atlantic.
“A sabbatical is more than a vacation, it’s a sacred human ritual for what you want to do differently in life—even if for just a little while” (thesabbaticalproject.org).
Perhaps you’ve heard the news that educators are tired. Well, I recently quit my job of 20 years. When I start to panic about what I’ve done, I tell myself that it’s good to hang up the work badge and office keys from time to time. The only pressing question is: How does one unemploy?
I am determined to treat my unemployment as a gift and use this time wisely. A “wise use of time” for most means tackling big projects, networking, hustling for the next job lead. For me, I’m adhering to the notion that the key to self-discovery is to be intentionally aimless, demotivated, untethered. Every so often, I think it’s wise—at judicious junctures of our lives—to surrender to fate and see if the universe can take us where we need to go. This is very hard for me, but I think I can do it.
In my unemployed state—I’m technically under-employed since I do have some small random gigs—I’m motivated to be unmotivated for a few months. I picture myself all alone and pensive in a remote log cabin or perched in a fire lookout tower scanning the horizon. In reality, I’m just in my home office on a Quasi Sabbatical of Sorts.
Sooner rather than later, I need to make more money to keep the finances afloat and my spouse at bay. But for the time being, I vow to not stress about money and to trust that the stars will point me where I need to go. My only goal is to sit back and relax and see what inspires me, see what makes me tick.
Before I divulge my self-discovery plan, there is solid data on taking a hiatus from the Rat Race that is worth reviewing.
The Research on Pressing Pause
I am happy to report that there is plenty of research to support what I’ve so rashly done. Twenty percent of employees said they are very likely to quit their job in the next 12 months, based on a 2022 survey conducted by PwC across 44 countries, the Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey. Not only are people from all walks of life resigning en masse across the globe, but they are not necessarily jumping right back into the workforce.
In fact, the number of workers taking an extended break has tripled in the past four years, reports Lo (2022) in the Fast Company article called “The Great Resignation Has Morphed Into the Great Sabbatical.” The author says that, whether due to external circumstances or internal dissatisfaction, many people—herself included—decided to take a break rather than resign. “Instead of quitting one job to immediately embark on another, a growing number of American workers are choosing to take time off to do nothing at all—at least for a little while.”
Why would people do something so drastic? Quitting is one thing, but choosing to stay unemployed is another thing entirely. The book “Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break” by Allen et al. (2011) says it all in the title. The premise is that we deserve the gift of time to envision what we want out of life and to prioritize how and where we want to be.
There’s clearly a benefit to pausing to ruminate on one’s life. Returning to work after their break, employees report “feeling refreshed and rejuvenated — a feeling that is likely to have a ripple effect on their job and their co-workers when they return,” according to the New York Times article “Instead of Leaving a Job, Why Not Take a Pause?” (O’Meara, 2017).
In a study published in the Harvard Business Review (Burkus, 2017), professors who took a sabbatical had “a decline in stress and an increase in psychological resources and overall well-being” compared to the comparison group that didn’t take a break. The added benefit is that “those positive changes often remained long after the sabbatical takers returned to work. This suggests that not only do the rested employees benefit from time away — the organization benefits as well.”
Not everyone can afford to take an unpaid sabbatical, but the good news is that not everyone needs to quit in order to reflect on how their career is going. In the article “Work Life Balance is a Cycle, Not an Achievement” (Lupu & Ruiz-Castro, 2021), the authors make a case for employees periodically stepping back and reflecting on their situation. Their research concludes that “for people to make real changes in their lives, they must continuously remember to pause, connect with their emotions, rethink their priorities, evaluate alternatives, and implement changes — throughout their personal and professional lives.”
Taking the Plunge
I’ve already evaluated and reevaluated my work situation for several years and, for me, the decision to jump ship feels right. (Did I mention that we educators are tired?) The next step is putting my principle to practice. Maybe you’ll join me.
Are you burnt out, at your wit’s end, or dissatisfied with the fast pace and mindless motions of your life? Are you simply curious about exploring a different path for your future? Are you already unemployed or underemployed? Then I invite you to take a deep dive with me into an untethered, demotivated, and agenda-less state of mind. Welcome to my parameter-less unpaid sabbatical.
You’d think that letting yourself grow gray would be easy. You just sit back, relax, and watch your hair follicles die a slow, sure death. There are so many excellent reasons to feel good about the decision to go gray, and—if you are like me—you can list them all:
You are delighted that you can free up a few hours of time on your calendar every few months.
You feel vindicated that you are saving big on your hair coloring bills.
You relish the fact that you don’t have to breathe in toxins or let them soak into your scalp.
You feel smug for not being an eco-hater who flushes chemicals down the drain and eventually into our groundwater.
You gloat in revolting against society’s images of female beauty that reek of toxic patriarchy.
Deciding to go gray means consciously disregarding societal norms. In a culture that undervalues all things old and overvalues all things young, letting oneself age without concern for one’s plummeting status is both terrifying and liberating, as Gloria Steinem put it so aptly:
“In a general way, women become more radical as they get older. The pattern is that women are conservative when they’re young. That’s when there’s the most pressure on us to conform, when we’re potential child bearers and sex objects. And we lose power when we get older. Which is a very radicalizing experience.”
On a technical level, is there anything not to like about going gray? I don’t think so. So why haven’t I fully embraced it? I set out to figure out what my problem is and I learned some stuff along the way.
Side note: I’m not shaming people who make the decision to dye their hair. The societal messaging about beauty that pushes women into covering up their gray is real, and the messaging resides deep in our bones. Ageism in the form of employment discrimination is also a real thing, especially for women. Above all, women certainly have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, whether for medical or aesthetic reasons. Period. Full stop.
A Faint, Gray Memory
We spied her bent over the bathtub with a box of dark brown hair dye. She was about 40 years old. She was half upside down and her butt was unceremoniously in the air as she awkwardly rubbed in the dye around her temples, which were the main areas going gray. She looked up at us through the bathroom door. We snickered at her. We actually probably guffawed.
Why did my sister and I tease our poor mom so many years ago? I remember thinking it was stupid of her to try to beat back the encroaching tide of gray. In my young mind, she was old, and she should just succumb. Enough with Jazzercise, Tab, Melba toast, and Vidal Sassoon hair dye. Who was she trying to impress? One of those dull suitors who would come by once in a while? She raised us to be feminists, intellectuals, athletes, and pragmatists, and this seemed just plain vain and stupid. What happened to “Free to Be You and Me”? Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” (Hear me Roar)?
Why Does Hair Turn Gray?
Let’s review why my mom found herself draped over the bathtub in that unglamorous state in the first place. What makes hair go gray?
According to a 2021 article on WebMD, your hair color comes from melanin. Melanin comes from pigment cells in your hair follicles. As you get older, the pigment cells die and never regenerate. The reduction of pigment leads your hair to slowly turn to gray, and the eventual absence of pigment turns it to white.
The extent to which you’re likely to grow gray is largely governed by your genetics. Parents who go gray prematurely spawn kids whose hair goes gray early. Race also plays a role. White people go gray earliest (in their mid-30s), Asian people go gray next (late 30s), and Black people go gray last (mid-40s).
Health issues can speed up the graying process. Thyroid diseases, insufficient vitamin B12, vitiligo, alopecia, and smoking are some of the things that can expedite gray hair. And menopause, which involves a decrease in estrogen, also contributes to thinning hair. Thin hair breaks and falls out more easily, so if you’re older, it’s more likely to come back in gray.
Gray hair feels more stiff, coarse, and thin compared to nongray hair. Gray hair has a thinner cuticle, which gives your hair less protection from the sun, wind, humidity, heat, and chemicals, which in turn makes your hair lose water. This causes it to be thinner and frizzier. Let’s face it, it’s hard to embrace.
My Hair is my Identity
I always liked my hair, and others did too. It received many compliments. It was long and wavy and golden chestnut brown with hues of red. When I didn’t brush it, it was thick and curly. Sometimes I colored it, usually with a cheap box of Sun In. I played around with every hair style that grabbed my fancy in my youth: the flower child look of Jan in The Brady Bunch, Lady Di’s short and sassy do, Annie Lennox’s shocking flat top, and the ill-conceived mullet inspired by…I really don’t know. Patrick Swayze or Rob Lowe?
Even when I didn’t like my outfit, my flat chest, or my big butt, at least I always had my hair as a flowing asset. It was one thing that I could fully control and that had a good return on investment.
Fast forward to my forties, and I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the approach of gray. It seemed premature compared to my friends, though, so I started dying my hair and carried on with my life. I didn’t like the toxins and always asked the hairdresser if there was a less poisonous alternative. Not really, unless I just wanted henna. The henna didn’t cover my gray hair well, so I was resigned to the poisonous products.
As my forties went on, my natural hair color became shockingly gray shockingly fast. (PSA: I found out later that my undiagnosed hypothyroidism played a big role in that.) I dabbled with letting my hair do its own thing, but always went back to coloring it. I honestly felt more youthful with brown hair. I carried myself with more confidence, dressed with more pizzazz, and truly felt younger in my body. I think seeing brown instead of gray reflected back in the mirror tricked me into thinking I was younger than I really was. And since younger is synonymous with prettier, in the patriarchal scale of valuation, it’s no wonder that brown hair boosted my ego.
What are the Stats on Dyeing?
Our society endorses a number of anti-ageing practices and products, all of which are fully backed by the beauty industrial complex. Wood (2019) estimates that 60% of Americans have gray hair by age 60. Imagine the beauty industry drooling over such a large market segment—all those people in need of rejuvenation products and services! Especially those poor, past-their-prime womenfolk.
The fact that there are double standards for beauty should come as no surprise. While men who are “salt and pepper” are considered mature, stable, and handsome, women are considered to have let themselves go.
Maniace of Men’s Journal advises a 26-year-old man not to dye his graying hair: “Graying is part of aging—it’s distinguished, it’s sexually attractive, and people dig it. If you color it, it’s like a neon sign saying, ‘I’m covering up what’s happening to me as a man.’” If only this same advice were given to women.
Data show that men accept going gray at a far greater rate than do women. A survey of Americans indicates that approximately 11% of men dye their hair compared to 85% of women, according to Goldstein’s (2019) article. And these are repeat customers, to the delight of the beauty empire. Approximately 85% of women color their hair at minimum once every two months (Wood, 2019).
In the European Union, ECHA estimates that about 60% of women versus 10% of men dye their hair. I couldn’t find statistics for Asia, Latin America, or other places. I can only assume that the numbers are similar. Although dyeing one’s hair as a woman is in some ways probably a culturally specific phenomenon, it’s also clearly governed by a universal, unwritten code to look young. The stats might vary somewhat from country to country, but we all know that egg-laden, nubile-looking women are held in high esteem the world over.
Let Go and Let Gray
When COVID-19 hit and all the beauty parlors closed, I decided to cut the cord. I was only really visible via video conferencing, so I didn’t fret over my image too much. I figured that when the pandemic was over (in what, a few months?!), I could decide what my longterm hair plan was.
My friends and family said my gray mane looked great. They said it was an elegant, silver gray. I wasn’t so sure about that—it looked pretty drab to me—but the encouragement helped me decide to let it linger. I was already dressed in my dowdy pajamas from the waist down, so who cared if my coiffure was a bit matronly too? I joined an online group devoted to inspiring people to embrace their gray hair. It was empowering to hear other people’s stories. I let go and let gray. Sort of.
In all honesty, I still haven’t fully embraced my gray. It’s pretty lonely here in the gray-haired-50-year-old-female camp. I know that it makes me look older than my same-aged peers. If everyone would stop dyeing their hair, that would help the world see what a woman in her 50s really looks like, but I don’t think my complaints and pleas have much traction. Luckily, there are plenty of celebrity females who have gone gray and are inspiring others to do the same.
Here are some famous gray-haired women: Glenn Close, Judi Dench, Jane Fonda, Whoopie Goldberg, Emmylou Harris, Salma Hayek, Diane Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Andie MacDowell, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Tia Mowry, Bonnie Raitt, and Meryl Streep.
All Aboard the Gray Train!
I know I haven’t completely marketed going gray as an easy act of empowerment with zero side effects or misgivings. But maybe I’ve convinced a few more revolutionaries to join me. Here’s the most important thing to know: You can’t, all by your lonesome, tackle the culture of patriarchy, which indirectly tells women that we are only desirable if we are young and fertile.
You must find your radiant silver-haired (or mousy-haired) people. Perhaps a friend of yours vows to never buy a box of hair dye again and you can be accountability partners. Or you can join a support groups to keep you on your path toward enlightenment and acceptance about going gray. Search up some bloggers or get on all the usual social media sites and you will find your silver-fox-embracing peeps.
Trust me, you’ll need a support system to keep you on your path. It’s very tempting to abort mission as you watch your two-toned hair rear its ugly head. Once your hats and headscarves stop doing their trick, you’ll find yourself desperately calling up your hairdresser in a sudden change of heart. You’ll go in for a trim and come out platinum blonde if you’re not resolute and tenacious.
What are you waiting for? All aboard the Gray Train! We’re on a journey to an exciting, exotic, mystery destination. What shall we call it? I have so many ideas!
Gray is Beautiful – Be Yourself! (GIBBY)
Zen and the Art of Going Gray (ZAGG)
Women Embracing Getting Older Naturally (WEGON)
Silver Haired Eco Lovers (SHEL)
Rage Against Ageism Altogether! (RAAA!)
Smashing the Patriarchy One Gray Hair at a Time (SPOGHAT)
Votes are open. Passenger reservations are accepted and tickets are free!
P.S. Mom, I hope you vote too. Sorry for being mean, and thank you for embracing your white hair and teaching me not to be afraid of aging! 😊
You know those times when you absolutely should not laugh? When the tone is somber, subdued, reverential? Think of being at a religious ceremony or the family meeting when you know you’re getting in trouble as a kid. Well, you really have no business snickering. It’s the farthest thing from normalcy, decency, and decorum. It’s sort of diabolical, even. The problem is, I do have an unfortunate history of bursting out in hysteria at just these moments.
When my sister and I were about 10 and 11 years old, we sat side-by-side in hard wooden pews in nice dark dresses and endured a long eulogy about our dear grandmother. We loved our grandma Emilita—Grammie or Gramacita, as we would call her. She was ornery and cantankerous. She was a cut-throat card player and Yahtzee fanatic who wasn’t about to lose to us little kids. She had a twinkle in her eye when she made snarky remarks, so we were pretty sure she wasn’t actually mad. We learned to appreciate her nuanced sense of humor rather than fear her scathing tongue.
Funeral attendees sat in silence and some were in tears. Every once in a while, my sister and I glanced at one another and shared a moment of sadness. Did I mention that we weren’t used to religious events or serious settings or sitting still for any length of time in girly dresses?
I think Gramacita’s spirit overtook us because at one point when my sister and I glanced at each other, we could see that the other one was trying to contain herself from turning that frown upside down into a smirk. It was just a subtle difference in facial expression, but when you and your sister are only 15 months apart in age, you just know. Soon we were both looking down at our laps and trembling. The adults next to us assumed we were crying. It didn’t take long for us to completely lose it and be forced to run out of that somber setting.
Why do We Laugh When We Shouldn’t?
Why does intense sadness or seriousness sometimes cross over into inappropriate bursts of laughter? I do think I have a strong absurdity gene. When things are preposterous or unexpected—whether in a comedic sense or in a heavy way—it’s like I get my emotional wires crossed. But it’s only around certain people, like sisters or close friends, that my nervous laughter comes out. I contain myself at work and around random strangers.
Psychologically speaking, my problem seems to be inappropriate affect or incongruous emotion. “Emotions, actions, or overall demeanor that seem out of place in a situation all fall under the general umbrella term inappropriate affect,” according to Cuncic (2020). However, I am choosing to reject this idea because it leads directly into discussions of brain injury or psychiatric disorders. Besides, I am not like this all the time. The conditions have to be just right for me to laugh like a hyena when I should be reaching for the Kleenex.
Nothing was Funny
My husband likes to tell the story of me completely losing my $hit during a very heavy movie scene in a theater while on a double date with him in college. The movie was “Gorillas in the Mist,” starring Sigourney Weaver. I loved anthropology and revered Dian Fossey and her tireless work on behalf of these endangered animals. I was fully into the movie and up in arms about the plight of these majestic creatures. Nothing. Was. Funny.
After many minutes of dreadful suspense, the camera suddenly zoomed in on the carnage that poachers left in the mountain gorilla troop. It was so silent in the theater that all you could hear were muffled sniffles. Tears were running down my face.
A woman in the audience broke the silence by standing up and yelling out, “Fu¢kers!” I immediately looked at my best friend and then collapsed to the floor, laughing hysterically. I don’t know why, but this hippie, intellectual woman in this liberal college town (who I was in all ways identical to) yelling at the screen flipped a switch and turned my deep horror into some sort of cathartic paroxysm. The idea that movie goers thought that I thought mountain gorilla poaching was a laughing matter just made it worse. I was in over my head. I was ushered out by my appropriately somber date while people gave me intense stink eye.
The Benefits of Laughter
Before you conclude that we should go back to the first explanation about me possibly having a serious mental health condition, I would like to consider a more favorable reason for my inappropriate outburst.
Ramachandran (2004) is a neuroscientist who posited the idea that nervous laughter is meant to reassure our fellow peeps that, even though the situation is tense, everything and everyone is going to be okay. He thinks that “laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm. Laughter is nature’s OK signal” (p. 22). He also believes that when we laugh during emotionally intense times, we are subconsciously trying to replace the painful or traumatic event with positive feelings.
I’m sure I was nervous to be on the date—I just wanted to be platonic at that time and knew he wanted us to be more than friends. And it was a terrible movie choice to inspire romantic feelings anyway, so I was probably grasping for a shred of positive energy. In retrospect, me having a bout of emotional dysregulation makes a little more sense. Plus, hasn’t everyone heard that laughter is the best medicine?
According to Cimons (2019), laughter is known to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and release endorphins, or happy hormones. It leads to relaxation and oxygenation, which is good for the heart and other organs. It improves the immune system and even lowers one’s chances of serious disease. Laughter is basically free medicine without side effects.
The sullen funeral goers and distraught theater audience may not have understood my uncontrollably mirth, but maybe in some little way it helped reduce everyone’s dangerous cortisol levels and overwrought limbic systems. Maybe just a tad?
Gramacita and Gorillas
In tense situations, I would generally recommend trying to pull oneself together, put on a long face, and act like an actual grown up. But if that’s impossible, I suggest rebranding your behavior as altruistic and even medicinal. Tell your friends and family all about the rationale and health benefits of laughing in the face of stress. And while you’re at it, send them an invoice for improving their physical and mental wellbeing at unexpected intervals, just when they needed a pick-me-up.
Gramacita would approve and join in on the racket. Gorillas? We don’t joke about them. They. Are. Always. Off. Limits.
Cimons, M. (2019, June 15). Laughter really is the best medicine? In many ways, that’s no joke. The Washington Post.
Valentine’s Day in Japan is not the same as Valentine’s Day in the Western hemisphere. I learned this the hard way. It was 1987 and I was an international exchange student at a Japanese public high school for my junior year.
I was dressed in my sailor style school uniform with a pleated navy skirt, white shirt, and matching navy colored jacket. I was tall and awkward and temporarily frozen. My friend nudged me toward a boy who we’ll call Takuya. I was holding a small box of fancy chocolates behind my back.
I dreaded giving Takuya the gift, but my friends had told me that I needed to make the first move. The custom was for the girl to give the boy a Valentine’s gift, and if he liked her back, he would give her something one month later on White Day. I seriously regretted telling my friends that I had a crush on him.
My friends had to explain to me several times what this Valentine’s Day and White Day tradition was all about. I was skeptical. I had never heard of such a thing and wondered if they were pranking me. But I reasoned that it was only fair to occasionally make the girl be forced to feel the same anxiety that boys typically feel about asking someone out on a date or making the first move. I definitely felt the anxiety, or rather, sheer terror.
I held out my hands and shoved the box toward him, saying the phrase I had practiced: Tsumaranai mono desu kedo, dozo (“It’s nothing much, but here you go”). Takuya’s face flushed and everyone around us tittered. I could tell he was surprised but I couldn’t interpret any other emotions. I darted off as soon as I could.
Chocolate Choices and Choice Words
When it comes to chocolates, not all are on equal footing in Japan. There are connotations with the type of chocolates you dole out. Here are four kinds of “choco” you may encounter:
· Giri choco are run-of-the-mill, obligatory chocolates that one gives to platonic friends and coworkers.
· Honmei choco are sincere, high quality chocolates that are given to one’s true love.
· Tomo choco are friend chocolates. Women buy these for each other as a sign of comraderie.
· Jibun choco are ones you buy for yourself as a little token of self-care.
On White Day, presents such as white chocolate, cookies, jewelry, or flowers are also common.
Should you intend to give someone honmei choco, consider using one of these handy dandy phrases. You’ve already embarrassed yourself beyond belief. You might as well top it off with an ill-pronounced or poorly scrawled message!
Anata ga suki desu あなたが好きです = I like you.
Anata ga daisuki desu あなたが大好き です = I like you a lot.
Ai shiteru 愛してる = I love you.
Tsukiatte kudasai 付き合ってください = Please go out with me.
The White Day Finale
It was an agonizing 30-day countdown to White Day, March 14, 1987. This was the day when I would find out if my crush would return my affection and give me a gift or if my overture would be ignored and my love would be spurned. It was going to be the talk of the school either way.
Takuya approached me, egged on by his friends, and had an agonized look on his face. He thrust out his hands, said Okaeshi ni, and scurried away. Oh no. He was basically saying not that he liked me, but that he was returning a debt. That didn’t sound promising.
Well, it wasn’t promising. The chocolates were unremarkable — decidedly giri choco and not honmei choco. He was teased by his guy friends and I had to lick my wounds the rest of the year. Thank goodness the new school year started in April so they could become seniors and I could have a fresh start by joining a new junior class. No more crushes for me. I was going to lie low. Only tomo choco or jibun choco from here on out!
Good luck to you. May the cupid gods forever be in your favor.
As I sat in the airplane ready to fly to Sapporo, Japan, I had a panic attack. It dawned on me that I knew no Japanese other than a few phrases. Konnichiwa (good afternoon), Sayonara (goodbye), and Hajimemashite (nice to meet you) would only get me so far as an exchange student about to live with a Japanese family and go to a public high school for my entire junior year. I furiously flipped through the little dictionary I had in my lap. This was pre-Google Translate. Pre-smart phones. Pre-most-things, actually. The year was 1986.
What is the Japanese Language Like?
Don’t worry, Japanese has a straight-forward phonology, or sound system. There are only 46 syllable forms to learn, and they’re “phonetic,” meaning how it is written in Roman letters is pretty much how you pronounce it. These syllables are the basic building blocks for all the words you’ll learn. For example: a, ka, sa, ta, na, o, ko, so, to, no. Put any two syllables together, and you probably have said a word (e.g., kasa = umbrella; asa = morning; ato = after). It’s uncommon for Japanese words to end in a consonant. That’s why you’ll hear Japanese people adding a vowel sound to English words, such as raisu for “rice.”
Basic Japanese grammar is pretty simple too. English follows the Subject-Verb-Object word order (e.g., “I like sushi”), while Japanese follows the Subject-Object-Verb word order (e.g., “I sushi like”). It’s a bit more complicated than that, since there are various grammatical markers (particles) to add. “I like sushi” is Watashi wa sushi ga suki desu. It breaks down into: Watashi (subject) + wa (subject/topic particle) + sushi (object) + ga (object particle) + suki desu (verb).
Writing is more complicated. There are two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, which are like alphabets but for syllables rather than letters. The four syllables in the word “hiragana” look like this: ひらがな hi-ra-ga-na. Katakana is similar, but used for borrowed words, concepts, and names, such as the English word “box”: ボックス bo-ku-su. The third and final type of writing is called kanji.
Kanji are based on Chinese characters. Kanji are considered “ideographs” because they are symbols that represent ideas. For example, 木 means “tree.” Doesn’t it look like a tree with branches? 森 means “woods.” See the idea? Sadly, only the elementary school level kanji really look like something recognizable. But don’t get discouraged! Just learn a few a week and you’ll be able to get by eventually. You need to know a few thousand kanji to read the newspaper, a goal I never attained without a dictionary.
Different Ways to Learn Japanese
The best way to learn Japanese is to live in Japan. There are programs for older students to study in Japan for a few weeks, a few months, and even a few years. There are lots of jobs one could get in Japan as well, especially English teaching or tutoring. If moving to Japan is not feasible for you, the next best thing is to find a person to teach you who has high proficiency in the language.
Interacting with real humans in the real world is the surest way to improve proficiency in any language. There are language organizations where you can learn from a professional Japanese teacher. Or you can find a private Japanese tutor to teach you. Make sure to find an experienced teacher, even if the price is higher, because knowing a language from birth does not always translate into knowing how to teach effectively. If money is an issue, you can participate in a language exchange where, at no cost, you teach English in exchange for being taught Japanese.
For those of you who are solo flyers or lone wolf language learners, there are many reputable online programs and self-paced apps that offer Japanese learning opportunities as well. Just make sure the program is based on research and the science of language learning. Speaking of lone wolves, it is shocking how many people have been able to teach themselves Japanese on their own! I know teenagers who, through many hours of watching anime, have amassed an impressive accent and vocabulary. I know adults who were disciplined enough to learn the language just through YouTube, gaming, subtitles, and other forms of self-study. These people are truly dedicated, and also unusually self-disciplined.
Top Six Tips for Learning Japanese
Flash back to Sapporo, Japan in 1986. I spent a few months in the Silent Period. This is where someone doesn’t speak, but instead listens intently and absorbs as much as they can. It’s kind of what babies do, or anxious people who are afraid to make a million mistakes (me!). After a few months of my self-imposed silent treatment, I decided it was better to make a fool of myself and just start talking poorly one word at a time. Lo and behold, it worked! My host family siblings were very patient (and amused) as they corrected my speech and taught me 1st grade kanji. By the time I flew home in 1987, I was fluent in conversational Japanese, and after college, had a stint as a Japanese interpreter and translator.
In conclusion, my top six tips for learning Japanese are:
If you can, go to Japan.
When possible, learn from a real person.
Do research before you begin a language program.
Learn what you can for free: anime, TV, movies, YouTube, etc.
Learn a phrase, word, or character every day. It adds up.
Just try. Make a fool of yourself. The effort will pay off.
Apparently, I have too much time on my hands, because I have been pondering my dog and cat’s ability to communicate. The following are my perhaps not-so-earth-shattering observations.
My cat has better expressive language. He has a certain meow to say “I’m hungry” and another one to say “It’s freezing, let me in.” He purrs when he’s content. Or he may just be self-soothing, because he often purrs just to purr. He swipes at me or bites me to say, “Don’t touch me there, Lady!” He has limited nonverbal communication. He does, however, stand next to the door and stare at it creepily to ask to be let out. He also rubs against me persistently with his tail up as if to say, “Feed me! I’m dying! And why haven’t you fed me in eons?!”
My dog has better social pragmatic and receptive language. She understands lots of commands and responds well to my tone of voice. She knows when my prosody and pitch indicate that she’s been a good girl or a naughty rascal. She understands and uses a wide array of nonverbal language, such as my gestures for “Shake, Roll over, Go away.” She makes consistent bids for interaction, such as bringing me a squeaky toy to throw. She has excellent reciprocity. After I give her scratches, she gives me licks. After I do a wrestling move on her, she does one on me. She rarely speaks except to say, “Let’s play!” or “State your name and purpose, Stranger.”
I should say that neither my cat nor my dog has superb pragmatic skills. One is quite self-centered and doesn’t really seem to give a rat’s rump about anyone but himself. The other doesn’t take hints that not all humans are dog people and they don’t unanimously appreciate slobbery licks. It could be worthwhile for me to do a developmental history interview to see what their birth parents have to say, if there’s any pattern of delays in littermates, and what their early childhood was like before I became their mom.
Who says the pandemic is totally nonproductive? This speech-language pathologist with too much down time has managed to do a quick language observation on her subjects. Now I will undertake some response-to-intervention before determining whether or not to move to a formal evaluation. I’m thinking of trialing some AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices such as those programmable buttons to help my pets communicate. Then again, that would require way more free time than even I have. The pandemic had better wrap up before I stumble upon other inconsequential distractions!