The first of “Our Autistic Expression”, a series intended to inform interested parties about our observations and experiences. Rather than a sweepingly broad brush of neurodivergent averages (an oxymoronic idea), we wish to present very particular, brief, unique-to-us-yet-hopefully-relatable vignettes. We write to the curious, the empathetic, and the open-minded, regardless of where and if on the spectrum they identify.
Climb the aged ladder to the attic of our minds. Pull the chains attached to the singular, incandescent bulbs. Squint for a dim, noncomprehensive view of whatever thoughts are nearest the doorways.
Sunshine & the Scientist
400 Words on Verbosity
I have always been labeled as highly verbal, aka talkative, chatty, too chatty, the arbiter of big words, the little professor from the earliest age, the know-it-all, the curious questioner. Even before I could talk, I mimicked basic sign language learned from children’s television to communicate with my parents. Then, I absorbed language with an unquenchable thirst, reading at a higher grade level than my peers by a factor of two. In my school years, teachers remarked simultaneously how proud they were of my talkative nature and my incredible vocabulary, and how disappointed they were of my inability to sit quietly or be challenged by the assignments and activities they presented.
For most people, a few minutes’ conversation is usually enough for even the least discerning individuals to notice that I’m…something. My partner has much the same effect. He often gets called a genius, brilliant, wonderous, which are all likely accurate. I, in comparison, am mistakenly labeled as conniving, manipulative, or domineering –all code for smart lady in a patriarchal society. In my view, the assumptions about my partner and I are not based on the content of our conversations, but rather our specificity of words, our lengthy speech patterning, and our penchant for being able to cite facts and figures, dates and names, with relative ease and accuracy. We also, unlike many we meet, will typically identify when we know we don’t know.
Because of the speed at which I process language, and the adoring deliberateness with which I communicate, I am full of puns, jokes, call-backs, accents, regional dialects, song lyrics, doubly- and triply-layered innuendo, and metacognitive observations. I may move too fast to be followed, making fewer connections aloud than I realize. My jokes fall flat for the uninitiated. My references seem scattered and my intentions mysterious. For other neurodivergent folk, I am a gem, if a bit overwhelming. For the non-divergent, I am a pariah, a handful, a witch, or an existential threat.
I am fortunate to have found my partner, who can follow and extend the conversation with unmatched precision. We can chat for hours and our attics are endlessly vaulted, a bit dusty, infrequently accessed, and jam-packed with interesting anecdotes and artifacts. We both developed with an intense passion for learning and for communicating, and it bonds us in the ways it sets us apart from others.
To the little professors, past and present, I see you.
About the Series
I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent. My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly.
We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who fall many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)
On Expecting the Expected when Dealing with a Wolf
As a former teacher and therapist, I often found myself in need of a relatable allegory to teach complex aspects of humanity, and the complicated ways we interact, to children. Fables are a natural starting place, but the imagery and animalistic parallels are not as easily understood as they once were. The Modern Retellings series is attempting to change that.
Adapted from Aesop’s The Wolf and the Lamb may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation to explain that wolves will be wolves, despite what they may say. After the story, read the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, use the discussion questions to lead a conversation about the symbolic parallels, make connections to daily life, and get a glimpse of the inspiration behind the Modern Retellings series.
Modern Retellings for Everyday Life
 Aesop’s Fable: The Wolf and the Lamb
For a hardworking and caring person, the hardest lesson is learning that others may not be.
The Wolf of the Workplace
(in 2 minutes or less)
T was hired to work as a graphic designer for a big company and was excited to do whatever was necessary to succeed. T worked long hours in the office cubicle, submitting work files by email to M, the floor supervisor. T had never spoken to M, and that was okay because M was quick to anger and known to fire new employees for no reason at all.
After 4 weeks of handing in designs and following client briefs, M stormed into T’s cubicle. M was angry because T hadn’t asked for help completing any project and deemed T too new at graphic design to be working alone. M cautioned T that the job was at-will, meaning anyone could be fired anytime for any reason. T heard the message loud and clear.
T was fearful about losing the job, and nervous about being yelled at again, so they changed their approach to suit M. Every time a new client project was assigned, T immediately asked an experienced coworker how to complete the project. Each project took twice as long to complete, but T doing what M asked.
Two weeks after the first visit, M returned to T’s desk. Now, M was angry about T being away from the cubicle too often, bothering coworkers, and relying too heavily on the assistance of others. M said the completed work looked like the copied work of other designers, and that if T did not change tactics, they would be fired.
T was determined to get it right and to please M. In the next week, T balanced artistic vision with help from others. T took each client project, created a first draft, and then emailed coworkers to ask for feedback if they had time and were willing. This way, T couldn’t be accused of stealing work from others or accused of being too new to work alone. T felt the clients and M would be happy with the new strategy.
On the following Monday, T was summoned to M’s office. M angrily explained that no designer should be as flexible as T, that the company didn’t want a designer who was easy to push around. It made no sense to T, because they had done exactly what was asked and they were a skilled graphic designer. T was told to clean out their cubicle and go home. They were fired. M was a terrible supervisor with a mean streak and a bad attitude, and T was glad to be leaving.
A hungry, trickster wolf may appear to be trying to save the lamb from being eaten, but expect that wolf to eat that lamb, no matter what they say or do.
Family Discussion Questions
Use these questions to help lead a conversation about the fable and its intended meaning.
In the story of T and M, who is the lamb and who is the wolf? How do you know?
What did “the wolf” want, before “the lamb” even began to work at the company?
What does “eating the lamb” actually symbolize in the workplace?
Could “the lamb” have done anything to keep working there?
If you were “the lamb”, how would you feel after dealing with “the wolf” boss?
T is the lamb. M is the wolf. M is in control and threatening T’s job, and T is trying to please their boss M.
“The Wolf” is known to get angry and fire employees for no reason. M creates a fearful office environment. M wants employees to be afraid and doesn’t seem to care about the design work at all.
“Eating the lamb” symbolizes “firing a new employee, T” in this story.
T could not have done anything to change M’s actions, and likely no change to T’s work would have been acceptable to M. But, in the modern workplace, there are other ways to deal with a difficult boss, and depending on the level of comprehension, the conversation can lead in this direction.
There are no wrong answers. Examples might be: Sad or happy to be fired. Scared or nervous of the boss’ anger. Angry at being yelled at for no good reason or for not having hard work recognized.
Wolves in Our Daily Lives
It has taken me nearly three decades to learn that my choices are my own, and I cannot choose for another what they will not choose for themselves. As a child, I was eager to please every person with whom I connected, and that led to a lot of difficult situations surrounding the expectations of others and the expectations I had for myself. Not everyone would be a friend. Not everyone would be acting rationally, morally, or in a justifiable way. No amount of helping, teaching, explaining, or placating could mollify the wolfish way.
Sometimes people will ask the impossible to test boundaries or cause damage. Sometimes people will ask others to bend over backwards just to watch them break in half. Sometimes people sense a person’s weakness and immediately wish to exploit it, rather than adapt to it. Sometimes people choose cruelty over kindness.
For some, this went without saying. For do-gooder, people-pleaser, rationalizing logicians like me, the question of why people act badly towards others was constantly on my mind. I, and others like me, have trouble accepting that we cannot always understand the actions of others, and that people may act irrationally, cruelly, aggressively, and immorally for no reason at all, or for reasons we simply can’t know. If we have done our best, striven to be good, and are still faced with difficulty, we must move forward as best we can, ask for help if we need it, and leave the search for answers behind.
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Wolf and The Lamb?
Do you know any lambs or wolves in your life? What qualities do they have? How would you describe them?
Comment below, and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
This is the 4th part in the Modern Retellings series. Catch up with the series:
For a leisurely, Sunday afternoon stroll, we set out for Mill Pond Park as the sky richly turned to sherbet shades. It was mid-May and we knew the park would be vibrant and reverberating with song. By this time in the season, the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, and red-breasted woodpeckers had returned, noisy neighbors with whom the many mallards, swans, and geese would contend in the reedy marshes and open water. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole, a rare sight in my experience, and I marked it as a lucky day. Little did I know what I would find a short while later.
In the springtime, it was always lively at Mill Pond, which hosted a 1.1-mile paved trail loop around a 100+-year-old body of water, plus a few off-shooting, wandering woodland trails. On days like that one, I expected the park to be busy. Long Islanders, especially in the surrounding area, love to stretch their legs on something other than their suburban streets. Mill Pond Park, and the dedicated Adam D. Rand Memorial Trail, offered a brief respite from the daily bustle, and the opportunity to commune with nature.
On this day, visitors were throwing bread crumbs for the chance to bring the geese closer, and I reached out to caution them how unhealthy this practice was. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, just tsk tsk to myself, but I felt truly compelled to inform. Theyhad to know and I had to tell them.
Rather than bread, it would be much safer to throw lettuce, vegetable scraps, wheat, or oats. Bread, aka junk food for fowls, would have minimal nutritious value compared to the vegetation geese and ducks would normally eat. After eating the bread, geese could easily stop foraging from their natural habitat altogether, creating a kind of selective starvation, impotent dependence on humans, and a serious nutrient imbalance. Then, hungry, seeking out human assistance and eating too much sugar, they were at risk for developing angel wing, a debilitating condition rendering geese flightless. The heavy carbohydrate diet could cause their stomachs to heavily stretch and their wings to grow faster than their bones, which would lead to severe, irreversible deformity. A goose with a twisted wing would not be able to migrate, evade predators, or fly to food or shelter. The same could be said for swans and ducks.
If you love feeding the geese, you would be wise to treat them with care, and with the scientific knowledge our human privilege affords us.
I told the couple as succinctly as possible what I knew to be true. My brief word of caution received naught but a head turn, a callous shrug, and an unceremonious dumping of an entire bag of bread into the awaiting feeding frenzy. The unknowing birds clawed and combatted one another for bites of the poisonous lot. It made my heart ache.
We had expected the park to be busy before we arrived, but after the sorrowful interaction, I longed for solitude. We doubled pace and dove for the more isolated paths, the western acreage. In moments, we found ourselves alone on well-marked trails, crossing small creeks and rediscovering an old, brightly colored, graffitied building previously belonging to Brooklyn City Water Works, before the park was acquired by Nassau County in 1967. The pond was known as Jones Pond then, another name from another era. I allowed myself to be transported, pushing the geese endangerers aside.
It has always amazed me to find separation from the bustle of humanity while being in the middle of a densely populated suburb, near the busy Mill Pond path, and at times merely 25 meters from the Wantagh State Parkway. The Long Island developers, intensely flawed (and worse) in their philosophies, gave us all the gift of nature and the presence of so many pocket parks like this one. Everything in balance, the natural world corrects. I breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed back onto the main loop and made our way back to the car.
The day was not to end just yet, however.
As we made our way back to the seating area near the park entrance, where a waterfall kept a steady current flowing, I gazed across the expanse of skunk cabbage for a last look and one final word of gratitude. And I could not believe the sight.
Seven white herons stood distantly across the pond, each on one leg in the hunter’s stance.
It was a rare joy to see even a single heron on Long Island, and as herons prefer hunting in isolation, they were typically sighted alone. (Occasionally, at the height of mating season, they might be seen in pairs.) A handful of herons appeared yearly at various ponds and lakes across the island. Each time, to see one, I could hardly believe my luck. I’ve perched lakeside and watched them hunt while they’ve stood statuesque in shallow waters. Holding still for hours if necessary, on one, skinny leg, they appeared like a twig to an unsuspecting fish. Then, at the perfect moment, they used their free talons to grab and feed.
The experience was magical. They are beautiful, slender, and graceful creatures. They are cautious and clever predators.
From this distance, I couldn’t identify if they were snowy egrets (a type of heron) or great blue herons – only the color of the legs or beaks would have differentiated the species. I was gawking, bumbling, then noticing no other park patrons noticing this unbelievably rare sight. Normally, one heron at this lake would turn a few heads. How was no one seeing this?
I stood in awe, deeply moved by the seven figures.
In the Wildwood, the heron is the King of Vessels, a patient, lone hunter defending knowledge. He symbolizes self-awareness at the early breaking of dawn. Herons guard the Celtic otherworld, and can be interpreted as guardians, guides, teachers, or supporters. They are associated with problem solving and self-control, but also an overbearing rigidness or dependence on structure.
My thoughts went rampant while my body remained still. Should I interpret these herons as a sign of some kind from the grand universe? Support for my confident strength and instructional abilities which challenged me to confront and educate the strangers? Maybe. Acknowledgment of the guardianship over and empathy for the flock? Maybe. Approval of my self-awareness at the compulsion to separate myself when I became too emotional for the community? Maybe. Admonition for my rigidity and self-control, which frequently led me to personalize something random as perhaps nature’s secret communique? Maybe, noted, and with that, I snapped from my reverie. Whenever, wherever, I found myself seeking symbolic associations, I’ve usually overstayed my visit.
Mill Pond Park offered a brief respite from the daily rush and the opportunity to relax in its healing bounds. It had an experience waiting for walkers, hikers, sitters, observers, travelers, and even the birders like me.
When I arrived home, however, I was startled, wrenched back into those symbolic overtones I’d tried to escape. My reflection greeted me in the hall mirror. It was displaying the proud heron tee I’d donned much earlier that morning. At the park, the connection hadn’t occurred to me.
There were actually eight herons at the pond that day. Seven white herons and one creative, confident, self-aware protector.
I really was wearing this shirt:
(I’m a huge supporter of Curbside Clothing, and I literally own near 20 items from their collection. This is not a sponsored post or tall tale by any means, just a true post from a woman who is profoundly moved by nature and the work of these commissioned artists.)
Fact Checked and Supported using the following sites:
Our second month taught us a lot about stamina and resilience in creating a sustainable blog.
Sunshine and the Scientist present: Putting Down Roots and Raking Up Leaves
continues to be a learning experience, an empathetic stomping ground, and a casual experiment.
In the month of May, we published 9 entries, 75% of April’s cache.
This wasn’t a calculated decision. The month of May got away from us, as social and occupational obligations began to add up. We had serious car trouble (another story for another day), which took Sunshine out of the writing running for nearly a week and a half. There was also a very lovely vacation weekend where barely any tech was touched.
By the Numbers
The 9 entries received a total of 114 views from 70 visitors, accessing from 10 countries. While the United States remains the center of our readership base by a factor of 10, we are gaining popularity with readers in Spain and the UK.
With 25% fewer entries, it is encouraging to have had approximately an equal drop in visitors. This is being attributed to a more deliberate social media sharing schedule, and is being interpreted favorably. After two months, there is a trend of approximately 8 visitors per entry, and this is a statistic which will be important moving forward.
Clearly, May was not as good as April in the numbers, as we missed our goals by respective landslides. But like true scientists, we learn by failing.
It appears there was a burst in followers in our first month, but a serious depreciation rate in the second. For this change, we will adjust our goals accordingly.
Comments and likes also depreciated, but this is partially attributable to the significantly decreased presence on the site overall. Many of the comments and likes in our first month were garnered from those pages we stopped in to comment, like, or subscribe to. In focusing more on social sharing, we decreased our previous WordPress Reader presence and thus our impact in our readers’ and potential readers’ view.
An article from April, There’s Something About Lori, about Sunshine’s journey of self-discovery and personal autistic awareness, remained the most popular article on the blog in May.
This was followed by What We Learned Rebuilding, an in-depth look at the lessons Sunshine and the Scientist collected while rebuilding the front porch deck, regarding construction techniques and relationship building.
The Scientist would like me to add that while Sunshine called us “novices” in the entry, he is very adept and familiar with tools and hardware, and has (re)constructed decks before. Sunshine was the true novice during the build, and please know the article was written mostly from her perspective.
The Scientist has also since begun work in a laboratory where he uses power tools and crafting materials all the time, and we cannot wait to share with you more about his new profession in a future entry.
Please, Stop Asking Kids this One Question was the third most popular entry, informed by Sunshine’s years of working with autistic children and incorporating her unusual, yet accurate, observations as an atypical, neurodiverse woman. While the Scientist finds the blog entry to be gripping and informative, Sunshine believes it was likely too lengthy for the message it hopes to communicate, which is simply: Never ask a “did you tell” question to a child when you know, and they know you know, the answer. Click the link above for anecdotal and descriptive explanations.
Less popular was the Modern Retellings series, debuting on Friday afternoons, and currently featuring the titles The Fox and the Briefcase,The Snapchat Gnat, and Friendly, Feathered Competition. The series is intent on communicating Aesop’s fables in 2-minutes-or-less, in more technologically savvy allegories. Despite its reception, the series will continue into June, because it is something we believe is vital and currently missing from our cultural discourse.
Setting Goals for June
The goals for May were simple, and somewhat qualitative:
Increase reach, reception, and enhance discourse
Publish 15 entries, plus Stats and Goals
Use feedback to enhance article content
In an effort to continue to thrive at any new commitment, attainable goals are necessary. Failing to meet a goal provides a learning opportunity, and the chance to reset and refocus with intention.
Keeping this in mind, in the month of June, we aim to:
– Publish 2 Science and nature entries, 1 Relationship-building entry, 3 Modern Retellings entries, and perhaps at least 1 update, among others, with an ideal of 10 (this month +1)
– Increase activity by seeking out further interactions through the WordPress reader
– Maintain current levels of social link sharing to maintain and promote readership
…Wait, one more thing!
The most informative and most critical article we wrote this month was Tick Tock, Ticks are Hungry. Sunshine and the Scientist strongly encourage you to know the risk of ticks in your area and to take all necessary precautions. Check out your local, county, and state park websites for relevant information, and skim through the list we’ve cultivated to assert safe practices. Did you know ticks are arachnids who grow a pair of legs each year? Did you know they don’t fly or jump, but attach to bodies that brush by their outstretched, leafy perch? All that and more in the article linked above.
My partner and I are busy working professionals, working nine to five while cultivating side hustles, keeping house, landscaping, staying fit, eating healthfully, and raising cats. We’re Busy. And yet, just about every week, we make time to head down to the local pool hall and play a few games. It keeps our relationship strong.
[Skip to the next heading if you’re familiar with the basics. Or read on to read as I summarize a rule book in a couple of paragraphs. ]
If you’ve never played pool before, I’m going to give an amateur description of the game play and rules. One person racks, which means sets up the balls. The rack is a triangle formation of 10 balls, the 8 ball being the most important to keep in the center position. The other person will break using a cue stick, meaning attempt to hit the white cue ball into this formation, hard enough break up the balls, but not so hard the cue ball flies off the table. If the breaker gets one in, they’re entitled to aim the cue ball toward any other ball other than the 8 toward any pocket (that’s the cup or hole where the ball falls.) If the breaker doesn’t get one in on the break, or if they do and miss their second shot, the table is Open.
The racking person now has a chance to hit the cue ball into any (not the 8) ball they like. Once either person makes a shot in after the break, they will either be stripes or solids (or high ball/low ball based on the numbers on the ball), depending on which they got in. The players take turns, shooting until they miss, until all of their solids or stripes are in. Once the colored balls are in, the player can shoot on the 8.
If one accidently moves a ball, accidently sinks the cue ball, or does a number of other things, that’s a scratch. Other person can put the cue where ever they want behind the starting line to start their turn. If the 8 ball goes in out of order, as in before all of the solids or all of the stripes are in, game over, that player loses. My partner and I also call our shots, so if the ball goes into a pocket we made by mistake or didn’t announce ahead of time, lose a turn. And if the 8 ball goes into a pocket we didn’t call, game over, that’s losing. And if a player sinks the cue while missing the shot on the 8, that’s ball-in-hand, meaning the other person can set up the cue anywhere they like. If the first player scratches while sinking the 8, that’s game over, and how statistically I beat my partner most nights.
That’s probably good enough for background.
Partners & Competitors
It’s a game you can play alone, but it strengthens the partnership.
One thing we have consistently found is that we are excellent partners in life. We divide the chores. We plan with consideration. He help and trust each other without question. We are able to support one another through nearly every difficulty, and one of us is always able to take the lead in difficult moments to get us to where we need to be.
But we’re also incredibly competitive, and that’s not something that goes well with partnership typically. If we didn’t play pool, we would get overly supportive of one another, sappy, sweet, take each other too seriously, and generally miss out on the fun of competition. We love to compete, and pool gives us a way of doing it in a confined and specific way where no one is taking themselves too seriously.
In the past, we’ve also played in weekly leagues in doubles rounds. This is a different way of channeling both our partnership instinct and our need for competition. We’ve learned how to set each other up while defending against the other pair, how to support one another with the right praise at the right time, and we’re pretty unstoppable in most local doubles matches.
Trash Talk Motivates
On the off chance that either of us decides to trash talk the other in the fun spirit of competition, typically the receiver of the trashing rises to prove the other wrong. I’ve trashed my partner’s play many times with the idea of motivating him to shoot better- and I always regret it because of how quickly he proves me wrong.
Clearing the Mind
Meditation in Precision
No matter what has happened during the work day, we leave it at the door. (We’ve sat in the car outside the hall a number of times to vent before the play.) We have an unspoken agreement that we do not discuss work or other stressors during the game. First, it’s a game best played quietly and in a focused manner. The chatterer could throw either person off. Second, I have no desire to ruin my partner’s mood when I’ve had a bad workday and we’re in a relaxed setting. We need time to decompress away from the stressors, not around them.. Third, the simple act of lining up the cue, focusing the energy, creating a delicate force, and choosing the proper angles is meditative. During our most skilled games, we’re likely not talking much at all. The silence is sweet. We’re meditating in precise movements.
Geometry is Wild
It’s hard to deny how cool math and physics can be.
Those angles I mentioned? At first, as an amateur player, I saw the balls straight on. But I’ve never played a game with a clear straightaway shot on every turn. In the beginning, it was all defense. How can I hide this cue ball or make it more difficult at the very least? Then, as I developed skills, I started to see banks (hitting the ball against the side or rail of the table) and combinations (hitting one ball into another ball to knock it in.) My growing comfort and increasing finesse has led me to learning about how spin (English) on the cue can move the ball in otherwise seemingly impossible ways. My partner is working on Masse’ — curving the cue around something to his what he’s aiming at. The more we play, the more we see see the options, angles, and possibilities. We’re developing a kind of second sight. Geometry (seeing the angles) and physics (understanding force) are undeniably necessary and totally cool in this setting. And often, it is the lightest of touch that is needed- a lesson my partner and I both have absorbed over time.
Progress is Possible
The act of playing is practice enough to get comfortable.
Like with other things, the more we play, the better we get. And even if I’m having an off-night, not able to see straight or find the force I need, e.g., there is still the growing sensation that practice makes progress. Not every hobby has perceivable levels of difficulty on which to measure ability. In this game, the way we play, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about shooting the shot.
Also Winning and Losing
We don’t keep an ongoing record, but it’s nice to win the night.
Despite what I said above, it’s also about winning and losing. Of course it is. My partner and I look at the game one shot at a time, and then a series of games at a time. We give praise freely for the great shots, but we don’t suffer the loss of the individual games. (My first game is always a practice game, unless I win, then it counts.) We play best of 5 or 7, and whoever loses buys dinner or drives home. The reward is irrelevant, but it adds a fun twist to our night. Then the next time we get to the table, usually the one who won will be sure to mention their greatest shot from the previous game. And it makes the one who lost all the more fired up to win this time around.
A Uniquely Individual Sport
How you play is how You play.
My bridge (how I balance the cue on my left hand to aim with my right) is strange. Most people balance their cue in between their thumb and forefinger, but me — I feel more comfortable shooting between my index and middle finger. I have long hands, and I feel I have more stability if I use my spidery fingers to this end. And at the pool hall, no one will ever give me any stress about not doing it “right”, whatever that means. Whether its how you stand, how you approach the table, your hand positions, your aim, the way you see the game, the kinds of shots you take or any other facet of the game — no one is ever going to stop you unless you’re breaking a specific rule. There’s no right or wrong way to play, at least not at this level, and there’s a freedom in developing style and technique in an expectation vacuum. It’s cathartic in a world that is typically full of people telling other people what to do and not to do. (Professionals have thoroughly developed techniques and thoughtfully considered approaches, but we’re just a couple of weeknight players.)
Help is Fine Too
If the game isn’t that serious, ask the question.
How many times have I asked my partner — not as a competitor but as a friend — what do you think I should do here? I respect the way he plays and his eye for the game, and sometimes, if I’m in a pickle between two options, I’ll ask him to step outside the game and look with me, as a teammate. Sometimes he’ll tell me that I don’t have a clear shot, because of how he left the table. Sometimes, he’ll weigh in specifically based on what he sees. And I don’t always take his advice. Sometimes, after he weighs in, I realize (like calling the coin flip in the air) that I’ve already made my decision. And since we play different games, different styles, different techniques — the respect is mutual. I don’t have to take his advice, but I’m free to ask it.
10 Lessons Learned
Always shoot your shot and aim to shoot well.
Respect your opponent as if they were yourself.
Silence is golden.
Meditation can be active.
Try and see all the angles.
A delicate hand beats a heavy hand most of the time.
Practice makes progress.
Mistakes are not setbacks.
Schedule play dates, especially as an adult and leave your troubles at the door.
Respect the rules and earn respect.
Find Your Table
It might not be pool.
The healthiest thing we’ve done as partners is add a competitive outlet to an otherwise supportive set-up. I can’t recommend enough that all partners do the same. Your thing might not be pool (we also love a few challenging board games for similar reasons) but whatever it is, your partnership outlet should be the following things:
A medium where you feel both competitive and supportive of one another
A forum that requires concentration, focus, or the honing of a skill
An activity that can connect to other enjoyable aspects of life
A hobby with delineated progress and achievement levels
A fun, playful, enjoyable, not-too-serious time
An equal balance of procedure and free choice
A place either person can ask for or provide assistance
Something you can laugh about together
Something that can sweep you up in the moment
Something that feels right for you both
How do you and your partner destress as a team and strengthen your skills?
Adapted from Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane, may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation about value and competition. After the story, see the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, read on to learn more about the intention of the Modern Retelling series, and share with me your thoughts or fable ideas.
Friendly, Feathered Competition
(in 2-min or less)
J & R had a friendly competition over everything — who could hit the most homeruns, who would get higher grades, who had the better phone . They both wanted to learn how to drive and to have a sporty, fast car, and boasted about who would be driving first. They passed their driving tests on the same day. When J got home with the new license, there was a brand new Crisio Peacock waiting in the driveway! J texted a picture to R right away — victory! No car could beat this! R had also received a car when arriving home from the test — a 2010 Clumper Crane, which would need some work. At school the next day, J bragged to R that the Peacock was so much nicer than the Crane. “It’s brand new, fast and sporty, not like yours!” R replied easily, “A fancy new car is great and all, but your insurance premiums must be super high and you’ll need to pay for high-octane gas. The Peacock also has the worst safety and crash test ratings on the market. My Crane will survive any accident, last me for years, the insurance will cost me almost nothing, and with the money I’m saving, I can customize it, paint it, and really make it my own.” A few weeks later, J drove into the lot with a crumpled bumper and a bruised ego, and was shocked to find that R’s Crane was detailed and gleaming with the best speaker system he’d ever seen.
The Peacock’s feathers may be more brilliant and colorful, but the Crane knows that his dull gray feathers help him soar through the sky while the Peacock must remain on the ground, suffer the mud, and see those beautiful feathers grow dirty.
I suppose I am quite fortunate to have had parents who made dinner table conversation a priority. While a television played in the background, we’d discuss pieces of our days and catch up on topics of interest. I typically found myself in a way to criticize classmates or express exasperation at teachers- I was a bright, attentive kid, but difficult to challenge. How disappointing the world can be when you’re brilliant and bored — I was Sherlock without a case. I’d raise my hands at the table and expound, “Why do they have to do x like this? Wouldn’t it be better to do y instead?” There was no end to the frustration.
At this point, my father, utilizing the Socratic method, would begin asking me to think through decision trees and the potential motivations of others. While I could never be sure why someone had chosen a particular route, I could work out reasonings for deliberate choices that were made. (It wasn’t until much later I realized that not everyone makes deliberate choices. This was a facet of life that I learned from my mother — some of us swim with the current, some against, and some just allow the water to move us along.) This discussion method, Socratic questioning in particular, raised my empathetic awareness and has made me the person I am today.
I encourage you to open a dialog with loved ones. Use the fables as a starting place. Can you create another analogous, more modern adaptation of the Peacock and the Crane? Are there things that you covet that are not necessarily worth what they seem? Is there another fable or moral that stays with you, one that might be worth sharing with others?
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane?
Is there something you once coveted, but have since realized is not worth the price?
Is there any fable or story that made an impact on your empathy and the way you engage with the world?
Comment below and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
[TLDR: For the Quick Summary, please scroll to the Summary heading.]
Read on for the explanation.
Every parent I’ve ever met wants the best for their kid and parenting is a nonstop job. Parents work long hours, have big hearts, and push their kids to have the very best quality of life they can imagine. While working in-home with autistic kids, I always integrated family members into our sessions — they’d provide support long after I’d gone home for the night. I used my experience and training to give families the building blocks to strengthen their family ties and grow together.
The adage is true; It takes a village.
So now, it is with the best of intentions and my sincerest appreciation for our shared responsibilities that I bring something to your attention:
There is one question we need to stop asking.
I hear The Question so frequently that I honestly wonder about its ubiquity. How did we, as a culture, land on this one question as a means to an end?
It’s a simple and well-intentioned question that steps on its own toes, so to speak. It gets in its own way. Bites its own tongue. Circular reasons itself out of meaningfulness. Causes exactly what it’s attempting to prevent.
In real time, I’m powerless to stop it from being asked. The Question, this one small, well-meant colloquial adult-asks-kid scenario is so annoyingly antithetical to its purpose that I’m dedicating an entire entry to it (one that has been cut down from near-6k words.) It has the opposite effect for which it is meant. It reinforces the behavior intended to be changed.
How is the question raised?
Setting the Scene — Scenario
Jo and I are sitting at their dining room table. Jo is 10 years old, loves to play soccer, use metallic ink pens, and is intensely passionate about narrow interests. They have been diagnosed with co-morbid learning and communication delays. I visit their house several times a week, for a few hours at a time as a “tutor” and I “teach” social skills.
To this end, I use mirroring and modeling techniques, based on the iso-principle, to artificially match their energy and affect for pairing in the relationship. (Over time, I’ll use the technique less.) For now, it helps create a friendly foundation on which to build a learning environment. It also lets me briefly assess and evaluate the appropriate direction for today’s session in particular. There are many potential activities for us, but it’s Jo’s engagement that guides the choice. The session COULD be wacky and wildly energetic, replete with games, songs, and stories. Or, like today, it could be a quiet and reserved approach.
Opening Lines — The Lead Up
Jo is not making eye contact, their hands are down, and their shoulders are drooping. After knowing Jo a few months, I’ve come to expect the ebb and flow (aka dysregulation) of Jo’s emotions and I’ve consistently encouraged them to do what feels comfortable in any given moment.
Jo has unique social and communication needs. They‘re learning how to speak with people (not at them), how to empathize with others, and how to create friendships from incidental connections. They will practice with me, in routine and naturalistic ways, small skills that add up to big strides with me and then slowly generalized to others. My responsibility is to present the complexity of skills into easily manageable, repeatable, and quantifiable behaviors, then guide them to chain the skills together in useful, less mechanistic ways. I don’t expect Jo to learn all of these skills at once. For today, it’s okay if they can’t make eye contact. It’s okay if we sit quietly together for a few minutes without speaking, if they cannot return my greeting, or if they cannot respond to any question I ask. These are the most important skills I’m hoping to model, and we have all of our time together to practice them.
Even if Jo and I have achieved a richly engaging conversation in the past, I don’t anticipate or push for one. Jo is growing their understanding of back-and-forth social exchanges. In the meantime, I know through experience that there’s no sense in forcing them to interact. Over time, I’ll use reinforcement, repetition, role play, singing, game play, and other techniques, to teach this complex task which comes naturally to some, but not so to others.
Enter Mom and the Question of the Ages
Le had greeted me at the door and shown me into the room where Jo waits. She stands in the doorway as Jo and I take our places at the table, hovering expectantly as many moms do. After a beat, she begins shifting her weight uncomfortably as she recognizes what I’ve mentioned: Jo’s disengagement.
Le’s main goal for having me here is to enhance Jo’s communication abilities and the quality of their social interactions. She wants them to make friends more easily. She is very eager to see them communicate with others the way they only seem to communicate with her. Jo CAN talk, after all, but they sometimes struggle to speak genuinely with anyone other than Le. She’s concerned about their daily interactions, especially with adolescence on the horizon. I’ve done my best to educate Le to moderate her expectations. Her relationship with them will always be unique. They are actually very typical for a neurodivergent kid. These skills can take time, and it’s time we must all be ready for.
Let’s Begin — Jo and Me (and apparently, Le)
While I stack my notebooks and pull out my metallic pens, I can sense Le’s discomfort and anticipation. Jo may sense it too. It’s not helping Jo in the slightest.
I model for Le while also seeking Jo’s engagement. I prompt Jo, softly, patiently.
How was your day, Jo?
Good, Jo continues looking at their lap.
What would you like to talk about?
I did something fun today.
Can I tell you about my fun day?
In my head, I’m figuring out the path for this session. I’m using questions to provide opportunities. I’m evaluating the day’s objectives, informed by the overall communication goal and the presenting affect. Given their reserved responses, I’m planning to move to a medium with less conversation, like a worksheet, a music intervention, or a game. It will take the spotlight pressure off.
Jo turns to see Le hovering in the corner by the door. They look up at her, avoiding my gaze completely. (They are nonverbally seeking assistance.) Seeing their head turn, in the way of most well-meaning parents, Le rushes to Jo’s aid and inadvertently asks the most nonfunctional yet somehow pervasive question.
I try and signal Le not to speak, knowing the question is coming, but without rudely cutting her off, there’s nothing I can do. I silently observe Le as she, with the best intentions, reinforces Jo’s communication strife.
The Question that Answers Itself
“Did you tell Lori about … ?” Le prompts.
It’s a common phrasing. Meaningless in this situation, yet we use it regularly. It’s an error that sets my teeth on edge. It does nothing to help the child break out of their shell or learn appropriate interactions. It doesn’t enhance the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t model natural conversation and it doesn’t encourage social exploration. But, as I’ve said, Le’s mistake is a mistake we all make from time to time with kids. Le already knows the answer, and Jo knows she knows.
You Already Know
Whatever follows the question doesn’t matter.
Did you tell Lori about the field trip you went on yesterday?
Did you tell Grandma whathappened over the weekend?
Did you tell your friend where we went after football practice?
Did you tell your teacher about your new shoes?
Did you tell [person][event/thing/action]?
And so on.
Varying Responses with Only One Result
“Did you tell Lori about the field trip?“
Jo, like most kids, responds by sitting quietly without responding. Jo, in a difficult moment, has successfully passed the communication reins to Le, and will now have Le lead the conversation.
Jo looks self-conscious. The thing they didn’t mention is red ink on the page. Jo hasn’t said anything at all, their mom knows it, and yet, their mom has put them in a situation to either say “no” or not respond at all. The question does not open a line of dialog — it creates an end point.
To incorporate the framing of the question, I turn my body toward her saying something to the effect of, “Jo will tell me when they’re ready,” and then turn back to Jo and ask a direct, potentially related, question. Whatever I ask will be open-ended enough to allow Jo the agency of responding, as Le has already removed the agency of choosing a subject. I might ask something like:
Jo, where did you go on your field trip?
Who was on the field trip with you?
Did you take a bus with your class, or ride in a car?
Unfortunately for Jo, Le feels tired of Jo not responding, and wants to show them what to do. Before I can leave space and ask Jo a direct question, Le jumps in again:
You went to the museum, right? Tell Lori about the museum, and what your teacher said.”
In every case that I’ve seen using the “Did you tell…” framing followed by an additional piece of information, every kid, just like Jo, repeats back whatever was said and falls silent again. Jo:
We went to a museum.
This isn’t a natural conversation, and Jo doesn’t even have a starring role in it. I can ask whatever I want now, Jo will likely only shrug or look back to Le. Over time, Jo and Le have adapted this likely unconscious routine, where Jo has difficulty initiating, Le fills in the blanks, and Jo parrots back a response enough to appease me, or any adult Jo is expected to talk to.
An Easy Mistake with Lasting Consequences
In an effort to persuade Jo to begin talking, Le is fabricatinga situation for them to rely on another person to start talking.
In this instance, Le is not teaching them to speak. She is speaking for Jo in a somewhat condescending way. Perhaps Jo doesn’t want to discuss the field trip with me, or perhaps there’s something else on their mind. Maybe they were waiting on a better time to bring it up, or maybe they just didn’t want to talk at all. Le has removed Jo’s agency, likely in response to their own discomfort with our mutual silence.
It’s completely well-intentioned. It’s also detrimental. Le may be the person who saves her friends from awkward conversations at cocktail parties, but her child is also relying heavily on her to do so every day.
If you’re not sure why “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is bad, here are 4 glaring issues I’ve seen in practice.
1. “You KNOW I didn’t”
“Did you tell…?” No, and you know it! Le knows Jo has not told me this story, she’s been standing there the whole time! In no way does this resemble a natural, conversational style. Issue 1: Modeling Unnatural Interaction
2. Insinuating “You should/could have mentioned…”
“Did you tell…?” In natural conversational style, the way most of us would respond to being asked this question would be to say “No I didn’t tell…” followed by actually telling or giving a reason why we haven’t told yet.
Jo doesn’t have a natural conversational style; it’s why they’re working with me. By asking this, Le is expecting Jo to have mastered this part of dialog we take for granted, insinuating they should have mentioned the thing, and holding Jo to a test they can likely at this stage only fail. Issue 2: Setting the Bar Too High While Simultaneously Acknowledging It’s Unreached
3. “Don’t put me on the spot!”
The self-awareness required to answer the question correctly is almost always accompanied by feelings of shyness, discomfort, or poor self-esteem. Le put Jo on the spot to discuss something they picked, and does so repeatedly on a regular basis. After this interaction with me, Jo typically lashes out in anger, at agreed upon boundaries or at themselves.
“Did you tell…?”
“Man, why didn’t I think of telling them about that?” or “I didn’t want to mention that — but now I guess we have to talk about it.”
Issue 3: Creating Feelings of Inadequacy or Poor Self-Esteem
4. “What do I do now?”
“Did you tell…?” is a prompt that reinforces the dependent relationship, and the more it’s used, the more deeply it’s entrenched in their interactions. Jo will wait to be prompted by Le to speak, and will rely on Le for the appropriate topic in any given moment. What will Jo do when Le is not around? Perhaps, lead the conversation alone, but in my experience, if this is a routine occurrence, Jo will clam up or wait to be directed when Le is not around. And who will Jo take prompts from? Potentially, anyone. Issue 4: Conditioning Unwanted Behavior
Show, Don’t Tell
Every adult who interacts with Jo has a responsibility to model natural conversation, so that Jo is able to begin to implement what they learn in our sessions. If Le feels like she must jump in, she can say to me, “Jo went on a field trip today. Maybe they’ll tell you about that when they’re ready.”
Jo’s responsibility is to communicate to the best of their ability, whatever that may be today. They do not need to make me feel comfortable, to act outside of their nature perform for me. They may or may not be aware that communication is even expected, which is completely and totally okay.
It’s my responsibility to show and not tell how I start conversations, what topics are good jumping-off points, and the mechanisms by which our language is figurative, inferential, casual, and anticipatory.
Recapping the Question Not to Ask
When asking “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you are inadvertently and with the best of intentions:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
An Addendum for Minimally Verbal Children
“Minimally Verbal”, or occasionally “Nonverbal”, is the descriptive term therapists use for those who use functional language minimally (if at all).
The Question is Still Problematic
For the minimally verbal, “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is potentially even more detrimental. For functionally verbal children like Jo, the question is problematic for all the reasons listed above. For minimally verbal children with difficulties processing or understanding language, the question reinforces the wrong idea. In this instance, following
Did you tell Lori we went to the park?
will frequently be answered with either an incorrect answer or an echo.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “Yes.” No, you didn’t. Tell Lori we went to the park.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “the Park.”
The responses are not functional. The child doesn’t understand what is being asked. In most cases, parents then respond positively —
“The park.” “Yes! That’s right! We went to the park!”
Functionally, the child sees a happy parent and hears praise. The child will now be conditioned to respond the same way following each “Did you” question.
Did you eat lunch? “Yes. Eat lunch.”
Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes.”
Did the lunch person help you with your lunchbox? “Lunchbox.”
Did you know you forgot your lunch? “Yes.” But did they know?
It is truly amazing to watch as minimally verbal children begin to process language with more specific intervention. For some, with exposure to more concise and deliberate language patterns, start they begin to parse through sentence structure and notice jokes, inference, etc. Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes………Noooooo….” Their faces light up with an inkling of confidence and a dawning of understanding. Not everyone will get to this point of understanding, however.
If you believe a minimally verbal child is either repeating the last word or responding yes or no without truly understanding to a Did you question, remove the prompt from your vocabulary until the child has more of an understanding of Yes/No, Present/Past, and until “You did, You didn’t” is more readily understood.
Other Suggestions for Avoiding the “Did You” Question
Give the therapist or teacher a head’s up. Prior to the session, email/call/text, out of the child’s earshot, and give the details about the child’s day. A good therapist will hear that a child was excited to buy new shoes and will guide the conversation naturally in that direction to allow the child the opportunity for success — if they want to, are able to, and feel comfortable doing so.
Write it down with your child! For children with communication deficits, a small bullet journal of potential conversation topics can go a long way. Each night, have the child think back to what was notable about the day — trips, events, funny moments, fights, whatever they might want to talk about. Write a small reminder for each, or draw a small picture, and then get in the habit of having that book available during the session and beyond. The act of reflecting on a regular basis will help the child to understand what is expected when someone asks “What did you do today?” or “What do you want to talk about?”
If you feel you must prompt, then change up the question. Give a gentle verbal reminder that does not begin with “Did you tell…” There are a lot of ways to do this. Use names and speak plainly so it is clear who is talking to who and ask questions that lead in a specific, but open direction, rather than yes/no.
Lori, yesterday Jo and I went shopping.
Jo, Lori wants to hear about your new shoes.
Lori, you have GOT to hear about this. Jo, tell Lori about our trip to the mall.
Jo, it looks like Lori is wearing new sneakers — you and Lori have that in common. What can you ask her about her sneakers?
These prompts aren’t ideal because they still create boundaries to Jo developing their own natural conversational style, but these prompts are infinitely better than the defeating “did you” prompt.
4. Simply, let it go. That’s right. Just let it go. Let the therapist work. Let the child make progress. Let the moment proceed all on its own. Let everyone sit in what is perceived to be an uncomfortable silence. What made your child excited yesterday, may currently not have the same effect. It was a special moment for the two of you, but not necessarily something to talk about. Perhaps once the session is over, the child will point out that special thing, or wait for the therapist to notice.
If there’s no way to prompt the therapist privately or prompt your child in an open-ended manner, ask yourself — how necessary is my intervention in this moment? Can I let this go? Typically, yes, yes you can.
Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter.
It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills.
By asking the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you may be:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
4. Instead, replace “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” try:
Contact the people the child is going to be talking to ahead of time, so they know what to ask about directly.
Help the child keep a bulleted or pictorial reflection journal as a conversational assistant.
Use a gentle, different verbal reminder, and be open to the child’s answer even if it isn’t on your intended topic.
Let the topic go.
No promises, but…
Jo is a special kid. They’re gifted in their own way. Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes very engaging. You may not even know what they are capable of. If you let them develop without prodding, you’ll be amazed at the potential they have. Trust me when I tell you, it will be worth the wait when you hear him learn new skills, gain confidence, and begin to engage others with ease.
I would love to hear your comments, questions, additions, or anecdotes.
Leave a line below or share this post with someone who may benefit.
Adapted from Aesop’s The Gnat and The Bull, may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation about community and ego. After the story, see the moral of the original fable as I interpret it, and read on to learn more about my intentions behind the Modern Retelling series.
The Snapchat Gnat
(…in 2 mins or less.)
There was a kid named Nat who posted on social media across many different platforms as often as possible. Nat thought that the opinions, takes, updates, and stories were adored by all and critical for everyone to hear. Despite maintaining a steady number of followers, Nat had very low engagement, hardly any likes, and few comments. One day, Nat’s favorite pic-share app was hacked, and the hacker began posting spam and ads on the account. They worried everyone would think they’d been the one posting, and they contacted the company to recover the account. After three days, Nat regained access, deleted all of the hacker’s posts, and sent out a message to the community of followers which read: “You probably noticed I got hacked, but don’t worry, I’ll be updating you soon on what shows I watched, what food I ate, where I’ve been, and what stores I’m recommending today.” Nat was fearful that their followers would be missing their insight or thinking Nat endorsed those products. Despite sending the message to over 800 people, Nat received only one message in reply. The message said simply, “I had no idea you were hacked, I muted your account months ago.” Nat then realized, after all the time he’d taken to share, he wasn’t really sharing with anyone.
The gnat who landed to rest and relax on the horn of a bull should not be surprised to find his presence made no difference to the bull whatsoever. We are often much more important and valued in our own eyes than in the eyes of others.
Many years ago, I led two philosophy circles based on The Socrates Café (a book by Christopher Phillips and also a movement of philosophical perspective-sharing which followed the book’s publishing). During our weekly meetings, the moderator (I, or another) would pose a philosophical question for Socratic inquiry. It might be something seemingly concrete or intentionally abstract — Why did the chicken cross the road? Which is stronger: love or hate? Should ethics be a mandatory subject in public school? etc. Then the group would take turns discussing, debating, posing new questions, and leading in new directions. The moderator might find new questions for the following week within the context of the dialogue, and after 2 hours or so, the group would disperse for coffee and donuts. It was a grand time.
In the years since, I’ve found that my high school and college environments were not indicative of most, that philosophy was not encouraged so strongly among other groups, and that the basic tenets of debate and discussion were not understood among the masses. There was high interest to learn, however. I believe a great starting point for these types of philosophical discussions are Aesop’s fables — short stories incorporative of moral lessons, passed down over thousands of years, adapted across many cultures. For the modern, technologically advanced society we live in, I have translated these animal tales into hopefully more accessible, yet analogous stories.
We’ve all heard the phrase “sly as a fox,” but how sly are foxes, really? Are foxes actually cunning and deceitful in their natural habitats? If not, how did this phrase enter the common vernacular? Should we really still be using this idiom?
I’ve done some basic research on the 4 animal phrases I hear a lot. With some exploration, I found the origin of sly foxes, dead horse beatings, feline tongue thieves, and cowardly chickens.
“Don’t Beat a Dead Horse”
As a precociously verbal and compulsively curious kid, this phrase piqued my interest for years. On many subjects, I would ask continuous explanations of the exhausted adults around me. “But why is it like that?” I’d harangue. “Don’t beat a dead horse” came a reply to end the conversation. From context clues, I figured it meant don’t continue talking about a subject that has become pointless or isn’t important, but where did such a gruesome concept come from? Who beats horses, let alone –gulp– horse corpses?
Apparently, it isn’t just beating and it isn’t just horses. One might figuratively ‘flog a dead horse’ as well. Or beat a dead dog. These usages are not nearly as common in my part of the world, but are alternative idioms.
One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase was popularized during an unsuccessful campaign toward British parliamentary reform. John Bright was said to have been ‘flogging a dead horse’ in Britain’s House of Commons in March 1859, and this is widely believed to be how the phrase was popularized.
The Horse Phrase Origin
Scholars believe that the phrase originated elsewhere. In the 17th century, a horse was a symbol and slang for hard work. Wages were paid after ‘horse’s work’ was finished. If wages were awarded before ‘horse’s work’ was complete, the work was less likely to get done and the work was considered a dead horse. The likelihood of a dead horse working is nil, so it goes that a prepaid worker is less motivated. It follows that beating that dead horse would be pointless.
As horses evolved alongside humanity as working animals, it is likely a phrase that has been with us dating back to the dawn of symbolic language, with perhaps slightly different meanings. One such usage can be found in the Greek tragedy Antigone:
“Nay, allow the claim of the dead; stab not the fallen; what prowess is it to slay the slain anew?”
In Antigone, this is a reference to the body of an actual dead person, and means there is no sense in punishing someone’s dead body, or, in this case, refusing them burial rites.
There is also an unsubstantiated claim that a Roman citizen and playwright Plautus coined the phrase in 195 B.C.E. It is unclear where this claim originates and, aside from being copied over, it doesn’t appear to be accurate.
“Cat got your tongue?”
This one feels like it’s out of a movie where men wear pinstriped suits, drive oversized Cadillacs, and call the women ‘dolls’. “Hey doll, I got you a present,” a gent might say, brandishing a mink stole. The receiver of the gift, being so stunned into silence by the expense of the gift (or the horror of the nickname) might stand slack-jawed, eyes darting from fur to face and back again. After a beat, he might say, “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” The audience understands that he’s acknowledging that she is at a loss for words, at the beauty of the gift, at the rent check wasted, or at the heavy, bribing hand of the patriarchy. But what do cats have to do with speechlessness?
There are a lot of false, unsubstantiated claims on the internet for this one. Explanations involving Ancient Egyptian delicacies or punishments for British sailors have no direct evidentiary link — meaning they are internet hoaxes or the creation of the confused. What is known is that the phrase became popularized in the 1960s, but it existed as far back as 1859 where a Wisconsin newspaper reporter used it colloquially to mean ‘was not going to say.’ As such, the phrase likely originates from the American West in this time period.
Don’t chicken out! and I’m not chicken are classic, obscenity-free ways to indicate risk-taking is in play. The exchange might involve a bullying brute standing at the bottom of a tall slide, daring a smaller, younger, or generally nicer kid to climb up and jump down. From the ground, the daree might have agreed, but from the dizzying height of a slide ladder, perhaps had second thoughts. It’s at this point that the darer will yell out, “Don’t chicken out!” as in don’t back down from doing the risky thing you said you’d do, at which point the daree will call back, “I’m not chicken!” before taking the risk and proving that they were not scared.
Real-life chickens have never seemed particularly risky to me, but I’m not a farmer or chicken sanctuary caretaker or anything. It seems like there are plenty of other animals that are skiddish, nervous, or timid, so how does the chicken cross the road and into our dialect?
According to the Independent, the chicken’s cowardly reputation began in 1600, where William Kemp wrote, “It did him good to have ill words of a hoddy doddy! A hebber de hoy! A chicken! A squib!”
It can be found in the works of Dickens and Godwin following this first appearance in print. Personally, I may start using “hoddy doddy” on a regular basis.
The chicken is so ubiquitous today that we hardly notice the diminutive and disempowering nature of calling a woman a “chick” or “chicken”. According to some writers, however, women have reclaimed chick as their own, coining female-friendly movies ‘Chick Flicks’ for instance, but I’m not convinced. It still seems clearly offensive to me.
“Sly as a Fox”
This is perhaps best described as the charm offensive. Someone who does something smartly manipulative is often said to be sly as a fox. Foxes are portrayed as clever, cunning, sly, manipulative, self-involved, and vain in modern programming. Reynard the Fox is one such character, who originated in the 12th century, but continues to turn up on television and in movies to this day. Sly foxes date back even earlier than that.
There are 28 Aesop fables that reference foxes (including The Fox and the Grapes, which I’ve translated into modern vernacular in my new series). In The Fox and the Crow, for instance, a crow finds a piece of cheese and settles on a branch to eat it. A fox, coveting the cheese, flatters the crow by complimenting on its beauty and then asks if the crow’s voice is just as beautiful. The crow lets out a loud caw and drops the cheese, which is quickly devoured by the fox. Pretty clever fox, eh? As Aesop’s fables date back to approximately 600 BCE, it is safe to say that the slyness of a fox has been part of recorded history for millennia.
Red foxes in particular are very clever. They adapt well to changes in their landscape or human incursion, and they eat a wide variety of foods based on availability. They raise their young as parental pairs in the expanded, found dens of other animals.
Although confirmation was difficult, it would seem that the phrase sly as a fox might be a direct commentary on foxes themselves, dating back throughout the oral storytelling tradition of humankind.
Choose Them or Lose Them
Every iteration of these phrases entrenches them further in our modern vernacular. Choose to use them with the full knowledge of where they come from, how accurate they are, and what they intend. Choose to lose them if the meaning or origin is disquieting to you.
Although idioms are not meant to be taken literally, they draw upon symbolic imagery to emphasize a feeling or observation. How gruesome does symbolism in our daily speech need to be? I don’t want to keep going past sunset but I’m also not jumping back like a coward when I say, let’s choose idioms for their full origin and meaning or let’s lose them from our language catalog.
Are there any phrases that stand out as odd in our modern dialog?
Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some research and post the answers soon!
It was late in the summer season, August 2020. My partner and I just pulled into the parking lot of Blydenburgh County Park (which I’ve written about before, if you’d like more of a description). The air was humid, so thick that we contemplated not even taking our standard 2-mi hike on the lakeside. Eventually, we grabbed our water bottles, left the car, and hit the trail.
After a minute’s walk on the main trail, we began to pass the campsites — elevated wooden platforms, covered by overhangs, each with a picnic table and a nearby fire-safe area. A family (we presume), two women and four children between the ages of four and ten, were all seated on wooden benches, and looked to be having a picnic. While we walked past, the eldest-looking kid in the bunch jumped up from the table, tickled his sibling, and the two set out running into the nearby grassy undergrowth in the surrounding oak forest.
“I hope they know to use tick spray,” I loudly sieved through my gaping, unfiltered mouth. One of the adults turned to me as a third child took off to play, and I nodded and my partner waved slightly, and we continued walking. It hadn’t been until this very moment that I realized — people may not know how important it is to be wary of straying from the marked trails and to be proactive with tick prevention.
The Stats are Serious
In Suffolk County, NY, ticks are more than an arachnid nuisance. Even with the establishment of the Tick Surveillance Program by the Suffolk County Department of Health in 2011, approximately 200 people contract Lyme disease in Suffolk each year. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted through the bite of infected ticks, which typically causes fever, headache, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, a skin rash and, when untreated, can cause arthritis, swollen joints, facial and limb paralysis, and even death. It’s the most common vector borne disease, meaning a disease caused by a pathogen transmitted to humans by a vector, in this case the tick. (Lyme isn’t just an issue here on Long Island. Nationally, there are approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme reported to the CDC each year, but it’s estimated to be closer to 300,000, as the system of reporting is largely voluntary and requires health care providers to submit time-consuming records.)
Ticks are also carriers for other diseases, which vary by species. While the Blacklegged Tick, or deer tick, is the “Lymey” culprit in Suffolk County, it may also carry other pathogens of the bacterium, protozoan, or viral variety, which can cause anaplasmosis, babeosiosis, tick-born relapsing fever, and Powassan Virus disease. Other ticks, like the Lone Star tick, causing ehrlichiosis, or the American Dog Tick, causing Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, are less common and less commonly carriers in this county. Suffice it to say, none of these diseases are desirable and tick bites should be avoided, recognized, and treated quickly and by all costs.
It is important to note, the Suffolk County Tick Surveillance program has been largely effective at reducing the yearly average of known tick-born illnesses by half, from an average of approximately 388 confirmed cases of Lyme between 2000 and 2010 to an average of approximately 200 confirmed cases of Lyme between 2012 and 2018. (These statistics derive from the CDC’s confirmed case count, and it is presumed that the total number of Lyme cases could be as high as 10x the confirmed number, as sourced above.)
May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month
A friend of mine contracted Lyme disease on a high school retreat about 15 years ago. He wasn’t aware that he’d been bitten, but he wasn’t what one would call ‘outdoors-y’. It wasn’t until he began to feel his knees aching and back sore that he went to a doctor, weeks later. The doctor found the infection through bloodwork, and only after eliminating other possible causes for alarm. He had no rash, but after being diagnosed, he remembered having had a low-grade fever. He was treated with antibiotics, but by that point, the infectious pathogen had spread to his joints, hidden away from medicinal reach, and his case became chronic. To this day, he still has flare-ups which are debilitating and largely untreatable.
As an avid hiker, tick avoidance is second nature, which is why I was appalled to see children romping through tall grasses, off-trail, in late summer, wearing shorts and tee-shirts. With even the best tick spray around, this was risky at best. Even the most cautious can pick up a tick with relative ease.
What to Do, and What Not to Do
Wear light-colored clothing, tuck in any loose ends, and be as covered as possible, long pants, high socks, closed-toed shoes, and sleeves preferred. Search for “tick wear” or “tick prevention clothing” online for more ideas. The cartoon caricature of the Scientist-Explorer skipping through the forest wearing khaki shorts is mythological.Don’t be the people in the next photo, wearing short shorts, but if you must, check often.
Use Tick Repellents as directed, liberally, and especially around knees and ankles. There are several tick sprays on the market. I prefer to be DEET-free and tend toward the Picardin-based repellents. Read the label carefully for application and reapplication directions, as DEET can be harmful and permethrin is designed for clothing only. Ticks commonly lounge on the tips of tall grasses bordering busy areas, waiting for the perfect animal to brush by for transfer. I focus on whatever parts of my body might brush against foliage and on well-traveled trails, that is usually only the legs. They can absolutely attach to arms, backs, necks, and heads though, so be mindful of using other strategies for avoiding them.
Walk the center of trails, stay in marked areas, and read all of the signage posted and available.Certain areas of your local park may be off-limits during peak tick season, and local park rangers may have suggestions that pertain specifically to your area.
Don’t wander off the trails and don’t stand in one place for too long. Ticks are attracted to carbon dioxide. As we exhale, they sense and move toward the source, knowing they may be near one of their blood meals, necessary for their survival. (Dr. Städele’s work studying tick movement and CO2 is fascinating and worth checking out.) — — Now that humankind is lessening its CO2 dispersal by wearing masks for disease prevention, I’m very curious to know whether the number of tick bites will be less this summer. Masks may very well become a recommended tick-avoidance standard.
Know the seasonal likelihood of ticks in the area.In areas where there are warm and cold seasons, the warmer seasons are cause for attention. In New York, the acceptable standard is March thru the first freeze. Like other bugs, ticks go through a lifecycle, typically hatched in the warming of spring and living as 6-legged larvae, then 8-legged nymphs, and then full-sized adult ticks. To grow from the size of a sesame seed to nearly an inch long in the adult stage, ticks need blood, usually from many different hosts, over the course of three years. The warmer the weather, the larger the ticks, the more likely they are to be pathogen carriers.
Time is of the essence, so do tick checks often and act quickly when one is spotted. Once riding a host, ticks prepare for the feast. They crawl into warm, CO2-rich areas ripe for feeding. They then bite down, cut open the skin, and insert a feeding tube. They may use a sticky substance to stay attached to their host or an anesthetic substance to hide the bitten feeling. Preparing to feed can take 10 mins to 2 hours, then the actual feeding happens slowly over several days. During this period of time, ticks feeding on animals will pick up the pathogens that they will then infect the next host with.
Tick check your animals too! In between paws, in the canine jaw line, and hip and forearm joints in particular are likely areas for tick attachment, but do full scans anyway, and keep your pets up-to-date on their vaccines, heartworm, and ask your vet for more tick tips.
A tick is found! Even the cautious hiker with the most attentive practices can pick up a tick in unlikely ways. Two years ago, my partner, the scientist, found a very small one on his stomach when he got home from a walk in the park. It hadn’t had time to latch yet, so there was no concern about disease transmission. Even so, after finding that tick, we both did full searches on ourselves, our cats, and our clothing.
Do a full tick check after every potential exposure, focusing on warmer areas where the veins may be closer to the surface (e.g. armpits, behind the knees). Dry clothes on high heat in a dryer if concerns about stowaways remain. When my partner found the tick on his stomach, I immediately began to check myself as well. We’d walked together, through the same part of the forest, and the likelihood that I’d also picked up a young tick from the same brood was high.
When a tick is found, take a deep breath. If it hasn’t bitten yet, the disease transmission likelihood is low. If it has already bitten, it is better to have a steady hand and a cool head, then a shaky hand and a panicked head. And a clear mind helps you differentiate between ticks and forgotten freckles, so learn from my crazed error and don’t attempt to remove something a dermatologist should really take a look at.
When a tick is found, use a tweezer or a tick-removal tool, found in tick kits, and attach the tick to a piece of tape. Do not use petroleum jelly, matches, or oil. These are antiquated methods that increase your chances of contracting a disease.
If the tick has already bitten down, grab the tick at its mouthparts and pull straight out, without twisting or squeezing. Disinfect the area and wash your hands. If you’re like me, you’ll also want to take the hottest shower you can stand, and disinfect the area again in an hour or so, just in case.
Watch for the characteristic Bulls-eye rash. Not every bite leads to a rash, but it is a sign that the area has been infected.
Call your healthcare provider if any symptoms occur. A rash, fever, or joint pain following a bite should absolutely be concerning. An itching bite site may only be indicative of the open wound itself, or something more serious. Use your judgment, and read the literature provided by your local parks department. Personally, I’d call for an appointment at the first sign of a bite, because of how prevalent Lyme disease is in my area and how the effectiveness of treating it decreases over time.
I think back to that day in the park a lot, watching these low-to-the-ground, heavy-breathing, barely-covered humans running around in an area where ticks reside. It wasn’t my place to inform a stranger to spray chemicals on their children, especially given the facial expression I was met with when my outburst burst out. Perhaps they knew all about tick bite prevention, tick avoidance, and tick-borne diseases, and my concern was misplaced entirely. But now, as we enter into the next seasonal warming and feeding frenzy, I feel compelled to educate and inform.
Tell your friends about ticks, everything you’ve learned here is general enough that it will apply to nearly every area where ticks are found.
Research your specific area, your local parks and grassy fields, to know where ticks are likely to be.
Read all signage, follow all safety procedures, and be diligent about tick checks.
Be the one to ask the tough questions— Have you used tick spray today? Have you seen the CDC’s estimates for tick-borne disease transmission? Can you stay near the center of the trail, please? Have you always had a huge freckle on your calf?
Carry tick spray in the car, along with the bug spray and sunscreen, for quick application and reapplication for days spent enjoying nature.
Keep going outside! Ours is not to fear nature. Ours is to learn to live within her bounds.
This article has been fact-checked by The Scientist, and used the following source material: