Following the Rules

Our Autistic Expression

Rules are meant to be broken, but to break them intentionally as the quote suggests, I have to know what they are.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

My ignorance is no defense, but just know by the stunned look on my face, the reddening of my cheeks, and the sudden lack of eye contact- if I broke some unspoken, unlisted, inexcusable rule, it was unintentional. I can always sense when I’ve erred. I don’t always sense how.

Mostly, when unspoken rules are broken, no reasoned explanation is given. To me, that’s the hardest part. That’s my neurodivergent itch to understand, to apply reasoned thought to everything.

This is one frame with which I view life. There are rules that we must follow, on which we can agree.

For most of my life, I lived for knowing (not always following) the rules. Every choice has consequences, so breaking a rule is a matter of weighing those consequences. The expectations in various situations vary, and there are usually a whole host of things not mentioned in the rulebooks on which I’m also being judged.

I can’t know for sure if neurotypicals consider this when they hold people to the unwritten expectations in any given scenario. I used to think they must. Now I’m fairly convinced its a rare trait in humanity in general. Like extreme empathy. Or virtuosic musicianship.

Photo by Austin Mabe on Unsplash

There are rules everywhere. For everything. At all times.

Even friendships have rules (we call them boundaries) and they’re harder to distinguish. Friendships with the nondivergent are hard to cultivate for this reason. Sometimes they don’t even know what their own rules are, or they change, or they act a certain way because its raining, or some such. I can manage a few friendship like this at a time, but I require much post-hang-out processing to fully understand what I’ve experienced, out-processing interactions, the side eyes and nuances I saw in the moment but couldn’t process while also maintaining my focus on the conversation in the setting. When I said this, they said this, but then they slightly stretched their eye lids, and then immediately ordered another drink, before looking at me and smiling awkwardly. Was this my trespass? Or their internal measure? Are they even aware they did that? And so on.

At least with the neurodivergent, there’s a tendency toward self-awareness or self-pronouncement or clear-cut lines between okay and not okay. There’s an acceptance of variable needs.

There’s also the moral code. Our duty to one another to do our best and do what’s right. I have mine enumerated, but in sum it is “Do unto others” plus “Strive for wellness.”

As I’ve aged, I’ve had an easier time recognizing rules and boundaries. It’s a lifetime pursuit, an academic course of study, understanding what is and isn’t acceptable based on what has or has not transpired in between two people, within a given culture, for my lifespan and the lives of those whose counsel I trust. In many ways, the rules have changed a lot since I was a child, but that’s just a dynamic society acting and reacting, breathing changes.

When people act immorally, illogically, unreasonably, basically like people sometimes do, I’m flummoxed. What’s the motivation? Whyyyyy, I ask the ceiling of many rooms I’m in.

I thrive on rules and I always have. I set them easily for myself and pivot when I need to. It’s about health and wellness, feeling good at the end of the day, or as good as can be expected. It’s about minimizing discomfort, physical, mental, social, and otherwise.

Problem explicitly identified? New rule implemented. Change accepted. Situation improved. Wheel turns.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Change is easy, easier than maintaining the norm. I get itchy sitting still, itchier still remaining the same. I’m fortunate to be engaged to a neurodivergent man of a similar nature — the Scientist and I will be changing together forever.

Here are my main personal rules (personal as in for me, as in I only expect me to live this way and pass no judgment on anyone else for behaving otherwise):

I never drink more than 6 alcoholic drinks in 4 hours, almost never drink 2 days in a row, and never drink before 4pm unless it’s a holiday where that’s typical. Alcohol creates a depressing self-interested spiralized hole in my mind that need continuous, verbal processing to refill. I put this rule first because it has an intense effect.

As a rule, I prefer a structured workplace with an ever-changing and expansive workload, and I seek these environments and situations out. I’ve been tasked with writing operations and training manuals at many of my jobs, and I’ve had many jobs because before I knew myself as autistic, I externalized internal events. At this point, I’m working from home, for a growing company, doing all sorts of tasks in the comfort of nonfluorescent lighting.

To that end, I prefer yellowish light to bluish, warm colors to cool, quiet situations to loud ones, though I love loud concerts when I’m expecting them. I keep my blue light filters on, I track my hours on a daily basis so I know I’m using my time productively, and I thoughtfully manage working my job, starting my own creativity-centered company, writing a blog, taking long hikes, playing pool, spending quality time with my cats, landscaping, and a host of other things. After I hit a personal low, prior to understanding I was autistic, I started climbing, filling my days, and set a rule to never let myself waste time. I sleep comfortably 6–7 hours a night.

I’m learning how to rest.

I have rules about what I’ll eat and won’t, what I’ll drink and won’t, and when and from where. I don’t often feel hungry or thirsty so I use the clock to prompt me at the same times each day. My food rules are based primarily on my experiences with an undiagnosed stomach disorder I had for the first 20 years of my life, a disorder which immediately got better when I stopped eating pork, meat, chicken, most fried foods, foods with heavy fat and oil content, almonds, raw leafy greens, Splenda, juice on an empty stomach, and full-fat dairy. I don’t expect anyone to keep track of these rules. I manage them just fine and I learned to cook so as not to rely on anyone else to do it for me.

If I’m a guest at dinner, I’m vegetarian. As long as there is a single non-meat dish, I’ll work around everything else based on my internal signaling. I’ll bring my own meal if they cook exclusively with lard. I never settle for an upset stomach, but I never offend a host who is sharing their table with me.

For that matter, if prompted, I will describe in polite or graphic detail the agony of bacon, the indigestion of orange juice, the nights I spent literally on the floor screaming… best not to ask at the dinner table, because I will indulge them for their edification. No, bacon does not go with everything. No, I don’t miss the feeling that a small gnome with a giant pick-axe is trying to cut his way out of my intestines. (The imagery helped me cope when I was a kid. Now it makes people chuckle.)

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I prefer when friends can speak the truth, about me, about themselves or otherwise. The truth does set me free. I can accept self-denial from friends, but insist on an open-book, self-aware model from me outward. So what if I’m blunt, awkward, and keep myself to impossible standards? I’m also kind, generous, and supportive. I’ve crossed a lot of bridges, and I’ll help anyone cross theirs too.

Do I drive over the speed limit? Sure. The speed signs in my area were posted in the 1940s and 50s, when anti-lock breaks and power steering were nonexistent, when cars were giant metal boxes with no safety equipment, boats on wheels, so to speak. So I may drive 5-10 over the posted limit, but … what are those drive 30-40mph over the limit thinking? It’s dangerous for us all. Everyone. It’s not an oppressive rule, it’s a matter of civic duty and safety. Survival.

We all have rules in society and we all know them to some extent or another.

There are rules about when to water the lawn. If it’s 2pm on a hot day and the sprinklers are on, not only are they breaking a rule in my neighborhood, but they’re actually boiling their grass from the inside.

Rules about right-of-way on the road.

Rules about hygiene.

Rules about equity, and equanimity.

Rules about greetings and parties and phone calls and comments and the pandemic has made all of these rules entirely unique for everyone, which is just a field day for my mental filing system. If they tell me what they expect from me, I’ll file that away too. Make a mental preference note.

When I learn a new rule, I ask why, what for, unless the reason is obvious.

Do the nondivergent NEED to know WHY it’s a rule? I’d say most don’t acknowledge how many rules they follow, let alone why. People in the herd for one thing or another. Others exist in a world of their own making, with no structure, and nothing but this moment to guide the next. I’m guessing, of course. I have no idea how they think. I just know that its nothing like me.

I’m all for mindfulness, but also learning from experience, mine and others, always learning, and planning for a healthier, safer tomorrow. Growth mindset. Keep growing.

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

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.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

What the 4th is About, Really

The 4th of July was not a ceremonious date in our history. The actual signing of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t completed until mid-August.  On July 2nd, the press reported that we had declared our independence, and on July 4th, the Continental Congress approved the text of the Declaration, after making nearly 100 changes to the flowery, thickly philosophical prose which Jefferson had been soaking up and regurgitating from great philosophers.

As we celebrate today with cook-outs and fireworks, spare a thought for those colonists, who felt both ignored and oppressed by their ruler, who elected a congress to debate the proper course of action for dealing with the monarchy’s trampling of their rights as a united front. They were forlorn, exhausted, angered and shaken and they did what would become the first American act: they came together to overcome. Without knowing they’d be declaring their independence they did what we have struggled to do since: they moved our colonies as one (hotly debated, often agitated) voice.

There are definitely things in our country that need changing. People are struggling, forlorn, angered, and confused, and many have lost any solace in the structural integrity of a system that was intended (however slapshod and flawed) to uphold the rights of a majority (the definition of which has changed greatly, and for good reason.)

To correct the egregious issues, we must come together. Agree to put aside the smallest differences and take responsible action for the good of all. Stand together in the room and Find What Unites Us.  No matter how distasteful or aggravating or pointless the process may seem, no matter how disparate the vision.

That is really, truly, what July 4th, and what the United States is all about. As Lincoln said, nearly 100 years later, “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.”

Enjoy your celebration of the day, and the relaxing and recovering tomorrow. Consider what your country could really do for you, and what you can do for your fellow countrymen. Find the common ground for the common good.

Please, Stop Asking Kids this One Question

By asking, you may be inadvertently creating a situation for your child that the question is intended to avoid. 

[This entry is informed by formal education and clinical experience. An earlier version of this entry appeared on the Kid Lit Motivates Resource Blog.]

[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?

No response. 

I did something fun today. 

No response. 

Can I tell you about my fun day? 

They shrug. 

 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 what happened 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 fabricating a 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: 

  1. Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
  2. Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
  3. Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?” 
  3. 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.

Summary

  1. Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter. 
  2. It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills. 
  3. 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.

The Snapchat Gnat

[This is the 2nd part in the Modern Retellings series. ]

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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Philosophically Intrigued

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. 

To read the first installment in the Modern Retellings series, click this link. 

Do you have thoughts about the original telling of the Gnat and the Bull? 

Is my retelling more accessible for the modern age? 

Do you believe this moral is an important one?

Can you create another analogy for this morally centered anecdote?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments below. 

Tongue-biting Cats and Cowardly Chickens?

Animal Idioms Explained

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.

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“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? 

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Background

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. 

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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? 

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The Background

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.

“Chicken”

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.

Background

 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? 

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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.

Addendum

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.

Photo by Funny Foxy Pride on Pexels.com

Background

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. 

Fox Facts

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!

Tick-Tock, Ticks are Hungry

How are you preparing for the season?

I know what you did last summer…about ticks.

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. 

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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.) 

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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. 

For more information on Chronic Lyme Disease, I recommend this site.

Tick Avoidance

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. 

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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.

Tick Removal

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. 
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  • 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.

These recommendations were all provided by the Suffolk County Department of Health, and more information, including a quick-reference sheet, can be found here.

Spread the Word

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. 
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Sources

This article has been fact-checked by The Scientist, and used the following source material: 

Stop Ticks to Avoid Lyme and Other Tickborne Diseases | Division of Vector-Borne Diseases | NCEZID | CDC

Preventing tick bites | Ticks | CDC

The Life Cycle of the Tick from Eggs to Ambush — American Kennel Club (akc.org)

The Tick Lifecycle — Lyme & Tick-Borne Disease Testing & Statistics (ticklab.org)

How ticks spread disease | Ticks | CDC

Chronic Lyme Disease can make patients profoundly debilitated.

Tick Surveillance Program (suffolkcountyny.gov)

Signs and Symptoms of Untreated Lyme Disease | Lyme Disease | CDC

How many people get Lyme disease? | Lyme Disease | CDC

Reports of Lyme disease in Suffolk County, New York (tickcheck.com)

What makes ticks tick: Dr. Städele studies their every move — News — Illinois State

When Does Tick Season Start? — Consumer Reports

Ticks (suffolkcountyny.gov)

The Fox and the Briefcase

I have always loved fables, fairy tales, myths and legends. I’m fascinated by characters that are meant to spark our imaginations, render us afraid, or sink into our hearts, especially if those characters can teach us absolute truths about the human condition.

Modern Retellings, 2 Mins or Less

Aesop’s Fables are well-known animal tales dating back thousands of years, passed down through the ages, which each hold a slice of wisdom and a commentary on morality. In recent years, I’ve found that the animalistic framing and farm-focused allusions aren’t necessarily accessible to every reader, and so the moral or point of the story can get lost. I’m hoping to change that in a series of posts (n=?) by drawing a parallel from the fable to our modern life, and summarizing what I see, or what is generally seen, as the moral or the philosophy of the story. I’ll keep each one short and sweet, ideally under 2 minutes, because I value the reader’s time and hope to challenge myself with brevity.

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The Fox and the Grapes or The Associate’s Goal

An associate at a law firm worked 80 hours a week for several years to achieve his associate status, but coveted a partnership in the firm. He put in extra hours whenever possible and built up a great reputation as a trial associate and a stellar brief writer. After 12 years of watching peers being promoted ahead of him and trying to be recognized as hard as he could, he quit working as a lawyer to focus on writing about interesting legal precedents he’d cited in court for years. Several of his works became best-sellers. He supposed all he ever wanted was to feel his time was valued, and even a partnership at a law firm couldn’t provide that.

The hungry fox who jumps in vain to reach a bunch of grapes hanging high out of reach eventually admits defeat, and with dignity acknowledges that the grapes are sour, not nearly as ripe as he thought.

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If you have thoughts about the Fox and the Grapes,

if you think I got the story wrong,

if you can think of a better modern allusion than the one I’ve drawn,

please share it with me.

I may incorporate commentary as a formal part of the series once it has developed fully.

Easy Beans Recipe – A Vegetarian Staple

Easy beans are the go-to 20-min meal of the week.

As the lead cook in the house, who also works, runs a side hustle, and also occasionally gets exhausted, there are times when I just can’t even…but I have to. For those nights, I make easy beans over rice. It’s a perfectly fine dish to eat alone, or serve with chxn (that’s faux chicken) for an added protein boost. It also works as a great side dish or topping for taco night.

“Rice is difficult.”

There are a lot of great rice recipes out there and in a later recipe I’ll share my tips and tricks for making perfectly edible white rice. Suffice it to say for now that I believe it is more about the stove than any choice the chef makes. More on that for another day. Make white rice the way you normally do, even if its 10-min boil-in-bag style. There’s no shame in that, especially on a night when you just…can’t…even…but you have to.

Let’s get a few things out of the way early…

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“Beans are boring.”

“Your beans aren’t authentic.”

“Is that all vegetarians eat?”

To these I say, respectively “No,” “Probably,” and “I don’t know, they certainly make up a good deal of my home-cooked and take-out diet, and they have tons of vitamins, minerals, and protein that I need to balance my diet. (Please consult a nutritionist with concerns in this regard.) Vegetarians don’t eat them in exclusivity, and some vegetarians won’t eat them at all, but I do and you can too or don’t. Please stop asking me to speak for all vegetarians.”

Easy Beans Recipe

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What do I need?

I’m in the habit of giving recipe information over as though I’m talking to someone who has barely used a kitchen, so please skip ahead if you feel you can.

Equipment:

I like to start with this because one too many times have I gotten halfway through actually cooking something before I realized I didn’t have a food processor, or an immersion blender, or a basting brush, or some kitchen utensil that was critical to the dish’s success. Until you’ve tried to smash boiled butternut squash through a sieve because your blender is made for shakes, not soup, you haven’t really whined about a recipe.

You need: A stove, a sink, a clean countertop. A cutting board and knife. A can opener. A strainer or colander (optional, for rinsing and straining canned beans.) A peeler. A sauce pot with lid. A mixing/serving spoon.

Ingredients:

2 TBS olive or vegetable oil. 1 small yellow onion, 1/2 green bell pepper, 1 small white potato. 1/2 bunch of cilantro. 1 can of black, pink, red, or white beans (I prefer black or pink.) 14-oz can of tomato sauce. 1 1/2 cups of water, 2 TBS dried oregano. 1 TBS cumin. 1 TBS onion powder. 1/2 TBS salt. 1 TBS Adobo seasoning.

What to do:

Preparation: 1. Wash the pepper, potato, and rinse the cilantro. 2. Chop the onion and bell pepper to bean size. 3. Peel the potato and cut into 12-16 pieces. 4. Chop the cilantro – cut off the top 1/2 of the stems while the cilantro is still bundled. 5. Open the cans of tomato sauce and beans. 6. Rinse the beans x2 (shake well if straining in can, or use strainer or colander.

Now you’re ready to Cook. To be honest with you, I’ve made beans so many times that I tend to Prepare as I Cook, because I have a certain rhythm to my timing. If you’re new to chopping, peeling, or rinsing, I suggest you have everything prepared ahead of time.

Cooking: 1. Heat sauce pot over a Med heat and add 2 TBS of oil after 1 Minute. 2. Add and Sauté the onions and peppers with a pinch of salt until the onions look translucent, about 3-4 Minutes. Stir occasionally. 3. Add cilantro and stir for 1 Minute. 4. Add beans, tomato sauce, water and the seasonings. 5. Stir and bring to a low boil. 6. Drop heat to a simmer and Add potato. 7. Cook for 10-15 Minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potato is soft to the fork. Serve.

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Substitutions/Suggestions

Easy beans are made to be just that – an easy solution to a dinner problem – to be added to or made the bulk of the meal – and to contribute to lunch-by-leftovers the next day. This means that you don’t need to worry about specific ingredients and can make loads of substitutions. Here are a few:

  1. Not a fan of bell pepper, or have none in the house? Chopped carrots (preferably fresh) are great. Or in a pinch, use a can of mixed vegetables, added when the beans and sauce are added.
  2. No fresh cilantro? Use dried cilantro, or use Goya’s Sofrito or Recaito. These glass jars of wonder are excellent savory bases for a lot of dishes and can help the beginner cook in so many amazing ways.
  3. Don’t like cilantro or have none in the house? Use Jamaican or Cajun seasoning, or BBQ sauce (minimally, and to taste, they can overwhelm beans easily.)
  4. No potato? No problem. The potato adds a bit of starch to thicken the stock and is a handy way of knowing when the beans are cooked and the seasonings have combined. Use only 1 cup of water if not using potato, and a sprinkle of corn starch for a similarly thickened effect.
  5. Like something with a touch more sweetness? We like the acidic taste of tomatoes, but if your house prefers a slightly sweeter sauce, stir in 2 TBS of ketchup in the last 2 Minutes of cooking. This serves to slightly thicken and slightly sweeten the beans.

Easy Beans are so Easy

-and tasty! and nutritious! and palate- and diet-friendly!

I sincerely hope even the most novice chefs feel comfortable whipping up a pot of beans after reading through this recipe, and tell me how it goes! I love hearing from friends about their meal successes and answering questions about substitutions and strategies.

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Did you follow this recipe and make your own easy beans? Tell us in the comments how you made them your own!

What We Learned Rebuilding

The entranceway to our house was crumbling and unsafe. The deck had been built over a decade before, using unsealed non-decking lumber over a small concrete porch. With zero maintenance and miles of footsteps, it been left to break down under nature’s force. We’d patched the stairs a few times, but we also knew that any of the surface boards could give way. Rot and water damage was a real concern. Large cracks and crevices were causing bends in formerly straight boards. There was too much give. Bounce where there shouldn’t be. We might accidently hurt someone. We needed to act.

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After a few months’ conversation, weeks of planning, and 2 days of hard work, we rebuilt the entry deck leading into the house. The foundation was strong, but the entire frame and surface needed to be replaced. It was one of our first major projects together as an engaged couple and we learned a lot about how to work together and how to approach a team project. With the finished deck in sight (we’ll need to seal and stain in a few weeks), we consider the project a huge success.

While reflecting on the job afterward, we realized we had each learned things that would make future projects easier to approach and things we wanted to share with our readers. We are Sunshine and the Scientist, after all, and we have scientific and growth minded ways of looking at everything, especially in reflection. Please note, neither of us is a licensed carpenter and we only know as much as we’ve read, seen, or experienced. Consult an expert with actual construction concerns.

Here are the biggest takeaways…

the scientist in demo

About Construction for Novices

  1. Mind all dimensions of wood when choosing lumber for purchase. Standard sizing varies based on wood type and year of manufacture. Length, width, and depth are all important considerations.
  2. It is an unprecedently expensive time to buy lumber. The global pandemic caused lumber manufacturing to cease, alongside many other industries. The housing market, is currently booming – new construction is peaking with such low loan interest rates and many homes are being refurbished in a sellers’ market. Home renovations are peaking as well. It would seem with available time, homeowners spending time at home have decided to make all the upgrades they’ve been dreaming of. All this is to say, lumber is in demand. It is available at a premium, but it is and has been flying off the shelf. The idea of a “perfect” board is likely unlikely, so if you’re buying lumber for decking, you may need to make some concessions regarding perfect finishings.
  3. Write out everything you’ll need to complete the project to cut down on shopping time and minimize forgetful moments. We found ourselves in the home store many times during this project, likely two times too many times. We had the drill – but did we have the drill bit? Did the drill bit match the screws we were planning to use? Would this bit handle all of the screws we needed, or should we have back up? Would we want an extra post for support? What kind of braces would the posts require? Did the framing need to be replaced, or just the surface boards? How many paintbrushes for the stain? How many containers of stain? These are all questions we could have asked ahead of time and answered with relative ease.
  4. Use the right tool for the job. Do the research ahead of time and invest in a good set of tools – or rent them from the store – or borrow them. Watch online videos, buy a methods book, or talk to an expert for advice. Don’t be like me and insist that a reciprocating saw can do the job of a table saw, only to mutilate a piece of wood and your ego in the process. Spend what’s needed on the right materials too – the right blades, the right fasteners, the right drill bits, and the right kind of wood. Having extra nails and drill bits might seem silly, but it feels sillier to have to return to the store for a $10 item in the middle of the work process.
  5. Know the dimension of your vehicle when you’re planning to transport wood, and bring a red flag for safety and moving blankets for the car’s interior. Most places that sell lumber will also have twine available, but always ask for help in securing wood in or on the vehicle if there is any question of safety.
  6. Budget 50% more time than anticipated if you’re novice, and split the project into manageable pieces so as not to leave something critical unfinished. Life gets in the way, even if you’re working at the top speed. Something will get measured incorrectly. A board will be slightly warped. A screw will refuse to yield. The weather will play you. Lunch is a consideration. Shopping time at the store might take a lot longer than you expect. Unless you’ve built a few decks, plan to be building for longer than you plan to be building.
  7. Measure twice, cut once. This is just great advice from my dad that always comes in handy. Mark the wood up with a pencil- which side is up, which end goes left, where the warp is. Use a T-Square, a level, and measuring tape. Write anticipated dimensions on a piece of paper and then confirm those dimensions as the project comes together, because 1/4 inch can throw off the entire project. The table saw blade itself is thick, so determine what side of the line you’re cutting on ahead of time. The home improvement stores will also cut the wood for you if you ask them to -but it can take some time. If you need special angle cuts, however, I’d definitely recommend enlisting professional help.
  8. A pencil and paper beats a phone for blueprints and measurements. It may be old school, but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s much safer to have paper and pencil on the work table than a phone that needs to be kept away from tools, sawdust, and errant falling pieces of construction material, and that requires a hand to stay unlocked. That piece of paper can be modified quickly or dropped accidently without too much worry. It also won’t start buzzing or beeping when you’re using dangerous power tools, draw your attention in the wrong direction at an unsafe moment, or be a hassle if it gets left on the roof of the car.
  9. The finished project is more than just a task complete. There was such unexpected joy and hope in seeing the finished work, the feeling of having upgraded something, and the confidence of having completed something. Every day, we use this new deck to enter our home and feel so bolstered that we can do anything. We’re proud to see it. Even the neighbors are talking! In the weeks since we’ve completed it, we’ve also begun to fix the landscaping, done handiwork around the house, and made plans for other projects to complete together and on our own. Doing one thing naturally leads to wanting to do another if you keep the right frame of mind.
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About Method

  1. A strong background is physics and mathematics is more than helpful. I’m not strong in physics or algebra, so I deferred all my planning dismay to the Scientist, who can calculate weight dispersal accommodation or create formulas for memorizing quantities like second nature. Consult an expert or use recommendations if you’re uncomfortable reinventing the wheel or if you aren’t partnered up with a science-minded person.
  2. Once you start demolishing, the rest is easy. Like with every project, getting started can be the hardest part. If there’s considerable demo to do (like in our case), once you get moving on it, you’re much more motivated to keep going.
  3. Assign roles ahead of time. Who will hold the board and who will operate the saw? Who is more comfortable cleaning up, organizing tools and materials, while the other does more solo parts of the task? Don’t wait to decide on each board who will be hammering each nail.
  4. Clean up as you go. There will be points when only one person can really be working at at a time on any task, so be the person whose proactive, sweeping up, stacking and tying things neatly. I even got some weeding in while the Scientist was measuring braces.
  5. If you can’t, scrap it. We initially hoped to also put in a pergola so that we could have a shaded entrance. (The south-facing deck is exposed to the sun for most of the day.) On the day of the build, before the last supply run, we spent 40 minutes attempting to engineer the plans to save as much as we could on lumber and still end up with a great finished piece. In the end, my vision of a cheaply built pergola did not meet the Scientist’s standards for safety, so we agreed to scrap it. Much better to have a pergola built well a month from now than to rush and have one we don’t really love now.
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About Working Together

  1. Every couple should embark on one major household project or plan an event before committing to marriage. We strongly feel this. We’ve all had couple friends that got married before realizing they couldn’t work together. Strong lines of division or criticism were drawn. Ultimatums were given. Soon, the couples were spending most of their time in separate rooms of the house, scoffing about the other’s ineptitudes. The way the partnership aids or hinders a project is indicative of what your joint future might hold. Your project could be construction-related, craft-related, redecorating, party or even vacation planning. Build a thing. Create a thing. Bond over the successes and failures. Revel in the blossoming partnership. Adjust your mentality when things don’t work out as smoothly as you dream, go back and try again.
  2. Communicate your communication needs on a smaller scale. The project gave us a window into how we communicate. I tend to be verbose and will chatter indecisively about options and possibilities, without committing to any one idea in particular. The Scientist is more quiet and direct, taking in all of the information before making a definitive choice. Initially, this led to strife – I’d recommend 10 things, and the Scientist would mull over all of these ideas, while I tapped my toe waiting impatiently for him to choose or weigh in. The Scientist would then feel pressured, stressed, and overwhelmed about choosing between many potentially viable options. Once we realized this, we adapted. I would list my ideas in a more concise and orderly way and ask him to consider the options. He would ask for reasonable time to consider these ideas and then weigh in. I would also limit my ponderings to the task at hand, rather than try talking about a task six steps away. These are strategies we’ve already been incorporating into our daily lives, like when deciding on dinner or what movie to watch.
  3. Choose a leader to spearhead every project. We had every intention of working together as equals with no one in charge. Neither wanted to feel condescending or steamrolled. We consider ourselves partners in every sense. Even with the utmost respect, at the outset, we found difficulties with this. We had trouble getting started, with neither wanting to initiate the other into action if the time wasn’t JUST right. When we disagreed on the type of lumber, on the best way to demo, on the type of screws we should use, on how much refurbishment was actually needed, we felt deadlocked with no one to make the final call. We could do this, we could do that, so we did nothing. Then we discussed this issue. We realized we have very different skillsets and abilities. The Scientist has completed more construction-type projects than I have and, despite my ego and comfort with power tools, I took the assistant position. Once we determined that the Scientist would lead the project, we both felt better about lending ideas, making decisions, and moving the project forward. He declared the start date and time. He would ask my opinion and I would reason through my ideas, waffling occasionally, and he would use my opinions to make his final decision, direct our roles, and voice his expectations. He became the ultimate construction tie-breaker, and will likely remain so for the rest of our days. (In contrast, I lead and tie-break when we cook together. I am the chef and he is the sous-chef, as I have much more kitchen experience, with the exception of baked goods. I never feel badly asking him to help me prepare something or in adjusting his ideas for spicing, and I communicate my reasons openly and peacefully, knowing I have the reins.)
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And Other Little Things

  1. Use an old bread bag for gathering up old nails and small scraps so they don’t rip through the garbage or your shoes.
  2. Know when you’ve had your last tetanus booster.
  3. Use gloves, masks, and goggles, even if you don’t think you need them.
  4. Wear sunscreen.
  5. Reapply sunscreen.
  6. A 40-year-old hammer is not the best way to remove 10-year-old nails. The nails win every time.
  7. Be advised, sweeping out an area full of cat dander and loose fur may inadvertently send an eviction notice.
  8. Take a chocolate (soy or otherwise) milk break while you’re working – sweet and light sustenance I highly recommend.
  9. Whoever isn’t leading the project can also be in charge of documenting the project with pictures. When there wasn’t much for me to do, I enjoyed getting action shots of the Scientist at work.
  10. A small upgrade to the exterior goes a long way – every time you leave the house and return, you’re met with something to be proud of all over again.
The Scientist and I set our minds to rebuilding the deck, and we learned a lot.
the scientist in focus

April Blog Recap

In its first month since inception,

Sunshine and the Scientist present: Putting Down Roots and Raking Up Leaves

has been garnering a lot of support and well wishes. We’re new to blogging and we’re hoping to be here for a long time. For the sake of perspective, here is the recap on April…

In the month of April, we published 12 entries, predominantly authored by Sunshine, as the Scientist finishes up his current research efforts.

(Sunshine is looking forward to sharing all of the Scientist’s work, explaining data regarding lead contamination in suburban areas of Long Island, where we live and work. The Scientist is looking forward to a long nap and a mint chocolate chip ice cream sundae.)

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By the Numbers

The 12 entries received a total of 226 views from 90 visitors, from 13 different countries, as far-reaching as New Zealand, Japan, Romania, Finland, and Germany, to name a few. Those entries enabled us to gain 17 subscribers, for a total of 17 *first month data here*.

Stats are so important when looking at anything, really, but especially when working toward a goal.

It is our hope to publish at least once every two days in the month of May, continuing to share a variety of articles and stories, from our personal and professional lives, citing our sources and speaking truthfully. Gaining 17 subscribers in a month is the benchmark, so when rounding out May, we hope to have 2s+1 or 35 to be exact.

Our all-time visitors count is 125, and as 17 subscribers are 13.6% of those visitors, we hope to increase our subscribing rate to 15% of viewers in the next month. This will be accomplished through more effective tagging and more intentionally curated content.

Qualitative Notes

On a more qualitative note, some articles were stellar, unexpected crowd favorites, while others did not get as much attention as hoped.

There’s Something About Lori received the most views and likes, and as it is about the personal journey of recognizing one’s autism (Sunshine’s autism), the reception is greatly appreciated.

Transorted in the Cold, April Rain was another unexpectedly well-received piece, considering it was written reflexively with very little care put into outlining or planning.

Less well-received was the entry published giving some basic advice to parents (With Kids, the Importance of Being Literal), which flipped the script of Sunshine’s life being autistic to showing the main lesson learned from helping autistic kids. It’s a niche audience.

Goals for May

  • Increase reach, reception, and enhance discourse
  • Publish 15 entries, plus Stats and Goals
  • Use feedback to enhance article content

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