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Part III


Commentary on the birth of words,
and the impact of words on our world


Dorian Scott Cole


Copyright © 1997 - 2001 By Dorian Scott Cole


Distribution Notice: This book is not public domain and may not be distributed in any form in any media, including print or electronic, and may not be included in any collections for distribution in any media. Individual readers may make a printed copy for personal use as long as the copyright notice remains on the work.






Part I

1   Privies and Other Embarrassing Words
2   How Words Take on Meaning
3   English Is Confusing Even as a First Language!
4   Referents: Signifiers and Symbols

Part II

5   It's Not Easy Feeling Green
6   Context, Usage, and Categorization

Part III

7   Words Can Poison You
8   Experiential Theory of Words
       Computer Relationship Systems
Excursus I:  Things Parents Can't Have
9   Metaphysical Theory of Words

Part IV

10   Interpretation
Excursus II:  Creating Classifications and Concepts
Flatus & Inflatus (Gas & Inspiration)




The Universe Is Flat

The ancients were right about this, too.




Chapter 7

Words Can Poison You

It has long been widely understood that perception rules the universe. For example, long ago people perceived that the earth was flat. The idea that one might reach a distant land in a shorter time by sailing in the opposite direction, around the globe, was unthinkable and postponed the discovery of many new lands.

Sailors ventured into the vast ocean with fear, growing more cynical and fearful as their supplies diminished and day after day all that could be seen was more water. One risked falling off the edge of the world, and the threat of mutiny grew stronger as imagination fueled terror with each passing day. Perception ruled, and perception had nothing to do with reality.

So, the universe is flat. Any why not, perception rules, and perhaps the appearance of the universe is only a matter of perception. What do we know? we have never been "out there." No space ship has ever sailed around the universe. Just as the perception that the earth is flat prevented the discovery of new lands, perception affects our daily lives, and even affects our words. Perception affects how we speak and what we believe our words to mean.

While today we know that the earth isn't flat, perception still easily misdirects us. Perception is frequently used by others to control us or prevent us from discovering the truth. For example, once I called a benefits group to ask about a long delinquent benefit reimbursement. I got a recording: "Due to an unusually heavy volume of claims..." In other words, half the department is on vacation and they really don't care if I get reimbursed. My situation is irrelevant to them, but I'm supposed to believe that suddenly half the world is sick and they are working miserably hard to meet my needs... late.

I called another division of the same company to ask about another check which they were supposed to send. I really don't need my money for anything, I just like to spend my time calling them. The week before, a person had pleasantly informed me that she would "expedite" it for me. That person was no longer there. Another cheerful voice told me what I wanted to hear.

I know responsibility and customer service when I see it, and this is a direct miss. Of course I realize from long experience with this benefits company that they just don't care, but they desperately wish me to have the perception that they do care and they work very hard at creating this misperception.

Misperception has been a natural fit for the Internet. I once sent a series of six e-mail messages to one dot-com domain company trying to straighten out a small problem. I received either a precomposed response or a "we're looking into it" response each time, which was brilliant testimony to the fact that they neither cared nor were even trying. A year later I went through the same thing on the same problem with the same result. I gave up and later changed registrants. Customer service with dot-coms does not yet compete with brick and mortar businesses. Dot-coms deluded themselves with the misperception that an Internet based business carries no overhead.

Of course the "brick and mortar" businesses started this trail of lies, and bureaucracies have refined it to an art form. My daughter sent to her birth state for a new birth certificate. Her first attempt was mailing a form that she got over the Internet, for speed. They forgot to mention (or she didn't notice) that the request required accompanying identification, so within a few weeks they sent it back, unprocessed. I would mention the specific state, but my "perception" is that they would permanently lose the birth certificate.

Once an organization reaches the critical mass of a bureaucracy it gains a new mission. This new mission is perceived as "To perpetuate its own existence." This too is a misperception. The real new mission is "To perpetuate its existence as an entity that does nothing except bungle." It perpetuates its existence by covering things up. If it gets caught, it intimidates.

My daughter's next step was to send the request by overnight mail and she placed a postage paid overnight envelope within so they could send it right back. Her perception was that they would recognize the envelopes, the original form, understand the urgency, and expedite the processing. Wrong. She assumed that the people in a bureaucracy care enough to do a job properly and that government agencies exist to provide a responsible service. Where did we ever get such misperceptions?

Perception is as perception does. For example, consider the national shortage of spoons. Perhaps it is an international shortage - I haven't been out of the country for a while so I haven't studied this in international scope. But even mentioning it creates a perception that it is an international reality, and provides greater credibility to it as a national problem. Why is there a national shortage of spoons?

I began to realize when my children were young that there was something going on with spoons. One day we had a full set of spoons in the utensil tray. Over the next year or two, we realized that there was a spoon shortage. My perception was that we had a full set at one time. We habitually don't throw spoons away. Yet month after month, spoons slowly but steadily disappeared, never to be seen again.

I comforted myself with the possibility that perhaps the spoons were going the way of the pens and combs that my children lost by the truckloads. I have written an article about this notorious problem (it's in a later chapter). Even more likely, the spoons had taken up residence with the disappearing socks - those that go into the washing machine in pairs and come out divorced, never to be loved again.

I even considered that perhaps my own children were taking the spoons into the yard to dig, leaving them there in their carelessness, or even hiding evidential spoons inside the living room couch along with the dirty bowls. But I finally turned a blind eye to these two theories. I would not want to think my own children capable of such things.

When I noticed spoons were missing at many restaurants, I put 2 and 3 together and realized that spoons were the object of a conspiracy. Imagine this scenario: My wife and I would sit down and order coffee. The waitress would dutifully bring the coffee, and before she could disappear we would blurt out, "We need cream," and she would disappear for ten minutes, and then we would realize - dupes that we are - that we had been distracted by the cream which prevented us from noticing that there were no eating utensils.

After the waitress breezed by, efficiently dropping off the creamer without missing a step, we would then patiently watch for her to look our direction again so we could place our order for utensils. Begrudgingly she would deliver them as she passed by with her next order. We would smile politely, knowing that the hard working person was doing her best serving pancakes to kids, and we would gratefully unroll our utensils from the napkin. No spoon. This happened so often that it became predictable. I can't tell you how often, after fifteen minutes of waiting for a spoon, I stirred my coffee with the end of a fork.

I was soon into creating theories for the national spoon shortage:

College students steal them, along with salt shakers, for their dorm rooms. This theory presupposes that college students don't need knives and forks, so leave us short on only spoons.

People dangle spoons from their sticky nose as table tricks, and then forget they are on their nose and walk out with them. I have been watching the exit for evidence.

Many follow President George H. W. Bush's example and swallow spoons to make a political fashion statement: a neck bulge on each side. I've been watching for Republicans who resemble Frankenstein. I can't tell the Democrats from the Republicans.

Programmers and writers, who often eat at their computers, are in desperate need of spoons - they could starve - and they absentmindedly leave with the spoons, their minds permanently transfixed by computer code or prose scrolling before their eyes. I've been monitoring myself.

It's a Uri Geller psychic spoon bending demonstration gone out of control.

It's a marketing ploy by fast dissolving sweetener manufacturers who want us to abandon sugar and therefore lose the need for spoons. Listen, manufacturers, I'm already into artificial.

Eating utensil manufacturers want us to purchase more utensils and their sales people sneak spoons out during sales visits. Watch for "We sell in sets only," as evidence.

Soon I had more theories than spoons. If you are still interested, following are a few more.

"Clean up your plate!" is permanently inscribed on the inside of the eyelids of most of us. Having heard that people are starving in far off Uagabanda, people are cleaning their plates by sending take-home boxes to Uagabanda, spoon and all.

The food health fanatics want us to quit drinking coffee. Studies show that after four cups you are in danger, so they go around stealing spoons thinking that they are doing us a favor.

Too many people linger over their deserts so the spoons don't make it to the washer in time to be recycled. Pancake syrup in this pancake house is spread from door to door by sloppy kids, and kids are walking out with spoons stuck to their clothes.

Asians are taking over and we will soon be eating our soup with chopsticks.

Efficiency experts are running the store - self explanatory.

I can never prove any of these theories, but I know - my perception is - that there is a conspiracy.

I also know that whoever is behind the spoon conspiracy also causes the pronunciation of certain words to change. As I look back now, I see the dawning of this conspiracy when suddenly the words "strength" and "length" had their "g" stolen from them to become "strenth" and "lenth." Soon this pronunciation was fashionable. I haven't purchased a new tie in twelve years - you see how well I follow fashion, so you can guess how I pronounce these words.

When "ng" occurs in a word, it is pronounced at the back of the throat. Say these words: young, tongue. Now say this:

    stre · ng · th.

See, it can be done. Now, my personal theory is that this conspiracy came from one of four sources:

  1. Speech pathologists gave up trying to ever make this complicated pronunciation, and stole the g. For them I have created a tongue twister: "Terribly tortured tongue twisters teach tantalizing tidbits." Notice the complete absence of the word "length," and anything else useful.
  2. Elementary school teachers banded together and threw the g out.
  3. Computer makers felt that speech recognition programs would have a monster headache with "ngth."
  4. Some unknown-to-me but influential person said "strenth" and people followed without consulting me. For some reason, neglecting my sage opinion is an ongoing problem.

Now everyone perceives that the fashionable pronunciation is correct and if they don't pronounce these words the fashionable way then are demonstrating their ignorance. Not so. Twenty years ago "strenth" wasn't even in the dictionary. It has only made its way to a third acceptable pronunciation. Perception? Think conspiracy… the perception will do wonders for your imagination.

Word meanings do run aground, crash and burn, even when people steer with the best of intentions. Take for example the word "secreted." At this point you probably don't know exactly which word I mean. This word has two pronunciations and two meanings.

One meaning comes from the word secret, which means hidden or discreet. A person might be "secreted" away in the middle of the night. Secret(ed).

The other meaning of the word "secreted" comes from the word "secrete" which means that something more or less oozes out of something else. Flowers secrete nectar. Oil glands secrete oil to lubricate the skin. Thus, oil is "secreted" from a gland. Secrete(d).

Now, imagine my surprise when a person in the Witness Protection Program described being secrete(d) into a van by the US Marshall's Service. I wonder if that hurts - being oozed into a van. Gives uzzi a whole new meaning. "You want to get an uzzi! You want to be secrete(d) into a van?" Good reason not to do anything to get yourself into the Witness Protection Program. Ouch!

I, too, am sometimes fooled by perceptions. I have used the phrase "niche market" for years. I was blithely pronouncing it "nich," undoubtedly having learned the pronunciation by osmosis from the fools with whom I associate. But then I happened upon some enlightened person who pronounced it "neesh." Soooo, I perceived, this word must be of foreign origin and I have been pronouncing it erroneously. Over the next few days I intelligently pronounced it "neesh," to as many people as would listen. But as the days progressed I had this nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right. So I looked up the word in the dictionary:

    "Nich," it spoke.

Aargh! Poisoned again.

The universe is indeed flat. It is simply a matter of perception. For example, consider an image on a piece of paper. Shadows and size give the image a perception of dimensions, but the paper is actually flat and ink has no depth. Similarly, spiral galaxies appear to be flat when viewed on their edge. Perhaps when viewed from a great distance, we can see that the universe is flat as a pancake. At this point it really makes no difference whether it is or it isn't, it is our perception, not truth, that we have to live with. Spread the poison.




The World Is Contained In a Word

Every word is an experience.




Chapter 8

Experiential Theory of Words

One of the important ideas behind how we create, understand, and use words has to do with the extensibility of word definitions. Extensibility means the ability to add to, or extend something - in this case, extend the meaning of a word. Lack of extensibility can limit our ability to think and comprehend ideas, and can limit intellectual growth. But extensibility in natural language limits the ability of a computer program (artificial intelligence) to pick up on variations of meaning.

For example, if meaning is considered "inherent" within a word, then there is a structural problem that prevents extensibility and growth. Since the most abstract word could only be a compilation of previously defined words, then we could not create a word that had any more meaning than what is contained in other words. This is a "closed" system. It doesn't permit the inclusion of new ideas. It perhaps reflects a closed system of thinking in which everything is thought to be already known. Meaning isn't inherent in a word.

Patterns are the currency of communications, and in verbal communication patterns usually take the form of words." There is a common language (a small set of words with specific meanings) that we use in daily communication, that we all basically understand in the same way, and for which the historical meanings and variations within individuals is not significant.

Definition, as perceived by some, brings the elements into a "closed" system of thought. Once defined, nothing can be added or subtracted from the definition. These are the words and definitions that we are taught in elementary school, and without these words that describe experience, we would be unable to communicate.

But for other words, I think we are much better off "describing" experience. Descriptions are open systems of thought that permit us to continue understanding the various experience elements within a word or pattern. Definitions, on the other hand, seem to me almost like a modernist quest - a quest for ultimate answers that wants to make all things irrefutably knowable. This quest overlooks the fluid nature of the human condition. The dictionary supposedly provides "reportative" definitions. These definitions report how we actually use words.

A closed system of words with inherent meanings doesn't reflect how we actually use words. While dictionary definitions do add some stability to our system so that we can communicate effectively, words do acquire different meanings that typically reflect part of the original meaning, and we do create new words that reflect either a new experience or a new perspective on experience.

Every experience an individual has is "localized" in that the interpretation of that experience is dependent on other experiences the person has had. So every experience is interpreted somewhat differently by every individual. Repeated experiences, which I call patterns, I believe become prominent enough that they are recognizable to the individual and sometimes a symbol is assigned to the pattern. A word is just one symbol that can be applied.

The definition of a word (which may begin as a description of the experience) helps other people to look for those same experiences within their own range of experience. When the person receiving the new word and definition looks at his own experience, he sees patterns that concur with the description. The receiving person then has a similar basis for using the word, but his understanding is localized, meaning that it is subject to that person's interpretation and experience.

What this means then is that no word has a truly inherent meaning, even if it is defined. The meaning of a word is localized within each person, so every word has multiple meanings. When a person employs a word to communicate, his meaning is slightly different than the meaning for the person who hears the word.

This not only has implications for how we communicate, it has implications for computer systems that work with words and their meanings. The implications for a computer system is that systems that depend on rigid classifications of words are unable to grow with the language and the migrating meanings of words. In highly "localized" systems with narrow uses, such as for a technology, this would be less of a problem. In larger systems, such as the Internet, and those with which information is largely unstructured (unidentified through rigid categorization or tagging), this could be a major problem. As is already demonstrated by natural language query systems and other systems that try to understand a person's meaning of a word, it is very difficult for an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system to cope with the meaning flexibility that people commonly use.

About the best that can be achieved is an interactive system that returns results from multiple categories. And for a system like Ask Jeeves, there are few cues that the user provides either implicitly or explicitly. The chances of improving on systems like Ask Jeeves that provide no sense of context through localization, and which are extremely broad in range, looks remote.

There is a clear need to be able to search and understand information that is either unclassified or that fits into multiple categories. What could potentially improve this type of result is the use of ontologies that are based on the experience behind the word rather than definitions.

One solution that is used effectively is to use pairs of words. This is done when creating the meta-tags for Internet HTML pages, which are unseen by the viewer of the page. This identifies the page more explicitly for search engines, and word pairs are much more explicit about meaning than a single word. The odds of making a relevant match increase dramatically.

AI programs appear to be caught between two difficult points. In simple queries, the program has to guess at a word meaning - a task that is impossible even for humans. But in complex text the program has to do major processing to understand text. Computers can't understand text in the same way that humans can. Both methods inherently lead to incorrect interpretations of the meaning that the person had in mind. AI is actually being asked to go beyond what people are able to do.

One simple method of improving search results requires a minimum of processing. Results are simply categorized according to predetermined "word meaning" frequency categories, with results for the most common meanings and usages placed in a primary category listing, and results for specialized meanings placed in another listing from which the user could choose. The user would then be able to choose from the categories. Some search engines, such as Ask Jeeves, already do this. Another way to improve results is to provide for small variations in word meaning so that as words change meaning or are used differently, allowances are automatically made.

How would this type of experience ontology be constructed? A clue is found in the definitions of words that define a word, and then the succeeding definitions.

I broke down a word through its definitions to see where they would lead - to more complex words (experiences), or to simpler words (experiences). I chose the word "beauty." There was nothing rigorous (or scientific) about my exploration. I thought I saw the pattern of each word in the explanation being further defined in other explanations by simpler terms, with words often repeating, themes often repeating, indicating that experience may indeed be composed of other more basic experiences. This little example doesn't really demonstrate anything, but it is an intriguing indicator to look more deeply.

Beauty: A delightful quality associated with harmony of form or color, excellence of craftsmanship, truthfulness, originality, or another property.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.

Succeeding definitions of some of the words used to define beauty:

Delightful - greatly pleasing

Pleasing - to give enjoyment, pleasure, or satisfaction to; to make glad or contented.

Enjoyment - the act or state of enjoyment. Pleasure.

Pleasure - the state of being pleased or gratified.

Gratified - to please or satisfy.

Satisfy - to gratify need, desire, or expectation.

Need - a lack of something required or desirable.

Desire - to wish or long for or want.

Expectation - act of expecting; eager anticipation

Quality - an inherent or distinguishing characteristic

Characteristic - a distinguishing feature

Harmony - Agreement in feeling or opinion

Agreement - the act of agreeing

Form - The shape and structure of an object

Shape - Characteristic surface configuration

Characteristic -

Configuration - Arrangement of parts or elements

Arrangement - the act or process of arranging

Part - portion, division, piece

Object - something perceptible by one or more of the senses.

Many of these words that defined beauty hailed back to the basic "satisfying of longing and desire as a pleasing experience." (Define desire in any way you wish. Wish? I'm on dangerous ground here.)

We can relate to the desirability of each of these conditions because we have experienced them. We have experienced harmony and know how desirable agreement is to us. We have experienced a variety of pleasing forms, and know how desirable, and therefore beautiful, certain forms are. But what about computers? Can computers understand, or appreciate in some way, that beauty is a desirable quality?

Computer Relationship Systems

Relationship systems indicate what kind of connection there is between words. For example, words that have similar classifications can have this relationship indicated. I have mentioned two ways of indicating relationships: context and experience. Context is established by the words that surround a word. Experience, in a computer sense, is possibly indicated by words that define a word, and the words that define those words.

There are a number of ways in which relationships are already shown. For example, words that commonly occur together, indicating context, are lumped into clusters. When a search is performed on a word, if the word is found with a group of words, results that include these other words can be returned higher in the list of results, indicating probability. There are other common ways of indicating relationships. The WordNet lexical database contains the hierarchically ordered semantic relationships between words. It indicates if words (especially nouns and verbs) are part of a higher class (hypernym) or a lower rank or class (hyponym).

For example, if you do a search in WordNet on the word "history," it returns five senses of the word. If you click "coordinated terms" you see a number of words that belong to the same hypernym.

The near hypernyms and hyponyms can form a cluster of words that have similar meanings.

Classifying words through this type of semantic mapping can be a key to getting a sense of what a word means, and in being able to find similar words by using other words that are in the same category.

What this type of semantic mapping doesn't provide is a sense of experience. In other words, what other more basic words could be used to make up this word?

Knowledge VS Experience

Getting a handle on experience will be difficult for artificial intelligence. Basing semantic relationships on experience is not the same as having experience. Relationships between words can indicate experience, but they are signs, not symbols, not participating in experience. To a computer they are simply signs that are based on experience. This is knowledge, not experience.

Computers are very limited in what they can understand, compared to humans. While computers can play chess quite well, they are very poor at doing other things. Despite the rapid advances in computer capability, Artificial Intelligence has so far only managed to show us that computers have a very long way to go to match what humans easily do. For example, it takes several computers operating simultaneously to recognize that an object is a person, follow his travel, and mimick the person's movement through a robot.

Computers don't have an experiential understanding of words or of life. They can know that candy is defined by the word sweet, but they can't understand what sweet is, and they can't have the experience of eating candy to know what sweet is. Even if they could have a pleasure program that equates sweet with good, they still can't have the experience of eating candy and all of the memories and associations that eating entails. Computers can have knowledge, but not experience.

Computers also don't make value judgments. Computers can hold all of the information in an encyclopedia, but they can't understand it or know why it is good to know. Computers can be fed information about experience, but they can't know why it is desirable to have it. A computer doesn't understand volition - it doesn't know the compelling reason why someone might do something. The best a computer can do is know the relationships between words. It is the difference between knowledge and experience.

Knowledge is knowing that logoplastycism means, "the theory of molding new words with surgical precision." A computer could very efficiently take the alphabet and create all of the possible combinations of letters, but to what end?

Experience is knowing that logoplastycism ultimately means to take other words and form them into a new word, and know the problems one runs into when doing that, and precautions that should be taken, and that a person would only do this for some purpose, such as entertainment or to find a new word to name some new thing, and to have emotions, and other experiences associated with this experience.

The semantic relationship is not defined by the words or with the words. Relationships are defined externally by the program. The external identifier defines what the connection means. Like a series of Interstate highways crisscrossing the nation to connect major cities from any location, the computer defines what the link between words means, that is, how it is associated.

A computer can know a relationship, can know a description of experience, can have signs that point to experience, but it lacks the actual experience. The best the computer can have is words about experience - that is, knowledge. Unlike people, who can absorb knowledge and often relate new knowledge to some experience they already know, a computer can't even do that.

Here is an interesting question that takes all of this to extreme: Can an animated character become human? The virtual character can have all of the moves and responses of a human. The character can even respond to pain and the threat of death. In fact, the character could have the experience and brain power of a hundred or more human beings behind it. It could be active 24/7 through a network, and could become alive in the hearts, minds, and activities of people. But does this make the image human?

See Also:



Excursus I

Excursus means a side excursion into a rain puddle. Some people like rain puddles - they present a pleasant diversion. After wading through the sticky mud of the last chapter, you can refresh yourself here. Take off your shoes and socks, roll up your pant legs, and wade in for the fun of it. Stomp around, have some fun. Every book should have a rain puddle. This rain puddle is about things that parents can't have, and through "framing" I manage to connect it to this treatise on words.

If you doubt my definition of excursus, look it up. It's Latin, but it is in the English dictionary.




Excursus I

Things Parents Can't Have

"I wish I could have a pencil," I grumbled to my wife, the usual recipient of my complaints. She either ignores me or takes it personally - I suffer for it either way. I was working in my study and quickly needed to write something down. As usual three automatic pencils, a couple of lead pencils and two pens were nowhere to be found. And my kids are raised now - technically I am no longer supporting them. Ha!

From the day the kids arrived in this world I have noticed a steadily growing number of things that parents can't have. It's as if kids were given this mission at birth: "Make sure your parents don't have these items." As babies they would pull pens from my shirt pocket and drop them on the floor when I wasn't looking.

Engineers, writers - some people must have a writing implement. Ideas strike in restaurants and get written on napkins. No pen… the idea of a lifetime might get forgotten in the flurry of raising children. But with a pen in your pocket you can write it down, take it home and save it forever in a drawer, to be taken out and admired years later. People ask me, "Got a pen?" I smile and pull one from my pants pocket, saying, "Sure, I'm a writer, I always have a pen." I learned years ago to put them in my pants pocket so the babies didn't get them, and so I didn't look like a nerd.

Occasionally a pen ruptures and my slacks turn black - I always use black ink - but what's a couple pairs of slacks compared to the drawer of engineering and story ideas I have saved. If I ever have the time, I can create a computer storage device with 100 times the memory capacity of current disks, or a vehicle with completely internal propulsion (despite laws of physics to the contrary), and I have enough story ideas to keep me busy for fifty years. Kids just don't appreciate the importance of having a pencil.

To children, pencils are just one more item in a long list of items that have no value. Pencils are totally expendable and infinitely replaceable. They just lay them down when they are done with them and immediately forget where they are. Who has all the world's pencils? The janitors at the schools.

I have long marveled at the stories of other people who as children were not allowed into their Father's study. They viewed his desk and the items on it with reverence. They didn't dare touch anything or leave an item out of place. If they ever were so bold as to enter his sanctum and climb into his chair, they surveyed the desk-top in awe, and froze in fear when his shadow loomed through the door.

My three animaniacs held nothing sacred. If Daddy stormed around the house wailing that he couldn't find anything to write with and couldn't get his work done, and it was all their fault because they never put anything back, and they were going to forever lose the privilege of even entering his study, they just looked at him as if to say, "Are you mentally impaired? Just go buy some more, you idiot." And then they would disappear so they could giggle in private and devise their next plan to irritate some fool who thought the world should be a peaceful and orderly place.

When I was a child - here we go again - a comb, a pen, nail clippers - these were things you held onto. I had them for years, and was very upset when my nail clippers managed to escape my pocket, or my comb broke. I purchased combs made of soft plastic instead of brittle plastic so they wouldn't break. I knew if I lost any of these, the family fortune would have to be spent to buy another.

I tried to instill this same sense of conservatism and value in my children. I failed miserably! After my children viewed their friends way of life, they were dead set against learning anything so nonsensical.

I have used the same hair brush for twenty-seven years. It will never wear out - it loses bristles at the same rate I lose hair. If it lasts as long as I do, I may have it put in my casket. I certainly won't will it to my son - he won't even remember to take it home with him. I can't remember the last time I had to buy a comb for myself - it has been at least a couple of years.

Combs were the ultimate frustration with children in my home. I made certain regularly that each of my children had a comb and brush. They were to stay in the bathroom, or on a dressing table, near where they would be used. The recesses of the couch, the toy box, under the seat of the car - these were not appropriate places to leave combs.

I usually bought them a spare to take to school, and placed a sack of spare combs in a closet. Usually a week after buying everyone a comb and brush set, I would open my drawer in the master bath and reach for my comb. Gone! I couldn't comb my hair, or even part my hair so I could brush it and go to work. I certainly didn't have time to search the house for my comb.

First I yelled at my wife - she needed to know I was upset - and then I would indignantly stomp out to the children's rooms where they were getting ready for school, yelling incredulously, "Who took my comb?"

Confronting each child, I soon learned that not one of them had sneaked into my bathroom and taken my comb. I don't know why I bothered to ask - this was commonplace in our home. Combs and other items were spirited away never to be seen again, by a poltergeist. Asking children "who" did something was akin to asking "why" they did something. No one ever knew "why" they did anything. It was a question without merit, a moot point - "why" wasn't the done thing. Such questions as "who" did it, and "why" did someone do it, would have lead to that ultimate no-no, actually taking responsibility for their actions. Scary territory.

So I tried to borrow a comb from my kids even though I knew I would have to clean jelly off of it first. But I was also spared from that chore - all the combs were gone. My comb was gone, my wife's comb was gone, the comb in my wife's purse was gone, my spare comb in my dresser drawer was gone, and all three children's combs were gone. I checked the closet for the spares. Yep, vanished without a trace, except for the empty sack. Empty sacks never vanish, they just sit there to disguise the fact that their contents are gone.

I suspected one of the children might have done it. I questioned them each in turn. Where is your comb, M? "I loaned it to J." M was never responsible for anything. "Where is your comb, J? "I don't know." J never admitted to knowing anything - it was much safer. Where is your comb, K? "J took it to school." K could be brutally honest when someone else could be blamed.

So J was taking combs to school. I had forbidden that. J had no pockets and refused to carry a purse, which probably saved us a lot of expense replacing lost purses and all that they could hold. She sometimes remembered to take her back-pack, but she could never find her homework in it, so I knew she would not be able to locate a comb. So what was the kid going to do with a comb - hold it in her hand all day? Nah, she would lay it down and the janitor would sweep it up. I was determined I was going to win this battle. We would have combs. I ordered a semi-truck load of combs. The truck parked in the street and we wheeled in fifty giant boxes of combs - a 500 year supply. They were all gone in a week. I realized then that I was actually a good parent - I wasn't depriving my children of combs. The school teachers couldn't look at me like I abused my children by not sending them to school with combs and turn me over to the social services people to take my children away because I had failed my parental responsibility of providing combs.

Sound in the knowledge that I was right and righteous, I continued the battle. I reread all the books on child psychology. I would motivate my children to keep their combs. I tried loving patience and support. I gave them a comb every morning, smiled at them, and reminded them to keep track of their combs. The janitors swept up a lot of combs. I tried explaining the value of combs and the rewards of responsibility, gave them object lessons, and tried to help them with their experiences of losing them. The janitor smiled and started a very profitable comb outlet. I tried going over each detail of their day, analyzing how they lost their combs, and found counter practices that would help them not lose their combs. The second semi-truck load was almost gone. The comb manufacturer was smiling.

I tried the practical approach - "Just do it!" I shouted in their ears. Of course that didn't work either. I tried threats - "If you don't bring home that comb tonight, you'll stand in the corner for an hour... you'll spend the evening in your room... you can't go anywhere for a week... No candy... no TV... I'm going to kill.... "

The only thing that grew was the animaniac's amusement over Daddy's frustration. They had reviewed the books on child psychology. They didn't have to actually read them, their friends and teachers in school told them all about psychology so they would be programmed to react appropriately - especially if ever in the presence of a counselor or psychologist. If necessary they were prepared to push this all the way to family counseling where they could assert their bargaining rights as children who were unfairly treated, as evidenced by their acting out behavior of losing millions of combs. They were finally getting back at Daddy for not taking them on trips to Europe, not spending endless hours with them instead of earning money for food and housing, not buying them $600.00 jeans, not buying them 56" TVs for their rooms… like everyone… at least… one… of their friends had. The comb battle had become a power struggle.

I would win this battle. I threw the books on childhood away. I knew about motivation. I had studied it in depth in college. I fancied myself a good marketing person. I used motivation effectively in public relations. I successfully motivated people in remote areas to take responsibility for their territories and manage them well. I motivated people to sell who didn't want to sell. I used it in counseling. I knew how to get cooperation. If there was anything I knew, I knew motivation. And I knew this battle had only one solution. I took the last three combs in the semi-truck shipment, drilled holes in each one, looped a nice looking wire through the ends, soldered the loops closed, and bolted them to the bathroom wall.

The animaniacs looked at me like I was crazy. "Daddy, do you realize how embarrassing it is when our friends come in here and see our combs wired to the wall?" I just smiled. A month later two of the combs were still there. I had finally won a battle with the kids. Probably the only battle. Take it from me, it's the only thing that comes close to working. My children visit me occasionally. When they do, the pencils still disappear. Any time I bring a pencil into the house, I feel the tension rise in the cosmos. I know my daughter in St. Louis is whispering to her husband, "We've got to go visit Dad, he has a pencil again. We'll have to stay there until we find it." But I've learned a new trick. I have hidden my pencils in the one place they never visit. The waste basket. But that's another story.

I understand now that it is all in the universal scheme of things. Children do have their mission. People need jobs, and children are a key ingredient to full employment. I never break anything, or lose anything, or wear anything out, so if people depended on me for jobs the unemployment rate would be at 75%. So children keep us all employed. Children are responsible for at least two thirds of the world's economy. They either break it, lose it, wear it out, or outgrow it, so that everything they touch has to be replaced within a few days to a few months.

The way that we "frame" our problems has everything to do with the focus of the answers that we seek. Frame all childhood problems as "obedience related," and we look for obedience answers. Frame them as a battle, and we look for war answers. Frame them as moral, and we look for moral answers. Frame them as incomplete, and we look for ways to complete. Frame them as a stimulus to the economy, and we look for economic answers. This search for answers involves our experience and our philosophy - that is, we are influenced experientially and metaphysically, which are the subjects of the previous chapter and the one that follows.

Raising children can be amusing, or it can turn into a nightmarish battle. Parenting isn't a battle, it's a joint project where parents often sacrifice 150%. I learned from my parenting experience that many things just don't have answers. I entered parenting thinking everything had an answer - you could talk with kids - reason with them - work with them - love them enough, and everything would fall into place. Nothing is further from the truth. There are no right answers. Children are like mops with the handle missing, cars with the steering wheel missing, a riddle that is still being composed, a computer program half finished, a house with no doors - they are not complete pieces of work so nothing will work properly with them. They're an unfinished story that doesn't necessarily go well and you may never see the end. That's another thing parents can't have: the end of the story.

Why does Johnny do… ? Because he isn't a whole person yet. We're too eager to see a child's behavior as a reflection of the parent. We are brainwashed to think that way. Parenting is seen as a process of cloning morally perfect beings so children don't ever have to struggle through difficulties to become… Reaching for the impossible, we turn it into a struggle for control between parent and child. Battles go to extremes with bad endings - they end up with people so polarized that they can no longer function in a relationship, or they even end up in court. It isn't possible to understand an effective relationship in terms of who wins and who loses. Everyone has to win.

I think the most frustrating part of being a parent (and I suppose of being a teacher), is thinking that you are failing because you can't get children to respond the way you think they should, and everyone thinks they have the right answer: "If you would just do things my way…." No matter what you do, children are not capable of responding in the way you think they should. They aren't little adults (and the more I work with adults the more I see how unfinished we all are). We had a plaque hanging on the wall with our children's pictures that said, "Please be patient, God isn't finished with me yet."


The Meaning of Life

As a word unpacks, I see each constructing experience becoming more and more finite. Finite experience doesn't seem to me to express "the meaning of life." Or does it? I think the term "the meaning of life" creates a bit of a misleading game... language game1.




Chapter 9

Metaphysical Theory of Words

If words are strongly identified with experience, and words pass on meaning structures, or ways of interpreting our life experiences from others, and words with complex meanings are defined by words with simpler meanings, can we make the leap to say that meaning in life is contained within words? Maybe so.

As a word unpacks into simpler meanings and simpler experiences, I see each constructing experience becoming more and more finite. And as words with complex definitions are employed to define words with even more complex definitions, I see words taking on considerable meaning, and opening the door to awakening others to new meaning, and to even creating meaning. For example, the word love is a word with complex meaning that probably requires a lifetime of experience to fully understand and appreciate.

If we understood all of the words in use today, would we understand the meaning of life? I think the term "the meaning of life" is a bit misleading. Is there but one meaning of life? Or is there a plurality of meanings? Can we really understand without experience? To me it is very questionable.

The writer of the Gospel of John seemed to enjoy word play. He began his book with, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word." Later he says that "God is love."

God is the Word, and God is love. The "Word" is actually taken to mean both Christ, and what God reveals to mankind about God through the written word. The written word (Bible) is a compilation of books about experience. The holy books record perceptions of different aspects of man's experience with God. I say perceptions because no single experience fully reveals God. But all experiences are pieces of the same puzzle.

So, in a word, God is perhaps then "the" meaning of life, but finding "the" is accomplished through a multitude of meaningful experiences." In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God… God is love - is a conundrum that is unraveled through experience.

Does the meaning of life remain forever uncapturable and inextricably plural because it is infinitely constructed? This is like the computer, only seeing the relationships between the words. We gain an understanding of the relationships through experience.

Growth is a process that includes change. I see change as a process that includes deconstruction. Deconstruction gets to the heart of a matter. Deconstruction is a process of breaking things down into the most basic units. Deconstruction might be about definition and finding more basic words. Deconstruction is not so much a process of invalidation, but a process of finding what is important and realizing how meaning relationships are built so that we can comprehend them.

Deconstruction and reconstruction form a process of renewal. I see it as a fruitful, rather than a destructive space. Deconstruction and reconstruction are the dialogue that move us forward. Religions, even fundamentalist religions, change over time. There is very little change within religions without the process of deconstruction and reconstruction - a refocusing on what is considered important. Shifts in importance come with growth. Growth comes from experience.

Is experience just a momentary alignment of elements in chaos, or are there actually consistent patterns within experience that we can recognize? It is impossible to know by simply watching relationships form in the ever changing chaos. Like knowledge and relationships are to a computer, they bring no understanding and appreciation for real meaning. Meaning is in the details.

I would not have experienced growth as an individual had I never adopted any particular view and been willing to experience life from that point of view. In fact, the "seeker of truth" direction nearly derailed me from experiencing at all - "Why engage if it may turn out not to be real - observe from the sidelines and just keep looking for ultimate truth."

Ultimate truth is composed of millions of smaller truths that we have to prove to ourselves. I think that we have to make life hold still long enough for us to capture and interpret experience from one consistent frame of reference - some construct that may not even be fully valid. And then we adopt another construct and view from another point of view, and we understand more.

The so called "Modernist" view, as I see it, creates a problem for change and growth. By claiming, as some do, "to know absolutely," the construct can't change, can't be deconstructed, renewed - it doesn't grow, doesn't reinvent, which to me doesn't reflect the universe of constant change in which we live (or the variety that God created), or the human condition, which is one of constant change.

The "PostModernist" view also creates difficulty for growth. Some within the PostModernist persuasion hold that everything is relative, there are no absolutes, and there is no meaning. Deconstruction for them results in a pile of ashes.

It isn't a question of truth or validity. I think that the "patterns" of experience we see are valid, but are influenced by individual differences and individual interpretations of meaning. The "construct" is valid from a certain perspective, and is temporal. In other words, our interpretation of experience varies according to individual circumstance and perspective. The "truth" is proven in the details of experience.

Words carry the experiences of others to us to create meaning for us. Through our own experience we come to understand the meanings of life.

Other's knowledge passed to us without personal experience is hot air. Like a computer we can hold it as knowledge but not actually fully appreciate it. Our individual experience without knowledge passed to us by others is simply a perspective. None of us can have all of the experience in the world. Words are the mechanism for sharing the patterns of our experiences as knowledge. Knowledge without experience is an empty shell. Experience without knowledge from others is a deficiency of perspective.




Chapter 9 Footnotes

1. For more on "language games," and our use of words and language, see the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, such as: Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965.


CONTENTS | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV


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