Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Saturday, July 5, 2003
Note: This was written after I had just finished reading the manuscript of an unpublished novel by A. D. Manning, entitled "Love Story Logic." This was what I found out about myself from reading that book.
She went running that day.
She hadn’t been for over a year. She had never liked running. It always reminded her of gym class when she was younger, the feeling that she was being made to do something that she didn’t want to do. The realization that, even when she tried her best, she couldn’t compete with the others. Back in gym, she’d always just avoided it as much as possible. In junior high, she would recall vocabulary from her German class, counting as high as she could to forget that she was running. In high school, she had simply refused to run, walking instead with her friends, or by herself, but never going to the trouble to run like the others, like she was supposed to. On her mission, and then in college, she had run sometimes with her companions or roommates, but never because she wanted to, more because she thought that she should.
Today, she felt she had to run.
The professor’s novel had made her entirely too uneasy. She had finished reading the manuscript that day, and by the time she was done with it, she couldn’t stand to sit still. When her roommate had asked her for a ride to work, she was only two pages from the end and already feeling uncomfortable with the conclusion. Somehow she felt that it wasn’t going to end the way she wanted it to. But probably the way it needed to, she told herself. After driving her roommate to work and dropping a co-worker off at her home a block away, she went back to her own apartment, now empty. She felt a need to talk to her brother, so she picked up the phone almost immediately. But in doing so, she turned and saw the manuscript lying where she had left it on the couch. She knew she had to finish it before she could talk to her brother, so she put the phone back and read the last two pages.
She was almost furious by the end of the last line. She felt a surge of irrepressibly nervous energy well up inside her, and she stood and paced around the room to try to still it. After pacing a few moments in frustrated reflection, she picked up the phone again and dialed her brother’s house. She had no idea if he was at home or not, but she needed to try it anyway. Even if he were at home, he probably would not have much time, or maybe inclination, to talk for long, she thought. The phone rang once, twice, four times. Then she heard a familiar click and then a bell chime. She hung up before the lady could tell her that she’d reached voicemail.
Her frustration mounted, and she paced the living room a bit more, trying to decide what to do with herself. Finally she picked up the phone once more, this time dialing the number of an acquaintance in the ward. He still had her roommate’s green bucket, and she reflected that she might be able to get it back from him today, maybe do a little flirting – socializing, she corrected herself. But in the end, she hung up on that line, too, again without waiting for the mechanic-sounding lady to tell her which apartment she’d reached.
She was now more upset than ever, without any idea of how to calm herself down. She saw the bathroom light still on, and went to turn it off. That’s when the thought struck her, from out of the blue. She would go running. Somehow it was the only thing that made any sense to her right now. She had to get out and do something with herself, and that was the only thing that fit her restless mood. She would be alone, but her body would be vigorously working at something, keeping itself busy so she could think about other things.
She started into her bedroom to change her clothes, but then she remembered the laundry in the dryer. It had been in there far too long. If she was going to do anything, she had to start by taking care of that. She stopped the dryer from its heated cycle and pulled the clothes and towels out in one motion, then carried them into her room without using the sage green laundry basket that stood on the floor.
She dumped the clothes in a heap on her bed and then began quickly pulling them apart one at a time. Her hands shook as she placed the shirts on hangers and then put them in the closet: lime green, red-and-orange, sage green, and dark plum. She then reached for the towels that still lay on her mulberry-colored bed sheets. She folded them one by one, first the dark green one, then the sage green one, then the hand towel, a slightly darker green. Each one was folded three times one direction, then three times in the next direction. Hands still shaking, she quickly opened the cupboard in the hallway and placed the three towels on top of her spare, light green bed sheet, the same color as the second towel she had folded.
Returning to her room, she was finally ready to change her clothes and go running. She opened the first drawer of her dresser and took out a pair of navy blue cut-off sweat pants. Mostly she used these shorts for her pajamas the last few years, together with some old T-shirt. But today they were the only shorts she could think of for running in. She hated shorts and avoided them, as a rule. They always reminded her that her thighs and waist were too big for the rest of her. She began changing her clothes, looking around the room as she did so.
She was struck and disturbed today by the multiplicity of green things in her life, green things that she had surrounded herself with. Green laundry basket, green shirts, green covers on her feather blanket lying on the floor in a corner, a green plastic case for her computer diskettes, green plastic storage bins that lay under her bed holding all the things she knew she wanted but couldn’t seem to find a place for. Or even an immediate use for. Mathom, she thought, as Tolkien would have called it.
Several years ago she had started collecting green things. Perhaps it had all started with the dark green blanket her grandmother had made her for Christmas when she was nine. As a child, she often had a hard time finding a favorite color, usually picking something that her friends seemed to like. Somehow she felt like that made her more normal, maybe even more likeable. But in high school, she had deliberately chosen for green to be her favorite color. She had been taught in church that green was a symbol for knowledge, something she felt was a worthy pursuit in life, and something she desperately wanted and needed to gain more of. Besides, it was the color of the leaves and the grass, and she had always loved plants. Later she learned that she had not inherited the green thumb that both her mother and her father seemed to have. Always buying plants to keep her company, she never seemed to be able to keep them alive for more than a few months, maybe a year. But she still felt that green was something she needed, somehow, and soon found herself buying green things to surround herself with. In some small way, it made her feel more secure.
But today, as she quickly and tremblingly changed her clothes to go running, she found herself upset by all that green. It made her feel somehow insecure.
With her running clothes on, she turned to put on her shoes. She had just bought them earlier that morning, while out shopping with her roommate. The professor’s novel had made her remember that she needed to exercise more. Especially, she reflected as she looked wistfully at size 10 dresses with her size 10 roommate in the mall, if she ever wanted to get over her body-image issues. After leaving the department store, she had gone straight to a shoe store to buy some good running shoes, promising herself that she would get out more.
As she tied the laces and then stretched briefly (and all too inflexibly), she thought about what music she would take with her. She had learned as a college sophomore that she needed music when exercising. It took her mind off the physical pain. And kept her going at a good pace. She considered taking her Walkman radio, and just listening to her favorite soft rock station, but she didn’t want to be bothered with the commercials every five minutes. She thought about taking Mozart with her, the 40th symphony, which had always been her walking music at college in Idaho, before she came to the university in Provo. But that didn’t seem to fit today, although she knew she needed loud, fast-paced music for the mood she was in. Finally she decided to take her newly-bought CD of Grieg’s classic Piano Concerto in A minor. Glancing briefly at the blue accents on her shoes, she stood up from her last stretch, opened the CD with too much restrained energy, and then found her portable CD-player, thinking she could just stuff it in between her stomach and her waistband. But then she couldn’t find any headphones to use. She always kept a pair with her computer at work so she could listen to music there, but she was certain she had another at home for these rare occasions when she felt like listening to something by herself. She searched the drawer over and over, but finding nothing, she finally gave up. More frustrated now than she had been in several months, she left the apartment as quickly as she could, leaving the door unlocked behind her.
She had decided to run south today, six blocks down to Center Street. She wasn’t sure how long a block was, or how many it would take to make a mile. She’d always been awful at estimating, or even caring about, distances. Or any other measurements, for that matter. But she knew that six blocks sounded like a good distance. If she could make it that far, she would be inordinately proud of herself.
Crossing the street from her apartment building, she broke into a run too fast to last six blocks and ran across the grounds of the elementary school. As she passed beneath the common basswood trees growing there, she realized that their sweet scent was fading and would be entirely gone by the end of next week.
She ran determinedly, breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth, like her old mission companion had taught her to do. She didn’t understand exactly why this was supposed to be the best way for breathing while exercising, but she knew it was supposed to be. There must be a good reason for it, and so she did it, even when the dry air stung the inside of her nostrils. She hoped that it wouldn’t make her nose start to bleed.
She ran through a sprinkler, not caring that she would get wet, or even that the puddle it had created would splash dirty water around her. In fact, she rather liked the thought of getting wet. She felt she needed some water to cool off her face and spirit. The water was too low, it turned out, and she didn’t get wet at all, not even from the muddy puddle on the sidewalk.
At the fourth block down, her determination waned. Mostly because she had been anticipating the sign that would tell her she was only one block away from her destination. When she was able to read the green street sign, right before she stepped into the road to cross it, she saw that she was one block further back than she had reckoned. Somehow her will gave out, and she turned west, remembering that this was the street where her older brother had used to live. Walking now down the street, she passed the large red brick church to the south, on the other side of the street from where she was. She remembered all the baby blessings she’d been to in that church, and looked at the house to her right. It was built of gold brick, and the wood that helped fill in the triangular space between the wall and the crotch of the roof had been painted a light ivory color. The trim was blue. Her sister-in-law had painted it blue when they lived there before. Five years later, the student couple who now lived here had apparently seen no reason to change it, and neither had anyone else who might have lived there in the interim.
As she passed to the next block, still going west, it occurred to her that there was plenty of green about her. In fact, in almost surrounded her. Green grass, green leaves on trees, green stems and leaves of flowers. For some reason, though, this green didn’t perturb her like the green things in her room had earlier. She wondered why.
She began finally to think a little while she continued her walk, breathing hard and trying to get her chest to inhale at a little more normal rate. She thought about her life, the choices she’d made thus far and where they had led her. She’d always felt good about those choices, at least deep inside. In fact, it was only when she thought about the future that she got depressed about any of those choices. She knew she’d needed to be where she was, and she was happy and content with where she was. But at the end of all that, she had always known that she must leave this place sometime, and that had always bothered her somewhat. Not because she didn’t want to leave, but because she didn’t know what she’d do next.
When she thought about it, she realized that much of it was connected to the professor. Maybe that was part of the reason why his novel had frustrated her so badly. She didn’t know exactly how that was any reason for her frustration, but somehow she felt that it was.
The frustration – with her future, not with the novel – was due to the fact that she had found what she wanted and didn’t know how to get it. She wanted to be like the professor, in some ways she wanted to be him. She’d always known that she wanted to teach, known since she could remember. But she didn’t want to just teach little kids in an elementary school, like so many of her friends had chosen to do. She had known that, by the time she had finished high school. When she started junior high, she wanted to teach elementary school; when she reached high school, she wanted to teach junior high; when she got to college, she wanted to teach high school, English, she had decided; and by the time that she’d left the junior college for the university in Utah, she wanted to teach at the junior college in Idaho. Somehow, she found herself always wanting to teach wherever she’d just left. Back then, she thought she was being fickle. Now she realized that it was just because of a deep and urgent need to teach truth. The more truth she learned, the more truth she wanted to teach. Teachers had always been her greatest heroes, and many of them she considered her best friends. Not best because they did so much together, like with other friends; best because they had each touched a deep place in her soul. She knew she wanted to touch that place in others.
The only problem was, she didn’t know how to get there. She had finally chosen to study linguistics at the university, simply because it felt right. And she was staunchly loyal to that major. At the junior college, the loyalty to her major had grown from a fear of being fickle and indecisive. But with linguistics, the loyalty was a natural outgrowth of its perfect fit to her nature and spirit. This was exactly what she had searched for all her life, and she couldn’t have been more pleased with her choice, even if it had stemmed simply from a feeling.
There at the university, she had met and learned from wonderful professors. But this one, the one whose novel she’d been reading, he was easily her favorite. Her first linguistics class had been with him, in fact. She got a B in that class, and she was used to getting As. But she wasn’t upset with the grade. She knew she had earned just that grade, and not a better, for one thing. But besides that, the B always served as a reminder to her of one of her favorite lectures from the professor’s class. He taught that meaning was created by opposition – nothing meant anything to anyone unless it was countered by some kind of opposing force, as it were. “If I gave everyone in this class an A at the end of the semester, even those who hadn’t really earned it, that A wouldn’t mean anything to anyone. It would only mean that you’d been enrolled in my class, but nothing beyond that. It’s only because some of you will get Bs, some Cs, and some even Ds and Fs, that the As mean anything to those who earned them.” Seeing her B, her final grade from the class, her first thought was I helped give meaning to all the As. And she was satisfied with that.
After that first semester, she’d gone to serve as a missionary for the church for eighteen months. But she kept the professor’s lectures with her. They seemed to permeate everything around her. That’s when she started to realize that his lectures had not been just about language, but about the world, about life in general. He had been teaching universal and eternal truths in the context of linguistic truths.
After her mission, she eagerly enrolled in his class, and did surprisingly better than she had before. Somehow, she had formed a connection with him, learning to understand what he wanted his students to do, and how to do it. She appreciated his teaching style, and his hard logic. She especially enjoyed the fact that he was willing to tell students when they were wrong. He seemed to see everything so clearly; there was never any grey in his thinking, because there was none in the world. He willingly acknowledged correction from students, whenever it was proffered, but nor did he hesitate to say that they were wrong. In a world that was growing ever more tolerant of other people’s “relative” truths – even at a conservative Christian university – it was refreshing to know someone who truly believed in absolute truth and wasn’t afraid to share it.
That’s what she wanted to do for all those others, she wanted to show them the absolute truths about life.
She thought of all these things while she continued to walk, now having turned north again, ready to head home. She thought of the graduate work she hadn’t yet completed, the graduate work she was still hoping to be accepted to do someplace, and the frustration began to stir again. Every time she started getting ready to apply to another university, she was stopped by some need to know exactly what she wanted to study, exactly what she would do her research in. She was so indecisive all the time, why couldn’t she just make up her mind? She knew where she wanted to be, just not how to get there. She wanted to be teaching at the junior college in Idaho, or maybe at her alma mater here in Utah. Or anywhere, for that matter, but those were her first two choices. That was the destination, but how was she going to get there?
Why wouldn’t someone just hand her a PhD and tell her to go teach someplace? She knew it didn’t work that way, and shouldn’t work that way, but it sure sounded good at times like these.
She broke into a slow jog again as she crossed another street north and then turned east. She was only a few blocks away from home now, and she once again felt that need to run. But when she felt her lungs gasping for more air than they could hold at a time, she slowed back down again to her brisk walk.
She passed several houses without thinking about much at all, except maybe what she’d do when she got home. She was supposed to give feedback to the professor on his novel, but she knew she couldn’t do that right away. She’d known before she ever started reading it that she would have to read it at least twice before she gave any real feedback on it. That was just the way she did things. With any other book, and on any other day, she probably would have gone home and started rereading it immediately, or at least have started marking on the manuscript the typos she’d been keeping track of. But she couldn’t make herself decide to do that, not yet anyway. And yet, she also didn’t seem to be able to leave it entirely alone, not even for a day. She had to reflect on it some more.
By this time, she had reached the elementary school again, but she approached it now from a different direction than she had left it from earlier. There were a couple of college kids out on the field, two boys playing Frisbee on the north end, and a boy and a girl playing some baseball closer to her. Their baseball and mitts made her think of her dad.
She noticed the chain link fence as she walked along it, row after seemingly endless row of grey squares linked together, separating her from the green grass of the school field behind. As she walked, she saw those links as she never had before, and they gave her an odd feeling, such as she’d never experienced before from looking at a simple chain link fence. She felt trapped, held back by those little sideways squares. She let her mind wander from the here and now and found herself imagining that she was in a far-off place, a fantasy place, like one that she might see in that awful state between waking and sleeping. In this place, the grey chain link fence went on forever and ever, always holding back the green behind it. That elusive green was the only thing that cheered her, but it also disturbed her. If it weren’t there, she probably wouldn’t feel so cheated by the fence. She walked forever, infinitely scanning the rows ahead to see when they would finally stop, but they never did.
She found the gap in the fence that would let her through to the other side of the school grounds. It loomed up suddenly on her left, although it had been all but invisible to her eyes just a moment before. She turned and went through the gate, still breathing more heavily than normal and deeply aware of the burning in her red, hot cheeks. Still frustrated, confused, disturbed, but feeling somehow more whole after her excursion, she walked home through the green grass.
21 June 2003
Some Notes on Pragmatics
I've had a few fun experiences with pragmatics lately, and I wanted to write them down so I don't forget them.
prag-mat-ics:n. 1. The study of language as it is used in a social context, including its effect on the interlocutors 2. The branch of semiotics that deals with the relationship between signs, especially words and other elements of language, and their users (from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)
Pragmatics, to put it simply, is the study of language as it is used in our everyday lives. Peirce had quite an influence on pragmatics, since he is considered the father of the American school of thought called Pragmatism, as well as Semiotics (the study of signs). However, I'm not going to talk a lot about Peirce right now.
Another highly influential person in pragmatics was H. Paul Grice, a British logician who proposed that there are four maxims of conversation, which must be followed at all times in order to have a "felicitous" conversation, where people understand one another. These maxims are: 1) the maxim of quantity: say only what is necessary, no more and no less; 2) the maxim of quality: say only what you know is true; 3) the maxim of relevance: say only things that pertain to the conversation; 4) the maxim of manner: avoid being ambiguous or obscure, and be orderly.
The problem with these conversational maxims (also called the Gricean maxims) is that many linguists knew that we don't follow them a lot of the time. In fact, we sometimes flout them openly, knowing that those we are talking to will understand that flouting and interepret the statement as meaning the opposite of what it says. One really great example of this kind of flouting is the use of sarcasm. For example, imagine a scenario with three people, A, B, and C, where A and B are talking. A then sees C trip over his shoelaces, and says to B, "C really is graceful." Because of the conditions surrounding this statement, B knows automatically that A is not really being sincere, but is flouting the conversational maxim of quality, and re-interprets the statement as meaning "C sure is clumsy." This kind of occurence is often known as conversational implicature.
Well, conversational implicature causes quite a lot of confusion or humor when it fails. For example, when I was recently in France with my parents, we ran into one of these implicatures. See, we were visiting the castle of Carcassonne, and Dad and I wanted to walk down into the town to get a good picture of the fortress. Mom's not a big walker, so we weren't sure if she'd be willing to come or not. Dad told her that we were going to walk down into town, and Mom replied, "I can read." Dad chose to misinterpret that statement, and he thought she was exulting in her newly-found power of reading (which was, of course, absurd, since Mom has read since kindergarten, like most of us). Dad had skipped over the maxim of relevance, and thought that Mom was just making a random statement that didn't necessarily have anything at all to do with the rest of the conversation. But, being familiar as we all are with the Gricean maxims, he should have assumed that she was making a relevant statement and then inferred that she meant she would sit in the car and read while she waited for us.
Linguistic Social Rituals
We often fossilize certain linguistic acts so that they become social rituals. This is another pragmatic concept, since it deals with a speaker's meaning, which is often quite different in such situations from the sentence meaning. For example, a common American greeting is to ask, "How are you?" In fact, Americans learning another language have a hard time figuring out how to greet someone without asking this question. But, we don't really want to know how someone is. The correct reply to this question is a simple, "Fine." I see this happen all the time on college campuses, because we see people we know, and we don't have time to stop and really talk, but we want them to know that we acknowledge them. If someone gives the wrong answer, such as "Excellent!" or "Absolutely horrible," we can't move on in the same way as we would before. In American culture it is possible to ask this question, get the proper response, and just keep on walking, without ever stopping at all. But when somebody gives the wrong response, we all of sudden have to stop and find out more. This greeting-type use of the question sometimes bothers foreigners because they think that we Americans are being insincere, when we really are just saying hello.
We have similar types of social rituals in all kinds of everyday experiences. A big one is small talk, when you don't know what to talk to somebody about. Some people are really bad at figuring out things to talk to other people about, and so their conversation ends up consisting almost entirely of such small-talk rituals, including "How's life?" "What are you up to these days?" "Where are you from?" and (at college) "What are you studying?" or "What's your major?" (You probably know some of these people, and I bet they drive you crazy!)
A friend of mine, whom we'll call Jill, was talking recently about a social ritual in married life, when people start asking you all the time, "So are you going to have kids?" or just "When are you going to have children?" (In single life, the question we all dread is "So are you dating anyone?") Well, married people dread this question about child-bearing, which really is just none of anybody else's business. But we ask all the time anyway, simply because we can't think of anything else to talk to them about. Jill's parents were unable to have children for about five years after they first got married, and so for five years they got this question more than they could stand. So Jill's mom finally started telling people, "Well, you know, I'm not sure, but after last night, it could be anytime!" This tends to stop people dead in their tracks -- the social ritual has been broken with, and they don't know how to react. They were expecting some run-of-the-mill socially ritualistic answer like, "Well, we're not sure yet" or "We'll see what happens" or maybe "We want children, but we're not ready just yet." And when someone breaks the ritual they literarlly have no idea what to do. Jill did something similar at our recent work party. She was talking to a co-worker's husband who asked her if they were trying to have kids, and she told him, "You know, we're trying every chance we get!" Again, he stopped dead in his tracks, with no clue what to do or say next, the response was so different from what he'd been expecting.
Friday, July 4, 2003
Welcome to my new blog, everyone. Let me start off right here by saying that I think Danny Kaye is a genius of humor. Today, of course, is Independence Day, and as part of our celebrations, Katie and Margo and I watched The Court Jester (with none other than the delightful Danny Kaye), and I was just amazed. Now, this was not the first time that I've watched this movie, but it never ceases to amaze me how he can make his voice crack on command, pull the perfect facial or otherwise physical expressions at exactly the right moment, or spout off tongue twisters like nobody's business.
In other news, my application is almost complete. Correction, it is complete, and now it just needs to be mailed off. I just graduated with a BA in Linguistics, and I'm trying to decide what to do with myself now. I have a great job developing content for a computer-based language teaching program, and that's great. But eventually, I want to finish my PhD in Linguistics and teach at a university. So until then, I'm trying to figure out the best way of getting there. I am greatly interested in text analysis and writing, so I'm applying to the University of Nottingham in England, where they have an MA in Literary Linguistics. It is mostly about text analysis and discourse analysis, and that sounds great to me. But when I actually think about it, I start wondering if I can really do it. I guess the future just scares me. I have thought about going directly to a PhD program, and I'm still planning to apply to some, but I don't think I'm ready for that kind of research yet. I guess I don't feel like a real linguist yet, after just a BA. I've also thought of staying at my alma mater and doing an MA here, which sounds really good sometimes. In many ways, I just feel like it's time to move on, but then I also know that I love at this university, and I'm familiar already with a lot of the faculty and their research interests and teaching styles. And it would be possible to work with AM, one of the most influential teachers I've ever had. In fact, it's mostly from him that I have learned about the great Charles S. Peirce, after whom this blog is partially named (and about whom I will do a lot of writing in the future). I get nervous looking at the U of Nottingham because I'm not sure what kind of wacky theories they may be teaching out there, and I really haven't taken the time to find out yet. But it would probably also be very good for me to get a completely different kind of perspective like that so that I could learn to defend my own beliefs and views in a stronger way.
Brief (and Basic) Explanation of the Peircean Categories
I guess I ought to explain a little bit about Peirce, huh? The first thing you really need to know about Peirce is that he was all aout logic. The second thing you need to know is that he's also all about triangles. See, he wanted to develop a system for categorizing virtually anything conceivable, and he did it by creating three "universal categories." These are explained, in the most basic way, as the following. FIRSTNESS is the raw perception of a thing, without reaction to it or thought about it. For example, when we look at a fire, we see that it is yellow-orange-reddish, and we feel that it emits heat. SECONDNESS is a physical reaction to something; it's all about resistance, opposition, and conflict, and it is very much concerned with the real world. To continue the fire example, we have a physical reaction to its color and its warmth: it might make us feel happy to look at the bright flames, or they might hurt our eyes with their intensity; if we stick a hand in the fire, it hurts us, so that we jerk our hand back out. THIRDNESS is the habitual connection of these first two categores so that we think about them in connection with one another. So, after a certain amount of time, we learn to associate bright, warm flames and pleasure or pain with a fire. When we experience these things in the future, then we know that they are fire.
Now, you might argue that these things are not what makes a fire unique from other objects, but the fact is that I have only listed a few of their qualities, and a few of our physical reactions to fire. When we take the whole fire in context and are aware of each of its unique qualities, we know (subconsciously, usually) that they make a fire. According to Peirce, these three elements (firstness, secondness, and thirdness) must be present in anything for it to have meaning for us.
If you're interested, you might try reading a book called A Thief of Peirce, edited by Patrick H. Samway. It's not by Peirce, but it is the correspondence between two scholars, who explain Peirce to one another. It's a good introduction to Peircean theory. Another good "primer" is a novel entitled Supposition Error, by A. D. Manning, although it is slightly more difficult to read. You can also just continue to wade through my blog day by day and read my personal thoughts on Peirce, although they are very likely to be less cohesive, or coherent, or even both.