Monday, May 22, 2017


[I post once a week, on Mondays. This is the fourth in a series. The three previous postings might provide context for the essay, but are not absolutely necessary. If you wish to be notified by email when new postings are made, add a note in a comment or send me an email.]

For Post #4 I offer an essay that was in my book Conversations With A Hypoxic Dog: essays, stories, and poems.

Le Bon Mot Aint Worth A Plug Nickel

A Mexican walks through a desert landscape. He approaches a gnarled fence post. The post seems as some weathered sentinel standing alone against the immensity of space and time. Short strands of rusted barbed wire are wrapped about its base. A sign sprouts from its top: a shiny, incongruous, aluminum triangle. The Mexican stops to regard this important landmark. He looks left. He looks right. The desert stretches infinitely to the curved, purplish haze on the horizon. The sign reads:


A dog appears. “¿Comprende?” asks the dog.
After a judicial pause, the Mexican replies: “Si. Yo comprendo; pero, no entiendo.”
A slippery slope that. Welcome. Eso es la vida. One understands; but one does not understand.
The dog continues: “If one’s thoughts, one’s beliefs, indeed, one’s values are built of words (and how can it be otherwise: The world we see is the words we use, says Wittgenstein.
(Say the magic woid and ... Thanks for the input, Groucho. Take a walk).
The dog is smoking a large Cuban cigar. Wearing a mustache. He takes the cigar from his mouth. His eyebrows bounce up and down. He winks lasciviously. He says: “If one’s values are built of words, can they be absolute?” Dog absently scratches at flea, hind leg thumping. “Wittgenstein considered the possibility that, for some people, words meant nothing. (Dog added the italics. To give this notion the weight it deserves). He asked his students to consider the word ‘board'.


To some, the meaning, explicated here by context, is: He is a member of the school board. To others, this word means a length and thickness of wood, a plank. To yet others, Mr. W suggested that the word has no meaning at all. Decoding---the mechanics, the nuts and bolts, of what we call ‘language’---might take place; but no meaning ensues. The assumption is, of course, that we automatically (autonomically? like our heartbeat, or is it more like playing the piano? Or ???) arrive at Meaning. (HA!) But what if, after the decoding, no words follow, no denotation, no connotation, nothing. Nada.
No entiendo indeed.
The feeling of being meaning-blind might well be like reading a difficult passage (anything written, by that obstinate Irishman James Joyce) only to realize that your ‘mind’ has ‘wandered’ and though your eyes have passed over the words and recognized them (most of them) you did not have the least notion what it all meant.
Could you turn that damned radio down? I’m trying to calculate here!” Cap’n Van in a beastly fog and funk. The Northwest Passage has eluded him. The Spaniards have been there before him. His young misters despise him. Navigation is hellish in the rush and swirl of the waters on the Northwest Coast. Fog eats his spars. He feels bereft. A desperate ennui. He has only his lunars. He is, frankly:


Dog explicates: “Call it a blank on the mind’s map. Ideas often rush and swirl. Meaning is elusive. Biology is simpler. It is Science. Like the pudgy Vancouver’s lunacy. Observable data, measurable objects, the scientific method in a nut case. Note well that this method relies heavily (exclusively?) on facts, knowledge, the lowest rung of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Higher levels of thinking need not apply. (My my. Is this a case of the philosopher potshotting the physician? What would Dr. Johnson say? Pedantic dweebs to a man, the damnable sophists.)
Or woman,” barks Dog, grinning. (The beast, it’s genetics you know. He’s not responsible. The dog can’t help it.)
Again, Dog: “And so we come to sex. That phallic pole in the first paragraph wasn’t just for decoration, laddie boy. Copulation in all its many guises affords much grist for the mill. And often a millstone about the neck. Consider the Casual Fling. Brought many a philanderer to grief.”
Now that bit got Cap’n Van’s attention. The poor repressed soul. Had the men confined to the ship in Otaheite. For a piece of metal they might have had their pick. Can we say “mu-tin-y”.
Our Mexican friend has been left at the post. He seems to have obsessed over the symbol. He is first puzzled. Then angry. He considers the dog. He scratches his rump. “Senor Perro,” he says at last, deciding. “No fumar por favor.” And points to the sign.
Dog rolls smoke from between his canines and offers this: “What exactly does this 'casual' business mean? 'Fling' of course provides some context. But. I will abstain from copulating casually (not my problemo, he leers in an aside to the audience; all the same, sometimes my cigar is just a cigar).
A synonym if you will: occasional, careless, incidental, nonessential, indiscriminate. The antonym, please: regular, considerate, essential, formal. A sense of commitment to the latter. Little of that in the former. Good. Let us think in terms of commitment. The level of commitment in a relationship then will determine copulation rights.”
Anyone out there in a meaning-bind?
The Mexican glares at the dog; then shakes his head. He sighs. “No entiendo,” says the Mexican.
The billboard just down the road features the reclining figure of a lascivious redhead. She is selling bottled water. There comes the distant sound of a ship’s bell.
Tell me about commitment,” says Dog. “How much is enough? How do you know?”
The man on the horse trots out from behind the billboard. “I spent a lot of time worrin’ ‘bout thangs that dont exist,” he says anxiously. “Ya stick yor brand on some little doggie and she’s yors. Take on a boo-gob of misery thata way. Yes siree.”
Thanks, Dude.
Who said that? The author suggests that this is not an interactive piece and would you kindly mind your own business.
He squints off into the distance. (Not the author. Pay attention would you? The cowboy. The referent is quite clear.) “Damn, gonna rain pitchforks. Gotta get them critters out of them arroyas. Just look at them thunderheads over yonder. Why, a man I heard of got kilt dead by one of them bolts out of the blue. It’s a hard life anyways ya slice her.”
He takes off his hat and mops his brow with a forearm. He exits stage right, a slow trot. The horse lifts its tail and relieves its bowels.
The stagehands do not think this is funny. Pain is relative, one says. The misery you feel is the words you use. Perception is reality.
Who groaned? I don’t care if he did write the book, if he doesn’t like it he can lump it. Philosophers. Dweebs to a ...
Yes, well. I apologize for the redundancy.
Perception is ... (Redundancy! We've already done that? Damn it all. Enough with the foreplay. Off with the pantalones.) ... reality. As Madison Avenue knows all too well; one must sell the sizzle, not the steak. Then you can fob off some rotten hunk of horsemeat for tenderloin.
Dog winks. “Now there’s an innuendo waiting to happen.”
No bottom, cries the leadsman. Cap’n Van groans. Rain falls. The tide runs backwards.
The horse snorts and stutter-steps sideways to plant a hind hoof in the abdomen of the one who suggested that pain was relative. This fellow crumples to the ground. In extremis. The horse had no issue with relativism. ‘Horsemeat’ it found offensive. Geldings can be like that.
Dog laughs, eats smoke, triggering a coughing jag. “The infectious innuendo,” he manages.
The Mexican ambles off. “Eso es la vida,” he says cryptically. “Words like watermelon seeds.” He has grown a mustache. He is smoking the dog’s cigar.
Night falls. Cap’n Van walks on stage and scans the heavens. In vain. He sighs. He will wait. Until Hell freezes over. He is committed to getting his lunars. These overcast skies cannot last forever.
No bottom, cries the leadsman.
The casual observer suggests that Cap’n Van is nothing if not anal. Navigation is a lost art, notes the casual observer. If you are not lost, you do not need to be found. Grinding poverty precludes consideration of one’s angst. Starvation mutes dislocation. The rest of us can rely on global positioning systems. The despair we feel is the words we abuse. The good captain waits for the clammy gray fog to subside. His commitment is total. The spars of his ship thrust into the void.
Dog howls.
The mustachioed Mexican walks through some desert landscape. He approaches a cedar post carved with the abstract figures of whale of raven of wolf. The post seems as some sentinel standing alone against the immensity of space and time. A midden mound occupies the foreground. Sensuous wave lap. A shiny aluminum triangle decorates the foreshore. The Mexican stops to regard this incongruity. Delicately, he removes the cigar from his mouth. He looks left. He looks right. The sea stretches infinitely to the curved, purplish haze on the horizon. The sign reads:


The cigar explodes. The Mexican howls. Dog tosses the bathwater (as well as the baby) at the Mexican. The lascivious redhead slinks off the billboard and unscrews (dog has something to say about this turn of events, but he feels he has pushed innuendo far enough) her bottled water only to discover empty promise.
The leadsman tosses his lead. He notes the gurgling water, the ship’s acceleration, the yaw and sudden pitch, the malevolent rumble of turbulent flows. Distracted, this fellow's foot misses the cat’s head. He utters a cry of despair and follows the lead and its line to the dark depths of Seymour Narrows (50°08’ N., 125°21’W., the narrowest portion of Discovery Passage, commences about 1 mile NW of Race Point; it is nearly 2 miles long and not less than .4 mile wide. The shores on either side are high, rugged and steep-to. Expect considerable turbulence when tidal streams are running at strength. Mariners are advised to navigate the Narrows only at or near slack water.)
Let that be a lesson to one and all: When in doubt, cut some slack.
The loss of lead and line will be charged against this man’s slops. The twerp. Committed to the deep. The ship plunges on. Cap’n Van waits. The fog swirls and thickens. On and on. Waiting. Lured by the flood, she pokes her stem over the edge of the known universe, totters, timbers creaking, and falls, silently, into the abyss.
Mein Gott im Himmel. Or wherever.
And so we come to this: dog scratching fleas, fruitless pursuits, acrid cigars, flights of fancy. A boogob of misery, indeed. And I'll tell ya what I thank we all be needin', tell ya without yer askin'. Yup. We kin all be usin' a whole lot more of this:

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Purpose of Language

[I post once a week, on Mondays. The four week cycle has a format: first week, a theme is introduced; week two adds some depth with quotations; then a bit of resolution as well as a grammar tip (Dawg Sez); and finally, an excerpt from my own work (...practisin' what a peach...). At the end of the cycle, I will archive the four posts and begin anew. If you wish to be notified by email when new postings are made, add a note in a comment or send me an email.]

My last post suggested that words and language might not be quite the cat's meow. 7.5 billion people litter the planet. A vortex of plastic twice the size of Texas swirls in the Eastern Pacific. Glaciers are melting. Trump is in the White House. All is not as it should be.

That language is the culprit foisting all the various calamities upon us is, of course, quite a stretch; but that what we say and what we write has an impact seems self-evident. Words are too easily manipulated and misunderstood. Ask a teacher: "... Johnny, what part of 'sit down' didn't you understand ..."

"Consider this," I said as on the black board with yellow chalk (I like the contrast and the color better than white) I wrote: 2 + 2 = 4. "Mathematics: immutable, rigid, prescriptive." Then I wrote: too and two are homophones, and said, "Or sometimes homonyms, depends on whom ya gab mit, one begins to understand the inherent problem that language poses. Filters," I suggested, "make an apt analogy: fine meshed mosquito netting is prescriptive, more linear and logical, I might add and do: while cargo netting you kin stick yer hand through and this is where Master Po will take you though no mesh is no mess, concepts create such a muddle, ya with me or no?"

from my novel Consulting Huang Po

Where we bin left then, kiddies? Obviously, folks are having trouble communicating and should maybe oughta ferme la trap. So what value have words and language?

The argument made here is that the primary purpose of language is to entertain. This verb means to amuse, divert, interest, please and other such notions. I use 'entertain' in the sense of aesthetically and/or intellectually pleasing. To read a well written play is a pleasure and often leads to contemplation. Think Shakespeare: the groundlings in stitches while the intelligentsia in the balcony nod sagely. The key, of course, is that 'well written'. Or spoken. Or both: Was anyone entertained by the Gettysburg Address, do ya think?

'Dawg Sez' is about grammar and syntax, about the nuts and bolts of the language. Cain't fix it if'n ya don't know she's broke.

Dawg Sez: To write well, you got to know the rules. Name a game: got guys not followin' the rules and ya got yer basic chaos. Know the rules. Be clear. Be concise. Here's one to chew on:

'a' or 'an' before 'h': This puzzler is easily solved as long as you can exhale. Say the 'h' word in question. If there is an exhalation of breath (aspiration), then 'a' is the appropriate article:

a haystack

If there is no exhalation, 'an' is the appropriate article:

an hour

Easy-peasy. Hope ya learnt somethin'.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Words and Language

May 8, 2017

Words & Language

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein wrote: In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use.1 This phrase from Philosophical Investigations, published after his death in 1953, is often given as: The world we see is the words we use. Wittengenstein may or may not have written that version of his famous dictum.

The man was a piece of work: Austrian immigrant, Oxford University don, philosopher, misogynist, madman, genius. Never dull, our Ludwig. And oh so quotable. Here he is again: If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. This suggests that the world we see, is not the world a lion sees; nor is it one a bat sees. Nor a bee, a bear, a weeping willow or whathaveyou. So many realities, so little time

Words do seem to be the tool that homo sapiens use to create the phenomenon of their world. The genus homo---homo erectus, homo habilis, homo naledi, among others---evolved over a million years ago. From then until just a few thousand years ago, these folk were without language as we know it. They managed. This has significance.

The world we see is not quite the words we use. In fact, words and language, it might be argued, are nought but a veritable rat's nest; and, further, that they hinder humans far more than they help. Huang Po, a 9th century CE Chinese philosopher, Zen master, recluse, genius and teacher non-pareil suggests that words and the concepts that follow are precisely what ail us. The conceptual tails we chase are the words we misconstrue. Too many words. Entirely too many words.

Milarepa, one of Tibet's most illustrious yogis and poets, had this to say: When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.

Words and language have brought us to the current state of the world. By most any measure, things ain't goin' so good. What to do? Ask Ludwig. He'll know. Enigmatically, W responds: There are remarks that sow and remarks that reap.2


But wait; there's more: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.3


Enter Huang Po (we'll give the Master the last word, shall we? Silence is a sentiment he can get his head around): If you would spend all your time—walking, standing, sitting or lying down—learning to halt the concept-forming activities of your own mind, you could be sure of ultimately attaining Reality. Only he who restrains every vestige of empiricism and ceases to rely upon anything can become a perfectly tranquil man."4

1Ludwig Wittegenstein, Philosphical Investigations, Anscombe translation, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1958, # 43.
2Ray Monk Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin Books, 1991, p404.
3Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,

4John Blofeld, Translator: The Zen Teaching Of Huang Po, Grove Press, Inc, New York, 1958, p. 57.

Monday, May 1, 2017


May 1, 2017

A wordsmith, by definition, is a skilled user of words. This noun was coined, it seems, in the late 19th century. All wordsmiths are writers; not all writers are wordsmiths. Paradoxical? Perhaps. The internet has spawned writers who spew words at an alarming rate. Few 'bloggers' are wordsmiths. All, of course, are writers.

The grandfather of all wordsmiths goes by default to William Shakespeare. His most brilliant progeny must needs be James Joyce ('must needs be' is an archaic or rather formal adverbial phrase meaning 'necessarily'... for those who wondered). Shakespeare, of course, wrote volumes. Joyce wrote but three novels, a book of short stories, a play, and a slim book of poems. While one might read Hamlet in a day, Finnegan's Wake might occupy a lifetime (indeed, Joyce himself suggested that the perfect reader for Finnegan's Wake would be an insomniac who on finishing the book would turn to page one and start again).

Verbosity is not the sole measure of the wordsmith. 17th century Japanese poet Bashō, known primarily for his haiku, was also a consummate wordsmith. His books are a combination of prose and poetry known in Japanese as haibun, a word often translated as prose with a distinctive haiku flavor. They were simply travelogues, but exquisite examples of that genre done by a master wordsmith.

CONVERSATIONS is a weblog ('blog' is an ugly word) for wordsmiths. The site is also a vehicle to give my books (my ideas?) a hearing. I have selected a 'free' platform to begin this project. Advertising, apparently, will happen. If this becomes intolerable, I will simply stop. My goal with the weblog is to post weekly some 300 words of intelligent 'conversation' without error or inanity.

Questions, comments, and corrections are encouraged.

gaptoothed, belly full
pass clogged with snow