Language, Meaning, and Knowing

A Problem:

You are away from home and a stranger comes up to you and says your house is on fire.  What do you think?  What do you do?  How do you know it’s not a prank or a mistake, or that the stranger is not mentally ill or malicious? 

But what if you were across the street from your home chatting with your neighbor and a stranger comes up and says your house is on fire.  Your attention snaps back into the moment. You smell smoke; You turn around to see smoke and flames enveloping your house; You hear the crackle of the fire; You can taste the smoke; and you feel a wall of heat.  Your system is flooded with adrenalin.  You KNOW your house is on fire because you have direct experience of the natural world through sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, and experience a physiological response.

The Great Tool:

Words are tools created by human beings.  Language is the greatest of our tools; it helps us name and order the world.  Language is so useful and compelling that is it our principal medium of our thought. But words are mental constructs and not part of the external, “real,” physical world.

We can hardly do without language, but we need to cross-check our ideas against other kinds of information and other kinds of intelligence to get an accurate picture of the physical world outside our heads.

The Problem is Everywhere:

     “When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean.”
                                                                    - Lewis Carol

Perhaps the best delineation of the problems of language are set forward in Charles Dodgson’s Alice books. These books are a consideration of the great problem of reconciling Words, Ideas and Feelings with a Reality we can only know through direct experience.  These are strange books for those who think words are somehow real and consistent; they are works of fiction in which the very medium used is constantly shifting. There is no “Internal Consistency” to Alice’s fictional worlds.

Dodgson was a mathematician, and mathematics is another created language tool for measuring, counting and precisely comparing one thing with another.  But mathematicians and scientists understand this is only a tool, and are always seeking to prove/test mathematical theorems by directly confronting the real world with experiments.  Artists too, use their art to try and pin down the nature of reality; to know “What is really going on.”

The problems of trying to nail down words and make them represent an objective truth and reality is one that occupies us all.  It’s what law courts and lie detectors are made for.  From person to person there is great diversity in the use of language.  Some people chose words carefully to promote their idea of truth, other use words more directly as tools to further their personal goals or supports their illusions without regard to any objective reality.

Kinds of Intelligences:

Verbal intelligence is not the only way we explore our world.  Because they are intellectual constructs, words are only a second-best way of knowing.  We have direct contact with the world around us through our senses: vision; hearing; touch; smell; and taste.  Want the “truth” of tomato soup?  Taste it. 

We also have emotional and instinctual intelligences.  Therapists always seem to ask: “How do you feel about that?”  We don’t always listen to our feelings carefully, instead, too many of us pay more attention to verbal information about how we should feel.  Emotions evolved to help us survive: the love that binds families together promotes the welfare and happiness of all its members.  Fear makes us cautious in strange situations. 

Humans, and all animals, are born with a sort of pre-installed soft-ware called instinct.  Instinct is what makes you wary of strangers and snakes.  Instinct is what makes you freeze and hold your breath when you hear a noise in the dark. 

We can train our bodies into moving and reacting much more swiftly than if we took the time to think through each movement in words.  This is sometimes called muscle memory.  Athletes and artists learn to move smoothly, without thinking about it:  It’s easy to see in dancers, ice skaters, baseball players and in the fine control of a master draftsman.  We all do it every day when we drive a car, go for a jog, read and write – remember learning to form the letters on ruled paper? – our lives are full of physical routines we once had to learn.

Think about your dog or cat.  Animals are smart and often surprising; they have a full array of non-verbal intelligences.

Growing and Learning:

When I was a child I held two different kinds of knowledge in my head at the same time.  On one hand, I had lots of verbal information and knowledge rooted in language and on the other hand, I had a different kind of knowledge of how things worked in the real world, rooted in observation and firsthand experience.

A sharp example came in my personal theological beliefs.  I don’t believe in a literal Hell or in a Heaven, and a personal afterlife, and so on.  The literal beliefs of my church are not supported by my personal experiential beliefs and observations.  As a teenager, my experiential knowledge became more convincing than my verbal knowledge, and makes up what I now KNOW to be true.

Children quickly master language, reading and writing; they listen to parents, adults, and teachers and read educational books that explain important life lessons to them.  At the same time, they watch and experience the world around them.

Children learn many useful things through their non-verbal intelligences.  For example, they learn not to snitch.  Contrary to all official propaganda, whistleblowers and tattletales often face powerful retribution. Loyalty to family and close community is instinctual.  

Experiential knowledge is why teenagers charge adults with being hypocrites.  Children notice that adults can say one thing and do something else.  Scrupulous (or humorous) people sometimes acknowledge this by saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Children are taught rules and how to behave in an ideal world.  But grown-ups are often terrible at followings rules: there are too many exceptions.  In fact, many beloved fictional characters are rule breakers: How we love our rogues, con-men and handsome jewel thieves.

Verbal and Auditory Information - Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”:    

     Blue skies smiling at me
     Nothing but blue skies do I see.
     Blue birds singing a song
     Nothing but blue birds all day long.

     Never saw the sun shining so bright
     Never saw things going so right
     Noticing the days hurrying by
     When you’re in love, my how they fly.

The singer lives in the moment, when love is eternal for him or her, but the music underneath these happy lyrics is bittersweet.  There are “time” words in the lyrics, but they are easy to skip over.  It’s the music that reminds us that happiness, life, love, and the universe itself, are all transient.  Even the stars will die. I read once that the Emperor of Rome, during a huge triumph, surrounded with adoring crowds, had a man standing just behind his left ear whose job was to whisper, “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” 

Words and music combine in this perfect song to give us a profound insight into the nature of our existence.

Picture Books:

Good picture books are like good songs; they combine language with a direct source of physical information.  Songs combine words and music; picture books combine words and pictures.

This trying to connect physical reality with the ideas-in-words in our heads – to use all our intelligences to discover a larger world - is what I think creativity is. 

Jon Klassen’s Caldecott Medal winning “Hat” books combine verbal and visual information to form a full story.  And since what happens in these stories is not directly stated, or shown, the reader must participate by drawing his or her own conclusion.  These picture books are an excellent example of leading children – and adults – to using and trusting different ways of learning and knowing about the world. 

My goal in creating children’s picture books is to involve the whole mind of my readers beyond the limits of language.  It’s an exciting challenge!


​​​UPDATE! 06/12/2017


New Writing Project:

Children's Picture Books

I know, I know - it's sounds like I've finally lost it - and maybe I have -

But Picture Books are like songs - when you can get the music and the lyrics to blend and support each other, creating a song that trandscends both words and notes, you have a work of art that speaks to all.

Anyway, that's the plan.  But I like to understand as much as possible about what I'm doing, so I wrote out the following "Manifesto" (I just like the word) so I could be as clear as possible in my thinking.

Have been working – and Thinking Hard – since last fall and am now beginning a search for Homes for my Picture Book manuscripts.  I’m excited about sharing!

Have ready to send out:

SOCKS WITHOUT PARTNERS – Henri, a blue French Chartreux cat, has a solution to the sad problem of “orphaned” socks.  (149 words) – It cries out for illustrations in the style of Henri Matisse.

MESSAGE IN A CANDLE – Two little girls lose their mother in a traffic accident and are unable to get to the hospital in time to say good-bye to her.  Now they can’t stop crying.  (945 words)

A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT – Steve, who claims to be un-afraid of monsters, is double-dog dared to go out into the dark and stormy night by younger brother Howie.  Steve does find monsters out there…  (909 words)

THE DOG’S SCREENPLAY – The Dog decides it’s time to write his screenplay when he finds out the family is getting a cat.  It takes five drafts to get it right.  (1,046 words) – A screenplay, of course, must be illustrated with Storyboards, which illustrate the Dog’s changing perception of his relationship with the new cat.

In the works:

THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS – Who wish to be available to their people.  There’s a crocodile.  Illustrations look like ancient Egyptian frescoes.

CATS WRITE HAIKU – Four Seasons of small poems by cats – Season illustrations should be in the style of woodblock print master Hokusai, with small watercolors for individual poems.

CATS HAVING FUN – Undeveloped – Saw the phrase “Cats having fun,” and began to wonder if it was Supervised Fun, or Unsupervised Fun?  Cats may have very different ideas about what is fun than people do.

OUR CIRCUS! – Possible three book set – now that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has closed, how will kids get to see a real circus, with animals?  And Sideshows and a big Circus parade?  I guess they’ll just have to put on their own.Type your paragraph here.

Pictures from Costume College 2015                                                                                    9/23/15

Left - 1918 Dress for the Tea

Right -Me as Norma Desmond from film SUNSET BLVD. on Gala Red Carpet