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Spring 2000

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Words fail me

     I ’ve been thinking a lot about language lately, thanks to visiting scholar Harry van der Hulst, whose research ranges from cognitive development, to the profusion of human tongues, to language learning by animals.

     We have also enjoyed speculation about how subsequent generations will entertain themselves. Certainly developments over this past century have proceeded swiftly: first recordings and silent movies, then radio and sound movies, then television. More recently VCRs, video disks, and computer-generated screen images have offered amusements that 25 years ago were to most of us unimaginable. If current predictions prove equally accurate, we may soon be able to sit home at any hour and select from among millions of movies or programs to watch or even join.

     I don’t know about Harry, but for me, words aren’t just my living, they’re the way I live my life. Having no ear for music or eye for art, negative mathematical sense, an appalling deficit in spatial-relations skills, and nary an inkling of ESP, I figure the right hemisphere of my brain must be essentially a disused closet, vacant and dusty, while the language-heavy left side is full to bursting (it’s a wonder I can walk down the street without listing hard to port). Except in sports, almost everything I’ve ever done, thought, or felt was done, thought, or felt verbally.

     In fact, perhaps what makes sports so fun—and so funny—is that they make my brain operate in such unaccustomed ways. To field a hot infield grounder requires a shutdown of the cerebral cortex, a flash of irrational courage, and then a skip and skitter and snatch and throw, all in a truly mindless half-second. To chase down a racquetball and thwack it catercorner while diving out of your opponent’s path is a matter of doing, not thinking; being, not reflecting; reacting, not planning. To keep a horse cantering smoothly past a flapping tarpaulin, you must ratiocinate with your rump, feel for a premonitory shiver in his belly and, immediately if not sooner, sink a little more weight into this or that part of the saddle and infuse calm confidence directly into his torso. And all of it—snatching, thwacking, riding by the seat of your pants—is so incongruous with the purely cerebral labeling, analysis, and revision by which I live the rest of my life that it makes me laugh out loud just to be doing it.

     The power of that phenomenon has not diminished over time. True, we marvel at technological advances in film and television. Yet when we walk into an old-fashioned legitimate theater and see the houselights lower, the stage lights rise, and the actors move and speak, the event remains compelling. The performers may number as few as one or as many as a hundred. The setting may be bare, the lighting stark, the special effects nil. Yet something in the pure live enactment of a story grips us, just as it did those crowds many generations ago.

     Lately, as musculoskeletal miseries have pretty much sidelined me from sports, I’ve taken up two new activities that plumb the nonverbal nooks and crannies of my brain. One is tai chi chuan—essentially a way of talking to yourself in body language. An exercise in inscrutable Taoist metaphor mixed with subtle biofeedback, tai chi requires that I shut off the mental flood of ideas, recollections, and memos that usually flows nonstop. Even then, I often struggle to tune in to my brain’s kinesthesia receptors and autonomic sensors. It’s like fishing in murky waters with your bare hands: you need to wait and be ready, alert yet relaxed, and keep a delicate grip that lets the prize shimmer and wriggle but not slip away. When my left brain barges into the process, often posing an argumentative why or what-if to my instructor, he cracks a knowing smile, meets me up on the verbal plateau to answer my challenge, and then patiently ushers me back down to the subcerebral plane where tai chi really happens. And when it comes together, even for a fleeting moment—balance, rootedness, rhythm, unity—it’s as gratifying, in its own strange way, as finishing a big writing project.

     Another nonlinguistic language I’m learning is dog training (which, by the way, is as hilarious as any sport going). You might think the most salient feature of dog training is the spoken command, but the fact is, words—even the command words—only impede the process. It’s surprising but true that most dogs will learn hand signals faster and obey them more reliably than spoken commands. Dogs can only learn so much English; you have to learn some Canine too.

     I began dog training with Elliott the standard poodle, who as a frolicsome, distractable puppy used to whirl, like the pinwheel that he was, on the end of the leash. A few keywords—sit, stay, look, heel—and more than a few tasty tidbits did soon get his attention. But then he was swamped by a torrent of blather: as we worked on the precision needed for the obedience ring, I couldn’t stifle my natural logorrhea, plying him with a running patter of “Good boy!” “Sit straight!” “Get back!” “That’s right!” Lucky for me that Elliott is bright enough to learn from tone of voice and context, because all he could do with my words was tune them out. With the help of persistent instructors (and the threat of duct tape), I’m getting better at shutting up and relying more on attitude, intention, authority, and posture—amazingly eloquent modes of expression that I’d rarely tapped before.

     Besides, when humans use words, we so often don’t mean them. And animals, like small children, have an acute perception (a vestige of some primordial ESP?) of what we mean rather than what we say. I may feel fine and talk in cheery tones, but if I’m subconsciously angry or sad or distracted, Elliott knows it better than I do. I may wish he’d stop jumping on the meter reader, and correct him with my fiercest “no,” but if one small part of me is embarrassed to make a scene or resents having to exert authority or half-enjoys his exuberance, that rings truer to him than any verbiage.

     Now I’ve begun training my newly adopted whippet (Jonathan Swift, if you must know), and I’m finding it much easier to open up the channels of nonverbal communication. As a sighthound, Jonnie has his own brain imbalances: with all his vision-processing equipment, there’s not much room left over for, well, a clue. So when I speak to him and he draws a blank, cocking his head like a small heron and staring earnestly, I’m prepared with a Plan B, a way of showing him or leading him rather than telling him. And when the connection clicks, the joy of the dog in making his human dispense a treat, and my own joy in experiencing a momentary interspecies intimacy, are so delightful for us both that we bust out grinning like monkeys. (He also wags his tail; I refrain.)

     So you can teach an old dog new tricks—even if she’s an overly verbal, linear-thinking, left-brained blabbermouth. Come, jump! Good girl. Go lie down.—SR


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