Fun facts

Sometimes when I try to say pharmacy I stutter. If I say farm I don’t stutter. My wife asks if I can say pharmacy if it’s spelled with an F. Farmacy I say. And if it’s spelled with a Ph? I stammered. So you don’t have a problem if it’s misspelled with an F? Apparently not. I can say farm no problem, but if I use a Ph I can feel an electric current buzzing in my jaw. You’re such a big spazz she says.

Phun phacts.


Word salad

I can’t read aloud anymore. A sentence, maybe another with brief stammers, then bam, word salad. That’s new, the word salad. Rather puts a damper on my plans of readings. Visions of readings, really, of muscular prose in dulcet radio tones, the phonemes like individual notes, words like chords, narratives as melody, rhythms rhythm, syncopating punctuation. Language is music and music is language. They run audibly through my head, these words, but stumble in the mouth. The jaw goes out of whack, electrons buzz like faulty wiring, the synapses synapsing all wrong, I can feel their confusion like low current electricity for an hour afterward, can feel it now, in fact, the jaw twitching. An epileptic’s life is an endless series of surprises at random times. new symptoms appearing instantly, new disabilities. All we can do is shrug them off. So I read these words knowing they’ll never be uttered aloud, not by me. I shrug. Whatever. Oh well. Damn.

How it differs from the rocks.


I suppose it’s the writer in me but I doubt many of you find yourself tweaking old Facebook posts that no one has looked at in months nor will ever look at again. Though whether anyone actually reads anything is not the point, it’s the shape and dimensions of the language. It is always a little unnerving for me when someone comes up and talks to me about something I wrote, as if what I wrote actually existed in the real world, instead of inside the brain where language is, sort of mind’s eye visible, sort of tactile, as if you could feel it in your nerve-rich finger tips, or sort of beyond the senses, just words representing non-verbal knowledge, bits of information, patterns of neurons, the electro chemical energy that sparks thought, that is thought, that is beneath thought even, that is awareness, if even that, what links us to slime molds and not to stones. How it differs from the rocks.

Verbs not adjectives

[This was an email from 2010 that attempted to explain what I had drunkenly been describing to a friend at one of our parties. I failed. But she was terribly nice about it. I found the email later, turned it into a blog post. Then I realized I hadn’t discussed metaphors at all–which I always advise to use sparingly because the reading brain tends to trip over them–and worse yet, couldn’t discuss them. So I decided to do more reading up on metaphors. Now, reading this again, I don’t see why I thought this piece failed, as it works fine without the metaphor discussion. Whatever. This is what happens when college drop outs try to think like smart people.]

Ya know, L., I just remembered we were talking at that party about my verbs-instead-of-adjectives thing. Here’s the LA Weekly piece I was describing:

Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.*

How that piece happened was I asked to do a pick on an upcoming Herman Riley gig at Charlie O’s. He was one of the great tenor saxophonists and yet a virtual unknown. I called him up for a few comments before writing. He spilled for a half hour, his whole life. It was overwhelming. I didn’t dare cut him off. He was one of my heroes. So I just dashed off some notes and then pulled them together. I had 200 words, tops, to work with.  I probably had 400 words first draft. Kept winnowing. Reducing.  Down to the verbs. It’s nearly all verbs, action. I had a real good friend at work I used to instant message all the time, and I became fascinated with how language was used in our messages. By how brief a message could be if reduced to the verbs, and how much of an impact it would have. It could be quite visceral. I was doing a lot of heavy thinking about neurolinguistics then, how language works mechanically in the brain. It seemed to me that action was much more effective than description, and could get across the same info. Furthermore, when you used verbs instead of actions, the brain—by means of mirror neurons—automatically pictures what is being described without any necessary descriptive context—it somehow fills all that  in. That means that virtually no description is needed beyond bare hints. I never say where it is I am seeing him play here, even though that is based upon an actual event (a Charlie O’s gig I had just seen.) But even so, invariably the response from readers was “I felt like I was there”. Where exactly? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the action.

The brain is more powerfully affected by action than anything else in language. It sees something or even reads about something and the exact same neurons that are used to actually perform the action are stimulated. I just picked up a glass of water. In your mind the exact same neurons that you would use to pick up a glass of water fired off as if they were picking up a glass of water and not me writing that I had. No matter…whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, the effect is the same. And that is why narratives that are based on action instead of description, that describe movement, things take place in time, are so powerful. **

That being said, you have to think about perspective, and not from the point of view of the writer but of the reader. I believe it works this way: if you describe something in first person the reader’s mind has to visualize the action, then interpret it into you taking the action, and then interpreting that action as if they were doing it themselves, and then imagining you doing so, etc, etc. That’s a lot of steps. Third person works the same way pretty much.  Second person, in English, anyway, is impossible to pull off—you do this, you do that, etc. Very cumbersome. Our language is not grammatically designed to pull that off easily (but that’s another lecture….) So I use an implied second person. Everything I do is first person, but I remove myself (by not using the first person pronoun much) and let the reader get the feeling that it is actually he that is doing/seeing/hearing what I describe. Again, this shortens the steps necessary for the brain to interpret what it is reading into understanding.  I’ve noticed that the fewer steps required the faster the language is retrieved by the brain and the more powerful the impact. And good writing is all about impact. You want to move people, you have to increase the visceral impact of the prose. And to do that you need to think about how it is that the brain turns the words you right into thoughts it can visualize. It’s verbs, baby.

The brain is designed for verbs. It sees in verbs. It has instantaneous perception in verbs. Adjectives take extra thinking. You don’t want extra thinking. You want your words to turn themselves into those units of perception that lay beneath language, that existed before language, and you want that process to occur as quickly as possible. Think of porn. The sexual excitement people get viewing it is not literary. It’s older than that. As is love. And just about anything else important. I mean the hell with language. You have to get beneath it. You have to aim for the centers beyond the brain’s language centers, because that is where the feeling is. That is where you move people. And the most direct way to get there is action, verbs.

It interesting to note that vision was initially a matter of detecting motion, indeed a matter of detecting the change in light. If a primitive animal was hiding and suddenly all was light, it meant something might have exposed it in order to eat it. Or if the light suddenly changed to dark, it meant something blocking the light might be there to eat it. This implies movement. Go forward half a billion years or so and amphibians detect movement and not much else. You can see this in a frog to this day. A fly sits on a leave three inches from the frog, the frog can’t see it.  The fly takes flight and zap, it’s the frog’s lunch. Reptiles can see more than amphibians. Mammals more still ***. But the fundamental basis of recognition remains movement.

Adjectives reflect a much more sophisticated vision and awareness of what is being seen. Adjectives require observation and analysis. There is no equivalent of mirror neurons for the kind of information adjectives describe. You watch a tennis player serve the ball, the mirror neurons fire in exactly the same way in your brain as they do in the tennis player’s brain even though you are not actually moving. They reflect the motion. But the neurons that fire to let you know that you are seeing a tennis player with red hair, a blue shirt and a green tennis ball, they do not fire in the same way the tennis player’s does. The only automatic understanding of what you see is the parts of the brain that detect motion, that is action. Those have been firing off in brains for hundreds of millions of years. They are part of the fundamental infrastructure of the brain, much as the hypothalamus deep in the temporal lobe controls the fundamental 4 F’s (feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating) of human and mammalian behavior, and reptilian and amphibian and fish behavior****. That is, going back over half a billion years (though way back when it was not necessarily a hypothalamus per se in other animals, I believe, but the things that evolved into our own hypothalamus). Mirror neurons are also an ancient part of the brain. Information relayed through mirror neurons is understood instantly by the brain. Whatever you write that fires them off will be much more quickly and powerfully–indeed viscerally–responded to by the reader. In fact, you have only to give the absolute barest amount of descriptive detail, since the brain seems to automatically fill that in. If you say you walk into a room and sit in a chair, the reader’s brain automatically seems to provide all the details it needs to understand the scene. The reader gets that “it feels like I’m there” feeling. And nothing gets a response from readers more than prose that makes them feel as if they are part of the action. Makes them feel they are the one actually walking into the room and sitting in a chair. Or sitting in a bar and seeing and hearing a saxophone player.

Plus you should spell good.


Notes: Continue reading


Damn Lamictal woke me up again. That’s the epilepsy med that increases testosterone, and apparently gnarly dudes don’t sleep. The other seizure med I take, carbamazepine, just makes me stutter incoherently on occasion. The stutter used to be really bad. The side effect of the carbamazepine combined with speech problems caused by the epilepsy itself and I’d get stuck on sounds and couldn’t say them no matter what happened. The voiceless “th” sound–as is thistle–would invariably trip me up and I’d be th-th-th-th-th-th-th-th….sounding like a leaking air compressor. The ladies thought it was the most darling thing ever, the big giant macho dude with the cutest stutter. I’d turn red with frustration and embarrassment. That’s ok, they’d invariably say. Then they said awwww. God I hated those awwwws. But women could also invariably understand what I was trying to say. It would sound like gibberish even to me, yet they could understand it. I assumed it was the baby talk instinct, and I was just some big dude making baby talk. They’d smile. Awwww.

The reactions of the guys at work were funnier. I don’t know if it was the extra testosterone or what, but most of them would be really meek around me. Hesitant. A tad obsequious. Not all, and certainly not the alpha males. Just the nebbish types, who, in an office, is an awful lot of them. I was the big gnarly dude in the office. But when I started stammering  they couldn’t figure it out at all. Men can’t speak baby talk. To us a goo goo is a goo goo. A stammer just gibberish. They’d come up to me in the hallway with just the hint of a kowtow and say something friendly. I’d look down at them and start stammering. They’d freeze. Their expressions were priceless. They had no idea what I was trying to say, but it probably meant I was going to hurt them. They’d scurry off to the safety of their cubicles. Awwww.

The limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world.

A friend said something beautiful. The limits of one’s language, he wrote, are the limits of one’s world. My friend, an old punk rocker like me, had of late revealed a gift for poetry hidden in prose. Deep stuff, beautifully written. Even something so dry and philosophical in another’s hands came out with a lilt, a tinge of sophistication. The words spill out like a melody. How the limits of our language are the limits of our world.

But I dunno. That seems too limiting. I think that sometimes those bent towards language over estimate its importance. Here’s why:

You see, our brains get most of their information without language at all–via sight, mostly, but also hearing, smell, touch, taste, not to mention balance, motion, memory, time, pheromones, etc….it’s not our world that is limited by our facility with language, but our ability to put much of that into words. Language is maybe 100,000 or 200,000 years old, but sensory perception is a billion years old, so the vast majority of how we perceive the world cannot even be described in words because it was created so long before we began using language…and most of it we are unaware of anyway. These are awarenesses (to coin an ugly plural) that happen without us even knowing they’re occurring. Most of what makes us aware we don’t even realize is operating. We don’t know in the same way a deer doesn’t know, or a lizard, or a fish. Or even an invertebrate…some of whose sensory perceptions extend far back, long before the first hint of a backbone–then a boneless column we call a notochord, still found in lampreys and lungfish–ever evolved.

Light, for instance….far back in the Precambrian ancient animals reacted to light and dark. We still do. People in polar zones become depressed during the winter when the sun scarcely rises above the horizon. They are wrapped in darkness 23 hours of the day, and depression steps in, and they sit, morose and miserable, in their overheated cabins longing for sunlight and perhaps not even knowing it. The roots of that go back a billion years, long before eyes existed. We bask in the light of the sun and don’t even realize just how primal that is. It is fundamental to who we are, this profoundly binary sense of light versus dark. Try describing that feeling without relying on scientific concepts (as I just had to do there). Try describing that feeling in the first person without explaining it. Just describe how it feels and what is happening to you. You can’t. It’s something that exists not only without language, but without consciousness at all. We simply don’t think about, nor can we explain it in language. Language doesn’t realize it’s there. It is an awareness beyond language, a perception beneath what we would consider a conscious perception.

Notice I didn’t even mention writing. Here’s why….writing is maybe 5,000 years old, written story telling (The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example) maybe three thousand years plus a few. So we can so far only put a tiny percentage of language into writing. It’s still more a technology than an instinct. We learn to write. Language is built in, and we begin to speak at a certain age. Writing is so new that in brain terms it is almost inconsequential. We write after someone shows us how to.

So I don’t think that the limits of one’s world are the limits of one’s language, because language barely scrapes the surface how we perceive the world….since almost all of it is done without language at all.

I think the more you write the more limited the language you write with seems…in can be really frustrating seeing something that you can’t actually describe…and describing sound is even harder. Music is virtually impossible to describe, because writing is a visual thing–you describe what you see–and not a hearing thing. And this is just scratching the surface. We are very profoundly driven by  pheromones and yet we aren’t even aware of it.  Pheromones work below the level of consciousness–they evolved long before consciousness did–and so we are not actually aware of just how much of what we are is pheromone driven. Which means we can’t even write–let alone talk–about experiencing them. We can’t describe how pheromones are making us act, and yet they affect almost everything we do. That is very much our world, but how do we write about it when we don’t even know what is happening? It’s like theoretical physicists postulating all kinds of dimensions of universes existing at the same time, and that we live in all of them simultaneously, but we don’t know it. Those are hypothetical constructs, though. But we actually do live within multiple sensory dimensions, but we are only consciously aware of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. When you realize that pheromones have vastly more impact on us than does taste or smell (as in olfactory smell–pheromones are “smelled” differently), and yet we cannot even tell what they do, that’s when you realize the problem with language. It barely scratches the surface of who we are and what the world is around us. Our brain and body responds to far more sensory information than we are consciously aware of.

Your brain on homonyms

I know very well [posted a friend of mine], really by instinct, the proper placement of apostrophes and other punctuation and the usage of words like “there, their, they’re”, “you your you’re” and so on and yet I get to typing so fast that my brain is constantly pulling the wrong one out of my hat. I get so embarrassed when I discover these mistakes later.

I love when that happens, actually, because I think it shows so much about the brain and language.

This is how I think that happens: we type by listening to the inner voice speaking in our heads…language was strictly spoken for a hundred or so thousand years before we began reading it, and very few people at all were reading and writing it until the last century or two. And typing was not invented till 150 years ago. When we direct our fingers to type we are actually listening to the narrative voice running through our heads, and then some center of the brain in turn directs the actions of our fingers to type what it is “hearing”…an impressive task, as typing is something much more complex than writing with a pen or pencil (or with a stylus on a mud tablet as they did when writing was brand new). We sort of type the way a pianist plays, hearing the music in his head and then coordinating his hands and fingers to play it. Of course, in music you can harmonize so you can use all the fingers, but writing has no harmonies (unfortunately) so its more like playing trumpet, one note on a trumpet equals one letter on a keyboard. (Both language and speech are more like playing the trumpet, too, but that’s another essay). So our typing fingers hear the sounds of the words and not see them. There, their and they’re can be placed interchangeably by our undiscriminating fingers as they are homonyms (though perhaps not in all dialects.) Some people could make the same mistake with merry, marry and Mary, though in my regionally accented ears the three sound like different words, unlike there, their and they’re. It doesn’t always happen, perhaps it’s a matter of context or syntax that enables our typing fingers to figure out the correct homonym. Sometimes, though, they mess up, and probably more than we realize because we catch ourselves making the mistake as we type. But we don’t always so quite often a homonym (i.e., words that sound alike but have different spellings) have to be scene–that is read–and not heard–that is written–to be corrected. And I notice now that I typed scene instead of seen, proving my point. Ha!

Basically, we are typing by dictating to ourselves. We hear but don’t see the words…and if we DO see the words it immediately breaks up our train of thought as reading and writing are two completely separate processes in the brain and we can’t do both simultaneously. So those their/they’re/there’s will keep popping up and their/they’re/there’s not much we can do about it except proofread–and even then if you proofread too soon your brain still has the short term memory of “hearing” what you wrote and your eyes will not always catch the mistake. Sometimes, if writing a story, it’s good to let the draft sit for an hour before proofing it, by which time that short term memory will be gone and you are actually reading what you wrote and not remembering what you narrated.

I also typed are as our….making at least two that made it past two drafts (and spell check) before I noticed them. In a digital format it’s no big deal. But years ago, when they got past me, spellcheck, my editor and at least one copy editor to wind up fast and permanent on paper in my jazz column in the LA Weekly, I would invariably be admonished by readers. You should really learn how to write, somebody would say. Usually from the safety of an email, but sometimes in person, at a jazz club, if they were drunk enough. You should learn how to write, they’d say, then totter off.