Quiet While I Drill Your Head

In the dentist’s chair this morning.  Hayakawa in my lap.  Getting
x-rayed, poked, scraped, polished, flossed.  Sprayed, vacuum-sucked. 
Shined by the brightest light ever put to me.  Hovered over by a masked
agent of the dental conspirators.  "Open wide.  Turn your head to
your right."  

I brush twice each day, floss once.  Tooth Invaders was one of the first
video games I ever owned; J. and me up late on the C64 with black and white TV,
scrubbing bacteria. Tooth brushing is ritual.  But in the dentist’s
chair-cranked-back, my mouth takes to bleeding.  Things a coherent, sober
person wouldn’t allow anyone to do: sharp metal prod to bare gums,
touched.  It was awful.  It is always, time after time,
awful.  Still, I return.

Why Hayakawa (Language in Thought and Action)? Haven’t read it before.
Quite a mix in the selected bibliography. Couple of interesting sections (though
brief) on maps, extensional world as territory, and also on the levels of
abstraction with a drawing of the ladder.  When the dental assistant
finished grinding my teeth, I picked up the book again, started reading where
I’d left off fifteen minutes earlier:

No matter how beautiful a map may be, it is useless to a traveler unless it
accurately shows the relationship of places to each other, the structure of
the territory.  If we draw, for example, a big dent in the outline of a
lake for artistic reasons, the map is worthless.  If we are just drawing
maps for fun, without paying any attention to the structure of the region,
there is nothing in the world to prevent us from putting in all the extra
curlicues and twists we want in the lakes, rivers, and roads. No harm will be
done unless someone tries to plan a trip by such a map. [emphasis in

I was thinking back to the C’s in Denver, to a talk I attended on the
importance of conceptualizing standard in battlefield terms, thinking
about normalcy as proximate to a commanding power-presence.  I can’t
remember whose it was; seems like Peter Elbow was on the panel.  The premise
involved the idea that the location of the standard shared by the locus of power (never mind
body doubles) and the relative protection, battle strength and safety diminished
incrementally proximate to the standard waving high, symbolizing a center

The dentist is ready. *enters the dentist*

Dentist: What are you reading?
Patient: *tilts the book*
Dentist: Language in Thought and Action.  Hmm. Open your cakehole,

/I’m not a fast learner, turns out.  I used to bring books to this same
dentist.  Once it was Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Another time: Mina P. Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work.  And the last
time I carried a book into this dentist’s shop: Graham Swift, Waterland
Then I quit bringing books for a while.  The fifteen minutes of reading
wasn’t worth the event (getting to the event part).  No need to
carry a book when I could grab a magazine from the waiting room. 
Something easy, something requiring less explanation.  Entertainment
, People.  I stopped bringing books to the dentist because
the question always came, "What are you reading?" and, "So what’s
it about?".  Five seconds to answer before a gloved hand fiddles
mercilessly with my teeth./

Dentist: So what’s it about?

The good reasons for not carrying a book to the dentist’s workspace rushed
back today when, before I could answer, I had a mouthful of busy fingers,
instrument-bearing digits.  And they were doing the work that had already
been done minutes earlier–a more qualified poking, a more detailed telling,
"eighteen’s okay, nineteen’s a belted crown, twenty’s a composite,
twenty-one’s okay."  But before that, before my dentist did the part I
bargained for, the tooth-by-tooth evaluation, the count and description, she
told me that I didn’t need to read Hayakawa because all language is
(am I still alive?) and words mean differently to everyone,
especially in such a diverse country.  When will I get my voice back?

Maybe the dentist is right. Or maybe she meant that I didn’t need to read
in her office
.  I never was able to offer much of a five-second review on
Winterson, Maher, or Swift, either.  And maybe Hayakawa’s not what I should be
reading.  It’s just so nicely safeguarded by my naivete.  I haven’t
read anything about this book; I knew nothing about it when I picked it
up.  Instruments were working before I could say, "I’m not far into it
yet, but it’s a kind of simplified and illustrated on semiotics.  Might be
able to find a few teachable bits in it.  And it doesn’t feel like a lot of
work to read right now, which is why I’ve carried it into your

The highlight of the visit came when the dentist ground away a few contact
points on one irritated cap (crown?) on the lower left.  I haven’t chewed
painlessly on the left side in six months; this was the third attempt to correct
the bite.  "Bite down and grind." Fortunate for the dentist and
for me that I understood her instructions, that I didn’t carry them out while
her fingers were dangling next to my chompers.  Fortunate, too, that I
admire the dexterity of the dentist to use power instruments in my mouth, to bring
smoky, screeching industry into such delicate human quarters.


  1. Just to gloss your recollection of the Denver panel. I put that panel together as one of the dozen featured sessions at CCCC that year. The title was “The Future of College Composition: Impacts of Alternative Discourses on Standard English.” The panelists were Patricia Bizzell, Peter Elbow, Jacqueline JJones-Royster, and Victor Villanueva (but Victor was ill and couldn’t make the conference). Lynn Quitman Troyka chaired the session. It was my “blockbuster” feature and drew the largest audience of any session in Denver. Lots of people liked it, but I also got complaints from those who felt sessions like that draw audience away from the other sessions of lesser known presenters. It’s a good point, but I still think one session which a large portion of the conference attendees decide to attend and share an experience is a good idea.

    As for Hayakawa, his book was really hot stuff when I started teaching in California in 1965. Several colleagues used it and I even had one colleague who could tell gossipy stories about Hayakawa, who taught at San Francisco State (and was later named president by Ronald Reagan).
    There are some nice exercises in the book, but my linguistics training quickly had me seeing Hayakawa as “semantics lite.” In my early teaching, I often used his General Semantics ideas as a foil. So it was fun to see you come at the book all these years later without any of that baggage.

  2. I appreciate your perspective on the Denver session and on Hayakawa, John. I thought it was Jones-Royster’s talk, but I didn’t want to guess, and I couldn’t find anything about it online. God only knows where my notes are. I can’t even remember whether I kept any; there was standing room only. Some sat on the carpet in the back of the room, but they couldn’t see the speakers. I haven’t been to C’s in a few years (as I sort it out in my memory just now, I guess Denver was the last time I boarded the mother ship). But I’ve played Jones-Royster’s talk over more than a time or two; the term ‘standard’ would never be the same for me, and I often borrow her analogy when I bring up standards in FY comp. I’d never think of complaining that a panel of “big names” was on the schedule. But then again I’ve never been too terribly systematic about which panels I attended. As an MA student, I didn’t feel any pressure to chase my research interests; they were everywhere. I lucked into some surprisingly rich talks and soured through some sleepers. But I felt good about not needing reasons to choose a session because of its well-known names or because of its area of focus. There wasn’t much preformulation needed. A small group of MA students from my institution (then UMKC) would attend, and we were close. It was easy to share notes and spin out five-minute reviews over a beer. That was the most rewarding part of the conference–bringing it back to my peers and sharing our wonder about it all.

    Indeed, Hayakawa seems like “semantics lite.” I’m looking at the fifth edition; it’s not easy to tell which sections of the book have evolved. I’m intrigued because it’s depicted as a popular text (over one million copies sold! on the cover). When I finish it (which shouldn’t be long from now), I ought to send a copy to my dentist. For the eternity that was yesterday’s check-up, she had a lot to say about language that didn’t jibe with Hayakawa or me. As I read, I’m constantly thinking about my teaching, even wondering about Keith Rhodes’ recent suggestion on the WPA-L listserv that an introduction to language (er, “semantics lite,” maybe) survey would be a worthwhile fixture in the FY undergraduate curriculum–along with the comp sequence and whatever else, like College Algebra, I suppose.

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