Category Archives: secret code

Bronx Cheer


When my father got back from the Korean War and we moved to New York, I was 5 [and my sister was 6]. In what would be called these days, an effort to “bond” with us, he made up for 3 years of lost parenting time by teaching us to play chess and cribbage, and to use a logarithmic slide rule. [Look it up, you Young Ones; and keep the Internet handy, cuz more historical references will follow.] We also got into [radio broadcasts of] baseball. My mother & sister [both Cleveland natives] were Indians fans, while Rosie & I were all about the Brooklyn Dodgers. My enthusiasm outstripped my accuracy, as I raced around the apartment shouting, “Come quick! It’s ‘Dike Snooder’ at bat!” [Also a big fan of “Pee Wee Weese,” I was.] Our parents were fairly ecumenical about whom we could support: Anyone but the Yankees.

My father’s motto was: “Rooting for the Yankees is like hoping for King Faroukh to win at roulette.” At the time Rosie coined this bon mot, the penultimate King of Egypt [aka “The Thief of Cairo”] was reckoned to be the world’s richest man, yet notorious for pilfering valuable artifacts from other heads of state whom he visited [including Winston Churchill]. Thus, our contempt for the Yankees was based, even in the 50s, on the egregiously “uneven playing field” that overpayment of their players created. Baseball, after all, was supposed to be a metaphor for the American Dream: a meritocracy, not a plutocracy.

When we moved to the UK, and the British tried to label me a “Yank[ee],” I would [rather cryptically] respond, “How dare you! I was always a Dodgers fan, until dey left Brooklyn, da bums!” The only part of this they grasped was “bums,” which was rather a rude word for a 12-year-old girl to be using, in those days. When I went to Duke, and a “Magnolia Honey” would remark, “Whah, you mus’ be a Yankee!” I would give her the same retort, leaving her baffled, as well. Ah, the power of the Poetic Speech function! Keeps ’em guessing.

So, anyway, why do we sports fans [even those of us who don’t have a wager on the outcome], get so worked up when our team loses? The Manifest reason is, “Cuz we was robbed!” [The umpire was sight-challenged or corrupt. Add your own conspiracy theory here.] But the Latent reason [as in, “What gets up our nose” about the loss] is often humiliation as the victors litter Broadway with mountains of “ticker tape” [which long-forsaken paper product is as passe as the slide rule]; but also the intrusion of Farouhk-like wealth on one side, to “buy” the outcome. [A casual glance at the jubilant NYTimes headlines this week might have you wondering, were they talking sports or politics?]

There’s nothing more infuriating than a fixed contest [especially when it doesn’t go in your favor]. Rosie always used to stomp around the house in mock indignation while watching the Miss Universe Pageant. “It’s all rigged, I tell you! It always goes to an Earthling!” [Talk about da bums…]

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Filed under aggression happens, power subtext, secret code, sharks and jets

"Your eyelids are getting heavy…"


First the boring scientific stuff. When we are wide awake, our brain is emitting Beta waves (14 to 100 hz). When we are fast asleep, Delta waves (< 4 hz) are produced. Theta waves(4 to 8 hz) combine external stimuli with internal mental images—creating Boogeymen and other monsters under the bed. But the most wonderful, useful state of mind is available when the brain puts out Alpha waves (8 to 13 hz).

This is variously referred to as “enchantment,” “hypnotic trance,” “meditation,” or (especially when playing sports) “being in the zone.” As those who work with sports psychologists will attest, being in Alpha during a tennis match (or a baseball game) seems to slow the ball down, making it much easier to hit. Everyone who has taken a car journey has been in Alpha, even the person driving! (It’s sometimes called “white-line fever,” since the repetitive dotted white lines on the highway can “entrance” a person, until the sign for his exit appears; and he jolts back into Beta, wondering “Have I been asleep at the wheel?”) Fortunately, the answer is usually “no, unless you were also intoxicated or exhausted.” One thing to notice, is that when a car swoops in front of you, requiring you to brake, you are able to do so; but often with a slight feeling of vertigo. Abrupt switches between brainwave frequencies [states of consciousness] can cause that, so when you are “going into Alpha” on purpose, it’s a good idea to plan enough time for a gradual transition back to Beta.

Back in the (surprisingly cool) 70s, the Navy sent me and my 4 fellow Clinical Psychologists @ USNA on a course to learn how to do “medical hypnosis” (as opposed to “Stage Hypnosis,” in which volunteers from the audience end up quacking like a duck). The thought was, it would be good to teach Midshipmen how to manage test anxiety, cope with pain, and…well…play sports better. In the required Intro Psych course, most of us did a little class demonstration, using a volunteer subject (for absolutely no extra credit), but inviting the skeptics in the back of the room to follow along with the suggested steps for inducing a trance. Inevitably, while the volunteer subject was able to “feel” the loft of a (pretend) helium balloon “tied” to his wrist, and let his arm float up a few inches, there was at least one Mid in the back, practically levitating off the floor, who became the most enthusiastic convert to the powers of Alpha.

When I was back @ USNA in the new millennium (as a humble civil servant), my favorite two days of each year were I-Day and I-Day-Minus-One (when roughly 1000 Young Ones were shorn, accoutered, and given a physical which included comprehensive blood work). There was usually about a 1 in 10 “hard stick” rate (as our team of phlebotomists called it), where the kid either keeled over in mid-blood-draw, or no viable vein could be found from a sitting position. Their code phrase to me was, “Doc, this one needs to go to the beach,” at which point the candidate was escorted to one of several cots, and I did my 2-minute send-you-to-the-beach trance-induction patter. In less hurried circumstances, I usually let the subject pre-select a “happy place” destination, towards which the slowed-down breathing, progressive muscle-relaxation, and “smooth descent on an escalator” leads. These kids had joined the Navy. Their choices about most things were going to be restricted in a few hours (once they were sworn in), so they all “went to the beach.” Once there, they “lay under a palm tree, with one arm out of the shade, in direct sunlight.” And, lo, the veins of the “sunlit” arm would swell up like ropes. Occasionally, the phlebotomist would need to finish the draw from the other arm; and so the first arm would be “put in the shade,” while the other would “get some sun.” Magic! The veins in the second arm would engorge.

Individuals vary as to their ability to achieve trance “on demand,” like that, although being highly motivated obviously helps. Many researchers contend that purposely “going into Alpha” is a uniquely human skill; but I doubt it. “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan talks about the “migration mode,” in which a pack of dogs can travel great distances, following the Alpha dog, expending the least amount of physical and emotional energy–just trusting the leader to walk point for them. I say that’s purposely “going into Alpha (wave, not power position).”

I also say, get yourself an entrancing book, or CD, or zen master that you trust–that you would be willing to follow–and let yourself be guided into Alpha. It only takes one “guided tour,” before you can get back there by yourself, whenever you want.

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Filed under altered states, leading a pack, pain reduction, secret code

Glienicke Breucke: "Bridge of Spies"


Hands up, if you remember the Cold War…or have read any spy novels by John Le Carre or Len Deighton…or maybe saw the movie Funeral in Berlin, starring Michael Caine. In fact and fiction, the little bridge, spanning the Havel River between Potsdam & Berlin, has been the venue for several spy swaps between the Soviet Union and the US, under cloak of darkness. First, Gary Powers, the downed U-2 pilot [no, not part of the Irish band, you Young Ones], in 1962. [Followed by the fictional “Harry Palmer” in 1966.] Then in 1985 the US got back 23 agents in exchange for 4 Soviet agents [such a deal!]; and finally, a 4 (of ours) for 5 (of theirs) swap in 1986.

If you keep in mind that these exchanges happened at night, between warring factions, the metaphor I’m about to lay on you will work better. As a Young One, myself, in the UK of 1960, I used to fall asleep listening to Radio Luxembourg play the latest English & American hit tunes…only to wake up with a shriek @ midnight, when the station switched over to broadcasting Voice of America “information,” only to be promptly and cacophonously jammed by transmitters in the USSR. What a racket! What a rude awakening! What an apt analogy for Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams!

Initially, he thought the purpose of dreams was two-fold. They serve to preserve sleep. C’mon, admit it. Have you never concocted an elaborate dream which “accounts” for the sound of your alarm clock, transforming it into something else entirely, just to allow you a bit more shut-eye? Secondly [pace Walt Disney], Freud opined that “A dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep.” His example of this is the sad story of a man whose child has died, for whom he is now sitting shivah. He falls asleep and dreams that he and his child are walking together through a field, with the warm sun beating down on them…until finally, the smell of burning cloth intrudes on his reverie, and he wakes up, to discover that a candle has fallen over onto the dead child’s bedding and set it on fire. While it lasted, this Restoration dream fulfilled the wish that his child had not died; and, for a time, it “accounted” for the heat & light of the fire [transforming it into a sunny day], thereby postponing the mourning father’s rude awakening.

“Oh, really?” said the skeptics of his time, “Do you mean to tell me that the nightmare I had last night was a wish?” Stand by for a large loophole. The language of dreams is Primary Process (more of an Indie film than a conventional Disney narrative); and the way you express “not” in a dream is to begin a scene and then “yell ‘Cut!'” before its logical conclusion. Always? Not always. Just when the dream makes more sense as a wish, with a “not” thrown in.

Enough quibbling, already. Let’s cut to the chase [scene]. There is an “Iron Curtain” between the Unconscious [where dreams are produced] and the Conscious [where they are shown, shared with friends, underappreaciated…]. Like the Soviets who jammed the Voice of America signal, there is (in most individuals) an intra-psychic “censor,” whose job it is to filter, spin, and otherwise obfuscate the message from the Unconscious. How come? Because the censor thinks “The Conscious can’t handle the truth!” Maybe the truth is inconvenient to the current regime. It might incite the dreamer to challenge the status quo, rock the boat, do something wild & crazy. The more “buttoned-down” an individual, the more powerful his censor is; and fewer of his dreams make it across the Glienicke bridge.

Here’s where the “tradecraft”–the cloak & dagger passing of secrets, as described in the novels of le Carre & Deighton–comes in. The message has a better chance of slipping past the censor if it is encrypted. Freud described two common forms of encryption: displacement & condensation. In dreams, actors rarely appear as themselves [except, like Hitchcock, for brief cameos]. So where do the characters come from? And, for that matter, where do the plotlines come from? Often, from current events, mass media, and the dreamer’s daily routine. Freud called this Day Residue. In his dream decoding algorithm, Day Residue is “subtracted” from the Manifest Content of the dream; and the remaining images (especially the odd ones) are assumed to be displacements or condensations of two (or more) images, which need to be deconstructed, for the dream’s Latent Content to be discovered. Got all that?

Let’s use a dream I had in graduate school, to practice decryption. “I have just come out of the 72nd Street subway station and am waiting to cross to the East, but there is traffic from both Broadway & Amsterdam Avenue. I don’t have time to wait for a ‘walk’ sign, so I intend to jay-walk, when there is a lull in traffic. Here comes a furry limousine, moving very slowly. I could definitely dart across in front of it…but I feel the need to reach out and touch it as it passes by.”

Day residue: That’s my real-life subway stop, my etoile of streets to cross, and my typical late-for-a-very-important-date mindset. What’s left, if we take that away?

Odd image: “Furry limousine, moving very slowly.” My free association: “Looked like a Cadillac. Hate them! Make me carsick. Grandparents always drove them. Why furry? This is Springtime. Who wears fur in the Spring? My maternal grandmother wears those weasels biting each other around her neck, even in mild weather. Why moving slowly? Like a hearse? ‘Reach out, reach out and touch someone’ is the current jingle for Bell long distance telephone.”

Latent content: I wish to call my grandmother, before she dies.

“BFD!” I hear you say. But, for complex tribal and power subtext reasons, I had been estranged from my grandmother for about 5 years. Still, having deconstructed a possible meaning for the dream, I went ahead and enacted the “latent wish,” and called her. [She mistook me for my sister, and mentioned she was feeling her end was nye; but when she realized she was talking to me, she back-peddled and hung up.] And, verily, she died later that week. No, I didn’t cause her death, or even really predict it. [She was in her 80s, after all.] I did allow a coded message from my Unconscious to affect my behavior regarding her; and I am very grateful that I did.

Next time you remember one of your dreams, why not see if you can decode it? You are not obliged to enact every “wish your heart makes”; but dreamwork (like wolf-work) often provides valuable “inside information,” to those brave enough to undertake it.

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Filed under altered states, Freud meant..., power subtext, secret code, semiotics

You Bet Your Life


One summer day in Manhattan, young Dick Cavett saw Groucho Marx walking down the street, and overcame his shyness for long enough to blurt out, “Mr. Marx, I’m a big fan!” Without skipping a beat [according to Cavett, whose anecdote this is], Groucho replied, “On a day like this, I could use a big fan.” Well, I’m a big fan of Groucho’s, too. Hands up, if you ever saw an original broadcast [not some archival retrospective] of his iconic quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” The least important aspect of the show was the actual quiz. It was all about Groucho’s gift for ad libs [many of which had to be edited out before broadcast] and the challenge to the contestants, “Say the secret ‘woid’ and win $100.” A stuffed duck with specs, mustache, and cigar [the forerunner of the Vlasic pickle stork] would drop down on a wire, to show the audience the random word whose utterance would earn far more than correct answers on the quiz. How like life, eh?

Well, the other word [besides the “penalty box” command] that our dog trainer had us choose for ourselves, was the “attack” command. It had to be–as opposed to Groucho’s secret word–unlikely to come up in normal conversation [and so inadvertantly “loose the dog of war”]. He suggested, therefore, that it be foreign. Each of us had to come up with something unique for our own dog, lest we launch the whole pack, while learning to use the command in class. You can just imagine, can’t you? “Bonzai!” “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Ours is the Japanese for “evil.” [You could look it up.]

Like learning to use any weapon responsibly, this training was both technical and philosophical. I was appalled by the insouciant tone of the Drivers’ Ed our two kids received [one in Michigan, one in Maryland], compared to the lugubrious, required-course-in-high-school that my sister and I took in the 60s, where each class began with the call & response: “When you are driving a car, you are in charge of…” “A Lethal Weapon.” I felt compelled to invoke this reality check every time my kids took the wheel…still want to. Well, when we are out with Lili, we are…in charge of a Dangerous [if not Lethal] Weapon. We well and truly must “acknowledge our wolf,” if we are to keep everyone safe. As our trainer points out, dark dogs are usually perceived as male and more vicious than light-colored dogs. [Especially pointy-eared dogs, compared to Lab types.] This puts out a provocative subtext, which the dark-dog-owner must “own” and learn to manage, whatever the “truth” of the matter is.

Now, here’s the ironic thing about Lili. During Agitation Classes [where you learn to deploy the “attack” command] she was a Paper Tiger. The linebacker dude in the padded suit with the canvas “bite me” sleeve would mock-assault me, and Lili would either look away or try to hide behind me. Away from me–just dog-and-dude–her attack response was [eventually] evoked, and then paired with her secret word. She is no Stoic, our Lili. She would not come to the defense of the defenseless, unless she personally felt threatened. In this respect, her nature is all too human.

Lili is not my bodyguard [never thought I needed one, anyway]; but she is my character guide. As a recovering Paper Tiger, myself [“all bark and no bite,” as my husband has been known to describe me], I continue to challenge my hair-trigger amygdala, to see if my alarm in any given situation is exaggerated, or justified. Would I cry “Havoc!” and use aggressive means to defend myself or my family from a Very Bad Person, if all other options had failed? You bet your life.

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Filed under aggression happens, lesser of two evils, secret code

Through a Glass, Darkly


This Biblical allusion dates from a time when glass was so cloudy that it obscured, rather than clarified, an image seen through it. It is a good metaphor for the value of the Metalingual speech function [as in, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”]. In the “Dog Eat Dog” post, I presumed to “know” what the guy in the elevator really was talking about [which I called his “subtext,” like the English translation at the bottom of an Ingmar Bergmann film]. It was just my guess, based on his “semiotics” [words, voice inflection, facial expressions and body language]. Figuring out what the other guy is actually trying to say is not rocket science–in fact some rocket scientists can’t do it very well at all. The Austrian whose name is now associated with the “syndrome” of the interpersonally challenged [Asperger], called it “Severe Engineer’s Brain.”

Dogs [also cats, children, and “clairvoyants”] are naturals at discerning the other guy’s subtext. The less fluent you are in the speaker’s language, the more you pick up on other clues about the message. As a born quidnunc [literally, Latin for “What now?”]–known in other cultures as a Busybody, Nosey Parker, or yente–I have always loved to listen in on fellow travelers’ conversations on public transport, as if trying to figure out the backstory of a movie already in progress, with extra points for “foreign language films.” It has helped in my work with Paranoid Schizophrenics, who [dedicated readers will recall] use lots of Poetic speech, in order to make themselves obscure.

The way you “know” you have successfully “cracked the code” of a schizophrenic’s obscure utterance, is to humbly [I try to channel Capt. Columbo, “Jeez, I’m just guessing here, but…”] offer a possible “translation” of their cryptic remark. If you’re wrong, they smile enigmatically; but if you’re right, stand by for mayhem. [I learned the hard way, to be closer to the door than my interlocutor, when “going for the whole phrase, Monty (or was it Vanna?).”] There’s nothing a schizophrenic likes less than a clairvoyant, lemme tell ya. I put “know” in quotation marks, because no earthly soul can know for sure what another one really means–sometimes, not even the speaker.

So, how does it work with less obscure speakers, in everyday life? One option, which I took with the guy in the elevator, was to assume I caught what he was pitching, and respond to his [presumed] subtext, by replying [in my subtext], “Exercise is a non-zero-sum game, pally. Lighten up.” If I didn’t want to guess at his meaning, I could deploy my favorite Michigan response: “What’s yer point?” [Unfortunately, the subtext of that remark is almost always hostile, so it’s not great for elevator conversations.]

Whatever you would have said [including nowt], it is a skill worth practicing, to become a quick subtext reader and “writer.” As we all know by now, I tend to favor the comic retort; but other options work just as well. To be continued in the next post…

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Filed under pragmatics, secret code, semiotics

"Hashi" (Say what?)


The title above demonstrates the Metalingual speech function [first discussed in the Funny Bone post]. I say the Japanese word for “bridge” [not necessarily on the River Kwai], and you ask for clarification [unless you are Lili, in which case you obediently procede to the nearest bridge]. After mastering all our dog trainer’s Japanese commands [many of which Lili also mastered], I came to believe that I could train Lili to do anything, as long as I could find the word for it in a Japanese dictionary. I have created a monster. We decided that it would be cool [in summer, and warm in winter] if we could get Lili to shut the front & side doors behind her, since she had already figured out how to let herself into the house from the outside, but would leave the door ajar. Ten minutes of successive approximation, using the command “Shimaru,” a clicker, and high-value treats [dried lamb lung, I regret to say], and she has become Carlton, Your Doorman, biffing away at an open door as many times as it takes to slam it shut. This skill loses its charm when one is ferrying in several loads of groceries from the garage, and finds the door slammed firmly in one’s face. There are other commands to avoid this…but I digress.

When I am doing psychotherapy, or even hearing/reading people co-opt clinical terms to signify something entirely different from their original meaning, I get all Metalingual about it. My first bete noire is “schizophrenic.” No, it does not mean “in two minds” about something, or acting in two mutually inconsistent ways. That would be to feel ambivalent about something, or to experience cognitive dissonance. DSM-IV criteria for schizophrenia require delusions and/or hallucinations. If one means to signify a Jekyll & Hyde switcheroo between two radically different behavior patterns, that would be a Dissociative Disorder. See, now you can stop a conversation cold in its tracks, by asking a speaker who throws around the term “schizophrenic” just what they think they mean by it.

Another co-opted word is depressed. Do you mean, like, “bummed out about something that just happened,” or that you blame yourself and think you deserve whatever bad thing just happened? [That was Freud’s original distinction in Mourning & Melancholia.] Like, are you sad that the Cubbies lost, or do you think you made them lose and everyone should hate your guts? It makes all sorts of difference to a clinician, what you mean by “depressed.” [Notice how Phatic I am, when trying to understand what the other person means to say? It helps keep the lines of communication open.] Since another early definition for depression was “anger, turned inward,” it is useful to play our old parlor game, “What gets up your nose [about the thing that is ‘depressing’ you]?” Did you brag to your out-of-town friends that the Cubs were going to win, and now you feel humiliated? Did you put your money where your mouth is, so now you are feeling the pain & suffering of a financial loss? Was it a large wager, and now you fear that the bookie is coming to have his pound of flesh, if you can’t pony up? Until you do the wolf-work of figuring out what is eating you [“What’s up your nose?”], you are stuck in that bad place, where amygdalar overload robs your hippocampus of the ability to come up with any good coping strategies, and your pre-frontal cortex can’t stop you from “doing something stupid.”

I also need to know what you really mean, when you say you “feel guilty.” It’s a Rorschach word, signifying quite different things to each “guilty” person–depending on his or her fear of divine and/or karmic retribution, or earthly punishment, or the humiliation of loss of face [for not having lived up to one’s own code of conduct]. Play the parlor game, yourself, and identify the irritants of guilt, for you. I have no doubt that as I write this, in some neuropsych lab, college students’ brains are being scanned with fMRIs, like hi-tech lie-detector tests, to see who experiences what kind of “guilt”–in what area of their brain–upon learning that they have just fulfilled Milgram’s grim prophesy for mankind: that we would all act inhumanely towards another, if given a compelling enough reason to do so.

My final example: disappointed. Everybody would be out cold on the frathouse floor, if the game was to take a drink every time you read/heard that, in the face of egregious behavior [their own, or others’] someone in the news is “disappointed.” What on earth does it mean? Miffed? Perturbed? Crushed? Desolated? Mad as hell? About to act out aggressively and antisocially? Suicidal/homicidal? In every follow-up article about a shooting-spree-ending-in-the-death-of-the-shooter, someone who knew the shooter says that he/she was “disappointed” about something that had recently occurred. So are we all, I dare say; but we don’t all go ballistic about it. Substitute a more descriptive word, the next time you catch yourself using “disappointed”: and you will be well on the way to “knowing, and training, your wolf.”

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Filed under Freud meant..., gets right up my nose, jekyll and hyde, pragmatics, secret code

Find Your Own Funny Bone


The life you save may be your own. Each of us has a unique sense of humor, although it overlaps with others’ on a Venn diagram of “What’s so funny?” My Occam’s Razor of jokes (biggest laugh for the fewest words) seems to depend on a love of horses and of watering-hole (as opposed to lavatorial) humor: “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” No? Quod erat demonstrandum.

But you do have a favorite joke; and if you don’t, you are advised to get one–in fact, to lay in a large supply of them (along with the water, canned goods and flashlights that FEMA wants you to cache). Finding the funny in a rotten situation is the most universal form of sublimation (which is the highest order of ego defense, don’t you know). My Dad’s tiny G.I. edition of Max Shulman’s comic novel Barefoot Boy With Cheek was credited with saving lives in the Pacific Fleet during WW II, since it was memorized and recited verbatim among the watchstanders, keeping them awake and relieving both boredom & fear, through laughter.

An inside joke is a powerful defense against an adversary’s attempt to make a person feel like a victim. Remember the tune the PoWs whistled all through The Bridge on the River Kwai? It’s called “The Colonel Bogey March,” dating from WW I, to which Britons during the Blitz had made up rude lyrics concerning the genitalia of Hitler and his henchmen. Not even everyone in the movie audience was in on the joke, as the men whistled their defiance to their Axis captors. It makes the film much funnier, if you know the “secret code,” which, of course, all the actors did, sometimes making it hard for them to “put their lips together and blow.”

When the code is so secret that only one person knows it, that speaker (or whistler) is often dismissed as “just crazy”; but my psycholinguistic studies of the speech of schizophrenics and those with dementia, suggest that the person may be “crazy like a fox“–a New York figure of speech, meaning that there is method in his/her madness. Roman Jakobsen (there will be a quiz later, so take notes) divides all human utterances into six speech functions. You can give (or request) factual information [Referential speech]. You can clarify what you meant to say [Metalingual]. You can express strong emotion [Emotive]! You can give orders (even to yourself) [Conative]. So far, so boring, yeah? Here comes the good stuff. In order to make sure that the other party is listening to you, you must engage in a certain amount of Phatic speech, “You know? Well, let’s see. No kiddin’? Uh…” Wanna know which diagnostic category of people use the Phatic speech function least? Paranoid schizophrenics. Never underestimate the value of “Uh…”

The final speech function is the basis of all humor: Poetic speech. We use it when we believe that to give “just the facts” will get us killed (or at least, in alot of trouble). So we put it in code. We sing it, or say it in a put-on voice or accent, or exaggerate, or say the exact opposite of what we mean, or (if we are really dorky) use “air quotes.” If our intended audience doesn’t “lol,” we say, “No, but seriously…” and develop flop sweat. Often, but not always, the hidden message inside the bottle of Poetic speech is “I am so f&#king ANGRY!” When our audience gets the message and laughs with us, we all neutralize some of our rage: release endorphins, fight the build-up of cortisol, and avoid turning into werewolves.

So, how does Lili the dog come into this treatise on humor as an antidote to anger? Dogs are court jesters, for whom human laughter is a powerful reinforcement of whatever behavior they just did. Our dog trainer was constantly rebuking dog owners in our class, who giggled nervously when their dog committed a transgression, “Don’t laugh! You’ll only reinforce the behavior you’re trying to curb!” When the dog does something permissible but funny, we can laugh to our heart’s content. (We can also watch dogs on YouTube, where they can’t hear us laughing at them.)

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Filed under comic relief, phatic communication, pragmatics, secret code