08 November 2011

Case Study in Semantic Ambiguity: "Get Your Booty on the Floor"

On my milk run this morning, I heard Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam" over the Kwik Shop's speakers. A catchy little tune, no doubt. But what really interested me was this part of the chorus: "I don't want a place to stay / Get your booty on the floor tonight / And make my day."

I tried to imagine how an English as a Second Language (ESL) learner would go about decoding this utterance -- especially the phrase, "get your booty on the floor." After some thought, I concluded they would probably have a lot of trouble with it because of its semantic richness.

What I mean is that most of the words in the phrase "get your booty on the floor" can have several different definitions, forcing the interpreter to choose the correct meaning of the word not once, but at least three times. If the ESL learner didn't have a context to plug this phrase into, s/he would probably be pretty lost.

I think it would help to see some examples. Here's a table of definitions for the three semantically heaviest words in the sentence: "get," "booty," and "floor." I have tried to organize each word's definitions by frequency of common use. Since the verb in this phrase is clearly imperative, I have maintained that voice in the table.

getobtainPlease get a gallon of cheap wine at the liquor store.
getput or moveGet that cat out of my bathtub!
getunderstandGet this: I do not want you feeding cheap wine to the cat anymore.
bootyhinder partsThat drunk cat scratched my booty.
bootyfootwear (primarily for infants)I haven't seen the baby's other booty since the cat disappeared.
bootyplunderYarr! I drank those humans' grog and brought this little baby-shoe back as me booty!
floorlower surface of a roomIs that a hairball on the floor?
floorthe entire level of a buildingI found a really nasty hairball on the third floor.
floorsurface used for a specialized purpose (such as dancing)Why is that drunken cat with the eyepatch on the dance floor?

So, here are just a few of the possible (but incorrect, in this case) interpretations of the phrase "get your booty on the floor":
  • Obtain plunder on the specialized surface
  • Understand baby shoes on one of the levels of a building
  • Move your hinder parts onto the lower surface of the room

I'm sure you get the idea.

The semantic richness of the words in this phrase is pretty remarkable. Even more remarkable, though, is the fact that most native English speakers would correctly interpret the phrase as an imperative to move their synecdochic hinder quarters onto the specialized floor for the express purpose of dancing. And still more amazingly, they would probably do so in milliseconds.

Even an ESL learner would probably not have significant problems with understanding this phrase, given the context of the song.

It's astonishing that the human brain can sort through all the possibilities and select the right one almost instantaneously. As the Psalmist said, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

18 October 2011

My Big Run, Part I: A (Slow) Part of the Faceless Mass

I ran a half marathon on Saturday.

  1. Because it was there, I guess.
  2. Also because I was turning 30 the next day and wanted to feel like I wasn't an old man yet.
  3. And also because I am overweight and wanted a goal that would make me exercise regularly.
I do some of my best thinking while running. And during the 2:33:34 that I was running on Saturday, I thought about some things that I wanted to share with you, my beloved Intarnets. So, since I am notoriously bad at blogging, I decided it would be best to run a miniseries instead of wasting all my bloggery in one post. So here goes.

 The race started at 7:05 a.m., so by 6:30, the starting area was already getting pretty crowded. After a quick stop in a very filthy mobile intestinal relief facility, I joined 5501 of my newest friends behind the starting line. Despite the October chill, most of us weren't wearing much more than shorts, T-shirts, and maybe sweatshirts. Some were wearing substantially less (e.g., the man dressed in a cape, briefs, and a lucha libre mask). We expected to get very warm very quickly.

A funny thing happens when you are in a tight-packed bunch of live bodies on a cold morning: you get to share their body heat. I knew somewhere in the back of my head that humans are finely tuned heat machines, generally running temperatures between 96 and 98 degrees. Nonetheless, I'm not sure I ever really felt this truth the way I did in that chilly pre-dawn moment when I realized that I was standing outside in 40-degree weather and wasn't even a little bit cold. It was comforting to know that, even in a massive, faceless crowd, we could provide each other with a little bit of comfort on a cold day. It almost made me feel like one with those around me. And then the race started.

After the starting pistol sounded, the crowd surged slowly forward like a fell dragon flexing his wings. I started about a quarter mile back from the line. Following thousands of others, I went from a slow walk to a leisurely jog to a full-on run as I hit the sensor strip at the starting line. Once we had crossed that fateful line, we were no longer partners against the cold -- it was every man for himself, and Devil take the hindmost.

For the first couple of miles, I felt more like an extra in a zombie film than a contestant in a road race. I glanced around at my competitors, looking for signs of infection and trying to remember if it was possible to crush the spinal columns of the brain-hungry undead with one's bare hands. After all, here we were: thousands of people, all running the same direction, a river of humanity flowing inexorably to a common sea. What else could explain this madness besides some brain ailment? Or the allure of cheesy medals, I guess.

It was a surreal experience to run with 5,000 other humans toward a single finish line. It emphasized everyone's common humanity: we all were flesh and bone, constructed of basically the same materials and on basically the same plan. However, it also highlighted our differences. I, a short, jiggly man with creaky knees, was not even in the same class with the tall, muscular demigods who dominated the race-course, finishing a full marathon in less time than it took me to run my measly half. (I am not joking. The winner of the full marathon lapped me about 1.5 miles from the finish line.)

I intend to get into more detail about the run itself in subsequent posts. For now, I will close with a few numbers.

5,502 people started the half marathon with me. Of those, 4,796 finished. And of those, I came in 3,955th. Not great. And my time of 2:33:43 was more than 20 minutes slower than the average finish time.

But, hey, at least I wasn't the pitiful sack of carbon-based life who came in last.

04 October 2011

Hutchmoot II: In Which I (Finally) Make It to Nashville

As you may remember, a dirty low-down debit card thief prevented me from attending Hutchmoot 2010. I am happy to report that no such thing occurred this year. However, my own sense of inadequacy very nearly had the same effect on my soul that last year's thief had on my wallet.

From the moment I walked through the doors of the venue, I was intimidated by what I perceived as greatness on every side. Some of my favorite musicians and writers were there, including Jason Gray, Andrew Peterson, Andy Gullahorn, Jonathan Rogers, A. S. "Pete" Peterson, and S. D. Smith. The first night, there was a show by the Square Peg Alliance, which was amazing. As I watched and listened to the music, I couldn't help but wonder what I was doing here.

I'm not a professional artist, or a writer, or a musician.  Even worse, I don't really have any intention of becoming one.  I work as a business analyst for a company that does third-party administration services for life insurance companies. I used to dream of singing or writing for a living, but those dreams fizzled out when I realized that you can't eat art or pay a mortgage with it.

So, at Hutchmoot 2011, I found myself playing the familiar role of a poser.  It reminded me of I Samuel 17, where David's brother Eliab accuses him of having a presumptuous, evil heart -- except, in my case, the accusation was justified.   I felt like a little boy who had abandoned his sheep to come down and gawk at the Giants.

I knew intellectually that this wasn't true. In his welcome speech, Andrew Peterson had made it clear that each person there was an important part of the community. None of the Square Pegs exuded haughtiness or a sense of superiority. I knew that I was a welcome person who had valuable contributions to make. But I'd be jiggered if I knew what those valuable contributions might be.

As I compared myself to all the great artists and thinkers who were gathered in that place, I had a  hard time believing that I was very important to anyone. Nonetheless, I played my role well, having paid attention in my junior high drama class.  In sessions, I tried to say Important-Sounding Things and nod my head sagely at the right times. To myself, of course, I was a phony, but that didn't stop me from putting on a good show.

In the end, what saved me from this dismal state was love. (This should come as no surprise, since love is all that saves any of us from anything.) In this particular case, it was Jason Gray's humble love for the people he was ministering to in Friday night's concert.

In some ways, Jason was the greatest giant of them all.  A bona fide Christian artist who gets airplay on Christian top-40 stations, a deeply spiritual man with a lot of challenging ideas about faith and godliness, and one of the most genuine, honest singer / songwriters I know of -- for me, being around him was like being around some sort of mythic hero.  And I was dangerously close to committing idolatry.

But Jason sliced through the mythos with his honesty, authenticity, and humility.  Rather than building himself up as some sort of CCM demigod, he treated his audience as a group of brothers and sisters.  He saw his role as leading us into worship, not as our superior, but as our fellow-worshiper.  Jason taught us parts to sing along with him, so we could join right in with him as he ascribed worth to our Father that night.  In short, he took the role of priest, not the role of idol.

During that show, some fleshly thing within me snapped.  Suddenly, I found myself truly believing what I had merely known before: This wasn't a contest.  I wasn't competing with others to see who was smartest, or most talented, or most successful.  I wasn't any less valuable because of my lack of artistic efforts.

That night, as I worshiped along with 100 other followers of Christ, I felt like I had become a true part of the community.

I could write a lot more about Hutchmoot.  I could tell you how amazing the sessions were, how incredible it was to listen to Sam Smith, Andrew and Pete Peterson, and Jonathan Rogers talking about literature, and how fun it was to play Settlers with Jon, Ashley, Todd, Jud, and Sherri.  However, others have probably said those kinds of things more powerfully than I can, so I won't belabor the point.

To me, the most wonderful part of this year's Hutchmoot will always be that moment on Friday night when I realized I am not just an inferior junior member of God's kingdom.  Rather, I am a true child of the Creator-King, and it is my birthright to engage in sub-creation.

I'm still working through the implications of that night, but I think one of its effects will be to encourage me to start writing again.  Too often, I have avoided writing for fear of failure.  I've told myself I would never become a great writer because I can't do it full-time.  I've let myself forget that I don't love writing because it might make me "successful"; I love it because of how it allows me to make beautiful things where there was nothing before.  God put that love in me, so He must want me to use it to the best of my ability.

To sum up: Hutchmoot 2011 taught me that, regardless of my insecurities and fears, I do belong in His family.  I can (and must) use my gifts to build His kingdom, and one of the ways I can do that is through writing.  So I will write.

It might take the form of more posts on this blog, or it may reside in a notebook for now.  Somehow, though, I am going to start working seriously and regularly at making beautiful configurations of words.  And if I do ever receive worldly success from these efforts, I must take care to use it like the shrewd servant in Jesus's parable, to get as much gain as I can for God's kingdom.

20 April 2011

Audit Season

'Tis the season for audits in my world. Also, fund mergers and name changes out the etc. It's hard to have any kind of life outside of work right now, to say nothing of a strong online presence here.

Here's something that came out of me today while I was waiting for queries to run. Hope you enjoy it, or at least that it doesn't cause you to go blind.

A life insurance audit
In the midst of tax season
May not seem especially poetic,
With its deep piles of policy files,
Its long hours of arduous reconciliation,
Its days of dreary, plodding research,
Its seemingly endless requirements,
Its Diogenian quest for Truth.
Yet, a poetry is present,
(If only one knows how to look)
Just as there is poetry in the eye
Of a ravenous and unrelenting hurricane
Or the fallen, decaying corpse of a sparrow,
Or an awful sonnet read poorly in a cafe,
Or a half-eaten bowl of stale cornflakes,
Or a tragicomical marriage proposal.
Poetries abound in this life,
Beneath the opacity of the mundane:
Patterns and possibilities that transcend
The here, the now, the ever-present used-to-be
And point to a world peopled by modal auxiliary verbs:
Will, would, can, could, shall, should, may, might--
Words of power and purpose, ideals and ideologies,
That reside in a clean, open space, untainted
By temporality, focused on lasting beauty,
And finding it in everything they touch.

15 March 2011

Need a 5-Minute Countdown Timer? Look No Further!

Update, 3/10/14: I have posted a better 5-minute countdown timer (requires PowerPoint with macros enabled). If that doesn't work for you, feel free to download the animated .gif described below.

I looked all over the Web for a simple five-minute timer that I could use to count down to the start of our church's Sunday service. After a great deal of fruitless Googling, I threw in the towel and decided to make my own.

This cost me a good amount of time and quite a bit of frustration to finish, so I would love if others could get some use out of it too! Follow this link, then right-click on the "Download" button and choose "Save As" to save the animation to your PC. You can then insert it into a Powerpoint or other slideshow as needed.

Here are the specs:
  • Transparent background
  • Black text
  • Arial font
  • 800 x 400 pixels
  • Counts down from five minutes (5 minutes)
  • Great to track time before the start of a service, class, or meeting; also useful for mid-meeting breaks
  • A little bit wobbly because I messed the alignment up on a few images (but not too noticeably, I hope)
I made this using the excellent open-source image editing program Paint.NET and a marvelous little freeware tool called UnFREEz, from the technowizards at WhitSoft Development. Tedious though this was to create, these two free tools made it go MUCH more smoothly.

I guess this is the place where I should insert the obligatory appeal for remuneration. So here goes: if you would like to show your appreciation for this countdown, please do something to help someone who is truly in need. God loves a cheerful giver, and I've already got everything I want. :-)

14 March 2011

When Dementia Strikes...

If I am blessed with a long enough life, it is not unreasonable to expect that my mind will start to go at some point. I must say I fear this possibility -- more tonight than ever.

I've seen enough Alzheimer's patients to know that it is not immediate. Nor is it linear. Nor is it predictable.

I imagine that when it comes, it will be like driving through a foggy West Virginia night, with the peaks all around shrouded in misty white cloaks. Sometimes the fog thickens; sometimes it clears. Sometimes you can see for miles; sometimes you can't even see the semi in the oncoming lane until it is almost too late (and then you realize you were staring down death's maw and your breath comes in cold, ragged gasps until you can force yourself to calm down).

The most frightening thing about it is that I will lose control of everything -- and particularly the strength of those sweet memories that have so much power over the mundane, soulkilling concerns of my life. For instance, my little boy, one year old and happy, curled up on my lap, cooing and playing with the tiny plastic spoon from which he tasted his first ice cream tonight. Or, again, the deep blue eyes of my beautiful lover, offering me solace after a long, frustrating day of having my will forcibly bent to conform to that of the machine in which I am a mere cog.

Those moments of warmth, comfort, and peace will be first dimmed, then lost, by the enveloping mist, when dementia strikes. And that is a loss I fear more than any earthly pain -- because without those memories, life will be much harder to make sense of.

Yet, even in the face of this possibility, I must, like Job, confess my Creator's supremacy: "Though He slay me, I will hope in Him..."

But also like Job, unless I become much more mature in the few years I have remaining on this terrestrial ball, I will also plead on my own behalf: "Nevertheless, I will argue my ways before Him."

Perhaps I will undergo the loss anyway. But I have faith that regardless of what may happen to me on this plane, if I hold fast to my true and lasting hope, the misty shroud will one day be swept away by a clean and everlasting Light. And to even glimpse such a Light, I would give my warmest, most comforting memories in a heartbeat.

04 March 2011


I have lately been reading a lot of other blogs, to the neglect of my own. One that I frequent pretty often is that of Jonathan Rogers, author of several books. Each week, he has an audience participation assignment. This week's was on Disney: "Let’s talk about Disney. Triumphs, disasters, amusing anecdotes, opinions supported and unsupported. We welcome them all."

Here's what I wrote. After I was done, I decided I would cross-post it here.

My only experience with Disneyworld was related more to the idea of the place than the place itself.

When I was about nine, I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to go to Disneyworld. And, as you know if you have ever been nine, I wanted it more than ANYONE has ever wanted ANYTHING.

(In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why I wanted to go. I don’t like roller coasters, and I’m not especially fond of crowds. I was probably just more susceptible to the magic of advertising at that age.)

The obstacles were as follows:
* We lived in Kansas
* We lived on the salary of an adjunct math instructor
* Mom and dad had seven kids at that time, with number eight on the way

When I told my father about my rather unrealistic desire, he told me we would see if we could make it happen. And that sweet man kept his word. I remember him getting on the phone with Disney to see if they had any discounts our group of nine could take advantage of. I remember him writing down estimates, adding up expenses, researching campgrounds, trying to massage the numbers into something that wouldn’t make us hemorrhage out an entire month’s pay.

He went through a lot of effort trying to fulfill the silly dreams of a little boy. So I knew when he sat down solemnly with me a week later that he had done his best.

“Son,” he said, “sometimes we just can’t get the things we want. When that happens, we just need to appreciate what we have.” He finished by giving me an enormous hug that conveyed more love than a dozen trips to Disneyworld ever could.

So I guess you could say that I have nothing but good memories of Disneyworld.