Category Archives: metaphor monday

Metaphor Monday: Carpet Conundrum


The new house has these great wood floors in it. They’re lovely — dark and smooth and soothing. A real upgrade over the carpet we had in the old house, if you like that sort of thing — and, as it turns out, we do.

There’s a problem with them, though. If you have similar floors in your house, probably you already know what I’m about to say: they are a bear to keep clean. With the little kids and the pets running around, our floors get (and pretty much stay) filthy.

It’s all manner of stuff. Crumbs. Dust. Pet dander. Hair. Little pieces of paper. Tiny gobs of this slime stuff the kids are playing with lately (god I hate toy manufacturers). Cat claws. Grass clippings and dirt from the yard. Dried-out bits of Play-Doh (god I hate toy manufacturers). Toenail clippings. Laundry lint. Scraps of candy wrappers. More crumbs.

Yesterday, I swear, we opened the back door and the little breeze stirred up a tiny cyclone of detritus. A tumbleweed rolled through the kitchen. And I’m thinking to myself: “I just swept yesterday!”

Turns out that, though we love the look of the wood over the comfort of the carpet, the carpet was comforting in other ways too: it hid the disgustingness of our existence from us. But now, if we don’t clean it up every day or two, that dust is gonna show out, and there’s no hiding it from anybody.

But here’s the rub: in the old house, with the carpets, sure — we could go a week or so without vacuuming. Most likely, nobody would notice — sometimes, not even we would notice. (“When’s the last time we vacuumed?” “I dunno, March?”) But that doesn’t mean that the gross stuff wasn’t there. It was just disguised. Camouflaged. Trapped in the fibers underfoot. Out of sight and out of mind.

Which seems like where you want it — out of sight — until you consider that the longer it lurks there, the more it piles up. And every step kicks that stuff up into the air, into every room in the house, into your lungs. Where it lurks and festers and crystallizes and congeals into gunk that’s got you coughing and sneezing and feeling cruddy year-round and you don’t even know why.

Not so good after all.

When it’s out on the hardwood, we can see it, so we can clean it — as unpleasant and tedious as that may be — before it has the chance to pile up and do damage. So the floors might look dirtier than ever, but on balance, I know that in reality, they’re cleaner than we’ve had in years.

So I wonder:

How much crap is hiding in the carpet in my headspace?

Well, a lot. Probably an unconquerable mountain of it, if I’m honest. These are troubling times we live in, and unfortunately, a lot of the feelings and thoughts and shock and awe and disgust and sorrow and anger and regret … all of that stuff gets swept under the carpet. Mass shootings. Bigotry out in the open. Injustice and indifference to the common man (and woman). Death and destruction and general bad behavior everywhere you look. (And that’s just the past weekend in Trump’s America.) To say nothing of the everyday stuff in my own neighborhood. Work. Parenting. Neverending effing yard work.

All of it piles up, and unfortunately, it’s got nowhere to go. So it just gets pushed around. Pushed out of sight and … well, in this case, decidedly NOT out of mind. It just sits there, grinding itself deeper into the fibers, suffocating the productive thoughts I want to have and making the air unpalatable for the new thoughts I haven’t had yet. Which probably explains the drought I’m in — have been in — during this terrible, awful, no good, very bad year.

And while I usually like to take a positive tack here in these posts, I’m not sure where it is in this instance. I don’t know how to rip up the carpet inside my own head.

It sure does seem like I could use some hardwood up there. Even if it’s a pain in the butt.

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Metaphor Monday: Splinters


Over the long weekend, I built this kitchen bench.

Our old kitchen was enormous, you see. Cavernous, you might even say. And while our current kitchen is by no means tiny, it’s also definitely and noticeably smaller than our old digs. So we’ve been economizing the space in as many ways as we can: shelves over the backs of the doors. Stuff stackers on the tops of the cabinets. Racks and organizers galore. (Minimize, I hear you say. Pshaw, I say. This is America.)

Then, my wife had a great idea. We have this recessed window area in the kitchen. Why not put a thing in there that can hold other things and not look like just a pile of stuff?

Yeah, that’s cool, I think. I love a little weekend project.

So I build this bench. Heavy as a bale of bricks and long enough to store a dead body or two. And it fits pretty snugly under the window. It blends in well enough with the space, in fact, that despite having some family over during the weekend, nobody noticed it squatting there, disguising the economy bundles of water and diet soda we picked up in advance of the storm.

Thing is, it took me most of the morning to build it; a good three or so hours, to say nothing of the trip to Home Depot for lumber and screws and so forth. Lots of frustrating work by myself in the garage, balancing things on edges, leveling them off, toiling to make sure the thing came out even in my modest home-fix-it setup.

It’s a weird thing, building stuff. I know enough about construction to get myself into trouble, as they say; I know a little bit about carpentry principles and if I really work at it I can build stuff that’s sturdy, but forget about making it look particularly presentable from any closer than fifty feet away. (Incidentally, this makes me fantastic at building things for the stage, which — surprise! — is a not insignificant portion of my job.) And because I’m decent but not great at building things, I have this love/hate relationship with building things. I love it — for a while. When it comes to building the thing and making it structurally and functionally sound, boy howdy, I can jump in with both feet and work ’round the clock without even really noticing the passage of time. But once I reach the limits of my expertise? Once the thing is built, and functional, and it’s time to make it look pretty? I lose interest faster than a goldfish in a dark room.

But that’s the problem, innit? Because the thing’s done only when it’s done. Which the carpentry gods reminded me of, painfully, with my bench.

I build the thing. It’s sturdy. It’s functional. Its edges are square. Its lid goes up and down. It’s basically done. The thought goes through my brain: you should probably sand it down. But having just put the hinge on, and having seen that the lid fits just so perfectly, I figure I’ve earned a break. The plywood I built it with, after all, is sanded on the outside anyway. I go upstairs. Poke at the wife until she agrees to come have a look at it. She agrees with me: it’s not bad.

“Is it done?” she asks.

“Basically,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

I perambulate through the garage, winding up extension cords, sweeping up piles of sawdust. Job’s basically done, after all. “Well, it’s almost ready for painting, but seeing as we don’t have the paint yet, I figured I ought to take a break. Maybe try it out and see how it looks in the space. Maybe we’ll see what color we want to paint it when we get it up there.”

So we haul it upstairs. Plonk it down in the corner. Sit on it, test it out. Yep, it’s a bench seat.

“Looks good,” she says. (Actually, she lays it on a little thicker than that. She strokes my ego a bit. I think she must’ve been reading some articles or something lately; I feel her psychologizing me.)

“Yeah,” I agree.

“So, what now?”

I ponder. What I really don’t want to do is haul it back downstairs, or work on it at all anymore right at the moment, or perhaps, ever. It’s functional, after all. You can sit on it. The lid opens and shuts. Case closed. (So to speak.) Finally, my answer: “I guess it’s not hurting anything here. We can just keep it over here until we get the paint; then I’ll prep it.”

She gives me a look that I should recognize by now, but I let it bounce off me.

Fast forward a day, and I’m sitting down with the Sprout to work on some sight words. He wants to sit in the kitchen while mommy cooks. Hey! I just made a brand new bench seat for exactly that purpose! So I sit down, scoot over to make room for him, and catch a dagger-sized splinter in the meat of my hand.

Needless to say, after a healthy bit of cursing and an unpleasant bout with some tweezers, I find myself out on the back porch doing the job I should have done to begin with: sanding down the damn bench. It takes all of twenty minutes, and at the end, the thing is well and truly safe and pleasant to sit on, painted or not.

You see where I’m going with this.

I left the project nearly but not entirely finished, and its rough edges caught up to me almost immediately.

The parallel to writing is striking: the thing is not done until it’s done. That means whatever it means for the stage of the project you’re in: the draft isn’t done until you actually write an end to the thing (and go back to write all the things you intentionally skipped over on the way). The edit isn’t done until you’ve been through every inch of the project with your fine-toothed editing comb and fixed all the little fitzy bits. The submissions aren’t done until you’ve written and perfected the query letter and delivered it to the inboxes of everybody you can stand to send it to.

I’ll admit, I’m somewhat of two minds on this topic; I’m acutely aware of the dangers of overcooking an idea. You work at a thing too long and it turns to mush. You break yourself trying to perfect a thing which will never be perfect. There’s a virtue in being able to say, nope, that’s enough, and let a Good Thing simply be good.

But there’s a difference between stopping before you overcook the thing and leaving it properly unfinished, covered in jagged little splinters or worse. (Mixed metaphors, for example.)

Make no mistake — it’s easy to get sick of a project. To want to slap the last chapter in place because you’ve been after it for months and you want desperately to think of anything else. But if you don’t knuckle up to the tedious work that comes with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and making sure that all of your plotlines properly resolve and don’t just wander off into the ocean or something, well…

Somebody’s gonna catch a splinter up their backside. Maybe even you.

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Metaphor Monday — The Half-Life of a Tantrum


Are you listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast?

If you aren’t, you should be. Sam is a prolific author, speaker, debater and philosopher, with his fingers in pies as varied as religion and its effects on society (generally bad), artificial intelligence (be afraid), and free will (nonexistent, but not for the reasons you might think). Not afraid to let the full bluntness of his ideas and criticisms strike the unsuspecting bystander soundly across the face, he nevertheless seems to me to be one of the most thoughtful and measured communicators in the public sphere these days. Add to that that he has a way with words which frankly makes me feel small on a regular basis.

His ruminations on such topics takes him often into the realms of morality and emotions, and the roles that these things play in our lives; if you can learn to master your emotions, you can more easily and completely tame your morality. How to best master your emotions? Harris advocates for meditation and mindfulness practice. I’m not quite enough of a tree-hugger to have done more than dunk my fingertips into the deep waters of meditation, but I’m a big fan of mindfulness, and that is an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s something I did fairly often before I knew anything about “mindfulness” being a thing: simply stop, now and then, and ask yourself — why am I doing this? how am I feeling right now? is this thing I’m doing a good use of my time and my energy? The point isn’t to change your behavior overnight, it’s simply to begin recognizing patterns. Behavioral patterns, like constellations in the night sky, become impossible to un-see once you’ve noticed them. Once noticed, you can begin to redirect yourself toward making decisions and choosing behaviors which more closely align with the life you would choose for yourself.

Which is where the emotion comes in. When emotion floods your system, it becomes harder and harder to make rational decisions. Take the guy who’s trying to drop a few pounds who, while at his parents’ house on a long weekend, decides to have a second piece of pie for dessert. This guy doesn’t usually avoids having dessert at all; desserts, after all, are somewhat antithetical to losing weight. But put him in his parents’ house, where through a strange alchemy of the brain, food equals love and eating everything his mother puts in front of him is a way of expressing that love, and gosh darn it the pie tastes so good, you know what, I think I will have another piece. (Did I mention that the guy in question was me? The guy in question was me.) Emotion short-circuits the rational brain.

One of Harris’s saws about emotion, though, is that it has a half-life. And that half-life is shorter than you might expect. Emotion, like an afternoon drizzle on a hot summer day, burns away quickly if you allow it to. Trouble is, most of us are happy (see what I did there?) to let emotion run us. Get caught behind the idiot paying for their groceries with a jarful of pennies or a fanny pack full of expired coupons, and we’re likely to keep coming back to that moment, reliving it, and getting enraged again for hours afterward. It can trash your productivity at work. It can distract you from a family outing. Case in point: just this afternoon, I went out with my family to lunch. On the television situated right behind my wife’s head, they were replaying this last year’s Super Bowl, wherein my beloved Atlanta Falcons performed the saddest, most public self-strangulation in sports history. And I couldn’t help it. I tried to ignore it, but my eyes kept darting up to the screen and that knot in my gut kept tightening, because I knew what was coming. It messed me up. I was physically getting angry.

And then, after about twenty minutes, I stopped and asked myself. Why are you watching it? You know what happens. You’ve gone through the heartbreak already. Your kids and your wife are right here with you in the here and now. Pay attention to themAnd I did. I’m not going to say I ignored the game entirely — the second half of that game was like a bad train wreck played out in slow motion, after all — but I did better. I noticed a bad pattern and I improved on it.

I’m not great at this. I’m not even particularly good at this. But I want to be better.

You know who’s really good at this?

Kids.

Both of my kids are Jedi masters when it comes to letting their emotions decay: my five-year-old son and my three-year-old daughter, both of whom can be proper terrors when they don’t get their way. I can send my son to time-out for anything from taking an unsavory tone with me or his mother to whacking his kid sister across the skull with a decorative figurine. He goes to his room scowling and howling, slams the door and buries his face in his blankets. Ten minutes later, I check on him, and not only has he completely calmed down, but sometimes he’s totally forgotten why he got time out in the first place. Or my daughter — she can have a full-on tantrum in the grocery store over not being allowed to buy another bag of rainbow Goldfish (laid on the ground, kicking, screaming, tears streaming down her face), and after just a couple of minutes buried, sobbing, in an adult’s shoulder (usually my wife’s), she’s got a smile on her face as she runs up and down the cereal aisle.

On the one hand, this short memory can be infuriating (you don’t even remember why you’re in trouble?), but on the other, it’s instructive. You never talk to a toddler who’s really having a rotten day because they got cut off in traffic. They don’t even remember what happened to them ten minutes ago. They don’t hold onto stuff, good or bad.

There’s a lesson in that. I’m not even going to bother tying it to writing this week; it’s a lesson we all need, and the lesson is to make like Elsa and let it go. Kids somehow intuitively know how to let stuff go, and somewhere along the line, we stress them out and they start holding onto their insecurities and their frustrations and all the things that upset them. Somehow we have to embrace the half-life of the tantrum. It’s okay to get pissed off, to get angry and upset and down on yourself. That stuff happens, and there’s probably no stopping it. But when it’s five hours later and you’re still replaying the moment when the jerko hipster on his cell phone jumped in front of you in line at the Kroger, you have to ask yourself — why is this still in my brain? It isn’t benefiting you in there. And it certainly isn’t still bouncing around in the hipster’s head. It’s only there because you’re keeping it there.

And we don’t have to keep it there.

Tough day at work? You’re home now, and you get another day tomorrow.

Friend said something that upset you? Either tell them about it and clear the air, or forget it — they probably already have — and move on.

Stubbed your toe yesterday and it still hurts? Well, that’s a bummer — but you don’t have to take it out on your wife and kids.

Pay attention to the thoughts that are banging around in your head. Sometimes all it takes is opening the windows to let the bad air out to give you a clean perspective.


Metaphor Monday – PBV Syndrome


Since buying our van a few years ago, and having now driven it all over, I’ve noticed a phenomenon. It’s not tied to me, as far as I can discern — rather it’s a phenomenon that occurs in other drivers that seems to happen when I’m around.

I call it PBV (Passed-By-Van) Syndrome.

The phenomenon is this:

We’re driving in the van, and we approach and slowly overtake another vehicle. Before we can fully pass said vehicle, it begins to speed up, matching our pace and disallowing our passage. It continues to match our speed — oftentimes in great excess of its original speed — sometimes for miles. This continues until the driver decides that they really don’t want to be going quite so fast and they fall off. Occasionally, though, the opposite will happen: the other driver will speed up even more to pass us again, gaining a little buffer of roadway in front of us before it returns to its former speed and the process begins again.

I should note, too, that neither I nor my wife drive at particularly excessive speeds. At most we go maybe 5-10 miles over the posted limit, which by Atlanta standards means we might as well be standing still, given that speed limits in Atlanta are more often taken as baseline minimums to be left behind at the earliest opportunity than as legal maximums. Yet still we pass people, and still they try not to let us pass.

I have yet to conduct double-blind studies, but the most frequent afflicted seem to be trucks and SUVs. However, any driver of any sort of vehicle seems to be susceptible to PBV — I’ve seen it in fancy sports cars (why are they driving slowly enough to get passed by my hulking van?), ridiculous little Smart cars (if the purpose is good mileage, why are you trying to “beat” me anywhere?), and even other minivans (what happens if two drivers afflicted with PBV find themselves passing each other? Does spacetime disintegrate and collapse on itself?).

The phenomenon isn’t limited to my van, either — before we upsized, we had a tiny, sporty little Toyota Yaris, and we’d get the odd pacer there as well. Nothing like what we get with the van, but significant enough to notice.

Motivating factors are difficult to fully determine, but the assumption is pretty simple: some people just don’t like getting passed by a pansy vehicle like my minivan. Because we still live in a society where, somehow, your status on the road and in your vehicle is inextricably fused to your notion of self.

In other words, if you’re getting passed, it’s because the other guy has a bigger, uh, engine than you.

WHICH CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO STAND.

Treatment: well, none, really. Perhaps a bit of introspection. A little consideration of why your foot tends toward the gas when you see a minivan creeping up from behind. Do you really, suddenly and for no discernible reason, just feel like getting more quickly to wherever you were headed? If so, why weren’t you driving faster in the first place? Did my van somehow make you realize you were running late?

If it’s about “beating” the van somewhere, that’s foolish — we almost certainly aren’t going to the same place. And even if we were, the difference in travel time from me going a few miles per hour faster will make a difference in arrival time measured in seconds, not minutes. Ridiculous!

If it’s about a van going faster, then why get uptight about a van over any other sort of vehicle? Again I fall back on the perception thing. Vans aren’t “manly” (but what is “manly” anyway, when it comes to cars? Truck and sports car commercials would have you believe it’s about horsepower and maneuverability, towing capacity and “sleek lines” whatever that means, but again I say: if you are drawing more than a modicum of your personal identity from the vehicle you drive, you are probably a bit of a jerk), therefore getting passed by one makes one ultra-unmanly. Of course, that assessment comes up short, too, because I’ve seen a fair share of women afflicted with PBV.

So.

It’s Metaphor Monday and all, and that means I’ve got to tie this weird phenomenon to writing, and to life in general.

But it’s not that hard to see, is it?

You’re driving on the highway. You see this dinky little minivan creeping up on you, about to pass you, and something in your lizard brain says “DON’T LET IT HAPPEN.” You’re paying attention to what the other guy is doing instead of focusing on the road in front of you, which is all that should really matter anyway. You’re comparing yourself to somebody else when no comparison even makes sense. You don’t know where I’m going. You don’t know if there’s an urgency for me that doesn’t exist for you, or vice versa. You don’t know if I’m late to a meeting for backyard lawn darts enthusiasts. (My new backyard would be so choice for lawn darts.) You just want to beat me there.

And what’s the internet, but a big ol’ information highway, with writers to the left and the right? Internet’s lousy with writers. Some of them driving souped-up muscle cars and churning out thousands of words per day. Some of them puttering on mopeds, coughing up maybe a thousand per week. And you look at somebody’s website — let’s call it, I dunno, a minivan of a website — where she talks about having a full-time job, two kids, a spouse, all those things that you have. And he further claims to be getting two thousand words a day.

You just got passed by a minivan. What are you gonna do about that?

You’re gonna stomp the gas, is what — after all, they have nothing going on that you don’t have, and they are getting it done. You deserve everything they have coming. And you need it now!

Except, as my dad used to tell me (or maybe it was merely a construct of my dad as I tell myself I remember him — you can never tell), it ain’t always that simple. Sure, the stuff you can see is comparable, but you don’t know what’s going on in their life, what’s kicking around between their ears. In short — you don’t know why their minivan is going faster than you. It just is.

As long as you’re writing, you’re making forward progress. You spend the unmitigated bulk of that time slaving away in silence and solitude anyway — what kind of good does it do to compare your slaving to somebody else’s? It’s a good way to burn out. Get frustrated. Get disillusioned.

And when your brain gets disillusioned or frustrated or burnt out, well, your whole vehicle breaks down, dunnit? And when your whole vehicle breaks down? Everybody passes you. Even that grandma scooting around on her moped.

The point? Don’t give in to PBV syndrome.

Stay in your lane. Eyes on your own road.

Let the minivans pass.


Metaphor Monday – The Creative Eclipse


As Neil de Grasse Tyson pointed out on twitter a few days ago, the hubbub over the eclipse is a bit overblown. Solar eclipses happen every two years or so; they’re just not common in your area thanks to orbital trigonometry or some such sciencey nonsense.

Still, it’s a hell of a thing. And but for the things we know about science, it could be thought to be a magical thing. Certainly for many it’s a spiritual thing: a reminder that we live in a world of wonders where the strange and unusual not only happens from time to time, but is actually guaranteed to happen. For those of us in the right place, at the right time, we get treated to a celestial light show that only comes around once or twice in a lifetime.

But it’s funny, isn’t it? All the attention we’re giving to the sun in the past couple of weeks and days, just because the math happens to line up for a tiny subset of the population of our pale blue dot. For the sun, after all, today is a day not a speck different from any other. And for 90% of the planet, today is a day not a speck different from any other.

When was the last time you even considered the sun? Aside, perhaps, from wishing it didn’t shine into your eyes at precisely that angle on your evening commute? When was the last time you thought about when it would be at such-and-such point in the sky, or where the moon was in relation to it, or how bright it might be, or how long you could look at it and with what protective eyewear?

You didn’t, that’s when. The sun went about its business, and you went about yours, and the only time you cared about it was when the sun wasn’t going about its business, which is to say, when it was blocked out and day became night and the lizardmen roamed the earth and every bird everywhere flew into the side of every house in hopes of escaping the impending apocalypse.

But the sun didn’t know, or care, that today was an eclipse. The sun shone down on our insignificance today like any other day, and it was only through the luck of our particular geolocation that we experienced anything unusual at all. We only noticed anything was unusual because our perception of the thing got interfered with.

In other words, the thing was working fine; we only noticed it because it seemed not to be.

Which is basically the perfect metaphor for the writer’s brain.

Your brain, your creative engine, the beating heart of your imagination — it’s a glowing orb of nuclear fusion burning brightly away between your earholes. It’s always there, always kicking ideas out, always doing what it does. (This, I’m pretty sure, is why I’m always having off-the-wall thoughts that I immediately dismiss, i.e.: what if the cars just started floating off the highway right now? What if we all suddenly forgot what words meant and we had to start over from scratch with current technology? What it there was a guy who could literally see time? (For some reason, my creative stream-of-consciousness sounds a lot like my stoned college buddies.)

All of which is fine and good for the writer working on projects and having all the time he (or she, obviously) could want to give vent to those ideas. Like the sun spraying out heat and light and radiation in all directions, the brain just goes on creating.

Until something gets in the way.

Like your job. Or your much-delayed move. Or a shattering sense of unworthiness and self-doubt. These things get in the way of the flow ideas, much like the moon moving across the path of the sun, and screw up the daylight. And then, all of a sudden, we’re like “why isn’t my brain working? Why can’t I get anything done?”

When of course your brain is working just like before; the radiation of ideas just isn’t penetrating the morass of goop gunking up the rest of your head.

And how do you de-gunk the goop?

Well, if I had that answer, I’d have a lot more work done on my current WIP than I do, and I wouldn’t have lost nearly the productivity I lost over the summer. Like the moon drifting through the path of the sun, I tend to think it’ll happen on its own. But also like the drifting moon, it seems to happen in its own time.

Which is a bummer, to be sure.

But — one last thread to connect this metaphor — even a sliver of the visible sun is enough to bring daylight to the world, and even a sliver of creative energy is enough to get you writing again.

In the meantime, get yourself some shades and enjoy the light show.

So, just wait. It’ll pass.

Eventually.

I think.

 


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