Category Archives: metaphor monday

Metaphor Monday: The Snow Field


Our little suburb of Atlanta took on more snow than just about any other part of Georgia this weekend, so we were treated to several days of the white stuff. As a guy who has lived in the South for all his life, this is a treat: we don’t see snow very often, and when we do, it’s usually either a sad little dusting on your grill and the top of your car, or a slushy, icy slurry that freezes roads and locks up traffic for days. But this was the real thing. A bona-fide blanket.

Driving around the neighborhood, we saw a picture-perfect scene, right out of the Christmas movies of your childhood. Entire blocks awash in white, roofs radiantly shining under a brilliant blue sky. Fields sprawling under a soft, silent cover. Treetops bowed and glowing, crowned with frost. A true winter wonderland. Perfect in its completeness, perfect in its simplicity, perfect in its total transformation of the city.

It was so perfect, in fact, that we almost hated to disrupt it — but disrupt it we must. We have kids, after all, and they weren’t about to let such an event slide by without the requisite snowball fights and snowmen and snow angels and the fuzzy blankets and flannel pajamas afterward. And of course we had to move on with daily life, too. The trash must be taken out. The roads must be braved for an emergency trip to the grocery store. And yes, the dog still has to go out (watching her do a dance while neck-deep in snow was beyond satisfying.) So, within very little time at all, our beautiful, snow-blanketed yard became pretty disgusting. Footprints all over the place. Deep divots where the green-brown of grass beneath has stained the snow. Wide swaths of exposed ground, sodden and muddy. An eyesore. Especially next to the neighbors’ yards — neighbors whose kids have either grown up and moved on or who are nonexistent, neighbors who had the good sense to stock up in preparation for the storm, neighbors who hunkered down and hibernated like bears when the first flakes began to fall.

My father-in-law called up my wife to lament that they don’t have any kids in the house to go out and play in the snow this year. (Their youngest is a college freshman.) They got out in it a little bit — walked a neat line of steps to the sidewalk and around the neighborhood — but left the bulk of it undisturbed. Unenjoyed. Unplayed-with. What a shame.

After a day, our yard was trashed. But then, isn’t a snowy field meant to be trashed? Isn’t it the ragged snowfield, marred by footprints and muddy patches, that has lived up to its full potential? It’s been played in, kicked and thrown around, stuffed into shirts — it’s lived, unlike its slumbering, undisturbed counterpart.

A lovely, but ephemeral, glimpse at a perfect world.

Which of course puts me in mind of the ever-present writer’s paradox: the blank page.

When you start a project — or when you return to a project on a new day — the same lovely, terrible expanse greets you. A perfect blank page, unblemished and interminable. It’s so lovely and so calming and so pristine, it seems like a crime to defile it. Any words we might write upon the blank page are just that — a defilement to its perfection. A crime against its peace. A hurled tomato against its steamed and pressed costume. I look at that blank page, and I think I can’t possibly make it better. Then I start writing, and not only am I not making it better, I’m actively screwing it up. The words never come out right on the first go-round. Some sentences come out as grammatical train-wrecks. My overapplication of modifiers is like so much yellow sprayed across the snow.

But, screw it up we must. Just like my muddy, stomped-in front yard, the blank page’s perfection is just temporary. It’s lovely to look at, but its true function, its best use, is not to just sit there and be perfect. Its calling is to get messed up, to suffer the wordy slings and arrows of our halting, harried advances. The blank page is never so alive as when it’s strewn with ink, letters stamped indelibly into its surface, the heavy plow of purpose and inspiration carving deep furrows across its face. The blank page yearns to be written upon. It begs to be ruined.

The page that you leave blank is the page that never lives up to its full potential. The blinking cursor on your screen is its coy invitation. Go ahead. Type a few words out. Roll up a snowball or two.

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Pictured: maybe not exactly my backyard. By Simon.

Your yard will be ruined in no time.

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Metaphor Monday: The Stray


My runs lately have me in more rural areas than I’m used to.

I’m still deep in the suburbs, mind you, but the suburbs here are a little more “trees and dirt roads” and a little less “convenience store on every corner.” Zoom out a little bit from my house on the old Google Maps and you quickly find yourself in a sea of green: sprawling forests and rolling hills all around.

So I have a lot of encounters with wildlife, especially when I’m hoofing it before the sun is up (which is almost always). Usually it’s squirrels and rabbits — I could basically feed my family bunny meat indefinitely if I had a hankerin’ — but I’ve seen more than a few deer, too, and there are almost certainly coyotes out here. Which is why I carry a big stick with me when I’m pounding the pavement these days: I don’t want to be caught defenseless if I come up against a crazed or frightened critter out there. (Sure, my dog is usually with me, but something tells me she’d be even more useless than I in an unarmed tussle with local wildlife.)

I should have started carrying that stick a week earlier, though.

I’m out for a pretty routine jaunt, not even a mile from the house, when I hear the unmistakable sound of padding footsteps and panting breath. I look toward the trees, and sure enough, here comes a sizable shape out of the dark, beelining right for me and my dog.

If I were hooked up to an FMRI, my head would light up like a christmas tree. Every fight-or-flight response I have goes off all at once. I can’t quite make out the shape of the thing. It’s coming on too quick to be just checking us out, but too slowly to be on the attack.

I start doing math. I don’t hear anything but its feet, so it’s not collared. Which means it may or may not be domesticated. Home is over a half mile away; no chance I can outrun the thing if it decides to chase. Nothing around me that I can even see, let alone grab, to use as a weapon. I’m on that stretch of no-man’s-land where there’s not even a streetlight in sight to help me see by, just the soft, useless glow of the stars. Meanwhile, my idiot dog is losing her mind at the approach of another animal: tugging at the leash, dodging this way and that in an attempt to sniff the intruder’s butt, or whatever dogs think about.

I’m stranded and screwed, in short, if this thing turns out to be hostile. I shout at the thing — sometimes that’ll scare a stray away — but no avail. It’s close enough now that I can see it’s a big, dark dog, a little bit bigger than my golden retriever.

I should detour to say that my warm feelings toward dogs are tenuous — generally I like them but I’m wary as hell about them, because once I saw a neighbor of mine reach down to pet a friendly-looking stray and it latched onto her arm and started thrashing around like it was tearing the throat out of a deer. Not an image you forget, as much as I love my dumb mutt.

Anyway.

It pulls up just short of my dog — I’ve slowed to a brisk walk, to avoid my own dog tripping me — and begins sniffing at her. My dog sniffs back. I yank her away and shout at the dog again to get lost. I stomp in the thing’s direction. It backs up a few steps but keeps pacing us, trotting along in the grass while we stick to the pavement.

Last thing I want is for something bizarre to happen, so I turn it around and walk back home. The dog falls right in with us, haunting us every step of the way, sometimes a little in front, sometimes a little behind — I try to feint it off down a side street here and there, but it always wanders back.

I get home. Stray dog follows us up onto the porch. I open the door; it tries to follow us inside. I slam the door to keep it out, go to put my dog in her crate because she’s well and truly losing her mind by now. I go back upstairs — the dog has opened the door and pushed into my foyer. In my mind, this thing is Cujo. I shout at it and shove it back outdoors with sweeping feet, then close and lock the door. It sits there staring at me through the side window, its breath fogging the glass. Thank goodness that’s over, I think, and begin the slow process of decelerating my heartbeat and preparing to go to work.

WHAM. The house veritably shakes, I drop my glass of water. SCRATCHSCRATCHSCRATCH WHAM.

I run to the front door. The dog is almost hurling itself against the door trying to get in. It starts barking. My own dog starts barking in response. I feel sweat beading on my forehead, and it’s nothing to do with my interrupted workout. It’s five in the morning. Do I call animal control? 911? I can’t ignore it; this thing is about to wake the house, to say nothing of the panic attack I’m about to have.

I run downstairs. Grab the broom. Back upstairs where the critter is furiously scratching at the door. Take a deep breath — open the door.

Its muzzle flashes in through the gap in the door and I whack it good with the butt of the broom. It yelps and skitters backwards, leaps down the steps to the sidewalk, and turns to stare at me. I follow it, waving the broom for good measure. It takes the hint and crosses the street.

Then we go to work, and I try not to think about the dog for the rest of the day.

I come to learn later that the dog then went and harassed my neighbor across the street a bit later, when the sun was up. She (being the sort of person who has the time and, dare I say it, the good heart required for such things) collared the dog and took it over to a veterinarian and checked it for a chip. The dog belonged to a house on the other side of our neighborhood. She drove over to return the dog — and found the house vacant. She asked around the neighbors of that house; they had moved away about a week ago. Sure, that’s their dog. Guess they didn’t take it with them.

Further, what I couldn’t see in the dark of the morning is that the dog did have a collar. It didn’t make any noise because the collar was too tight and it had actually grafted itself to the poor creature’s skin in some places.

So a neglected animal saw me out with my dog, followed me thinking I’d be a fair source of attention and, possibly, care, and I smacked it in the nose for its trouble.

I have my own moral indigestion over what happened (my neighbor has now taken the poor thing in, which is a little balm to my conscience), but this really demonstrates to me the power of prejudice. I saw this animal in a certain light (or lack of light), made a few snap decisions, and was unable to distance myself from the perceptions that followed. As soon as the fear started boiling in my bloodstream, the capacity to think and make a rational decision went right out the window. It wasn’t a helpless, harmless stray looking for a home; it was Cujo trying to force its way into the house.

As it turns out, it first approached my neighbor by — you guessed it! — jumping into her vehicle as she was loading up her kids to take them to school. (Imagining it gives me the shivers. I probably would have done a lot worse than bop it in the nose, at that point.) The difference? It was daylight by then. She could see the dog clearly, get a sense of its demeanor. She’s taken it in, now, and is giving it a measure of care it may never have known in its life.

Long story, that, so the writer’s tie-in will be short.

Ideas can come out of nowhere, and it’s not easy to see them clearly at first. Maybe they follow you around at the edge of thinking for weeks, months, years without ever coming into the light. And maybe you hesitate to engage, because it’s impossible to tell if these ideas are the good kind that will love you and bring you your slippers and turn into bestsellers or if they’re the bad kind that will bite you and leave you bleeding and on the waiting list at the ER for a series of rabies injections. (Did I mix up my metaphors there? Or am I writing the wrong kinds of stories? You decide!) But if you’ve got an idea sitting there on your porch, staring you down through the windows, chucking itself against the door, demanding to be acknowledged? That just might be an idea worth entertaining.

All the same, I’m carrying my stick when I go out running by moonlight from now on. After all, if I had known I could defend myself if things went south, I might not have turned the pitiful little abandoned dog into a bloodthirsty monster in my mind.


Metaphor Monday: Frost


If you don’t like the weather in Atlanta, just wait five minutes, amirite?

Man, another post about the weather. It’s almost like I’m turning into one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types, even though I hate those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. (Who am I kidding — I am one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. At least three times a week, I call my wife out to the back porch to the tune of “honey, check out this sunset!” She indulges me not quite half the time, which is enough to keep it happening.)

We wake up this morning to a blanket of frost laid over everything: grass, bushes, roofs, everything. The kind of crystalline coating that’s second only to a pristine blanket of pure white snow — and given how often we get that in Atlanta, we’ll take it. Of course, that frost is lovely to look at it, but it’ll put you on your behind as you’re coming down the stairs as likely as not. Not to mention the damage it can do to your garden, if that’s the kind of thing you care about.

Point is, it settles in and sort of puts the whole world to sleep — lets you know that winter’s coming. Makes you want to hunker down and sleep an extra hour. Just wait it out. Which I would do, if I only had a brain. Of course, I don’t, so as soon as the opportunity allows, I’m up with gloves and hat on going for a run, with the lawns still slick and my breath fogging the air all around me.

It’s my second-favorite kind of run, behind only those cool upper-50s, lower-60s mornings we get down here to kick off spring and wrap up the fall.

But as I’m out, something jumps out at me that I’ve never really paid attention to before:

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The frost is receding, but not without a fight. The sun is burning it off everywhere it falls, but like a starved jackal hovering over a fresh spot of roadkill, the frost sits heavy in the receding shadows of the trees.

Tenacious. Fleeting, but tenacious.

Kinda like that frost that can settle into the writer’s bones if the day doesn’t get off to the right start. Freezes you out, makes you slip. You can’t quite get started, so you put it off … but then life catches up. Work. Kids. The daily emergency.

And just like that frost clinging to the shadows and pretending that the day won’t come, that funk will settle into your head and throw you off for the whole day. The fact is that for those of us who maybe haven’t quite “made it” yet (whatever your personal metric for “made it” may be), or for those of us who struggle to fit the time into the day to make the words come, the resolve to write can be horribly fragile. A single slip anywhere can derail the whole day, put you behind your word count, and generally make you feel like a failure.

But.

The fact is that, like so many other things in life, the frost is fleeting. The setback that puts you off for five minutes, or fifteen, or even an hour, isn’t as big as it looks. The trees on my morning run couldn’t hide the frost for long, and the little derailments can’t wreck your day if you don’t let them.

The frost can’t abide the sunlight, and neither can the demons and devils that try to stop you. Keep chasing the light.


Metaphor Monday: The Fly


No, not the 80’s Jeff Goldblum flick, although I could certainly write at length about that one. Talk about scaring the hell out of a kid. I could never look at donuts the same way.

Today’s thought is much more pedestrian than all that, though hardly pedestrian! (Because flies, right? They fly!) Because Mother Nature is apparently just as upside-down and backwards as our wayward country these days, the seasons have reversed themselves and it’s pushing 80 in November for about the third day in a row. Some plants in the yard seem to be blooming again, thinking that Spring has sprung anew, while others haven’t yet finished decomposing from last week’s cold snap. And the bugs are back. Snapped out of hibernation or their winter larval stage or wherever the hell bugs go during the COLD TIMES.

Specifically, a fly flew (it’s hard to communicate how much internal strife I suffered writing such a banal obviosity as “the fly flew”, but there’s not really a better or simpler way to say it, and yeah, obviosity is probably not a word that Merriam or Webster would agree with, but it fits the flavor of the moment for me) into the house a few days ago, and it shows no signs of leaving. It shows interest in leaving, make no mistake. It hurls itself against every window pane, every crook and seam leading to the outdoors that it can find with its millions of tiny fly eyes (that’s flies, right? Millions of eyes? Or did I somehow splice Lovecraft into my memories of intro Biology?). Every apparent egress, that is, this fly bashes up against, again and again, with that strange but unmistakable sound. (zzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzRT zzzRT). Every exit, that is, except whichever one it exploited to get inside.

Usually we don’t have to think much about flies. We have four cats in the house, after all, and there’s always at least one of them in a sporting mood, so on the odd chance that a critter, bugger, or somesuch finds its way inside, it doesn’t tend to last very long. But the cats, it seems, have fallen into a faux-winter doldrums themselves, and none of them are interested in bringing down this interloper.

So it buzzes around the house. Buzzing around my head while I fix breakfast. Buzzing just behind the couch while we watch TV. Buzzing under my pillow while I sleep. Buzzing in my brain while I dream. The kind of constant buzzing that you can ignore until the little guy in your brain pipes up, “hey, you’ve been ignoring that fly for a while, and it’s still buzzing around. Don’t flies sleep? Is this, like, the Superman of flies? The SuperFly?” And then you start to obsess. Well, maybe you don’t. I do. Now, when I go home, I’m listening for the little bastard to start buzzing so I can open a door or window for him, or take a swing at him, or throw a cat at him, or SOMETHING to make the buzzing stop.

Of course, the fly doesn’t care about my aversion to his buzzing (unless it’s one of those government-controlled feeding-on-psychic-discord spy-flies, which you know are a thing). And it certainly doesn’t care about actually leaving the house anymore, that’s plain. What it cares about now are the simple things in life. Buzzing at me right after I’ve just sat down and don’t want to get up and chase it around the house. Flying really close to my ear and darting away before I can smack it. Lighting on my sock-clad foot just out of swatting range and just sitting there for a really, really long time. Clattering away in a window on the far side of the room and flitting away to tango with the ceiling fan when I try to open said window.

I haven’t dealt with the fly directly yet — by which I mean, putting on a fire-proof jumpsuit and pursuing it through the house with a lighter and a can of hair spray — because it hasn’t been important enough to me to do so, yet. Taking actual time out of my day is not a thing I’ve yet allowed this fly to move me to do. Just not worth the time.

Yet here I sit, writing about the fly when I could be writing about something more productive.

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Which is where the fly becomes a metaphor. (Did you forget it was metaphor Monday? I forgive you, it’s Tuesday after all.)

The fly is that little idea that gets into your head. You know the one. The one that just sort of nags at the back of your brain while you’re thinking about other stuff, or absentmindedly paying your bills, or wondering what to have for dinner. You distantly hear it banging away at your subconscious, but you don’t want to have to actually deal with it. Maybe the cats will get to it and I won’t have to, you perhaps think. Or — survival of the fittest and all — it found its way in here, so it can find its own way out. Or it’ll eventually starve or cook itself to death in a window: problem solved.

And most of the time? It usually will work itself out. But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes the fly gets stuck in the house and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you hunt it down and squash it (or set it on fire, idk how you deal with flies). Sometimes that idea gets into your head and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you actually sit down and think about it, hear what it has to say, and deal with the reality that you’re stuck with this thing.

Sometimes that idea is a brand new story that you’ve been secretly dying to tell, and you just didn’t know it. Sometimes it’s a hard truth you’ve been denying yourself. Sometimes it’s that perfect comeback that you could never come up with in the moment (the jerk store called…).

Whatever it is, if it’s stuck in your head and it won’t go away and won’t let you focus on what you’re trying to focus on, there may just be a reason for that, and maybe you need to stop ignoring that little buzz and see what it has to say.

Because something’s been bugging me (I’m sorry). My current project, which is to say, the edit that I started almost a full year ago, is in the ditch. Has been for a while. Maybe it’s the summer move, maybe it’s just lost some of its luster, but it’s only barely creeping along if anything, and I can’t even make myself want to work on it. Muscling through isn’t working, putting my head down and grinding it out ain’t gonna do it. Not right now. The fly in my head is that this isn’t the right project for me right now. I’ve been ignoring that thought and hoping it’ll go away, but it’s clearly going nowhere, so it’s time to face facts.

Maybe I’ll come back to this project. Maybe I won’t. I hear authors of all stripes do this all the time, but it feels like a knife in the gut. The better part of a year to draft it, and over six months again trying to edit it… the sheer amount of time wasted is soul-crushing.

But as the great Kenny Rogers once said, you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

And right now, it feels like time to fold this one, open the windows, and let this house air out a little bit.

 


Metaphor Tuesday (Let’s not kid ourselves): Weird Little Dials


Do you know what a tachometer is?

I only know because I played video games like most people breathe when I was a kid — and not only did I play them, I read about them religiously. Strategy guides and reviews. I had a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. I read the instruction manuals with new games, for goodness sakes. And one of the racing games I played (It might have been Top Gear or something, before that was a TV show), of course, had the display that looked like a car’s console. This console featured, in addition to the course map, rearview mirror, and speed (the only thing a kid really cares about), the tachometer.

That was a long way of saying your eyes probably pass over the tachometer on your car every day. It’s that dial next to your speedometer that tells you how many times your engine is turning over in a minute. Ever step on the gas while the car is in park? The tachometer spins up even though you’re not going anywhere. It measures not how fast you’re going, but how hard your car is working. Which, by certain metrics, makes it a much more important indicator in your vehicle, though one we hardly pay attention to.

We watch the speedometer, because we want to know how fast we’re going. Or maybe because we want to avoid the flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror. Or because the guy in front of you is moving maddeningly slowly and you want to know EXACTLY how slowly because that information will surely benefit you, somehow. We watch the scenery passing by outside the windows, because that tells us where we are. Trees and buildings; keep those a safe distance from the side of the car. Other cars get to drift in and out of that space; all fine as long as they’re pointing in the proper directions. And of course, we watch the road ahead, because if we don’t pay attention to where we’re going we’ll never get there, and we may in fact fail to get there very very quickly.

But we don’t watch that meter that tells us about the vehicle we’re taking the journey in. Or, at least, we don’t watch it until we have reason to — when something may be wrong. When the engine’s overheating and we’re struggling to maintain speed, or the transmission has slipped and we can’t get out of a lower gear, or … I dunno. My lack of car knowledge betrays me, here, but you get the idea. All of a sudden, we’re just not GOING like we want to, and we check that little tachometer and, huh, holy cow, that thing’s pushed all the way into the red. That can’t be good. So you limp your car (or, given my luck lately, you more likely tow it) to the shop and find out it’s gonna cost a couple thousand dollars to get it fixed and you sit there and question your entire life leading up to this moment.

That’s when you realize how important the tachometer is. If you had noticed it earlier, seen the engine was working too hard before you ran it into the red, you might not have broken whatever you broke to find yourself here on the side of the road with a useless vehicle. You could perhaps have treated the problem or replaced an overworked component before the whole engine melted down. But you didn’t. And here you are.

Or rather, here I am.

For months I’ve been focused and wrapped up in all kinds of stuff. The play in production. The novel(s) I’m trying to write. Running and exercising every day. Day-to-day work and planning for my classes. Playing Mr. Fix-it around the house, or paying people to come in and do the same (or, sometimes, paying people to come to the house only to tell me that their contract forbids them from fixing that particular problem, so hey, you get to play Mr. Fix-It after all, less a couple hundred bucks). To say nothing of being a dad and husband who isn’t a complete jerk.

I was redlining, and I didn’t know it. Instead, I was paying attention to the road ahead (fraught with obstacles as far as the eye could see) and the scenery creeping past (moving not nearly as fast as I would have preferred). I just wasn’t getting enough done, and that shortcoming was all I could think about. Not enough words written. Not enough miles run. Not enough paperwork finished. Not enough.

Boom. Blowout. All of a sudden, I’m afflicted with some sort of creeping crud for the third week in a row: congestion and cough and all that good stuff. My heel goes haywire from some phantom injury and I can’t run. A week’s gone by and I haven’t even opened my novel. I’m barely making it out of bed in the morning in time to get the kids up and dressed and off to school, and it feels like I’m accomplishing nothing during my working hours.

The tachometer is a metaphor, then, for something on the body, I’m just not sure what it is. Maybe it’s your sleep schedule. Maybe it’s your blood pressure, or your stress level, or whatever else. Point is, whatever it was, it was out of whack with me and I didn’t pay attention to it and I spent a couple weeks with the car in the shop and taking the bus to get around, as it were.

I make a lot of noise about momentum and staying busy around here, but the fact is, I think I’ve been overdoing it and not being honest with myself about the fact. Residual stress from the move this summer. Frustrations at things going wrong (and costing us lots of money!) around the house. Unforgiving standards for my creative endeavors. Dogged insistence in my exercise habits. It all adds up.

But the play is over, as of this past weekend. And you know what? All of a sudden — the very next day, even! — I felt lighter, calmer, better. Just knowing that that particular source of stress was gone (for now, at least) made the next breath of air come in that much cleaner.

Maybe I need to find a way to relax a little.

And I definitely need to pay more attention to the weird little dials.


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