Category Archives: metaphor monday

Metaphor Monday: Rip Tide


I’m out at the beach with my kid.

Tybee Island has some of the most gently sloping beaches you’ll ever see; the difference between high tide and low tide feels like about forty yards, and depending on the time of day and where you choose to explore, you can wade way out and still find yourself only in water up to your waist.

So we’re way out. A good thirty or forty yards from shore, which is about as far as I care to go. (Thalassophobia. I don’t have it, but I get it.) And we’re bobbing around on these tubes, my son delighting in swooping up and down with the gentle waves, me trying to relax (at least as much as an appropriately paranoid parent can relax when his six-year-old is floating on the ocean, which is to say, only so much). One of the sprout’s favorite things to do is to pretend to fall out of his tube — he screams, dramatically, “oh no!” and tips it over sideways, pitching himself into the drink, then swims up under it and hoists himself back in so he can do it again. He’s doing this over and over, and I’m only kind of paying attention. My mind is wandering the way it only can when you’re floating, feeling weightless in the grip of the great salty blue. (Okay, the waters at Tybee are pretty murky — but you know what I mean.)

Next thing I know: “daddy, get my float.”

I turn and look. The float is a good twenty yards out. I paddle lamely after it for a moment, doing a sort of backwards butterfly with just my hands while floating in my own ring. That ain’t working; every foot I gain, the waves push me back. So I flop out of the ring and make to wade over there and get it — except my feet don’t touch bottom. I go under and catch a nose full of salt water, and come up spluttering.

Well, that doesn’t seem right. I whip around to glance at the shore, see how far out we are, and oh boy oh boy have we drifted. We’re about twice as far out as I thought we were, and the people on the shore look disturbingly tiny.

I start paddling after my kid’s float, but with a head full of seawater and my not-so-great swimming skills, it ain’t going so hot. Plus, I’ve seen Jaws, and I know that a human flailing around in coastal waters triggers an ocean predator’s prey drive like a fat, oblivious seal — so something like panic is flooding my system too. (Even though I know that’s ridiculous.) In my head, I see images of that riptide warning poster that they post everywhere at the beach:

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And I think I might actually be caught in one of these things. (I’m not, as it turns out, but just try telling that to a brain that thinks it’s simultaneously drowning and being stalked by sharks.)

I turn to look toward shore once more and I see that my kid is paddling out after me. Something about that short-circuits whatever thinking I’m doing at this point. My lizard brain kicks the rational part of me out of the driver’s seat. Now it feels like a fight for survival. It suddenly feels like there’s miles of open water yawning beneath my feebly kicking feet, like the ocean itself is a living thing pulling me and my kid out.

I shout at him to go back to the shore, but he’s six — he’s a worse swimmer than I am, and though he’s doggie-paddling dutifully toward shore, he’s drifting even closer to me. I throw a glance over my shoulder at the float — it’s even farther away now, which seems impossible. My thinking brain sends up one last smoke signal that bubbles through my lizard-brain haze: It’s a five-dollar float, you idiot, help your kid!

With that, I hook two fingers into my kid’s swimming vest and paddle back toward the shore in earnest. We make it back without a fuss. My wife’s looking at me a bit oddly — to be fair, I’m a bit more spluttering and wide-eyed than usual. I turn around and look for the float; it’s basically a speck, floating a quarter-mile out from the shore. To make matters worse, it pretty much stays there for the next hour or so.

And I just have to watch it. And feel shame.

So.

Since it’s Metaphor Monday (when was the last one of those??), this is the part where I say this thing is like writing, and man, it’s easy to do. Sub in my project (or, in fact, yours, faithful reader) for the float, and you’re done.

I allowed myself to be distracted and took my eye off the float for a moment; next thing I know, the circumstances (my kid flipping the raft, the current, maybe even the wind, who knows?) had the thing out of reach and quickly drifting farther away. This is my writing project: you take a little break from it, and the tiniest things can push it away — out of convenient reach, where it doesn’t feel like you can get around to it, or out of mind entirely, where you don’t even think about it for a little while.

Next moment: I’m paddling after it but I’m in over my head, and I’m panicking as a result. I look up, in other words, and see that the project has gotten away from me, so I panic and make it a lot more important than it is. (If I don’t write a little bit today, I may never get it back.) Not to mention, I’m not the strongest swimmer (writer!) so even paddling after it feels like not making any progress at all — I sit down to write and feel like I just can’t do it, or I try to brainstorm on the project but my mind immediately wanders. Bang, it feels like I’m in a fight for my life — or, at the very least, the life of my project.

Next moment: I realize my kid is out here with me and decide to let the float go. In other words, I grasp that my family is still here on vacation with me and not going anywhere, and the choice of where to spend my time seems suddenly very obvious. I grab the kid and swim for shore — I give up on the project (again) and let it float away, as frustrating and painful as that may be.

Finally: I have to sit there and watch the float bobbing on the waves a quarter mile out from shore, unable to do anything about it. Well, that one’s obvious, too — no matter how much distance I get from the project, it’s never really gone — it just hangs there in the back of my mind (or, as t’were, floating on the horizon of my subconscious) waiting for me to swim out and get it. Perhaps taunting me. Because now, the work required to get it back is, admittedly, huge.

Interestingly, that’s where the metaphor breaks down — because while the float is well and truly gone no matter how frustrated I get or how silly I feel (or how much I lament the fact that it will probably end up choking some poor unsuspecting sea animal — and that does hurt my heart, unless it’s a shark, because seriously, I’VE SEEN JAWS), the project is not in any way gone. In fact, I sat down just this morning to put some words on the page and, while I’m nowhere near on the timeline I wanted to be, the project feels very much in reach again.

Writing, in other words, is just like riding a bike. Doesn’t matter how much time you take off, it’s right there waiting for you when you decide to go back to it.

Wait, that’s a different metaphor entirely. Damn.

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Fail-Safe


Fail-safe does not mean what you think it means.

I mean, okay, sure, language is fluid, meanings are not fixed, words mean what we agree they mean. But origins of words can be instructive. So: fail-safe.

thought it meant some kind of device (or in a more informal, metaphorical sense, a procedure) that would keep another device from failing. Kinda like anti-lock brakes. It’s raining out, you slam on the brakes, which makes you skid, which makes you crash — the anti-lock brakes kick in, keep you from skidding, help you avoid the crash. Fail-safe.

Wrong!

Fail-safe was a term they invented for nuclear weapons. (I learned this reading Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, which is fantastic for exploring the limits of just how wide you can open your eyes in disbelief.) In their early days, especially, there was a great deal of unease that the warheads could be detonated by accident. (Spoiler alert: this fear has not been alleviated.) This was owing to the tremendous number of moving parts and interconnected systems (electrical impulses created by piezoelectric crystals crushed on impact powering explosive lenses which cause an implosion forcing the nuclei of radioactive atoms to fuse). Bombs have been accidentally dropped from airplanes more than once. Missiles have exploded on the launchpad or underground in their silos. Airplanes have crashed while carrying nukes. The fact that we haven’t had a self-inflicted nuclear explosion looks more and more miraculous after reading this book.

But it’s owing to these fail-safes. To really understand the concept, you have to think about what “failure” means. With a nuclear bomb, that’s easy. The bomb is designed to explode, and in the process of its explosion, to set off a nuclear reaction, leading to an even bigger explosion. How could that go wrong? Well, there’s the time factor: go off too early and you set the bomb off in your own backyard or in somebody else’s  backyard (which is not the kind of thing you can apologize for with a casserole and a check), go off too late and you have the same set of problems. Or, maybe it doesn’t go off at all, and you’ve deposited a radioactive paperweight in the countryside or the bottom of the ocean. Then there’s targeting: say the missile gets carried off course or the thrusters don’t fire or maybe you’re just dropping the bomb from a plane but it’s cloudy and you drop it on the wrong thing. Then there’s human error. Maybe some general gets crazy and hits the big red button out of turn. Or maybe some pilot performing maintenance on the plane mid-flight accidentally grabs the manual release lever and drops the bomb over North Carolina. (NOT THAT THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED OR ANYTHING seriously this book is horrifying.)

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That’s a lot of ways to fail. And you simply can’t prevent all of those things — especially the human error component. So what you can do is design your bombs

The fail-safes don’t stop the bombs from failing. Failure of a nuclear bomb would mean a crater miles across centered on some poor pig farmer’s backyard. The fail-safes ensure that, in the event of a failure, the bomb doesn’t do what it’s designed to do — in other words, in failing, the device remains safe.

Drop or launch the bomb by mistake, and it doesn’t arm, so maybe you put a hole in the aforementioned pig farmer’s backyard, but you don’t put a hole in Kansas. It fails, safely. In some cases, the bomb (which is to say the business end, the warhead) can even be repackaged, tuned up, and used once more.

Which is sort of a fascinating metaphor for the writer’s life, as it turns out. Because failure is EVERYWHERE, and it’s nothing short of miraculous that writers aren’t leaving radioactive craters in their wake everyday.

How, then, does the writer fail safe?

By having other things to focus on. Something — ANYthing — to take your mind off the fact that you just received ANOTHER rejection letter (or, worse, no letter at all!). The next project. The next query letter. Your next run or workout. Some dedicated family time. That book you’ve been meaning to read. Heck, just a walk around the block. SOMETHING. (May I recommend, if you’re the high-strung type, NOT reading Command and Control.)

How do you fail safe when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere?


Metaphor Monday: Jumpin’ Jellyfish – it’s notebook time!


Guest post today, which means — rarity of rarities! — we actually have Metaphor Monday on Monday!

Make sure you double back to Glenavailable’s Scenic Writer’s Shack once you’re done here.

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Jellyfish evaporate in the sun.

So do ideas if you don’t write them down.

That’s why for a large number of years I’ve kept a series of what I ambitiously refer to as ‘writer’s notebooks’ Those saddle-stitch bound, dog-eared ones from three decades past are long gone now of course, but I still have in my possession two dating back to the early 2000’s. Both spiral-bound, one sporting a bubblegum pink cover the other aqua-marine, together they’re overflowing with what might best be labelled ‘fragments’.

These fragments include overheard snippets of dialogue from real life, television and movies, lists of unusual people and place names, beginnings or middles of ideas for stories, life quotes, mixed metaphors, creative insults, lifted descriptive passages from news articles and novels, jokes, self-deprecating remarks, even a couple of useful phrases to pull off a 1980’s era Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation (” I got my uzi-nine millimetre!”). And all of it written in a penmanship so poor much of it is bordering on illegible.

I was leafing thru ‘aquamarine’ just the other day.

In it I found the aforementioned assorted bric-a-brac wordery, including obituary type notes for the late English actor Dudley Moore (1935 – 2002). My scribble included the date he passed away (which, checking now, I realize I had gotten wrong), the fact he was only five feet two inches tall and the description of him as a sex ‘thimble’. Clearly at the time I regarded this quip as worthy of recording but up until this moment I’ve never found the opportunity to repeat it.

On other occasions however I’ve had cause to be thankful only a relatively short time down the track from the original transcribing that I made the effort to jot down, often in the dark while watching a television screen, of some overheard one-of-a-kind wisecrack or pearly good utterance.

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The 29 acre island of Little Ross (complete with lighthouse) located off the southern coast of Scotland.

One relatively recent example of this occurred while viewing the despair-ridden and blood-splattered nightly bulletin known as the six ‘o clock news. On came one of those lighter human interest stories they insert to dilute the ‘stiff whiskey’ of the other stuff. Mention was made of a remote island lighthouse near Scotland called Little Ross that was up for sale. Highlighted was the tragic backstory of the lighthouse which included the murder of a previous lighthouse keeper back in 1960.

A summary of this news snippet made it into my most prized black-speckled notebook. This in turn launched an on-a-whim research splurge conducted on-line and amongst the shelves of my local library which culminated in the writing of a short story about two lighthouse keepers who drive each other to distraction due to the late-evening piano playing habits of one of them. And in direct homage to the bits ‘n pieces power of the writer’s notebook, this story then went on to appear in a November issue of the digital literary magazine RUMBLEFISH PRESS.

I have another notebook (apricot orange with horizontal white stripes and multicoloured section dividers) I use to record names. Unusual names. Names of distinction. Class names. So when Sloane Stephens mercilessly crushed Madison Keys in the U.S Open Women’s tennis final back in September… notebook time!

Sewer police

Only last night I was looking at a documentary on the making of 1949 British film noir THE THIRD MAN. In it they mentioned the sewer police featured in the chase scenes filmed amidst Vienna’s underground canal system were not hired actors but real-life lawmen whose ‘beat’ was the subterranean depths of the below-the-city waterways. The words ‘sewer police’ struck me as  unusual enough to warrant recording, so once again … notebook time! (The black speckled one).

Might ‘sewer police’ make it into a piece of writing I embark upon in the near or distant future? Who knows? And that’s part of the mystery and charm of writer’s notebooks. You can never be certain if there’ll be any future use for the snippet you’ve thought worth preserving. But similar to playing the stock market, naturally you live in hope your investment will pay a nice dividend somewhere down the track.

Writer’s notebooks that are intended on capturing and recording random ear and mind candy comprising everything from flavoured phrases and witticisms to funny, touching and dramatic dialogue and quotable quotes (“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” came from a viewing of the 2016  Catherine Zeta Jones-starring DAD’S ARMY last week and it’s extremely tempting to remark that line was one of the few highlights of the entire movie) are at the very least a way of clocking in. They’re also a way of furthering one’s lifelong love affair with words and can always be surfed later for inspiration.

Viva la writer’s notebooks!

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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.


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.


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