Category Archives: metaphor

The Marathon is Over


So, here we are.

There are a lot of political things to be said today and in the coming weeks, and they should be said by people smarter than me.

But I just want to point out that today is the finish line of a marathon. (To be fair, it’s a marathon that we thought ended two months ago, but just like the actual finish line of a race, it turned out to be just a bit farther off than it actually was.)

And at the end of a marathon, you see a sea of humanity. Some people are overjoyed. Some people are totally wrecked. Some are bewildered, delusional. You see people staggering about, zombie-like. You see people sprawled out, nearly lifeless, on the grass. You see people high-fiving and hugging strangers. (Maybe not so much this year. Y’know, COVID and all.)

Because a marathon is this incredibly demanding, physically destructive thing, right? You train and train and then on the day, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other for mile upon mile and you stop and catch your breath at the aid station but there’s really nothing to do except keep on running toward the next one and the sun’s getting higher in the sky and your nipples are chafing and that twinge in your ankle transforms to white fire with every step and all you hear, all you trust, all you know is the soft metronome of your footsteps, the muffled roar of the breath going in and out, the blood pumping in your ears.

We’ve all been through it over the last four years, and the last year, especially. We’ve all been running a mental marathon, and it’s been absolutely brutal.

No matter which “team” we’re on, 2020 was a rough one, and 2021 seems not to want to be outdone so far.

But we’ve all crossed the finish line, or at least, *a* finish line. There are more miles to be run. But not today.

Today is a day for celebration at reaching the end, it’s a day for nursing injuries. It’s a day for walking down the stairs backwards because your legs just can’t handle the strain.

And it’s worth remembering that all our neighbors have just run the same race, even if they’re not showing it on the outside. And even if, instead of the jubilation that I feel, they’re shell-shocked and lying at the grass or screaming at the sun in hopes of somehow changing reality.

Nobody’s mind is right after a marathon.

Take a few days, at least, to recover. And know that everybody else is recovering, too. And spread a little kindness.

Because a marathon is a hell of a thing to go through. We’ve earned a couple of mental rest days.


The Easy Way is Not Always the Right Way


In college, I had this roommate, Pete.

He was the nicest guy you could imagine; this gentle giant of a guy. Soft spoken, always smiling, the kind of guy who somehow always seemed ready to drop what he was doing to help you out with whatever minor inconvenience was on your mind at the minute.

Basically the polar opposite of me, which is an amusing enough happenstance, but not particularly relevant.

I don’t remember much about Pete, because I have the memory of a coked-up goldfish on its fortieth trip round the little castle with the little cage-helmeted deep-sea diver (“OMG what is THAT??”). But I will never forget this story.

It’s February. And it’s bloody cold outside; cold for Georgia standards (I was living in Athens at the time, Go Dawgs) and probably even cold for non-Georgia standards… I want to say temperature in the teens? For Georgia, heckin’ cold.

But Pete was from up North.

So when the winter weather came, he was prepared for it.

Anyway, it’s bloody cold out, and we had, overnight, had that just-a-hint-of-precipitation-that-threatens-to-turn-into-snow-but-never-really-does-down-in-Georgia stuff that leaves a sturdy sheen of ice and frost over car windshields and made for some treacherous walks down the front walk. (Georgia does this stuff remarkably, by the way. It comes down liquid and then freezes, so you’re left with this layer of crispy-crunchy-not-quite-snow over a compacted layer of ice. Nasty stuff to hit on the predawn roadways, and nasty to try to chip off your car.)

Ice Falling GIF by Lewis Automotive

But like I said, Pete’s from up North, so he’s totally unfazed. He grabs his marshmallow-man coat and heavy gloves and tromps outside to free his car from its icy prison. And he starts chipping away, like Tim Robbins digging his way to freedom in Shawshank.

And as he goes, he sees, a few units down, a woman, bundled up, walking toward her car, just a few spaces away from him.

A woman carrying a steaming cup.

Now, seeing somebody carrying a steaming cup in the cold weather is no big deal, because coffee’s a thing, right? But still, something resonates in Pete’s lizard brain and he looks again. It’s not a coffee cup she’s carrying. It’s an oversized plastic kitchen cup, a re-usable big-gulp. With no lid. Which can only mean one thing.

It’s boiling water she’s brought out to thaw her windshield out in a big damn hurry.

“Ma’am, don’t!” Pete cries.

She looks at him. Says nothing. Cocks her head sideways that way dogs do.

“You don’t wanna do that. Give me a second, I’ll come scrape your windshield for you.”

I can’t speak to what this woman’s life experience was. I can’t tell you what made her so grumpy, so unresponsive to a good-faith offer of help, so contrary to not only decline Pete’s offer, but to do so with gusto, with flair, with joy, the way she did. I can only report that she sneered, shouted at him, “Oh, PLEASE. I don’t need your help,” and tossed the steaming contents of her cup onto her windshield.

Which promptly spiderwebbed and sank into the front seat of her car.

Look, we get a lot of transplants in Georgia. It’s entirely possible she was from Louisiana or Texas or sunnier states out west, and this was her first brush with snow and cold weather, and she had no idea what rapid thermal expansion can do to a windshield. But there she was, uninformed, presumably in a hurry, certainly not wanting to be inconvenienced by perfectly sensible and, under the circumstances, necessary measures to solve the problem at hand. And rather than accept the help that was offered to her — by somebody who knew what he was talking about, by somebody who was offering to give up some of his time and convenience to help her out, by somebody who just wanted to do right by her — she went ahead with her own thing and ruined her morning (to say nothing of costing herself several hundred dollars) in the process.

I think about that a lot, lately, in the face of current events.

Over 350,000 people have died in this country because so many of us think the way to solve ice on our windshield is to throw boiling water on it.


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.)

atomic-bomb-1011738_1280

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?


The Doors of “Frozen”: Subconscious Storytelling At Its Best


You know that song from the opening third of Frozen? Princess Anna has just met Prince Hans (who she doesn’t yet know is a scheming sharknadobag) and starts singing. And because it’s a Disney musical, of course Prince Hans is ready to start singing right along with her. And dancing. Okay, I’m not here to kvetch about the willful suspension of disbelief; we’re talking about a fantasy story with talking snowmen and ice-casting princesses. (And don’t forget about the rock turds. I mean trolls. Even though they’re turds. For some reason I hate those things.)

Nope, today it’s the extended metaphor of doors. “Love is an open door,” Anna and Hans sing, and somehow I didn’t catch it on first viewing, but the movie is shot through with the door metaphor.

After Anna is injured, the parents separate the sisters by giving them separate rooms; and Elsa’s door is locked. After the parents die and Anna and Elsa are left alone, the door remains closed and Anna lingers outside it. She could just open it and talk to her sister, but she doesn’t — the door has become its own barrier, symbolic of the growing divide between them. In her very next song, Anna sings about opening up the gates of the castle, and how long it’s been since that happened.

Then, of course, it’s “love is an open door”, and we’re on to the second half of the movie, where Anna follows her sister into the wilderness only to find she’s built herself a totally badass ice castle, but she hesitates right on the threshold of — the giant ice door. (Quoth the snowman: “why doesn’t she knock? Do you think she knows how to knock?”) The doors in the ice castle are massive, but Elsa can open them with just a thought — they really are simply barriers of the mind, not the impenetrable barriers Anna takes them for.

The final third of the movie finds both the sisters trapped by the now-evil Prince Hans: Elsa in a dungeon, Anna in a sumptuous castle bedroom. Of course, both cells feature locked doors the princesses cannot escape. How will they overcome their captivity? Elsa channels a bit of power and counters the locked door with an exploded window, while Anna gets rescued by her childhood snowman, who picks the lock with his disembodied nose. It’s a funny moment, but viewed another way, Olaf the snowman seems like the purest manifestation of love in the story, so of course he can open any door he encounters. (Think back: “why doesn’t she just knock?” Doors are not a problem for him.)

The movie ends with the sisters reunited and committed to tearing down the barriers between them (blah blah an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart blah). And how does the movie end? With Elsa vowing that the gates will forever remain open. Probably not the greatest policy in terms of security, but for symbolic significance between the sisters, it’s as rich as it gets.

So I guess it should shock nobody that Disney knows how to give good story, but the extended metaphor of the door in Frozen shows how story elements can function behind the scenes to do subconscious work on an audience.

AnnaDoor

This mini-essay is a part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. This week’s prompt: “door”.


Metaphor Monday: The Painted Closet


Metaphor Monday is a new thing we’re trying out around here. Every week, I’ll pick a thing and compare it to another thing. Probably writing, since that’s what this blog is about, but who knows? Metaphors are awesome. Alliteration, doubly so. Got a suggestion for next week’s metaphor? Drop it in the comments. And yeah, I’m a day late today — you’ll see why below.

We’re moving (finally!) and as a result, most of my thoughts bend in that direction. The whole affair got delayed and postponed and we ran out of time this summer to deal with it the way we would have liked, and now we’re having to rush through things. Instead of two weeks to sort our lives out before we got back to work, we were left with more like two days, so it’s a frantic rush of movers and building furniture and unloading boxes and the house looks like a war zone if the war were fought between rival manufacturers of styrofoam peanuts.

So we’re hustling to get the kids’ rooms painted (because if we don’t do it now, it’ll never happen), and I catch my wife sort of staring into the closet. Hands on hips. Thoughtful frown on her lips.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“I don’t know if I can handle these closets,” she says.

I look. While most of the rest of the house is immaculate, the closets are not — especially the ones in the kids’ rooms. They were obviously occupied by kids before, and bear the scars of it. Dings and chips in the drywall where toys or sporting equipment were chucked heedlessly in. Aimless, careless scribbles in crayon and marker — not a design or an attempt at artwork, just an outburst of uncertain creative energy.

I shrug. “It’s a closet.”

“I know, but it’s going to bother me.”

Really? I’ve got bunkbeds to build and a rain forest in the backyard to trim down and about a bajillion boxes to haul up the stairs and you want to waste time painting a closet? Why? Who’s going to see it?

Come to think of it, I mean, when’s the last time you saw the back of your own closet, let alone anybody else’s? Leaving the closet in that state is a crime without a victim; literally nobody will ever know. I begin to protest, but I don’t get very far.

“No, I really want to paint over them.”

Happy wife, happy life, they say. So I go down to the basement in search of the primer. We crack it open and go to work with the rollers, and the job is done in less than an hour. We don’t even do a good job, really — the color’s not a perfect match to what’s in there already, and some of the really dark marks show through — but the closets look miles better.

And my wife is smiling a little more.

And so am I.

So, what’s a painted closet have to do with anything? Well, it’s exactly what it is: a lovely little detail that nobody else knows is there. It’s Van Gogh’s signature twisted into the whorls of a sunflower. An authorial flourish added, not for the well-being of the observer, but for the well-being of the author.

An oft-quoted bit of advice for the writer is “kill your darlings.” Generally, it means that those weird little things that you stuck into the work for your own benefit? Because they made you laugh, or amused you, without serving the story as a whole? Those are things which distract from the narrative, that seem to stand for bigger things and thus demand the reader’s attention, and then frustrate the reader when they don’t. They’re a waste of time, in other words. Everybody involved has better things to do. So they deserve, to butcher syntax in a way I feel rolls right off the tongue, to be got rid of. (Diagram that sentence, Ms. Finch!)

But a closet doesn’t take that much time to paint, and there’s the odd house guest who might poke their nose into the nooks and crannies of the place; wouldn’t we rather give them a nice, finished closet to look at rather than a pockmarked and graffitied (graffiti’d?) hidey-hole we hoped would never see the light of day?

By the same token, a story needs a few diversions. A few rabbit holes for readers to dive into, even if there’s nothing hiding at the bottom.

And, after all, a happier wife is worth an hour’s worth of work with a paint roller.

 


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