Tag Archives: symbolism

Baby Elephant Walk, or Juxtaposition Makes the World Go ‘Round


 

I haven’t been doing a ton of reading lately, but I have been working my way through a Stephen King novel that I picked up off the bargain rack: Cell.

It’s not the sort of earth-shattering powerhouse that The Stand was, but it’s in a similar vein: post-apocalyptic survivalist us-vs-them quest to save the world.

I’m not going to write a full review or anything, but I just wanted to share something. In the novel, much of humanity is turned into, essentially, zombies by a mysterious transmission on their cell phones (get it? Cell? Social commentary, whee!). But as part of the mysterious transmission, the affected zombies develop this sort of hive-mind shared consciousness and begin to swarm and flock and generally do all kinds of freaky, unsettling stuff.

But one motif that sort of threads through the whole thing — and serves to defuse the abject terror of the situation — is that the phone-crazies huddle together at night to rest, reboot, and listen to some truly terrible music. One such piece of music is Baby Elephant Walk, by Henry Mancini. And, well, I just took it as granted that it was a ridiculous bit of fluff — with a name like Baby Elephant Walk how could it be anything but ponderous, playful, and harmless?

But I got to the end of the novel and it came up again, and I realized I needed to know what exactly the Baby Elephant Walk was all about. So I googled it, and now I know that I knew what it was all along.

Yeah. That’s basically the zombies’ theme in this post-apocalyptic horror-show novel. Fargoing fantastic.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Right Place, Right Time


Yesterday was a rough day for a run. Long week at work, the spectre of even more long days next week (auditions are going to start up, so that’s after-school hours, HOORAY), and the general fatigue that the summer months and the summer heat have left me with — all of them took their toll. The alarm went off, and I’m not too proud to say it. I fell asleep again.

But something woke me up again, and I don’t know if it’s just the fact that I had set a goal to run four times this week or if something unremembered was tickling my subconscious, but there I was. I knew I had to get up. No cashing in my slacker tokens for a Friday sleep-in. It was time to lace up. (Okay, so I don’t “lace up” anymore since I’ve basically given up on running shoes, but it sounds cooler than saying “time to pull on my goofy-ass foot-gloves.)

And it wasn’t a miraculous run or anything. Pretty much as rough and unfun as any run for the past month has been. I almost don’t remember what comfortable running weather feels like — in my nightmares, it’s always 76 degrees with the relative humidity making it feel like 90. And then I wake up, and that’s the actual temperature. But at least the sky was clear.

And as I entered the first leg of my loop, I remembered — that’s why I wanted to run today. The Perseid meteor shower. I’m a little bit fascinated with the universe and with space in general, so celestial events like this hold a special obsession for me … even if I rarely get to see them. Living just outside Atlanta — one of the most light-polluted areas on the east coast — kinda puts a damper on any of those majestic sights. It would take a near supernova-level blast of light to penetrate the haze of ambient light that hangs in our night sky.

Still, every time a meteor shower rolls through, I cast my eyes skyward in hopes of seeing something, anything — a bit of first-hand evidence that there are bigger things out there, that the cosmos is still pushing and pulling at us. I’ve been disappointed every time. But this time, I saw it. A tiny flicker drew my attention up toward the southeast, and then, while I was trying to figure out if it might have been a meteorite or just a passing plane, it happened.

A shooting star. There one second, gone the next. Streaking across the sky like lightning late for a date. Blazing a glowing white scar in the black sky. Impossibly fast and impossibly bright, and then, just as impossibly gone. It was over so fast, I’m almost not sure I didn’t imagine it.

It was the only meteor that I saw, and if something hadn’t drawn my eye up at just that moment, I would have missed it.

I always get mixed up at things like this. The quiet, ineffable majesty of the cosmos works on me in ways I don’t properly understand. It’s easy to see how people mistake this sort of thing for the divine, how they read the machinations of a deity into these things that seem too awesome, too powerful, too magical for beings such as we to understand. And I could certainly fall into that trap myself, too; intimating meaning where there is none, insisting upon significance in the meaningless collision of a couple specks of galactic dust.

But things don’t always mean things. The universe doesn’t rearrange itself in order to inspire us or shock us or overwhelm us into epiphanies about the meaning of life. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, looking up at the right part of the sky.

But just because the beauty isn’t designed, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just because the falling star wasn’t set in motion for my benefit, doesn’t mean that I can’t benefit from it.

I finally managed to see a meteor — and a doozy, at that — not because it was my time to see one. I managed to see it because I’ve wanted to see one for years, and I keep doing the best I can to try and make it happen. This time, it worked out. Maybe next time the Perseids roll around, it will, too.

And that’s life, innit?

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Damn These Eggs!


Is there a better metaphor for a writer’s head than a basket full of eggs?

Basket, Egg, Quail Eggs, Natural Product, Small Eggs

You have all these ideas rattling around up there. Poorly formed, fragile little things, each one the seed of something incredible and amazing; each one the proto-soup that can — through a process indistinguishable from literal magic — turn into either a living, breathing, existing thing or your overcooked, barely-edible breakfast.

Consider.

The chicken squirts the egg into the world, full of goop and the building blocks of a fuzzy little baby chick, something it in no way resembles. This is your story at first conception: a seedling, a possibility, an otherwise inert lump of fats and possibilities.

Then it goes into incubation: the mother cares for the egg, shields it from harm and from the elements, warms it with the heat of her own body. So, too, must you protect your fledgling idea. A stiff breeze can scatter it like ash, a judgmental word from a friend can shatter it to pieces (that would never work!), and even your own self-doubt can cause the hapless critter to wither and die (I just don’t have the time, I don’t know how it would work, It’s too big/stupid/much-like-this-other-thing/cliche). It needs nurturing. It needs shelter. It needs to live in the secret heart of the writer for a while before it comes to light.

But one day, the incubation is over, the alchemy of life has worked its magic on the bundle of plasma and protein, and the egg begins to jolt. To judder. The chick within stretches and grows and pushes outward against the walls of its prison — walls it has outgrown — and goes casting for daylight. And it succeeds! First the beak comes thrusting through, then the whole head, and soon it’s nothing but wings and feet and feathers, and hey holy carp, the little monster is walking on its own. That moment comes with the story too: one day it can hardly abide the sunlight and your own doubts about it, the next it’s got legs of its own and it’s not only walking without support, it’s running in its race to be told, and it’s all you can do to keep up with it. Sure, it still stumbles, and sure, its wings aren’t fully-formed enough to fly, its feathers not developed enough to insulate it. But it’s alive, and there’s no stopping it.

Chicks, Babies, Black, Beige, Animal, Domestic, Chicken

With time, it grows; it learns to walk without stumbling, it learns how and where to find food, it even learns to fly (awkwardly) a little bit at a time. This, too, is your story: the longer you work with it, the more you get a feel for what works, the more it feels like the story is doing much of its own heavy lifting. It tells you when things aren’t right. It can solve problems for itself if you let it.

And eventually, that little baby chick gets to the point where she can have eggs of her own, and the whole process begins anew. And just like that, your own story will spawn ideas of its own; ideas related not just to the squawking, squalling storyworld it lives in, but worlds unto themselves, ideas to be incubated and saved for another time, another place.

But what if your idea isn’t meant to be a chicken? Well, some ideas aren’t cut out for it. And those ideas are food. Crack them open, extract the useful bits, stir them into a bowl with some other stories, cook off what results, and see if any of it is edible. Because an egg — or an idea — that goes unhatched and uncooked will pretty soon start to stink up the joint.

Egg, Eggshell, Broken, Yolk, Shell, Yellow, Egg Beater

And now, just because I enjoyed it last week, a list of egg-related writing metaphors.

If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break some eggs. Applies for characters in the story — sometimes you’ve just got to kill one or erase him completely — as well as ideas you thought were awesome at the beginning and that have turned into dog vomit along the way. Let ’em go.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Commit too fully to one idea — or even to one aspect of an idea — and you will inevitably be disappointed, because it doesn’t always work, and it definitely doesn’t always work out the way you expect.

Walking on eggshells. Sometimes you proceed with reckless abandon, sometimes you have to slow down and measure every step. Nothing wrong with this every now and then, as long as you don’t write the whole story like that.

 

And finally, my favorite egg-related moment in literature. From A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry:

Ruth: How do you want your eggs?

Walter: Any way but scrambled.

Ruth: (Scrambles eggs.)

And later in that scene:

Walter: Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. Woman say: eat your eggs. Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! Woman say: eat your eggs and go to work. Man say: I got to change my life, I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say: your eggs is getting cold.

A lovely snapshot of the dreamer against the pragmatist.

How else is an idea like an egg? Let me know in the comments!

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


More Riffing on Light and Dark


A couple of days ago, I penned a post about light and darkness, and the enduring, almost super-conscious symbolism contained within the dichotomy.

In short: Light = life, dark = death.

And we see it play out a thousand different ways in a thousand different tales:

The universe explodes forth out of darkness, and here, in our infinitesimal corner of a speck of a galaxy, a slow-burning star provides the heat and light necessary for life to take over our planet.

Cavemen huddle around a dwindling fire, both for the heat it provides and the fact that it keeps the predators away.

The lights go out in the house when you’re all alone, and that’s when the monsters (demons, ghosts, psycho killers) strike.

Macbeth: “Out, out, brief candle!”

And I riffed for a little while on just how ubiquitous the dichotomy is, and how universally recognizable it is, and I even fielded some ways in which I’m going to consciously work the idea into the books I’m working on.

And that got me thinking.

Can you reverse it?

I’ve been pondering over the last day or two on this idea: can you invent a storyworld in which darkness represents life, and light represents death? Okay, maybe you can do it, but you can technically do anything in a story: reverse gravity just for kicks, invent an alien race who, for fun, remove their genitalia and fling them at each other, cozy up to all sorts of talking flora and fauna. But those are concepts totally alien to us. They don’t have to compete with a preconceived notion already extant in our head; they simply have to carve out their own little weird space in our thinkparts.

The fact is, symbols mean only what we agree they mean. But light and dark are symbols that have been around and understood since before there was literature. Huddle up around the fire at night, walk during the day, and your odds of survival go up. Go wandering in the darkness, and sabre-tooth tigers will make kibble out of you.

Can you reverse such a powerful, subconscious symbol, even for the space of a single story, in the mind of your audience?

I can’t be the only person who’s had this idea. I’m sure it’s been done in films or books before, but all of a sudden my mind is racing like a jackrabbit on Jolt cola.

Maybe aliens come down and suck all the juice out of the Earth’s power grid, causing their ships and their bio-suits to glow. As long as we stay huddled in the dark, they leave us alone, but if you turn the lights on…

Or maybe there’s some long-forgotten beast slumbering beneath the earth, dug up by glory-seeking archaeologists. At first, it just sits there, inert and unmoving, since they dug it up at night. But the moment daylight strikes its ancient hide…

Or maybe I’m thinking too close to home. Maybe it’s the far-flung future, and we’ve found a perfect planet to colonize (you know, since we’ve either a: trashed the earth or b: a wandering asteroid has wiped it out or c: the sun burnt out and left the earth frozen… pick your apocalypse, we have a neo-earth situation here), except that it emits a particularly nasty brand of radiation, so that you can’t go out in the day lest you be burnt to a crisp…

Man, I dunno. Each one sounds dumber than the next, and I immediately start poking holes in those ideas. (Do the aliens only live on electric power? Is it just one monster, and is it only sunlight? What about indoor lights on the neo-earth, surely we still need light to see indoors…) Which brings me back to the question: can it really work?

Can a story teller create a world where darkness brings the life and the safety, and the light brings with it death and fear?

If you know of a story like this, I’d love to hear about it.


Symbols and Smoke Signals


Things stand for things, right? That’s the whole precept of language, of art, of stories, of life. The banding on that snake means that if it gets its fangs in you, you’re dead. Stay away. The presence of all these closed doors in this character’s life show you how trapped she feels. Let it go. That painting of a monkey doing a handstand on top of the tin man is symbolic of, you know, the struggle of the primitive against the technological. Or something. Or maybe it’s just some jacked-up Wizard of Oz fan art.

It’d be hard to identify a symbol as intrinsically symbolic as a flag, though. A closed door can be a symbol of entrapment or inaccessibility, but sometimes it’s just, y’know, a door. A flag, on the other hand, by its very nature stands for something. When you fly a flag, it’s a big announcement to the world that this is who I am, this is who we are, this is what we stand for.

Which is why I think this psychopathic racist kid with his shooting spree, in trying to set off a race war, has actually done something productive. Not with his murders, but by associating his particular brand of poison with a symbol.

This symbol.

The confederate flag has long been a troublesome symbol. On the one hand, it is, legitimately, a symbol of the Confederate States back at the time of the Civil War. And lots of people, especially in the South, have family that lived in the same area at that time. That probably died for that cause. And the flag is, for them, a symbol of their heritage, their family, their land. Flying the flag demonstrates their pride in that heritage. And the fact that they see it that way is fine.

Problem is, the Confederates were fighting, among other things, to retain the ability to keep slaves. So of course, the critics are quick to point out that to them, the flag is therefore a symbol of slavery. Flying a flag, then, becomes a statement in favor of slavery, in favor of segregation, in favor of any sort of racist thing you can think of. And the fact that they see it that way is fine.

Symbols are tricky things. They mean only what our society agrees they mean. We can all agree that the green light in The Great Gatsby represents the love Gatsby feels for Daisy, a love he will never actually reach, a light whose heat he will never feel. Or maybe it represents Daisy herself, again, perpetually out of his grasp, separated from him by a bay of misunderstandings and screwed-up ideals. There’s no controversy because either a) we all agree on its meaning or b) we can understand why others view it in a different way. With the Confederate flag, there’s no such agreement, because the people who hate it are morally and righteously offended by the people who fly it and the ideals they embrace, while the people who honor it don’t understand why the critics get so uptight about it. (Except for the racists who fly it because they’re racists. Screw the racists.)

And that’s where the conversation about the Confederate flag has been locked for, oh, I dunno, decades? No headway is made because these people have their view and everybody else can go to hell, and those people have their view and everybody else can go to hell, and everybody who decides to get involved in the discussion just ends up sore and pissed off over it.

Until this guy went and shot up a church after taking a ton of pictures of himself with the Confederate flag. You or me flying a Confederate flag outside our houses is a tiny splash in an enormous pond. A cold-blooded mass execution carried out while waving a Confederate flag around and posing, grumpy-faced, in front of a flag is a hundred-gigawatt, laser-guided broadcast via every major news network into every living room in the country.

It’s going to be a very, very long time indeed before anybody is able to see the Confederate flag without thinking of Dylann Roof. For better or worse, that means that for the time being, the Confederate flag is unequivocally and inarguably a symbol of racism, murder, and evil. The governors of South Carolina and Alabama have already moved to stop flying the flag over their state capitols, tradition and heritage be damned. This is a pretty remarkable thing. It might even be a historic thing. The flag won’t go away, but maybe it will move from front lawns into museums and history books, where it belongs. We can only hope the movement spreads.

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you might have heard that several major retailers are no longer going to be selling merchandise that features the confederate flag. They’ll cite any number of reasons, like inclusiveness or discouraging hurtful public statements or not wanting to be associated with controversy, but at the end of the day they’re pulling the merchandise from their shelves. Which is fascinating. Merchants are taking a stand, making a statement about this symbol. Saying that they don’t want to profit from it, that they don’t want to be associated with it.

Some will argue that those retailers are doing themselves a major disservice by losing out on sales of these items themselves, but more so by people who refuse to shop there because of the statement these companies are making. I’m no economist, but I feel like they’ll pull in as much business with their statement against this symbol as they cost themselves. But I don’t care about their bottom lines, I care that they care enough to put their dollars where their mouths are.

I read a brilliant short story earlier this year: The Appropriation of Cultures, by Percival Everett. In his story, a black man begins flying a rebel flag and urges others in his community to do the same, and within a few months, the Confederate flag becomes a symbol not of the South, but rather of civil rights activists. If only the real-world treatment of the symbol had been as nonviolent. Still, it shows a model, fictional or not, of how the meaning of a symbol can change.

Maybe we’re on the brink of making this symbol as a divisive force in our country a thing of the past. Maybe it can just be evil and we can lock it in a coffin and bury it far from daylight.


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