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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:

Image result for riptide warning signs

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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Metaphor Monday: Carpet Conundrum


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so good after all.

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

So I wonder:

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

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

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

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

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


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.

 


Metaphor Monday: The Garden


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.

I was running through the neighborhood a few days ago, and I noticed something I don’t usually pay that much attention to: gardens.

We have a family down the street from us who moved in about a year ago, and one of the first things they did was till up a corner of their side yard to make room for a cozy little garden. My wife and I kind of sniggered at that: we (well, she) tried to cultivate a tiny garden many years back and it went wrong right away. The Georgia summer is pretty ruthless, and when you’re not organized enough to remember to water it or fertilize it or, you know, any of the things that make gardens work, it doesn’t take long for the weeds and the kudzu to reclaim your work.

But this garden is working. It isn’t the prettiest thing — the creeping grass and rampant weeds threaten it on every side, and it leans sort of precariously on the side of a hill leading down toward the street — but there are definitely things growing in it that look edible. A few scrawny tomatoes dangling on the vine. One or two leafy heads of something poking up through the dirt. And I realized that our garden didn’t fail because there was something wrong with the climate, or with our yard; the problem was with us.

A garden takes devotion. You can’t just work at it a couple of days a week, or when the weather is nice, or when you get a free afternoon. You have to make the time for it every day. Watering. Weeding. Fertilizing. Checking pH levels or something, I don’t know. You have to return to it every day like a monk to his prayers, even when it seems like nothing is happening (because so much of the growth happens out of sight, before you can see it).

A garden takes time. You don’t plant seeds on Monday and feast on Friday. It takes a season, or perhaps a couple, before you can hope to see the fruits of your labor. That means patience; knowing that the work you’re doing means something, even when it feels useless. It means sacrificing hours and hours of time you could spend doing other things (OMG OMG THE NEW GAME OF THRONES IS OUT DID YOU SEE ED SHEERAN HOLY CRAP just kidding I don’t watch Game of Thrones who has that kind of time) to plunge your hands into the earth.

A garden takes defending. Nature doesn’t give a handul of hot fargos that you’re trying to Do A Thing, to get in touch with your primordial roots and grow your own food off the land. Nature has insects and vermin to feed and green things to grow, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to let some kudzu and clover take over the space you’re using for a garden than to cultivate a couple of tomatoes. Your garden will be beset on all sides by weeds and vines and all sorts of things that will kill it if left to their own devices, and there’s no easy solution. Pesticides? Those come out in the food you were hoping to eat. Weed-killer? Surprise, it’s just as happy to eat your cauliflower. The only way to keep your garden safe is to pull them out by hand — and that takes that time we were talking about up there.

And that’s writing, innit? Or fill in That Thing You Want To Do, and it’s that thing, too. You can’t just do it when it feels good, you have to return to it every day, without fail, even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. You have to sink hours and hours into it at the expense of more normal things. And you have to defend it like a mother bear, else the vermin and weeds of the world will destroy it, mercilessly and without hesitation.

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Not the garden in question, but a nice local one nonetheless!

I run past that garden, and it isn’t much, but it’s surviving. And I can’t help but think of the garden in my head: the one I don’t have the time or the energy for right now, the one that is choked to death with weeds of uncertainty over this move (still in limbo!).

And I really want to get my hands dirty.


Throw the Bloody Ball


The Donald will not be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for the Nationals’ baseball season this year.

Big deal. There are more important things to worry about, like his systematic destruction of the EPA, the selling of your internet privacy, the fact that his campaign almost certainly colluded with Russia and Republicans in Washington seem perfectly happy to look the other way.

But for an image-conscious president (and the DT is nothing if not image-conscious), this bloody well is a big deal.

Throwing out the first pitch is just another in a long line of Things Presidents Do that Donny has given the middle finger to. His staff says he’s busy, which is weak tea. When you ask somebody out and they say,  “sorry, I’m washing my hair that night,” you know there will be no hair-washing that night. Of course he’s busy. The president — and put aside the tepid list of his accomplishments thus far — is always busy. But you make time for things that matter, things that remind the country you’re a person, things which are symbolic. Which is why presidents have been doing This Thing for a century.

Baseball? The national pastime? As American as baseball? Nah. He’s busy.

I’ll put aside petty personal jabs about whether or not he could even get the ball across the plate (though for the record, my assessment there is: doubtful — tiny hands and all). The real reason?

He’d get booed.

Mercilessly. For an extended period. By a stadium full of people. On national TV.

Not by everybody, to be sure. There would be Trump fans in attendance. But a baseball game isn’t a Trump rally; he wouldn’t be insulated from the people who can’t stand him if he stepped out into the unfiltered masses of a ball game. He’d be stepping out of the warm, pillowy bubble of support that he lives in and going out into the harsh reality of the world.

He knows what his approval ratings are, even if he calls them fake news.

For Trump, it’d be stepping out into the desert.

He knows that if he steps onto that field and takes that mound, he’d be met with a chorus of boos unlike anything he’s ever heard in his life. And he can’t have it. His massive ego would blow out like the Snoopy balloon at the Macy’s parade. The narrative that “real Americans” support DT would unravel like a Christmas sweater the moment he met some real real Americans at a baseball game. Because unlike a Trump rally, a baseball game actually represents a pretty decent cross-section of a community.

And getting booed on a massive scale like that would shatter him, and shatter the cocoon he’s spun around himself.

Supporters can make all the excuses they want — this doesn’t matter, he has bigger fish to fry, etc — and they’re right, in writing. In the scheme of things, what this thing literally is doesn’t matter. But we also have to face reality.

Things always mean things, and it’s a “ceremonial” first pitch for a reason. This could be a humanizing moment for him. Symbols have that kind of power. Just being there would do wonders for his image, and who cares how the actual pitch goes? Obama’s was terrible, and he got booed, but he took it like a man. It’s not about the pitch, it’s about the moment, the optics. DT could do the same thing. Show some humility, some appreciation, some willingness to actually connect with people. Do a Thing Presidents Do instead of just letting Bannon take a dump in a blender and then turning the blender on in the middle of our democracy.

But no thanks. He’s busy.

And, come on. Odds are he couldn’t do worse than some of the worst first pitches in history.

Image result for baseball pitch fail gif


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