Category Archives: communication

Sidebar: Face of America?

Vitriol in Print

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain

I searched the Internet for metaphorical characterizations of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and got my eyes scorched (metaphorically, of course). What ever happened to, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? That was Every Mother’s chastisement, at least back in the 1950s. My own dear mom, were she alive, would primly disapprove of the (metaphorical) vitriol being (metaphorically) hurled at these two remarkable public servants.

I Googled “John McCain is a” and “Barack Obama is a” to see how the candidates are being represented metaphorically. Of course, I had to wade through a lot of nonsense and nonmetaphorical predicate nominatives: John McCain is a socialist, Barack Obama is a socialist, Barack Obama is an elitist, Barack Obama is a Muslim, John McCain is an old fart, John McCain is a coward, and so forth.

Hardly anyone had anything nice to say.

But when we go to our polling places next Tuesday, we will not be voting for a metaphor. We will be voting for a flesh-and-blood human being who might (metaphorically) be the face of America for the next four years. (Three different precincts vote in the church in which I live. Do you think any of these precincts is my precinct? No-o-o-o-o! I have to walk six blocks to Dewey Park!)

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama

The literal meaning of maverick, by the way, is “an unbranded range animal (especially a stray calf).” The term originated in 1867, referring to a “‘calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,’ in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of ‘individualist, unconventional person’ is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” —Online Etymology Dictionary

Here’s a sample of my search results (If many of these metaphors were on the mark, I would write in the name of my son-in-law, Paul, as I usually do when there’s no one on the ballot who deserves my vote, as was the case in 2004):

  • John McCain is a maverick
  • John McCain is a corporation’s worst nightmare
  • John McCain is a pirate
  • John McCain is a monster
  • John McCain is a superman
  • John McCain is a Walking Senior Moment
  • John McCain is America
  • Barack Obama is a Mac (and Hillary Clinton is a PC)
  • Barack Obama is a flake
  • Barack Obama is a terrorist’s best friend
  • Barack Obama is a blessing to the USA
  • Barack Obama is a popular Mii
  • Barack Obama is a work of art
  • Barack Obama is a disaster

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Everybody Wants to Be Happy

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 18
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

Someone Is Seething

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

 

It’s a good thing to let people know how much you like them. It’s strange but true that people usually forget to do that, but then when you see how the littlest compliment can make a person sit up lively you say to yourself, oh yeah. —Elizabeth Berg, Joy School

Objects

 

I asserted in Chapter 1 of this course that “reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are ‘more real’ and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs….” Our choices and actions are motivated by concepts, or abstractions — wanting, needing, wondering, questioning, grieving, imagining — not by objects.

Chapter 2 began with the observation that “everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is ‘a parade of odd and wonderful events.'”

If objects brought happiness, then the person with the most objects — the greatest number of possessions — would be the happiest. This is manifestly not the case.

  • Research has shown that the poorest people and the richest people are about equal on the happiness scale, which is to say that they are equally unhappy. It’s the folks in the middle – those who have enough, who enjoy what they have, and who enjoy sharing it – who are the happiest.
  • “Close relationships, more than personal satisfaction or one’s view of the world as a whole, are the most meaningful factors in happiness. If you feel close to other people, you are four times as likely to feel good about yourself than if you do not feel close to anyone. -Magen, Birenbaum, and Pery 1996” (1)
19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

A family scrimps and saves to buy a house. They find the cottage of their dreams, they agonize over whether to paint the parlor Eggshell or Winter White, they spend hours examining carpet samples that (to the untrained eye) look exactly alike. They put up tasteful wallpaper. They purchase “window treatments.” They reupholster Grandmother’s priceless Eastlake-style furniture. They decorate little Marianna’s bedroom to resemble a princess’s chamber, compete with four-poster bed and organza canopy.

One evening Dad has to work late, and when he finally turns his car into their cozy cul-de-sac, he sees that the cottage of their dreams is engulfed in flames. Is he worried about Grandmother’s furniture or the trendy window treatments? No; he has to be restrained by firefighters from charging into the burning building to rescue Mom and little Marianna. Nothing else matters. The objects aren’t important. He can’t breathe, he can’t think – until one of the firefighters guides him to a neighbor’s yard, where Mom and Marianna are sitting, shaken but otherwise unharmed, sipping hot chocolate. His world comes back into focus. All is well.

It is one’s abstract, intangible relationship to objects — not the objects themselves — that define one’s reality. Years ago I had to sell my father’s Morris chair, which I inherited when he died, in order to pay the rent. I loved that chair. It was comfortable. It was beautiful. It bore the indelible imprint of my dad’s bony butt. Years later, I bought another chair, a prettier, more comfortable chair, a “better” chair, as objects go. But I still miss the Morris chair.

Fantastic Security System

Fantastic Security System

It’s the intangibles that matter. Physical objects function as metaphors for feelings and ideas – which is not to say that food and shelter are unimportant but rather that they are important only in the context of our need and desire for them.

Do you sleep more peacefully at night because of your security system or the locks on your doors? You could feel just as safe with a pair of dragons guarding the house, or with the knowledge that all the bad guys had finally been incarcerated. Your goal is the intangible sense of safety, by whatever means it is achieved. Security systems, locks, dragons are nothing to you except as metaphors for safety.

Below is an excerpt from Guy Deutcher’s marvelous book The Unfolding of Language. It demonstrates how our language, and how all languages, for that matter, are strings of metaphors – not used in poetry or in poetic prose but in practical, everyday speech and writing.

Metaphors are everywhere, not only in language, but also in our mind…. Metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us… because metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction….

Metaphors which have become commonplace… are dismissed asdead metaphors…. They have come to be used so often in their metaphorical abstract sense that all semblance of their former vitality has been lost and they have firmly established themselves as the stock-in-trade of ordinary language….

People speaking of troubles brewing, anger simmering, resentment boiling, fanaticism fermenting, employees seething (literally: “boiling”) with discontent. People chew over new suggestions and digest new information…. We can have sweet dreams, bitter hatreds, sour relations, or half-baked ideas….

Someone Is Seething

Someone Is Seething

* * *

Sarah was thrilled to discover that the assessment board had decided to make her barmy rival redundant, after she suggested that he had made sarcastic insinuations about his employers….

Almost every word in [the sentence above]… was once a thriving image. If one puts the flesh back on these dry bones, and restores them to their original vitality, the result will be something like this:

Sarah was pierced to un-cover that the sitting-by plank had cut off to make her full-of-froth person-from-the-river overflowing, after she carried-under that he had made flesh-tearing twistings about those who fold him.

  • The word “thrill”… goes back to an Old English verb thyrlian, which originally meant “pierce” (and, incidentally, is related to the word nos-thryl, “nostril,” or “nose-hole”)….
  • “Rival” comes from Latin rivalis, meaning someone who shares the same river….
  • “Suggest” comes from Latin sub-gerere, “carry under”….
  • “Employ” comes ultimately from Latin plicare, “to fold”….

One could pick hundreds of other examples of abstract concepts, and the result would always be the same. They can’t help but go back to some terms from the physical world. Quite simply, then, metaphors flow from the concrete to the abstract because we need them to….

Suppose for a moment that there was no word around to describe “having” something. How would you go about expressing the notion? …Many languages today (most, in fact) don’t have a verb that corresponds to the English “have,” and so they use other ways of expressing possession…:

Russian
U menja kniga
at me book
“the book (is) at me” (= I have a book) ….

So or Soo (a Kuliak language, spoken in Uganda)
mek Auca eo-a kusin
aren’t Auca home-in clothes
“Clothes aren’t in Auca’s home” (= Auca has no clothes)….

Scratch a bit deeper… and you will find hundreds of metaphors that are no longer even identifiable remains, but merely dried-up skeletons whose original literal meanings have long been lost….

  • But comes from Old English be-utan, “by the outside.”
  • Except comes from Latin ex-cipere, “out-shut.”

[The author goes on to point out that “common intuition” understood the connection between space and time thousands of years before Einstein.] In language – any language – no two domains are more intimately linked than space and time…. We invariably speak of time in terms of space… [because] we think of time in terms of space. Consider some of the simplest words we use to describe spatial relations: prepositions such as in, at, by, from, to, behind, with, through. The examples below… show that all these spatial terms function just as well in the domain of …[time relationships]: 

Spatial relations already entail some degree of abstraction, since they are not things of substance that can directly be observed. (You cannot point at a “through,” for instance, any more than you can directly observe an “in.”) So might words for spatial terms in fact develop from something even simpler and more solid?

…There is hardly any part of the body which has not been enlisted as a metaphor for spatial and more abstract concepts, as the following examples illustrate.

“belly” →  “middle,” Albanian
në bark të javës
in belly-the week (= the middle of the week) ….

“mouth” → “in front of,” Mursi (spoken in Ethiopia)
dori tutuo
house mouth.of
“mouth of the house” (= in front of the house)

 (1) The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven, Ph.D

Next: Metaphorical You

The Darkness. Is Dark.

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Assignment 17.2
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

Working Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

Figure 1: Working Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

 

Perpetrating truculent profligacies can put you in a pickle

First, review our working definitions of art, poetry, and verse (above).

There is such a thing as bad writing, which, simply put, is writing that doesn’t communicate well. I suppose that bad poetry exists, too, though I prefer to think of it as “amateur verse.” Poetry, as we’ve discussed, generally requires some knowledge of rhetorical devices and the disciplined application of them.

Below are excerpts from poems appearing in the New American Poetry Anthology* (1988 edition). The NAPA sponsored a competition and, one infers, accepted most of the entries, calculating that the poets whose work was published would buy copies of the book (at $50 each plus shipping; back then, $50 got you a couple weeks’ worth of groceries). There are some fine examples of poetry in this book, although the excerpts below are not among them. Common themes are loneliness, love lost, love found, regret, aging, and, of course, The Darkness, with its pesky ineffable primitivities.

Amateur Verse?

Table 1: Amateur Verse?

I do not criticize the poets. Their sentiments are often moving, even heart-wrenching. The NAPA exploits the poets and their emotions, however, by characterizing amateur verse (lines of dubiously metrical text) as prizewinning poetry in order to make a profit.

Please copy the table, add your comments to mine (column 2) based on our working definition of poetry, on what you’ve learned about rhetorical devices, and on your subjective responses to the poems. E-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Feel free to disagree with my opinions and offer your justification for doing so. I will not grade your submission, but I will return it to you with comments.

_______

* Not to be confused with Donald Allen’s 1960 project The New American Poetry

Next: Everybody Wants to Be Happy

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Sidebar: Crisis? What Crisis?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

crisis: c.1425, from Gk. krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei- “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai “to explain;” O.E. hriddel “sieve;” L. cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime,” cernere (pp. cretus) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar, O.Welsh cruitr “sieve;” M.Ir. crich “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=crisis

A Time to Decide

When my older son, Jack, was 3, he barrelled through an enormous plate-glass window – more of a wall, actually – and emerged unscratched, though we were in Arizona and it was 104 degrees and he was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt. About two years later, on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, he had a bit of a tantrum and launched a fist through a window in our dining room and cut his wrist. There was quite a lot of blood, so I called Dr. Cherven at home – you could do that, in Hutchinson, Kansas, in those days – and Dr. Cherven instructed us to meet him at the hospital.

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

Both Jack (the window-shattering culprit) and I were terrified, though the hospital was only a five-minute drive from our house. A nurse in the emergency room confirmed that the cut was crisis-worthy, and moments later Dr. Cherven strode in, wearing jeans and a tattered plaid shirt – he had been replacing storm windows with screens in his Victorian house. He scrubbed his hands, picked up Jack’s wrist, wiped away the blood, and uncovered a superficial cut hardly worthy of a Band-Aid. Crisis diffused. More accurately, crisis unmasked. The child had skin like new rubber.

Parents of active and fearless children learn to be cautious in their use of words such as crisis and emergency. These are volatile terms. When you apply them to situations, particularly those involving loved ones, they are stress-inducing, to say the least. Blood rushes to the heart, which starts pumping like a jogger in subzero temperatures.

What you need to do then is, you need to breathe evenly and focus on your toes. Seriously. This reminds your body that it has components other than the heart. Merely paying attention to your toes causes blood to flow there, your heart stops pounding in your ears, and you can make a rational decision.

The origin of the word crisis suggests “time to make a decision,” not “time to panic.” With apologies to anyone who is without genuine necessities due to the current financial climate – food, shelter, medical care, and so forth – an unstable economy is not cause for panic.

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

I am reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers‘s mystery novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which one of the club’s members observes, “I say, you fellows, … here’s another unpleasantness. Penberthy’s shot himself in the library. People ought to have more consideration for the members.” Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, uncovers the murderer (Penberthy did not shoot himself) in his trademark quirky style, unruffled and scrupulously attired throughout.

Might I suggest that we emulate the British and adopt the practice of understatement? I wish that American journalists would do so… but then, it requires less ink (in newspapers and magazines) and less air time to say “financial crisis” than it would to say “financial unpleasantness.”

 

Poetic Devices

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 16
Chapter 6: Figuratively Speaking

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849
The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849

 

Figures of speech are tools of poetry. Please do not even think about memorizing this list. The most important concepts are those in bold type.

Figures of Speech (Rhetorical Devices)

Figures of speech are linguistic tools that turn plain writing into art. They are words or phrases used in nonliteral, unexpected ways — for any of a hundred reasons, including

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

* emphasis
* elaboration
* dramatic effect
* tone (resonance, smoothness, softness, roughness…)
* clarity
* deliberate ambiguity
* shading
* freshness
* humor

 

Figures of speech are sometimes classified as schemes and tropes. There is, as you can see, a good deal of overlap between schemes and tropes.

Schemes

Figures of speech involving the arrangement (balance, order, repetition, or omission) of words or sounds

Balance

Parallelism-Repetitive use of a grammatical element (in the example below, repetition of gerund phrases)

Standing on the corner, watching all the world go by;
Standing on the corner, giving all the girls the eye. (1)

Antithesis-Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

When they met, Alice was pure uptown; Jake was down on his luck.

Word Order

Anastrophe-Departure from usual word order

[Death] dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell —John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet 10 (“Death, be not proud”)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Parenthesis — A clarifying word or phrase within a sentence, set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses

My friend, the writer I was so jealous of, would call and say, like some Southern belle, “I just don’t know why God is giving me so much money this year.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (2)

Four of the church’s elders — all women — …were having a prayer meeting. — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Appositive — A parenthetical element that defines or renames (is in apposition to) an adjacent element (In the example below, the “something” that “glittered in her eyes” was “tears or old memories.”)

Something glittered in her eyes — tears or old memories…. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Repetition

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.” — C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Assonance — Repetition of a vowel sound or similar vowel sounds

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. — W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (The poem opens with the words, “That is no country for old men,” from which American author Cormac McCarthy drew the title of his 2005 novel. The film adaptation 2007 film adaptation earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

Anaphora — Beginning successive clauses or phrases with the same word or group of words

I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim,
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea,
not from the shafts of nature nor from the spheres of the firmament,
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire. — Rumi

Epistrophe — The same word or phrase used to end consecutive clauses. (The following example illustrates both anaphora [“They compassed me about”] and epistrophe.)

And all nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.
They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. —
Psalm 118:10-12

______________

* aposiopesis: A break or pause in speech for dramatic effect

Paul grabbed hold of Haffner’s shirt, tearing seams. “If you had anything to do with Eve’s murder — ”
— Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

* apostrophe: Addressing a personified abstraction or inanimate object

0 Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light. —
Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star”

* cacophony: Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. — Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky

* consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final consonants of accented syllables, often within a short passage of verse

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

This is why I live here,
this immaculate occasion once
a day. Desert turns to fairyland,
early-morning light turns drab
dead gray to glory, wind stirs
sunlit leaves like thirty kinds of
lettuce, green and gold, green
and gold, limb motion whispers;
creosote and squat mesquite
quiver in devotion —
sweet-smelling, sunlight-drenched, still
cool and fresh and equal to the
coming heat. —
Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* enjambment: A breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses.

I wonder — How can people find
the world such a contaminated
kind of place when sunlight
reaches into every pore of
being — sanctifying, desiccating foul
detritus of anxiety and indolence? — Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* euphony: The opposite of cacophony — pleasant sounding, perhaps mellifluous

Lord Byron's House in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Lord Byron's house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o’er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. — Lord Byron, “She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night”

* homographs: Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning

Claire ripped the ruffle off her petticoat and wound it around the delirious soldier’s wound.

* homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning.

key: “metal piece that works a lock,” from O.E. cæg
key: “low island,” 1697, from Sp. cayo “shoal, reef” (3 )

* homophones: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation but differing in origin and meaning (led and lead, for example)

* hyperbole: Exaggeration beyond reason (“Yo’ mamma” jokes are hyperbolic: “Yo’ mamma so fat she got her own ZIP code.”)

* isocolon: Juxtaposition of parallel structures of the same length in adjacent clauses: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

* internal rhyme: The presence of rhyming words in a single line of verse

…where
children, hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing in the
breeze. Inside, bread rises in the oven, herbs depend from
oaken beams, and last night’s chicken in its steaming broth
becomes this evening’s stew,
tomorrow’s casserole. — Mary Campbell, “On This Side”

Yeast bread rising before baking

Yeast bread rising before baking

* non sequitur: A statement that marks an abrupt, and often puzzling, change of subject

* onomatopoeia: The quality (of a word) of sounding like what is described: the buzzing of bees, the bark of a dog; a hacking cough; hiss; murmur, thrum

* pun: Use of a word or phrase in two different senses at the same time

* sibilance: Alliteration in which the letter or sound of S is repeated

* superlative: Unequaled; uttermost

* spoonerism: Interchanging of (usually initial) letters of words with amusing effect (“Madam, may I sew you to your sheet?”)

* tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice (“Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”; “I decided to go to New York because it was my decision to go to New York.”)

* tmesis: Division of the elements of a compound or other multisyllabic word (Example: “Hoo-freaking-ray”)

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. —Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Tropes

In linguistics, trope is a rhetorical figure of speech that consists of a play on words — that is, using a word in a way other than what is considered its literal or expected form. The other major category of figures of speech is the scheme (see above), which involves changing the pattern of words in a sentence.

Trope comes from a Greek word meaning “a turn, a change.” We can imagine a trope as a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, or turning it into something else.

Types of Tropes

Metonymy — Using a word associated with an object or idea for the object or idea itself (e.g., referring to actions of the U.S. president as “actions of the White House”)

Irony — A word are phrase used in a way that is opposite to its standard meaning, such as describing poverty as “good times”

Simile — An explicit comparison between two things using the word like or as (“When she was angry, she was as fierce as a tiger,” and “When she was angry, she was like a tiger” are examples of simile; “When she was angry, she was a tiger” exemplifies a metaphor.)

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Metaphor — Representation of an object or idea — often intangible —using a tangible, dissimilar substitute (“My mother had a cocker spaniel’s eyes and a lion’s heart.”)

Synecdoche — Related to metonymy and metaphor, creates a play on words by referring to something with a related concept: for example, referring to the whole with the name of a part, such as “hired hands” for workers; a part with the name of the whole, such as “the law” for police officers; the general with the specific, such as “bread” for food; the specific with the general, such as “cat” for a lion; or an object with the material it is made from, such as “bricks and mortar” for a building

Allegory — A sustained metaphor, carried through entire stories, sometimes even long works of literature, such as The Faerie Queen. An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject. Aesop’s Fables are usually short allegories.

______________

* allusion: An indirect reference to a quotation, event, or work of literature. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” is a common allusion to Judy Garland’s famous line in the (1939) film version of The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

* anthimeria: The substitution of one part of speech for another, often turning a noun into a verb

* anthropomorphism: A word or phrase that ascribes human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)

* aphorism: A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion, an adage

* aporia: Deliberating with oneself, often with the use of rhetorical questions

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

* archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language)

* catachresis: A mixed metaphor (sometimes used on purpose and sometimes by mistake)

* circumlocution: “Talking around” a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis

* commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience.

* double negative: Redundant repetition of negative words (“I don’t have no money.”)

* dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism.

* erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question

* euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another (e.g., downsizing for layoffs)

* hypophora: Answering one’s own rhetorical question at length

* innuendo: Sly suggestion; hidden meaning

* invocation: An apostrophe to a god or muse

* malapropism: Confusing a word with another word that sounds similar (“Put your hand in the hand of the man who spilled the water.”)

* meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something

* metonymy: Substitution of a related word or phrase for a larger idea.

Many standard items of vocabulary are metonymic. A red-letter day is important, like the feast days marked in red on church calendars. Red tide, the marine disease that kills fish, takes its name from the color of one-celled, plantlike animals in the water…. On the level of slang, a redneck is a stereotypical member of the white rural working class in the Southern U.S., originally a reference to necks sunburned from working in the fields. — Connie C. Eble, “Metonymy,” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992

* neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism.

* oxymoron: Contradiction in terms; using two terms together that normally contradict each other (e.g., “sour sweetness”)

* parable: An extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson

* paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth

* parallel irony: An ironic juxtaposition of sentences or situations (informal)

* paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over

* pathetic fallacy: Ascribing human actions or feelings to nonhuman objects

* periphrasis: Using several words instead of few

* personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena (see pathetic fallacy)

* proverb: A succinct or pithy expression of what is commonly observed and believed to be true

* rhetorical question: A query that doesn’t require an answer

* superlative: Uttermost: the ugliest, the most precious, etc.

* synecdoche: A form of metonymy in which a part stands for the whole (Example: “Keep your nose out of my business.”)

* truism: A self-evident statement

* zoomorphism: Animal characteristics ascribed to humans or gods

_________

1 From the song “Standing on the Corner,” by Frank Loesser 1956), composed for the Broadway Musical The Most Happy Fella. Recorded by the pop quartet the Four Lads, it reached number 3 on the charts that year.

2 The parenthetical phrase “the writer I was so jealous of” is also an appositive; it is in apposition to “my friend.”

3 Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=key, accessed May 20, 2008

Next: If Only I’d Gone to Parma

 

Witches and Metaphors

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 15
Chapter 5: The Creaky Old House

 

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

 

An Introduction to Poetic Devices

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

I grew up in a big, old house that creaked. It was especially creaky just when I was trying to fall asleep at night. The creaking was sinister, my brother, Johnny, told me. Actually, he probably didn’t say “sinister”; it would have come out “thinithter.” I think the word he used was “demonic.”

Ours was a fine, solid, gabled, Tudor-style house set about halfway down a long hill, which terminated at Smelly Creek. If we were playing ball in the front yard, and the ball got loose, it usually rolled into the storm drain. We would run or bicycle as fast as we could down the hill, trying to beat the ball to the creek. The ball always won.

The youngest, weakest kid on the scene – usually me – got bullied into retrieving the ball. It was only a matter of removing your shoes and socks, rolling up your pant legs, and wading into the sludge a couple of feet. This was not the Oneonta Gorge.

The problem was that eventually we would have to go inside and face our parents, who had a preternatural sensitivity to Smelly Creek fumes. Even if you’d washed the mud off your legs and feet with the hose, they Knew. The odor of Smelly Creek gets into your lymph nodes or something.

Evil in the attic

I hated bedtime and the sinister creaking of the house a lot worse than I hated getting in trouble about Smelly Creek.

Where did the creaking come from? It depended on whom you asked. Both my brother and my dad were very good at explaining things. Dad’s explanations were gentle and reassuring. Johnny’s explanations were creative and lurid.

Dad’s explanation. “Houses – especially old houses – creak because of changes in heat and humidity.

“Heat and humidity make things expand, the way our front door and the frame around it expand in summertime. (They expand toward each other until they are actually touching, which makes them ‘sticky’ and hard to open.)

“When things get cooler or drier, or both, they contract – that is, they get smaller. That’s why our front door opens much more easily and smoothly in the winter.

“When the air gets cooler at night, the change in temperature makes things in our house, including the floorboards, contract. If it is wintertime and our furnace goes on and off throughout the night, the floorboards will warm and cool, warm and cool, as the furnace changes the air temperature.

A Resident of Our Attic

A Resident of Our Attic

“The creaking sound is the expansion and contraction of the floorboards and other parts of the house.”

Johnny’s explanation. “Witches and monsters live in our attic. Dozens of them. The witches are green and warty, and the monsters are slimy, hairy, warty giants, with worms slithering out of the warts. At night they come out of their hiding places and they plot their wickedness. They are probably hungry. I wonder what they like to eat?”

(On two sides of our attic, near the angle of the roof’s steep slope and the floor, my parents had built long, narrow closets. From the doorway, which was on one end, you couldn’t see the wall of the far end, even with a flashlight. For all I knew, those closets stretched to Argentina. Certainly they were roomy enough for a few dozen warty witches and slimy monsters and maybe a couple of smallish dragons.)

Quiz: Which explanation was correct?

(a) Dad’s, the scientific, rational one

(b) Johnny’s, the “make-believe,” sadistic one

(c) Neither

(d) Both

  • The correct answer is (d) Both.

The witches and monsters were real enough, but they didn’t live in the attic. They lived in my mind – as metaphors for fears I couldn’t name. By personifying my nighttime terrors, my brother gave me a method of escape: I could sleep at a friend’s house or I could crawl in bed with my parents (which, now that I think about it, might very well be why I am the youngest child).

A few times, as a last resort, I slept in the bathtub, with all the lights on. Somehow I just couldn’t envision witches and monsters in our cheerful bathroom with shiny yellow tile. I stopped taking refuge in the bathroom when Johnny told me about the flesh-eating cockroaches.

The monsters in my mind

Pink-cheeked child by day, quivering puddle of protoplasm by night, I heard every creak as a monster’s stealthy progress toward his supper. But if it hadn’t been for the haunted attic, I would have had to find something else to be afraid of.

Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall

Scary times

Right around the time I was born, a lot of bad things happened to our family: deaths of close relatives, polio, pneumonia, and other troubles, one right after the other, like a bunch of homicidal Rockettes parading onstage at Radio City Music Hall.

While my mom was pregnant with me, she had surgery on an ovarian tumor – just a few inches from where I was curled up, sucking my thumb and reading The Return of the Native, to get it over with. Surgery to remove an ovarian tumor during pregnancy isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with the availability of Modern Medical Advances such as

(a)   Sharpie Permanent Markers, which have made the old Random Amputation and Hit-or-Miss Mastectomy systems obsolete;

(b)   miraculous new antibiotics; and

(c)   even more miraculous new bacteria that go “Nyah, nyah, nyah” to the new antibiotics and zoom off to overrun entire subcontinents while the new antibiotics are still in basic training, learning to salute.

So imagine how terrifying this surgery must have been to my mother in 1947 – long before hospitals had acquired advanced lifesaving technology – when the practice of medicine was so primitive that your invoice was written in pencil on one of those pads of newsprint-type paper with blue carbon-paper backing that made a mess all over your hands. But the fees were much lower then (Item: Bullet to bite on ……… 8 cents).

Babies feel the sadness and fear that surround them. When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

That sadness and fear stuck to me for years, especially at night. Daytime was a different story. I was a happy child when the sun was shining and there were books to look at and friends to play with… brave souls with whom I even ventured into the attic, a cozy retreat on a winter afternoon.

But at night, alone in my bed, I was beset by (literally) nameless fears — until Johnny named them: Gruntilda, Aradia, Sasquatch, Bozaloshtsh, the Blob, Hecate, Medea, the Giant Frog Creature, Professor McGonagall, and, of course, (1) Aundulim, Baurobalinirng, Calroth, Falul, Gbargot, Ingoglor, Mamorgur, Orirchaur, Thau, Thaug. Knowing your adversary’s name might be cold comfort, but it’s better than no comfort.

Draw me a picture

Fears are intangible. You can’t draw a picture of “a fear.” The cause — a rhinoceros charging toward you in Sumatra — and the effects of your fear might be tangible, especially if your heart is pounding and there is sweat pouring down your face. But emotions, such as fear, love, happiness, sadness, disgust, dread, and anger, are intangible.

A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

Intangible things are not experienced through the five senses, through which your body tells your brain what’s physically happening around you (and inside you, if you are feeling the pain of, say, Acid Indigestion because, for example, you have just eaten, with a spoon, the entire can of Betty Crocker Sour Cream Frosting that you bought to ice the cupcakes you made for your son to take to school on his ninth birthday, after you had given up on Never Allowing Your Children to Ingest Food Containing Processed Sugar).

Which has more power: the tangible or the intangible? Ideas or objects? Emotions or facts? Fantasy or physical actuality?

All art, even that which is solid and realistic, depicts the intangible. Writing poetry is like painting feelings and ideas. When a poem is honest and courageous, the poet can sometimes see herself in it — maybe for the first time in her life.

Key Vocabulary — Figures of Speech

A figure of speech, sometimes termed a rhetoric, or locution, is a word or phrase that departs from straightforward, literal language. Wikipedia

Here are some examples:

PERSONIFICATION: A description of something nonhuman — often a feeling or an idea — in human terms, giving it human attributes.

  • Adolph Hitler personifies evil.
  • Santa Claus is a personification of generosity and love for the innocents.
  • In her wicked stepmother, Cinderella saw the personification of cold, cruel vanity.

This sentence — “Breaking the grip of the vicious wind, the sun’s warm fingers stroked my face” — personifies the wind and the sun, giving them “hands” with which to grip and stroke.

OTHER NAMES for assigning human traits or feelings to nature or inanimate objects are pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism. Examples from above are the wind’s grip and the sun’s fingers.

Other relevant definitions

TANGIBLE: Able to be experienced with the five senses.

INTANGIBLE: The opposite of tangible. Similar in meaning to…

ABSTRACT: Existing in the mind but having no physical reality.

LITERAL: Physically actual. LITERALLY: In a literal sense.

Dangling from the helicopter, Marcia was literally high as a kite.

VIRTUALLY: Almost completely; for all practical purposes.

In the storm, without a phone and miles from any neighbor, Lobelia was virtually cut off from civilization.

FIGURATIVELY: In a manner of speaking; metaphorically.

Mom was boiling mad (figuratively speaking, of course).

NOTE: Contrast virtually and figuratively with literally.

 

Assignment 15.1

Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

The story of King Henry VIII of England, below, illustrates the power of intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs to produce tangible results. Using the Henry VIII story as model, create a similar illustration for one of the suggested topics, or choose your own — listing the relevant intangible ideas, emotions, or beliefs, and their tangible results.

Suggested topics

1. Adolph Hitler was a charismatic orator. During his rise to power, he spoke to mass audiences, exhorting them to cast off “the yoke of Jews and Communists” and build a new empire.

2. Football commentator and former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden is famous for his fear of flying. He reportedly refuses to do commentary for the annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Several of Madden’s friends – members of the Cal Poly football team – were killed in a 1960 plane crash. This tragedy may help explain Madden’s phobia, though he continued to fly until he experienced a panic attack on a 1979 flight out of Tampa. Madden claims he’s not afraid of planes or heights but of being encased and unable to get out. He travels between assignments on a luxury bus, the Maddencruiser.

3. One of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s greatest works is The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Ballets Russes staged the performance, which was unlike anything the audience had ever seen or heard. Many were shocked by the intense rhythm, the pagan theme (featuring fertility rites), and the violent dancing. Before intermission, the work’s supporters and detractors began a noisy dispute, which quickly degenerated into a riot persisting throughout the performance, even after police intervened.

4. Annie Sullivan (Anne Sullivan Macy) was born in Massachusetts in 1866. Her parents were illiterate Irish immigrants – her mother suffering from tuberculosis, her father an alcoholic. By the age of ten, Annie had lost her mother, her father had abandoned the family, her younger brother had died, and she had been sent to the state almshouse at Tewksbury. After four years there, Annie approached a visiting state inspector and asked permission to enroll in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.

Helen Keller in 1905

Helen Keller in 1905

Though several operations at Tewksbury had failed to improve her vision, surgery in Boston was more successful. Extremely intelligent, she quickly learned to read, write, and use the manual alphabet.

In 1886, an Alabama woman, Kate Keller, read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, which contained an account of the education of a child like her own Helen, who had been blind, deaf, and mute since she was nineteen months old. Mrs. Keller began a search for help for six-year-old Helen that led her to Perkins and Anne Sullivan.

Annie spent most of the remainder of her life with Helen. Under Anne Sullivan’s determined but patient tutelage, the little girl’s education progressed astonishingly. At twenty-four, she graduated from Radcliffe College magna cum laude.

Keller’s life is legendary for its achievements in literature, social reform, and other areas. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, four years before her death at eighty-eight.

King Henry VIII of England: A Story of Pride, Fear, and Love

When King Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon, Roman Catholicism was virtually the only form of Christianity practiced in the realm. Though royals and nobles usually married for political reasons in the sixteenth century, Henry and Catherine apparently shared love and respect.

But Henry wanted – believed he needed – a legitimate son to inherit England’s throne. Catherine bore him only one child, a girl. When Catherine’s childbearing years had all but ended, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn. She was young, beautiful, and passionate – and likely, Henry believed, to bear him a male heir. After almost twenty years of marriage to Catherine, Henry determined to divorce her and marry Anne.

Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

When the Pope refused to annul the marriage of Henry and Catherine, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England with himself as its head. 2 By the time Henry married Anne, she was despised by almost everyone else. Numerous pregnancies produced but a single daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was easily persuaded that his wife was a witch, and he ordered her execution. He would marry four more times, but only one of his wives, Jane Seymour, gave him the male heir he desperately wanted, and Edward was a sickly child.

What intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs motivated Henry’s actions?

Among Henry’s motives were

  • hubris (the pride that seemed to require a male heir; the arrogance that often comes with power)
  • love (of England and, for a time, of Anne Boleyn)
  • passion
  • fear (of dying and leaving England without a strong ruler)

What were the physical, tangible consequences of Henry’s actions?

Separation from the Catholic Church, and Henry’s penchant for having people beheaded, would lead to thousands of deaths in the ensuing decades. Monarchs were quick to execute “enemies of the throne.” Their armies died defending their sovereign’s right to the throne. And of course it was necessary to destroy “heretics,” Catholics or non-Catholics, depending on who was ruling at the time. Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was a devout Roman Catholic whose unpopularity as queen made her desperate. Suspected heretics were tried, declared guilty, and either burned or hanged. London became a virtual forest of gallows, and the city reeked of rotting bodies.

The reign of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, was much more enlightened and tolerant, but persecution resumed after Elizabeth’s death, when her Stuart cousins succeeded her. Religious intolerance at home stimulated English settlement along America’s east coast.

Please send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

__________ 

1 Courtesy of the Seventh Sanctum Evil-Sounding-Name Generator, seventhsanctum.com

2 This is a gross oversimplification of a complex set of maneuvers involving years of “negotiations” with the Pope and other representatives of the Church. In the process, Henry had several people executed, including former allies and close friends. One was Sir Thomas More, Henry’s onetime adviser and secretary. The 1966 Academy Award-winning film A Man for All Seasons beautifully depicts this historic transformation of friendship into treachery.

Next: Lesson 16, “Figuratively Speaking”

 

Sidebar: Profanity Revisited

Fact-oid

"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb): "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.

In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:

♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.

There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”

Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:

♦ Is residence indoors?

Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?

I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Sprinkling Happiness Dust

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 14

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 5: Beyond Self-Knowledge

Red Lady

Red Lady

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

We’ve established—or at least I have and you’ve followed along—that it’s possible for me to see parts of myself, integrate these with direct and indirect feedback from people I respect, and come up with a rough idea of “who I am” at any given moment, which is my “self-concept.” (It’s important to remember, as Eckhart Tolle points out, that one’s self-concept is largely content, not essence.)

My self-concept might be positive (I’m a beautiful spirit sprinkling happiness dust everywhere I go), negative (I’m a slimy warthog), or somewhere in between.

Liking myself is not precisely happiness, but it’s close. Again, despite the fact that my knowledge of myself is limited, despite the fact that I can’t simultaneously “see” myself and “be seen by” myself  — as much as possible, I need to live in harmony with myself.

How I Learned to Live in Harmony with My Nose

When the angels were putting me together on the Great Heavenly Assembly Line, somebody got some of the parts mixed up and I got the wrong nose. I have a very small face and a largish nose. Not only was it unsightly, it made kissing awkward and inconvenient. For a long time I didn’t like myself, nosewise.

It is not conducive to happiness to be filled with loathing and disgust every time you look in the mirror. My choices, as I saw them, were to (a) stop noticing my nose, (b) have my nose made surgically smaller or the rest of my face made larger, or (c) do things with makeup and face putty and other artificial means to achieve better balance among my facial features.

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

My sister solved the problem by commenting one day that our noses (hers and mine are similar) are Scottish. Having a Scottish nose appealed to me. It was part of my distinguished heritage.

I dealt with the kissing dilemma by developing a deft nasal-dodge technique and by choosing, as kissing partners, men whose noses are as prominent as mine.

♥ 

Summing up: I want to be happy. I am happiest when I am experiencing harmony within myself and in my environment – inside and outside, in other words. The choices I make have a lot to with the harmony I experience. To make wise choices, I need to know myself as well as possible.

The Unselfish Automobile and the Good Christian

When I was a child in Presbyterian Sunday school, I was taught that being a good Christian means being unselfish. Somehow I interpreted this to mean that my wants and needs were unimportant… that I had been put on earth exclusively to Serve Others.

This was a troubling concept, but it didn’t cause much of a problem until I was out of my teens. During one’s adolescence, it’s almost impossible not to be self-centered and self-aware. I think it’s a hormonal thing.

By the time I was twenty, I was married with an infant. Total self-abnegation is a poor basis for marriage and motherhood. I was a slave to my husband and my baby. I was unhappy – but wasn’t that okay, since God wanted me to Serve Others and to be Unselfish?

At that time I owned a 1960 Mercury Comet. Like me, my Mercury had been created to serve. It was unselfish. But in order to serve, its basic needs had to be met. It needed fuel. It had a hydraulic clutch (or something) that needed to be filled from time to time. It needed regular oil changes. It required maintenance and occasional repairs.

Eventually I learned that I too required maintenance and occasional repairs. Without receiving, I became unable to give.

Over the years, I have learned that giving and receiving are inseparable. Think of a lake that has an outlet – a stream flowing out of it – but no source of fresh water. Soon the lake will dry up. It will no longer be able to sustain fish or waterfowl. It will have no beauty to be enjoyed. It will be unable to cool and entertain swimmers on hot summer days.

When I discovered that I, like the Mercury Comet and the lake, had needs that could not be ignored, I learned a great deal about myself and about how the world works. Knowing myself better, I took better care of myself. I made wiser choices. I was happier, and so were the people around me.

I now believe that people – women and men alike – should always treat themselves as if they are pregnant. Caring for oneself beautifully and wisely during pregnancy is, as it happens, the best way to care for one’s developing fetus. And I believe that there is a sense in which we are all, always, “pregnant” with our future selves. We carry inside us the seeds of what we will become.

You are who you pretend to be

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. —Mohandas Gandhi

Through self-knowledge we can achieve temporary equilibrium. Sometimes equilibrium is enough. Constant challenges become struggles. We need rest between stretches. This is why God created day and night, summer and winter, cycles of all kinds.

Ultimately, however, as living things we must grow or die. And we have some—though not absolute—freedom to choose what direction our growth will take.

The antihero of Mother Night, one of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s lesser-known novels, is Howard W. Campbell, an American expatriate living in Germany before World War II. An ultra-deep-cover American agent recruits Campbell to spy for the Allies and, posing as a Nazi propagandist, to encode his discoveries in his radio broadcasts. When Campbell agrees, he is warned never to contact the agent.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Campbell, it develops, is a very good spy and transmits a great deal of valuable information to the Allies. He is also a very good propagandist.

After the war, Campbell returns to the U.S. with a new identity but a lingering angst. Many years pass before he is “outed” and prosecuted as the notorious traitor and brilliant Nazi propagandist. Desperate, Campbell seeks out the agent who recruited him—the man who alone can vindicate him.

The agent agrees to corroborate Campbell’s story—that he was acting as a patriot, transmitting Nazi secrets for the benefit of the Allies. Campbell is off the hook, but as they part for the last time, the recruiter makes this cryptic comment: “You are who you pretend to be.”

About six months ago I began to notice that my two-year-old granddaughter repeated everything I said, posing it as a question, trying the words and the phrasing of them on for size. We were at her bedroom window, and I was holding her up so she could see her mom outside, helping load a pile of dirt into a pickup truck.

Ava: What’s Mommy doing?

Me: She’s helping those people load that dirt into their truck.

Ava: Helping dose people load dat dirt into dehr truck?

Me: Yes. It’s nice, clean dirt, good for gardens.

Ava: Nice, clean dirt, good for gardens?

I also noticed that Ava would dog her dad’s footsteps, trying to imitate his stride. And I saw her smile with one side of her mouth, the way her mother does sometimes.

I wrote the following poem for my sons as a Christmas present, framing it along with photos of their two-year-olds (one, Ava, obviously is a girl; the other, Ryder, is a boy; I changed the gender as appropriate in the versions of the poem I used for each son):

He Will Be Like You

Ryder and Dad Eli

Ryder and Dad Eli

He watches every move you make—how else
to learn but imitate?—the way you speak and
move through life, your head held high to find
your polestar in the sky and take no notice
of the grime beneath your feet. Thus will he learn
serenity and find his place above the petty and the
mean. Then from you will he learn to soar, and
know that there is more than senses can perceive,
and all is as it needs to be this moment in the
universe. He watches you embrace adversity and
knows that life is hard, but necessarily, to
grow, to shine, to gain the victory. So you pursue
your course on higher ground, and not for him
alone, but to regain your innocence; spurn guilt,
have no regret; for Jesus said: We learn and then
move on, for God accepts the consequences in
our stead—repentance, then forgiveness, then the
grace that takes away the blemish. That is, after
all, the Gospel, and its promise is: All things are
possible; all souls have
wings. 

 

To a great extent, children become who they are by imitating, which is a form of pretending. Adults do too, though not usually as dramatically. My friend Janet moved from Texas to Nebraska many years ago. Her once-thick Texas accent is faint now, except when she’s tired or excited. Another friend, Carol, is a New Hampshire native who has lived most of her adult life in Arizona, yet she sounds as if she has just arrived from New England.

I confess that, in difficult situations, I often pretend to be someone whom I admire and who I know would handle the problem skillfully. When tact and maturity are called for, I am Jessica Fletcher of the television series Murder, She Wrote. When insouciance and utter self-confidence are necessary, I am Miss Piggy. When a situation requires merciless and quick decisiveness (rather than my innate tendency to examine a problem from every possible aspect), I am Doctor Laura.

Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy

This isn’t hypocrisy, nor is it sham. Whatever it is in me that admires Miss Piggy is like her. I can practice being insouciant and sassy just as I can practice sitting up straight instead of slouching.

“Knowing our limitations” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep testing them if there is an advantage to doing so—especially when what were once our strengths no longer work for us. When I was young and cute and smart and a bit brash, I had instant credibility on the job. It came as a huge shock when, in my bejowled mid-fifties — and smarter than ever — I took a new job and found that I had to prove myself from scratch.

This is why we have to keep learning, growing, and adapting—doing what we do well to remain confident, but also stretching, “reinventing” ourselves if need be, to adjust to changes in ourselves and our environments.

Assignment 14.1: An exercise in allegory—You in a box

Imagine that you have always lived alone in a box that has no windows or doors. The box is flimsy — you could easily kick a hole in any wall — but breaking out of your box would never occur to you. As far as you know, the inside of the box is all there is.

Everyone on your planet lives in a box pretty much like yours. There are light and air in these boxes, but each of you can see, smell, touch, and taste only the objects inside your box. The only stimulus that reaches you from outside is noise. You can hear the voices of your neighbors, though of course they have little meaning for you.

So that’s the scenario. How does it feel? Fun? Boring? Restful? Safe? Scary?

Pretty dismal, I’d imagine, for those of us who don’t live exclusively in boxes (as far as we know) — but perfectly natural to the hypothetical you, the You in the Box, because it’s all you’ve ever known. You have a comfortable bed, plenty to eat, and room to move around.(1) You have several ways to occupy your time: suddoku, maybe, or houseplant gardening, crocheting, shooting baskets….

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

The contents of every box are similar but not identical.(2) For one thing, all the stuff in your neighbor’s box, including your neighbor, is mauve, whereas you and your possessions are sky blue. But the color of your neighbor’s environment is irrelevant: You don’t even know you have a neighbor, nor could you understand the concept of color. In your world, there’s no such thing as “not–sky blue” or “not–color.”(3) There is no context for your perception of color.

Quickie exercise: Try defining or describing something without giving it context; that is, without comparing or contrasting it to something else. (Hint: Can’t be done. The unknown can be imagined only as it relates to the known.)

What Is a ‘Julia Roberts’?

Chris and Adam

Chris and Adam

My niece’s wonderful husband, Adam, is tall. He has many other fine attributes, but tallness might be the one you’d notice first, especially if my wonderful niece Chris were beside him; there’s a difference of eighteen inches, give or take, in their height.

Now, when I say “Adam is tall,” there is no need for me to add “…compared to other people but not compared to cypress trees.” The context of Adam’s tallness (people, as opposed to giraffes) is understood.

But if Adam were several stories tall, imagine the employment possibilities! More to the point—the words “Adam is tall” would be inadequate for even the most basic physical description. To give you an idea of Adam’s appearance, I would have to provide context. Even saying “Adam is the tallest man in the world” wouldn’t suffice. You’d be thinking, maybe, nine feet, tops. I’d have to say, for example, “Adam is taller than twelve average-size men standing on each other’s shoulders” for you to even begin to get the picture.

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

Likewise, if I tell you that my daughter looks like Julia Roberts, and you have no idea what Julia Roberts looks like, then I have to find another way to describe her appearance, comparing her to people or things you’re familiar with.

 

 

 

You’re drinking lemonade and I’m thirsty, but I’m leery of lemonade, never having tasted it. “You’ll like it,” you say. “It’s sweet.” But “sweet,” in my limited experience, describes my Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, of which you, more’s the pity, have never known the bliss. I happen to have a piece of that fudge and I’m willing to share it with you. You say, “Ugh! It looks like mud.” I reply, “Well, your lemonade looks like pee.”

For you to know the joy of Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, and for me to quench my thirst, we have to find ways to describe “lemonade” and “fudge” in terms we both understand. Most likely, we’ll use similes:(4) Lemonade is tart, like a persimmon. Fudge is chewy, like the meat of a ripe walnut.

The point here is that nothing is inherently manifest to the rational mind. In the realm of logic, nothing reveals itself or discloses its identity absolutely: not people, not inanimate objects, not concepts such as sweetness. We can conceive of them only in terms of their similarities to other things—in effect, as metaphors.(5)

None of us has an absolute identity that exists in a vacuum. It might be said that in all of existence God is the only nonmetaphor. Only God is simply “I am.”

You in a box (continued): Let your imagination run wild

Having spent your entire life inside this sky-blue box, your perceptions of yourself and the universe are likely to be very different from those of a person who has lived as you and I have lived — walking into and out of each other’s houses, freely conversing face to face, being aware of a great variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and phenomena. Take a minute to think about how the You of the Sky-Blue Box might be different from the “actual” you. For example,

  • If you hear voices from the mauve box next door, you might not perceive of those voices as coming from “somewhere else.” You would have no concept of “outside the box.” The box would be your entire universe.
  • You probably wouldn’t perceive the voices as coming from other beings like you. You might take the voices for granted and not wonder about them at all.
  • You might not even perceive a difference between your “self” — your identity, as distinct from your physical body — and the objects in your box.
  • As communication with other people in other boxes evolves and you develop a language, agreeing upon words for things like “bed” and “kneecap,” you discover that the voices are relating experiences different from yours. For the first time, perhaps, you have a sense of yourself as one among others.
  • Or perhaps, given what we know or suspect about collective consciousness, might you not somehow be aware of the nearness of others like yourself?

Exercise: You of the Sky-Blue Box (choose one of the following)

  • Write a scenario, similar to those in the bullet points above, that might describe how the You of the Sky-Blue Box would be different from the “actual” you.
  • Describe what it might it be like if you woke up one day and your refrigerator were yellow instead of sky blue.
  • Describe how your reaction to the change in color might be different if it were gradual rather than sudden.
  • Describe how you might feel…
    if an opening to the outside appeared one morning, and there were nothing outside but light — not unlike the light in your box — but you were able to walk around your box and see it from the outside
    and
    if the next day other windowless, doorless boxes appeared
    and
    if the day after that you saw that trees and flowers had grown among the boxes. (Do you think they would look beautiful to you? Or would they frighten you? Having led such a sheltered existence, would you want to explore them, or perhaps try to hide from them instead?)

  • Think of other possible changes in your Sky-Blue Box universe and imagine different ways in which you might react to them.
    Describe one such variation.
    How would your answer to the question “Who am I?” change?
    How would your perception of the universe change?
    What would you do differently in response to your new perceptions of yourself and the universe?

Assignment 14.2: Defining figures of speech

Define, in your own words, allegory, metaphor, and simile. Draw your definitions from at least two sources. Summarize the differences among allegories, metaphors, and similes.

Separating and reuniting

The little story “You in a box” is a very rough allegory for human personality development. When a fetus enters the world as an infant, the physical separation from the mother is the beginning of a series of physical and psychological separations.

These separations are exhilarating because they lead to freedom. They are terrifying because they lead to isolation.

I believe that

  • without God, to be completely free is to be completely alone, whereas
  • with God, freedom leads inevitably to relationships based on love rather than need and fear.

(1)      Your source of food, fresh air, and other necessities is outside the scope of this allegory. Sorry.

(2)      I know this because I am the Omniscient Narrator.

(3)      If you ever want to give yourself a really bad headache, try to invent a new color. It’s impossible. All you can do is imagine different combinations of red, yellow, and blue, plus black and white. Yet surely, somewhere “out there” in the vast unknown, there are other colors, obeying laws of physics yet to be encountered.

(4)       simile (noun): a comparison of one thing with another using the word like or as. [A particular type of software] is as ugly as a sack full of penguin guts. —Bruce Sterling

(5)      metaphor (noun): a figure of speech in which two things are compared by saying one thing is another. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very Heaven! —William Wordsworth, The Prelude

_____________

‘That Unique Essence’

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 13

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 4: Growth and Self-Knowledge

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the… mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding…. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. -Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living

What we truly are, objectively, is that unique essence that distinguishes us from one another. It equips us to reveal some special piece of cosmic truth to which the essential uniqueness of other individuals is less favorably attuned. But, in our alienation from essence, what we lack is the compellingly direct experience and cognition of the astounding fact that our body, in its entirety, is intelligence—Mind. –David S. Devor, “Intuition, Creativity, Mind & Matter,” http://www.projectmind.org/intuition.html, accessed September 3, 2008

 A Work in Progress 

We have already seen that it is impossible for me to know myself empirically, because

A Work in Progress

A Work in Progress

1. The self is never static (so my sense of self must be fluid).

2. I can’t be both Observer and Observee at the same time. To separate into Observer and Observee is to no longer be a unified, distinct self. (When I look into a mirror, I don’t see my self; I see a two-dimensional representation of my physical body.)

3. Since I can’t get outside myself, I must depend partially on what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me for my own self-knowledge. No two people perceive me in the same way. Obviously, I value some people’s opinions more than others’.

4. Parts of my psyche are floating around outside me, taking cover inside me, and latent, waiting to evolve when I am stretched and challenged.

Knowing oneself will always be a work in progress, but it is essential to keep at it if we are to have any peace, any joy, any sanity. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is just a tiny sample of the thousands of “know thyself” maxims that exist:

  • Jesus said…, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” —from the Gospel of Thomas

    J. Krishnamurti

    J. Krishnamurti

  • Through self-knowledge you begin to find out what is God, what is truth, what is that state which is timeless. Your teacher may pass on to you the knowledge which he received from his teacher, and you may do well in your examinations, get a degree and all the rest of it; but, without knowing yourself as you know your own face in the mirror, all other knowledge has very little meaning. Learned people who don’t know themselves are really unintelligent; they don’t know what thinking is, what life is. That is why it is important for the educator to be educated in the true sense of the word, which means that he must know the workings of his own mind and heart, see himself exactly as he is in the mirror of relationship. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. In self-knowledge is the whole universe; it embraces all the struggles of humanity. -J. Krishanmurti
  • Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
    The proper study of Mankind is Man. -Alexander Pope
  • I must first know myself…. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. -Plato
  • The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge. -Richard of Saint-Victor  (1)
  • If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful…. -Aldous Huxley
  • How little do we know that which we are! How less what we may be! -Lord Byron
  • It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. -Lao-Tzu

George Gordon, Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron
  • The best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbor is to know ourselves. -Walter Lippmann
  • All men have the capacity of knowing themselves and acting with moderation. -Heraclitus
  • We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. Ursula K. Le Guin (2)
  • Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat. –Sun-Tzu
  • The most successful people are those who don’t have any illusions about who they are. They know themselves well and they can move in the direction of their best talents. -Bud Bray, quoted in Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? (3)
  • Meditation… is the way to know the self that resides just below the surface, a surface that is usually choppy with likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, and judgments of all sorts. This amalgam of thought and emotion is who we think we are, but we are wrong. Who we are is far more interesting, exciting, and powerful than this. Who we are is fearless, joyful, and extremely kind. -Susan Piver (4)

You are not your thoughts and feelings 

Laozi (Lao-Tzu), depicted as the Taoist god

Laozi (Lao-Tzu), depicted as the Taoist god

A working knowledge of myself is essential for day-to-day existence. I can, without understanding every facet of myself at every moment, have a pretty good idea of my strengths and my weaknesses. I can “be in touch with my feelings.” I can know my limitations and decide whether to tackle them or navigate around them. I can develop relationships with people I trust—people who will help me determine whether my perceptions are accurate or I am living in La-La-Land. I can avoid the traps that snare me if I get too close.

I can know what is not me. Teachers of meditation say, “Observe your thoughts and feelings, but know that you are not your thoughts and feelings.” My identity or self is not simply the sum of my roles: mother, sister, friend, writer, churchgoer, meditator, teacher, Anglo American, dancer, singer, and so forth. This is good news. If I identify too closely with any role, then, on the day I’m performing well, I like myself and I feel good, and on an off day I despise myself and I am miserable.

So where to begin?

Let’s go back to a few of the principles we established earlier:

  • Everybody wants to be happy.
  • Babies are born expecting happiness. At birth, their wants and their needs are virtually identical, but they (wants and needs) soon diverge.
  • As we interact with more and more people who are Not Us, we learn adaptive behaviors. Some are healthy, such as compromising without giving our selves away. Some are unhealthy, such as lying and manipulating for short-term gain.
  • We are often mistaken about what would make us happy. Learning what makes us genuinely and lastingly happy is called “maturing,” and it usually involves balancing our immediate wants and needs with our dreams, goals, and anticipated long-term needs. It’s the same kind of balancing you do when you’re in your thirties, say, and putting aside money for retirement, enough but not too much for present needs and generosity.

Happiness ≠ cake batter

When I was, oh, maybe four years old, my mother left a bowl of cake batter unattended on the kitchen counter while she took a long-distance phone call from her dad in Des Moines. Long-distance phone calls were a big deal back then. (5)

My mother should have known better. I loved nothing more than cake batter. I wanted to be happy. Surely eating some cake batter would make me happy.

I ate every atom of that cake batter. I was very ill afterward, plus I had to endure my mother’s anger and my father’s grave disappointment, which was even worse than being yelled at by Mom. 

I had been given a lesson in enlightened self-interest, which often requires delaying gratification. These lessons are learned first-hand-by suffering the painful consequences of immature, uninformed decisions—as well as by watching others (older siblings, perhaps) suffer them and, less often than we might like, by listening, reading, and observing the world at large.

Learning about ourselves is a process of testing our inclinations—which must never be discounted—against their short- and long-term consequences. Creating (or co-creating) ourselves involves growing in the directions that (a) satisfy our inclinations—wants and needs—and (b) have acceptable short-term outcomes and beneficial long-term consequences.

Build on Your Strengths

Build on Your Strengths

Employers are finding that organizational success is more a matter of building on employees’ strengths rather than trying to improve their weaknesses. It’s about time. Unaccountably, American companies throughout the twentieth century typically promoted their strongest sales personnel into management, seemingly unaware that great salespeople are cut from different cloth than great managers.

The Gallup organization administers a comprehensive test of employee strengths, which are ranked from first to thirty-second. My opinion, which the Gallup folks unwisely didn’t ask for, is that what you get with a single assessment is more of a snapshot than a portrait. Even so, the employers I’ve talked to say it’s a great help in assembling work groups so that you have at least one Organizer, one Learner, one Bulldozer, (6) and one Creative Person, and not a bunch of Peacemakers who tiptoe around trying not to hurt each other’s feelings and don’t accomplish anything.

I agree that it’s important to know your limitations and not knock yourself out trying to excel in something that (a) you don’t particularly enjoy and (b) you’re not well equipped for. This is why I’ve never tried out for the NFL.

A. Becoming a Better Teacher? Yes

I have a lot of knowledge about and experience with writing, but at one time I was uncomfortable in front of an audience and I did a poor job conveying my knowledge. I chose to improve my public-speaking skills because I sensed that it would be tremendous fun to teach and that there were specific steps I could take to become good at it.

B. Becoming a Better Salesman? No

I have an aversion to selling. I’ve never been able to get past the feeling that I’m asking my prospect for a favor. I hated selling candy when I was a Camp Fire Girl, and I hated calling on prospective underwriters when I was the promotion director for a public-radio station. Try as I might, I can’t envision myself as an effective salesperson. It seems wiser on my part to let others do whatever selling is necessary in my business endeavors.

Vulnerabilities: How well do you learn from your mistakes?

Long ago I read a wonderful little bit of prose that I can’t locate today. With apologies to the author, it went something like this:

  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I don’t see it. I fall in. It is not my fault.
  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I pretend not to see it. I fall in.
  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I know it is there, and I try to walk around it. I fall in anyway.
  • I walk down a different street.
New York City pothole; photo by David Shankbone

New York City pothole; photo by David Shankbone

The “hole in the street” is, for example, a woman’s tendency to fall in love with men who are abusive, or needy, or dangerous. It might be a parent’s serial rescuing of an adult child who is profligate. (Dad to daughter: “Okay, I’ll lend you the money, but this is the last time.”)

Vulnerabilities are the areas in which you’re most likely to make mistakes that screw up your life; the things you do even though you know better; the way you respond when people push your hot buttons; the habit of using the same failed strategy over and over, expecting a different result.

Dr. Young, the psychiatrist who treated me so successfully in the nineteen-seventies, used to say, “Know your patterns.” My pathological “pattern,” at that time, was to “stuff” my anger and accept the blame for everything that went wrong. Many people err in the other direction: They don’t take responsibility for their mistakes and change their behavior accordingly; instead they look for someone or something else to blame. (Ideally, blame doesn’t enter the picture, and everyone focuses on what he or she can do to keep the problem from recurring.)

Vulnerabilities or patterns differ from weaknesses in that it’s not always necessary to fix your weaknesses. Having astigmatism or poor upper-body strength is a weakness. There are ways to compensate. Having asthma is a vulnerability. You can stay healthy (according to conventional western medicine) only by avoiding situations that are likely to bring on an asthma attack.

Choices create futures. Mistakes are possible only until they’re made. After that they’re the raw material of your future life. You can’t change a stupid decision, but you can use it as a basis for making smarter decisions in the future. And you can absolutely refuse to let guilt or regret drain your energy.

The only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab. Leave the wound alone; it will heal, and the scab will fall off.

Lesson 13.1: Assignment

Exercise: Personal inventory

Without getting too technical or introspective, let’s inventory ourselves. I’ll go first.

1. Things I most enjoy: Mothering. Dancing. Writing poetry, songs, fiction, and nonfiction. Singing. Teaching. Meditating. Listening to classical music, especially the larger works of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, and Renaissance choral music. Reading in bed, with a particular fondness for female British writers, from Jane Austen to Dorothy L. Sayers to Rosamund Pilcher to Philippa Gregory, and for nonfiction about spirituality (the history of Judaism is a current passion), the English language and the development of language in general, quantum physics, and history. Going to small afternoon parties. Going to my grandchildren’s performances and sports events. Going to lunch and coffee with friends and family members. Collecting antiques. Gardening. Spending time at rural retreats.

Things you most enjoy:      

      

2. Things I least enjoy: Shopping. Meetings. Making phone calls. Selling. Being in crowded places.

Things you least enjoy:      

     

3. My talents, skills, strengths: Writing almost anything. Editing garbled prose for particular audiences. (I am especially good at working with inflated academic- and corporate-speak, making it clear and comprehensible yet still “dignified” in the eyes of the intended readers.) Public speaking. Teaching, when I don’t have to maintain order (I’m not scary enough).

Your talents, skills, strengths:

     

4. My weaknesses: I am inconsistent in following up on my great ideas. I am a mediocre manager of people (I always want to be friends). I am too sedentary and too easily distracted. I have trouble keeping my environment orderly. I am impossible at setting long-term goals.

Your weaknesses:      

   

5. My dreams and ambitions: To travel the U.S.A. in a mini-motorhome. To fly an ultralight. To live for months at a time in England, Scotland, and Wales. (William F. Buckley says he always writes his books in Switzerland. I want to always write my books in a cozy cottage in Scotland.) To write, publish, and sell lots and lots of books for children and adults about all the things I am interested in, especially if research for my books requires travel to distant places that are not cold. To live in the country.

Your dreams and ambitions:

     

6. My vulnerabilities: Codependency. Procrastination. A tendency to hibernate and then wonder why I’m lonely.

Your vulnerabilities:

 

7. How I deal with my vulnerabilities: Codependency: I get professional help immediately when I feel myself being sucked into an unhealthy lopsided relationship. Procrastination: I’m better at keeping commitments to other people than at keeping commitments to myself, so I make myself accountable to someone else, often my sister, who I know will hold me to it. Hibernation: I have a group of friends who have a similar tendency to hole up, and if we don’t hear from each other at least every two weeks we do a head count. “Everybody okay?” We also have fixed times for social gatherings-birthdays and holidays, at least.

How you deal with your vulnerabilities:

     

Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. It will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

1     I culled about half of these items from a list, published on the Internet, of quotes about self-knowledge. It seemed more efficient than reading all the books they represent. I’m always leery, however, of quoting a person I’ve never heard of. What if that person never existed? What if the compiler of the list just made up the quote and threw it in as a joke?

      Richard of Saint-Victor, a Scot by birth, did exist. He was, according to Wikipedia, a “mystical theologian” and prior of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris during the twelfth century.

2     Ursula K. Le Guin is a famous American fantasy writer – practically a household name, I’m told. Apparently my household got skipped.

3     I discovered next to nothing about Bud Bray, but I included his quote because it’s the kind of thing people are always saying in motivational speeches. It rings true and it gets people nodding in agreement.

4     How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 8

5     You never dialed long-distance phone calls yourself. You called the Operator and gave her the phone number you were calling. (All the Operators were women, and they sat on tall stools in front of huge switchboards with cords going everywhere.) You told her whether you wanted to call Person-to-Person or Station-to-Station, which was cheaper and which meant that you would talk to whoever answered the phone. Either way, after you made your request you hung up the phone and waited for the Operator to call you back. It might be a few minutes, or it might be hours, especially if you were calling Person-to-Person for Mr. Applebottom, who was an Important Executive involved in Important Meetings. But the Operator kept at it, and eventually the phone would ring and it would be the Operator saying she had your Party on the line.

6     Not all these terms are the official Gallup designations.

Next: Sprinkling Happiness Dust

 

Sidebar

Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

  • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
  • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
  • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.