Category Archives: humor

Eating My Words

I’m Changing My Name to Baba Ghanoush

If eggplant were the only food product available on the planet, I’d starve to death. It’s one of three or four comestibles I gag on. I can’t even tolerate the odor.

It’s a pity, because it deprives me of a reason to say baba ghanoush. What a wonderful phrase! It trips off the tongue like a small shower of pebbles falling on sand… baba ghanoush, of which the chief ingredient is eggplant. You also toss in some tahini—another pretty little word, much sweeter to say than its definition, which is “sesame-seed paste.”

Almost as much fun to pronounce as baba ghanoush are falafel and chickpeas—the former being composed of the latter along with onion, garlic, and a little flour. Sadly, I never met a chickpea I could swallow. As you might surmise, I don’t spend much time at west-Asian or eastern-European restaurants.

If my food-and-beverage choices were based entirely on vocabulary rather than flavor, I’d enjoy a preprandial Manhattan, or, possibly, an Old Fashioned. Whether or not approved by sommeliers, I’d order a glass of Moscato to drink with my baba ghanoush, my falafel, and other delectables.

Did you know that there is a word for continuing to eat when you’re full because the food is so good? That word, from the country (not the state) of Georgia, is shemomedjamo, translated as “I accidentally ate the whole thing,” according to wordnik.com. That same source gives us the German word kummerspeck—literally “grief bacon,” referring to “the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating.” If I had the time, I would befriend recent divorcees solely for the opportunity to say, “Poor Brenda. Bless her heart, she’s put on thirty pounds of kummerspeck since Humphrey went off with Cruella. Too many sessions of shemomedjamo, I’m thinking.”

Here’s a small word with a large and complex meaning, having nothing to do with food but leaving one musing about the circumstances under which the need for such a word arose: It’s tingo, from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, and it means “to borrow objects from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left” (bbc.co.uk, ”Tingo, nakkele and other wonders”).

Questions pop up like crocuses in April: Is this a common occurrence on Easter Island? Does the borrowing occur surreptitiously or in the open, and doesn’t the borrowee notice that his or her possessions are melting away? Are Easter Islanders too polite to ask for the return of their vegetable peelers, their hiking boots, and their beds? It boggles the mind.

Back to food…. My favorite forms of bonne bouche (Americans pronounce this French phrase “bun boosh” when they want a fancy way to say “tasty morsel”) are not, alas, euphonious. Fudge is a case in point. The word is as unlovely as the candy is delicious, especially when homemade, with real butter—and how about that for a word? Margarine is nicer to say but butter is better in all the ways that count.

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The Truth about Words with Friends

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POINTERUTI TO YOU TOO, PAL

You want to play Words with Friends. Well, good. If it’ll keep you off the streets, I say, go for it. WWF exercises your brain and occupies your attention when you need a break from candidate-bashing on Facebook. You should know, however, that the name of the game is deceptive. “Words, Quasi-Words, and Outright Nonwords with Friends (WQWONWF)” is more like it.

Be warned: Words with Friends is not Scrabble. Besides being more sanitary and less social, WWF is both faster—in that you don’t have to sit there chewing a hangnail while other people stare at their tiles—and slower than Scrabble. I play six or eight games at a time, each lasting from a few days to a week. But the biggest difference is the WORDS.

rosebud-necklace-main

Ends Tuesday on eBay. $22.50

In my Scrabble-playing days, we didn’t use a dictionary. We played words that other English-speaking persons recognized as such: rabbit, fracas, papa—like that. Words with Friends is stingy with vowels (until it decides to give you only vowels), so at least half the words on the board at any given time are either cryptic or Kyrgyz (the language of Kyrgyzstan, an eastern European nation that apparently keeps most of its vowels in locked warehouses, maybe a holdover from the Soviet era).

I exaggerate, but only a little. Winning WWF involves a lot of experimentation, crunching letters together unimpeded by logic. If you do this long enough, tossing tiles like pickup sticks and seeing what turns up (Anyone remember pickup sticks?), eventually you’ll spell TEUGH, or perhaps WHEEP—which is, we’re told, a “valid Words with Friends word. Sorry, no definition is available at this time.” What does that mean? They’ll get back to me? A definition will be available tomorrow afternoon? Likewise for WAUK, HOOKME, TREX, AAL, and AARRGH.*

kyrg

On Valentine’s Day 2012, Forbes.com writer Jeff Bercovici publicly broke up with WWF, citing just such idiosyncracies.

Scrabble, to be sure, is not without this kind of thing. There are all the lists of words you more or less need to memorize if you want to compete seriously… the two-letter words, the words that let you play a “q” without a “u,” the words that consist entirely of vowels or consonants. But those, at least, are things you learn. Words With Friends doesn’t require you to learn anything, just to be persistent in your ignorance. 

 I could adapt myself to playing Words With Friends the way it encourages you to. I could make sure that, before entering what I know to be a word, I first try every random permutation of tiles that might yield a higher score. But that’s not my idea of fun. Fun, for me, is looking at an unpromising slate of tiles and suddenly realize you have the letters to make “kudzu.” Moments like that are why I play. Words with Friends, I’m Breaking Up with You, Forbes, 2/12/2014

It’s true. I forget, between WWF sessions, which two-letter combinations will play: EK, KE, AK, IK, EU, IO? I have trouble remembering that AJ didn’t work last time and, no, it’s not going to work this time, although I swear the WWF Nazis keep switching the rules. I can’t prove it, but everyone I’ve discussed it with agrees that the rules are arbitrary and WWF changes them daily.

Why, you wonder, is AW okay but EW gets bumped? AUROR exists only in the world of Harry Potter, not in Muggle games such as WWF. You can play AMU (atomic mass unit) but not TV or OK, OJ, DJ, or OB. AA is valid but EE isn’t? I say “EE” fairly often. I never say “AA,” unless I’m talking about Alcoholics Anonymous, but WWF doesn’t mean “A-A,” it means “AAA,” like at the dentist’s. If you try to play EE or OO, the game punishes you with a briefly annoying ker-THUNK. Play OH, and WWF emits an approving jingly sound that makes you think of pixie dust and lasts a nanosecond too long—just enough to make your teeth hurt. A lot of players mute the sound on WWF.

When luck is with me and I’ve assembled, oh, AKEE with impunity, I look it up. (It’s a tropical tree of the soapberry family.) I didn’t always. In the case of AKEE,  I’ll never use it in conversation. I haven’t needed it for nearly seven decades. My mental lexicon is already bulging. I’m choosy about putting in new information, and AKEE wasn’t going to make the cut—at first. My new rationale is this: Yes, I discovered AKEE it by accident, and no, I have no interest in trees of the soapberry family, but it might come in handy later—in Words with Friends if nowhere else. Thus I have become master of WHID (def: move quickly and quietly), JO (def: beloved one, darling, sweetheart), and a few dozen other vocabulary boosters.

rosebud-earrings-2

Ends Tuesday on eBay. Reduced 20%, now only $4.40

Everyone who’s played WWF for any length of time has cursed the game for spilling out a complete word—seven letters needing no assistance from the board—without giving you a place to play it. You have all the letters for REBATED (or DEBATER, or maybe BREADET or TERBADE), but you need a word on the board such as LOVE that will accept the D to become LOVED (If only it could be so easy), plus there must be space for the rest of the letters without bumping up against another word. Too bad, because if you use all seven of your letters on a single play you get fifty big, fat extra points.

Once I needed an E from the board for CLEMENCY. All the saints and angels wanted me to play it, but there just wasn’t an available E. I moved over to another game and used all my letters for HOTSPUR. The next letter dump contained (with no rearranging) FARTSYQ.

In one game it seemed divinely ordained that I play INSULT, tidily completing three additional words: KORAN, PEGS, and TSMOG. Yeah. Couldn’t make TSMOG work. Tried several times. Likewise, in other games, JAZINE, JOTUBONG, and POINTERUTI.

And then there are the “If it’s not a word, it should be” words—MISDIAPERED comes to mind. If OUTROAR is a word, shouldn’t JOUTROAR be one too? My niece Paige and I started making up definitions for such words—the ones you have the letters for but WWF rejects.

TARTURE—being forced to work on a road crew
SPLANERS—Lucy and Ethel
HAMF—My proposed definition was “50 percent of an Easter entrée,” but Paige found HAMF online as an acronym for HARD A** MOTHER F*****. While we’re on the subject, you can play SHIT and FART but not SLUT. What’s with that?

misdiapered

MISDIAPERED?

A whole set of other should-be words are those that just seem logical. In a language such as English, some seventeen hundred years old, containing merely twenty-six letters, you’d think that, for example, AFA would have found a place by now, not as an acronym but as a real word—a building block, in fact. We have MAMA, EVE, AIN, OLLA, IVY, and FEE, not to mention DOG, CAT, and POP. How did AFA escape being drafted for duty, along with its sisters EFA, IFA, OFA, and UFA?

So you see, Words with Friends inspires reflection, investigation, and conversation about words—at least in my small circle of enthusiasts. If, as Jeff Bercovici writes, “Words With Friends doesn’t require you to learn anything,” it certainly doesn’t prevent you from doing so. It also gives you little rewards, as when I won my “weekly challenge: JQXZ words—33,  POINTS—2780.” Since the points have no value—they’re not redeemable for airline tickets or even a pizza—I don’t pay much attention. I’d rather make up definitions or, better yet, use the words on the board in sentences, sometimes in unidentifiable languages, possibly Kyrgyz.

OHO! GEL PLANERS LETCHED. MY KAT GRACE TAGS HAM. BYE.
OW! CHURLS! ZAS BITE!
DOT JIB! AKELA DE MOR. QIS  TOY?
WOW! VAW FEH DE QIS! NE MORE SAVOYS!

And, in closing,

AHA OHO. HA.

To be continued…

___________

* HAMADA, I was told by the WWF dictionary, was a “valid Words with Friends word,” with no additional information forthcoming. You almost get the impression they’re hiding something, like when a friend of yours is in the hospital after a car crash and the nurses will tell you nothing about her condition other than that she’s “resting comfortably.” So I decided to check out HAMADA on my own. The definition popped up immediately in Wikipedia, so if it’s supposed to be a secret, someone’s not doing his job.

HAMADA (Arabic, حماده ḥammāda) refers to “a type of desert landscape consisting of high, largely barren, hard, rocky plateaus, with very little sand because this [sand] has been removed by deflation….  Hamadas are produced by the wind removing the fine products of weathering: an aeolian** process known as deflation. The finer-grained products are taken away in suspension, whilst the sand is removed through saltation and surface creep, leaving behind a landscape of gravel, boulders and bare rock.” So now you know. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamada

**Aeolian=relating to or arising from the action of the wind.

BONUS: Words with Friends Poetry
by Mary Campbell

wwf-board

MANICS and WITHERERS / IRED SLOW REF ROSE / DIE, RAGE, BE QUIET / YULE KNOT HIT DA DOE

 

One Little Word–part 1

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drug user of note

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drug user of note

Listen to the Music

I’ve sort of been collecting — that is, I note mentally and forget to write down — instances of One Little Word having a colossal impact. Perhaps, by way of illustration, you’ll recall the ruckus that ensued when Washington, D.C., official David Howard used the word niggardly in a meeting:  

WASHINGTON CNN (February 4, 1999) A white aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams who resigned [under duress] after using the word niggardly in a conversation will be returning to city government, ending a flap over what critics derided as political correctness run amok.

On Thursday, saying he acted too hastily in accepting David Howard’s resignation, Williams offered Howard his job back as director of the Office of the Public Advocate. Howard agreed to come back to city government, but he has asked the mayor to find him a different job.

In fairness to those who objected to the word, its use was probably ill-advised. Niggardly is hardly ubiquitous (another word not universally understood) in text or conversation. Anyone with common sense might have predicted the brouhaha.

English—It’s a trip

The Beatles 1964

The Beatles 1964 (clockwise, from top left: John, Paul, Ringo, George)

My tale is very different (its impact hingeing on a single letter, in fact), having to do with the fluidity of English-language vocabulary, which readily accepts ethnic and street slang (‘ho’, yo’ mama, homie [homeboy], the ‘hood, blunts [for marijuana], reefer) and technojargon (encryption, teleconference, CPU, whiteboarding, to name just a few).

Drug-subculture terms were conspicuous in the lyrics of rock music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “acid rock” and “heavy metal” in particular. Sometimes the references were subtle, as in the Beatles’ (1967) “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There was nothing subtle about “Cocaine,” written and recorded by JJ Cale in 1976 and memorably covered a few years later by Eric Clapton, who claims “Cocaine” is “an anti-drug-song. The fans only listen to the refrain: ‘She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine.’ But it says, ‘If you wanna get down, down on the ground, cocaine.’” (Stern magazine, 1998.)

Child Julian Lennon's drawing, upon which John Lennon claimed "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was based

Young child Julian Lennon’s drawing, upon which John Lennon claimed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based

John Lennon insisted, by the way, that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based on a picture his son, Julian, had drawn and that no allusion to LSD was intended.

I had long been in the habit of tuning out lyrics. For one thing, they were often indifferently articulated. I’m one of the many who thought that CCR was singing, “There’s a bathroom on the right” in the group’s 1969 hit “Bad Moon Rising” (actual lyrics: “There’s a bad moon on the rise”). Do check out kissthisguy.com, the utterly hilarious “archive of misheard lyrics.”

A more compelling reason for not listening to lyrics was that they were so often just stupid, especially compared to the music and the musician.

My favorite male musicians tended to be lyric-impaired. You have to go back to Ira Gershwin to find any substance in masculine lyrics, or perhaps I am simply out of touch. I read In Watermelon Sugar all the way through, and the only thing I remember is that everything was an odd color, so it might be that I lack the refined sensibilities to perceive subtlety and nuance in songs such as…  

“Layla” (Eric Clapton): “Layla. Layla. Layla. Layla. [indecipherable] Layla. Layla….”

“Peggy Sue” (Buddy Holly): “Peggy Sue. Peggy Sue. Pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty Peggy Sue. Oh, Pe-eg-gy; my Peggy Sue-ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh ooh, ooh. Oh, I need you, girl, and I want you, Peggy Sue….”

“La Bamba” (Ritchie Valens).

Buddy Holly, from txhome.org

Buddy Holly, from txhome.org

I’ll be honest: “La Bamba” is my all-time favorite song — the Ritchie Valens version, not the Los Lobos version or the Yum!Yum!ORANGE version. The lyrics have never been a factor, because they are in Spanish and thus, by definition, exotic.

Judging by the lyrics to “Donna,” Ritchie Valens’s other monster hit — released before his short career was cut shorter as a result of dying in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly — Valens was no Ira Gershwin: “Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. I had a girl. Donna was her name….”

Cover of the Ritchie Valens 45-rpm single "La Bamba" (1958)

Cover of the Ritchie Valens 45-rpm single “La Bamba” (1958)

But Ritchie Valens can take neither the credit nor the blame for the “La Bamba” lyrics, it turns out, because “La Bamba” is a three-hundred-year-old Mexican folk song. I wanted to know what a Bamba was, but apparently there’s no equivalent in English. The closest Spanish word to Bamba is bambú (“bamboo”), which, if you substituted it for Bamba, would make the song, if anything, less silly. Basically, Valens is singing about a dance, the Bamba, which either is a funny dance or is not to be attempted unless you, yourself, are a humorous, practical-joker type, plus you have to have speed and height, which [antecedent unclear] “I’ll be [be what? Speedy? High?] for you. I’m not a sailor. I’m not a sailor. I’m captain. I’m captain. Damn your eyes, I’m captain.”

If you are expecting a rebuttal here — “No, I’m captain” — you will be disappointed. The other shoe, in “La Bamba,” never drops. Wikipedia claims that the song’s message has to do with a groom’s promise to be faithful to his bride, fidelity being (according to Wikipedia) a virtue practiced by captains but not sailors, which shows how much Wikipedia knows about the privileges of rank.

Drawing the line

In the fall of 1971, I started working as a bookkeeper at an MOR radio station. MOR (middle of the road) describes the station’s “format,” which was soft rock: the mainstream music of Bread (“Baby, I’m-A Want You”), Cat Stevens (“PeaceTrain”), Elton John (“Rocket Man”), Harry Nilsson (“Without You”), the Spinners (“One of a Kind [Love Affair]”), Dobie Gray (the truly lovely “Drift Away”), and so forth. Drug-free and hamless to children and puppies.

In those days I could and did listen to the radio while I worked, so I knew every song on the station’s playlist by heart. Sometimes I sang along, making up lyrics when the real ones were just a mumble. I didn’t mind being clueless about who “Daniel” was in the Elton John hit… “You’re a star in the face of the sky…,” and “It looks like Daniel; must be the stars in my eyes.” I guessed that Daniel was probably in Heaven, but it turns out he was going only as far as Spain. Fine with me.

And then my very favorite song, the one that made me feel Up when I was Down or relaxed when I was tense, disappeared from the playlist. The artists, Brewer and Shipley, were fairly obscure, though the song I adored was on their third album, Tarkio. I couldn’t imagine why such a sweet, innocuous, folk-y song would be found objectionable. After all, Lawrence Welk considered it “a modern spiritual,” and it was performed on his weekly white-bread TV program by Gail Farrell and Dick Dale, who were apparently laboring under the same misapprehension I was.

I asked one of the deejays about the song’s disappearance. “What happened,” I said with complete ingenuousness, “to ‘One Toe Over the Line’?”

Then I waited patiently while he picked himself up off the floor and controlled a tedious series of fits of the giggles. Whatever it was, it was gonna be good.

“Honey,” he croaked, the giggles having not completely subsided, “it’s not ‘One Toe Over the Line.’ It’s ‘One Toke Over the Line.’”

“Okay,” I said, still at sea. “What’s a toke?”

“Oh, honey, you are an innocent, aren’t you?”

I wasn’t, but I let it pass.

“It’s a hit,” giggle, choke, “off a joint—a marijuana cigarette.”

“I know what a ‘joint’ is,” I said irritably. But my annoyance was directed at Brewer and Shipley, for taking me in. No wonder they were “showing off [their]… smile” there at “the railway station.” They were stoned.

The divorced mom of a sweet 4-year-old girl, I was terrified of drugs. I would mellow some in the months to come. It soon became apparent that if I were to cross every occasional toker off my friend list, I’d be down to Mom and Dad and one or two insufferable Republicans I knew from high school, when they were regular people. Not every Republican is insufferable, but these guys were stiffs in suits, believe me.

So I reconciled with Brewer and Shipley, who had surely missed me,  and “One Toke Over the Line” remains a favorite, even though Spiro Agnew called it “subversive.” Below are links to the videos, performed by the original artists and also by Gail and Dick, who I’m sure have long since recognized the enormity of their mistake. You’ll also find the B & S version on the Feelgood Music page of my website. Don’t look for “Cocaine.” I’m saving it for my Bad-Trip, Downer, FeelShitty Music page, for those who find this happiness thing to be so been-there-done-that….

Brewer & Shipley video

Lawrence Welk video

Truth in Advertising?

Find sample blogs on a gazillion topics at Alpha Inventions

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I'll have what she's having

The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty

Vintage Garden

Vintage Garden, by Xx_rebeldiamonds_xX

Last summer I bit on a “risk-free trial” for an açaí-berry formula and a colon-cleanse detox product, both in capsule form. I was aware of the risks of a “risk-free trial.” The strategy is similar to that used by publishers such as Bottom Line Books and Rodale Books, which let you “examine a book free for thirty days,” during which you could doubtless read the book and send it back, keeping the bonus gift, usually a small but useful guide to Growing Healing Herbs in a Sunny Window, or perhaps Homemade Garden-Pest Repellents.

(At least I suppose that reading a book doesn’t violate the rules for examining it. Or are you just supposed to check the binding, count the pages to make sure they’re all there, and verify that the book is printed on recycled paper and that no animals were harmed in the research, writing, printing, or distribution?)

I lost 12 pounds

In any event, I was quick to read the fine print on my “risk-free trial” of açaí-berry formula and colon-cleanse detox product. I needed to return the bottles containing the “unused product” to an address in Florida within ten days of my receiving them, which the company estimated at three days after shipping. Otherwise, my credit card would be charged $89.95 per month until cancellation.

Usually, it’s a miracle if my mail gets opened within ten days of receipt, but the phrase risk-free trial sets off warning bells. So… an unprecedented TWO days after receiving the product, I extracted my ten-day supply from each bottle and sent the remainder via USPS Priority Mail to the Florida address. Even so, my credit card was charged $89.95.

Astonishingly, the charge was removed without my having to make so much as a phone call. I’ve heard from other victims, however, that such charges can be very sticky.

You are actually at risk the minute you divulge your credit-card information, which is required for the “minimal shipping charge” of $1.95 or whatever.  If you must take the risk-free-trial risk, consider using a temporary (prepaid) credit card and keep the balance very low or cancel it altogether. Or not. Consult your legal professional.

By the way (and DO consult your healthcare professional before trying this regimen), I lost 12 pounds in two months on the colon-cleanse detox capsules.

Next: Truth in Advertising, Your Just Deserts — “Get the Smooth, Flawless, Young-Looking Skin You Deserve”

Below: I thought there was missing text, but it’s just Silly Syntax

From an Arizona Department of Health Services Report…

Neurological Effects [of exposure to hydrogen sulfide in sewer gas]:
Ataxia, choreoathetosis, dystonia, inability to stand in one 20-month-old child


Holiday Store ** Random Cards of Kindness

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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Person, Place, or Thing

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 17
Chapter 7: Metaphorically Speaking
Part 1: Things That Don’t Go Bump in the Night

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

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

[A National Public Radio reporter] said that for some people “Medicare was literally their lifeline.” That is a shocking misuse of literal…. The correct thing to say would be, “Medicare is their virtual lifeline.” [A literal lifeline is]… a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. [The reporter meant that] Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. —From a listener’s letter to NPR.org, published March 29, 2005

Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings [emphasis added by the editor].  —New York Timessyndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, “Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through,” April 13, 2005

Let us focus for a moment on the difference between literal expressions and nonliteral expressions. By so doing, we will begin to understand how the truth of poetry is genuine and necessary, and we will perhaps not embarrass ourselves by having our grammatical lapses called to the attention of the entire English-speaking public.

The untidiness of nouns

How well I remember sitting in Miss McCluskey’s cozy classroom at Dundee Elementary School, wrapped in the schoolroom scents of floor polish, eraser dust, books and paper and Miss McCluskey’s talcum powder, and mesmerized by her passion for parsing sentences. How wonderful to have such power over words, assigning the parts of speech to their proper places in sentences such as “Jane gave the ball to Jim” and “Jane gave Jim the ball.”

Jane Is Generous

Figure 1: Jane Is Generous

It was all so easy then, learning that a noun is “a person, place, or thing,” and the things were always stuff you could handle or eat or touch or see or at least wrap your mind around, like marshmallow, cow, apple, Cincinnati, and Mother.

Just when you thought you’d mastered the concept, you got promoted to the next grade and they threw stuff at you like this:

Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.

Some of my fellow pupils in Miss Rubelman’s class, the future social scientists, actually spared a thought or two for poor Jane and her terror. Why was she so afraid? Was she in an airplane plummeting toward a shark-infested sea? Had her boyfriend, Ned, found out that she was really at the amusement park with Victor when she’d told Ned she was visiting Monique at the hospital? Or was it existential angst wrought by the uncertainties of contemporary society?

A majority of the class cared nothing about Jane and her problems or about the meaning of excruciating. It was almost time for recess.

But a few of us had already diagrammed the sentence, as follows: 

Jane Is Afraid

Figure 2: Jane Is Afraid

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

It was as easy to identify the noun — the object of the preposition by (In this case, fear) — as it would have been if Jane had been gripped by a gorilla. Even so, a noun such as fear — not a person, not a place, not exactly a thing — didn’t fit neatly into the little noun-world we had learned about. Suddenly nouns weren’t so tidy. In fact, the whole noun business got out of hand in a hurry. Nouns could be collective, concrete, countable, uncountable, animate, inanimate, mass, proper, and any number of other things — gerunds, infinitives, and on and on and on.

This, I believe, is where the entire population of the world separates itself into two groups: (1) people who care about nouns, in any form, as well as verbs and conjunctions and subordinate clauses, and (2) people who realize that it’s just going to get more complicated from here on out and it’s probably time to become interested in the opposite sex. I, alas, was One who Cared.

The people who want to know more about the subjunctive mood, and why “if he were at the party” is different from “if he was at the party”; the people to whom it matters whether to use which or that, as in “It was the pollen that made my eyes water, not the mold, which makes me sneeze” — these people study Latin because verb conjugations aren’t enough for them, they want noun declensions too. These people are doomed to forever probe the Nature of Things, if for no other reason than to line them up in sentence diagrams.

These people eventually become English majors. You read about them in the newspapers, running their cars off the road while proofreading billboards: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette shou—!” And as the EMTs carry the crash victim’s mangled body to the ambulance, he or she moans, “As a cigarette should. Not like a cigarette should….”

But this would come later. In elementary school, the future English majors/car-crash survivors were reveling in our discoveries about nouns. A noun could actually be not just a single word —

      Jane found a cat

— but a whole bunch of words: clauses, clauses within clauses, entire sentences containing three or four prepositional phrases

Jane found a haunted house in which lived a family of lizards that could speak in Cantonese

Better yet, nouns could be things that weren’t items but were instead ideas, feelings, concepts, and other intangibles — “things” that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Instead of thinking about her cat, Jane might be thinking about…

…the dichotomy of good and evil
…a method of separating egg whites and yolks
…her future as a thoracic surgeon
…her desire to throttle her little brother

The nouns dichotomy, good, evil, separating (here, a gerund), method, future, and desire describe “things” — real, actual, important things — that cannot be discerned by the five physical senses.

The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations

We depend so keenly on the five physical senses that the absence of any one of them is tragic. We pity the blind and the deaf, and those whose sense of touch is lost through paralysis.

The senses of taste and smell are less important; we don’t depend on them for survival, as our primitive ancestors might have. Most of us buy our mushrooms at the grocery store and get our drinking water out of a tap or a bottle. We trust that the grocery-store people don’t stock poisonous mushrooms and that Evian water is pure and clean. Most of the time, our assumptions are justified.

There are people in this world who have virtually lost the use of all five senses and have yet managed to convey the rich, internal, spiritual life they are experiencing. Such people are rare, and few of us would voluntarily surrender any of our five senses as a path to spiritual purification. Certain individuals do, however, practice sensory deprivation — on purpose — by spending days or weeks in caves. Sometimes the reason for this isolation is to develop what the practitioners consider “spiritual senses” — ways of perceiving that are independent of the five physical senses.

I hope that you’ll be able to grasp this concept in the comfort of your home. Cave-dwelling isn’t for everyone. There are inconveniences, such as, for example, the proximity of bats.

My apartment is in an active ninety-year-old church, which is clean and well kept, with modern offices and classrooms and a magnificent sanctuary. But all of us here deal with the occasional bat. People will be chatting in hallways or gathering in their classes when — inexplicably to the clueless observer — everyone screams and runs in some random direction, inevitably smashing into each other in their panic. Bats can be very startling.

This is especially true if a couple of them fly out from behind your shower while you are showering in it. It’s even worse if the bathroom door is closed and they keep flying around in that erratic sonar-guided way they have, so that you have no idea where they’ll end up or which way to dodge. I speak from experience. One minute I was showering, the next I was naked in the living room, having gotten there without traversing the distance in between, making me the only human being who has ever, literally, made a quantum leap.

As useful and necessary as the physical senses may be for informing you of the presence of bats, they (the senses, and no doubt the bats as well) are incapable of perceiving abstractions — intangible things — ideas, beliefs, and emotions such as fear, love, happiness, and disgust, as illustrated in Table 1.

Yuck

Table 1: Yuck

Sometimes people make the mistake of classifying tangible things as real and intangibles as unreal. A parent will comfort a child who wakes up in the night, frightened by a dream or an unexplained noise, by saying, “It’s all right. It was only a dream,” or, “It was only your imagination.” Yet it is these intangibles — imagination, dreams, and others, such as love and vengeance — that propel us through life.

All language is, of course, metaphor. A word is only a symbol of the thing or action it represents. And, as we shall discover, virtually every word in every language — even conjunctions and prepositions — originates in metaphor.

Lesson 17.1 Assignment

Find at least ten examples of metaphors in this lesson. E-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

 

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

 

No Prozac

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 11

 

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible

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

 

Get depressed, learn to knit

Prozac (fluoxetine)

Prozac (fluoxetine)

In 1970, when I was twenty-two, I was hospitalized for depression and anxiety. I was so depressed I couldn’t tie my shoes. What was the point? They would just come untied again.

Worse yet, I was depressed about being depressed. I had a two-year-old daughter to care for and a husband to try to hang on to. I didn’t have time to be depressed.

In those days when you were depressed they put you in a room with other depressed people and taught you how to knit. It was called occupational therapy. You sat around with these people and exchanged misinformation. There were four middle-aged women who played bridge all day, every day. They were so chatty and cheerful that I assumed they made clumsy suicide attempts every so often just so they could spend a week or two in the hospital playing bridge.

There were no drugs like Prozac in 1972. Psychiatrists were people who tried to help you figure out why you were depressed and then, when you figured it out, stop doing whatever it was and go on with your life.

My psychiatrist was a family friend whom I’d known all my life. He wasn’t the kind of psychiatrist who asked you about the trauma of potty-training or about your sexual fantasies. He was the kind of psychiatrist who explained things and gave advice.

Liberating my inner bitch

“Know thyself,” was, in effect, the advice he gave me. He said that I was angry and didn’t know it—that I had “projected” my anger onto the world and therefore perceived the world as hostile. I was also diminished by having projected my attributes—intelligence, wisdom, sense of humor—onto other people and things, so that I had lost confidence in my abilities and my judgment. (See figures 1, 2, and 3.)

The essential I will assert itself. It will not be ignored or subjugated. If I deny it, it will flap its wings in my face. “Claim me,” it squawks. “Use me. I’m the reason you’re here.”

Mine was a quick recovery, followed within just a few months by separation from my husband and ultimately by divorce. I spent the next few years, yes, liberating my Inner Bitch but also gleefully gathering other scattered bits and pieces of myself and just enjoying the hell out of my life, my daughter, my family, and my friends.

Figure 1. Unworthiness

Figure 1. Unworthiness

Figure 2. Anxiety

Figure 2. Anxiety

Figure 3a. Personality in Balance

Figure 3a. Personality in Balance

Figures 3b and 3c. Out of Balance

Figures 3b and 3c. Out of Balance

 

Next: Defining the Self Made Simple