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Living in Metaphors

Why must we dream in metaphors?

Try to hold on to something we couldn't understand.

Couldn't understand.

Seal sings that provocative line in a haunting song that otherwise -- lyrically, at least -- is pedestrian, if not wholly unintelligible.

But there is in that one statement, a kernel of something; a thought worth considering. Although, for me it isn't Seal’s dreams of sleep -- the peripatetic ventures of the mind locked in slumber -- rather, it is or collective, yet dissimilar dreams accompanying daily travail -- the constant associative ramblings of our brains that can't sit still -- that this peripatetic pauses to ponder.

Not really sure (if you care to learn) what I'm talking about? Well, try this . . .

We all harbor fantasies. Conjure them in conjunction with the real life events that pass from outer reality to inner consciousness. When I was a kid, I was certain that too much tuna fish would result in my untimely demise from mercury poisoning. I also was certain that just sitting in my kitchen strumming my guitar every night would somehow make a recording contract materialize. Then there was that girl in Intro to Econ who studiously ignored me all semester . . . even though I knew she secretly craved to ravish me!

. . . Okay . . . so, I was a dolt.

I also engaged in symbolism, as I'm sure many dolts do. Indeed, for an imagination as fertile as mine, there is no want for things suggested by other things. Signs abound and inside my noggin there is never a paucity of association to keep me hoping or fretting. A ring that a former lover insisted I wear came, once she had left, to suggest the manipulation inherent in her character and the dirty tricks that was her modus operendi. Continuing to wear it would only succeed in perpetuating the mendacity that had punctuating my paces when we were a pair. Fortunately, not all signs are bleak. The onset of spring can herald a fresh start; a job offer can be more than a new prospect, it can be a signal of a new life, an opportunity to morph a new me.

Now, there’s a scary thought.

And then there are the portents. The signs of future histories embedded in the objects and acts of the present. The bird dropping splatting my shoulder making me believe that the day is destined to turn into (fill in the blank with the stuff trickling down my clavicle). On the positive side, the sparkling, sun-dappled tarmac that my plane is just now alighting on serves to suggest that this may be a worthy trek, after all.

In many ways the fantasies and symbols and portents are all metaphors. Things that stand for other things. Objects that draw equivalence to something else. Tuna fish as death; guitar playing as a ticket to adulation/love/fame/riches; the Econ seatmate as romantic interest; the ring as consignment to a life of perfidy; the job offer as a new start; the bird droppings as a bad day on the horizon; the sunrise as a great experience in store.

”In store” . . . Even as I write you can see that metaphors abound. Allusions accrete. Obviously I think in metaphor. But it isn’t only me. It is something that we all do, although we are not always aware of it. “You are my sun and moon” a lover coos into the ear of his partner. He is speaking in metaphor. “Now that we’ve had a chance to talk, I think we’ve cleared the air,” a boss concludes after a session with her disgruntled staff. More metaphor-speak. “This BlackBerry is the creme de la crème,” a dormie brags to his roommate. Metaphor again.

Living in metaphors, though, that is something different, entirely. Because while we tend to created associations between things, it is not always the case that we are aware of it, and it is even less often that we openly court and install them at the core of our daily action. We more often do what Seal indicated in bringing his song to a close: “and I could not understand, I could not understand – stand, stand . . . no, I could not understand.”

In a previous life, when I coached basketball, I had a tendency to speak in metaphor. To the point where players often turned to one another and said:

“you know what he just said?”

”I dunno. Sounded like: ‘the early bird catches the worm’.”

”Yeah, he did. But -- he was designing an out-of-bounds play, right?”

”Guess he meant hit it hard, hit it fast. Before they set up.”

”Yeah. Maybe. Could be. But -- why didn’t he just say that?”

”I dunno. The guy thinks in metaphors. Know what I mean?”

”uh . . . well . . . of course. I mean, sure. Don’t we all?”

If people act as if “the early bird catches the worm”, then they are living in metaphor. If they operate as if they are “taking the bull by the horns”, then they are living in metaphor. If they carry around iPods and WiFi-capable laptops and cell phones, then they are living in metaphor. Sometimes this world strikes me as too big and obdurate and unwieldy and unfathomable for me to feel that I have that kind of control. Can I really live in any metaphor other than the one where an anchor is tied to my ankle as I frantically try to tread water, or I’ve stumbled inside a deep, dark, endless tunnel, with no seeming exit. At times like that, inside the tunnel, I wonder if I have the passion, the conviction, the consistency to step up to the plate, to hit a home run, to circle the bases pumping my fist. I mean, all by myself; without some assistance, some external prodding, some artificial injection of social and cultural and spiritual juice.

That’s what I think the commercial world is good at: providing metaphors for us to live by. Giving us the cues how to think and act and thrive. Prince stroking his massive phall – er, backlit guitar -- onstage; Marilyn Mon – er, Anna Nicole Smith – fashioning a model of how to make a total public mess of life; the lingerie-clad babe – er, mannequin – in the storefront suggesting that this is how all women actually dress, or look, underneath, this is how we should always imagine them to be, this is what they aspire to, what we live to achieve.

Even if none if it is true. Even if it is all just image and projection

and pose and ruse; even if it is only one possible conjunction of random elements . . . it still can serve as metaphor. And it often does.

In fact, the commercial world cannot operate absent metaphor; nor can it survive unless its clients – that is, you and me – buy into its mental slight of hand: this for that, the object you see being equivalent to the state you can achieve. In short, it isn’t enough to think in metaphor; one actually has to live in metaphor.

This may not be the way to end this piece, but it is the way it will close. Think of it as a metaphor about metaphor.

I just completed a novel by T. Jefferson Parker called The Fallen which is a pretty solid read, if you are in the market for a hard-boiled detective yarn. Skillfully-crafted, phrases well-turned, strong plot, characters to fret over, fine attention to detail. In it, the central character, a cop named “Brownlaw”, is in the process of watching his personal world (in the form of what he had heretofore assumed had been a happy marriage) disintegrate. This coincides with trying to locate the killer of an agent for the San Diego Ethics Authority. Yeah, you heard me right. I guess that’s called “irony”. Anyway, the dead guy was one of the original straight arrows who, in his own version of disintegration, had lost a daughter to a swimming pool accident, then his wife – due to the overwhelming grief and guilt they both felt for thinking the other had been watching over the little girl. To learn how it all turns out, I would encourage you to pluck it up and give it a few nights before bed.

Call it my contribution to commerce.

But the reason I’m telling you about it is because of a kind of a metaphoric play that Parker has going. I mean, beyond the cop named “Brownlaw” and an Ethics Authority inside a rather corrupt medium-sized American city. The metaphor that he installed in the heart of the plot, the device that made the book most interesting, most tantalizing, was the synethesia angle. If you don’t know, synethesia is a neurological condition in which two or more bodily senses are coupled. For instance, people hear speech as musical notes floating through the air, or else taste food when certain words are uttered. In the case of the book’s hero -- who literally had his condition knocked into him when he survived a toss out the window of a six storey building – he sees emotional statements in geometric shapes and telling colors. For instance, green trapezoids reveal envy, red squares signal deception, and black triangles reflect dread.

The colors stand for something else. Yeah, I know . . . this is more a semiotic thing; but it is the equation of one element with another, which is the domain of metaphor. Even if the words and the colored forms don’t match, the color-forms and the inner state masked by the words do. The twain are joined through a relation of equivalence. And, if you can see the possibilities there, then you can appreciate that, in a police procedural, drama might be born. Metaphor giving birth to high fiction.

In everyday life, such confluence may not always be that dramatic, but its emergence in a synethesent means that the constant presence of metaphor does keep things interesting.

One might even venture: worth living.

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