Saturday, April 10, 2010

Metaphor The Win

There's something about a delicately crafted metaphor that really spins my axles. I was talking to my friend Abe, who is up in the air about some very exciting upcoming academic adventures, and I offered the metaphor of graduate school as car: some are fancy, like a Porsche, some are workaday, like a Honda Civic: it all depends on where you want to go and in how much style. Obviously, "style" means "crippling student debt" when we're talking about universities, but the metaphor holds.

The use of language and imagery to make sense of our topsy-turvy modern world is so appealing. There's something about it that makes seemingly unmanageable problems seem smaller, friendlier, and more deal-with-able. Last year, I used a vehicular metaphor when I talked about relationship baggage. Some days, I'm dealing with shit I have to haul around in a tank; other days, I can get by hauling my crazy brain around on a skateboard.

One of my favourite metaphors comes from Anne Lamott, who said in one of her fabulous books that managing addictions is a lot like trying to put an octopus to bed: as soon as you think you've got all your problems under control, one of those sucker-covered tentacles comes snaking out from under the covers, ready to squish you to death. I love that image, because it's a great combination of homey - the covers! - and the fishy, disgusting deep waters of the conscious. It's also remarkably apt. Addictions do seem to involve a lot of flailing around and unprettiness.

People have used metaphors time and time again in order to make the big ticket items seem smaller. Pat Benatar used one to great effect when she compared love to a battlefield - which, incidentally, I'm on side with as timeless and awesome, not to mention hummable. But love is a lot like a battlefield: scary, unknowable, and with the potential for grievous harm to one's corporeal body and mental well-being. Anyone who's looked at a positive pregnancy test as one might look at a loaded gun knows what I'm talking about here.

Abe also introduced me to one of his favourite metaphors: troubled relationship as car. We've been talking a lot about love triangles, and he said that getting involved with someone who's in a relationship is a lot like riding shotgun in a car, your love interest driving, and their partner asleep in the back. Obviously, there can be a certain amount of hanky-panky up there in the front seat, but ultimately, to make this kind of relationship last, someone needs to get out of the car. Maybe you pull over and get out, walk by the side of the road for a while, and wait for your lover to come back when he's riding solo. Sometimes the partner wakes up, and sees your hands interlaced on the gear shifter. Either way, the ride isn't going to last that way forever.

As both a cyclist and as a woman with some commitment issues, I find this metaphor totally luscious. Cyclists are, by their nature, a solitary bunch; hence the commitment issues. I guess I could get an AutoShare membership - date around, try out different makes and models - but many of those cars seem to have braking trouble and the clutch is shot. Also, they have mommy issues. Sometimes, even though you end up slogging through the rain and getting flat tires, it seems like the most gratifying way to travel is solo. Plus, it seems like maybe my love for Top Gear has rendered me incapable of not appreciating a good automotive metaphor.

Metaphors are most successful when they illuminate some dark part of our lives. We think a problem is overwhelming - just another octopus under the duvet, its eyes glinting dully in the night. But it turns out that, with the right turn of phrase, new light can be shed on the situation. We give ourselves a new angle, a new way of looking at the world, and things become easier. We can talk about the problem: "See, it's a lot like a garden," and our listeners, who hitherto had been catatonic with annoyance, grasp the situation a little better. Maybe even offer a fresh ear and some new advice. And we ourselves get a new lease on the issue...or at least more space to breathe with it. Sometimes, that's all we really need. Cars, gardens, battlefields: all they're doing is opening ourselves up, making things safe, and then manageable.

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