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.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I'm Telling All of Y'all, It's Gratitude!

I am on a roll! While some days are the kind of days that makes you want to hide under the covers, weeping and eating Fudgee-os out of the package until your tonsils are sugar-burned, these days I'm having are more the type with the heart-burstingly good moods. The sushi lunch dates with friends. The patio-beers. The congratulations on the graduation from university.

That's right: after 8 years of slogging away, often through a pit of despair, my graduation from the University of Toronto is upon us.

Much like raising a child or doing the seal hunt, I've often felt like my travels through post-secondary education has taken the proverbial village. My family, who have never thrown their hands up in complete despair (even though I've often wanted to), deserve the most knee-shredding gratitude. My parents have always been so supportive of my meandering journey towards a degree: way back in 2002, when I was three months in and wanted to give up/transfer/die, they encouraged me to look at alternatives: time off - which I took, to the tune of two years off over the last eight - and considering a transfer. I ended up parking my butt at U of T for the entire time, but my mom and dad got me to think critically about school. What purpose does it serve? What's so special about U of T? Do you want spaghetti for dinner?

My circle of friends has also been amazing. My friends were encouraging no matter how many years I decided to run around campus. They would just shrug and say, "Well, you'll get there eventually." This would usually be in response to one of those I'm-a-loser meltdowns that will happen to those of us who Van Wilder'ed their way through school. It's a little tough to keep the courage of your convictions in the face of wildly accomplished folks - like many of my friends - but they were never judgemental or condescending. They would usually just pat my head and send me back to the books.

At the same time, while many of them blasted through school in the standard-issue four years, a lot of my friends took more time. Stretching out school-time isn't a bad thing: your late teens and early twenties are a time of enormous personal growth (God, could I sound any more California?), and sometimes, floundering is good for the soul. It was hugely helpful to have people in my social circle who decided to go slow, to try different courses, to take time off. It made me feel like less of an anomaly, and more like I was part of a slowed-down school of thought re: university.

On the other hand, the most off-putting and frustrating part of being a student was dealing with the school. My first registrar was so unhelpful. Saint Mike's, the first college, gave me the first-year residence experience that ruined everything in 2003: the food, my sleep, my social life, my interest in religion. Seriously? The dorm rooms had honest-to-God crucifixes over every door. I was expecting something a little less Rosemary's Baby from my college experience. I eventually switched colleges altogether, to the much more accommodating Innis College (and this was a great choice - they are so nice and so professional).

Many of professors were terrible teachers, terrible people, or both. I don't think profs are required to go through the same teaching courses that other educators need, and sometimes, this shows in the quality of the courses. For example, one of my profs this year was a PhD student who had never taught before; he used to spam our inboxes, give us confusing "assignments" that turned out to be bibliograpies, had no real idea of how to lecture, and, when approached one-on-one, seemed to be a weird blend of shy and arrogant. I've had other, much lovelier educational experiences here, but the lousy ones tend to stick with you.

Now that it's over and done - I was telling a friend last night that I am never writing anything for U of T again, even for money - I know that I wouldn't be the person I am now if I had gone anywhere else. I needed the shitty first year, the crappy beaurocracy, the wonderful friends, the family support, the stutter-stops and false starts, the ex-boyfriends, the weight fluctuations, the breakdowns and the triumphs, to become who I am today. The University of Toronto, maybe universities everywhere, produced a graduate much like itself: flawed, smart, good-looking (tee hee!), funny-haha, funny-weird, and interested in the world around it.