The experienced catcher can help the pitcher by “framing” the plate, especially the border-line strike.

– Jeff Mincey, “Crash Course for Catchers,” Scholastic Coach (vol 52; 1982)

In art school, students learn not to look at the edge of the canvas as an absolute border.

In umpire school, the rectangle of the strike zone is an absolute border, but its exact location is a matter of judgment and even consultation. The catcher can influence an umpire – for example, by setting up with the mitt at the “low-outside corner.” Perpendicular lines sprout by implication from the catcher’s mitt, proposing a frame for the strike zone. If the pitch hits the glove, without obvious reaching by the catcher, the umpire may assent to the pictured zone and call a strike.

This influence does not deceive the umpire, say players willing to comment. They also say a catcher who is good at framing can earn a dozen strikes per game that might otherwise have gone the other way. Are umpires being bamboozled, milked, shaken down, seduced? They are being persuaded by a picture inside an imaginary frame.

In a crime drama, “framing” someone means rearranging evidence to make an innocent person appear guilty. This kind of framing clearly crosses a boundary between interpretation and deceit, offering a mental picture that is intentionally contrary to fact. Those last nine words could also describe a metaphor.

But a metaphor is always understood to be imaginary. It doesn’t deceive because it doesn’t make sense as fact: e.g., this month just flew by.

Image: Part of John Lennon’s face is excluded by the artist’s placement of the edge. Revolver album cover via Wikipedia

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I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up.

– John Bolton to Fiona Hill (July 10, 2019)

In the most quoted metaphor from President Trump’s impeachment, John Bolton compared the dirt-for-aid trade to a street crime. Not white collar crime. Not mafia crime. Not a federal crime – which the Office of Management and Budget eventually decided did occur.

The thing about a drug deal is the parties can’t trust each other. The buyer is crazed with need. The seller is utterly lacking in humanity, and possibly short on business ethics. It’s a recipe for suspicion, betrayal, and violence. Thus in the 1990s “drug deal gone wrong” became a byword for street crimes that would never be solved but were no mystery.

In Bolton’s view, the Rudy Giuliani/Rick Mulvaney “drug deal” could go wrong in a hundred foreseeable ways. Making the same point in a further metaphor, Bolton said, “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” It remains to be seen whether the grenade will explode. Giuliani might be a dud.

Illustration: From a Thomas Nast cartoon (1872), via Wikimedia

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As they cooked his remains – some of it / Gasping in bronze pots, some weeping on spits, / A feast followed.

– Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1999)

Procne was not so much a bad mother as an angry wife when she cooked and served her son to her betraying, cruel, lying husband for dinner. Hers is one of those stories from Greek mythology where people go through an ordeal so intense the only possible relief is to be turned into a bird, tree, or flower. Anything to escape being human, subject to human suffering.

Is human suffering worse than animals’ suffering? Maybe yes, if only because we start with the assumption that we deserve better.

In his telling of transformation stories, Ted Hughes focuses on passion – the misery as well as the delirium of love, or lust – with hyper-attention to ordinary sensations of everyday life. Your skin will prickle with recognition – for example, at the feeling of water encircling your knee as you step into a pool. Beware: listening to the shish kebob could transform you – into a vegan.

Photos: Pig roast via Wikipedia; book cover by Karl Stull

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Bright God, / you came to me, sunburst / in your hair, in the fields / where I was plucking / soft yellow petals / that fluttered to my lap / and sang back dawn’s bright gold.

– Euripides’ Ion, translated by W.S. Di Piero (1996)

Recalling what happened and how she felt when she was raped by Apollo, Creusa describes terror and helplessness – crying out for her mother, feeling her wrist seized in a powerful grip. She was carried to a hidden place, a cave known to Athenians as the Long Rocks. Overcome with shame, she told no one and returned in secret to the cave when her pregnancy came to term. She went into labor, a frightened girl, with no women to help, and bore a son. There is abundant detail in Creusa’s recollection that accords with the psychology of rape as it is understood today. She says, “you yoked me to darkness.”

At the same time, her memory includes awareness of cosmic power at work in the worst moment of her life, cementing bricks in a path determined by the Fates. Her son would bear sons who would become famous kings.

Rough handling of human beings by gods is a fundamental theme in Euripides. Heaven has its decrees, and mortals had better adjust. It isn’t personal (though the pain certainly is). Even the attacker in this case – a god of light, music, medicine – seems drafted into his role by still higher powers. And somehow, on a scale far above our concerns, there is beauty in the uses to which we are put – the sunburst in a god’s hair and the answering flowers in a maiden’s lap.

Photo: Statue of Apollo in the Belvedere courtyard, Pio-Clementino Museum, Vatican; via Wikipedia

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Her words and looks “were stabs of a poniard – stabs, did I say? – they were tearing with hot pincers, and scalding the raw wound with burning sulphur…”

– Walter Scott, Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818)

Psychological pain is often compared to torture, because most of us think psychological pain isn’t quite the same as physical pain. And it’s not. Pangs of a guilty conscience fly out the window the moment you stub your toe.

So descriptions of psychological pain often overcompensate. Stabbing is not enough to describe George Staunton’s regret and embarrassment; there must also be tearing with hot pincers. Add the after-burn of sulfur. And though these sensations are distinct and can each be described in detail, the metaphors demur. We are merely to understand Mr. Staunton was made to feel very, very uncomfortable.

Physicians nowadays routinely ask patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 10. The scale is uncalibrated, so it might be necessary at times (post-surgery) to peg your answer to a metaphor: “My pain is an 8, like stabs of a poignard. Did I say 8? It’s more of a 9, like the tearing of hot pincers, with scalding sulfur.”

Illustration: It appears the man on the table is being waterboarded (see funnel). Torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition, engraving by B. Picart, 1722. Wellcome Library no. 43213i

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Pope calls for concrete steps to stop abuse.

LA Times headline (February 22, 2019)

The steps metaphor – deriving from the path/journey/travel metaphor – is so well-worn the headline writer isn’t aware of its imagery and doesn’t consider that most papally commissioned steps are made of marble, not concrete. Or that there is a paradox in taking steps to stop.

Oddly, the word in the headline that is most loaded with meanings is the one devoid of imagery. Abuse in today’s English refers not only to pedophilia and other sex crimes but also to drug or alcohol addiction, wife beating, and name calling. Having such a wide range of meanings is only possible because the word abuse refers but does not describe. You don’t see betrayal, violation, or deceit – as in back-stabber, for example.

The word abuse is transparent. Or maybe it’s opaque.

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Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands, / Imperial amidst the lesser heights, and like / Some mighty, unimpassioned mind, companionless / And cold.

– John Rollin Ridge, “Mt. Shasta, Seen from a Distance” (1850)

“Unimpassioned mind” is an unusual way to describe a mountain. Mountains are often lofty, pure, mighty, noble, or regal, but it’s rare to find one with awareness.

It’s not a kindly awareness. It is solitary, cold, and far-removed from human concerns.

No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.

Mt. Shasta sees and is seen. Wearing a crown of snow upon its brow, it gazes down upon the valleys and streams of the Golden State, down upon the sea and the lesser mountains. Parents and children sense its divinity. Even the cattle driver:

Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity…

Toward the close of this 76-line poem, Mt. Shasta becomes a symbol for the rule of law, sorely needed in Gold Rush California, where vigilantes did much of the policing. The legal system Ridge has in mind is, like Shasta, devoid of human passion – so much so that:

e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it, e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail…

Ridge’s belief in a clear, pure, cold legal system – one that would by its impartiality right the wrongs of the past and elevate humankind to a more principled way of life – seems heroic, and quixotic, when you learn he was a Cherokee who accepted American culture and was committed to racial assimilation. It may be that “Mt. Shasta” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a modern counterpart, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Biographical note: At age 12, Ridge witnessed the murder of his father, a signer of the Trail of Tears treaty. His mother, who was white, a schoolteacher’s daughter who married for love, saw to it that Ridge received a good education. Despite his belief in assimilation as the way forward, Ridge knew very well that American society was not blind to race.

Coming to California in 1850, Ridge tried mining but soon turned to journalism, and he wrote California’s first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about a young Mexican who tries the American Way but is turned to crime by American prejudice. The story is notable for the hero’s ability to walk unrecognized among the townspeople who feared the very mention of his name, and for the cold cruelties inflicted by his followers, especially Three Fingered Jack. Ridge lived in Grass Valley, 200 miles from Mt. Shasta, and died there of brain fever at age 40.

Find the full text of the poem at

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Sinners in hell, stuck in a frozen river

Traffic in the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno is at a standstill. The river Cocytus has turned to ice and holds the worst of sinners, the betrayers, in an array of tumbled postures, like debris picked up in a now-frozen flood. These souls (or “shades”) snarl and bite at one another, held forever in frustration and rage. The ice is like molten glass that has cooled and turned solid.

…l’ombre tutte eran coperte,
e trasparien come festuca in vetro.

…the shades were completely covered, visible
Through the ice like bits of straw trapped in glass. (34.11-12)

In Dante’s time, wet straw served as a layer of insulation for glass coming out of the furnace. Waste glass marred by flecks of straw was an everyday sight in the artisan’s workshop. The door of the furnace, stoked to temperatures well above the point where flames can even exist, must have been the scariest sight in town.

Translation by Mary Jo Bang (Bomb magazine, 112, Spring 2012),

Photo: Il Libraio

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In Burmese, informers are sometimes called “pasein yo,” literally “the handle of the axe,” signifying that the weapon used to chop down the tree is made from the wood of the tree itself.

– Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005)

In English, synonyms for informer tend to be vehement rather than metaphorical. A rat is a despised animal but not a betrayer. Comparisons to Judas or Benedict Arnold are usually of the “as bad as” type – name-calling rather than imaginative comparison. Turncoat has the idea of a group member being used against the group – as with the ax handle and the tree – but is not so much a comparison as a label or nickname referencing switched uniforms (see definition of metonymy).

Stool pigeon is the genuine article, comparing the methods of con artists to the methods of hunters. Hunters used to tie a pigeon to a perch or stool to lure other pigeons. Con artists used a fake customer to lure the unwary into rigged games of chance. This meaning is from the early 1800s, according to the OED. By the mid-1800s, stool pigeon also came to mean a police informer, a criminal used to catch other criminals.

Photo: Karl Stull

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Leavenworth is like “a giant mausoleum adrift in a sea of nothingness.”

– Inmate writing to his mother in 1929 (quoted in Pete Earley, The Hot House, 1992)

The Kansas tourism board most strenuously objects. Sea of nothingness? Those are the amber waves of grain out there, in a sea of plenty, which we sing about in “America the Beautiful.”

But the inmate’s metaphor is interesting for having two parts. The first part equates being in prison with being dead. The second part emphasizes how far removed the mausoleum is from the land of the living. “Far from where I want to be,” says Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison.” Cash hears a passing train and imagines a fancy dining car in which people are “drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.” People in the land of the living “keep a-moving, and that’s what tortures me.”

In “1998,” a poem from Stone Hotel (2003), Raegan Butcher writes:

I used to sit and cry and hold a loaded gun up to my head,
but I chose a slower way of being dead.

Photo: Leavenworth Penitentiary/Wikipedia

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