All of us are trim tabs, man.

– Jeff Bridges on Real Time (October 5, 2018)

Jeff Bridges credits the trim-tab metaphor to Buckminster Fuller, who compared social reform to steering a supertanker. The rudder on a vessel that size is so large it can’t be turned by ordinary means. The engineering solution is the trim tab, a mini-rudder that steers the main rudder, which then turns the ship.

From this principle, it follows that small groups and even individuals can influence the behavior of a mass society – turning it away from traditions of racism, for example.

While supporting the hope that a few good people can bring about good on a grand scale, the metaphor includes a stern requirement, that trim tabs do their work in conjunction with a rudder. Random acts of kindness do not turn the ship; turning the rudder turns the ship.

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How bad are the mosquitos?

Apparently they were very bad in India and Burma during the colonial era. In a dark tribute to “Malaria” (1906) by Adela Cory Nicolson (pseudonym Laurence Hope), the mosquitoes formed clouds as they traveled, and they grazed like cattle on sleepless British administrators:

Clouds of mosquitoes, gauzy in the heat,
Rise [on] spangled wings aloft and far away,
Making thin music, strident and faint,
From golden eve to silver break of day.
The baffled sleeper hears th’ incessant whine
Through his tormented dreams, and finds no rest.
The thirsty insects use his blood for wine,
Probe his blue veins and pasture on his breast.

They were so bad, according V.C. Scott O’Connor, that British officials were driven to desperate measures in domestic furnishing: “In some houses, there is a special room, a kind of inner citadel and last refuge, which is wholly of iron gauze, and within it, the master of the house sits like a vanquished lion in a cage” (The Silken East: A Record of Life and Travels in Burma, 1904).

Photo: Zoohistorian/Wikimedia Commons

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It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks…

– William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well (II.ii.16)

V0019682 A barber's shop: the central figure is a man seated, swathed

Chairs in figurative language are usually imagined without reference to the sitter’s anatomy – as in throne, seat of power, committee chair, etc. Seen as a bearer of buns, a chair loses dignity.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver makes a couple of chairs (like cane chairs) from hair trimmings of the giant queen of Brobdingnag. Then he refuses to sit in the chairs: “I would rather die a thousand Deaths than place a dishonourable Part of my Body on those precious Hairs that once adorned her Majesty’s Head” (part II, ch. VI).

Charles Dickens takes a lustier view in The Pickwick Papers, recounting a dream in which a chair comes to life. The smutty-minded chair boasts that “hundreds of fine women have sat in my lap for hours together. What do you think of that, you dog, eh!” (ch. 14, “The Bagman’s Story”).

Sticklers may point out the Swift and Dickens examples are transformational uses of imagery rather than metaphors – a fair objection, bringing us to one more buttocks-on-chair similitude, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951):

That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a toilet seat.

Illustration: A Barber’s Shop, aquatint etching by T. Rowlandson after W.H. Bunbury; Wellcome Library

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Lobby of a cheap hotel, 1930s

At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs.

– Raymond Chandler, “I’ll Be Waiting” (1939)

How light retreats from a room – an interesting challenge for a writer. Notice in the last two sentences that the literal and imagined weirdly switch places. The loungers aren’t shadowy, they ARE shadows. There are memories in the corners like cobwebs, but probably some real cobwebs too.

(Posted on FB June 21, 2014)

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