…the whole town seemed like a railway waiting-room.

– Albert Camus, The Plague (1948)

Nothing beats a waiting room for banal. From body language, it’s clear people feel their lives are on hold, their emotions sidelined to boredom and irritability. Young passengers feel excitement (or fear) about the adventure of travel aboard a roaring, whistling monstrosity. The grownups are just waiting for their lives to resume.

In Camus’ metaphor, the city of Oran (Algeria) comes to resemble a waiting room, with people’s lives on hold, because of bubonic plague. There is an uproar when the plague first arrives, but the city adjusts resentfully to a new normal: restrictions, shortages, losses of loved ones, a “for the duration” feeling in relationships, difficulty finding anything meaningful to do. Another name for this waiting-room state of mind is despair: I’m stuck. Nothing to be done. Is there anything on TV?

The plague of despair is endemic in the everyday life of a wage-earner/consumer society: symptoms are detachment, helplessness, paranoia, self-absorption. Voting against rather than for. Having no serious work to do. Wearing ear buds while waiting for real life to happen.

Photo: Railway waiting room at Kazan, Russia (500 miles east of Moscow); Adam Jones via Wikimedia

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Like trying to drink water from a fire hose

– D. E. Rogers, “Some Musings on Medical Education” (1982)

Too much, too fast: the water is liquid but might as well be solid. It is undrinkable.

Water in a less energetic state represents knowledge in Norse mythology when Odin drinks from Mimir’s well. In British history, the scholar-king James I was said “to drink indeed of the true Fountain of Learning” (Wm Sanderson, Compleat History…, 1656).

Many teachers have noted that knowledge-water can’t just be poured in:

It would be wonderful if our guardian angel could open a sort of trap-door in our head and pour in even a small part of the knowledge…
The Liguorian magazine (1951)

The strangest of all knowledge-drinking metaphors was developed by Robert Browning in Aristophanes’ Apology (1875), based on an ancient Greek party game called kottabos. In Browning’s kottabos, you are inside a rolling ball that has two holes: one hole is called High and Right and the other Low and Wrong. Wine dribbles in through the holes as the ball turns, and if you position yourself to drink only from High and Right, then you are like Euripides. If you drink regardless of where the wine comes from, you are like Aristophanes and can:

…drink knowledge, wine-drenched every turn,
Equally favored by their opposites.
Little and Bad exist, are natural:
Then let me know them, and be twice as great
As he who only knows one phase of life!

Ordinary kottabos is simpler, requiring only that you toss your almost-empty goblet across the room at a target that does ding!

Image: Young man playing kottabos. Red-figure kylix, ca. 510 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, via Wikipedia

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…and then charging out of these flames comes this bear on fire. That was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen.

Only the Brave (2017)

The bear on fire is a sudden, spectacular movie effect. It fills the eye, and before you can think about what it might mean you’ve already understood the speed, power, and impulsiveness of fire – how it runs over anyone who stands alone in its path. Josh Brolin’s character describes the bear as “hard-charging into the darkness.” Then he adds, “I’m feelin’ a lot like that bear, Duane.”

The bear is a manifestation of the fire (spirit of the fire) but is also a creature caught in the fire, running for its life. Like a firefighter when the operational plan has gone wrong.

Two of the firefighters, the chief and the recruit, have come to their job after drug addiction, drawing a line against lives gone out of control. They have been in the kind of trouble where you can lunge to the left or the right but cannot get free. The beauty of the bear on fire is that of the tragic hero, a doomed creature struggling to the end to be free.

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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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As a journalist, you get a new block of wood every day. At the end of the day, you may like what you made of it or not, but tomorrow there will be a new block of wood.

– Vince Gagetta, reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Most believers in “Tomorrow is another day” are hoping for a miracle. Gagetta expects another block of wood. You could characterize his view as grimly optimistic.

When writing a book, you have the pages you wrote yesterday behind you. You can look ahead to the day when your book will be finished, and the whole story told. For a beat reporter, there is only today, a block of wood to be carved. The grain may be open and straight or dense with knots – you don’t get to choose. But you are responsible for what you make of the material you are given. Albert Camus would have loved this definition of journalism.

Comparing Gagetta’s journalist to Camus’ existential hero Sisyphus – who must roll a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down to the bottom, where he must go and roll the rock uphill again – the conspicuous difference is that the journalist gets nights off. Dividing our lives into days, we have two clear lines drawn between the past and future, and a clear view of the work in hand.

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After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull

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Life is a journey.

A google search of “is a journey, not a destination” yields 1.5 million results, mostly quotations about Life. The “life is a journey” metaphor is one of the oldest in literature, answering one of our oldest questions: Why are we here? The concept of travel helps us understand novelty and change, for it’s a wide world, and the traveler is not exactly the same person he was at the beginning of the journey.

The google results that are not about Life relate to subheadings of Life (such as Wisdom, Healing, and Sustainable Fashion). Most of these are of the “sex is not about orgasm” type. As often as Catholics used to say “It’s a mystery,” the new explainers say, “It’s a process.”

The following are journeys, not destinations:

PHILOSOPHY

Happiness, Peace, Success, Joy, Art, Education, Destiny

PRACTICAL SELF-HELP

Fitness, Nutrient management, Losing weight, Quitting smoking, Gut health, Yoga

EMO SELF-HELP

Recovery, Growth, Therapy, Creativity, Strength, Love, Trust, Home, Faith, Attachment in adoption, Stages of life: Birth, Childhood, Youth, Motherhood, Everyday Parenting, Retirement

BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

Innovation, Leadership, Diversity, Becoming culturally competent, Entrepreneurship, Communication, Team transformation, Agile transformation, Walking the talk, Total quality management, Digital transformation, Cyber security

AVOCATIONS

Food, Coffee, Tango, Photography, Writing

Some people work their entire adult lives thinking Retirement is the goal. Retirement is the beginning of another journey, leading to Death – yet another process, with stages, still not a destination.

Photo: Unknown

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We are but a moment’s sunlight, fading in the grass

– “Get Together” by Chet Powers (1964)

This line from a quintessential song of the hippie movement has a biblical ring, echoing “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6), but is quite opposite to the pessimism of the prophet. Temporary as grass may be, the lyric sees a brightness and beauty that is worth reverencing.

“Dust in the Wind” (1977) by Kansas is more biblically bleak. All we are is dust in the wind? Weather in the Midwest is nobody’s idea of a good time.

Metaphors highlighting the limitedness of life form a long (and not very varied) tradition in literature. In English, the tradition includes the Venerable Bede’s comparison of life to the random flight of a swallow through one door of a jolly mead hall and out the other. For a short while, the bird is in a place of warmth and fellowship; then back it goes to the chaos of a stormy winter night (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.13; AD 731).

Of a feather but from the other side of the world is this musing by Su Tung-p’o, written in 1061:

Wanderings of a lifetime – what do they resemble?
A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.
In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,
but the swan flies away: who knows to east or west?

Translation by Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, 1994.

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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Jesus was a sailor

Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water,

And he spent a long time watching from a lonely wooden tower.

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him,

He said, “All men shall be sailors then, until the sea shall free them.”

–Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

The tower is the cross and also the mast of a ship. Jesus is like a sailor in the same way all of us are sailors — on a voyage full of peril and far from home.

(Posted on FB June 28, 2015)

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