New Hampshire result clogs up moderate lane for Democrats

– Reuters (February 12, 2020)

It’s easy to visualize how a 100 yard dash would go awry if Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson all had their own lanes while Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar had to argue over whose turn it was to use the starting blocks. Lane-sharing in a foot race is contrary to the very idea of having lanes.

In traffic, lanes may be assigned by ethos: slow vehicles to the right, ride sharers to the left, with left-turners in a center lane. But these lanes are meant to form orderly lines, not facilitate a race. The ride sharers all get to where they’re going at the same time.

The race metaphor itself is a dubious description for presidential primary campaigns, where the goal is not to get anywhere first but to gain the most delegates. It’s more like a fishing derby than a marathon. Debates are like boxing, or a combination of boxing and gymnastics (Warren vaults ahead by gut-punching Bloomberg). The peloton in bicycle racing – a pack pursuing a frontrunner – might be the most apt of Olympic metaphors for political campaigns, with doping and dirty tricks being part of the game.

Image: Karl Stull

Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head.

– Grace Slick, “White Rabbit” (1967)

The idea that knowledge is something you can eat like food goes back to the Garden of Eden, with the stipulation that some knowledge is better left on the Tree. In 1741, Isaac Watts insisted there was no merit in reading all day long, because food was worthless without proper digestion.

As a Man may be eating all Day, and for want of Digestion is never nourish’d; so these endless Readers may cram themselves in vain with intellectual Food, and without real Improvement of their Minds, for want of digesting it by proper Reflections. (Improvement of the Mind)

For most of us, digestion comes automatically after eating, no conscious effort required. So Watts may be right about the need for proper Reflections, but his comparison is “hard to swallow.” (See the index, Meta-failed images, for familiar expressions that seem to make sense but don’t.)

The idea that wisdom could be ingested conveniently in pill form took hold in the 20th century – when vitamins, antibiotics, and The Pill offered “better living through chemistry.” Aldous Huxley described instant access to enlightenment through mescaline (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and a few years later pop radio was celebrating the extraordinary mental experiences available through sublegal pharmacy: “One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small.” Grace Slick’s lyrics drew on imagery from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which included a cake with “Eat Me” spelled out in currants on top. But it was Slick, not the Dormouse, who advised feeding your head.

Photo: Adapted from Wikipedia

Don’t ride an emotional roller-coaster.

– Esther Eberstadt Brooke, You and Your Personality: A Guide to Effective Living (1949)

There is no option to get off a roller coaster before the ride is over. So a decision not to ride has to be made in advance. Brooke urges readers to stay on an “even keel” – apparently unaware that even ocean liners must climb and plunge with every wave in a storm.

On an emotional roller coaster, the feel-good part comes first, then the steep fall. On a real roller coaster, the thrill of not having died afterall comes at the end. The beginning is when, during the slow-cranking period of ascent, you experience dread and regret and ask: “How did I let myself get talked into this?” Thus, the real roller coaster brings complexities of human psychology to light: our thirst for intense experience, the way we use extraordinary experiences (e.g., initiation rites) to bond with others, or set ourselves apart. The metaphorical roller coaster seems never to mean anything more than going up and down compulsively – like a yo-yo, as Allan Sherman observed in  A Gift of Laughter (1965).

Stoics have said for centuries we should avoid extremes, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that medicine recognized the causal link between emotional highs and lows: what goes up must come down. In 1854, Jules Baillarger identified a mental illness he called “folie à double” (a madness in two parts), which we now call bipolar disorder. Independently, in the same year, Jean-Pierre Falret proposed a similar new diagnosis, “folie circulaire.”

Photo: Canobielakepark at English Wikipedia

Soak the soil well, like a thunderstorm would.

– Care instructions for a potted cactus

It’s strange how we live with plants yet have so little understanding of what they want. We use metaphors to visualize what we cannot see, what’s happening with them beneath the surface.

The “water like a thunderstorm” principle has two compelling components: 1) easy to do, and 2) endorsed by Mother Nature. But we should keep in mind that Mother Nature is usually not a nurturing parent. Ninety-five percent of species under her care have gone extinct. If one of her babies can’t make a go of it, her strategy is to produce a lot more babies. Or, if conditions are too harsh, she may give up and allow an environment to become a desert.

In contrast, members of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America are helicopter parents, hovering over their little ones. They advise against watering like a thunderstorm, because over-watering may “drown” the roots. This imagery helps us conceptualize the needs of plants as similar to our own: humans need water every day and air every minute. But there must be something not quite right about the “drowning roots” metaphor. Ask a hydroponic tomato.

Photo: Hydroponic onions, NASA/Wikipedia

Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.

–Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar (ch 30)

True, Mr. Twain, except for the part about the Moon having a dark side. While the Moon always keeps the same hemisphere turned toward us, it also completes an orbit around Earth every month, passing between us and the Sun.

Whenever you see the Moon during the day, the Sun – which is very much farther away –  is bathing some or all of the Moon’s far side in light. So the Moon has a side it never shows to Earth, but that side is not permanently dark.

(Posted on FB June 27, 2015)

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Bargaining chip

The term bargaining chip first appeared in 1945, a year of many treaties and negotiations. Negotiations are often compared to the game of poker, because a player can win by bluffing or seeing through an opponent’s bluff. The problem with bargaining chip as a metaphor is: there is no bargaining in poker. It’s winner take all.

Chips increase the value of the pot, and a player might use a stack of chips to frighten others out of the hand (“too rich for my blood”). But the purpose of a bargaining chip is always to keep others at the table so they will agree to terms.

In a successful negotiation, one side may win. In a negotiation where one side walks out, both sides lose.

So bargaining chip is a befuddled metaphor, one that invokes an image that can’t be imagined.

(Posted on FB June 21, 2015)

A double-edged sword cuts both ways

But not in the way we usually mean. Usually, this expression means:

  • Two opposing sides are both affected (honesty cuts both ways)
  • There are both good and bad effects (unlimited credit increases your spending power but also increases debt)

However, there is no “mixed blessing” in being cut by a real double-edged sword, which is designed to inflict as much damage as possible with a single thrust (two fatal cuts for the price of one). Nor is a double-edged sword supposed to affect both parties equally. In a stabbing transaction, the person at the pointy end of a two-edged sword feels the full effects of both cuts.

(Posted on FB June 18, 2015)

A curvy model of straightness and strength

To have backbone is to stand up for your principles, regardless of threats or lack of support from others. It is to be straight and rigid when others are bending before the wind of prevailing opinion. However, there is nothing straight or rigid in the anatomy of a real backbone. Its interlocking toggle-toy construction is for flexing. So far from being straight, the spinal column undulates through four major curves.

When people talk about backbone, they are wishing for the moral complexities of life and politics to be resolved in a form that is simple, clear, and strong. What they want, osteologically, is more like a femur than a backbone.

Image: “From the Tiger’s Mouth,” Official blog of Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi: https://ittcs.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/anatomy-and-physiology-the-spinal-column/

Image: “From the Tiger’s Mouth,” Official blog of Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi: https://ittcs.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/anatomy-and-physiology-the-spinal-column/

Technical note: “Backbone” in this sense is figurative language but not a metaphor since it does not involve a comparison. It is closer to a synecdoche (sin EK duh key), or an image that uses a part to stand for the whole. For example, in “Achilles led a thousand spears into battle,” spear stands for a fully equipped infantryman.

(Posted on FB June 15, 2015)