America has been looking for a better mistress, and now Nixon has discovered China.

– Nguyen Thieu, president of South Vietnam, 1965–1975

For Americans, the top metaphors of the Vietnam War were falling dominoes and the light at the end of the tunnel. We were there because we had to be, not because we wanted to. Our concerns were strategic, practical, strictly unromantic. Yet we did think of ourselves as the good guys, doing a good deed despite considerable sacrifice.

So it comes as a shock that the president of the democracy we saw ourselves as defending saw us, the United States, NOT as a knight in shining armor but as a rich old man infatuated with an exotic beauty on the cheatin’ side of town. Of course, Thieu had grown to manhood in a country that was colonized – by France, no less, the European capital of the woman on the side. It must have seemed to him that the way of the world was for the strong to use the weak as they pleased. As he saw it, France and then the US were pleased to use Vietnam as an overseas resort for forbidden appetites.

Was Thieu wrong? The facts of history are verifiable as facts. Their meaning is subject to interpretation, often a matter of which end of the metaphorical stick you were on.

Photo: Woman opium smoker in French Indochina (1915) via William Black/Pinterest

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Saying goodbye is kind of like pulling a Band-Aid off the hairy part of your arm.

Playgirl (1977)

The Band-Aid, invented in 1920, is a classic example of how solving one problem may create another. The quick-and-easy bandage protects a small wound against infection, but after the wound is healed the wearer must choose: peel off the adhesive flaps slowly, uprooting arm hairs one at a time, or rip away with one yank?

How do you like your pain: in a slow progression of predictable agony? Or in a flash of torment followed by dazed shock? Opinion is divided, along the same lines as in the swimming pool conundrum. Some prefer to dip a toe in the water and immerse gradually. Others dive in.

The Playgirl quote is interesting for its frank wording (hairy-arm references were rare back then) and for the assumption that saying goodbye is not necessarily an emotional wound but rather an event to be expected in a life that spans many relationships.

Photo: Ellen Limeres

No, you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant…

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

Bronte scoffs at the idea that girls need to be sheltered more than boys from the evils of the world, because of the presumption that females have less capacity for moral judgment. The truth is we all need all the sheltering and nurturing we can get, regardless of gender. At least, that is the view taken by Bronte’s protagonist Helen Huntingdon, on the run from an alcoholic husband.

A couple of years earlier, Charles Dickens used hot-house imagery to comment on another theory of cultivating young minds: accelerated education, as practiced at Doctor Blimber’s school in Dombey and Son:

All the boys blew [bloomed] before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons…. This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. (ch. 11)

Greenhouses became a hot topic after the 1830s, as scientific breeding of plants converged with improvements in iron and glass manufacturing. Greenhouses were the first buildings made in factories. The first public greenhouse opened in Regent’s Park, London, in 1846.

Photo: Otto Eerelman, “In the Greenhouse”: http://www.artnet.com/artists/otto-eerelman/in-the-greenhouse-oiYeMedzQfuSwIBX2od_kA2

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

I’ve got buns of steel!

– Student to fitness instructor Greg Smithey, 1985

The first baring of buns as a euphemism for buttocks came in the early 1960s. People needed a word that was neither vulgar nor clinical for a part of the body that was until then unmentionable in polite conversation. Context and the dome shape of a bakery bun made it clear which part of the anatomy was being referenced – in a coy, tittering way.

In short order, the metaphor became a dead metaphor (the reference to hamburger toppers faded away). Buns became an everyday synonym for buttocks in a new era, as ideas about the ideal body type for women shifted from soft and curvy to athletic – strong, hard, lean. Shape magazine began publishing in 1981.

In terms of imagery, buns of steel are the antithesis of bakery buns. No one is intimidated when bakery buns enter the room.

Photo: Karl Stull

She will laugh at my mighty sword.

— Randy Newman, “A Wedding in Cherokee County”

The troubling thing about metaphors for the male member and, by extension (ahem), for sex is their lack of exhilaration and gladness. It’s always a tool – nailing, screwing, drilling, tapping. Where’s the joy we hear in the language of sports – when a ball drops sweetly through the hoop? Swish. Or when it rockets into the net. Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-oal!

Pop music spends a lot of time and breathless energy on how good good-lovin’ feels and yet has little more of metaphor to show than:

Rubbing sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite. –“Afternoon Delight” (1976)

Which is at least more focused on pleasure than puncture.

The “mighty sword” metaphor from Randy Newman casts light on the fear that is the flip side of penis-tool imagery. Behind bravado, you always find a fear of appearing ridiculous. The specific fear in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” is premature ejaculation: “I will attempt to spend my love within her…” Timing is key for “skyrockets in flight.”

And though he is fearful and thus defensive (pointing out she has her faults too), the protagonist in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” loves his bride to be, and knows he would be worse off without her. As God says in another Randy Newman song, remarking on the crazy way we humans turn torment into adoration: “That’s why I love mankind.”

Lyrics to “A Wedding in Cherokee County”:

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Good for the goose, good for the gander.

The gender of a gander is male. A goose is a female goose when sorting geese by sex. So the old saying is more feminist than you might have thought. It means: “What’s good for the female is good for the male.”

Do you agree?

In a world where men get higher pay than women, it’s better for everyone if we say, and mean: “Good for the gander, good for the goose.”

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