It Quacks Like a Duck

I have learned many important lessons since beginning this blog three months ago, and I have relearned many others. Already this morning, I have experienced one of each (in reverse order):

  • I know a minuscule amount; and
  • Amazon Prime is the greatest   the worst  . . . the jury is still out.

That first lesson is one I suppose we all need to be reminded of often and with baseball bats. The second is its corollary.

Now that I have seemingly written about my entire supply of buttons easily pushed, I have turned to the list I have been keeping much longer than I have actually been writing a blog: “Blog Ideas.” But each topic I select hits me with one of those baseball bats. For example, I want to write about the mind-body problem as depicted in two well-loved novels, Lying Awake and Our Lady of the Forest. However, although the rough outline of the post is in my head, I would need to reread the fiction of Mark Salzman and David Guterson in order to articulate my ideas fully. And that reading assignment doesn’t even consider my woeful lack of schooling in the mind-body problem from Descartes to the present! I also want to write about ways of knowing as portrayed in All the King’s Men and Memories of the Ford Administration. Ditto from above about Robert Penn Warren and John Updike and epistemology.

That’s where the second lesson comes in. Every time I think I can give myself a crash course in some arcane subject in order to post my weekly thousand words, I go from Wikipedia to my school’s digital library and then to JSTOR to Project Muse (and I have only minimal access to the latter two databases). I have managed to write about acedia and Andrew Hacker and North Carolina’s HB2 without straying from my desk. But I very frequently find my web searches lacking.

I inevitably turn to Amazon Prime. Its lethal but irresistible combination of one-click ordering and free shipping has kept my mailman in excellent physical condition. I confess that my newest discovery, Abe Books, is also part of his fitness regimen. Just this morning, I received Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age by Daniel Swift; this bargain acquisition ($3.49 in hardcover) resulted from research into my most recent post. I have in mind a post about the world bequeathed to me by my parents, but I need Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation to outfit me for the task. And just today, I ordered Philosophies in the Flesh and Metaphors We Live By, both by George Lakoff, because they seem like required reading before I can write other planned posts.

I can’t wait even for free two-day shipping to write my planned post on metaphor, though, so it will have to be just a teaser. On my list of topic ideas, I called this one “It Quacks Like a Duck”; yes, I realize that I have just reduced metaphor to simile, but that’s a subtle philosophical distinction that must wait for Lakoff.

The first time I used the chip-card reader at my local grocery store, Food Lion, I was startled by the distinctive “quack-quack-quack” that signaled me to remove my card. The next time I heard the fowl sound, I chuckled softly and said to the cashier, “The Food Lion duck.” She stared back at me with a blank expression, prompting me to add, “I always think that machine sounds like a duck.” Oh.

As I drove home, I realized that the cashier is not alone in her failure to experience to the world metaphorically. I find that more and more of my students think extremely literally. Metaphor, irony, and satire are lost on them. They believe that Jonathan Swift intended to propose—modestly, of course—that the Irish poor fatten up their excess children and sell them as food. They can’t recognize tone and are offended rather than amused by Anne Lamott’s essay “Shitty First Drafts.” Nor can they identify the strange tribe described by Horace Mitchell Miner in “Body Ritual of the Nacirema”:

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system seems to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. . . . The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live[,] . . . secured from a variety of . . . medicine men , whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. . . .

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room., bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. . . . It was reported to me that the ritual [also] consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.

The article continues with a description of the torture endured at the hands of the “holy-mouth-men,” the habit of “scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument,” specially trained maidens who puncture the flesh with “magically treated needles,” and women “afflicted with inhuman hypermammary development” who make their living by going from town to town so people can stare as them. Not a single student in the several classes to whom I assigned this essay understood that is was a hilarious send-up of their own culture.

I am not sure what the solution is, if there is one.

On the other hand, I suppose some people are afflicted with the opposite condition, an excess of metaphor. I am not certain my husband, for example, has ever uttered an entire sentence devoid of metaphor. He once dropped a girlfriend (a hotcake?) because she was deaf to figurative language. He doesn’t actually need to do the dishes nor cycle through Patagonia; for someone for whom metaphor is reality, imagining the clean dishes and the majestic glaciers is sufficient–perhaps better. And if you notice that a white Dodge pick-up truck has been sitting idle in our driveway since the spring of 2007, well, it’s a metaphor. It’s freedom. It’s machismo. It’s the future.

On second thought, being too metaphoric is not an affliction. I’ll take the man—or woman—of metaphor every time. One need look no further than my first blog post, Gonnegtions, for the defense of my choice. Metaphor is our way of connecting with, understanding, and talking about the world.

For further reading:

Lamont, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. 9th ed. Ed. Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. Boston: Bedford: 2005. 93-96.

Miner, Horace. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema.” American Anthropologist 58.3 (1956): 503-07.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal: For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick.” 1729. 


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