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Lovelier Than a Tree

The sun slid down the sky like a yolk in a bowl.

Or, the Earth predictably completed its diurnal cycle while I observed the apparent—though illusory—solar motion, preserving it in memory with metaphorical language.

Well, I know which I prefer.

Of course, realistically, I know that the sun and an egg are about as alike as the sun and a moose, or me and a handful of carpet tacks, or the 1968 Democratic National Convention and soup. These things are truly alike only if some clever observer, some word-tinkerer, likens them convincingly. If he or she does so, though, it can be surprising and enlightening in a way that a more analytical explanation, say, a breakdown of an item’s chemical composition cannot—at least for me.

Can there be any uncertainty when T.S. Eliot invites you to go with him “when the evening is spread out across the sky like a patient etherized upon a table”? Or when P.G. Wodehouse writes that a woman charged up “like Lady MacBeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest room”?

If you’re at all like me, you can see that sickly sky, you can see that mad, avid woman. Those descriptions settle down in your brain, fitting naturally into place and sparking an almost full-body understanding—as opposed to the purely cerebral understanding you have of, I don’t know, heavier-than-air flight. In all candor, you find the “big, shiny bird” explanation as easily digestible and convincing as any involving wing shape and area, air pressure and propulsion.

A plane can fly because it is like a bird, which can fly. Got it. It’s just shinier, ’cause we thought birds would be cooler if they sparkled. Makes sense to me. Therefore, a bird is a small, dull plane.

See, isn’t this fun?

I mean, I’m all for scientific rigor; I’m all for progress. Engineers and mechanics and lab coats of all types have my full approval and appreciation—if not always my ear. The world’s got its component parts, and those parts need greasing from time to time, and if we can jazz it up while we’re under the hood—with plastic, WD40, drive-through windows, fluoride, ibuprofen, viticulture, the Fender Precision bass, the wheel, magnetic resonance imaging, nail polish, moveable type—all the better. Yay, humans! Go, team! Three cheers for the opposable thumb and the cunning use of tools! The Scientific Method, he’s our man! If he can’t do it . . . etc.

But for me, the world is more poetic than clinical or mechanistic.

I’m not boasting—it’s probably an impairment. I’m not claiming for myself some faux-Keatsian mantle. What I mean is that I don’t understand things in themselves, but only in relation to other things, by a process of analogy. I process information via simile. For me, at a fundamental cognitive level, there’s little difference between metaphor or poetry and truth.

And I can prove this scientifically.

I took one of those personality-type tests online recently (not while at work when I should have been doing other things, I swear). It was one of the Myers-Briggs spin-offs that tags you with a four-letter code, like NASA or INRI—something like that. What was revealed was exactly what I suspected, exactly what I just told you.

Basically, that I am completely detached from reality.

See—as the test results verified—no thing or concept has any inherent value or meaning to me; it is only in relation (opposition, juxtaposition, congruence, dinner and a movie, whatever) to some other thing or concept that meaning takes shape, solidifies in my mind. It’s like a conceptual codependence: Without you I’m nothing. A rock is a rock because it’s not a marshmallow, which is a marshmallow by dint of its not being Paul Michael Glaser—if you see what I mean.

Or phrased as a more positive illustration: My friend B.—as mysterious and multifarious a personality as any—is completely comprehensible when you realize that he is a pool cue; my friend O., by comparison, is a switchblade. I, for the record, am a wax impression of a key to an only probable lock. Is that clearer?

This really is the way my—and if you’ve got that same four-letter code, your—brain works, and still I’m able to drive and vote and grocery shop all by myself.

There are people who rely more on empiricism and logic than on these flights of fancy, I guess; people I imagine to have more direct and practical relationships with the world around them. More, dare I say it, objective relationships. People who can pin reality down like a bug in a box. I’ve got a question for them:

Robert Burns tells you that his love is like a red, red rose; scientists tell you that Nutrasweet contains the amino acid phenylalanine, which produces the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is believed to contribute to feelings of pleasure, emotional attachment and love. If Burns’ love is like a rose, is yours like a Diet Dr. Pepper? Is it all muscular twitches and glandular squirts, to you?

I’m not baiting you, nor am I judging you. I’m really curious, and, hell, you may be right. My own system seems pretty rickety, overly reliant as it is on . . . well, everything. It seems to me that there’s something precarious about my way of thinking, that my intellectual construct is frighteningly Jenga-like: Take one crucial piece away and the whole thing collapses. In its favor, it’s got an appealing Eastern unity to it, but it’s also got a kind of inclusiveness that smacks of conspiracy theory, a suspicion of a master plan, a cosmic plot.

It is just possible, though, that I only mean that figuratively.

—John Rodat


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