Reviews | Metaphors

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A metaphor, most simply, is the device of using one thing to describe another. Which on the surface is simple enough, but it becomes infinitely more complex as you consider the infinite amount of things that exist and the infinite comparisons that can therefore be made. It’s having all the stars in the sky and the ability to draw a line between any two of them…for example. And what’s so amazing is that, with a splash of creativity, you really can draw a line between just about any two things. A storm can be an orchestra, a cup of tea the brown of a fly’s eye. In fact, I would argue the further apart two things are the better the metaphor they create. It becomes more engaging, more absurd yet understandable, and in that understanding, more wondrous. Whereas two things that are already similar barely deserve the title of metaphor. Comparing a cup of tea to a cup of coffee is a weak line to draw, and worse it doesn’t define or describe the object in a way that heightens it above just saying I was drinking a cup of tea.

My own history with metaphors is a short and simple thing. Prior to getting into writing I wasn’t too bothered with what constituted a metaphor or how it was defined. Then after I began writing I wasn’t much better, with some lingering confusion between a metaphor and a simile that I was too embarrassed to admit. The difference isn’t major, but it’s there, like an eye floater passing across your vision and impossible to ignore. And therein lies the difference, that example just there. I used the word like; a clear sign of a simile. A simile suggests a comparison, using the words like or as to buffer it and create some difference. A metaphor on the other hand isn’t so polite. It grabs the two disparate objects and forces them together while yelling These two things are the same! at least abstractly, and primarily at the point of comparison. E.g. The difference between metaphors and similes was an eye floater squatting in the corner of their vision; small but impossible to ignore.

Metaphors also contain within its category many other specialised types you may be familiar with; from allegories to hyperbole, parables to puns. It can take the form of an entire story, or a bad one liner from your dad that makes your whole family groan. Again, this rather simplistic idea that comes across as small with easy to understand boundaries is instead a piece of rubber, able to morph and stretch to fit multiple moulds. Metaphors are anything but simple.

Given this complexity and prevalence in our language and literature, a good question to ask would be why do we use metaphors? To answer that let’s first ask why we make comparisons? Namely, as a survival tool. Comparisons, at their core, are a form of pattern recognition. If you can compare two objects and find a similarity, however spurious, then you’re on your way to finding a pattern; and our human brains love a good pattern. Because recognising patterns have regularly kept us alive. This can happen in a positive way–recognising the plant/s that has the tasty root vegetables hidden underneath–or a negative way–recognising the plant/s that poisoned our brother last winter. Extrapolating from there to describe a person as that toxic vegetable in order to warn others to stay away from them uses that pattern recognition as an easy way to get the message across without having to detail all the ways a person is toxic. And what’s really interesting about metaphors is that the brain can respond to them literally, while consciously understanding them as the descriptor they are. A team of researchers from Emory University reported that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex–responsible for perceiving texture through touch–became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. Even common phrases that are used so regularly that the metaphor goes all but unheard, such as “I had a rough day”, causes this effect.

Of course, it’s not for survival that metaphors are used in today’s writing or speech. It’s for something larger and more speculative.

My theory? It helps reign in the infinite.

The universe and all it contains is so impossibly big, so impossibly complex; but making metaphors and drawing lines between the infinite helps make it all seem connected. Simpler. Smaller and easier to understand. It is more complex than the ram in our heads is able to process, so, lacking an upgrade, we need a way to organise and minimise all that data. Parcel it up, squish it together, so that it becomes digestible and file-able; even if only from a distance.

Metaphors are one of the ways we do this. Stories are another. They exist primarily as a search for understanding. And while we are unlikely to ever fully reign in the infinite, we can look at a cup of tea and notice it is the same brown as a fly’s eye, or hear a thunderstorm and recognise it has the same cadence as an orchestra.

We can draw a line between two stars and make the infinite that little bit smaller.

Talk soon

Damian

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Reviews | The Cinematic Chillout Playlist

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Cinematic Chillout is a playlist on the audio streaming service, Spotify. Spotify was founded in Sweden on the seventh of October 2008, and operates under what’s known as a freemium business model; meaning it provides DRM-protected music and podcasts for free as long as you’re happy to put up with advertisements breaking into your listening experience, with the option to upgrade to a paid subscription if you’re not. Before I tell you more about this playlist though, I first want to detail a little about my own relationship with music.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I received my first CD, but I do know where I was; a now all but non-existent music and DVD chain called Sanity, in my hometown of Traralgon. The CD in question? Simpsonic, Songs from The Simpsons. I remember looking at that CD, it’s front cover featuring the iconic yellow characters, and never wanting anything so badly in my life. I was full of that kind of want I rarely feel as an adult, but that as a child seemed to overtake me regularly. That intense desire that’s part exhilaration and part panic, where an answer from your parent to the question Can I have (blank)? is likely to tip the scales one way or the other. Perhaps it’s because I have money of my own now that this emotion is tempered by responsibility and an awareness of waste, I’m not sure, but what I was sure of was that I needed that CD.

My mum was in another shop, I want to say it was a clothing store, and I remember trying to figure out what my tactic would be to convince her to purchase me the greatest CD that must ever have existanted as I hunted her down. I started with a whiny, ‘Muuuuum,’ and likely didn’t improve from there. My mother though is a canny shopper, and so she made a bargain with me. She’d buy it, but it would be included as part of my upcoming birthday present. I readily agreed and all but skipped behind her as we returned to the shop called Sanity with the insane mission of buying a CD that only featured songs from The Simpsons. I waited with giddy anticipation as the days leading up to my birthday rolled by, and when I finally unwrapped that compact disk, to see its colourful cover featuring all my favourite characters, it was just as glorious as I remembered.

Now, let us be clear about something, the songs featured on The Simpsons are well written, often clever, and regularly funny. They are jaunty jingles that are likely to get stuck in your head to repeat for days; but they’re not the kind of music you just sit around and listen to. Young me with his new CD quickly realised this fact, when, after only a couple of listens, he was ready to press stop and then never press play again. But young me also had a strong moral code and no small amount of pride. He had begged his mother for this album, bargained and waited for it with the greatest anticipation; he couldn’t admit it had all been a terrible mistake. So, he did what to him was the only rational thing to do given the circumstances; played it on repeat until an appropriate amount of play time had been reached, then never listened to it again.

I would like to say my musical tastes improved from that point on, but I don’t believe I can make that claim, because I was soon to hit my teenage years. I’m just going to give the band’s name now and get it over with. Nickelback. I was a fan from the very first “This is how you remind me,” and would sing along without abandon or shame or any real understanding of what the song was about. This love for what would become one of the world’s most hated bands continued for years, paired with the likes of Three Doors Down, Creed, and Default; who all did variations of the same thing. I can’t even say what it was about this type of music that made me love it so, other than, for whatever reason, like most music does, it resonated with something inside. It made me feel things. Something between teenage-angst and teenage-anticipation, thanks to lyrics such as ‘I’ve been a loser all my life, I’m not about to change’ or ‘I like your pants around your feet.’ Lyrics that should only excite a fifteen year old boy. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the emotion being portrayed that hit a cord with the simplistic way I processed emotion at the time. Or maybe simplistic isn’t the word, but unrefined. There was no subtlety to what they sung about, no deeper meaning. They played songs about looking at photographs and remembering the good ol’ days, and while I had no good ol’ days to look back on, the emotion behind it was something I could grasp and understand and sing along with. So I did. And while these days I would get laughed at, and can laugh myself, at the trashy nature of their music (I even once went to one of their concerts where they threw open cups of beer into/at the crowd), the fact still remains that for a time I had a relationship with it, and that it influenced, for better or worse, part of my development. Beside, I think we all have musical skeletons in our closets, those are just mine.

Over the years the ways I consumed music changed. I’m old enough to remember recording songs off the radio onto a cassette tape, and listening to them on my walkman. My walkman changed to a discman as music left cassette tapes for compact disks, moving on from there to an mp3 player, then an ipod. Now we have streaming.

I have to admit I’m not a big one for streaming. Perhaps it’s the old man in me, or my distrust of the reliability of Australian internet, but I still prefer downloading my music onto my device so I have the confidence that I’ll be able to listen to it without fear of buffering. One exception however is the Cinematic Chillout Playlist on Spotify.

Truth be told, I don’t know a lot about the Cinematic Chillout playlist. I don’t know whose mind it was that put it together or named it. I don’t know when it was first created and made available. I don’t know how many listens it gets on the average day, or how many Spotify patrons have clicked on it since it began. I do know this, the Cinematic Chillout playlist is primarily composed of musical scores from various movies and television shows and that I stumbled across it when I was hosting a writing night and needed some music to play in the background. Usually I go for ambient music when I write, or occasionally movie scores, and so when I searched Spotify for such a playlist it presented me with Cinematic Chillout. It was the perfect choice for two reasons. One: It was exquisite writing music, providing a soothing yet engaging, without being too engaging, ambience to the room. Two: It elicited emotion.

My taste in music has changed over the years, altering to match the person I’ve become as well as the depth of emotion I now feel. Because music, to me, is primarily about eliciting emotion. Sometimes that emotion is anticipation followed by disappointment when purchasing Simpsonic, Songs from The Simpsons. Sometimes it’s the illicit thrill of imaging yourself as a trashy fifteen year old rock god. Most of the time however it’s the tragedy, the drama, the thrill, the joy, and the hopefulness of living. It’s the small moments and the big that music is able to tune into, remind us of, exaggerate and refine into a pure piece of emotion so that even when we’re sitting on the bus or washing the dishes we can be having an emotional experience beyond what that task would usually provide. To me, no piece of music does this as well as a musical score. It is designed to hide in the shadows, to stand present but not seen as it pulls the puppet strings to manipulate and control the emotions of an audience. Many of the pieces of music from the Cinematic Chillout playlist are from movies or television shows that I’d seen but whose score I would not recognise. But once these tracks were brought out of the shadows and shone a light on I’ve found that they are sweeping, beautiful pieces of music, masterful at doing that which music does best.

Elicit emotion.

Talk soon,

Damian

Reviews | Rorschach Test

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I have never taken a Rorschach test. Not clinically. I’m guessing neither have most of you, although you’re likely familiar with them. For those who aren’t, Rorschach tests, or inkblot tests, are mirrored, purposely ambiguous, splotches of ink spread across a page. While they most resemble the artwork of a creative toddler, they are instead a form of psychological test. The ambiguousness of the imagery supposedly allows the viewer to see whatever speaks to them and in so doing reveals elements of their subconcious they may not be aware of or might otherwise try to keep hidden.

In the above image, the most common response is to see a bat, or a butterfly, or a moth. But you might see something else entirely. You might see a wicked face laughing at you. You might see a dancer, mid pose. You might see an angel reaching for the sun. There are no wrong answers, only your answer. With your answer telling us more about you than it does about the image.

Hermann Rorschach, the namesake and creator, devised this test in his twenties while working at a psychiatric hospital in a remote part of Switzerland. You might consider that young to develop a psychological test that still has some sporadic use in clinics today, and you’d be right. However, inkblots had been a part of Rorschach’s life since he was a child. He had such a love of making images from inkblots–also known as klecksography–that his school friends called his Klek, or inkblot. It’s no real wonder then that when young Hermann looked out at the field of psychoanalysis what he saw he saw were inkblots.

While still a medical student, Rorschach showed inkblots to schoolchildren and analysed their responses as part of his dissertation. He then travelled, studying further, before settling in Herisau, the location of the psychiatric hospital where he would develop his now famous test. He designed the inkblots himself, his creativity coming from the fact that his father was an artist, with Hermann himself having previously grappled with the decision to move into art or science when leaving his schooling. He experimented with several hundred inkblot tests, differing colour and design, showing them all to the patients at the hospital. Early results were promising. The different responses to the the different blots were consistent among schizophrenics to manic-depressives, who both responded differently to the control group–people not diagnosed with any kind of mental disorder. It didn’t take long for Rorschach to reverse engineer his own findings and start to diagnose psychiatric illnesses and predict personality traits based on answers to the inkblot tests, claiming that he got it wrong less than 25 percent of the time.

After studying three hundred mental patients and one hundred controls Rorschach wrote the book that would eventually make him famous, Pschodiagnostik. In it he showed ten inkblots, carefully chosen for their diagnostic value. The first of which you’ve now seen. The book did not do well, attracting little attention from the people of the time and was described as “a densely written piece couched in dry, scientific terminology”. Those looking at his work didn’t see much of anything at all it turned out.

Rorschach would die unexpectedly a year later, due to a ruptured appendix.

It wouldn’t be until six years after that that his work would finally be published to some acclaim, after being purchased by the then newly founded Hans Huber publishing house, who still publish the Rorschach test to this day.

Since then it has been used millions and millions of times. For murder trials and custody battles, psychiatric diagnoses and university admissions and job applications. People’s lives have changed for better or worse, spun on a dime into a whole new direction, because of what they saw in a blot of ink.

I find the Rorschach test exceedingly interesting, if not overly scientific. I think the results are valid and illuminating and worth analysing, they’re just not as precise as other scientific methods, like say a blood test. But then I also don’t think that anything that tries to grasp the complexities of the human mind could be.

I wonder also what the difference a day makes when completing a Rorschach test. If I were to complete one on a day when everything had gone right would I see something different, and more positive, than on a day when everything had gone wrong?

While researching this topic I saw a comic that showed two people from different eras giving an answer to the same inkblot test. One, from our decade, saw a tree, while another from the 1960’s–when nuclear war was an occasional threat–saw a mushroom cloud. Meaning what we see is as much about the time we live in as it is about our subconscious. That the time period we live in forms who we are and how we think. If Hermann Rorschach had been born in a today’s era, apart from likely surviving his ruptured appendix, his patients might very well have seen smartphones or thumbs up emojis swimming inside his inkblots.

Which brings me to an example of a modern Rorschach test. The internet. I saw a post on twitter the other day–a joke, not a particularly funny one, but a joke nonetheless–and the comments that followed covered the entire emotional spectrum. Some people thought it was hilarious, others banal, and yet others still that it was the highest form of insult imaginable. Who was right? They all were. They all saw something different. They each read it in an entirely different way. And, I think, as with a traditional Rorschach test, the way in which they read it said more about them than it did about the original post.

The truth is everything is a Rorschach test, because every reaction and response we have to a stimulus, whatever it may be, tells us something about ourselves. Inkblots and the internet are perhaps just a less subtle form, one where we lower our efforts to mask the inner gremlin controlling us, and let out it to describe our innermost horrors. Except that’s not really how it works is it? What’s hidden away behind the veil of our subconscious may just be apathy, or a fear of rejection. It might be a concern over being forgotten, or dread at the possibility of failure. All these little insecurities inside of us, subtly controlling our actions and responses. Insecurities that we want to keep hidden away, unless it’s from behind the anonymous safety of a computer screen, of the unconscious reveal of a Rorschach test. But maybe they should be revealed. Maybe they should be uncovered and examined, and better yet, healed.

It was, it turns out, for this reason that Rorschach first designed his test.

Here is a quote taken from a letter Hermann Rorschach wrote to his sister when he was nineteen and had just made the decision to pursue medicine over art.

I never again want to read just books. I want to read people. The most interesting thing in nature is the human soul, and the greatest thing a person can do is heal souls. Sick souls.”

I have never taken a Rorschach test. Maybe I will.

Talk soon

Damian

Reviews | Painting A Big Red Door

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This is the first in a series of reviews. As I described in my last post, these reviews won’t be overly review-y. Instead I’ll be using “review” as a loosely fitting descriptor to allow me to talk about a thing. Let’s see if it works.

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In another life I was a painter. The life in question was this one, just thirteen years ago, but as our cells are constantly dying and regenerating (excepting our neurons) let’s call it another life, as that person was mostly another me. This painter’s life began after I finished high school and, as I really had no idea what to do next, had decided to take a gap year (I still wouldn’t know after that year, but we can review the difficulty of choosing a life path at the ignorant age of eighteen another time). I chose to get a job and save some money, failing to realise this endeavour would be difficult as I lived in a country town with limited job opportunities available, and had zero experience; my resume was basically just my name and phone number.

Luckily, a family friend by the name of Angelo–think an italian Michael Scott with a Mario mustache–knew I was looking for work and had decided to take me on. I say decided because that’s how it felt, like he had made the decision and so now I was his apprentice, whether I wanted to be or not. He was aggressive in his kindness, and I’m glad he was.

Angelo worked as a handyman, with two other people working under him; one a carpenter, one a plumber, but all of them completing a variety of tasks. A lot of the work he picked up usually entailed painting at some stage or other, and so that was the skill Angelo decided to train me in. It also just happened to be the skill that fit my personality perfectly.

Painting is not for everybody. I’ve had different people tell me they loathe it for a number of reasons. Some have said it takes too long, others that it’s boring, or too messy, and one person told me the smell of paint makes them nauseous. I love it. Painting requires patience and time. It demands a focus, a concentration of attention so that the coloured liquid you’re pushing around only goes where you want it to go, and not where gravity would prefer to take it. Because of this focus I find it meditative. Often when I paint it’s just me, and it’s quiet, or I have some music softly playing, and I have one job to do, which is to slowly and carefully move the brush or roller around the room until the whole thing is coated with a fresh start. At the end of it I get the very visual satisfaction of a job completed, the clear mind of a focused worker, and the warm and worn muscles that come with physical work.

Fast forward a few years and I am no longer a painter. I miss it, but have other things in my life now, such as writing and a wife. However, every once in awhile someone I know needs some painting done, at which point I often raise an eager hand.

Enter, the big red door. Or rather, the big grey door that I would then turn red.

I occasionally do some work for a writing studio run by a friend of mine, and so when he put the call out for a working bee for the studio I replied that I would dust off my painting gear and bring it along. The studio exists in an old heritage building in the heart of Fitzroy, and stands tall, with thick wooden doors, years old. The doors were the only part of the studio that required a fresh coat. The coat in question would be a warm red one, as the studio has recently rebranded and this particular shade of red was their primary colour. The rest of the building is a mix grey and white and so I knew the red would look outstanding with them as a backdrop. First though was the question of prep work.

Like any job done well, painting requires a healthy amount of prep work before the fun part, the painting, can begin. Cracks need to be filled, imperfections sanded away, and flaking paint removed. These doors had a lot of flaking paint. The previous owners of the building had given it a facelift before passing it along, including a fresh coat of white on the insides of the doors. They had also unfortunately used an acrylic paint over the top of an enamel one, hence all the flaking. Acrylic doesn’t stick well to enamel, and so using just a fingernail I was able to strip a line of the white from its underlying base. That’s not meant to happen. It would all need to go. I got to work with a scraper and sander and soon sheets, chips, and chalky dust flakes of dry white paint were raining down upon me. I would say it was like snow but I’ve never really seen snow fall, living in Australia as I do, so instead I’ll say it was like a big cloud of dandruff drifting down from the head of some dry scalped giant. So not overly pleasant.

It takes a while to remove a whole coat of paint from a surface, especially one that has panels and trowels like these doors did, but eventually I got the majority of it off, cleaned up as much of it as I could–the wind keen to make the job as hard as possible–and then, finally, I was ready to begin.

As always the process forced a focus that stilled my mind and narrowed my world down to a brush, a bucket, and the surface I’m painting. The first coat is always a little patchy, especially with such a rich colour like the red coating the underlying lighter grey, but it didn’t take long before you could see the new door emerging from the old. Passerbys eyed the doors, often offering positives opinions about it, my favourite of which was when one man described them as “inspirational”. I liked that. I liked that a solo act of improvement could have further reaching influence. That when we do something positive its effect could ripple outwards causing change and motivations we might never know about. While it might be weird that a man would describe a set of doors an inspirational, it was a description I could get behind.

The second coat went on and with it the new door presented itself in all its glory, a small point of colour in a street full of concrete greys and bitumen black.

The idea that these big now-red doors could be inspirational stuck in my mind, and so, when a week later, I was leading a writing night at the very same studio, I decide to use those doors as the inspiration for a small writing challenge. I asked the writers there to write a quick piece that featured the doors in any way they liked, ensuring only that it would be engaging and leave me wanting to read more.

The results were excellent and varied. One was haunting and dark, another used the doors to lead us into the realms of fantasy, another still placed them in a nearby suburb in a story that felt rich and real. Another story made us laugh out loud, its protagonist the doors themselves, and another rhymed with silly fun. Five new stories, out in the world. Off to create ripples of their own.

All of them now existing due to the painting of a big red door.

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Talk soon

Damian

January 18, 2019 | Reviews

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With the grand adventures of last years travels and my recent wedding sitting comfortably in the pleasant recesses of my memory/the past/the pages of this website, I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to write about on the blog. Because, while this is ostensibly a journal, the truth is, minus a few exceptions here and there, my life is not that interesting. The big events of a three month trip across Europe and my wedding day are excellent fodder to keep a journal engaging, but I doubt I’ll get married again and I can not afford to consistently travel. Of course, the truth is, all life is interesting if looked at in the right way. But, while I could write about my day to day, and it might be interesting for a while, it would then get repetitive. Really repetitive. I am way too fond of a routine.

Instead I’ve come up with the idea to do reviews. About anything. A concept, an emotion, an object, a moment. Just something that’s crossed my path, worked its way into my head, and given me something to think about. I’ve also just lied to you, because the truth is that the idea is not really mine. I’m not so subtly ripping it off of John Green, the writer and you-tuber, who also has a podcast entitled The Anthropocene Reviewed. The podcast, which I highly recommend, is pretty much the idea I’ve just told you; although about more tangible things, specifically from within the Anthropocene time period, and intertwined with all the wonderful facts and research John Green is known for. It’s so good I wanted more of it, and so decided to emulate it in my own special way.

The reviews I’ll do doing will not be particularly helpful, by and large, but more a public way for me to figure out how I feel about a thing. I will not be giving a rating in my reviews, there will be no thumbs up or thumbs down, rather I’ll just be listing the pros and cons of any given thing, my thoughts about them, and any personal affiliations or connections I have with the subject being reviewed.

In other words I’ll be making it up as I go along.

But I think it’s a good format for me to write weekly in a way that will let me cover a range of different topics and avoid me repeating “this week I worked, did some writing, and went for a run”

Failing that, Holly and I will just have to get married again.

First one to come next Friday.

Talk soon

Damian