Tag Archives: metaphors

Water and Fire: Metaphors I Blog By

Contrary to Marc Prensky‘s popular binary, I don’t see myself as a digital native, or a digital immigrant.  Rather, I am a reluctant, reformed Luddite, washed gasping onto your shining silicone shores of technology because the formerly lush pre-technology terrain has ebbed and eroded beneath my feet.  So I used a laptop as a life-preserver and floated across the digital divide, trying not to drown.  No, I am no digital immigrant, one who came here by choice following the dream of electric sheep and your Statue of Technology’s gleaming beacon, a flickering iPod held aloft. 

I am a digital refugee. 

I don’t speak the language. 

I plead digital asylum. 

But now that I’m here, I’ve come to discover that, just as there are activities that thrive in the face to face world—or, worse, “F2f,” the shorthand for what used to be called interacting, talking, or being human—there may also be opportunities that technology creates that are not pale imitations of personal contact or just more expensive versions of previous, now obsolete technologies like paper, paint, or vinyl.  Rather, there may be whole new avenues to travel, channels to explore, waters to drink. 

Two weeks ago I wrote about the things I learned after six months of blogging, focusing on how I felt to get page views and to view how readers viewed me.  And that was interesting and enlightening for me in a kind of techno-sociological way, my time-traveler’s view of my strange new home in the future.  So on the surface, the least blogging has helped me see are the ways in which I can now easily and frequently incorporate images, video, and links into posts.  It’s plenty fun and entertaining for me (and, I hope, others), which I do not denigrate.  

But it has also helped me to learn more about the creative process, something I was very interested in well before six months ago.  I started this project with the hourman concept—one topic covered in sixty minutes of writing, and, as I’ve said, I’ve mostly stuck with it.  But what I haven’t discussed is what I’ve done with that writing time.  It has occasionally been linear, the way students are forced to write essay exams in school, or the Alice in Wonderland approach: “Begin at the beginning…  and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”  But mostly, while I may spend the hour composing, I spend the day, or sometimes week before, composting, to borrow the metaphor of writer’s writer Natalie Goldberg.  Before I even sit down, and before I start the clock, I already have my topic, my angle, even if it’s vague, and preferably, my way out.  I’ve always believed in the importance of endings—one of the things I try to emphasize to my writing students is that you can’t tack on a conclusion.  Perfunctory, fake conclusions sound like this: “In conclusion, here’s what I just said.”  But now, I take them even more seriously.  Like a good war, a good piece of writing needs to plan its exit strategy before it even begins.  

But I also now build the link and image searches into my writing process as well, so that I’m not simply writing for an hour, then looking for apt an entertaining images or videos, or deciding in the editing and posting process which terms or ideas would benefit from or be bolstered by a missing link.  Instead, I Google as I go (possibly sing to “Whistle as I Work”?), and often enough, something that I see online gets me rethinking what I’m working on right then and there.  Blogging allows for a less hermetically sealed approach to writing: not the frustrated, isolated Artist on a mountaintop, quill and parchment in hand, awaiting divine inspiration—nothing that I’ve written would merit that kind of pretention anyway. But rather, writing online, using online tools, for online readers, has challenged the digital native/immigrant/refugee metaphor’s very foundation.  John Donne knew that no man is an island.  But every link, piece of writing, image, reader, and writer can become part of a vast digital island chain, a sweeping archipelago connected by legions of lightspeed Google ferries.

In addition to challenging the pseudo-Romantic cult of the lone writer, blogging has also challenged my romantic idea of creativity. Too often, we imagine writing can be blocked, as though it were a physical and terrestrial thing.  But if creativity is water, it flows and resists blockage.  Yet water may not be the best metaphor now, since water can indeed be dammed.    And while people do refer to writer’s block when they can’t produce, I don’t think that blockage is really the best metaphor for creativity or lack thereof either.  Nonwriters don’t get blocked; only writers do.  So what writers mean is that their creative process is like agriculture: it is capable of being grown, harvested, and exhausted.  We can overfarm and deplete our imaginary crops or clearcut our creative forests, leaving a fallow period of, we hope, restoration and germination.  We hope the ideas will come back, but we never know.  So when I committed to one blog post per week, I wondered how soon I might, shifting to another familiar metaphor again, burn out.  But instead I’ve come to think of the writer’s ideas as fire.  Yes, Plato, Prometheus, and Jesus beat me to this metaphor, but I think it’s a crucial one: rather than thinking of ideas as blocked vs. flowing, or developing vs. producing, we can think of them as a flame.  When we take from the fire, it does not get any smaller.  With the right conditions—air, kindling—it can perpetuate itself indefinitely, producing and reproducing at any rate.  You can’t put out a fire by taking from it; rather, that’s how you make it grow.  Creativity can operate in this way, too.  It does not need to burn out at all.

Yet even the fire metaphor falls short in describing what I’ve learned.  The commitment I’ve made to writing this blog—a commitment that has no obvious benefits, no product to push, no money to make, no political agenda, and no foreseeable purpose at all—is a reminder of the cliché about life being about the journey and not the destination. 

A little trite, though, so let me update it: life is about the journal and not the desperation.   

Time: just under an hour.  And I didn’t have this ending planned at all—it came as I wrote it. So much for what I’ve learned.

 

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On Stolen Songs, Snowflakes, Fingerprints, and DNA

We’ve all done it—heard a new song that’s clearly inferior to the music we came of age to, and cried foul.  The “ripped off song” even seems to have become its own YouTube genre at this point.  One of my favorites is this one: 

If you didn’t bother to view it, I can sum it up here.  Thirty-four songs—James Blunt, You’re Beautiful; Richard Marx, Waiting for You; Alicia Keyes, No one; Mika, Happy Ending; Amiel, Lovesong; Black Eyed Peas, Where is the Love?; Alex Lloyd, Amazing; The Calling, Wherever You Will Go; Bush, Glycerine;  Thirsty Merc, Twenty Good Reasons; Lighthouse Family, High; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul to Squeeze; Bic Runga, Sway; Ben Lee, Cigarettes; Maroon 5, She Will Be Loved; U2, With or Without You; Crowded House, Fall at Your Feet; Casey Chambers, Not Pretty Enough; The Beatles, Let it Be; Red Hot Chili Peppers [again?], Under the Bridge; Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror; Elton John, Can You Feel the Love Tonight; Men at Work, Down Under; Banjo Patterson, Waltzing Matilda; A-Ha, Take On Me; Eagle Eye Cherry, Save Tonight; Toto, Africa; The Offspring, Self Esteem; Blink 182, Dammit; One Republic, Apologize; Tim Minchin, Canvas Bags; Natalie Imbruglia, Torn; and Missy Higgins, Scar [whew!] are all stealing Journey, Don’t Stop Believing,

Although it’s hard to see how the artists who wrote their songs before 1981 could have stolen anything, it’s smart.  And funny.  And accurate.  And, for YouTube, exceptionally well done. 

Yet Axis of Awesome, the group behind the video, must also understand, since they also included their own song, Birdplane (thirty-five songs, then), in the medley, the following problems:

1) These songs are all using a standard, conventional rock chord progression.  What they’re calling a stolen song is really just called a rock song.  Would anyone create a medley of blues songs and say, “They’re all following the same pattern!”  (Blues songs all follow the same twelve-bar pattern; it’s what makes them recognizably blues songs.)  If we keep the same chords here—in the key of C, it would be C/G/Am/F—and were a little more flexible, we could in fact include all of the blues (C/F/C/G/F/C, with occasional variations),  all 1950s doo wop and adaptations (C/Am/F/G), and, really, most of pop music (C/G/F, which covers everything from Wild Thing to Hang on Sloopy to What’s the Frequency, Kenneth).

 2) In their original and complete forms, these songs sound much less alike then when reworked, restructured, rerecorded, decontextualized, and resung by the same singers over the same tempo accompanied by the same piano.

Yet in fairness, other videos, like this and this, understand a lot less about music.  But at least they leave the original recording, so that you can hear, however briefly, that once the vocal comes in, or the song changes to the next section, all of a sudden, the songs don’t sound that much alike anymore.

My favorite—and, with 10,000,000 hits, clearly other people’s favorite, though, is this one:

Here, comedian Rob Paravonian makes a similar point as Axis of Awesome, about the humorous but relentless similarities between pop songs, here framed as Pachobel’s personal  conspiracy against him. But even he takes some liberties with the songs; again, it’s the same person singing over the same guitar, sometimes as few as a single line to make his point.

This is not to say that any similarities between any songs are OK.  In the 1950s, white artists like The Beach Boys and Pat Boone certainly did rip off black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, respectively.  (Perhaps more in another post.) And it’s funny that Green Day, in many ways a more interesting and original band than the hipsters give them credit for, seems to wind up on these lists an awful lot.  

But still, if people are so quick to judge songs as derivative, why are we also so eager to declare people’s uniqueness?  Aside from the occasional Chuck Palahniuk character, most of us heartily believe that we’re special and unique.  Unique like fingerprints, even though fingerprints are all nearly exactly the same and their uniqueness only comes into play if you’ve, say, committed a jewel heist.  Unique as snowflakes, although all snowflakes are all white and all cold and all too small to see the differences and all melt too fast to really compare them anyway and for any practical purposes are all interchangeable.  In sum, Everyone agrees that Everyone is unique. Which is not very unique of Everyone.   Fight Club’s Tyler Durden seems to be unique in his opinion that we’re not unique.  And he’s [spoiler alert! That’s right, I’m giving away the end of Fight Club! Um, you have had thirteen years to see it, people] a figment of the narrator’s psychosis, not a real person at all. And a fictional character on top of that.  

I can already picture a Youtube video montage of random people, scrolling through faces that stole the idea of having two eyes, and one nose, and a mouth with lips AND teeth.  Barring accident or abnormality, it turns out that people are like fingerprints and snowflakes: they’re all mostly the same. 

THE MOST STOLEN FACE IN HISTORY!

But despite the overwhelming similarities, I do believe that we’re really all different, beyond fingerprints, beyond gender, race, color, size, clique, style, and the other ways in which people vary. Because we are all truly unique at the genetic level, our DNA representing the chord progressions of our lives, the similar-yet-a-little-different sequences that make us who we are. 

I’m no biologist, so I know I’m oversimplifying and maybe getting some things wrong, but it seems to me that humans are essentially  structured like a song: our DNA is composed (music/biology overlapping word) of only four different bases (basses? OK, a stretch), abbreviated, like chords, by a letter: adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).  And DNA also like a song, creates difference through sequence and pattern.  No, there’s no T chord, but if you go with the letter F instead, and make A into A minor, you have the famous progression, C/G/Am/ F—the same one in Don’t Stop Believin’, the Most Stolen Song.  Yes, it’s a stretch (it is T, not F).  And a coincidence, even if you accept the stretch. 

But a song’s uniqueness is very much like each person’s—similarly patterned, generally unsurprising, but also recognizable, the same way in which we instantly greet our friends, family, and loved ones without each time thinking that their faces all form the same boring pattern.  A great example for me is Glen Hansard’s Falling Slowly, from the movie Once.

It’s that same chord progression again—mostly C/F/C/G, with occasional Am, almost a melancholy version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  But like the people most important to us, it also feels like the only one if its kind: heartfelt, occasionally surprising (the falsetto leap on the word “time“), and, as we all aspire toward, unique.  

Time: over again! 70 minutes.

Jesse Kavadlo

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