Saturday, May 31, 2014

Like to the Lark

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
Thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Sonnet 29

This week many marked the passing of literary trailblazer, Maya Angelou. I remember being introduced to her in my early twenties through her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her magnetic personality was irresistible and her joyous transcendence of a traumatic childhood inspiring. Her belief in the power of words was so pronounced that, as a child, she imposed a vow of silence on herself that lasted for over five years.  She had been raped by an uncle. Upon discovering the crime, her family had urged her to identify the culprit. Later, after the man had served a short prison term, he was killed by another family member as an act of retribution—and Angelou felt responsible. Through magical thinking, she believed that speaking the rapist’s name had sealed his doom, which only added to the horror. Thereafter, she denied herself speech.

But during those silent years, she immersed herself in other peoples’ words, reading every book in her local library starting with the authors whose names began with “A” and working her way through the alphabet. After being coaxed out of her silence, she eventually went on to become a person widely recognized for the unique ebullience of her voice, in both song and prose.

During this past week of tributes, I heard an excerpt from a 1986 interview Angelou gave to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in which Angelou explained how she had decided she wanted to write. She described how moved she had been upon discovering Shakespeare.  She recited part of Sonnet 29:  “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/ I all alone beweep my outcast state . . . .”  She explained how she had marveled over the fact that he, a middle-aged white man from another culture and century, had so perfectly captured sentiments felt by a young black girl from the American South living in the 20th century. That sense that writers have the potential to bridge seemingly disparate worlds later inspired her to find her own voice as a writer, which in turn opened a channel through which the stories of many others would flow, the intimate stories of other women of color whom the mainstream culture had not previously regarded as worthy of widespread attention (writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange).

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

From “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou.

RIP, Maya.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Missing the Metaphor

Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted.
Young women are green. I spoke horticulturally.
My metaphor was drawn from fruits.

The “mature” Miss Prism to Dr. Chasuble,
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

My husband said, “Hey, what’s with that last blog post? I thought you’d killed the thing off.”

“What do you mean?” I replied. “I thought about killing it off, sure. But I haven’t yet satisfied the conditions precedent that would necessitate killing it off.”

Shortly after that brief conversation, I realized that he had interpreted my post about the death of memory (“Wasted”) as a poetic allusion to the blog’s demise. Upon further reflection, I could see how he, poetically minded guy that he is, had made that leap. The post was, after all, inspired by my failure to remember the famous first line of “The Waste Land,” which is about breeding lilacs out of a DEAD land; the post then segues to musing on the DEATH of Chekhov’s three sisters’ dream of getting to Moscow. And the post ends with the Sanskrit chant that T.S. Eliot translated as "The Peace which passeth understanding," which pretty much can only be interpreted as a reference to literal DEATH.

But I had not meant for that particular post to serve as the blog’s metaphoric send off. At least not consciously. Which is why I did not see anything contradictory about turning around and posting again a few days later.

Herein lies the power and danger of metaphor. Metaphors can serve as powerful shorthand; but because they are inherently elliptical, things can get lost in translation. Imagine, for instance, a non-native speaker trying to make sense out of the following “everyday” metaphoric expressions whose poetic underbelly people do not even think about when they use them because they have become so naturalized in certain quarters:

• “He’s still wet behind the ears.”
• “She lives in East Jesus.”
• “That just takes the cake.”
• “They really hit a home run.”
• “Surprisingly, that partner has a heart of gold.”
• “Thank you so very much for saving my ass.”

See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By for more on this fascinating topic.

Communicating through more original poetic allusions with certain native speakers can also be challenging—especially when one’s audience is comprised of lawyers. Lawyers are not a breed universally recognized for their comfort with metaphors because metaphors involve ellipses, a gap that has to be bridged through inferential thinking. To “get” a metaphor a person has to jump adroitly between levels of understanding—from the concrete to the more abstract—in a single instant. As with jokes, if the person delivering the message has to connect all the dots before the person on the receiving in can “get it,” the fundamental point—the ability to convey a complex observation efficiently—becomes pointless.

I think (some) lawyers struggle with metaphoric language because literal ellipses tend to rouse their suspicion, and with good reason. What is left unsaid can be a deal-breaker, especially when ellipses are used when quoting a statute or judicial opinion or contract provision. And because most lawyers are habituated to expect that legal discourse is better when not infused with ellipses or any other poetic device, (some) lawyers tend to miss metaphors when they are pitched to them as a means to try to elevate legal discourse.

For those of us who take special delight in conceiving and perceiving metaphoric tropes, it can be difficult to love those who routinely “miss the metaphor.” You could even say that those who live to toss out clever metaphors and those before whom such metaphors tend to fall with a dull thud are fundamentally incompatible because they really do look at the world through different lens. Metaphorically (or literally??), these two kinds of folks do not speak the same language.

Shakespeare captures this phenomenon rather delightfully in Twelfth Night. Although Sir Toby does his best to assist his drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in wooing the saucy chambermaid, Maria, Sir Andrew cannot possibly succeed with someone like Maria who prizes wit above all. It does not matter that Sir Andrew is a man of fortune, and Maria is a mere servant who should, pragmatically speaking, jump at the prospect of capturing the fancy of a land-rich bachelor. But Maria only has eyes for the debauched, old, bankrupt reprobate, Sir Toby—because he is a man who, even well into his cups, can keep up with her metaphoric quips:

Sir Toby Belch! how now, Sir Toby Belch!

Sweet Sir Andrew!

Bless you, fair shrew.

And you too, sir.

SIR TOBY BELCH (aside to Aguecheek)
Accost, Sir Andrew, accost.

What's that?

My niece's chambermaid.

Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.

My name is Mary, sir.

Good Mistress Mary Accost,—

SIR TOBY BELCH (aside to Aguecheek)
You mistake, knight; 'accost' is front her, board her, woo her, assail her.

By my troth, I would not undertake her in this company. Is that the meaning of 'accost'?

Fare you well, gentlemen.

And you part so, mistress, I would I might never draw sword again. Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?

Sir, I have not you by the hand.

Marry, but you shall have; and here's my hand.

Now, sir, 'thought is free:' I pray you, bring your hand to the buttery-bar and let it drink.

Wherefore, sweet-heart? what's your metaphor?

It's dry, sir.

Why, I think so: I am not such an ass but I can keep my hand dry. But what's your jest?

A dry jest, sir.

Are you full of them?

Ay, sir, I have them at my fingers' ends: marry, now I let go your hand, I am barren.

[Act I, scene 3]

And so the girl gets away. . . . But to his credit, Sir Andrew is not so obtuse that he fails to see the nature of the barrier between him and Maria. He even has a theory about why he keeps missing her metaphors: “Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.”

Maybe some lawyers too could afford to ease up on the beef.

Just sayin’.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Strong Woman Number

The title of this post comes from a song featured in a one-woman, quasi-autobiographical musical by another Gretchen (I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road c.1978 by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford). The show is not a work of artistic genius. But it made an impression on me during my impressionable teen years when I saw a production in Houston featuring an actress whom I admired and, shortly thereafter, got to work with in what I, at age sixteen, saw as my “big break.”

Coincidentally, some years later, when I moved to Dallas to pursue my acting career primarily in small venues in sketchy neighborhoods while waiting tables at the Deep Ellum CafĂ©, I met another strong woman named “Gretchen.” Her name was really Margaret, but she had always gone by “Gretchen” thanks to the early intervention of a German nanny. Aside from the fact that Gretchen was reading Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Short Stories when I first encountered here, I was favorably disposed toward her because her name, “Gretchen Dyer,” reminded me of songwriter “Gretchen Cryer” and thus of this actress whom I had looked up to as a youth. I was predisposed to like Gretchen Dyer even though she gave me the cold-shoulder at first. She was irritated that the restaurant where we met had had the audacity to hire another “Gretchen”—and one who also fashioned herself an artist. Worse still, the kitchen staff had immediately taken to calling us “Big Gretchen” and “Little Gretchen,” respectively. The nickname “Big Gretchen” did not exactly suit her, a statuesque, Bohemian beauty. She was “big” only in the sense that she was considerably taller than I was—and possessed an oversized brain, drive, and heart.

I am thinking about Gretchen Dyer today for several reasons.

First, this is the time of year when thinking of her, who is no longer with us, is inevitable. We are at the midpoint between her birthday in late April and the anniversary of her death in early June. And because it is also graduation season, I am reminded of how she and her sister Julia came to Austin to represent the Dallas, artistic-fringe contingent of my life when I graduated from law school. And then how, after I was living and practicing law in Austin, she and Julia again came to visit at this same time of year for what proved to be the last time. Shortly thereafter, her body, ravaged by years of fighting a congenital heart condition, gave out. But during that last visit Gretchen was not to be deterred by physical constraints. She took care of business, making the rounds to nurture key relationships and to ensure that her numerous artistic and social-justice projects would live on in her absence.

Second, I am thinking of Gretchen Dyer now because I was recently prompted to do so by a terrific initiative launched by yet another admirably strong woman, Linda Chanow of the Center for Women in Law. To celebrate its fifth anniversary, the Center is inviting supporters to make a contribution in honor of a woman who has made a difference in their legal career. See When I learned of his project, I knew I had to honor Gretchen Dyer. She wasn’t a lawyer, though she certainly had all the makings of a talented lawyer. Instead of opting to follow the impressive trajectory of her father, an international law specialist, she had made other, less conventional choices—but not because she viewed a legal career as promising a prosaic grind. She always expressed tremendous respect for her father’s career and took a keen interest in reading the briefs he filed in key cases. Likewise, she did not see my decision to make a mid-life career correction as “selling out.” Instead she cheered me on during every phase of my unlikely leap from non-profit theater to commercial litigation.

Third, I am thinking of Gretchen Dyer because I am about to attend a production of a Shakespeare play whose central character is more than a bit like her: strong, tall, relentlessly articulate, uncompromising, irresistible. That character is “Beatrice” of Much Ado about Nothing. Beatrice, a decidedly clever gal, boasts “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” She then banters her way to romantic happiness with Benedick, a man who can (almost) keep up with her in a battle of wits. Beatrice knows how to sell the strong woman number.

Perhaps, as Mother’s Day approaches, you will consider joining me (and the Center for Women in Law) in cheering for some strong woman who has made a difference in your life. Perhaps one such woman is your very own mother, so you are already prepared to do so. In any event, it shouldn’t be hard to think of a contender, someone performing her own “strong woman number,” day in, day out, for the good of some larger sphere, writ large or small. Examples abound.