Maybe tomatoes don’t taste like sun
BY NEIL STEINBERG firstname.lastname@example.org August 28, 2012 7:00PM
Updated: September 30, 2012 6:11AM
‘Eat a tomato, boys,” I urged, spearing another fat red chunk of home-grown, vine-ripened bliss and transferring it greedily to my plate at dinner Monday night. “It’s like eating the sun.”
A strange phrase, granted. “It’s like eating the sun.” Why say that? A bit of advertising puffery. A plea for help. The tomato crop is crazy this year — my plants are tossing off tomatoes like a pitching machine firing fastballs. Try as I might, my wife and I can’t eat them all. The boys weren’t touching any and wouldn’t, without encouragement. Heck, they probably wouldn’t with encouragement but I had to try; the idea was to evoke the sun-blessed, deep, resonating goodness of fresh-picked tomatoes. It didn’t work.
“Like eating a vast ball of exploding gas?” scoffed the teenage boy to my left, busily picking the pasta out of his pasta salad, ignoring the non-pasta parts. “It would kill us in an instant.” I tried to speak ...
“A mouthful of superheated plasma...” mocked the teenage boy to my right or words to that effect, I wasn’t taking notes — I was eating dinner, or trying to.
What I meant to say was, “It’s like eating sunshine” — warm, dense, moist ...
Oh heck, sunshine isn’t moist, is it?
See, that’s the problem. All metaphor is imperfect. The world is not really a ball — it doesn’t bounce. Love is not a rose — it isn’t pollinated by bees. There is no metaphor you can’t shoot down. Buttons are not cute. Feathers, in sufficient bulk, are not light.
Yet metaphor is crucial to communicating the feelings behind the flat facts of our lives. When we say our day was “hell,” we do not mean we were immersed upside down in a pool of molten lead in a fiery underworld of unimaginable woe while winged demons jabbed at our smoldering feet with pitchforks. What we mean is, it was a hard day. The computer crashed. The boss yelled at us.
But that doesn’t resonate with other people. “Have pity — my supervisor scolded me” doesn’t quite do it. “My day was hell” is an attempt to draw indifferent others into sharing our own emotional state.
Metaphors and similes (a simile is a metaphor that uses “like” or “as” — “like eating the sun” is a simile) are helpful not only in expressing feelings but in condensing arguments. That’s why people always compare situations to Hitler — it saves time and delivers a complex emotional punch or did.
Metaphors are risky — not only can they be overused, as with our old pal Hitler, but as my boys illustrated, they have flaws that can be easily seized on and used to try to discredit whatever a person is trying to say.
For instance, last week, in my column I used religion’s reaction to slavery as a metaphor, relating it to two situations where religion would like the final word today: gay marriage and abortion, realms where the freedom of affected individuals would be swept aside by fervent third parties who feel entitled to use their faith to trump the liberty of others. Rather as was done with slaves.
Agree or disagree, the argument is clear. Some readers, rather than address the point, went after flaws in the metaphor. For instance, comparing the two situations therefore meant I was suggesting they are the same in all regards, that I was saying that being forced to work on a planation is the same as being forced to live in the closet.
Some felt obligated to explain the difference between being black and being gay.
“An African American had and has no way of disguising her identity to receive fair treatment while the traits of being a homosexual surely and are at times masked to further one’s career and financial goals against inherent bias,” wrote one reader.
Even long-established metaphors are easy as pie to pick apart. “Easy as pie? Are you crazy. Have you ever made a pie? Pie is hard.”
We expect our metaphors to be accepted. It’s a shock when they’re not. If you said that a certain friend has a heart of gold, it would be jarring if the reply were an angry, “What? Impossible! A heart couldn’t circulate blood if it were made of gold. You’d die in minutes!”
At dinner, beset from both sides, I paused to form a little speech: “Someday, boys,” I was going to solemnly intone. “You will be tomato gardeners, too — all good men are. You will think back to the luscious, fire-engine red tomatoes of your father and how he offered them to you with an open hand. How they sat before you in perfect beauty, untouched. You will wish in your deepest heart that you had partaken of the fruits of his honest labor, your father’s tomatoes, instead of scorning them with the glib pig ignorance and shrugging indifference that are the hallmarks of wasted adolescence. You will be scoured with regret, and wish you could apologize. But I of course will be long gone by then....”
Rather than blurt this speech out, I composed it carefully in mind. But when I went to tell my sons, they had already leapt up and were gone. Probably just as well.