When I unleash the testing robots on my code, I very often see messages like this:
Failed asserting that false is true.
It seems like there should be a metaphor in there somewhere.
The other day I was sitting on a wide porch in Kansas, letting the heat soak into my aging joints. As I watched, a big flying critter of a type I’d seen before, pushing two inches long and bulky, with a striped, tapering abdomen, came flying up at maximum speed.
It smashed right into the side of the building with an audible whack, turned around, and flew back the way it had come, vanishing in the distance.
Apparently it had accomplished what it came here to do.
A while back fuego and I were in a little pub, enjoying food from the bagel place next door and working on our respective projects. At a table nearby there was a group of film students working on a project together. On that quiet afternoon a new phrase entered our lexicon.
The students were from all over the place, so of course they were holding their conversation in English. I found the discussion tantalizingly irritating, like a rash you can’t help but scratch. I had to listen. fuego was eventually compelled to put in his headphones to block out the others’ conversation. We were both annoyed by the students, but it turns out we were bothered for different reasons. It’s funny how strongly the students affected both of us.
They were discussing, with great intensity, things like how far down the Nurse’s cigarette should be burned in one particular shot, considering the different things that the cigarette could symbolize. “If it was almost all gone it could represent…” Absent from their discussion was the story. You can pile up all the symbolism you want, but if the story sucks none of the rest will matter. Let the critics find the symbolism. If the symbolism is an important part of the story, well, then, that’s different. In that case worrying about the symbolism is synonymous with making the story as good as possible. These kids were just looking for extra depth to pile on top. You see the problem with that, yes? Depth has to be underneath.
So says the guy who fancies himself a writer. I was at one point tempted to say something, they were so damn intent on their cigarette. I wanted to shake them awake. “Let it go! Put your energy into the story.”
fuego, it turns out, was contemplating intervention as well, but of a different sort. After an hour of cigarette burnage and other minutia, he wanted to beat them with his chair. It is fortunate he had his music. Later, this is what he said to me as we walked down the street: “I’ll tell you how long the cigarette will be. It’ll be however long it was when you got a good take.”
So says the guy who makes a living turning scripts into movies. In the practical world, all your half-burned cigarettes will be lost in the heat and rush of making the film. Worrying about that stuff doesn’t just waste your time, it wastes the time of the crew who has to try to deal with it, and in the end will come to nothing. “The nurse is smoking.” That’s about all you need to say about that. You can put in that she pulls on the cigarette at a certain point, to help establish the pacing of the scene as you imagine it, and there’s even a possibility it will happen that way. You could even call for an ashtray-perspecttive shot of the nurse — if it helps the story.
Now, when we are working on something together and we get hung up on a point, one of us will point out that it is a half-burned cigarette. Since our definitions of the phrase are slightly different (mine: it doesn’t help the story; fuego’s: it will be lost in the heat of production no matter what we write here), we invoke it at different times. It works, though. No matter what qualifies it as a half-burned cigarette, we know it’s time to drop it and move on.
Which at last brings me to the reason I’m writing this. I have found myself mired in half-burned cigarettes lately. I’m getting bogged down in details that ultimately don’t matter. Better not to mention them at all. (A corollary of the half-burned cigarette: inconvenient minutia is better ignored than explained. This principle does not apply to people doing really stupid things, like cops not calling for backup.) So now I’m staring at a scene that is a veritable ashtray, and I know the answer. It’s difficult to do after all the time and sweat I’ve spent on it, but it’s time to delete the whole damn thing and tell that part of the story an entirely different way. I hate when that happens.
I’m a watcher. I see things. Perhaps I learn from the things I see, but that’s asking quite a bit. Here’s something I know, however. When a guy gives a girl a flower, it means something. There is symbolism that goes deeper than bone marrow. What you say when you offer a flower is indelible, permanent, and inarguable. If you are lying with your flower, she will suffer, you will suffer, and in the end all of humanity will suffer. It is a foundation of civilization, a sacred trust.
In the pantheon of flowers, at the top there is the rose. Perhaps one can offer daisies lightly, or carnations. If you ever receive a lily from me, watch out. That is not a family of flower I give lightly. But the rose, it stands at the top. There is never a rose given that does not carry weight.
The weight, oddly, is inversely proportional to the quantity. You can give your love a dozen red roses, and she will be happy. But just one rose, alone, is a much more potent symbol. It is not ostentatious; it is something that exists within itself, a completely contained symbol, and the color of the rose means everything. What that color says is something no words will ever amplify, and can never undo.
Red: love. A single red rose, on a crooked stem, still with thorns, is the grandest expression of love possible. Sure, there’ve been some pretty decent sonnets and crap, but this is the one gesture that can never be mistaken. The thorns are critical. The flower is your beloved, and the thorns are part of her. I’ll be going into that in a story, shortly.
White: friendship. This doesn’t mean you don’t love her, it just means that you will do everything in your power to make her happy. Devotion might be a better word than friendship. A single white rose is a profession of love, knowing the love will never be returned.
A dozen pink roses: Hello. Congratulations. Happy Birthday. A single pink rose: Coward. When you give a single rose, know what the hell you’re saying, and say it! Unless your intent is to say “I’m a confused and spineless schmoe,” stay away from the single pink rose.
What brought this up was a couple near me here in the bar. They were all lovey-dovey at first, but then he did something to piss her off. From over here, it looked like she enjoyed being pissed off. I watched the friction for a couple of minutes, and then she picked up the rose. She smelled it, smiled at him, and set it back down. The smile was empty, and the discussion was over. The petals were white, with red tips.
It was a beautiful flower, but the dude had proven himself to be symbolically spineless, and she felt it. I’ll say it one more time. When you hand someone a single rose, you better know what you’re saying with it, because she sure as hell will.
It’s a good story, involving two tired pizza guys and a junior high gymnastics team. John was standing in the pizza. Right now, I am standing in the metaphorical pizza.
If John would care to explain, it would save me some work, and be better told besides.
Edited to add: John has written his explanation in the comments. You’re only cheating yourself if you don’t read it.