“Got a whale of a tale to tell ye lads // Got a whale of a tale or two-oo // ‘Bout the flappin’ fish…” – Ned Land, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Let’s open this piece with a judgment: that reasoning by analogy is abhorrent.
At its best, reason ought to operate cleanly and clearly, much like geometry, math or logic. Any wielder of reason – if he or she truly wishes to be reasonable – should strive to be both factual and precise.
Whereas analogy is more akin to poetry. A first cousin, perhaps. Its proper role is to take an oblique, even nebulous, approach to communicating. Whenever you deploy an analogy, basically, you extend a metaphor. But a problem crops up if that analogy gets extended to a point where it becomes grossly cantilevered. Push it out just an eentsy bit further, and craaash!
You’re left standing amid the rubble of that thing which you were originally trying to say.
However, the early stage of that operation – when you merely sought to illuminate a perception via analogy – that was fine. Just don’t fight to drive home an entire argument with one.
“He spoke to them in parables, and without parables, he did not speak.”
Welp, if that communication method was good enough for Jesus, I’d say, it’s good enough for me.
So, here we go.
I’ll admit it up front: My analogy here today both starts and ends in a very fishy way.
Going for Fool Immersion
Because it deals almost wholly in fish! And one quite specific species: the torpedo-like barracuda of the tropical Atlantic. These toothy rascals can grow more than five feet in length and can dash at their prey at submarine speeds above 20 knots. Their preferred method of attack is to bite things in half with long jaws, studded by rows of keen fangs. Just imagine an ocean-going Doberman Pinscher covered in silver scales and you’ll get the basic idea.
Among the most delectable portions of my boyhood summers were those long, idyllic hours I spent diving on the reefs out on the Gulf Stream side of the Florida Keys. I loved bright clouds of minnows that parted around me like shimmery curtains as I glided through them, the richly varied colors and shapes of the living coral (even if I saw scarlet knobs of fire coral that could scorch my hide), the aquamarine water tints that deepened and shaded and faded to a cool and inky cobalt out on the ocean side of said reefs.
Yet there was also a recurring aspect of those dives that felt both dangerous and disturbing. I can recall the sensation of finding myself being pursued by a huge barracuda along the rim of those reefs as if the first instance (there were many) occurred just yesterday.
Salmon Chanted Evening
Know how you can often tell if somebody is staring at you? Seriously. It could be one of our very fine law enforcement officers comparing your profile to a mug shot he saw during a briefing prior to beginning his shift. Or it could be a gorgeous lady who finds you the least bit attractive for her own obscure reason. Regardless, this sort of signal exchange remains one of the most enduring bits of evidence that psychism might have a real underpinning. If someone stares at you, studies you intently, one can generally feel it happen and you will turn your face toward them, often catching them in the act as you respond to the pressure of their attention by a sort of involuntary reflex.
The phenomenon becomes vastly more intriguing if one is not caught in the eyes of someone… but in the fearsome gaze of something. Such as a long, jade-green shape that persistently trails you while you swim. A live torpedo that lurks in your blind spot and matches your every twist and turn. Suddenly you catch a silvery flash in the corner of your eye – since whatever that creature might be has accidentally turned a flank to reflect a ray of sunlight – and then you spin around. And you discover that you are being tracked by a massive barracuda. One that slowly opens and closes its Doberman jaws while it follows along behind you.
My reaction the first time this happened was to feel some panic. We are naturally hard-wired to get all excited if we find ourselves being tracked by a predator. Yet I already understood enough about wild critters to refuse to show obvious fear in any piece of my messaging back to any of them.
Still, all my senses were fully dilated and my mind raced. This is not an unnatural response. Rather, it comes as part and parcel of being deep in nature. As Cactus Ed Abbey once observed, “Wilderness can be loosely defined as a place where a human being enjoys the opportunity of being attacked by a wild animal.”
Chomping a Bit
And I knew, or thought I knew, that barracudas were nothing to mess with. A legendary anecdote back in the day concerned a sport angler who brought a large ‘cuda on board. It threw its head and flung away the hook, thrashed loose of the gaff, flapped itself off the floorboards, buried its teeth in the man’s arm, tore a hunk out of his bicep and then went back over the side with it.
Finally, I turned about once again and swam on along the reef at the same measured pace I was using before. Yet I also decided to get back onboard the boat quite a bit earlier than I might’ve otherwise.
Now the scene changes…
A Learner at the Lerner
I walked barefoot on the softly splintered and sun-bleached planks of a pier that wrapped around the shark pens of Lerner Marine Laboratories on the island of North Bimini in the Bahamas. Except two of those lab pens didn’t contain sharks. They held barracudas. Big ol’ lunks with mossy green, nearly black backs, probably about as lengthy as the species ever gets, with heads so broad and thick they looked like the skulls of pit bulldogs – or even perhaps a kind of sea-going bear.
And as these supposedly fearsome barracudas hung out in their 40×40-foot net pens, passively awaiting a moment that a scientist, or an intern, or maybe a grad student, would dump a semi-rancid bucket of baitfish slops down into their enclosure for a feeding, I noticed that these ultimate predators were steadily opening and closing their jaws.
Why? I thought. They hung immobile in the water, relaxed. They had nowhere to go. No one and nothing to intimidate. Or pursue. Food would arrive automatically.
What they must be doing is just breathing, I realized. They’re forcing water past their gills by moving their mouths in that manner. Because their gills are relatively small while their bodies look huge. And because nature urges them to oxygenate their blood and their muscles so that they can sprint. Except that now these poor, penned-up bastards have got absolutely nothin’ to sprint after…
The more pity them.
Back in the Swim of Things
Informed by this, the next time I spotted a big resident barracuda following me along the rim of an offshore reef, I stopped, turned around, and stared hard right back at that sucker. I wouldn’t say the big ‘cuda flinched, but he did come to a halt too and then just hung there, idly waving his fins while opening and closing his toothy jaws. We eyed each other for several seconds.
I thought, Enough about how he looks to me, already!How do I look to him? My answer, Rather bigger.I’m about as long, but my arms and legs probably make me look a lot wider.
Is this ‘cuda preparing to attack? Probably not. Since he already could’ve accomplished that in one swift charge. Well is he challenging my presence as a competitor? Patrolling and defending his turf, trying to scare me off? No. If the big guy was doing that, he’d be steadily increasing pressure, closing the distance between us. Instead, he’s simply following me around. What does he want then? What’s he trying to accomplish?
When an answer came to me, it was a revelation. Yet strangely, no kind of surprise.
He’s after your debris, dude! He expects YOU to attack something, to chomp it to bits, and then while you’re all engaged and engorged and heedless of your bounty, he hopes you’ll let a bunch of gobs and loose chunks drift away to him.
He’s a victim of his own success. He’s now too big to make many charges, or long ones at any rate. He’s no longer a maximum predator. He’s turning into a mere scavenger. Which means… I can probably turn the tables right now and intimidate him!
To test out this thesis, I fluttered my dive flippers and swam directly at the barracuda. He froze in shock for an instant, then spun around and fled speedily away from me.
Filled with much more confidence, I resumed my underwater ramble, my exploration of the reef. When I looked back, the barracuda was still toddling along after me, but doing so from a position much, much further back.
Get to the Bloody Point, Mate
Why am I telling you about all this? It’s a set-up. It’s to provide an exploration, explanation, and explication of a quote from a famed Marin County gal, the writer, writing coach and raconteur Anne Lammott.
In one of her scribblin’ guidebooks, Lammott says, “You must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work… Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental, worry about being unavailable, worry about being fraudulent.”
Now, in this quote, I think Lammott is mainly talking about crafting a memoir, which is just one of her realms of great expertise. Yet in my sort-of humble opinion, her maxim can be applied to almost any genre or form of writing. If you buy that, the next question should be, well, how does one go about taking her advice?
So, are you ready for your analogy?
Here’s how. Swim right at your barracudas.