Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
October 21, 2009
Everyone’s talking about Aspen’s recent Plague of Bear Attacks.(Please note the clever use of CAPITAL LETTERS to underline the seriousness of this item. It’s a trick I picked up from some of our more enthusiastic letter writers.)In recent months, we’ve had bears breaking into homes. Bears raiding garbage. Bears raiding refrigerators. Bears attacking people. Bears wandering into restaurants, ordering an expensive meal and then skipping out on the check. (OK, maybe not the last one so much. They don’t actually order the meals. They just grab them and go.)In any case, the situation is not pleasant for anyone. Not for the people who lose their lunch, their freezer-full of frozen delights or a chunk of their flesh. And it’s especially unpleasant for the bears – the ones, that is, who get killed as a result. The bears who simply gorge themselves on some homeowner’s stash of super-premium ice cream and then waddle off into the woods seem to have a pretty good deal.But, I couldn’t help noticing that even as Aspen was reeling under the impact of bear attacks, so was the entire U.S. economy. Over the past year, you could read about it everywhere: The economy is crashing! The bears have taken over! The Wall Street bears were driving the stock market into the dirt. We’re all doomed.Now, of course, they weren’t talking about actual bears – brown, black, grizzly or polar. No one was actually gnawed on by these Wall Street bears. This is not an attack by Ursus arctos horribilis; this is Ursus metaphoricus.That’s right, we’re talking about a bit of Twilight Zone: When Metaphors Attack.Stock market conditions are divided in Bull Markets, when everything’s going up, and Bear Markets, when everything’s going down. (I don’t know if there’s a Sloth Market, where everything just sort of hangs out and doesn’t move.)So anyway, in New York we have Bears on Wall Street – and here in Aspen we have bears on Main Street. The stock-speculator/bear metaphor gains a little more depth when you consider the (true, really) story told by a man who was attacked by a grizzly bear and somehow survived.He said that as the bear attacked, lunging at him, mouth wide open, his last conscious thought was that the bear’s mouth smelled exactly like a Dumpster.That’s reasonable, when you consider where bears feed – but it also adds to the metaphor. Hey, what could be more perfect to describe a sleazy stock speculator than a “Dumpster-mouthed garbage eater”?And then we should consider how those metaphors double up when you have freezer-raiding bears snacking on Ben & Jerry’s famous flavor “Chubby Hubby.” Think about it: An ice cream flavor, metaphorically named after a person, being eaten by animals who could just as easily eat the actual person. Real animals devouring a metaphor. Talk about a strict diet. (The English Major Diet: No fats, no carbohydrates … just Figures of Speech. A main course of metaphors and, for dessert, a nice oxymoron!)The mind boggles. (Although bear in mind – no pun intended – that any self-respecting bear would be deeply disappointed to chow down on an actual human Chubby Hubby and discover that, unlike the ice cream, the human was not “bursting with fudge-dipped, peanut-butter-filled pretzel nuggets.” That’d be one cranky bear.)And, while we’re talking stock market metaphors, a word to the wise (actually, a word to the foolish), if you’re fed up with the metaphoric Bear Market, don’t head to Pamplona’s “running of the bulls” to experience the Bull Market metaphor coming to life. Aspen’s brown bears may claw you if you get between them and their ice cream; Spanish fighting bulls will kill you because that’s what they love to do.So, OK, bulls and bears. Metaphors and snacks. It’s all amusing enough, I suppose. But when I was first struck by financial metaphors coming to life was back a little more than a year ago, when the economy was really falling apart, in a crash largely triggered by bad mortgages.As you may recall, when the panic struck and home prices were plummeting, people kept talking about being “upside down” or “underwater” with their mortgages.In either case, what they were talking about was owing more on their home than the place was worth. You bought a $500,000 home, got a $450,000 mortgage and now – sha-zam! (thank you Bear Market) – that glorious home is only worth $350,000.Congratulations! You’re upside down and definitely underwater.All very metaphoric.But you may also recall that, at the same time, people were talking about the United States torturing suspected terrorists in unspeakable prisons around the globe. And the method of torture that seemed to be getting the most attention was something called “water boarding.” In water boarding, the prisoner is tied down, with his head lower than his feet, and water is poured up his nose. It is, in essence, controlled drowning.Let’s go over that again: head lower than feet (in other words, upside down) and water poured in nose (that’s us, under water).So, “upside down and underwater” as a metaphor for a bad mortgage comes to life as a description of torture. The metaphor is financial evil. The reality is inhuman evil. Even as we were destroying our lives with bad financial games, we were destroying our nation’s morality and world standing with torture – and we were all upside down and underwater.Sure, it’s all fun until the metaphor comes to life and chews you up pretty badly.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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