Shoehorns With Teeth


My thoughts are scattered. In them, I see a sort of pattern, a coalescence of ideas that I’d like to gather in one net, into my basket of stars or fishes. Yes, I’m fishing for ideas.

Sadly, my thoughts don’t want to be caught. In fact, I don’t want to be caught. I want to slide out, slip free, hold onto nothing. But it’s a curse of humanity to want to capture and categorize. Ever since we gave sense to sounds by giving them meanings, we’ve defined the world according to a shaky order of ideas. Why do the symbols l-o-v-e come to be pronounced in one phonetic pattern (that actually doesn’t follow the phonetic order), and where does this phonetic pattern obtain its abstract meaning?

I have no idea, but I accept the meaning and sound of love for the sake of the linguistic history of my own idiom. But what I can’t accept are others forcing their barbed definitions onto me. You know how it feels when somebody chooses to make sense of you by expressing an all-encompassing definition. And you’re hurt by the callous, if not false, meaning attached to your core being. You aren’t a “right-wing nut-job” or a “bleeding-heart liberal” or a “strident feminist” or a “wannabe writer” or a “conspiracy theorist”–not by the narrow definitions given for those terms. Rather, you’re a complex human being who may have thought long and hard about what it really means to be a feminist or a writer, maybe even what it means to be a Christian.

But, hey, the master of definition says, if the shoe fits, wear it, even if the shoe has been forcibly worked onto your foot by means of a shoehorn with teeth.

The expression shoehorn with teeth comes from the chorus of a They Might Be Giants song. The next line says, People should get beat up for stating their beliefs. The genius of this pair of lines [He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth. People should get beat up for stating their beliefs] is in its reversal of meaning. It works both ways. The “he” of the song is an immature adult who believes in his own right to batter others for giving their opinions. But it also works against him because the next time he shoehorns his opinions on others, he might be the one to receive the divine karma.

Now I’m back to my scattered thoughts and the coalescence of ideas. Over the last several days, I’ve read internet debates on feminism, on politics, on self-publishing. Yesterday, I began reading a memoir, in which the meanness of the writer is so grating, so covered over with bumper sticker labels that I felt I was being pinned down. I was an insect on a board, a fish caught in a net, a star defined by a narrow definition of hydrogen and helium. And by the very nature of this memoirist’s status in print, she becomes the master of definition. She’s an authority. An author.

/s-t-a-r/ /l-o-v-e/ /s-h-o-e-h-o-r-n/ /a-u-t-h-o-r/ /b-e-a-t-i-n-g/. Pronounce the phonetics with me: beating, bashed, hurt, wounded. I know we can make sense of these sounds as they correlate to physicality. What about the abstracts, though? What of those? What does this mean?–> LOVE.

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11 comments

  1. I have so many comments to this that aren’t really comments so much as ponderations. Obviously (well, only obviously if one reads what I said on Facebook, which is only a handful of people…) I have been railing against the same things.

    I sit down to have a complex conversation on an issue close to my heart. I say one thing–and I tend to be a VERY precise speaker and writer–and people invariably read a small collection of words to mean that I am aligned with thousands of speakers who’ve said millions of words, some of which match the handful I happened to use.

    I don’t ally with many groups. Even Weight Watchers was too doctrinaire for me! I find I do better to be who I am and answer when asked. But we aren’t comfortable most of us on this planet with that way of thinking. We are too much about the false taxonomy that governs our interactions.

  2. I’m not nearly as precise in my language use, partly because I don’t want anybody to pin me down. But that probably isn’t a noble way, being ambiguous. I find labels to be frustrating–not just the labels, though, but the limited definitions thereof.

  3. Do you think you might be annoyed with pre-packaged sets of definitions people apply to you rather than definition themselves? I’m asking because everyone can be defined, though not completely. The trouble comes when people infer that if you are x then you must be y, because all xs they’ve known (or are have been told) are ys.

  4. Jay, yes. But definitions of me aren’t the only ones that fill me with despair and/or rage. Definitions are used to divide people. I’m not a republican, but it pisses me off to read over and over again that republicans are evil capitalists who want to control and suppress women. This takes focus off the egregious power grabs Obama and admin are taking right now because Obama has been defined as the pro-feminist politician. Therefore, all free-thinking women in America must vote for Obama because of the stupid, simplistic definitions we’ve been fed. The Tea Party was neutralized in the same way. Libertarians have been lately redefined as republican conservatives who only want a free market system to meet their money lust. Feminists have been defined in such a way that has made the label incompatible with Christianity. All right, I’ll quit my rant now. 🙂

  5. One of the great things about being libertarian is that you can give the big middle finger to politics if you want. I do. The Christian version of the middle finger, mind you.

    1. Which is???? (I’m thinking of making the sign of the cross using the middle finger) Does that put the “B” back in subtle, or what?

  6. “And by the very nature of this memoirist’s status in print, she becomes the master of definition. She’s an authority.”

    Yep. And I personally find this annoying, particularly when an author starts to get a big head and forget that they are where they are in part thanks to luck. I think editors start to become this way too…if it’s not their definition of good, it’s not good. While the rest of us spout words that are the same today and tomorrow, but if they happen to become published tomorrow, somehow those words are suddenly more “smart”?

    1. Jessica, I feel your cynicism. The thing about the overloaded marketplace for books is that an agent or editor could fill their lists with good books and miss other good ones or completely miss the greats simply because they don’t have room for more in their schedules. Yep, I feel your frustration. But I also trust that if we’re meant to keep on keeping on doing this that God will provide a way and make it possible. The market is full, but it’s always changing and needing new voices.

    1. And I keep meaning to come back and tell you that my husband made the banner for me from an old, old public domain image. And the map is an ancient Icelandic one.

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