Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Muley's Metaphors: The Coelacanth

"The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius."

--Aristotle, Poetics

Okay, now hold it. I'm surely not claiming to be any stripe of genius, but I do love metaphors, and I like to create them in the same way that some people might like to make a quilt or take a pretty photograph.

What usually happens is that I will be thinking about something, usually something puzzling or surprising in my life, and, unbidden, a metaphor will burst out of my subconcious. I will then match it to the situation I'm thinking about to see how well it "fits." If it springs a lot of holes, I discard it. But if it keeps its shape on first examination, I tend to put it in the back of my mind, and then bring it out every now and then to test it again. After passing a number of tests such as these, I'll usually "keep" the metaphor in my permanent storage chest, even if there are a few minor aspects that don't fit perfectly. I mean, how often does any illustration or comparison fit perfectly?

I say all of this to preface the fact that my metaphor chest has gotten a bit crowded, and to air it out I've decided to share a few of my "keepers" with you. That way, you can tell me if I'm spot on, or if my metaphor crafting ability is as full of holes as a donut factory.

Today's metaphor uses the image of something called a coelacanth. That's pronounced SEE-luh-kanth. I first heard the story of the coelacanth when I was a child, and it has always fascinated me.

What, you ask, is a coelacanth? Well, it is a species of fish, representing the oldest lineage of fish known to man. Here's the thing: until 1938, the only examples of the coelacanth we knew of were fossils. The fish was believed to have been extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period (the "Age of Dinosaurs"), which ended 65 million years ago.

So here's the coelacanth, thought vanished from the Earth for 65 million years. But then, in 1938, an amazing thing happened. A strange fish was caught off the east coast of South Africa off the Chalumna River. The local fishing experts couldn't identify this large and somewhat ugly fish, and it finally ended up being shown to a taxidermist. He remembered seeing pictures of the fossil remains of a coelacanth, and positively identified the mystery fish.

It was evident that the reports of the coelacanth's extinction were premature. Since 1938, in fact, a number of other specimens have been caught in various places in Africa and Indonesia.

I have never caught an extinct fish, but I have had a number of "coelacanth moments" in my life with friends and acquaintances. I will meet someone at a certain point in my life -- maybe a schoolmate, a neighbor, a fellow employee, a romantic partner -- and for awhile I am in frequent contact with them. But then, something major happens -- I move, they move, or we both move. Maybe we are good enough friends that we try our best to keep in touch, but we both get busy with new friends and responsibilities, and before long we have disappeared off each other's radar screens entirely. Old photographs and yearbooks might be the only way either of us remember the other at all.

But just when we think that other person is gone, forgotten, blotted off the Earth entirely, BOOM, we turn a corner and run into them. We have had our coelacanth moment, and a person we thought we'd never see or hear from again is now making small talk with us as if only days, not years, have passed.

The number of my coelacanth moments is not large, but the sightings have definitely been more numerous than I'd ever have predicted. The latest one is one of the most surprising. I went to elementary school at a place called Frostwood Elementary School in Houston in the mid- and late 1960s. One of the kids in my classes was a guy named Lyle who was a friend, but not really a close friend. He had a very unusual last name (which I'll not reveal here), and his full name I doubt is shared by anyone else in the United States. I moved from Houston to Friendswood in 1972, and that was the last I saw of Lyle. I thought.

Fast forward to about six weeks ago. My nine-year-old daughter Katelyn has signed up for a new season of youth basketball, and it's the Saturday when she gets to meet her new coach and teammates for the first time. I take her to the gym and proceed to try and guess which middle aged guy on the court is her coach. I point to one man and ask a bystander, "Is that Coach Jones?", and they say "No, that's Lyle _____." I hear that name from my childhood, and I immediately know that there's no way that person can be anyone but my old classmate. I walk up and introduce myself, and sure enough, it's him. We're both a bit amused, I think, to run into each other this way.

Of course, there's a sequel to this story. Last night, my daughter's basketball team, winless so far, was hoping to score their first victory with an easy win against Lyle's team (winless and almost scoreless for the season). Dang it if he and his girls didn't beat us. I was thinking after the game, if I'd only known back in elementary school that Lyle's daughter's team was going to beat my daughter's team, I probably wouldn't have loaned him any pencils.

This is only the latest coelacanth moment I've known. I've been on vacation in faraway cities I've never visited before and run into people I worked with or studied with decades before. I have gotten calls out of the blue from high school classmates I last saw on graduation night more than 25 years ago. I have worked with neophyte reporters in small market television stations, lost track of them after they got better jobs, and then years later found them again, appearing on some national network TV news program. It seems I keep catching those ancient fish, over and over again.

So, what about you? Have you had any coelacanth moments? And if so, were they pleasing, or upsetting? I'm interested to know.

In any case, this was fun. I'll be back with more metaphors from time to time.

1 comment:

Drew said...

I've had coelacanth moments, but generally they aren't too happy. Had a buddy I'd known since I was 3. Great guy when we were both kids. Ran in to him around thanksgiving and saw him homeless and strung out on heroin. Very sobering experience.