ISCOUR THE medical journals, but I never see anything about the disorder that afflicts me and many of my friends. Until it gets a proper Latin name, I will refer to it as the curse of the literal mind.
The main symptom is that many ordinary phrases stimulate the brain to create bizarre and distressing mental pictures. The disorder strikes people in allwalks of life, but is especially common among writers. We spend so much time trying to force simple words into complex images, it's only natural the words would want revenge.
Everyday life is more frightening for the literal-minded. If you mention frostbite, we see its jagged teeth. If a friend claims to be "burned out" we get visions of vanquished firefighters refolding their hoses. The thought of being tied up in traffic scares us speechless, then people ask if the cat's got our tongue. These are the images nightmares are made of.
The literal mind is also easily jammed. Normal people can use redundant language without hurting themselves. Not so, the literal-minded. If someone talks about a baby puppy, we try to picture a puppy that is also young, and we get the same picture twice. We have similar problems with newborn infants, fast race cars, short midgets, violent murderers, strong hurricane winds and skimpy bikinis. The more cynical among us also trip over dishonest politicians, insincere salespeople and money-grubbing televangelists.
And we get a full-blown migraine when we hear of "free complimentary bonus gifts at no extra charge."
Then there are the dangerous oxymorons phrases that seem to contradict themselves. Try to visualize a plastic glass, a down escalator or a jumbo shrimp. Get the picture? I would say it's pretty ugly, but I might hurt myself.
When a politician wins by a landslide, does he win while standing near one, or when the other candidates are buried by one? Can people really let a smile be their umbrella? Do people break their diets if they are forced to eat their words? If someone wants to bend your ear, should you let her? If you don't, will it put a bee in her bonnet? If a person has a dirty mind, will brainwashing help?
Are there really people whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs? If so, what do their contact lenses look like?
Literal-minded people are likely to be a little overweight too. With all the culinary images in the language, there is no way to put food out of our minds, as it were. If we try to keep our diets a secret, people will ask what we are stewing about. If we won't talk about it, we are crabs. Soon we decide everyone else is a turkey. Eventually, our frustration makes us think we can't cut the mustard, and we give up our pie-in-the-sky dreams of losing weight. Diets are just not our cup of tea; the proof's in the pudding. We can't have our cake and eat it too.
OK, I will admit there are occasional perks to the literal mind. I get a twinkle in my eye every time I see an advertisment for "men's trousers half off." But such visual delights are rare.
So until some major celebrity, perhaps Redd Foxx or Fannie Flagg, selects our cause for a telethon, we, the afflicted, must try to help ourselves. I'm doing my part. I'm saving my pennies to open a retirement home for the literal-minded.
It will be place where we can relax our over-stretched imaginations. All cliches will be decoded for us. There will be a skeleton in every closet, and we will eat off fashion plates. There will be no pictures on the walls too dangerous. A picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe we will tack up a paper tiger. Our grandfather clock will be an old man with a Timex. All the arm chairs will have real arms; the foot stools will have real feet, or perhaps feet of clay. And as for the end tables, well, draw your own mental picture.