Thursday, December 13, 2012

Two Imaginary People

Years ago I read an interview with a forensic pathologist who said  he had never gone into a bad crime scene, where he had to clean the blood off the walls and whatnot, in any place where there were a lot of books. It occurs to me that because books give us an escape even though we may be trapped wherever we are, they give us a "time out" space. People who don't have this have to stay in the pressure cooker...
Lois McMaster Bujold in The Vorkosigan Companion (p89 paperback)

“I am not… I am not the damsel in distress. I am not some case. I have to work this. I’ve lived in a cave for five years in a world where they killed my kind like cattle. I am not going to be cut down by some monster flu. I am better than that. But I wonder… how very scared I am.”
Winnifred “Fred” Burkle … while deathly sick.

In my everyday life, you are welcome to share my amusement that sometimes—ahem!—I think about imaginary people, such as Fred. It’s understandable. People have known since the Iliad and the Odyssey, since the days of flickering hearth fires and fairy tales, how empathy and insight, those two great treasures, are found in stories. Just so, in a first season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a nerdy vampire is quietly in a library: Suddenly he’s seized by the Master—as emotion-food! The Master tells his minions something like, “This one reads, this one has feelings.” When the Master wanted to devour emotions, he knew where to go.

They say that when A Christmas Carol was published people were stopping on the street to ask, "Have you read it?" Such is the energy of fictional empathy. Sometimes I feel wonderstruck at how, although of course reading and stage plays are best, and live action on the screen is second best, I have found that even painted stories on a celluloid reel can have a depth of power.  Just so, in “the greatest anti-hunting film ever made:” the movie where Bambi’s mother dies. If you know about anime (Japanese animation) you may know that some of it makes people cry.

Last week I was thinking about an imaginary person with a gold hammer "he got from his old man": Fix-it Felix, Junior. In the animated film Wreck-it Ralph Felix is a nice and friendly fellow; he’s even nice to the destructive Ralph, whom nobody else likes. When Felix travels to Sugarland he is no idle tourist: He takes initiative. Besides helping Ralph, he helps an army lady sergeant look for fearsome cyber-bugs. Such an amusing contrast: He is short, she is tall. The intense sergeant has a scathing wit like Shakespeare, Felix tries hard not to swear. In fact, Felix apologizes if cuss words slip out of his mouth that might hurt others. You have to wonder: Does he even stand a chance of getting the tough sergeant as his girl friend?

I know something about cussing. I’ve experienced people doing harsh jobs, especially manly jobs far away from the fairer sex, while saying obscenities. I suppose folks in a cushy office job, requiring less motivation, will resort to such words less often. I wonder: what would the scientists say about swearing? Aw, no doubt they have more important things to research. One of my fellow writers, George Orwell, who was both a soldier and a colonial policeman, speculated that swear words were somehow impressed upon, and connected to, our nervous system. That sounds right.

Incidentally, page one (or two) of the Canadian army leadership manual advises not swearing at all, recommending you save such words for a desperate time when they might do some good.

If swearing is connected to our nerves, if our swearing is our human default, then what about Felix? Easy: Fix-it Felix is a darn competent handyman who cares about not hurting others; perhaps this caring he got from his old man. Hence Felix makes an effort to rise above his default. Another effort: He calls ladies “Ma’am.” I have empathy for that. My insight stems from the questions: What does this behavior signal? And what does the sergeant think?

Signals are important. In the city a court judge, or a policeman, will look to see if a juvenile delinquent is scruffy, signaling his low self-esteem, low energy and low resistance to temptation. Right now, during our war on terror, extremists are looking for such signs to seek out new young suicide-bombers. Meanwhile soldiers giving “aide to civil power,” fighting against insurgency, will take care to demonstrate high standards of polished dress and deportment, demonstrating to the public their energetic determination.

Felix wants a relationship with the sergeant. In his eyes, she’s “a dynamite gal.” In her eyes, besides his other heroics, Felix has the strength to be polite, even when times get rough. Here is my insight for Felix: his determined politeness is his equivalent of always oiling his weapons and always polishing his boots, even during the storm and stress of a nation under martial law. The classic mistake of untrained troops and barbarians, besides their being slovenly and unpolished, is they think polite speech means weakness. “It ain’t necessarily so.” At the end of a hard day of fighting cyber-bugs we could all use a little politeness. So yes, Felix and the sergeant share a kiss.

Incidentally, my favorite example of politeness-discipline is when General Patton once grabbed a ride with a lieutenant and the lieutenant’s driver. The general took pains to respect the chain of command by quietly giving all his suggestions for making turns to the lieutenant, rather than directly barking orders to the young officer’s driver.

There is one other character I’ve been thinking about lately, on a TV series about Angel, “a vampire with a soul,” seeking to make atonement for his evil soulless past. On Angel there’s a lady named Fred. Everyone likes her. Skinny, plain like “the girl next door” and very intelligent, she also has—alas--mental health issues. It’s understandable. She was once in a hell dimension hiding from demons. She first had to escape enslavement, and then hide for years, knowing that if the demons ever caught her she would surely be their food. Inevitably she became a little unhinged. At last the staff of Angel Investigations find her, and they return her to the world. She too becomes an Angel employee.

Writer-director Joss Whedon has said, in effect, that while Buffy is about growing up, Angel is about having a job and making your way in the world. My little insight from Fred’s story is that if you can function and contribute on the job then people may overlook minor can’t-help-it issues. As someone (I forget who) once said, “We like people for their strengths, we love them for their faults.”

Anyone who reads enough would feel empathy for Fred: The lady who was so brave in the hell dimension must now brave a new world; the lady who once, amid her deep despair, treasured deep hiding places will never again despise any dark sewer; the lady who appreciates her brave heroes who rescued her doesn’t realize she is a beautiful hero too. At the end of a wonderful day, back in the world, she said something that strums my heartstrings.

“This has been the best night ever. First, there’s you taking me for ice cream, then there’s the ice cream, then that monster jumps out of the freezer and you’re all brave and ‘Fred, watch out!’, and then we get to chase it down into the sewers which are just so bleak, oppressive and homey. I—I could build a condo down here.”

Sometimes, I think about Fred.

Sean Crawford
In a 3 by 9 meter cabin
At the city limits at the edge of town
On the howling prairie
December 2012
Note: Feel free to comment: Who do you remember?
Down in the USA, costume festivals are held on sunny bare grass.
Up here, I love to see happy young people among patches of snow in my hometown wearing costumes for Otafest. The happy music the fans dubbed in is from the above mentioned film Wreck-It Ralph, during the film credits.

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