Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Role Playing Game

I saw a little friend of mine the other day. A little boy. An only child. I was surprised to learn that he doesn't like to watch kids' movies. His Mom told me that he gets very upset when people turn out to be bad.

I think there are always roles in the kids' movies where good seeming people turn out bad, or bad seeming people turn out good for that matter. But he's OK with live actors on stage playing bad people. I speculated that he must be able to see that these are real people acting, and that they are not really bad.

But, you know, I also know that little kids - far less little than you might think - can be easily fooled into believing that a single real person is actually two different people depending on the act. You don't even need to make it obvious by using the classic cues for villain and hero, or even for cultural shifts.

I used to teach Chinese to little kids. I'd had no particular training for this when I started - I had been trained in teaching Chinese, but not in teaching little kids. But I did have a fair amount of experience with young children, from volunteer work during high school and in college. I'd done some baby-sitting. I wasn't good at wielding authority, but I was OK with getting some connection going. I even did a stint in college in a seminar on early childhood education. So I wasn't totally raw.

But on my very first day on the job, which happened to be the Kindergarten teacher's first day also, I came in, burnished by some kind of OK Yalie hotshot let's see what you've got reputation, and there was no way I could be prepared for what seemed dozens of noisy kindergärtners all piling up around me. Their teacher desperately needed a break by the time that I showed up, and so it was just me and them.

Spontaneously, I think, from a kind of panic, or maybe it was over the course of a few fiasco classes, I learned that I could get their attention by explaining about my Chinese friend who was waiting outside the classroom for them to quiet down. I would explain what he would be doing, what he would be talking about if they would just let him come in; what kind of words he would be using, and that I would go get him if they would just be quiet. We got a kind of conspiracy going, me and those kids.

I'd tell them also that I would be coming back afterward to find out what he'd taught them. What he'd done, and how he'd acted. (I'd also be asking him how they'd acted. I wasn't going to be around to be their guide. I wanted them to figure it out by themselves, and then tell me about it.)

And so, I'd go out of the room and change my sweater. I had some kind of "Chinaman sweater," which was a Mr. Rogers sweater I think,and nothing Chinese about it. But I'd come back into the room speaking only Chinese.

At first they'd try to yell at me that they "knew who I really was", or at least the smart ones did. But I didn't understand a word they said. And pretty soon they would drop that line.

It worked! Both as a way to keep control and as a way to teach a little bit of actual Chinese. I think I used it with the older kids too. But the younger ones would tell me later, after they'd grown up a bit, that they really did believe that there were two different people. One Mr. Harrington, and one Mr. He.

I guess they learned to believe the illusion, because I don't think I fooled anyone at the outset. They must have taken cues from each other, and eventually the center of gravity for certainty got shifted.

Now I don't want to be critical of anyone, but my little friend is an only child, and so naturally his parents do things like using a safety harness when they take him skiing. I have little girls - well not so little any more - but when I would watch the kids on the safety harnesses from up in the chairlift it would always make me sad, and I even told them so.

Maybe it made me sad because it depicted me, always striving to escape, always held back by loving fears for me. Maybe it just made me feel sad, and I can't begin to explain why. I took my girls down the hill between my legs, I think, and then at some point I just let them go, and it wasn't always pretty. I did lots of terrified body English up at the top, or speeding down to catch them up, but they did learn to turn and stop.

But those harnesses always made me sad, somehow. Maybe it was because it was a rehearsal of the impossibility to keep anybody safe from the truth that they never will be safe unless they learn discernment on their own? Maybe because the letdown will be that much harder, and I'm sadded by their attachment to some illusion?

Maybe it's sad to me that they will be so disappointed when they find out that Mommy and Daddy were only protecting themselves, and that the child was always on his own? Always doing what he should do because it makes Mommy and Daddy happy.

Somewhere there is a role reversal, and it just makes me sad. Kids shouldn't have to worry so much about their parents' happiness. Kids learn quickly who the harness is for. Some kids beg for it. Some beg to be out of it. Some do as they're told.

Caricatures up on the screen are always this or that. Cartoons are always, well cartoonish in their distinctions of good from bad. On stage, sometimes, it can help to wear a mask. The more sophisticated movies now keep you guessing, right up until the end, which is the villain and which the hero. As if the entire plot would fail if you were to guess it ahead of time. Or like on that great TV show House, where he plays the edge of mean and they, the co-actors, play the audience wondering also if mean is not secretly nice. We wonder if the most important lessons are always the toughest to deliver. Because you'd do anything to avoid being the one who has to deliver tough lessons. Better dress up as the bad guy and let them think they figured it out all on their own.

I think there must be no more jarring thing than to awaken to realize that the person you thought had loved you has betrayed you. That the person you'd thought was being mean was doing it for your own good. Finding the balance is tough, though, with so many of us just passing down abuse because we ourselves were yelled at more than loved. And so when our bosses just act mean, we don't know if this is a good way to kick us from our torpor or just some habitual power-play learned by heart in some church. You must do as I say or you can and likely will just go to hell.

Sometimes the fiction delivers more truth than what's real. Sometimes what's real is easier to take than the fiction, especially when it gets doled out painlessly, over time. Sometimes the difference is impossible to tell, and the only important thing is that the message gets delivered. That the learning happens. That the kids get what they want, which is to be listened to, as well as to be given lessons.

After the fact, after we went skiing, after we left behind my tearful little friend who'd really really wanted to come along except that dark skiing is big people skiing which I probably shouldn't have said. After I re-realized some actual joy in the grace of dancing down the slopes which I never could do as a kid because then it was all about technique, and I was far from the greatest. But now I don't care so much anymore. The moves come from some memory which must be better than the truth, because, in truth, I was a pretty clutsy nerdy dancer too.

It's a body memory, I guess, of a bodily fiction which I won't be held accountable for anymore as an old guy. I can pretend I used to have the moves. But after the fact, when I was telling my doctor with some guilt how I'd driven over an hour and a half there, and still more again driving back; the guilt was because we were discussing my blood clotting factors, and the supposition when you get an embolism to the lungs is that it must have started from pooling in the legs which usually comes from sitting too long in cars or on planes.

But no, he wasn't bothered by that because I'm taking the rat poison which will prevent those clots. No, he was bothered by my skiing, which I'd felt so proud of, you know, like a kid, since it was such a good first step toward better health.

But the perverse thing about clotting problems is that they urge you to eat stuff which your high cholesterol warnings warn you against, and then you can't risk falling because your insides might bleed out. Of course I could slip on ice while walking, especially if and as I get still more out of shape. I could have a crash while driving. I did almost fall while skiing, but had enough strength and wit to recover. Could it really have been that disastrous?

I'm not really wanting to loose that harness from the good doctor's good advice. That's not my point. I'm not wanting anybody to stop using safety harnesses either. That's not my point.

I can't account for my reaction at seeing those kids on harnesses. It just doesn't look like love to me. It probably is love, but it doesn't look like it to me. And I really would like to know how it is that I'm going to be able to recapture that simple pleasure at dancing down the hill in perfect absence of any awareness that what I was doing could in any way be life threatening.

I think there's nothing wrong in trusting a role, well played. I think there is no unvarnished truth, no unmasked authentic self, no perfect being that is not at the same time acting. And yes, Virginia, I think there is no God either, other than the one who is used to trick us into paying attention. Abused by men, usually, into deployments of fear so that we will trust them as they abuse us. And I don't mean in all the obvious ways. Very very few of us do that.

But in that case, in the case of God, remove the mask and there is nothing there. Nothing at all but audience, still in rapt attention, but having to pay attention to one another now, co-creators of illusion. Is that so very bad then? There's not a person on the planet who doesn't love House. How could you not? Especially as he has the sense not to want or need your love at all. Especially as the plot disclaims the obvious in layer over layer replayings of the same story, microcosmed out. But that's the way it is now with art. You have to be pounded over the head with it to see anything at all. Or you won't even watch in the first place. Over and out.

(Oh, I'll be back tomorrow. That was just your cue to get a word in edgewise.)

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