Friday, May 31, 2019

Reflections on the book "Good Omens" --and the importance of shared hobbies

The other day, passing the newspaper rack, I saw a shiny, colorful paper titled The End Times. It turned out to be an advertisement wrapped around The New York Times. It was for a television series (is it television if it’s Amazon Prime?) based on Good Omens, a novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

Of course, I had to find my copy and reread it. It was as good as ever, despite showing its age. (Who has an answering machine anymore, besides my mother? And between GPS and cellphone apps, it’s a lot harder to get effectively lost on the road any more.)

It’s the kind of book that has a lovely narrator's voice, one that offers comments on the proceedings, such as this one on the relationship between two main characters, an angel and a demon:

“The Arrangement was very simple, so simple in fact that it didn’t really deserve the capital letter, which it had got for simply being in existence for so long. It was the sort of sensible arrangement that many isolated agents, working in awkward conditions a long way from their superiors, reach with their opposite number when they realize that they have more in common with their immediate opponents than their remote allies. It meant a tacit non-interference in certain of each other’s activities. It made certain that while neither really won, also neither really lost, and both were able to demonstrate to their masters the great strides they were making against a cunning and well-informed adversary.”
Why do I single out this particular bit? It makes me think of several things: unifying influences, an article on friendship that I read long ago, and politicians.

I’ll take politicians first, since that is the simplest and shortest to discuss. Where the quotation reads “agents”, substitute “politicians.” For “remote allies”, “superiors”, and “masters”, substitute “constituents”. The result suggests the reasoning: “If you let me pass this bill, I’ll stay out of your way on that bill, and we’ll both get re-elected, after which we can go after the robo-callers, since they are universally detested.”

And that’s all I wanted to say about politicians. Onward.

If I remember the article on friendship correctly, it claimed that shared activities have a significant role in who your friends are—more so than shared interests or values. Sharing activities isn’t exactly the same as having similar roles in different organizations, but I find myself envisioning opposite numbers from feuding governments commiserating about long and pointless meetings, superiors who don’t really understand what’s going on, insufficient resources, and, of course, the poor work ethic of today’s youth. (That last is an especially safe bet, since people have been complaining about “the youth of today” since the start of recorded history.)

This leads to the third thing I mentioned, “unifying influences.” Commiserating about similar problems is one activity that brings people together. There are a lot of other activities people can have in common: knitting, basketball, cat ownership, video games, and so on. People meeting other enthusiasts want to know: can this person demonstrate a S-S-K (slip, slip, knit)? Can this person make a foul shot reliably? Does this person know why a cat might start pulling out its own fur, and more importantly, how to stop it doing so before it goes completely bald?

In the process of discussing these important matters (move this loop to the other needle… is the cat feeling stressed or itchy?), people have a chance to discover each other’s strengths before discovering each other’s weaknesses. We all have a mix of good and bad qualities, but perhaps we are at our best when we are sharing our preferred activities with others.

This is important because we have differing mixes of beliefs and ideological positions as well. If, instead of getting to know each other through shared activities, we start by mentally sorting everyone according to one particular quality—political party, say—we risk losing sight of all the diversity of character that exists. We also risk dismissing people out of hand without really knowing anything about them.

Now I’ve really gotten far away from the book I quoted—or have I? When I think about it, one of the other charming things about the book is the unlikely alliances that form.

Probably the filmed version of the book will be very different. Certainly the narrative voice is unlikely to be there, and no doubt they’ll have changed the plot quite a bit as well. I’m still looking forward to it, though. I think it could be really fun. Time will tell (today, in fact).

Till next post.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Reflections on "The Crying Game"

I saw the movie, The Crying Game, when it first came out in 1992. The plot twist caught me by surprise, as it did most people at the time (though not my apartment mate.) Since then, I have only seen the movie once or twice. Recently I found myself trying to figure out what it is about the movie that struck me and makes me want to see it again, since clearly it can’t be the surprise factor.

“I know you. You’re the kind one.”

That’s what Jody says to Fergus, one of his abductors, and that’s the line that always comes back to me, the core of the movie for me. Fergus is the Kind One.

Jody tells Fergus the story of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion begs a ride across the river on the frog’s back. The frog refuses at first, saying, “You’re a scorpion. You’ll sting me.” The scorpion responds, “If I sting you, we’ll both drown.” The frog thinks about it and says, “All right.” Halfway across the river, the frog feels the scorpion’s sting. As they both sink, he cries, “What did you do that for? Now we’re both going to die!” And the scorpion says, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature.”

Jody is more realistic about the likely outcome of his abduction than Fergus is. He insists that Fergus look at the photo of his girl, Dil, which is in his wallet. He gets Fergus to agree that if anything happens to Jody, Fergus will go and… here I forget the details. I think maybe he just has to buy her a drink, but maybe he is to say that it is from Jody, or say something about Jody. It isn’t huge request, but it would require Fergus to go to London to the pub where she works. And remember, Fergus is one of the men who abducted Jody in the first place. They aren’t even on the same side.

But Jody has identified Fergus as someone who can be relied on, someone he can charge with looking in on his girl. Moreover, he believes Fergus will not make matters worse for Dil, as sending the wrong person might.

Things go badly and Fergus ends up in London. He looks up Dil. He finds himself alternately fascinated, puzzled, shocked, and afraid. Keeping his promise has landed him in a very confusing and eventually dangerous situation. I remain uncertain how to interpret his relationship with Jody’s girl—I’m not sure Fergus himself knows—but one thing is clear. He stays true to his nature throughout.

Of course, this is a movie. There is a school of thought that suggests how real people behave has more to do with seemingly irrelevant details of our circumstances than with any stable character traits. One of the studies often cited is "Helping for a dime." People who found a dime in a phone booth were much more likely to help someone else gather spilled papers than people who found nothing. To take a personal example, I must admit that how generously I tip often has a lot to do with what happens to be in my wallet at that moment and whatever has been on my mind recently, rather than with the quality of the service or some innate generosity or stinginess.

Still, some people are consistently better to be around than others. They are like the frog, willing to help you across the river on their backs. Other people, alas, are like the scorpion. You can be pretty sure that if you are around them long enough, they will hurt you--even if in so doing, they harm themselves as well. (See "Words and Character.")

So that’s it. I like the movie because I like seeing Fergus negotiate situations and relationships for which he has no clear rules, all while remaining himself. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it—maybe twenty years—and it will be interesting to find out if it strikes me the same way after another viewing.

Till next post.

Friday, May 17, 2019

"You Need to Forgive Yourself"--why does this phrase set my teeth on edge?

In an episode of a television show I watched recently, one character advised another that "you need to forgive yourself." I think this phrase gets thrown around too easily and too often. Whenever I come across it in fiction, I brace myself for plot twists that may be saccharine or implausible. When I hear it in real life, I get fidgety. Why does this phrase bother me?

In the first place, it seems too facile. Has this person actually done wrong? In that case, do they really have the authority to forgive themselves? It seems that the forgiveness they should be seeking is that of the person they have wronged. Granted, even if that person forgives them, they have to accept that they are forgiven, which I suppose involves forgiving themselves. But the other person's forgiveness should come first, or at least be sought simultaneously.

Of course, the wronged person may not be able or willing to forgive them. I'll agree that at some point, wrong-doers who have sincerely done their best to make amends may let themselves off the hook. They should forgive themselves. But only after they have done their best.

In the second place, "forgive yourself" is sometimes the wrong expression. Suppose this person hasn't done wrong, but blames himself for things that were never really up to him in the first place. In the episode I am thinking of, another character said, "Don't blame yourself for things that weren't in your control." Now that is true. People do blame themselves, and feel guilty, about things that are not their fault. However, telling someone that he shouldn't blame himself and telling him to forgive himself are two different things. The results may feel similar--an easing of guilt (inappropriate guilt in the first case). But you can't "forgive" yourself unless there is a wrong to be forgiven.

Finally, there is one area in which "forgive yourself" does seem appropriate. As human beings, we inevitably make mistakes. We step on people's toes, say and do things we shouldn't, and basically mess up. Repeatedly. This tendency, as opposed to the specific wrongs that result from it, isn't our fault. We can't help being human. At the same time, it does lead us to wrong others. So maybe it makes sense to say that we should "forgive ourselves" for our tendency to make mistakes, even as we try to avoid making them and try to make amends for the ones we have already made. We shouldn't feel guilty for not being perfect. We should only feel guilty if we are not trying.

So maybe the character in the episode did need to forgive himself, as well as ceasing to blame himself for things out of his control. Maybe the phrase irritated me because I knew he also had a lot of forgiveness to seek as well--amends to be made, apologies to be offered--and that wasn't explicitly addressed. Given his history, "forgive yourself" sounded more like a feel-good platitude and less like a real resolution to the problem.

But I think he got it right in the end.

Till next post.