Caring about Stories in a World Hemorrhaging Empathy

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So yes, giant nerd that I am, I am on a Facebook group for Supergirl fans, who have been celebrating the relationship between Alex Danvers and Maggie Sawyer (Sanvers), and one of the members wrote:

“Have you ever been (or are) in relationship where your partner isn’t into TV shows, fandoms, ships and all this stuff? My girlfriend isn’t in fandoms. In fact, she doesn’t get being a fan at all. And the whole concept of being interested in for example an actor and having emotions towards them (like being sad when an actor dies) is something she doesn’t get at all. I’m the exact opposite. I mean I wrote my last school paper in 12th grade about Star Trek and just yesterday I cried again when I thought about John Hurt.
“I don’t need my partner to watch my shows with me but sometimes I get very excited about things like when Alex did came out to Maggie. That was so wonderful and important and I told my girlfriend about it but she actually got kinda angry that I considered it important to tell her that some fictional characters are getting together or coming out. Later I tried to explain to her why I think Sanvers is so important but she wasn’t open to this. She thinks it’s ‘just’ a TV show so one shouldn’t be too invested even if it has a good message. So now I pretty much avoid mentioning this kind of topic or getting into fangirl mode when I’m around her. Although she did watch the pilot of Supergirl a while ago and she did like it a bit (until it became to much superhero stuff lol).”

So I replied, “Have you tried a representation matters argument, like the example of Whoopi Goldberg seeing Lt. Uhura for the first time? Or Martin Luther King Jr. calling up Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) to tell her that she couldn’t quite the show because of fans’ negativity because black people needed to see her representing? And don’t forget the Bury Your Gays trope. Sanvers matters.”

She said, “Yes I brought a few of these things up but she just doesn’t like the fact that something like TV show does have such an impact on people. She thinks people should concentrate and be influenced by ‘real’ people and the ‘real life’. I don’t like it in general if people start talking about living in the ‘real world’. My world is as real as theirs it’s just different. I’m rather be influenced by the ‘fictional’ messages of Star Trek or Supergirl than the narrow-minded opinions of my real neighbors or relatives. If a positive message comes in form of a book by a Pulitzer prize winner people accept it but comes the same message in the context of a TV show some people declare it as trivial or non existent.”

I agreed and pointed out that people always disrespect popular culture, but once Shakespeare was popular culture, and the messages of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, etc. are valid. The stories we tell ourselves in today’s world are just as valid. Art of the people helps us process that real world that everyone is so fond of talking about.

Other people pointed out that part of the problem was her girlfriend’s seeming lack of respect, and I let them handle that part of the argument. My expertise is on the writing and story side. As I have written about feminism, post-modernism, fan (relation)shipping and other topics, including my list of Badass Women In Combat Gear™, a lot of these shows and the relationships on them give us strength for the hard times.

Another person pointed out: “I can relate to this, I really can. These shows, or ships, they’re more than just that. They’re an escape from our reality for a little while. We form an emotional bond with these characters because we relate to them on an emotional level. They become important to us and we become invested in them. Not many people outside of the fandom may get this but we’re lucky that the Internet exists so we can meet people anywhere in the world who can relate to us.”

Interestingly, JRR Tolkien wrote an essay on the importance of fantasy as escape, referring to the soldier POW’s responsibility to escape. He says, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

And recently, Owen Gleiberman in Variety had this to say about Meryl Streep’s Oscars speech16388352_257861987968285_2005729941804739843_n: “Roger Ebert, in one of my favorite quotes about movies, called the cinema ‘a machine that generates empathy,’ and surely that’s the essence of it. To watch a good movie is to feel connected to the souls of the characters it’s about. That’s why a movie doesn’t need to be ‘political’ to be a moral experience. That act of connection — of empathy — realigns how we feel about the world. The people who work in Hollywood may be wealthy and lucky, but to suggest that they’re simply a colony of ‘narcissists’ is to radically bypass what they do. Empathy is their art, their business, their mission. That’s why, at their best, the movies they make show us a higher way of being.”

 

So this is just a mess of not entirely unconnected thoughts, but what do you all think? How do stories help us?

Life is Beautiful — Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

More timely words from our pal Dina Honour. She is saying the things I can’t even, just yet.

While in Prague recently, friends and I toured the Jewish Quarter. We stood among thousands of crooked and wilting headstones dating back to the 15th century. We silently absorbed the names of the 80,000 written in simple script upon wall after wall. Prague Jews who never returned home. We toured the Spanish Synagogue and meandered through a well […]

via Life is Beautiful — Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

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The Rhino at the Tricycle Shop

rhinocercyclist

Well, today is Shakespeare’s birthday and possibly also the day he died, give or take fifty years, and in honor of the Bard of Avon, I am offering this poem written for Mike Allegra over at heylookawriterfellow for kindly drawing this picture for me. Some of the words even rhyme. And because this day also marks the beginning of Write a Love Poem Fortnight, it is a love story. As one of my sister’s exes used to say, “It’s spring. Love is in the air. If you’re not in love, you’re not breathing hard enough.”

 

Rudy the rhino was cycling to Judy’s house,

Planning to ask her out for a meal.

Rudy was psyched. He would wine her and dine her!

But all of a sudden he heard his wheels grind.

(Now before we go on, we should point out that Rudy

Was kind, eco-conscious, aware of his duty

To avoid fossil fuels: hence the red trike.)

But for all of his virtues, our friend is a rhino,

A big, heavy fellow. His trike was quite small

And all the wheels bent, both before and behind.

As he pulled into the tricycle shop and he stopped,

The squeal of the metal brought out Bertie Bunny.

“Oh, Bertie!” said Rudy. “Money’s no object!

Please fix my trike. I am late for my date!”

 

Bertie, laconic mechanic, wiped oil off

His paws with a rag as he paused to consider

The mangled Turbo Triangle detritus.

He sighed, “This will take me at least until Tuesday.”

Said Rudy, “Oh no! But my need is quite dire!”

Bertie pulled out his pliers and wires and a hammer

(His canvas workbag was really quite full)

And finally a skateboard with very thick wheels.

“Rudy,” said Bertie. “I hear you, my fine rhino.

But cry no more or your horn will turn red.

I’ll give you a loaner, my great lovelorn fellow.”

So Rudy skated off to his date with dear Judy

A little bit differently than what he’d planned.

And Bertie the bunny just sighed, “That was funny.

But I’m glad to do my small part. Ain’t love grand?”

 

Illustration by Mike Allegra.

Some Internal Rhyme for You Heathens

Don’t take it personally, Gentle Readers. A good friend of mine refers to both her two large cats and her college students as the “little beasts.” It’s a term of endearment. Enjoy the poem.

Jack+Beanstalk-2-300dpi

Nightview from the Beanstalk, with Moon

 

I.

Up here, night clouds move like an ocean breaking

against the beanstalk, rolling into charcoal

horizonless shore as if racing to discover new worlds,

ferocious and green. But there are no new worlds

left to discover. There is no green; only heavy midnight

blue indistinguishable from eternity. Without moonlight,

this foliage is primal, reaching out. Jack says,

Navigate by touch as salmon do, heaving themselves straight

upriver, up waterfalls, up to invisible sky. It is easy to see,

here in the dark, how explorers of old could

convince themselves of destiny, cousin to destination,

of a magnet star calling to the magnet in the breast.

Quest is kin to conquest. Scaling these leaves, helmed

ghosts cry out in seven romance languages, Devil

take the hindmost! and flail their way into the surf

of sinuous vines. Like them, I navigate by clutching.

The shadows between my fingers chime

in recognition. No new worlds. No, now

we colonize each other’s bodies, plant flags

between each other’s eyes. Look at Jack. Unlike most

men, who brag of the last woman laid, he brags

of the last giant killed, lectures long into evening

how the storytellers got it wrong: he never chopped down

the beanstalk, he merely greased its leaves. Effective

enough. I stall his rehearsed glory, resume our dark climb.

Another hour, Jack calls back to me. Until the top? No,

until the moon. He laughs at the way it sounds, as if light

were a place one could climb to, or gloom were a path

to a door. The clouds roll in with a hush like high tide,

leaving their moisture to lick my face, muting my voice.

In the dark, every whisper is loud, every motion

endless. The tangled boughs bend and sway beneath me

like so much black lace. I pry my fingers open, pick

my way blindly upward, always upward, among vines

slicked by cloud, scrambled by breeze. Jack murmurs,

We could drown in all this wet air, these beans

the hue of stone weighing us down. I am glad I can’t see

the ground, justified in asking to climb here at night.

The last boundary, Jack says, lies above us,

in cumulus cliffs of lapis and glacial white

bigger than anybody’s fear of falling. Close your eyes.

What does verdancy mean now? What does height

signify? If beans tremble, but the night wraps

so close you cannot see them, do they fear?

Jack’s right about the beans. Their cool grey

leather strands hang like bits of bone: malleable

and waiting to be fleshed and shoved toward

birth. A terrifying change, that fall into chill

unknown, caught by too many dry hands, ferried into

this netherworld new life of pangs and urges,

blown into a crêche filled with straw and destiny–

that word again, whose syllables encompass end

together with beginning, doom with estimated

time of arrival. If I mapped this altitude, with its

webbed stems and stone lessons, if I charted these blue

fathoms where owls glide, curious as dolphins,

along the prow of this beanstalk, could I soon navigate

through cloudwracked straits to Jack, to a hidden country,

guided by owls as dolphins once were known to guide

ships past reefs, stars past the dark side of the moon?

 

II.

The white tiger moon crouches, tensed, then lacerates

the clouds and peels them back to reveal a new

beanstalk: both compass rose for a map, and waterfall

of black marble illuminated by blossoms like perfumed

gloves, phosphorescent and casting their own light

on my face, on Jack’s, on village and valley below.

The beanstalk spills from this incalculable height, spills in

ribbons of black ink that pool and trickle into boundaries,

lakes and vales, mountains and rolling roads, the soft

spread of forest–all drawn to scale, all shining like velvet

under moonlight. Soft laughter trails up to us

from the satisfied magician and his dry milkcow, no more

than stick figures in the corner below, near thatched

cottages strangling among the beanstalk’s tangled roots.

Perspective lies. From a distance, waterfalls appear

to pour upward the way the eye climbs from bottom

to shadowy top in the Chinese painting of this night.

From where the magician stands, I am not following

but chasing Jack, tracing his path through a garden

of moonbrightened blooms, up one side of this scroll.

The tiger moon rolls down the hill of clouds, gathering

white, only her eyes still bronze and reflecting our ascent,

her whiskers hoarding starlight, her musty breath

foregoing Confucian Analects to whisper, “Catch him,

catch him,” in the cold breeze. Daylight women have

chased Jack on land, to dig for his gold and fawn

over his beans in the hollows of tawny dunes. I follow

without such haste. Like him, I am an entrepreneur

of thinner atmospheres. I lure him as altitude does,

sew silver behind the clouds, knowing I will reap it again

before dawn, before its white heat scorches our hands to

flinders, tempts us to turn back from this endurance

climb in a vertical jungle gone wild, whose malachite

webs, only dimly seen, stir me until I could weep

from unspent passion, from the feminine ascendant and

racing in pale light. Nightingale song fills the leaves, says Jack.

But I am the silent roaring gale of this night, and my

fireflies flicker and cicadas chirr like the finger cymbals of

a dancer whose limbs twine and untwine as this

beanstalk does around Jack, even in the slightest of winds.

 

 

Spilecki, Susan. “Nightview from the Beanstalk,” Sow’s Ear Poetry Review 8 (Fall 1998): 3.