Theories of relativity


Thanks to the modern miracle of wi-fi, I’m writing this in a Starbucks, where the scents of burnt coffee blend in an orgiastic melange with subliminal jazz and the tinny patois of the three teenage girls sitting to my left, cajoling one another with tales of romantic woes with such frequent interjections of the word “like” it might as well be in, like, a completely different language.  I gather an acquaintance was at a young lad’s house overnight and the former somebody is obsessed with the latter, and another someone is totally getting engaged in Utah, omigod, make of it what you will.  Shards of October are littered across the deep sienna tile in the form of fragments of leaves hitching rides in from the street on clumsy boots, and yet, November is in full swing inside, pumpkin spice abandoned for peppermint, gingerbread and hot apple cider, menus and cups transformed to holiday red.

The espresso machine whirs and spits milk foam, and the girls are on to complaining about work now, and while to each his own, I can’t help but smile a bit at the relativity of personal problems – what seems disastrous to one person is laughable to someone else.  I guess the whole “First World Problems” meme is the perfect example of that; how dare we privileged few whine that our latte is weak when someone in the deserts of Sudan is crawling haggardly across the sand in search of a drop of water.  I read a statistic a while back that if all seven billion human beings lived at the same standard as we do in the northwestern hemisphere, we would need four earths worth of resources to sustain everyone.  I haven’t checked the star charts lately, but barring some unforeseen discovery I’m pretty sure this is it.  Kinda makes it difficult to justify getting mad at an inadequate supply of chocolate shavings on a peppermint mocha.

This week has seen some interesting developments in the political sphere, particularly as it concerns two gentlemen whose continuing success seems the embodiment of global unfairness.  First, Dick Cheney decided to cancel his trip to Toronto, where he was scheduled to give a speech to an economic forum, claiming that Canada was “too dangerous.”  This followed a report that a group of lawyers had sent a letter to the Attorney General of Ontario demanding that Cheney be arrested on war crimes charges the moment he landed.  Dodging small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on the way to this cafe, as I often do, I wondered what on earth would possess anyone to want to go see a speech by Dick Cheney in the first place.  Really, what was he going to tell the group of too-rich-for-their-own-good muckety-mucks ponying up for the ticket – how awesome it is to be wealthy and how the only way to become more wealthy is to screw the poor into the dirt even harder?  There, I saved ol’ Six Heart Attacks the bother of the trip.  But had he chosen to tread upon these allegedly too hazardous shores, he would have found his appearance swallowed up in the news by the Rob Fordpocalypse.  The two men are truly a pair of poison kings:  unrepentant bullies who always get away with everything because karma’s apparently asleep at the wheel.  Confronted by the revelation that the Toronto police have the infamous “crack video” in their possession, and facing calls by all four major Canadian newspapers to step down and attend to his personal problems, Ford is pulling the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and bleating “na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you.”  We’ll see in the coming days and weeks whether he’s able to hang on to his office, but if and when he does go, it won’t be voluntarily, no matter what consequences Toronto suffers in the meantime.  The man’s CN Tower-sized ego simply won’t permit him to express those magical little words, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”  Ultimately, that’s what the opponents of both men want.  It isn’t to see them flayed or doing the perp walk in irons (though to be fair, in Cheney’s case that image would be particularly satisfying.)  It’s wanting them to feel guilt and regret and shame and desperate wishes that they could somehow atone – you know, wanting them to be human.  Cheney is probably too far gone, but Ford may have a semblance of a soul left.  One can only live in hope that he will ultimately do the right thing, but I’m not a betting man.  (At least not if his serial-enabling brother Doug has anything to do with it.)

And yet, what happens to Rob Ford and Dick Cheney affects my life as little as what the girls at the next table decide to do about their next shift at the restaurant, or about the girl who’s apparently getting engaged in Utah, omigod – so why worry about it?  I remember an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation involving a telepathic guest character who was so overwhelmed by the emotions and thoughts of others that it drove him to near madness.  You can be paralyzed if you let all that stuff get to you.  Yes, it’s awful that Dick Cheney will probably live out the rest of his life in ease and affluence after ruining the world for everyone else, but there’s no sense in shortening our own time on this troubled planet by stressing out about it.  Nor is there much to be gained by spitting blood over the escapades of RoFo and DoFo.  They’re certainly not up late worrying about us.

At the end of Casablanca, Rick tells Ilsa that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.  Perhaps, but when you’re neck deep in beans that hill feels insurmountable – even if a stranger would look at you and scoff, wondering what the heck the big issue is.  Much as how while I might feel that what these three girls are obsessing over is utterly trivial, so too would they think I’m an idiot for wasting my hour writing about the travails of the former U.S. Vice President and the Mayor of Toronto, two men I have never met and will likely never meet.  At least they’re talking about people they know, people who matter to them, smiling and laughing and having a great time.  I’m the solitary soul typing away in dour silence about strangers.  Who’s better off?  We are all our own little universe, after all, we define the shape of that cosmos with our individual hopes and dreams and fears, and it is not anyone’s place to say that universe doesn’t matter.  That way lies the death of empathy and of compassion, of seeing others as human.

I eye the clock, drain the last of my lukewarm beverage, click save and shut down and slip the laptop back into the bag.  And as I head for the door I wonder if by some quirk of fate one of those young women ends up reading the post their conversation inspired.  Unlikely, of course, but you just never know.  Cold air touches my face, and I step onward into the street and disappear.

Exorcising the Haunted Past

Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.
Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us” – Magnolia (a movie I detested, proving again that flowers sometimes grow from a pile of manure)

I saw a tweet flit through this morning about how someone was wishing that just once, a character wasn’t haunted by his or her past.  At first it’s a sentiment one might rush to agree with, given the seeming flood in popular culture of privileged yet angst-ridden characters wailing to the cold, unfeeling world that no one can possibly understand the soul-scraping depth of their pain.  The impetus to scream “get over it!” in those instances can be difficult to resist.  But it’s probably overly simplistic to blame the trope of the “haunted past,” given that the reason it still functions is that everyone you meet has a past, and in quite a few of those cases, it wasn’t all smiles und sunshine.  We are creatures of linear time; our past informs the decisions we make in the present as we plan for the future.  The concept of learning is based on the notion that we must garner wisdom by making mistakes, reflecting on those mistakes and correcting them to be able to go forward.  The propagation of the human race depends on this.  How many of us are married to the first person we ever dated?  Do we not apply the lessons from the fumbling moments of that first awkward relationship to our subsequent dalliances in the hopes of establishing a permanent connection with the right person?  Yet admittedly, as company, we become tiresome if we dwell forever on things we once did wrong – if we live in that past instead of simply letting ourselves be guided by it.

In the creation of enduring characters, this is a tricky tightrope to walk.  Expecting an audience to sympathize with a perfect person who has made no mistakes and regrets nothing is a tall order, and few writers (at least those that are not perpetual amateurs) would dare try.  The problem is that most force the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.  Allegorically (though somewhat to the point of cliché) the past can indeed be considered a heavy load borne on the character’s back.  However, that burden should be in an appropriate weight class – if a perfectly healthy adult is going to moan about dragging a five-pound barbell around then they’re going to lose our interest and attention pretty darn fast.  More appealing are those who carry their pasts privately instead of on their sleeves.  They have a history but they don’t dwell on it; they don’t broadcast it to any and all within range and grab at every precious fragment of pity.  If one is to look for a singular example of this, eyes should wander no further than Batman.  Bruce Wayne is changed profoundly by the death of his parents and his inability to exact vengeance for their murder.  It’s what drives him to don the cape and cowl and roam the night skies beating the crap out of criminals for the rest of his days, on an ultimately futile quest to make the pain go away.  Note that what’s important about this is that he does something.  He doesn’t let his grief cripple him into inaction, into endless sessions of whining to Alfred about how the world is so hard and he just can’t catch a break.  Instead, he becomes the goddamn Batman.  Would Batman be believable, or even interesting, if he was just some silver-spoon-fed playboy billionaire with loving, very much alive parents, who decided to fight crime for something to do on Tuesday evenings?  Hardly.  The haunted past is an integral part of his character.  What it is not, though, is the entirety of his existence going forward.  This, I think, is where some may err, both in creating characters and living their actual lives.

I’ve argued before that characters haunted by a past that is never explained are the most compelling of all.  William Goldman makes this point in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? and points to a famous exchange from Casablanca whereby you learn the entirety of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)’s backstory, or at least all you’re going to get out of him:


What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?


My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.


The waters?  What waters?  We’re in the desert.


I was misinformed.

This works so much better than had Rick launched into a meandering history lesson about his impoverished childhood working in a Brooklyn sweatshop making mattress springs for a nickel a day, followed by his hard-luck teenage years picking fights over candy bars, the tragic loss of his first love in an unfortunate streetcar accident and his subsequent quest to find himself at the bottom of whisky bottles in speakeasies across Chicago.  Dear gods, I’m bored just writing this imagined synopsis of his life; how tedious a man would Rick Blaine be, and how swiftly forgotten by movie audiences, if he decided to spill something similar to Captain Renault?  By being evasive about his past, Rick keeps us interested.  His inscrutability makes his choices that much more difficult to guess, that much more compelling to watch.  Until the very end we don’t know that he isn’t going to take the letters of transit for himself and Ilsa and leave Victor Laslo behind as a prize for the Nazis.  It hasn’t been telegraphed for us by dwelling to the point of exhaustion on What Makes Rick Miserable.

The lesson for today, then, is to keep a lid on the angst.  The haunted past should not be a cement block in which the character is forever anchored, flailing his or her arms to get people to pay attention (and perhaps bring a sledge hammer to shatter it).  It should inform their choices but not overwhelm them in a cesspool of woe-is-me.  As Goldman says, play it as it lays.  It’s noteworthy that in almost all good time travel fiction, the character who has a chance to change an old mistake comes to realize that mistake is a crucial part of their life and that things are ultimately better the way they always were.  Indeed, we are never truly through with the past, it’s who we are.  However, we, and the characters we write, can choose how we wear it.  We can wallow, and keep pointing out our scars to passersby in the vain hope the lines will somehow fade away, but they won’t.  Instead, as we go forward, those scars can be our roadmap.  And with a good map at our side there’s no reason to keep it in first gear.