Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Richard the Lionharted Showed Me the Way

For more years than you care to admit, you took your family life for granted, seeing in those worthies a wholesome-if-bland normality, bordering on the ordinary. You relied on reading, motion pictures, and radio dramas for the eccentricities, potentials for menace and perfidy necessary to satisfy your cravings for story, or to become performers in your own fantasies.

True enough, Aunt Augusta, your mother's older sister, was within immediate reach, famous in her way for not being liked by almost anyone.  Even her own mother referred to her as Der Schlong, the snake.  Often, when she came to visit your grandparents, you'd find your grandfather in his car, listening to news broadcasts.  When he saw you, he'd ask, "Has she gone yet?"

Yet even she did not seem remarkable enough to cause you in any way to consider your family or their friends sufficiently hardened and honed enough to take the place of the panoply of heroes, heroines, villains, and villainesses you came by with such ease in the library.

Your favored among villains was the baron, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.  The name alone struck terror within your ten-year-old self.  Ox Face indeed, Sir Reginald came close to being evil incarnate, his deathbed scene ever more poignant than that of a character you rather enjoyed, Sir John Falstaff.

Charles Dickens gave you a number of persons to distrust, among them Bill Sykes, so bad he was even betrayed by his own dog, and the crafty Fagin.  At the same time, you were glorying in the villains of the comic books, you were also taken with Long John Silver, from the Robert Louis Stevenson epic, and you still have fond memories of being afraid of Wilkie Collins's malevolent creation, Count Fosco.

To a great extent, you believed Leo Tolstoy when he observed how much alike happy families were.  Your own family, Aunt Augusta to the contrary notwithstanding, was relatively happy.

And yet.

In time, you began to suspect things.  Your suspicions were born from circumstantial evidence, fanciful extrapolations, overheard gossip, and the beginnings of your own life experiences.  Your mother had what bordered on a suspicion that there was always some hidden secret or scandalous backstory.  "There's a lot going on that we're not seeing," she was fond of saying of celebrity behavior.

Were happy families in fact all alike?  Only if you see them as such.  The consequences of that, of course, is that you will see yourself out of a great many stories about a great many unique individuals.

Could this have influenced your own growing beliefs that all about you was not as literal and self revelatory as you might have preferred?  You don't have to answer that question, nor do you have to say much about a favored pastime of yours, which was to watch people in action, playing what you called "The Best and Worst Game."  You would closely observe complete strangers, thinking the worst imaginable things about them before trying to reverse tack, then think the most uplifting, positive things about them possible.

Could this have influenced your sense of the inner argument each person wages on a more or less daily basis?  Quite possible.

A moment of significant learning had the effect on you of an Improvised Explosive device when--don't laugh--you discovered to your outrage that a historical hero of yours, Richard I of England, beloved of you as The Lionhearted, had been captured and became the cause of the expression, a king's ransom, when his freedom was restored after a payment to his captors.

In due time, you learned that many had suffered similar fates, many generals were not the military tacticians they were reputed to be, nor were characters in fiction and reality the paradigms their publicity imputed to them.

All the while individuals were being pious, thrifty, ingenious, and spiritual, they had considerable experience in the back alleyways and red light districts of the inner life.  Gregor Mendel, a monk in addition to being an acute biologist, faked his lab notes to substantiate some of his experiments.  

There was, you discovered, something going on inside most individuals, causing you to join up with the folks who wished through their stories to democratize tragedy.  Why not?  Working class individuals did not have to deal with the tragedies of the upper classes because the upper classes were writing all the stories, pushing the notion that the lower classes could barely speak their own language, much less could they read or write it.

With such things in mind, your parents took on a quantum shift in status, so far as you were concerned.  For one thing, they were heroic for having put up with you as long as they did, which, should you be wondering, was right up to those moments directly before their death, when they had other logistics than you to deal with.

In great effect, you've chosen friends, individuals you love with little or no condition, for the enhanced awareness of the unspoken fears they face, battles they fight, urges that possess them, and dreams that send them howling into the kitchen at three in the morning for a shot of milk to get them back to sleep after some dream has hit them with the Dolby Surround Sound of fear, magnified in the devious filter of sleep.

More than once, your friends have found themselves co-opted from their own dramas into yours, where their quirks and admirable traits are injected with the literary equivalents of steroids.  They are volunteer flowers and weeds, found in the cracks of sidewalks, in places where flowers would know better to grow if they were not indeed fictional flowers.

More than once, while sitting at coffee in some coffee shop of whim, you've looked at strangers, seeing them as potential protagonists and antagonists in stories, in your mind asking them, Which do you prefer, the heroic or the darker, more devious.  Then, you shut up and listen.

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