Saturday, April 25, 2009
The Golden Laptop
I drove north on Thursday night with two laptops in my car. My company issued a laptop to me a couple months after I started as an official employee. The constant wait and oft-dashed hopes that today, today would be the day my laptop arrived on my desk meant it already had a name when it finally arrived. Elephant. Remember that episode of The Simpsons? Bart won a radio contest where he could pick an elephant or ten large. He wasn’t supposed to pick the elephant, but he did. He stood outside the radio station and shouted at the top of his lungs, “I want my elephant.” I wanted my elephant. Of course, when I got my elephant it didn’t eat me out of house and home. In fact, it kind of helps me afford house and home. I always bring it home from work. So when my trip home requires a four hundred mile detour through Wisconsin, my Elephant comes with me. But I wasn’t about to do much of anything with it. That’s why I brought The Beast. That’s my new laptop. It’s a widescreen gaming laptop that’s about as good as I could have gotten for less than a small mint. What matters, though, is that laptop that didn’t come. Dinosaur, Jr. My ten year-old Toshiba. The laptop I thought I’d never be able to do without. It was, I knew, inevitable that Dinosaur, Jr. would fail, but I didn’t want to see the day. So I chugged along with a laptop that was more boat anchor than anything else. I’d decided that I couldn’t write without it, though. I needed Dinosaur, Jr. My fingers couldn’t dance as well across any other keyboard. I still used Dinosaur, Jr. for a couple days after I got The Beast. I think I thought there would be some grand moment where that old friend would finally die and I’d reluctantly switch over amid much fanfare and great proclamations. What really happened was I loaded Microsoft Office 2007 on to The Beast. I don’t think I’ve even turned Dinosaur, Jr. on since then. There’s an old folktale. You might have heard of it. A young girl has a golden ball. She thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world and she and only she should be allowed to have it. One day she’s playing with her ball and it rolls in to the swamp. The great thing about myth and folktale is that the paradigms are inserted in to the tale. You and I, as the hearers of the tale know that something is about to change. This is the narrative construct of the folk tale. “Once upon a time…” the storyteller says. In doing this the teller has now placed you in the world of the story. “There was a young girl/boy/princess/prince…” the teller continues. The main character of the story is almost always young. The supporting cast almost always includes someone who is old. This isn’t ageism. This is the world of the story. See, the paradigm shift in the story is the tale of growing up, growing old, growing in wisdom. Stories progress infinitely through time. The old woman who shows up to give advice to the young girl at exactly the right time is also the young girl receiving advice from an old woman. In a previous story, you see, there was a young girl who received wisdom. She then enters this story to impart her hard-won wisdom on the next generation. Those stories compress. All the characters are the same. If you don’t understand that, watch Big Fish. It’s a storyteller’s movie. At the point when we learn the young girl is also the old witch and that in the father’s life there are only two women -- his beloved and everyone else – we learn everything we need to know about archetypes in story. So this is our paradigm as we learn about the young girl with the golden ball. We also know that it’s significant that the ball has suddenly found itself in the swamp. See, that’s why certain phrases find their way in to many, many stories. If a storyteller says that something happened, “After a time,” or, “They stayed for some years until one day…” what they’re saying is, “Everything fell in to a rhythm. Then something came up to interrupt that rhythm.” To that girl, though, the golden ball just rolled off, like a basketball bouncing in to the street. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred you won’t remember that basketball hitting the curb. That hundredth time, though, you will. Because that hundredth time is when the car nearly hits you and you learn to carefully look both ways before running in to traffic. So maybe the golden ball has been in the swamp before. Maybe it’s been there ninety-nine times before. But this time it falls down a hole. Oh, and there’s a frog. Did I mention the frog? One of the great things about the land of once upon a time is that anything can happen there. We don’t have to worry that there aren’t any talking frogs because in the land of once upon a time there are. For if there weren’t talking frogs once upon a time, that treadless land would have simply invented them. For they are there to teach us lessons that can only come from anthropomorphized amphibians. So a talking amphibian comes up out of the swamp. The girl begs him for help. He says he will help, but only if she gives him something in return. The girl agrees to this, for the same reason most people agree to deals. She’s greedy and selfish and incapable of seeing past her immediate desires. The frog, you see, wants to sit at the girl’s dinner table. He wants to sleep in the girl’s bed. I think we’re conditioned, by the way, by stories like “The Frog Prince.” This is a story we cling to. Wading through the muck and kissing frogs eventually yields a handsome prince. That’s the reward we’re supposed to want. The pretty, powerful Prince Charming (or Beautiful Princess, I suppose. There is no real “Frog Princess,” but there is the loathly lady. There’s also the reverse. Rapunzel, Rapunzel lets down her long hair to the charming prince. One day the old witch discovers that the sanctity of her tower has been destroyed and shoves Prince Charming out the window. In that moment innocence is lost. There is, of course, the larger question of why that is. What black magic is it in sex that turns Rapunzel in to the old, angry witch?) is what we tell those girls to look for. What of the conceit of the hero of the story, though? What if the charming prince had never happened upon Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel? What if the princess forever wanders the swamp kissing frogs that never morph? What do we do when that frog asks access to the dinner table and bed chamber and never actually becomes a prince, but stubbornly remains a frog? Anyway, this old tale is, I suppose, supposed to answer at least some of those questions. The young girl is supposed to learn to grow up, to take responsibility, to think before she makes promises. She is innocent at the beginning of the tale, playing with her golden ball in the meadow at the edge of the swamp. But she is innocent in the carefree, cruel way that only a child can manage. This, by the way, is something that we lose in the Disney-fication of our old fairy tales, stories, and myths. Peter Pan isn’t actually about Peter Pan and Captain Hook and whatnot. It’s about parents and children and how the child cruelly rejects the parent in their attempts to remain carefree and adventurous. It’s about the loss of innocence when Wendy grows up and can no longer go to the world of children. It’s about what happens when we promise a talking frog a place in our home, at our table, in our bed. The story exists in this tension. That dark, foreboding hole in to which the golden ball falls is maturity. So are the brambles Prince Charming must navigate to reach Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty. But even though you and I know that because we’re standing outside the story looking in, the characters don’t know that. To them a bramble is just a bramble; a hole is just a hole. The significance comes later. To me bringing Dinosaur, Jr. to Wisconsin was silly. Packing it along or taking it in preference to The Beast was, quite simply, dumb. I’ve no need for a ten year-old laptop when there’s a brand-new one that can do everything it does and so much more. So now I ask myself why I hung on to Dinosaur, Jr. for so very long? Why was I afraid of replacing it? Why did I hang on to Her for so very long? These questions are key in figuring out where my vulnerabilities and secrets lie. These questions allow me to grapple with my shadow. These questions lead me to greater understanding of myself and the world in which I live. These are the questions the story should be asking me and helping me to answer. These questions are why I’m here. I didn’t know that yesterday. Somehow I think I’ll remember them through all the future tomorrows.