Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Alter Egos

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind. ~ William James

The use of an alter-ego has long been fuel for fiction, both literary and on film. Where would Batman be without Bruce Wayne? Where would Spiderman be without Peter Parker? Or, even Superman as Clark Kent? These superheroes would be mobbed, swarmed and be unable to function in society without their 'mild mannered' counterparts, masquerading as simple citizens. By having an alter-ego, living the 'normal' life, these superheroes are able to exist undetected by both friend and foe. They're able to listen to others, in the average world around them, and glean information that could prove incredibly helpful in their crime fighting efforts. They might have extraordinary powers, amazing gadgets and unique skill sets, but when it comes right down to the hard facts, being tapped into a social network has its benefits to their superhero lives.

One question has always haunted me, however: is it Superman who needs Clark Kent, or is it the other way around? When I honestly think about the fact of Superman just wanting to be a 'normal newspaper reporter', I have to smile. I imagine that Clark Kent would get awfully bored not being able to fly, not allowing himself to soar high above ground. I would be so bold as to allow myself to think that Clark Kent would not make it without Superman....and that he needs his superhero side to shine. After many people really like Clark Kent just for being the 'nice guy'? Not many. I would imagine that, whatever his protests to the contrary, Clark Kent likes being Superman. He needs to be Superman. It fulfills the essential part of who he's missing. The heroic, well loved, popular, successful part of the man he wants to be *is* Superman.

A film I would have missed entirely, had I not been the mother of a 17 year old son, is "Fight Club", starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. This movie is an amazingly complex story, containing twists and turns I never could have predicted. Edward Norton's character is much like the stereotypical "Clark Kent". He's nobody memorable. He lives a dull, meaningless life and has trouble making connections with people. And yet, he meets (or rather, creates) his alter ego, played by Brad Pitt, and he befriends his other self. Where Edward Norton is soft spoken, predictable, conformist and yuppie, Brad Pitt's side of him is brash, bohemian, dangerous and free thinking. The essential aspect of this movie, the piece I found so compelling, was that the alter ego is viewed as a clearly different personification. In a brilliant bit of storytelling writer Chuck Palahniuk creates two distinct lives; both belonging to the same person. This defining difference is clearly what delineates the character of "Tyler Durden" from his fellow alter ego literary figures: Tyler Durden does not realize he is, or has, an alter ego. As Tyler Durden comes to the realization that he is living the lives of two exceptionally different men, he says, in one of my favorite quotes from the film, "People do it everyday, they talk to themselves... they see themselves as they'd like to be, they don't have the courage you have, to just run with it."

The idea of having an alter ego is one that many of us have had from time to time. When I was growing up, I wanted to be Samantha from "Bewitched". I wanted to be able to twitch my nose to cast a spell to solve problems, just as she did. I imagined myself living in a beautiful home, having adorable children, but knowing that, at any moment, I could give my nose a twitch, and have an elegant meal prepared. (I never understood Darren's hatred of Samantha's magic, but that's fuel for another post). Although I can't live as a suburban mother, with a hidden talent, as Samantha did, I do find that being able to write as the Preppy Yogini does give me a hint of what that feeling must be a very small extent. Writing has been my creative outlet, my homage to the people who are far more intelligent and inventive than I am. It has given me my other world to explore....that can grow above my mundane life as a mom and a yoga teacher. I will never be Superman. I will never be Tyler Durden, with an entire separate being living a fantasy life of which I could only imagine. But, I can write hoping to become the embodiment of the traits I most admire.

I understand I will never fly like Superman, twitch my nose like Samantha, or create an entirely separate existence for myself, but I can attempt to be more creative, more inspiring and more thoughtful. I can hope to be kinder, gentler and more patient. By writing, both my blogs and in my fiction work, I'm able to work through all my own short comings, and hopefully, succeed more fully as a human being. If I can write it, I can attempt to be it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Changing Perspective

There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. ~ Carl Jung

There were very few lessons I taught, as a traditional classroom teacher, that were more popular as my unit study on optical illusions. Every picture looks different depending upon the view on takes. If one focuses on the white area in the illusion to the right, you will see a goblet. If the focus shifts to the black, the eye detects mirror images of faces in silhouette form. The children clamored to see both sides of the images projected. Their hands would rise up with glee, "Mrs. Stanclift! I can see them both!", bursting with pride that their eyes could focus on two separate images, all within one picture. Many of us have seen them over the years, not only in 3rd grade class assignments, but on tote bags, note cards and book covers. These exercises are wonderful for training the brain not to only see what our eyes tell our mind at first glance: we must also train them to look for something deeper...something from a different perspective.

As much as I tried, there were always students could consistently only visualize one image...and simply were not willing, or able, to deviate from that picture. As much as I'd have "Susie" or "Johnny" really focus on their efforts on seeing only the the white, calling it forward and asking the opposite color to recede, they simply were not comfortable letting go of their way of looking at the optical illusions. I'll never forget one of my students, "Maggie". Maggie liked to do everything right. She was my wonderful helper when it came time to pass out papers and was always the ideal of organization in both her desk and cubby. Her shoes were always lined up perfectly and her attendance chart showed an unbroken row of glistening, tinsel stars. But, when our optical illusion unit began, Maggie remained unchanged in her ability to only see the faces, never the goblet. When we worked on this, she told me, sadly, "I'm afraid that if I look for the goblet, I'll never see the faces anymore." Maggie's hesitation had less to do with her visual skills, than her fear of letting go of what was known and comfortable to her.

Great literature often takes the role of optical illusion to the realm of storytelling. As an avid, passionate, and voracious reader, I love books that challenge my beliefs and perspectives as I read a story. I enjoy being teased in one certain direction, only to find that the true depth of the story lies in much deeper layers than it appears on the surface. Two classic tales that personify this method, by drawing the reader in, bit by bit, as if winding in a timid kitten with a ball of yarn, slowly and methodically, are undoubtedly "The Sound & The Fury" by William Faulkner and "The Alexandria Quartet" by Laurence Durrell. Although both writers express and explore this dynamic in separate ways, these classics represent writers who were willing to take a risk and experiment with storytelling, using the perspectives of each character to keep the reader learning more. Just when the reader becomes compliant with her belief in the way events have unfolded, the writer changes perspective and style, keeping us on our toes, and making certain that we look deeply for the metaphorical goblet, letting go of the image of two faces.

A contemporary writer, whom I deeply admire and am proud to call a friend, is Dan Domench. His most recent audio book is both flawlessly and breathtakingly performed, and his literary style of exploring character perspective is refreshing and unique. Using a series of linked short stories, all read by extraordinary actors, Domench is able to draw further into the world he has created in rural Maine. Each character looks to an event with a different motivation and therefore, sees the stories unfold as they touch his, or her, life. And yet, without the background, ideas, opinion and mood of the various storytellers, we would be without a complete grasp of just how the climax of the book unfolds. It's a masterful achievement by a wonderful writer, but it's also deeply compelling. "Wayside Cross" should be held up as an example of alternative storytelling, not only for its highly entertaining prose, but also for its fluid narrative creating an entire realm of being, without narration....only by characterization. Yet, without being open to hearing the voices of each character speak, and allowing their own stories to educate us, we would never become aware of the full picture.

How often in life do we hold fast to a way of looking at the world because it's the perspective we've always held? How often are we told, at work or in life, "we do it this way because that's the way it's always been done"? And yet, by shifting our perspective to truly listen to someone else point of view, ideas, thoughts or concerns we may find our world rocked for the better. I used to be extremely certain of both myself, and my place in the world. And yet, I find that as I open myself to listen, just listen, to what an opposing point of view might be, my knowledge is expanded and my understanding increases. Does this mean I always change mind about a life issue, way of doing a task or moral dilemma? Not necessarily. There are times I'm deeply moved by hearing another person's point of view, even if I'm still disinclined to agree. Opening our ears and our minds to another standpoint does not mean our own points of views must waver with each word we hear. Rather, these differing opinions can help us shore up where we stand on an issue. Only listening to those who agree with us is not beneficial for lifelong education. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "We learn more from our adversaries than from our friends."

So, challenge the way you read, the way you listen and the way you think. You may well find that your beliefs hold fast. You may find your curiosity is peaked. You may also discover that you allow yourself to be open to an entirely new way of exploring the world around you. However, it's still okay if you only see the two faced silhouette. The Earth won't cease in its rotation if you simply are comfortable seeing the world one way. Life is an invitation, not a command.