The gangly ginger boy pawing through a pile of little plastic bricks was neither a woman, nor black. He looked like a prepubescent middle-schooler and appeared to have been recently playing in a barbecue pit, his pasty skin filthy with streaks of charcoal and ash.
“Welcome home,” the boy said before turning back to his pile of bricks.
Mr. Dame watched him, digging around and selecting fingernail sized pieces and then affixing them to the yet-indeterminate structure before him. Click, click, click. The movements were slow and ponderous, with no obvious order or coherency to how the pieces were selected and attached across the superstructure — but it was too early in the construction process to say that it had all gone wrong. “What’s it going to be?” he finally asked.
“The London Bridge,” said the boy clicking another invisibly small piece into the growing mass, “I hope. I’m really not sure yet.”
Mr. Dame squatted down next to the boy. Despite his wretched appearance, the boy didn’t seem caustic or drunk or drug-addled, which Mr. Dame found reassuring. Just dirty. The child was, thus far, utterly non-threatening. The boy continued to click bricks into place, one after the other. His pace was almost meditatively slow. Mr. Dame remembered a little police station model his grandparents had given him for a birthday growing up a couple of years after he considered himself to be too old to appreciate such a gift. He had put it together anyway, suppressing his burgeoning adolescent ego for the few hours it took to assemble the thing. Watching the child, he realized how much he had enjoyed the almost sinful shirking of his “mature” self for a couple hours of directed play. The model that this child was putting together now, however, was clearly growing to be immense and insanely complex by comparison. Click-chik went the bricks, one after the other.
“So, um,” Mr. Dame interrupted while trying to make it sound like he wasn’t interrupting, “are you going to share with me the secrets of being a black woman that I totally missed in class today?”
The boy paused with a little tan brick in his hand and rolled his eyes toward Mr. Dame. “Oh please, dad,” he said derisively, “you barely even know about being a white man — what could you possibly think you’ve subconsciously learned about being a black woman?” He turned back to the model and attached the brick. “You should spend more time learning to be yourself,” he added as his eyes scanned over the pile of barely-different pieces, “before you try being somebody different.”
With a noted effort, Mr. Dame resolved to not feel insulted by his subconscious sixth-grader. “So are you hear to give me a leg up on learning to be a white man, then?” asked Mr. Dame after counting to ten.
“Something like that, I suppose,” the boy said, clicking another brick into place. He looked up at Mr. Dame. “Do you remember the fable of Iron John? Your AP English teacher tried to teach it, but since it bore no resemblance to your life at that time you didn’t learn it at all.”
Mr. Dame struggled to remember as the boy rummaged for the next piece. “The name ‘John Bly’ comes to mind?” he hazarded.
“Ah good, you do” — click — “remember.” The boy looked up at Mr. Dame. “Bly’s predominant concern was that men had lost the process of growing up to be men, and thus, well, weren’t. Anyway, you can call me Plastic Jack.” Jack rummaged about for another piece. “I’m not sure I can recommend Bly’s book,” Jack continued, “because while it is nicely focused, it seems derivative of and not necessarily up to the quality of Campbell. But he does make some points which could help you. Or not.”
“You’re the wise one here; what should I be hearing?” Mr. Dame asked, distracted by Jack’s voice: it was strange, but strangely familiar.
“Well,” pondered Plastic Jack, “Bly was writing last century during the era of the sensitive 90s guy, but he observed that ‘In this century, men have… characteristically failed to notice their own suffering.’ Which is to say that they had an over-adherence to their narrative duties and failed to take care of themselves.” Click. “Sound familiar?”
Mr. Dame realized that the familiar sound of Jack’s voice was just a badly-recorded replay of his own voice. And it was true that between his fiscal discipline and his assumed duty to be a good provider for his then-spouse, Mr. Dame had suppressed a lot of his own desires and in so doing stifled his development as a man. It had apparently worked passably-well for his parents, but it should have been obvious that it wouldn’t work for him, so that had been his fault. That the ex had then taken half of the paltry amount that he’d saved from her squanderings, however, was unforgivable. “It, uh, rings a bell,” Mr. Dame admitted, picking his words like shards of glass.
“But the good news is that this does bring us back to Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Jack continued with a click. “It doesn’t necessarily seem like it at the time, but you certainly noticed: Janie can only have the sort of wild romance with Tea-Cake that she does because of the money she got by surviving Jody — a point she barely acknowledges because she’s decided that she earned it. Now maybe in her case, she did ‘earn’ it by putting up with years of abuse, stuck on a pedestal but under a bell-jar” — click — “but how many women do you think get put up on pedestals and then expected themselves under a bell-jar instead of appreciating the vantage point? Bly refers to Marion Woodman’s The Ravaged Bridegroom: ‘Anger comes from the personal level, rage from an archetypal core… The rage in both sexes comes out of centuries of abuse. If it is taken into relationships, it destroys. Attacking each other in a state of possession has nothing to do with liberation.'” Click. “It doesn’t matter that you didn’t put a bell-jar over her; she believed that pedestals came with bell-jars and you did totally and intentionally put her on a pedestal.”
The clarity of the analysis shocked Mr. Dame backwards out of his squat and sent him sprawling gracelessly against his couch. Still, a fragment of the classroom discussion was able to surface: “But the bigger picture there is that if somebody is holding a marginalized identity at their core, then they’re going to always have a rage, not anger, expression as part of who they are. They’re always going to be able to fire off a toxic reaction to one-or-more stimuli based on their subjective experience.”
“Yeah,” the boy continued, “but to simplify for your purposes, if a prospective partner has man or daddy or woman or mommy issues” — click — “you don’t stand a chance and the hateful projection is going to be bullshit to boot.”
“Don’t you think that’s, ah, oversimplifying a bit?” asked Mr. Dame, pulling himself up into a properly seated position.
“Well on the one hand, yes,” admitted Jack while searching for another brick, “but on the other hand we’ve got a 50% divorce rate.” He selected a piece and held it up for examination. “Besides, if you’re not a psychiatrist then the only thing you really can do is oversimplify their complexes, right?” Click. “They’re called ‘complexes’ for a reason, you know.”
Mr. Dame considered this; there seemed to be a flaw in the reasoning, but he couldn’t quite pin it down. “Um,” he managed to object.
“The flaw you’re thinking of,” said Jack, picking out another piece, “is that most people are blind to their own cognitive anomalies because they live within their own minds: what is strange about them to other people is just reality to them.” Click. “So while the one-sided application of the analysis sounds wrong, it becomes right if everybody is responsible for doing it, thus re-establishing balance in how people within a relationship reflect each other. But only so long as people are willing to admit that their perspective might be corrupted by their complexes, which they aren’t, and even if they were, the critic’s perspective is probably also corrupted by complexes — just different ones.” Click. The boy looked at Mr. Dame with resignation: “To wit, you don’t stand a chance.”
Mr. Dame wanted to protest this point, but the divergence of the dirty diminutive form from the high-minded dialog wheedled a disruptive dissonance in his mind.
“After all, with you there’s always you, isn’t there?” Jack continued, his tone brightening like a pyromaniac wondering if all this butane really was for him. “Despite your ongoing success based somewhat in luck and skill and your resilience in the face of adversity, you’re stuck in an inferiority complex. You’re just a substitute English teacher renting this little apartment. Previously, you were just a history teacher owing so much on your mortgage.” Click. “While you think you feel justifiably better about your position in life than local artists and buskers, you feel inadequate to pursue the kind of mates — the authors, the professors, the anthropologists — you might actually want.”
“Right, but that’s why I need to get my shit together and make my life better,” Mr. Dame countered. He wondered why his subconscious was still pestering him with this nonsense: he was done with the past and getting on with the present, right?
Jack attached another brick. “Except that you have very little respect for your chosen vocation now that you know what all you’re up against and how little you’re paid to go up against it, and you have precious little time and energy to concurrently pursue an alternative path. Face facts, dad: you’re not going to be able to get your shit together like this, mentally fatigued and in constant fear of losing your job. You either have to” — click — “give up your job, or give up your fear, or redefine your life plan to something you’re not already failing at.”
“Redefine my life plan…?” Mr. Dame asked incredulously. “You mean I should proudly proclaim ‘I meant to be a poor single English teacher, substituting for somebody who’s AWOL sacking up with one of her students. I totally meant to do that.’ Isn’t that committing a Texas Sharpshooter fallacy or something?”
Jack shrugged. “It works for cats,” he suggested. “I think people are supposed to think of it as ‘Possibility Thinking.’ The Zanders mention it in The Art of Possibility, and Shawn Achor says that it’s a key to happiness. I think the trick is deciding that what you’re doing is awesome and then working hard to prove it to everybody else, instead of getting stuck trying to disprove your self-doubts. After all, even if you’re wrong about your doubts, you’re still wrong.”
Mr. Dame had difficulty with this notion as it seemed too close to self-deception. “Okay, so if I’m supposed to be thinking of all of this as awesome,” he rejoined evasively, “then why are you just a dirty little boy?”
Jack betrayed no perturbation at the loaded question. “The better question, I think,” he said, studying the model for an opportune spot to affix the little gray brick in his hand, “is: ‘Why are you just a dirty little boy?'” Click. Jack looked up at Mr. Dame, saw nothing that could hold his interest, and went back to searching through his scattering of bricks. “I’m just a projected expression of where you’re at in your overall maturation,” he explained. “My youth compensates your belief that you’re not taken seriously as an adult. My precociousness compensates your ambition, thwarted. The soot and ash smeared on my skin compensates your belief that your high-minded, degree-required, and hypothetically noble work is unappreciated and that you’re not even doing a particularly good job at it. One gets this way, trying to salvage sub-mediocrity from the ravaging fires of failure, you know.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Dame, wondering anew how much his previous hallucinations had been genuinely separated from his conscious mind. He recalled Alfred and convulsed with dread.
“But it’s not actually that bad,” Jack enthused as he attached another brick, “you’re just not used to thinking about it. Bly refers to it as taking the road of ashes, but honestly Vonnegut did a better job in diagramming the story of Cinderella. After the happy protections of childhood are lived through, there is a dejection where the no-longer child isn’t protected from the consequences of their failings before they grow out of them into successful maturity. The purpose of this stage is three-fold. First, the individual will learn that they can survive their failures which will enable them to appropriately calibrate their risk aversion for the future. Some overly-responsible people who don’t know the shallowness of failure are too afraid of taking risks, while irresponsible people who have never felt the depth of failure are all-too cavalier with their risk-taking.” Click.
“Second, the downward movement from their protected childhood into the ashes of their failure serves to calibrate the individual’s sense of better and worse in relation to their responsibility. When they are doing worse than they have been because of an action they have taken, they should realize that the solution is then to change their action so that they do better. Yes, Cinderella was aided by a Fairy Godmother or something, but when given the opportunity to do better, she took it and pressed it — the part where she dances was all her, unaided. Third and finally, if the individual is oriented correctly to time and to their ashes, then the ever-increasing momentum of the actions they take to do better will propel them to happiness as an adult rather than leaving them wishing for the level of happiness that they’d had in their youth.
“This contrasts significantly with Campbell’s recounting of the tale of the Prince of the Lonesome Isle and the Lady of Tubber Tintye. Iron John and Cinderella are about the difficulty of maturation that people ordinarily go through. But Campbell tells a story without ashes, noting that ‘the ease with which the adventure is here accomplished signifies that the hero is a superior man, a born king. Such ease distinguishes numerous fairy tales and all legends of the deeds of incarnate gods. Where the usual hero would face a test, the elect encounters no delaying obstacle and makes no mistake.’ Which is exactly what went wrong with Jamie agreeing to marry Jody and with your marriage as well: the romance was based on the seductive prospect of promoting the dream girl to the status of goddess when she only wanted enough ease to be more human, even if she didn’t quite realize it.” Click. “People fall into that trap all the time. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“That’s not the part I’m beating myself up over,” Mr. Dame fibbed.
“Anyway,” Jack continued, “the obsessively hyper-competitive behavior encouraged in students erroneously convinces them that any failure is fatal: how many times have kids claimed ‘my life is over’ in response to the slightest error? This is only compounded by the parents who use their children as fashion accessories and demand a steady stream of successes from their progeny to adorn themselves with. Overall we end up with kids like you were that were averse to failing rather than viewing a failure as something to grow out of. The sociological increase of ’emerging adults’ has a lot to do with kids living mythologically with the notion that they’re gods.” Click. “Which is to say,” Jack appended, glancing at Mr. Dame to ensure that attention was still being paid, “that they expect to be praised for sitting around and doing nothing in particular, while ruminating on how great it would be if society worked that way… like it did when they were three years old. I believe ‘infantile’ is the term usually deployed to describe such nostalgia.” Clack.
“Okay,” said Mr. Dame with grave uncertainty, “I shouldn’t feel so bad about my life being a failure and on that note everybody else should try failure, too: it’s educational and fun!” He considered this for a moment. “I don’t believe you,” he concluded.
“That’s because you’re still thinking about failure as a steady state,” Jack replied, “as opposed to seeing the flow of it as Vonnegut drew. You’re not supposed to stay in the ashes, but be charged to move away from them. Looking at Janie a different way, you were annoyed that she disregarded Jody’s work for her wealth — but Jody was, properly, her time in the ashes, and from him she learned how to look for opportunities and gained the capacity to pursue them. If she had been more honestly retrospective, she’d have stayed stuck in the ashes. Or, more correctly to describe her situation, stuck on a pedestal with nobody left to worship her, which it turned out wasn’t what she’d wanted anyway. The trick about the ashes, the trick about getting the three benefits of the ashes, is that you have to be able to retain some benefit of your efforts despite the failure to remind you where you’ve come from. Sometimes this is tangible capital that didn’t get expended in a failed effort. Sometimes this is intangible patterns of thinking or doing acquired in sports or humanities.”
Jack paused and considered his position. “If you look around me,” he said, “you’ll see that I’m totally surrounded by these tiny pieces. They are, in their current state, a failure of a bridge and I’m a failure of a bridge-builder. But it isn’t until all of these pieces are down around me and I’m in the middle of them that I can consider how I might gather and use them to shape something” — click — “really splendid.”
“So getting out of the ashes is all about seeing that you don’t like where you’re at, but realizing that you can use what you’ve got to change your position?” Mr. Dame asked, hoping he was comprehending the inflection.
“Right,” confirmed Jack, attaching a deck plate to the developing bridge. “Of course, that’s a difficult lesson to teach students who aren’t used to things retaining or accruing value. So I do sympathize with your difficulty. But it’s also part of the sleight of hand that helps them not see that Janie dumped a lot of her money on burying Tea-Cake and ended up going back where she came from. Her transition in the end was back into the ashes, surrounded by the probably decaying edifices of her second husband, long deceased.” Click.
“No, that’s not how it ended,” Mr. Dame countered, consciously trying to reject Christie’s vivid indictment of Tea Cake, “because she was both satisfied with her life and had collected the experience necessary to live on her own terms. It’s a happy ending.”
Jack smiled patiently and affixed an arch. He picked up another brick before replying. “No, it sounds serene. There’s a difference.” Click. “What she’s got is pretty much the impression that she’s had a good fill of what life has to offer so she doesn’t need to pursue it farther, with a spot of irony that she’s got her Grandma’s porch which she earlier disavowed. She had her happiness, but then it got rabies and she had to put it down. Now she has her nostalgia and her contentment, having gone from activity to passivity. This is almost indistinguishable from Gatsby’s belief that he could be forever happy just talking out his infantile fantasies to Daisy instead of going out and living them as he had been doing to attract Daisy. And while Gatsby is obviously screwing up his life for most of the book by trying to get back to the girl he met when he was in ashes (not unlike the Mavis Gary character in Young Adult),” — click — “Janie’s return to her place of ashes seems like a natural part of a cycle rather than her getting on a wrong-running track. It might be because it’s part of her identity.”
This rang a bell of memory: “Speaking of which, I thought you were going to be telling me about how to be a, you know, normal white man,” Mr. Dame prompted.
“Oh, there’s no such thing,” the boy said clicking two more pieces on together. Mr. Dame stared at him incredulously. Plastic Jack looked back up at him and shrugged. “Consider South Park,” he said. “You’ve got four white guys as main characters. There’s a fat white guy, a poor white guy, a Jewish ginger white guy, and then the normal white guy. But what does normal even mean? There’s as much normality in that group as any other abnormality — really, ‘normal’ is standing in for ‘no adjective goes here.’ To be normal is to be a non-entity, an enforced surface view that can’t be bothered with any of the interesting details. When Dr. Jung said ‘To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful,’ he was talking about this.
“Have you considered,” Jack continued, “why the stories and the dramas never bother advocating for normal behavior?” Click. “It’s because you people feel comfortable doing what each other are doing. If something bad happens as a result, you think that you’ll at least have safety in numbers. You don’t need some book to tell you that it’s okay to hook up with a boring accountant that you can take home and introduce to your parents. You do need a book to tell you that you might come through okay even if you take a chance on a questionable prospect like Tea Cake.” Click. “Admittedly, the odds aren’t great and some disclaimers to that effect may be warranted, but it is possible.”
Mr. Dame smirked at the thought of a surgeon general’s warning on great literature.
“Of course, Tea Cake wasn’t a real person,” Jack mentioned. By way of clarification, he added “He was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Another block was attached with no acknowledgement of the how strange the declaration sounded.
“I’m sorry, a what?” was the most suitable response Mr. Dame could come up with. He had always envisioned Tea Cake as looking rather like a young Orlando Jones. The thought of Tinkerbell substituting in for Orlando was difficult to work with.
“Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” Jack repeated, “which I’m sure you’ve seen; they’re common in romantic comedies. You know the set-up that starts with an introverted, self-serious, possibly depressed boy? Like in the movies Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Along Came Polly? Such a sorry, stifled soul needs saving. And so the writer will see fit to introduce a romantic foil for the poor boy, his exact opposite in her happy-go-luckiness. She will be, officially, a ‘bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,’ so that the boy’s soul is catalyzed towards its life-affirming salvation. This might be extended to mention that the pixie ‘may have deficiencies in various departments — career aspirations, common sense, awareness of surroundings — but compared to the brooding young man she has all the answers.’ At least until the climax, where a deep flaw in her character is revealed, the remedy for which is just a bit of that self-seriousness that we almost completely erased from the boy. Only in this case, the sexes are reversed: the broodingly soulful Janie is just waiting for a Mister Tea Cake, who she affectionately described as ‘crazy thing,’ to come unlock her potentialities and get her to embrace the act of living to its fullest — by which we mean recklessly.”
“But he taught her how to play checkers, and shoot guns, and they went to Florida…” Mr. Dame protested.
“…where he started by stealing her money so he could go gambling and ended by almost getting her killed facing down a hurricane, or a white jury, depending where you draw the line. No dad, it would be horrible advice to tell Janie to leave her wealth and status in Eatonville to go be a migrant bean-picker with some ‘crazy thing’ in the swamp — and Janie agreed on that point but went and did it anyway. But my point is that if Tea Cake hadn’t gone quite literally rabid — thus validating the shooting lessons using Chekhov’s gun — I’m sure we’d have had a lovely scene where Janie’s resilience and serenity was necessary to temper his gangsterish hooliganism. Just because he died early doesn’t mean that scene wasn’t coming.”
“Okay, so Tea Cake had some issues. How does that relate back to what you were talking about before?”
“It relates back in two ways:” Jack explained, snapping railing into place, “first, the manic pixie dream girl is the same thing as a boy-teasing fairy-tale princess, just debased for modern times. She is made to seem accessible, and rather than having externalized problems like a tower, a moat, or a dragon, she merely has ‘some issues’ that just need to be brought into balance. But remember that these are called complexes for a reason; ‘just’ balancing them is unlikely to succeed.” Click.
“The second reason,” he continued, “is because this trope undermines individuality. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t about race or gender; it’s about one highly-defective character holding on to another character who is defective in an equal-but-opposite way to achieve a co-dependent balance, but only as a couple.” Click. “Then an actual person reads or watches this and figures that they should supplement their own malformed personality with another person’s malformed personality, instead of doing the introspection-intensive work of actually developing balance in their own life.”
“So you’re okay with me not being registered on all the dating sites? Thanks for the reassurance,” Mr. Dame said, grateful that his subconsciousness wasn’t rebuking him for something.
Jack shrugged off the thanks. “I’m just looking to Erich Fromm,” he replied, clicking a pair of windows into place. “Just because it’s not a hideous symbiosis doesn’t mean that it’s not a symbiosis.”
Mr. Dame pursed his lips, uncertain whether to be annoyed or confused that his subconsciousness would throw up a filthy little boy that used his voice with a vocabulary that went straight over his head. “I’m sorry,” he reiterated slowly, “a what?”
“Two partial personalities abominably fused into one. It’ll come up again soon enough,” Jack said with a reassuring smile. “Regardless, in their reductionist and partial lives, literary characters are often reduced to symbiotes with their best foils, manics, pixies, or not. Avoiding that, however, is one thing that Fitzgerald got right: for as vapid and empty as Daisy was, she was honestly rendered in her inability to step into the role of Gatsby’s pixie.” Click. “But the real advice you’ll want to take from this — and it can be argued that Janie ends up demonstrating this — is that if you think you’ve got the ability to hold an unbalanced relationship in balance, then you’ve got the ability to develop yourself independently… and that’s what you should probably be doing instead. You can view the external symbol of the mismatched-but-balanced couple as a model for how you can try to cultivate more balance within yourself. Not that most people will, not until they’re walking away from the smoking wreckage of such a mismatch that fell out of balance and came crashing down, but even then there’s something that can be salvaged from the failure.” The sooty little boy paused in his construction to gaze intently at Mr. Dame. “You get this now, right?”
Mr. Dame considered how he had changed over the past year. “I’ve got higher standards now?” he guessed.
The boy sighed. “Well, it’s a start. Do keep trying, though.”
Mr. Dame stared at the boy and the bridge he was building. Plastic Jack looked a mess seated in disaster and really hadn’t really said particularly much about Their Eyes Were Watching God, but what he had said he had spoken to Mr. Dame: something from the past had to be salvaged, and then the ashes had to be left behind.
“So, uh, Jack,” Mr. Dame awkwardly broke the settling silence, “how will I know when I’m actually ready to try again?”
Jack affixed another imperceptibly small piece to the enormous bridge while he considered the question. “Jesus told people to love their neighbors as much as they loved themselves, which is an important lesson for vain and over-individualistic people,” Jack answered, “But generations of turn-the-other-cheekers have corrupted this teaching; now it is taught to love your neighbor instead of yourself. But if you can’t think of yourself as worth loving, then to have neighbors that love you is to have stupid neighbors. So, to answer your question, you’ll be ready to try again when you can love yourself enough to warrant also loving your neighbor as yourself. Until you develop that capacity for sublime love, any attempt at romance is just going to be a chemistry experiment.”
“And is that deficiency the other symbolic reason you’re a dirty little boy?” Mr. Dame asked.
“It was a symbolically failed chemistry experiment,” Jack chided, “But even though symbols look like things they should never be mistaken for the thing in itself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bridge to build and I think you’ve got some things you should be doing as well.”