Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Issue 10 - Is This The Real Life?

I sat, momentarily frozen, staring at the remaining bite of my slice of apple pie.

Its vaguely triangular shape and the patterned crust around its outer edge gave it the appearance of some majestic monster's ridged head, but was it more like a triceratops or the Alien Queen? I couldn't decide.

Suddenly embarrassed by my own thought process, I brought my fork to my mouth and the monster was no more. Peeking surreptitiously from under my eyebrows to see if anyone had noticed my temporary lapse of sanity, I paid the bill and hurried off to the cinema to see.....a children's film.

The cinema was already darkened when I arrived and snuck into a seat. The previews began; one in particular inducing uproarious laughter from my fellow patrons. My eyes now adjusted to the dim light, I glanced around me, only to see a room full of grown adults. The trailer we were all laughing so hysterically at? Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Yes, you read that right. Suddenly, my internal dinosaur/alien debate didn't seem quite so childish.

The main feature began. It was Planet 51 – a film so chock-full of jokey references and spoofs only adults would recognise (including an alien-shaped dog called, amusingly, “Ripley”), that I began to wonder what age group it was really made for.

Since that evening, a question has been bumping against the back of my brain, and I can no longer ignore it. The question is not, as it would seem, “At what point do we grow up and lose our imaginations?”, but, “Why do we grown-ups pretend that we have lost our imaginations?”

There was an advertisement running on TV throughout my entire childhood that had the slogan, “I don't wanna grow up; I'm a Toy World kid”. What nobody ever told me was that adults don't ever grow out of liking toys, they just buy more expensive ones, or pretend to buy them for their kids, instead.

You've only got to look at Pixar to see that fantastic things can come out of adults allowing their imaginations to run wild. (Where would the world of animation be without Toy Story?) The only difference is that, as adults, we have the ability, and therefore the added responsibility, of turning our imaginations into reality.

I recently saw Oprah interview Stephenie Meyer (author of the Twilight quadrilogy). When asked about her crazy imagination, Meyer commented that she had always “thought everybody was telling themselves stories all the time”. Oprah laughed and said that no, this was not normal. But I struggle to agree with Oprah. I truly believe we all have stories in our heads. Some of them get told – to others, to ourselves – but most of them are fated to float around up there for a little while and eventually be buried under a mountain of troubles. Or, more likely, boredom. Or paperwork.

Is it any wonder, then, that while we sleep, our brains have a little party of their own, off in Dreamland? Is it any wonder that, the more restricted and tedious our lives become, the more we watch TV? What is it that makes these things – Twilight, Harry Potter, The X-Factor, Star Wars, the trials and tribulations of Susan Boyle, even gaming, to a certain extent – so popular? Because they're about ordinary people getting to do something different. They are the classic tale of Cinderella re-told again and again for a world that is sick of being stuck behind a desk. (Huh. That just gave me a hilarious image of Louis Walsh as the Fairy Godmother.... Ahem. Moving right along...)

As a kid, I always felt slightly sorry for Peter Pan and the fact that he just didn't get it – he would never know what it was like to grow up, to experience life, to learn new things...But, what if he was the one that had it partly right? What if we've become too smug in our modern and professional existence to see that a bit of playfulness is good for us? Without meaning to go all John Lennon on you, what if we never bothered to imagine a better world? Where would we be? You can't get to Neverland without a bit of fairy dust.

As children, we all have that inner drive to play, to follow our dreams, but, as we get older, we push that aside and become embarrassed by our fantasies and random thoughts. Going back to the dreams can mean having to face ridicule and rejection because someone else doesn't buy into them, or see things in the same way we do. The fact is, some people can't see past the confines of their own, limited reality. They just see a piece of pie, and that's all they'll ever see.

We were never created to suppress our imaginations in adulthood; only to learn to use them for greater things. Every invention, every piece of engineering, every programme, every script, every charitable work, every book, every political ideal, begins with imagination. And imagination begins with a little freedom and a lot of humility.

Sometimes, it even begins with apple pie.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Issue 9 - Three Times The Bridesmaid...

I was discussing a friend's upcoming wedding with her when it suddenly dawned on me: I'm about to be a bridesmaid for the third time. It's a good thing I'm not superstitious, or that would be weighing fairly heavily on my mind.

It did get me thinking, though: where do superstitions like that come from? I can understand that many of them were probably, originally, just practical – e.g. walking under ladders makes you a prime target for beaning with a hammer; opening an umbrella inside the house is a good way to poke someone's eye out – but black cats and Friday the 13th? What's the big deal?

Wikipedia was no help, so I decided to do some proper research**. In true scientific fashion, various conflicting theories are tossed around as fact; ancient times and Druids and African myths are discussed; old, forgotten religions, misunderstandings and Biblical misinterpretations are sagely touted as the true origins – all of which led me to conclude one thing: nobody has a frickin' clue.

And then there are the contradictions. The number 13 is considered around the world to be unlucky. Again, there are various theories about the origin of this. (Some say it is because 13 is the supposed number in attendance at the Last Supper – the 13th being Judas Iscariot. Because of this, the Victorians considered it unlucky to have “13 at table” and the superstition surrounding the number developed from there. My personal favourite myth about the number 13 is that if you have 13 letters in your name, you will have “the devil's luck” – all because Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Theodore Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert de Salvo each have 13 letters in theirs.) However, in Italy, 13 was long considered to be lucky, and it was 17 you really wanted to avoid. Black cats are another problem. In Egypt, the cat was seen as a protector and was quite often worshipped; the Egyptians also believed a cat's eyes caught the setting sun's rays and held them safe until morning came. In the West, though, cats were associated throughout history with witches and, as such, if one crossed your path, you were in for a run of bad luck at the witches' hands.

It's obvious that, throughout the ages, superstitions have become muddled and mingled beyond recognition. So why do they persist?

As I doubt very much that there is a scientific basis for any of these beliefs (e.g. I'm pretty certain the fabric of Lewis Hamilton's lucky underpants does not actually have special properties that make him drive faster), I'm left to conclude that their powers, whether real or imagined, operate solely on the mind.

This conclusion is further reinforced by the number of superstitions attached to important or emotionally-charged events, like weddings. In addition to the aforementioned "three times the bridesmaid, never the bride", we also have doozies like "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue", "it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her dress before the ceremony" and "whoever catches the bouquet will be the next to get married" (I'm living proof that that one isn't true). Did you know it's the best man's duty to protect the groom from bad luck, and the bridesmaids are there to act as decoys for the bride, so the evil spirits don't know who to attack? No? Well, for goodness' sake, whatever you do, don't get married on a Saturday!

Monday for wealth
Tuesday for health
Wednesday the best day of all
Thursday for losses
Friday for crosses
Saturday for no luck at all

Of course, this is also an example of where, over time, superstition has spilled over into tradition. I'm not really one for following traditions. I often get vibed at for not saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.

“But you're supposed to do that, aren't you? Aren't you...? Everybody does...!”

Betcha thought you were just being polite, didn't you? Nope – the legends say that you must bless the person because either: (a) a sneeze indicates evil spirits leaving the body; (b) the heart stops beating during a sneeze and you need to bless the sneezer to get it going again; or (c) sneezing is a sign that the person may have caught the black plague and, by blessing them, you can hopefully stop them from dying. Funny, I always thought it just meant you had dust up your nose.

We all know the ones about breaking mirrors and walking on cracks in pavements, but how about these:
  • If you have a bad cough, make a sandwich with one of the hairs from your head (the bread must be buttered), feed it to your dog and tell him, “Eat well, you hound, may you be sick and I be sound.” I wonder how that would go down with the Humane Society these days.
  • A ringing bell means that a brand new angel has received its wings. Heaven must be getting crowded by now.
  • If you can manage to catch a leaf as it's falling on the first day of autumn, you won't catch a cold all winter. (Does this also work for Swine Flu?)
  • Dropping a fork means a man is coming to visit. I don't know who you get if you drop a spork. Maybe Captain Kirk. Or Eddie Izzard.

If you hold to any of these superstitions, at least they won't be much of a bother to anybody around you (with the possible exception of your dog), but there is one superstition that causes a heck of a lot of annoyance and bother to other people: chain letters. Honestly, the amount of chain mail I have failed to pass on should have made me the unluckiest person on the planet by now-- although...this failure could explain why my one true love has never declared his undying adoration for me. [Note to self: forward a couple of chain letters at first opportunity.]

If you're in the mood for testing a seasonal superstition, how about trying for a kiss under the mistletoe? It's supposed to mean harmony and fertility, and a young lady standing under the mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed, or she may miss her chance of getting married the following year. I have yet to experience a mistletoe kiss, but I'm told it can work quite well in lieu of a good pick-up line. It can also get you a black eye.

Whatever you think about the subject, you've got to admit that human beliefs and superstitions are an interesting kettle of fish, and the reasoning behind most is more baffling than Kanye West's continuing popularity.

Now, I'm off to conduct a round of experiments, to document what happens when you find a four-leaf clover whilst walking under a ladder, or when you place a hat on a bed whilst wearing a rabbit's foot around your neck. I have a feeling the results may be inconclusive, at best.

Oh, yes – and if you immediately pass this article on to 30 friends, you will have all your heart's desires brought to you on a silver platter by a tall, dark and handsome man***.

** i.e. Google
*** Unfortunately, Johnny Depp was not available for this service at the time of publication.