Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Living the Myth

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms." ~ Muriel Rukeyse

"Facts don’t persuade, feelings do. And stories are the best way to get at those feelings." ~ Tom Asacker

"Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of all." ~ Hans Christian Andersen

Once as a weather forecaster in the Air Force I was asked for a weather briefing for a flight to Spokane WA. The pilot was a very distinguished looking Colonel. When I entered his destination as SKA (the 3-digit airport code for Spokane) he remarked, "Did you know that Ska means vulture in Tarzan's ape language?" I had to reply, "Sir, you are probably talking to one of the few people on this base who knows that."

Taking hotel reservations by phone, I once had an older caller who griped and complained about everything: location, the room type, price etc. When I offered his confirmation number it was a long string of numbers and letters, and he grumped about that too. For some reason I commented, "Yeah, it looks like a Captain Midnight decoder message."(1) At this he mellowed out completely and said in a wistful voice, "Ah, the Captain is dead now, but it's good to know someone remembers him."

The heroes and monsters we create in our modern myths reach deep into our minds and affect lives in a real way. I've heard from dozens of people whose morals were shaped more by Superman, Spider-man, Doc Savage, Sam Spade and the like than by any number of Sunday sermons.

The most obvious example is the Star Trek subculture, and not just the fan groups or the Las Vegas attraction. There is the story of the sick child whose remission was helped by believing that a pet "tribble" depended on the child's life energy to survive. The naming of the first space shuttle ENTERPRISE(2), cellphones designed after Trek's Communicators, and the many NASA scientists and technicians whose careers were inspired by the series are a few examples. Even Stephen Hawking, the genius quantum physicist who said "My goal is simple. It is the complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all," and the only person to play himself on STAR TREK was a fan.(3) STAR TREK also made an impact on society with television's first interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lt Uhura in the 60s episode "Plato's Stepchildren." We take it for granted today, but it was pioneering so few decades ago. (4)

Popeye has something in common with Captains Kirk and Picard: they are all modern takes on the myths of Odysseus and Jason. Popeye in his original comic strip form was a sailor to far lands and strange encounters with creatures like the Jeep and the Goons(5). And if Tarzan was zen, Popeye had to be a profoundly enlightened being with "I yam what I yam, an' that's all what I yam." But he has inspired people in other ways. An internet acquaintance of mine has a disability called Hypokalemic Periodic Paralysis.

"I eat cans of spinach. The Potassium in the Spinach makes me visibly and actively stronger, because my disability is affected by my Potassium levels.
"(The condition is) caused by Ion Channel DNA mutations... Ion Channels are what determine if you can control your muscle status. When they malfunction, your muscles may become ridgid, flacid, or switch between the two states rapidly uncontrollably.
"I wish I could ask the creator of Popeye if he experienced symptoms like my disability and found that Spinach made him feel better... (6)
"Me: Sitting in a chair unable to stand and barely able to move my hands, eat Spinach, bounce out of chair and go play Ping Pong really well for a few minutes, and then go back to being weak until I have something else with Potassium.
"Anyways, I swear I saw Popeye cartoons like this just with him not being so weak.
Overall Popeye inspired me to eat my Spinach and that is what good Heroes do!"

Gloria Steinem, the founder of modern feminism, read comic books as a child but was dismayed at thje superheroes who solved everything with violence. She wrote:
"I am happy to say that I was rescued from this plight at about the age of seven or eight, rescued (Great Hera!) by a woman ... she was beautiful, brave, and explictly out to change 'a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men.' She was Wonder Woman.
"Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values ... that feminists are now trying to introduce: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women, peacefulness and esteem for human life."

A lot of young women have found a role model in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a recent interview on NPR, 17 year old Brittany LaBrake said, "I just really loved to watch it 'cause of her story and how she's such a strong person, she's like 15 years old and had to be a Slayer, had to give up her social life so she could fight vampires and save the world ... She had a lot on her plate at a young age and I feel like that's basically my story too." She wasn't talking about slaying monsters, but dealing with three siblings and irresponsible parents. "I just feel like her story is kinda like my story."

In the British census of 2001, 390,000 people across England and Wales listed their religion as "Jedi." Yes, it was an organized campaign and some people did it just to annoy the government, and it didn't have the intended effect of making Jedi an official religion, but it reveals the hold that our modern myths, and their nondogmatic spiritual ideas, can have.

Us geeks who love comics and movies and science fiction and fantasy may have the basis for a secular spirituality that may be better for us than all the churches in the world. After all, we have one major advantage over organized religions: We know our myths aren't real.

(1) Captain Midnight was a 1930s-40s radio hero who sent kids who listened a Secret Squadron decoder ring for Ovaltine labels; then broadcast messages in code with clues to his next episode.
(2) Which backfired on the fans who wrote NASA to name it. The ENTERPRISE was a prototype that never went to into space.
(3) On a tour of the set, when Hawking passed the warp drive engines, he commented, "I'm working on that."
(4) The series has been less successful at introducing gay characters. Although creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to, the networks refused. They used allusions and parables involving asexual, tri-sexual, and gender-bending aliens, but never got to just dropping gay crewmembers into the cast, like Rickie on MY SO-CALLED LIFE, and accepting them without making an issue of it.
(5) And in fact introduced those words into the English language. The original jeep was a GP (general purpose) vehicle that could go anywhere, so that soldiers nicknamed it jeep after Eugene the Jeep in Popeye, who could teleport and walk through walls, and go anywhere. Alice the Goon and her people were big, burly and scary-looking.
(6) Which is possible. EC Segar had an undiagnosed long time illness and died of liver disease. PP was not well known then, and diagnosis overlap is known with a condition that can affect the liver.

No comments: