Saturday, September 07, 2002

Why do we follow celebrity romances?

The pictures and articles papering the checkout stands wouldn't be there if they didn't entice buyers. What makes the pairings and severings of people we've never met so interesting to so many?

Strangely enough, this is another question I've been considering for a while.

My earliest theory was that famous faces replaced the community gossip we would have known if we spent our lives in small stable communities. If the human mind is adapted to knowing a tribe well, following the relationships of neighbors throughout their lives, and using them as guides to forming their own relationships, perhaps as we began to live in large, frequently remixing communities, we sought other models to follow. Celebrities provided lives visible from wherever we might be living. The intensity of their images, shown larger than life and in the situations of heightened meaning and drama of their performances, replaced the more frequent but less interesting spectacle of having life long neighbors. Because they were in stories that compress time and images composed to have a greater impact, we gained the illusion of knowing them better than we do. And thus they felt like our neighbors. And thus they offered the relationship models we no longer had neighbors close enough and long enough to observe.

As evidence, I can only offer the dream I once had of being invited to a backyard barbecue with Tom and Nicole. I let myself in the garden gate. Nicole dished out the potato salad, and Tom tended the grill, while the kids dashed about within the picket fence. My mind had encoded Tom and Nicole as my neighbors.

My more recent theory is that we hunger for passion. The movies feed this hunger, with images of overwhelming, life transforming love. If we took a census of movie characters and compared it with a census of the United States, we would find that people in the movies are in vast disproportion more often young and in love -- especially the characters that matter, as evidenced by being more often onscreen and central to the stories. Our own lives feature youth and new love much less often. Our friends and acquaintances lead lives generally more calm than passionate. So we look to actors, these known faces who express emotion for a living, to see that someone, somewhere, is living the passion the movies have led us to expect.

Does the work of acting, inhabiting and letting show characters' thoughts and feelings, make one's own emotions more volatile and likely to be expressed? Or does the way we learn about celebrities' lives exaggerate their intensity? Or are our acquaintances veiling their passions?

I expect I'll have another theory another day. I feel one struggling to coalesce.

And both these theories are true. For some part of me, some part of the time, and so, I hope, for some of you.

My best wishes to all,
Anna Paradox

Friday, September 06, 2002

I've been reading other blogs today. Here is the Emerald City WorldCon Report. Also quite impressed with Wil Wheaton Dot Net. And of course, Neil Gaiman's journal at was my entry into the whole web journal world.

It's remarkable that people are pouring their vision onto the web. The easy words of the current moment have an authenticity even memory reshaped autobiography cannot have. Word by word, reality delivered from behind someone else's eyes. Other viewpoint's voices offering the experience of another world. The distinct islands that are individual personalities framing and overlaying my own universe. Generous, these pourings of self in words onto the web, making bridges in language.

My thanks to the other bloggers. Your truths are gifts.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

The other day, just kidding around, someone asked me, "What is the meaning of life?"

Didn't get a chance to answer.

Surprisingly enough, I know.

The question is a little misleading. There is no one meaning of life for everyone. Making meaning is one of the things people do, and people make meaning out of different things: raising a family, loving and being loved, teaching children, singing songs, getting revenge, gaining freedom or equality or a decent standard of living, building bridges, serving your God, easing pain, winning races, buying a yacht, ending hunger, exploring space, healing minds, killing enemies, outdoing the Joneses, saving the redwoods, saving the whales, studying DNA, policing the streets, being famous, doing a good day's work, helping others, finally getting that promotion, reaching the top of the charts, getting high, making sexual conquests, dying bravely. People have made meaning out of all this and more.

Not that all these goals are equal.

Whatever other differences there may be, notice this. Some of these goals, if one person achieves them, no one else can. Some of these goals improve the lives of many, some only for a few, some for only the one who holds them and perhaps not even that one. Some can be achieved once and for all (and then what?), some always lead you farther on. Some leave a legacy, and some are evanescent.

So, if you find your life meaningless, find a goal and give it meaning. (I won't say choose a goal -- the heart has inclinations about what it can give meaning, and your effort will be much harder if you go against them.) Better it be one that is non-exclusive, improves more lives than your own, and leaves a legacy.

After all, isn't that the meaning of good works?

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

I'm beginning to think that there have been more fictional cases of amnesia than real ones.

Not that I blame the writers. Amnesia is a brilliant device. What is identity? How do you know who you are if you can't remember?

Americans move frequently. Our identity is not tracked by our neighbors, as it would be in small and more stable towns. These days, electronic reports follow us. Credit records, lists of traffic infractions -- somehow these seem to leave out the essentials of a person. Even if you have one of those supermarket club cards, tracking your grocery buys, your personality -- what is essentially you -- may not be contained in analysis of your purchases. There has to be more.

In many amnesia stories, the protagonist loses his or her memory and becomes a better person. This has to be reassuring -- we don't want to think that when the skill that makes someone a doctor or the shared past that held a relationship has gone there is nothing to replace it.

And, your identity makes a compelling MacGuffin. If it's lost, what is more urgent than to regain it? What would you risk or sacrifice to know who you are?

By its suddenness, amnesia makes a more dramatic story than the slow reforming, day by day, and choice by choice, that is the way we make our own identities.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

It's an old joke: there are two types of people in the world -- those who divide everyone into two types, and those who don't.

There are many different choices as to what axis to divide the two types along. The one that has held the most meaning for me is the xenophile/xenophobe division, played with at length in Robert Anton Wilson's original Illuminati trilogy. While strict usage might keep these words to their root meanings of love of foreigners and fear of foreigners, he spread them to a wider sense.

In that usage, xenophiles enjoy the new and strange, and like change; while xenophobes fear change, and want the known and stable. Because it defines attitudes towards change rather than positions on particular, ever-shifting issues of the moment, this division seems more precise to me than one along the conservative/liberal line.

I'm largely in the xenophile camp. I have the work and hobby history of a dilettante, the kind of list of previous activities you used to see in the author notes on the back covers of book jackets. My favorite part of any project is the beginning, where there is plenty to learn. Endings -- well -- there is reward in seeing something completed.
It can be a challenge to work for that reward instead of the glitter of something new.

We live in a time of very rapid change, and in a time when few can avoid encounters with others who are different. A little xenophilia eases greeting the new.

Meanwhile, the xenophobes put on the brakes, and give us a chance to catch up. This, too, is useful.

So the best outcome requires a balance between fearing and encouraging change.

But xenophiles are more willing to appreciate those creating the other end of the balance.