Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I am marching to Pretoria! Send money.

I'm not really marching to Pretoria, but if I had to march, I think that's where I'd March first. They have these beautiful purple jacaranda trees everywhere, and the temperature is in the sixties this time of year. Nice zoo, too.

I am, however, stealing a march on March Fourth, the day for bold initiatives. The first step of a march may be the hardest. All that terrain ahead of you, getting the inertia up to speed, the seeming impossibility of the trek. But when you have the authority of the month behind you, it's like getting your marching orders. Go. Sing. Be well and prosper! (You ain't got no friends on the Left! You're right! You ain't got no friends on the Right! You're left!...)

But that's not what I wanted to write about.

I've been thinking about how fiction permeates reality. You got your lies, dreams, fantasies, novels, TV, movies, plays, songs, stereotypes, and cartoons. And it's a powerful osmosis, almost as powerful as the cosmosis. I listen to "Ode to Billy Joe" as if it happened, sort of. I find myself getting concerned about the daily travails of comic strip characters as if they occupy a parallel universe. And I've been known to mix the so with the not-so, myself, including in this blog. But sometimes fiction gets invasive.

About two months ago I was reading something on Facebook when a text window suddenly popped up on-screen. It was from a cousin who had popped into my life just as suddenly several years earlier. He contacted me then to inform me of a bequest left by my mom's great-uncle to me and my sister. It was a welcome windfall. This time, he was the one who needed money. The story unfolded, line by line: he was in England; he had been robbed at knifepoint; they'd taken his money, credit card, passport, everything! He needed to settle his hotel bill. How much? $1450. How much could I send? He would pay me back. The embassy could do nothing for him. His plane was leaving in two hours. He supplied me with a phone number to call. A small voice was telling me there was something wildly improbable about this, asking a distant cousin for a handout, even if we were Facebook friends. And yet it also made sense. I owed him a favor. Not that he was playing that card explicitly. But perhaps it was understood. "R U there?????" he texted after one of my long pauses.

In the end, it wasn't so much about the money, it was the hassle: calling Western Union...grappling with financial details. The story was stretching too far. "This is more than I can handle right now," I typed, apologetically. "Just get to a Western Union!" he urged as I backed away, betraying an exposed Wizard-of-Oz desperation as if to say "you don't have to like it, you just have to play the game!" I broke the connection. But I still wasn't sure that I hadn't failed a moral test.

In the end, I contacted the real cousin, who casually replied that it was a well-known scam, and he supposed he'd better change his password.

I could leave it there, but this past week there have been all these real-life examples of fiction trying to pass, or reality not being good enough. There was Khadafy in the fish restaurant, being interviewed by three western journalists, and insisting that his people loved him, would do anything for him, and the apparent protesters had been given bad drugs by Al Qaeda. Clearly, the guy was confused, or having fun. But either way, fiction won.

Then there was Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, who got punked by a deejay posing as a Republican fatcat. For twenty minutes, Walker falls for it, bathes in it, drinks it up. But the wonderful part is that he admits in the phone call that he was intending to lure the missing Democrat state senators back to the Capitol under false (truthy?) pretenses of parleying with them, then being able to vote because technically they were back in the building. So you can't really feel sorry for the gov. If you canoodle with fiction, fiction may just want to go all the way.

Finally, the Oscars. Not really fiction, but paradoxical. We tune in to see movie stars as real people—if you call the fortunate, the glamorous, the well-heeled, real; but yeah, realer than when they're giant people on-screen playing fictional characters. And what happens? We're disappointed. Turns out James Franco was no more charming than any of us would be, apparently having an off-day, not enjoying himself. And Melissa Leo—how dare she use the f-word? Only we get to do that. We like our truth fiction-y, at least when it's on TV.

A short time after I got scammed by my fake cousin, I was walking down Mass. Ave., here in Arlington, and a guy stopped me. He was scruffy, but very affable. "Hey, it's my old buddy!" he said. "I remember you from Harvard Square!" I smiled, told him it wasn't me. But he was sure of it. "You asked me if I was a street person. I said 'Naaaaaah...'" I could tell I was being set up, but the guy was hard to resist. He invented this conversation that was so amiable, showing such a good-hearted side of me, that I ended up giving him three bucks.

After I left the warmth of our imaginary friendship, I felt lousy. Ripped off, a patsy for any con man in sight, an idiot. The fiction was much better.

1 comment:

  1. Hal,

    You'd be so proud of Doug. We were out for a walk around the neighborhood the other day, and he -- not I -- was the one who noticed that the birds were coming back: "Bird! Hear bird! Tweet, tweet! Bird! Tweet, tweet!"

    Hope all is well with you.