Messing with Reality November 30th, 2007

I was fourteen or fifteen, and staying with family friends in Illinois over winter break. I was staying in an attic that had been converted into a bedroom, and I was slipping under the covers when the strangest thing happened: my legs went half way down the bed and stopped. I couldn’t extend my legs all the way. I pushed and kicked at the sheet, but something was amiss. I wasn’t at this age an expert on much, but I knew how to get under covers and sleep in a bed. Until now.

I’d never heard of “short-sheeting.” If I had, I would have recognized the practical joke for what it was right away. But I had entered a zone of confusion. I carefully repeated the steps: slip under covers, extend legs. Slip under covers, extend legs. I’d done it thousands of times before. It was supposed to work. Each time the bed came up short. What the…?!

In Groundhog Day I had the delicious opportunity to play a joke on Phil Connors. I got to mess with his reality.

He reacted the way I did with the short-sheeting – he entered a zone of confusion. “Wait a second – this can’t be right.” Repetition of experience had led him to believe that any given day would be followed by a different one. That was what he considered to be reality.

Later on in Phil’s Punxsutawney existence, the repetition of the same day led to a different reality for him. He came to believe that any given day would be followed by the same one.

He approached this new reality with denial, then with anger – he actually pretty much followed Kubler-Ross’s stages of death and dying. At each stage he tested the waters with caution, each time going farther and farther into his commitment to this new reality. He took increasingly larger risks, first risking social embarrassment, then risking legal repercussions, and finally risking everything – his very life. Over and over again he pushed and tested until all vestiges of the old reality were gone.

Repetition had made his new reality real to him.

My joke on Phil turned out to be a gift. As a result he grew up, learned how to be happy, and got the girl. My joke on Phil wasn’t malicious, and thankfully everything turned out okay.

Several works of fiction deal specifically with characters messing with another character’s reality, including pretty much every episode of “Mission: Impossible.” I was thinking specifically of The Magus by John Fowles and also the movie “The Game,” written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. In each of these cases, a very wealthy person hires a large number of actors to create a new reality around the main character. Only mentally ill people believe that massive conspiracies are taking place for their benefit or detriment. The rest of us believe in reality, in the repetition of what has come before to tell us what is normal and reasonable and likely.

But what if we aren’t mentally ill, and someone really is messing with our reality?

One of the basic realities of our modern world is the way we get information from experts far beyond our personal contact, beyond our judgment and testing. We may tell ourselves to be wary of what we hear or what we read – caveat emptor! – but if we hear the same things over and over and over again, it takes a great deal of effort of beat back the encroaching “reality.” How do we deal with this? On what can we base this decision of what is real and true?

Messing with peoples’ reality seems to have become S.O.P. for anybody with the resources to do it. I was most recently taken aback by the actions of the movie studios with regards to their negotiation with the striking screenwriters. Rather than bargain in good faith, they have hired a new P.R. firm. Why pay money to writers when you can pay “manipulators” to alter the reality of the situation?

This is how businesses are operating. What happens when governments do the same thing?

The last six or so years have been a difficult time for many Americans for a variety of reasons, but my reason mostly has to do with a feeling that my reality is being messed with.

Messages from the government and disseminated by the media are repeated over and over and over, coming from TV and radio and print – seemingly from different places – and often echoed by people I encounter. Does that make it reality? Somebody wants to make it so. Somebody out there, some “writer” just like me, is playing a practical joke on us. Somebody with a great deal of money has hired thousands of actors to convince us and motivate us in ways our old reality wouldn’t.

Some “writer” has been short-sheeting our ability to make good decisions – as consumers, as citizens of our country, and as occupants of the natural world.

Writers like me mess with their characters, hopefully to shed light and stimulate thinking, as well as to entertain. Phil had to ultimately accept his situation and act accordingly. But that was fiction. This is reality.

1 Comment »

Comment by Al Long
2007-12-01 16:40:19

The short-sheeters have been with us throughout history. I guess that’s oddly comforting–knowing current practitioners have not created something new or particularly brilliant. Just modern repetitions of old tyrannies.

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