Eyes of the Beholder

Rain and cold at the beginning of my holiday break this late December forced me onto the bicycle trainer, something I loath doing. But to off-set that torture, I was pleased to find Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), one of my short list of favorite movies that I watch over and over: Blade Runner (1982), Solaris (2002), Lost Highway (1997).

These films draw me in part because of genre—surrealism, fantasy, science fiction—and the allure of considering alternate worlds, alternate consciousness, alternate minds. But there are thematic threads pulling these films together as well.

The folding of time, or the urge and then opportunity to relive, revisit opportunities; questions about reality and what constitutes basic humanity (specifically the human mind and will/spirit); the complicated relationship/tension with each person between mind and heart—these are dramatized and personified in those films in ways that continue to help me wrestle with those realities, but also imagine beyond this temporal existence that is inevitably linear and cumulative.

As a university professor, I am each semester reminded of how perception shapes reality when I read my student feedback forms, almost always including both a few students who think I am the best professor ever and a few students who think I was pure torture and failure. In the same course, the same classroom.

As a parent, I experienced similar swings from my daughter’s own perception of me, especially in those volatile teen years.

Few things sting, hurt as much as disappointing those you love, care for, or are seeking to do nothing except the best in their interests.

I still flinch a bit each time (and it happens regularly) students inform me that I seem “mean,” that students are “afraid of me.” How, o how, could I have possibly sent such completely opposite messages?

In a recent post about the death of Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man, I touched on superheroes’ internal struggles as those intersect with the duality motif common in superhero narratives (Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Bruce Wayne/Batman, etc.).

But another pattern found especially in the Spider-Man narrative is the contrast between what Peter Parker/Spider-Man intends and how Spider-Man is perceived. The graphic novel Death of the Stacys collects The Amazing Spider-Man #s 88-92, 121-122, combining the deaths of Captain Stacy and his daughter/Peter’s girlfriend Gwen. The stories are about the collateral damage of vigilante justice.

After Captain Stacy’s death, the public and Gwen begin to view Spider-Man as the villain, and thus, Peter’s internal struggle over great power/great responsibility is magnified by the social construction of him as evil.

Since I have just finished a semester, I am typically concerned about what students I have failed to reach as I intended, which students are apt to see the professor I never intended to be. This cycle is very powerful in teaching, and although somewhat anxiety triggering, it also helps drive me to be a better teacher next time; teaching affords us those opportunities of another chance without having to be in a dystopian future or a mind-bending David Lynch nightmare.

This winter of 2014, however, has offered me the most significant moment yet in terms of having another chance: my granddaughter, who has recently begun to look at me (and everything) quite intensely.

I have, then, begin to contemplate what she will come to think of me—who will I be in here eyes?

I still walk extremely fast—I do almost everything extremely fast—and I admit to having raced through much of my 20s, 30s, and 40s (sometimes dragging my daughter along the way).

A granddaughter’s five-month-old stare has made the world slow down, some, or at least those eyes have asked of me: Who do I think I am? Who do I want to be? (Yes, these existential questions remain throughout our lives; they are not things to be answered in youth.)

In my advancing age, I am more capable (I hope) and at least more aware that there isn’t necessarily a tension between who we are and who others think we are/want us to be but the need to negotiate those parallel realities.

I will continue to gift myself re-watching the films I love, re-reading the books that move me, but through those, I hope to live better, recognizing that today is the only today I will have, and then tomorrow—not as an act of regret but as an act of being fully human.

The Epilogue in The Amazing Spider-Man #122 is one page of nine panels. In the wake of Gwen’s death, for which he feels responsible, Peter Parker lashes out at Mary Jane, who turns to leave but in the final three wordless panels (except for the onomatopoeia “click” in the final panel) she closes the door and turns back to Peter.

Mary Jane is looking at the distraught Peter. In her eyes, he is worth it.

I think that is what we are hoping for from the ones we love. I think that is what is ours to offer.

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