Saturday, October 15, 2011

Childish Fears

As Halloween's coming around again, everybody seems to be collecting another round-up of the scariest things they've ever encountered in comics. However, the things that scared me weren't the monsters with oozing pus or the horror stories with preachable endings. What scared me were concepts that struck too close too home. The following descriptions may be slightly vague, because I've only read the following material maybe twice, so I'll do my best to recreate the stories from memory.

The Ren and Stimpy comics were certainly more sophisicated than the TV show that inspired them, or at least as sophisicated as gross-out humour could be. It's a shame that Marvel (along with its Star Comics line) hasn't bothered to reprint any of their titles. Alf was a consistent seller, often outdoing several of their S-hero comics, which must've been seen as something of a low blow. It's possible that they're no longer bothering to reprint them due to copyright issues, or out of sheer spite, but conventional wisdom says that the current editors are "not interested in releasing stuff aimed at children", which should be quite contradictory to their Disney bosses. (Unless they're the same people who won't release Kim Possible DVDs to the public)

For the curious, here's a link sample of some Ren & Stimpy comics.

I can tolerate cartoon characters getting hit with anvils and explosives, because they always bounce back. But I have great difficulty when they're encountering emotional situations. While it was accepted wisdom that Ren & Stimpy engaged in actions that was intentionally offensive, I still felt extremely uncomfortable in the 11th issue where Ren got REALLY mad at Stimpy.

I can't exactly remember what made Ren so angry in the first place, but whatever it was, it was something utterly inconsequential, and Stimpy was responsible for it. Ren started reacting by contorting his body in rage for several panels, scrunching up his face while changing it into various colours of purple, before venting a blood-curdling scream that took up an entire page.

The reaction was so dramatic that Ren was admitted to a hospital because he was suffering from high blood pressure. He was hooked up to multiple wires and tubes, and kept twitching uncontrollably. The doctor explained his patient's discomfort to Stimpy, showing a stress chart of people in high-stress jobs. Then the doctor flipped over the graph, showing a chart completely inked in red. "This... is Ren's stress level."

The doctor cautioned Stimpy that if Ren suffered another stress attack, it could be potentially fatal. To counter this, after Ren was released, he was placed in a therapeutic center to learn how to control his temper by doing a series of ever-escalating relaxation techniques that looked extremely painful in execution. (Being totally at ease while a steamroller rolls over your hand, and using the flattened palm as a substitute for toilet paper f'r instance) After years of resisting various relaxation techniques because I found too many of them stressful, such as controlling my breathing which always made me hyperventilate, I could relate. Eventually, Ren managed to find a suitable technique by visualizing himself in a hallucinogenic "peaceful place".

Having passed the tests, Ren was all set to relax in the comforts of his home, but began to utterly lose it when he saw Stimpy putting peanut butter on his chocolate bars. Obviously, what worked inside the lab failed when exposed to the nature of the outside world. Ren was all set up to have another explosion of violent rage until Stimpy reminded him not to lose his temper. Having suddenly remembered his relaxation technique, Ren went back to his peaceful place, but the hallucinogenic backgrounds became replaced with visions of Stimpy and chocolate covered in peanut butter, so Ren's veins started acting up again, and he grew so mad it caused a nuclear explosion in the shape of Ren's head.

Then the scene flashed to the far future where a huge kid with Ren's likeness asked, "THEN what happened Great-great-great grandpa Ren? Didja DIE?!"
"Heh, no you little whipper-snapper", a postively ancient Ren answered. "I finally found my own personal peaceful place."

Then Ren saw old Stimpy doing something that annoyed him - probably the same thing that caused him to have a meltdown in the first place. "Come over here Stimpy! We're going to my peaceful place!" Then Ren slapped Stimpy with as much force as his old bones could handle, and briefly through his slaps, there was the image of a young Ren looking content. Once old Ren finally vented his frustrations, he left old Stimpy behind, gazing at nothing in particular until the final panel where Stimpy simply muttered, "Joy."

More than anything, it was Ren's anguish that caused me great distress because it reminded me too much of my personal reactions to whenever something went wrong. (I've now been able to calm myself by recalling various comics I've read) Furthermore, Ren's personal disfigurement was too much like the dog's internal turmoil at not being able to scratch himself in An Itch in Time. As someone who can easily be driven nuts over an itch I can't scratch, this scene was extremely painful for me to watch. (Images taken from Classic Cartoons)
For some reason, some people find this funny.
As Nausicaa once said, "There is a terrible rage that exists inside me." It's also why I'm a total teetotaler. Other than the fact that I can't stand the taste of fizz on my tongue, I'm absolutely terrified at the idea of ever losing my proportions. I worry that if I lose my inhibtions, I'll wind up doing things that I would never have the common decency and sense to even try. Then again, there's the possibility that a chemical imbalance that I'm missing that's keeping me from my full potential. Children with ADD get fed Ritalin to slow down their impulsive behavior, when that same drug would make anybody else hyperactive. By that same token, a CIA study done in the 1960-70s found that when children with autism were given LSD, they became more sociable and friendly. Considering that a theory found that autistic children had a fungus that produced a chemical that was equivalent to the toxic sweat of an Amazon Rain Frog that caused hallucinations, we'd need some "strong stuff" to snap us out of our state.

However, for sheer unmitigated horror, the one comic that scared me wasn't really a comic, but actually a children's picture book called "The Stubborn Bear" by Robert Sidney Bigelow. The cover below was the only image I could find, and even blown up, it looks like the interior art from behind the cover, instead of the wraparound dust protector which showed multiple bears surrounding a scowling bear with bug-eyes. If you've never heard of this book, there's probably a good reason why.

The basic set-up goes something like this: Every morning, a bear would wake up and go to the bank of a river, catch a fish, then continue hunting various animals for the rest of the day. However, one morning, no fishes showed up that day. "I'm not leaving until a fish swims by!" he haughtly said to himself.

Hours went by, and no fishes came. Days went by, and the nearby bears became concerned at how long he was staring at the riverbank, waiting for a fish that never came. All their efforts to convince him to look elsewhere were dismissed. Eventually, they gave up and let him stay by himself.

Weeks later, the bear had lost a ton of weight, yet was still staring intently at the water. A fox bounded nearby, and asked what he was doing. "I'm waiting for a fish."
"There don't seem to be any fish coming! Why don't you go and try some of these nuts and berries in that bush over there?"
"No. I'm not losing my place. A fish might come while I'm not here."
The fox didn't see much reason in arguing with the bear any further, and left to enjoy the fruits by himself.

Months later, the leaves had fallen off the trees and the other bears had stored enough fat to hibernate for the winter. As they were going into their caves, they looked concerned over the figure sitting at the edge of the water. Still the stubborn bear refused to move. At this point, he was basically a skeleton wrapped in fur. I've mentioned how upset I am when I see cartoon characters being hungry, but this was different. He intentionally starved himself for the sake of preserving his routine.

All alone by himself, the bear was exposed to the harsh cold of the coming winter. Fittingly enough, the weather was reminiscent of the storm when the fisherman's wife wanted another wish. The snow was whipping around from all directions, stinging ice pellets everywhere. Still the bear wouldn't budge from his spot.

Then all of a sudden, through the wind and storm, he spied a fin sticking up out of the water. It wasn't an illusion, but looked like it belonged to a fish that looked twenty feet wide if he were an inch.

His patience had paid off! This was a fish worthy enough to sate his gnawing hunger. He felt hungry enough to eat the biggest fish in the world. With the waves pounding against the rocks, the fish inched closer to the shore, and -

- ate the Stubborn Bear.

Yes, that's how the children's book ends - the character's persistence pays off in the end with his life in payment. This was the closest thing to an uncensored or sanitized version of a fairy tale, and the result was extremely shocking. What preyed on my greatest fears was the knowledge that I was the stubborn bear. I have a tendency to be very steadfast in my beliefs and routines, even if they make no sense to anyone else. I knew that someday, I would find myself into an argument that I would not back down from at any costs, and suffer from the results. Such a conviction would eventually lead to my ruin.

To an Aspergian, being right is the most important thing. All our obsessions go into being doubly sure that we're 100% correct in our observations in a wildly unpredictable world. That's why it's necessary to make sure that our cause is worth dying for. The best way to defend against making the wrong decision is to always make the right choice in life.

In fact, there's many industries that continue to support a failing project, even when all evidence points otherwise. Carol Tavris made a study in his book, Mistakes Were Made, but not by Me, which showed how people tend to self-delude themselves into a path they're convinced is the right decision.

Like a gambler who continues betting, confident that the next wager will "bring in the big money", so too do people continue to stick to a plan that has almost no chance of success. The more time and effort we spend on a project, the more compelled we feel that we must succeed, otherwise all our efforts would be for naught. It's why I felt lousy for the teacher at the end of Election, because he was basically lying to himself that he was doing well.

Likewise, when people engage in a harmful practice, they go out of their way to find positive things about it long after the point. They convince themselves that the slightest positive thing justifies an otherwise harmful habit. Smokers will wave away all the research done on nicotine addiction and focus on the single clause that shows that cigarettes slow down Alzheimer's. Even if research goes into the other direction, they'll still convince themselves and others that they're doing nothing wrong. In the same token that joggers continue to push themselves to reach that runner's high, we feel justified if all our hard work has a benefit in the end. This may explain how some parents restrain themselves from killing their children.

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