Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Worm's-Eye View of the World

The 31 Dreamers apparently like to do their dream-work on on a Friday night. Yesterday around 9:00 p.m. the dreams stated rolling in. There were a couple about castles that I wanted to feature but I need to think about them a little more. Then Maggie from Massachusetts sent in this one:
I was at an important business meeting, and having some kind of discussion with people in a small group, sitting in a circle on the floor. They asked us to make room for another person in the discussion, who was not a person at all but a small purple worm in a plastic bag. The worm couldn't talk, but seemed interested in the conversation. We tried to include the worm in the discussion without acting like there was anything strange about it, but had to be really careful not to step on it if we moved to change our seat.

Eventually, the worm wiggled away. We were all looking for it and my friend Rudy realized it had wiggled up a Christmas tree, still in its plastic bag. He picked it up and told me he wanted to open it. I was trying to convince him not to, I was afraid something bad would happen to it. I thought that if he took it out of the bag, it would turn in to a person and die on the floor. 

Then we got into a conversation about evil witches and I said ,"Everybody thinks they turned me into this, but I don't remember any interactions with evil witches or warlocks." Then I laughed. 

Rudy said, "You're not evil, you're just tiny." 

Then I woke up.
Maggie, I'll make a deal with you: I'll join you in the business meeting in your dream if you'll just come with me into my own childhood (not a dream) for a minute. Cool? Okay, let's go:

So we're at this big school assembly, sitting near the back of the auditorium. Some nondescript guest speaker is trying to get us to talk about our anger. "What makes you angry?" he asks. There's a pause and then one kid's hand goes up. He stands and says, "I hate it when you're eating spaghetti and people come up to you and start talking about worms." The nondescript speaker is perplexed.

Okay Maggie, now I'm sitting next to you in your dream.

Maggie, worms are so different from we humans. It is this difference that gets so many people freaked out. The worm in here is the "other"—that person who doesn't fit the mold in any given situation for whatever reason. The meeting that we're in professes to be compassionate with it's circle-on-the-floor and it's "let's-make-room-for-so-and-so" vibe, but it's still a business meeting and these touchy-feely aesthetics tend to mask what people really think. Then the "other" comes in and that other is not only of a different species, but of an entirely different phylum. Which one? We don't know, some kind of worm. And as if that weren't enough this worm also differs foom the rest of us in color (purple), size (tiny), ability (can't talk), and third-person pronoun usage ("it"). We all say that we want to include this worm, to treat this worm like one of the gang, but that just isn't possible. This is a puny, purple, genderless, mute invertebrate, wriggling safely inside a plastic bag where we all can observe it without it ever actually (ugh!) touching us.

You're not sure why the worm made a B-line for that Christmas tree—the worm can't talk and probably has a totally different set of cultural values than the rest of us, right? Yet she (oops! excuse me: it) wants to interact with the rest of us and so heads toward one of our culture's most celebrated icons. Rudy wants to free it from the baggie, but that worries you—you want to protect it (the worm, not Rudy—or do you want to protect Rudy too? Yourself? The rest of the proceedings and the entire framework they represent?) Rudy's taking things too far, maybe even trying to stir up trouble. You get nervous and try to change the subject, but the subject that you change isn't the subject of the worm itself, but who the worm is. Here you reveal your fear of being like the worm—becoming the "other." The worm is speaking through your mouth now and you empathize with the worm, apologizing and make excuses for your other-ness, trying to blame it on some sorcerer's hex. But Rudy says, "Maggie, it's cool. I would still be your friend you no matter what. Even if you were a puny, purple, genderless, mute worm with no spine."

Maggie, many of us have been in both the position of being the other and not being the other at different times and spaces in our lives. In those times when we have the privilege to not be the other, we inevitably come in contact with those who are the others. When we first meet the other, we don't understand the other and might even be kinda grossed out by the other. If we can get over that, we fear the penalties of being associated with the other should we choose to get closer with the other. We also secretly feel like we might be like the other in the other's other-ness, and some say that this is the real root of other-o-phobia. And even when we do become all tight and chummy with the other, we still say, "Oh but I'm not an other," and simultaneously show we're hip with, "Some of my best friends are others." Then when we sit on the floor in some hippy-dippy group hug and suddenly the other slinks in, is that other ever really going to feel—or truly be—included?

Oddly enough, an unlikely subset of others in our society has another association with purple worms entirely. In the 1970s a dedicated group of fantasy nerds assembled piles of meticulous notes and published it as a unique blend of storytelling and gaming. The first role-playing game—dubbed "Dungeons & Dragons"—was born. The game was really just a set of half-baked (or maybe totally baked) whims dreamt up by a cadre of Tolkien geeks who were into elves and orcs and hacking things to pieces with swords and spells without ever leaving the dining room table. They made up some crazy-ass monsters (seriously—click that last link and see) for their wizards and warriors to fight. There were icky puddles of slime that ranged in color from green to black to ochre, hulking beasts that were more likely umber than sienna, and yes, a 50-foot long purple worm. that seemed to like the taste of human flesh (or dwarf or elf or whatever).

Last week a geeky friend dragged me to a gaming shop in the suburbs and there they were—the others, young and old, playing all sorts of newfangled fantasy games on big tables in the middle of the store. And there I was, an other among others, on the fringes of their realm, unable to fully understand and participate in what was going on. And now I am other-ing myself here by publicly admitting that I would enter such an establishment. It was awesome. Maggie, you've got to go to one of these places! Go in there and find a copy of The Monster Manual in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons section. Flip through its pages and look at all the monsters. Cool, huh? Notice how you feel when you walk in, when you ask the guy at the coounter a question, when you look at all those tomes of came lore, and then when you finally cross the line and crack one open to read about Gygax's Purple Worm in public. Then you have to walk past all the clerks and 12-year-old boys and out of the store. Maybe someone you know will run into you on the street. "Hey Maggie! What's up?" It's an experience worth undertaking. If you do, write a note about it and pass it along to 31 Dreamers.


Anonymous said...

Awesome! :)

Anonymous said...

How the heck did I forget about purple worms?

I gave away all my D&D stuff years ago... wish I'd kept it...

Anonymous said...

Mine's in mom's basement. All 1st Edition. Even got the version of Deities & Demigods with the "Cthulu Mythos" before H.P. Lovecraft's people sued TSR.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard of

It looks like the best RPG concept I've ever seen. I so want to play. But it's out of print and copies cost like $150.

Anonymous said...

And I've got the three brown books and supplements at home still...

Anonymous said...

Were those 2nd Edition?

Anonymous said...

First. The ones that came in the white box. The very first ones, that started it all... Got them for my birthday in 1976.

Anonymous said...