[Today's guest post is brought to you by the august Craig Conley of One Letter Words fame. Any praise or contempt should be sent directly to him, while any cash should, of course, be sent directly to me.]
I'll never forget the day I found myself locked out of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Since then, the whole world has looked a little more decrepit.
Improbably, my exile occurred mere hours after my grand arrival. I'd hardly had time to take in the idyllic wonders of the Neighborhood before I was cruelly banished. Who was it who posited that paradise is timeless? (Full disclosure: I was the one positing.) Accordingly, a brief moment of bliss is indistinguishable from an eternity, so the shortness of my experience in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in no way mitigates the pain of my expulsion.
The instrument of my expulsion? The cold shards of a shattered illusion. Here's how it went down: I was on a scenic boat tour in the "Venice of America," Winter Park, Florida. They have pontoon boats that travel twelve miles through the peaceful lakes of the city (the lakes being connected by canals, originally dug by logging companies to float timber to a nearby train station). It's a gorgeous tour, not only for the natural beauty of the vegetation and wildlife along the way but also for the stillness of the lake water. It sounds silly to say that "you feel like you're floating" while in a boat on a lake, but I actually felt like I was floating inches above the water. It was transcendent, and I was somehow primed for a revelation! Many people go on this tour to gawk at the mansion homes along the lake shores, as several dozen movie stars, pop singers, and sports figures own winter homes there. (That includes Carrot Top, though I'm not exactly sure how to categorize him.) The location is indeed a slice of heaven, and it's no wonder that celebrities can't resist buying their own little morsel (of that carrot cake, as it were).
Naturally, the boat captain recites a spiel along the way, sharing bits of local history and pointing out famous owners of the various mansions. As an aside (but one which is a piece of the puzzle), I was sitting in the front row, right next to the guide, and he seemed to bond with me in a surprising way. He made eye contact with me whenever he talked, and if I was ever looking the other way at the scenery, he would confirm I had heard what he'd said as soon as I looked his way again. It was as if he were giving the spiel just for my benefit, and this feeling was reinforced by the fact that he made personal asides to me throughout. In other words, he would let go of the speaker button and mutter an additional sentence or two just to me, out of hearing of the other passengers. The fact that this man both looked and sounded like my grandfather was somewhat eerie, and I readily admit to wondering whether the spirit of my grandfather wasn't somehow connecting with me through this boat captain. One of the houses the guide pointed out was the boyhood home of Mister Rogers. "When Mister Rogers talked about his 'neighborhood,'" the guide said, "this was it."
At those words, fireworks went off in my head. This gorgeous lake district that I had fallen in love with was nothing less than Mister Rogers' Neighborhood! That idyllic neighborhood he sang about wasn't just the stuff of dreams: it was a real place, and I had discovered it! And it was even more beautiful than I could ever have imagined!
It was like an epiphany—suddenly the world didn't seem like such a scary place. I was practically giddy with joy, and I decided to take the tour again a few hours later, to continue basking in my revelation. Though there are four different boat captains, I got the same man again, and of course he remembered me. Little did I know that I was in for a second bombshell, but one I wouldn't like!
This time, when we floated past Mister Rogers' house, somebody piped up with a follow-up question (something trivial and pointless, like "what street is the house on"). In answering that question, the guide explained that it wasn't really Mister Rogers' neighborhood. "He just rented a room in that house while he was a student at Rollins College, but we like to tell tourists that this is Mister Rogers' neighborhood."
Well, I was devastated! My newfound illusion had been shattered by an asinine tourist's question. I figuratively could have strangled that tourist. (I actually wasn't mad at the guide—in fact, I was charmed by the little fib he had told and would have been quite delighted to go on believing it! It was the question-asker that enraged me!) For the rest of that tour, I kept thinking about a motto in the 60's television series "The Prisoner": "Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself." I was indeed feeling imprisoned by that answer about Mister Rogers' house, for it was locking me out of the idyllic Neighborhood! I was suddenly an outsider again—shunned, expelled from this paradise. I wanted my illusion back, as ridiculous as those words sounded in my own head.
While delusions are always negative, illusions aren't necessarily so. In one of his songs, the flamboyant entertainer Boy George actually defends holding onto one's illusions, defiantly singing: "You can try but you can't shatter my illusions." That's food for thought (and not a dig at Boy George's weight gain, as everyone knows that your metabolism goes to pot once you reach age 40). Could consciously sustaining one's illusions be a positive thing? A false impression seems negative by the very fact of its falsity, yet couldn't it also be pleasing, harmless, and even useful?
But those are questions best left to philosophers, not Swedes. Er, in the sense that someone once compared exile to the nation of Sweden. (Full disclosure: I'm not the one who made that comparison; it was in a book about European perspectives on social work with minority groups.) Let the philosophers speculate while we minorities spend the remainder of our sleepless nights dreaming of a gated community . . . a Neighborhood that's imaginary and untrue.