Episode 44 - Mary and Max (And someone I “Lost”)


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            In so far as this month has a theme… First of all, I'm incredibly late to that party. Second. No. But once again, I feel the need to talk about something that somewhat resists description. And that's probably not a surprise, technically. Because isn’t love famous for its refusal to be quelled, sequestered, or silenced, as the poets say. (Pause) There aren't enough points in the universe I could give you if you actually knew what that line was referencing. But maybe I’ll do an episode on that later.

            Regardless, I felt like I took a big of a leap of faith with that last episode, and while it probably could have gone better, it also could have gone worse. And some things are going to require practice and repeated attempts even if we as a larger society want to pretend that isn't the case. Because no, we aren't going to be great at something the first time we try it. Mastery takes time, trial and error.

            So I’d adhere to my own advice. Here's something I've wanted to talk about for a while. This is one of my favorite movies of all time and one of the few I genuinely feel a connection to. It's something I turn to when I'm happy or sad or trying to connect to another human being. Like when I want to show them something I feel a genuine connection in the hopes of getting their opinion about the thing. Essentially giving them a way to judge me but to judge me by proxy. Because things are always less painful when they are done by proxy, right?

(Pause). I mean, I wouldn’t say always. But it’s probably like a 60-40 ratio. Which really isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s better than what I usually hope for.

            But maybe you were hoping by proxy judgments would always be painless. Because that means hope that pain—particularly this very visceral type of pain, this pain that strikes us at the very core, the one that puts the validity of our existence in question—can be avoided. After all, even if we don’t want to admit it, we do equate social acceptance with the right to existence in some regard. That might be a very bold statement, but look, we need other people to signal our worth and value through their signs of care and acceptance. Maybe it’s a psychological need, and maybe it is not. Who can really say? A professional probably. Which I am not.

            But I make my assumption based on the way the media we love connects to us, with the pieces of us that were initially drawn to it in the first place. At this point of intersection, the line between us and it is blurred. And despite my perceived confidence, I don’t know when this would happen or at what stge. That seems like something I should know, having experienced it multiple times myself. But despite all the times it has happened to me, I genuinely can’t recall the way those events played out.  

            But I know with absolute certainty this happened. Because this movie might have cost me a relationship that never had a chance to be.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode forty-four

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            Today, I want to talk about Mary and Max, the 2009 stop motion animated movie directed by Adam Elliot that told the story of a friendship, specifically that between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely, eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max, a forty-four year old man living in New York. And if that seems disconcerting… First of all, it’s a movie with a somewhat forced premise necessary to get the point across. Second and most important, the initial action that brought them together was a largely random one.

            At the beginning of the story, Mary—trying to find a way to cope with the merciless bullying she gets at school daily due to a very visible birthmark on her forehead—randomly chooses Max’s name from a phone book and decides to write to him. In some ways, it’s a smart decision. Or in her case, it’s really the only one she can make. Mary doesn’t have a good support system. She doesn’t have great home life what with a distant and emotionally unavailable father and an alcoholic, kleptomaniac mother. Neither are great for emotional support. Her neighbor tries, but agoraphobia has veto power on that front… At this point in her life, she needs someone, anyone. So Max will do.

            The things, Max is in some ways no better off, but he’s learned to cope. He has trouble forming close bonds with other people which has probably led to certain traumatic experiences, I’d guess. Because he gets a panic attack when her letter first arrives, and panic attacks are never unprompted, let me tell you.

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            And maybe that premise doesn’t really interest you. Fair enough, I guess. There’s a lot about this movie you might not look. This isn’t a typical movie with a typical narrative. You see, the plot doesn’t have a consistent momentum because it’s not about the plot. This movie is about the characters and their relationship, one that has highs and lows as all relationships do.

            And this is where the initial appeal was for me, but if you like a hearty dose of escapism in your movies, this isn’t going to be for you. And—as I say a lot—fair enough. To each their own.

            And to me, this movie. (Music fades out and new music fades in) Because this movie is the sort of thing I would like. It adheres to reality but a specific aspect of reality: that of the broken person trying to find a place where they and all there pieces fit.

            “Broken” is a loaded word, undoubtedly. But friendly reminder that I don’t play with the objective on this podcast but the subjective. And yes, when you and your experiences diverge from the norm, the word you may fall into or may receive is “broken.” And that leads to the associated fear of destruction or of not quite destruction. It’s actually hard to articulate. But there’s this fear that everything we are is being held together by a thread. That we are perpetual on the brink of falling apart or falling into some sort of abyss. The exact nature of this abyss, however, is hard to describe. Something isn’t right, and our brain associates right and normal with safe. Because if it wasn’t safe we would know by now.

            I just think of it as a disconnect some times between brain and the rest of the world. It happens all the time. In part because—if you haven’t noticed—we can never see ourselves head on. We always have to depend on intermediaries. Our mirrors would be the example that comes to mind, but we also rely on our peers.

Hence why I default to the word “broken,” even if I don’t like it. Maybe I care about its implications, and maybe you do too. But let’s face it, not everyone does.

            The saying goes that children can be cruel. In reality, we all have the capacity for cruelty, even if we don’t realize it. It’s sometimes intentional, but it can also be the consequence of otherwise inconsequential choices or other simple mistakes. I think there is some sense in which this is the case for the more destructive reflections that being thrown at us. Nobody means it, but it happens anyway. It’s a simply the consequences of choices they don’t fully understand. And that’s not a good excuse, yes, but I don’t mean it to be an excuse; I just mean to be a statement. I  can see why some brains might initially panic at things they do not understand or recognize. And how that could have a negative impact on other people.

            There are better ways of coping with the unfamiliar than obsession. That is always true but especially here. Because when confronted with this particular distortion nonstop, what could we say to it? We find ourselves unable to speak once everything that  is good about ourselves and all the thing we love are stripped in the face of a perceived flaw or weakness being exaggerated and blown out of proportion. Even if it just is a perception, it’s a perception we are inclined to accept without question.

            The advantage of pen friends or pen pals, whichever terminology you prefer, is that because of the distance between us and them they aren’t able to see the cracks in our façade so clearly. And so, we aren’t forced to lead with them and in return, they do not force it back onto us.

            The process of revelation and disclosure, though, is critical to any friendship. And for a pen friend relationship to grow or even be sustained, this needs to happen as it always does. The complications therein are somewhat inevitable. As Mary and Max know all too well.

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            The movie follows them throughout these ups and downs as things are revealed, actions are taken, and the consequences arise. Then they must react, unintentionally affirming or condemning their friend’s self-worth. Now, it should never be that big of a deal. No one person should have the power to completely destroy you. After all, some people aren’t going to mesh together and certainly not all the time. People have to be free to come and go as this reality reveals itself. But for two people who are so isolated, the stakes are far too high for Mary and Max.

            It’s like how a half glass of water shouldn’t technically matter too much. Water is a necessity for human existence. There’s no valid justification for complete deprivation, for what is essentially murder with more steps. But say you are in a dessert, through no fault of your own. And that half glass is all you have. Well, that would be a very different matter, right?

            It becomes a small lifeline in an unjust situation. That’s what these two are too each other. Hence the potential for distress should that be taken away. And that almost happens. One makes a mistake, the other is hurt, and they drift apart.

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            Remember earlier when I said the emphasis was not on the plot but on the characters? That’s a very relevant fact because I think focusing on the wrong aspect will drastically influence your experience. Because honestly? If you look at isolated events, certain isolated events, by themselves and without the characters’ trajectories, you’ll have a different takeaway than I what I did. And that’s a hard thing to explain with downplaying certain events in the story. So I’m going to borrow from an ancient philosopher. And by that, I mean I’m going to stand behind this long dead man as a way of hiding.

            You see, there was this ancient philosopher called Zeno who loved to devise paradoxes that still wreak havoc on college freshmen, and one of them is called the arrow paradox. He starts by pointing out that motion is understand as a change in position across time. So it’s very much dependent on time. Which would mean that if you took what we would think of as a still image of an arrow or consider the arrow in a singular instant—a static, duration-less instant—then we couldn’t say that the arrow is moving. We might (quote) “know” that it is. The picture might be of an arrow in the air and subject to all the laws of physics, but still, we can’t rightfully say that it is moving. Because there is not temporal element.


            I do think something similar is happening here. The person we have become might make a choice in the moment, but that choice was influenced by everything that happened before. And it is something that can be worked through or made right by what comes after.

            Now, I’m not trying to portray life as a score card. I.e. you made x many mistakes but it’s only y-percent your fault, and then you did this for a return of z many points.

            I mean to say, that life is a journey, so in some sense, pulling back from the actions and looking towards the larger trail and/or picture has its advantages. When you are climbing a mountain, for example, better technique is going to pay off. It’s going to yield a safer approach—both for you and likely for the terrain—and it’s going to get you where you need to go, efficiently. But at the same time, the climber who has overcome their own missteps isn’t to be criticized too harshly for their failures. If anything, they are exulted all the more for overcoming and for the lesson that results.

            It’s not that the end justified what came before, but that the reconciliation or resolution should take precedence over the error.

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            It’s this perspective that likely led me to love the movie like I did. Because while elements of the film are dark and I cannot agree with certain actions from the chracters, I find myself smiling towards the end. There’s definitely a positive association with this film in my mind despite the stylistic choices that led to a contrary atmosphere.

            And that’s where things go awry.

            Separate from this film, there was a time when I was trying to find a pen friend of my own. It genuinely had nothing to do with this film; I was trying to find someone who wouldn’t mind my attempts to speak their native language. After studying Italian for several years, I had hit a point where I could only progress by actually using it in casual conversation. And let me tell you, once you get to that point, that’s a steep hill to climb.

            And this wasn’t a very successful endeavor. Luckily for me, I connected with someone in my neighborhood who was from Italy and could easily be bribed with food she did not have to cook.

            But that’s now. At that time, I was scouring the internet for human connections, seemingly reaching out to people at random. I mean, I thought there was a method to what I was doing, but given the wildly inconsistent reactions I was getting, it’s hard to say if there was actually any science involved at all.

            I’ll spare you the worst of it. But I did get a lot of was empty air or conversations that faded off after a message or two when the superficial questions ran dry, and we were left scrambling in the empty air. That’s how a lot of my potential friendships in real life tend to go, by the way. And that’s something that doesn’t bother you at first but will through repetition. More and more repetition.

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            And then there was this one guy who might use this username elsewhere on the internet, so I’m going to come up with something else, I guess. I’ll call him Franco.

            Franco wrote to me in English, at first, and I—thinking I was being daring—decided to try and answer a part of his letter in Italian. He sent me a happy emoji and from then on, English words were few and far between. Which led to me making many mistakes, and him correcting me. Gently. And he’d also explain what grammar rule I broke and how I might have made that mistake. (Pause). It got to the point that I asked him if he wanted to be a teacher because he clearly had a talent for it. He only replied that all professions have a teaching element in some regard. Because when you work in them, you carry the knowledge of your work, the knowledge of those who came before, and you will need to pass all of that on to those who come after you.

            I don’t know if I believe that anymore. At the time, it seemed profound, but there’s entire Subreddits full of ideas and thoughts like that. And they are mocked. Mercilessly.

            Before you ask, I wouldn’t say I was in love with him, but it probably looked like it. I lived for his messages, which were always uplifting and joyful. He’d make jokes. Constantly. But more than that, he was always asking how I was. He was genuinely interested in how I was doing and what my life was like. And it felt like he was the only one.

            At the time, I was working at a law firm, specifically in a position that was not structured properly so it was an incredibly disheartening place to be, and I know all jobs are like that to some extent, but this was a little different. It was like I was simultaneously being put down and ignored. And I’m not sure how that’s possible. Like for someone to degrade you, isn’t there an inherent recognition that you exist? Because somehow they were able to degrade and pretend I didn’t exist. That feels like an achievement. A horrible one. But still an achievement.

            As an employee, this did not inspire loyalty. Even though I wasn’t supposed to, I kept my phone on me at all times, hoping for a message even when the time difference made that unlikely. (Music fadesout) He was like my life line. Our letters made me feel connected to the world and made me feel human.

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            We didn’t spend every minute talking, and I didn’t really expect it to be that way. Franco had a real social life. I didn’t. And in some ways that made me appreciate his messages all the more. After all, it was harder for him to keep up with me, and he still did it.

            But there was one Friday night when he wasn’t feeling well. And even though it wasn’t like him, he elected to stay home and watch a movie on his computer instead of going out with his friend. I did that a lot, so he wanted to know what movies I would recommend.

            To translate our conversation into English:

            I said, “I don’t know what you have there.”

            He told me not to worry about that.

            I said, “I probably should.”

            He said, “You worry too much.”

            I brushed that aside.

            I thought about this movie. One of my favorite movies. And at the time, it was on Netflix. In the US, at least. I do not know if it was in Italy. But he told me not to worry about that. And I tried not to. There are a lot of ways to get movies that are completely legal. Some might just take time, but there’s no need to worry. Or he was telling me not to worry. So I didn’t and recommended it to him wholeheartedly.

            He actually didn’t watch it that night. It turned out he had a bad stomach bug and spent the night sleeping it off. Or that’s how he put it. Once again, I was not going to push but for different and more understandable reasons this time. That being said, he never forgot about my recommendation and the enthusiasm behind it.

            So in time, he did get to it. But he didn’t tell me at first. An ten it came up.

            Our conversation, in English:

            He said, “What was that movie you recommended?”

            I said, “Mary and Max. I’m actually watching it again tonight.”

            He focused on the word “again.”

            “Yeah,” I said. “I watch it all the time.”

            We talked about it some more. My broken Italian shining through as I struggled to articulate my opinions on the characters and their choices. There was one spoiler-rific moment that unnerved him, in which neither of the main characters really conducted themselves all that well. Or that’s how he put it. To him, it was a serious issue. Serious enough that this was the figurative hill to die on. Or hill to bury this movie on.

            I won’t share his opinion here for his own sake. But also, while I don’t agree with it, I don’t think he was entirely wrong. I do think he was wrong to think that a movie can be completely disregarded for the choices the characters make because depiction is not the same as honoring or promoting, but he would have none of it.

            And when he demanded to know why I would, I made the mistake of saying, “Because I think I would have done the same thing.”

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            Franco didn’t completely ghost me, and I can’t decide if that is a good thing or not. It was very clear that his cold demeanor came from something I had said and that he could not be persuaded to even humor my opinion. No, on second thought, it was more than an opinion. I had tipped my hand to revealing something about myself that I didn’t want him to know and that he did not want to know. It was a crack that I had been able to cover from a distance. And a crack he had been able to ignore.

            But it didn’t seem like he wanted to believe what was so clearly in front of him. Or that he was holding onto the hope that I was whatever he first thought that I was. It’s hard to say, and I can’t speak for him. But his questions—when he offered them—were very targeted and he seemed to pick apart everything I said. Maybe that was just my perception. But there were things that hadn’t been relevant before that suddenly were.

            And I grew to resent him for this shift.  Though I didn’t say as much to him. I, too, went through the motions, hoping to hold on. I mean, I’d never been that good at letting go. Even when I had to.

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            In my opinion, we drifted apart naturally. I say naturally because it was likely inevitable given how profound a difference there clearly was. And how this difference was going to come up no mater. It still hurt. And I would say his half-hearted attempts to hold on were worse than anything any of the characters in this movie did. Because there was no resolving this. It was a wound that was left to fester for far too long. Closure does matter. Definitive ends are beneficial. And really, unlike Mary or Max, Franco committed the sin of failing to accept another for who they are and the beliefs they are led to hold onto as evidence by his willing to hold onto me, searching for a sign that I was the person he thought I was.

            You see, this was the ultimate redeeming quality that the movie that this guy didn’t, the magical creature I saw in that movie that makes me hold onto it so vehemently. It’s this ability to see another side of a person and recognize that whether or not you were aware of it, they are who they always were: the person you cared about. And finding it in you to adjust.

            The difficult part comes in maintaining a balance between this and maintaining yourself. Because you should never completely fade away to make another’s path easier. But in a case like that, the best thing to do or the best adjustment to make is to walk away. because that’s also letting someone be, in giving them the space to be as they are unchallenged.

            It’s the most indirect way of caring about someone, but it’s compassionate nonetheless.

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            One day, I just stopped answering his messages. Or his single message. Because it went like this. He sent me one. I did not reply. And he must not have expected me to because he did not try again.

            I felt the void in my life, yes, but I don’t think I would have found any comfort or joy in keeping him in my life or in connecting on another level, never mind forming an unconditional type of connection, like what you see in the movie. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I know I could never find anything like that with him. And neither he with me. So at that point, isn’t it better to just walk away?

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            This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thanks for listening. If you like what you heard, check out our other shows. You can find information on all of our productions at our website: miscellanymedia.online. Or check out our Twitter @miscellanymedia for real time updates.