How far is too far?

What do you say on a day like this? Heath Ledger dead at 28… it seems unbelievable. I remember seeing him in Sweat, his first major role; he had such a strong presence that it transcended the screen. There was no doubt he’d go on to bigger things… for it to end so tragically leaves me at a loss for words.

Most people will remember Ledger for his role in Brokeback Mountain but I’ll always remember a scene in Monster’s Ball. He played the son of Billy Bob Thornton, a correctional officer who is overcome as he leads a prisoner to the electric chair. Later he asks if Thornton hates him. His father answers yes. Ledger shoots himself, saying that he always loved him. It’s a torturous scene, sublimely acted… now it seems even sadder.

My thoughts go out to Ledger’s family, his young daughter… this must be so difficult and to live it through the media’s gaze can only make it worse. The coverage was live as Ledger’s body was being taken from his apartment and you could hear the cameraman saying “I’ve got the shot”, others crowding round. Not to mention that apparently Ledger’s parents first heard of his death through a radio report… death isn’t entertainment. Can’t they show a little respect?

Sometimes the media just goes too far. We see it every day with a story about Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or a dozen other celebrities; there are no boundaries and we just need to look at Anna Nicole Smith to see how it can end. I hope that hasn’t played a part here as well but if it has, shouldn’t we bear some responsibility? We’re attracted to it like a train wreck. At what point do we look away and say they’ve gone too far? Or don’t we even care?

The thing which disturbs me the most is that Ledger seemed distressed by his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. He called the character a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” and it left him mentally exhausted. Perhaps sometimes actors can go too far in pursuit of their art, get so lost that they can’t find their way back. … surely no role is worth that.

No matter how many films I see, in my mind he’ll always be the 16 year old just starting his career, with so much promise… rest in peace, Heath. We’ll miss you and remember you, always.

Show a little respect

I went shopping in the sales the other day. It was murder. They’d already been on for a week but the crowds were worse than before Christmas. I’m not a good shopper at the best of times but the sales bring out the worst in me; I wander off and end up buying things I know I don’t need. And my cursing the queues doesn’t make me much fun to shop with. Maybe it’s just that I’m a guy and can think of a dozen ways I’d rather spend a Saturday afternoon, but looking through Myer with thousands of people just doesn’t appeal to me.

But I needed a couple of new shirts, so off I went. And soon regretted it. As soon as I was in Myer the sales people started coming over, wanting to know if they could “help”. Well, I don’t know if they could have helped or not, because they didn’t give me enough time to work out what I wanted. “Do you want to try that on?” Try what on? I wasn’t holding anything! When people bother you that much I think they’re not concerned with “helping” you as much as wanting to make sure you’re not shoplifting. Why don’t they go judge some other book by its cover. 😕

Anyway, it must be Murphy’s Law or something because nothing went right. One reason I went up was to return a shirt from before Christmas; that went fine, and I finally found a couple of shirts that fitted properly. Then I didn’t think about it again until I got back home and started unpacking. And found they’d put the shirt I’d returned back in with the others! It felt like Groundhog Day. How do you do that? They’re separate transactions; the first thing you do is put it in the returns chute. No big deal, though; I’d just find the receipt to prove I’d returned it and take it back when I went up next.

Except they didn’t give me the frelling return receipt. Suddenly I was having visions of doing the right thing and taking it back – only to be arrested for shoplifting. It would be so typical. So I did the sensible thing and called Myer. Luckily there was no problem, but their response surprised me. They accepted my word for it and didn’t even check their records. If anything they seemed stunned that someone would go out of their way to help. Most people don’t apologise for mistakes in case they’re sued, but they apologised five times in two minutes – a record for me.

I took it back earlier and again had that same reaction. It reminded me of when I helped someone with her pram a couple of weeks ago, that same unexpected but grateful look. It seems strange that such a small thing might be appreciated so much, but in a way it makes sense. Standing somewhere for hours at a time, making the same sales and returns, taking the same abuse, must be tiring. Perhaps coming across someone who isn’t complaining and is just trying to help is noticeably different; perhaps they’re so used to people keeping things after a mistake that someone returning it seems unusual. Either way, it was better than I was expecting.

It’s funny the places we find respect, isn’t it? I remember when I was studying that respect seemed quite common; respect between students, between teachers and students. It seemed like a natural thing to be respectful and something I thought would be true later, but respect is something we seem to be losing in society now. It’s the same as showing people common courtesy; it’s become unexpected and stands out when it happens. Strangely respect has become less important in the workplace. Between colleagues it’s there but people work hard and if something isn’t their duty, it’s not their place to do it; that’s not necessarily wrong, but it says a lot for how aware they are of what’s happening outside of their environment. A handyman is expected to do his work because he’s being paid for it; there’s no need to pay him respect as well and say thanks, nor for the handyman to pay you respect and clean up after himself. Someone can choose to smoke while they’re waiting for a bus to work, but it’s not their place to show respect and stand back so everyone else doesn’t breathe it in; we can always move, after all. It’s that kind of attitude that, in my opinion, is why respect and courtesy are becoming rarer.

It’s sad that they are. Our interactions say so much for who we are as individuals and as a society; paying someone respect can change the way they feel about themselves, and others, and who knows what difference that might make in their lives? Just as important, I think, is showing respect between cultures. It’s always been important that we learn about other cultures so that we can appreciate both their uniqueness and their similarities, but perhaps it’s even more important now that the ‘net has made the world so much smaller. We’re interacting more regularly, both through personal relations and through governments, and if we don’t show respect and a willingness to learn about each other, there’s always the risk of a misunderstanding.

What’s interesting, though, is that there’s a time to be respectful and a time not to be. We can go so far in the other direction that our interactions can become stilted and formal, which is just as bad as then respect means nothing. And likewise, sometimes you need to be brutally honest with a person or to be rude to convey a greater message. I’ve received some of the most wonderful feedback from people like Greg Bear and Jodi Picoult, and several amicable rejection letters. But the ones that have really made a difference to me are the most brutal rejections I’ve received. Some of them said horrible things, particularly to a sixteen year old who was just learning to write; some of them literally tore me to shreds and compared me as being much “less of a writer” than writers I’d never dream of emulating. But after a day or two I stopped being angry and read through them again, and I actually learnt a lot from them, particularly regarding presentation and the weaker parts of my writing style. I made largely cosmetic changes to those stories and most were subsequently published, if in smaller markets. They were lessons I had to learn and while I’d rather have had a different messenger, I doubt I would have learnt as much. Sometimes being respectful isn’t always the best option, if it hides the truth.

But in most cases I believe showing people respect and courtesy says so much about who we are, who I am, that I try to make a difference where I can. I think showing someone a small kindness is priceless and can mean so much to them… that’s why I was stunned to see what happened to timethief. I don’t want to go too much into what happened again as there are other accounts, but TT was the most active volunteer in the WordPress forums; she has helped countless thousands of bloggers on WordPress, but has now been rendered inactive. The WordPress staff paid her little respect for her service; disrespecting her and options in public, then being made inactive and for days every comment timethief made on blogs started going to Akismet. I never imagined TT’s volunteering would end like this, and much as I have defended and recommended WordPress in the past I’m angry about this. It’s no way to treat your users and it’s damaged the community around WordPress, which is its greatest strength.

To timethief, thank you for your time volunteering, and for helping me and many others when we first arrived. I’m sorry it came to this. Sometimes I think people forget we’re human beings because of the way we communicate online, and this would not be acceptable in the offline world. All I can offer you, and all of the volunteers, is my respect, and I hope it’s enough.

In a previous post I said I wanted to start doing something kind for someone each day as a way of showing that courtesy isn’t dead. Well, now I want to add something to that. I want to show people more respect as well, to thank them for their friendship, and to not take them for granted… that can start now, with the people reading this. Thank you. And if you’ve actually managed to get to the end of this long post, thank you again. 😉