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Friday, December 21, 2012

In Coppelius’s Toyshop

Life-size toy soldiers welcome
visitors to Coppelius's Toyshop.

In her short story, “In Coppelius’s Toyshop,” Connie Willis introduces us to the largest toy store in New York City.  It’s a magical place, several stories high, and each floor is stuffed with every kind of toy or game imaginable.  As it’s Christmas, Santa Claus is there, and the line to meet him extends far outside the store.  Santa isn’t the only magical person who greets the children though.  Humpty Dumpty, Cinderella, a “gold colored robot” in the Star Wars section: all the great characters of fantasy are present.  Even Dr. Coppelius helps out, directing shoppers, handing out candy, and demonstrating his delightful toys. 

The viewpoint character is a nameless man who dates women from the office.  He introduces himself thus: “women always make a big deal about men being liars, and not telling them you’re married.”  Those he dates apparently “allow him to spend a lot of money on them, and when they finally let you talk them into going up to their apartment,” he realizes they’ll expect him to help nurture the children from their former marriages.  When this happens, he breaks up with them. 

In the story, when he reaches the apartment of the woman he’s currently dating, she apologizes she cannot go out, as her ex left her son with her, and she’s just learned her mother is in the hospital.  No, she understands he doesn’t want to take the boy along to the Knicks game, but she begs him to take her son to the street corner outside the toy store, where another woman from work will pick him up and babysit him.  But when he gets there, the boy has to go to the bathroom.  The kid starts crying when he tells him to stop, and before he knows it, Red Riding Hood has whisked the boy into the store.

Coppelius’s Toyshop is the last place he wants to be, and as he’s lost sight of Red Riding Hood and the boy, he scours the store for them.  But he keeps getting lost, the clock is ticking, and soon he’ll be late to the Knicks game.  He pushes away children who come up to him, needing an adult’s assistance, and at one point dispels a young girl’s belief in fairy tales, telling her that Rapunzel’s prince will never come, and she will remain imprisoned in her tower forever. 

We never learn what the viewpoint character has gone through to make him so self-centered and disillusioned, but he has obviously forgotten the incredible wonder of childhood, as well as how fragile and delicate their worldview is.  Children view their surroundings through a mixture of fantasy and reality.  Until others, or life events destroy their optimistic worldview, they believe that anything is possible.  But we are all children to a certain extent, and regardless of age, all of us perceive the world, and our place in it, differently.  If every person on this planet were to write down all their beliefs and viewpoints, and if such statements could be compared, I suspect that few, if any, would match up entirely.

Just as the story’s viewpoint character dashes one child’s hopes, we sometimes believe that we must destroy the misconceptions of someone we care about.  We tell ourselves that this is necessary: our friend or loved one must know the truth about a given situation.  There were certainly times that I, as a younger man, sat down with my elders and attempted to instruct them in the truth as I saw it.  But looking back on those occasions, I’m not sure that I ever succeeded in replacing their illusions with a better reality.  I suspect all that I really did was cause them pain.

Regardless of age, every person’s reality is, to a certain extent, another person’s fantasy.  All of us have at least one foot in Coppelius’s Toyshop.  And the truth can kill as swiftly as the sword.  So as necessary as the task may seem, take care when attempting to correct another’s worldview.  The hopes and dreams you end up destroying could be your own.

Dragon Dave

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