The Fable of the Fable

There once lived a Regular Person with regular talents and regular desires, including the one that most regular people have: to be less regular and more extraordinary, to be more like an exalted Them and less like an unheralded Us. 

So, despite her regular looks — some would unkindly say that she was not even regular, but below average, even homely, which somehow made her quest for recognition more heartbreaking and pathetic — she entered a televised talent competition, where she would do the one thing she did a wee bit better than most people: sing.

That no one apart from opportunistic television producers would normally pay attention to her unexceptional warbling, let alone buy a ticket to hear her perform, did not dissuade her from bravely parading her doughy figure, unkempt hair, and unfashionable clothes before the cameras. After all, she had a germ of talent, albeit not the kind that had ever garnered her any sort of serious notice after decades of effort. But she could passably carry a tune, her voice strong if not powerful, warm if not smoldering, a voice that was not altogether unpleasant. She was almost in her Fifties, and, just like many other regular people, she had settled for a life of loneliness and anonymity, of imaginary concerts given in her shower and real ones given at her church, along with other regular people who could play the piano a bit, or tell some jokes, or create a dance routine set to familiar melodies.

So she did it! She signed up and waited in line at the auditions and impressed upon the junior minders how badly she wanted a chance , just one chance, to fulfill her dream, a dream that she had dreamed every day and every night, praying, actually, for a one-in-a-million opportunity to make an impression, to be something more than regular, if only for two minutes, on national television.

The junior minders immediately recognized in the Regular Person many of the traits their superiors were seeking: unthreatening familiarity spiced with a hint of eccentricity; a certain lack of sophistication and polish, which was somehow terribly endearing; sincerity uncomplicated by the irony or cynicism typically found in those who understood how show business really works. Plus, she could sing a little. (Not great, or even very good, but fair enough.) They notified the senior minders, who instantly agreed that this was a story they could sell, an easily repeated fable that wouldn’t require much explication or promotion: thanks to YouTube and email, the story would tell itself.

Someone had the inspired idea to amplify the pathos of the Regular Person’s situation by training the cameras on the disbelieving faces of the judges as they gazed upon this new and unlikely contestant. They were a tough lot. One of them, in fact, had become rich and famous by making maliciousness a kind of sport. The judges performed perfectly: When the Regular Person marched to the microphone, the panel’s body language (subtly raised eyebrows and morosely shaken heads) communicated their collective disbelief. This was the best the producers could do? The studio audience shared their dismay, and the director demonstrated the group skepticism, undoubtedly shared by everyone watching at home, by employing several well-timed cut-away shots. Nicer people would have disguised their smirking and their tittering at the sensationally un-sensational Nobody standing before them. But this was the cut-throat world of entertainment, where fools are suffered neither gladly nor patiently. The applicant standing there beside the microphone looked nothing like a star; she behaved nothing like a star. She was, well, regular, clearly one of the lumpen masses, not a made member in the clan of fabulousness.

Everyone was prepared for a few moments of painful comedy, and then the inevitable groaning, the abrupt hook, and the judges’ cruel barbs passed off as an honest evaluation. Pitiful, wasn’t it?

Then the Regular Person spoke about herself. The story she told was one of modesty and dreams deferred, of silly hopes and fervent wishes; of being a virgin in more ways than one. Essentially, it was the story that all Regular People understand to be the narrative of their life.

It was touching, her talking was, an ingenuous, naif-in-the-bright-lights declaration of just how important –and, therefore, how excruciating — her one shining moment would be in the otherwise drab monotony of her regular life.

Poor thing. So doughty, so unglamorous. So regular. One felt guilty watching her, the proverbial fish out of water, doing something she had no business doing. But this was a televised talent contest. This was a democracy. This was a meritocracy. This was that rare milieu where wrongs could be righted and attention paid to Regular People who believed in themselves, even as everyone around them snickered. Who couldn’t relate to that? Who didn’t understand that story?

Funny or heartbreaking: it didn’t matter anymore. The Regular Person had been successfully manufactured into a character in a fable, a simple story, a familiar yarn that anyone who had ever been an underdog could easily comprehend.

Then something magical happened. The Regular Person began to sing — and not just any song. Hers was a song about dreaming dreams, about wanting something that one can never have, except in fairy tales. To those who had somehow missed the affecting exposition, to those who were oblivious of her contextualizing story, she sounded as she always did: perfectly OK, someone you wouldn’t mind having in your choir or at a drunken karaoke party. But to everyone who knew her background, who knew the fable, the Regular Person sounded immeasurably better, unfathomably more appealing, dramatically compelling. She was not who she had been thirty seconds earlier; she was amazing. She was magnificent. She was an inspiration to us all.

The crowd rose to its feet, applauding wildly. The judges wiped tears from their eyes and guiltily admitted how shallow and narrow-minded they had been. The host shook his head in amazed disbelief.

And most magical of all: the Regular Person, if you looked carefully, had vanished. Her body and face and simple clothes were still there, as they had been all along. But she had been utterly transformed, as if by a powerful potion concocted by a mad wizard. She was no longer just another forgettable dreamer among millions of equally ambitious and unremarkable souls. She was now a star, and her life and the lives of all who had watched and understood the lesson of her story, would never be the same.

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