No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I Met Commander Riker at the Bar Last Week

They'd sat down next to me at the corner of the bar, though there was plenty of room for them to sit elsewhere. I couldn't tell if he and the woman were related or actually dating. There was a tension between them that suggested they couldn't just be friends, but even so they showed no affection for each other. The two of them both had dark brown wavy hair, medium skin tone, and dark brown eyes. There was even something similar in their noses. After ordering glasses of wine they sat without speaking, almost waiting for someone else to pay them attention.

My mother has a brilliance for discovering people's life stories. But the truth is, it's a kind of uncontrolled power for her. She'll walk up in line at Home Depot and moments after handing over a hammer and nails to pay for, suddenly the cashier will be crying and discussing her tragic divorce, though she'd been calm with each customer before. Or, my mom and I will be out shopping together and suddenly she'll be finding out about a man's childhood in Korea, the youngest son of Internationally traveling ESL teachers, while I'm off looking at blush and lipstick on the other side of the counter. Her technique seems to be as simple as offering an attentive ear and just the right pressure of questions to open the vault of personal information from whomever happens to be lucky enough to engage her in even brief conversation. Having grown up observing this talent, I developed a few similar techniques of my own that I've jokingly called "putting on my mom scope."

After sitting beside the quixotic couple for at least half an hour while they sat side by side without talking, except to order their wine, I decided it was time to find out if they were romantically involved, or not. I turned on my mom scope and asked them where they were visiting from. It was obvious they were from out of town.

Within twenty minutes I'd discovered that the two had indeed been dating for over nine-months. She was visiting Flagstaff for the first time, and he was here guiding her. They'd both grown up in the Salt River Valley of Arizona, and now both lived in Scottsdale as well. He'd been unemployed for at least a year, though he used to work for the government, and she was a producer of videos. She wanted a dog but didn't have one. He rented a room close to his favorite restaurant-bar, where as she owned a house down the road from it. She was the youngest in her family and wasn't very close to them any more. He didn't have any siblings. Nine months ago they'd both visited San Francisco and happened to fly back sitting next to each other on their return flight. It was then their apparent interest in each other had sparked. Even so, beyond their being side by side at the bar, it was hard to see sparks of interest between them now. Still, I thought, they must be involved now for some reason. They must like each other somehow.

We chatted for a while. He did most of the talking. Though I found out details of both their lives, and their mutual relationship, it was he that related most of those details for the both of them, and he succeeded at avoiding any personal questions about me. It was clear he fancied himself knowledgeable about wine--he'd advise her on whatever she ordered--and that he took himself to be there to take care of her, and yet most of his attention went to talking with me. Finally he paused the conversation and then looked at me quite seriously. "Now it's time for the really important question," he said. "Kirk or Picard?"

I looked at him and laughed. "You don't even know what you just got yourself into," I responded. I'd been teaching a class on sci-fi at the university the entire semester and was used to having conversations on STAR TREK with friends as well. "The answer to that is obvious." I said.

"Oh?" he seemed pleased.

"Yes. Even the straightest men I know still say 'As long as he keeps talking, Jean-Luc can do whatever he wants with me.'"

The man laughed. "Good. Good." He responded. The conversation turned, then, into the value of Jean-Luc Picard--he was a good man, we agreed--and of THE NEXT GENERATION more generally. "I want to be Picard," the man said, and then he stared off into space for a time. Something about his silence made me wonder about him. "Who do you want to be?" he asked me.

Anyone really into STAR TREK is likely familiar with a tendency of fans to take the characters of the franchise into a kind of personality test. There are two levels of this style of question--which character do you want to be, for one; and which character do you think you actually are? Not everyone is integrated with the person they'd want to be, after all.

I laughed and told him I too admired Picard and that I took myself to be a kind of mix of Picard, Deanna, and Worf, and that I'm happy with that idea. I'm driven by principles, am a little too aware of other people's feelings, and am determined to be passionate in whatever I do. He seemed to appreciate this answer. "I want to be Picard," he said again. Again he stared quietly into space.

I turned to his girlfriend, who had been silent throughout this conversation. "Do you enjoy sci-fi too," I asked her.

"I like STAR TREK a little bit," she responded. Still they sat away from each other. I'd already tried multiple times to bring her into conversation without success so when her comment ended there, I left it. Finally she got up to go to the bathroom.

He was still staring into space quietly. Again, something about his silence intrigued me. "Tell me about why you want to be Picard," I said.

"He's such a good man. He's almost too good. He seems too ideal. I'm not sure anyone could be him. But Riker. Riker admires him so much. Riker can't even leave the ship, he admires Picard so much. He stays on the Enterprise just to keep learning all he can from Picard." The man kept focusing on Riker and began laughing talking about Riker's obnoxious behavior at different points in the NEXT GENERATION series. I realized then, it wasn't Picard he wanted to be.

In all the years since its inception in the 1980's that I've been discussing THE NEXT GENERATION with others, I have never met a person that would answer the personality question "which of the characters do you WANT to be" with the answer "Commander Riker." Riker is brash, arrogant, a touch too reactionary. He fancies himself a ladies man and a loner at the same time. He is never willing to take his own leadership role but then almost demands it inappropriately at other times. People don't even really like Riker. There just don't seem to be many reasons to WANT to be him. He seems written into the storyline just to highlight Picard's well established Captain demeanor.

I have, however, met plenty of people that will jokingly say they think they're in a Riker phase. A close friend even made the comment to me just two weeks ago that he thought he was "coming out of [his] Riker phase." The idea here is that we can all acknowledge we go through periods where we're not quite what we idealize, and yet it's just the phase of our lives that we're in. We're just going through a Riker stage of life.

But after over an hour of conversation with this man sitting a bit too close to me at the bar while his girlfriend was either silent or now in the bathroom, I realized I was sitting beside someone that actually wanted to be Riker. That wasn't in a Riker phase, but actually admired Riker and wanted to be like him. So I broached the subject. "You keep pointing out that Picard is too high an ideal. Are you sure he's who you want to be?"

"Well, I admire Picard," he said.

"Oh, yes. Of course. We all do. But admiring someone and wanting to be him don't seem to be the same thing." He nodded. "Riker admires Picard," I continued. "But Riker knows he can never actually be Picard. Riker accepts himself. It seems important for any of us to accept who we are and who we want to be both. Riker admires Picard, but he knows that's not who he is."

"Yes. Riker. Riker chooses to be himself. That's right," the man said. He was staring off into space again.

"You know, Riker gets an awful bad rap." I said. "People think they don't want to be Riker. But he's not a bad person. He comes off like a womanizer, but he never actually cheats on anyone, and he's devoted to Deanna till the very end, even when they're not together. And he admires Picard, who is a very good man. Someone could say they want to be Riker, and still totally admire Picard."

The man looked at me. "Yes. Riker is not a bad person, is he?"

"No. You could admire Picard but be Riker. Riker admires Picard." I said again.

The man wasn't staring into space anymore. He was clutching his glass of wine and looking at me. "I want to be Riker." he said. He took a deep breath and looked down into his glass of wine. He repeated himself quietly. "I want to be Riker," and then he was silent.

His girlfriend returned from the bathroom. She hadn't heard his Riker confession. He seemed relieved she'd missed it. We all sat there quietly for a while. "What do you do for a living, by the way?" he asked me. This was the first question in over an hour of talking that he'd directed at anything specifically personal about my life (beyond the STAR TREK personality test).

"I teach sci-fi at the University," I said. "I teach a class on STAR TREK."

He started laughing and turned quickly to his girlfriend, putting his arm around her for the first time since they'd entered the bar. "She teaches sci-fi at the university! She teaches a class on sci-fi at the University." he said to her. He was laughing and leaning into her. "A class on it," he said again. They were quiet for a minute while he chuckled.

Finally they stood up and said, "We've got to go." He was still chuckling to himself. "Thank you." he said reaching out to shake my hand. "Thank you." They left the bar, this time his arm wrapped around her shoulders.


  1. I have always loved Riker for his 'Imzadi' thing with Deanna. I struggle with him in many many other ways.

  2. hm... something about this real-life Riker makes me hope that he figures out how to be himself in this world, and maybe how to communicate with his g/f. the night must have gone very differently from her eyes.

  3. Wow. This was fun and totally engaging to read. I cannot add anything, for you are life-long friended to a person who knows nothing about it! :( So sorry, but, I REALLY enjoyed this. You are such an expert on this in a meaningful way that I can follow along and really appreciate what that night meant and how that conversation might have changed him and his girlfriend.

    Hmmm...I could probably volley about the characters in Breakfast Club. Who am I. I am the walrus! Hmmm...

    Loved this! <3

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