From Romper Room to Rebus

Ms Betty
Is there anything nicer than seeing yourself reflected?

When I was five I sometimes watched a show called Romper Room. I recognized that it was tepid pap for four year olds, but I stuck it out, because at the end of the show Miss Betty held up a magic hand mirror and told us who she could see. A shiver of anticipation ran through me: maybe today she would finally see me. (I was reasonably certain she couldn’t actually see any of us, but I really really wanted to hear my name.)

About this name, David: in that era, most boys were named David. Fact. North America was infested with us. Fifteen years later, when you saw a poster for a band called People’s Republic of Dave, you thought, yeah, un-hunh.

I was not, in other words, waiting to hear “Bartholomew” or “Fyodor”.


In my twenties I often watched a late night show called Night Ride. They stuck a camera out the window and drove around downtown. (If that was too much for you, there was a sister show: Night Walk.) Together these were two hours of the cheapest television ever made, with the bonus, for the network, of satisfying a good chunk of its Canadian content quota requirements. (Like that’s improved. /gratuitous )

In those days, it so happened that I was Toronto’s late night walking champion. I did my rounds of 24 hour coffee shops, smoking three or four cigarettes in each as I scrawled feverishly into my notebook, putting in the first of my several 10,000 hours of mastery.

Most of those downtown coffee shops were on major streets, the kind of streets you’d drive along with a camera stuck out the window, if that was your idea of tv.


The urge to see yourself reflected is basic and primal. At its slightly abstracted level it may be part—though just part—of why I read, for example, Ian Rankin. At 2 am you’ll find Rebus power-sipping Scotch while spinning a favourite album and bitterly complaining to the world that the rhythm guitarist’s genius is neglected, and there but for the grace of parenthood go I. Not just reflected - multiplied, for among Rankin’s million readers there must be tens of thousands just like me, who think Rebus is just like us.

It is absolutely true that “we need to see ourselves reflected in our stories,” as any number of spokespeople for any number of plural-nesses have argued. A diversity of voices is essential in every one of the arts, because each of those voices is somebody’s Ian Rankin, offering the bemused and wistful sense of self-recognition, the prospect of an imaginary friend, the silent consolations that are every reader’s right.

That said, I found it just a bit disheartening to read of the Goodreads study which found that readers of both [examined] genders overwhelmingly prefer books by authors of the same gender. Because you know what’s even better than seeing yourself reflected? Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. And a shelf of books should be a compound eye, or a distributed network of inputs feeding marvels of inaccessible insight to readers in their armchairs.


Miss Betty never saw David. Not. Once.

I never saw myself on Night Ride either.

But I’ll always have Rebus.