Saturday, April 03, 2010

Dragged Forward
We don't go to the movies very often, but we've seen two in the last week: "Hot Tub Time Machine" last Saturday night, and "Greenberg" last evening. From the marketing campaigns, you wouldn't think these are very similar films: "HTTM" is going for a two-toned audience of folks who appreciate gross-out teen sex comedies on their own merits, and those who liked such entertainments a couple decades ago and now appreciate them ironically, while "Greenberg" is aiming for the sort of chin-scratching indie crowd that likes more pathos and thought in their comedy.

But when the credits were rolling at the end of "Greenberg," I turned to Annie and said that it was the same movie as "Hot Tub Time Machine," and she agreed. Both revolve around men in early middle age who ponder the second half of life with deep ambivalence, considerable regret and not a little self-loathing. Maybe that resonates with us as soon to be 37 and 45 year-olds respectively. But I suspect it applies much more broadly, and I think I understand why: this notion all of us born after 1950 or so grew up with, that we're somehow entitled to perfect happiness in every sphere of our lives. Every relationship can offer perfect emotional and sexual gratification; every job should be remunerative and stimulating and satisfying; every home should be safe and functional and forever appreciating in value. When problems do arise, they're never so complicated or intractable that they can't be solved in 22 or 48 minutes.

This is, of course, total crap. Perfection isn't just impossible, but harmful as an ideal to strive for in any but the most abstract sense. Every aspect of life will bring aggravation, disappointment and pain at some point or another. "Pretty good" is as good as it gets.

In addition to the movies, I'm thinking about this in the context of my grandfather, who passed away last weekend two months short of his 94th birthday. I think he would have agreed that his life was a pretty good one: married for almost sixty years (until my Nan passed in 2003), two kids, four grandkids, lived in the same place for the last sixty years or so, comfortable enough that he retired at 62, spending the last third of his life in relative ease reading books by the gross, swimming just about every day and shooting the bull at the Abington Club a few blocks from his house. He served his country with distinction for two and a half years during WWII. He spent decades helping to promote and support Scouting. He and Nan took great vacations to the Caribbean.

But there was disappointment and unpleasantness in the story as well. Pop was accepted to Antioch College after high school, and planned to go there to write. His ambition was to go into journalism and ultimately be a newspaper publisher in a small town somewhere. But his father got sick, he had to stay close to home and work, and he went to Temple. Then he joined the Army a few months before the war broke out, met my grandmother while training, married her when he came home in '44, and reluctantly entered a textile sales career that he didn't enjoy for a company he didn't respect. He told me years later that he'd made extensive notes for a book about that experience, titled something like "Don't Let the Door Hit Your Ass on the Way Out." He never wrote it.

Nor would I say that he handled this disappointment perfectly. Even in his relatively mellow retirement, he flashed temper, and I understand it was much worse when my mom and uncle were young. And I remember him and my Nan, probably the single best person I've ever met, bickering a lot when I was a kid. On balance, though, he dealt with it. He was absolutely dependable and virtuous; his integrity and honesty were beyond anyone else I've known. He wasn't emotive or expressive, but you never doubted his heart. And he never, ever, lost his sense of humor--probably the defining trait of the man to those who didn't know him closely enough to see the deeper virtues.

As I mourn and celebrate my grandfather and move ever deeper into my 30s, I'm trying to keep this in mind--that while disappointment is inevitable (and some reflection upon the past is appropriate and human), it should never define you or obscure the good which I feel I have in abundance.

Oh, and I'd mildly recommend both movies.

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