Thursday, August 14, 2014

Permanent Vacation

Every time I think about scrubbing routine, I think about the end of

"The Graduate"

Here's a guy, Ben, who has always played the straight and narrow, done everything in life he had planned up to the end of college. And then, he scrubs routine.

Most everyone wants to change course, and each for his own reasons.Ben does it for a woman -- well, if you want to get technical, two women. But it's the daughter, Elaine Robinson, he really wants. And as he steals her away from the arranged wedding in Santa Barbara, the two hop a bus and plop down in back with unchecked daffiness.
Hey, baby.
Next, the impulse is over and they've gotten what they wanted, their smiles wither. Endorphins settle. As Simon and Garfunkle swell and the credits roll, you can see Ben and Elaine thinking the same thing: what now, then? wanna grab some dinner?
You may have a different read on it, but I think the answer is pretty clear: they regret. For Ben and Elaine, they realize the feeling that most of us fear when we consider scrubbing our routine for something that might just turn out to be a flash-in-the-pan impulse. They sit on that bus, and they regret.

I just got back from vacation. Vacations can be dangerous. Sure, you're free of work; you can relax, get in touch with your non-work self. But if you get too comfortable, you see yourself too well in another light -- what you might be like if you lived in this place. Needless to say, it's always sexier than the kind of person you are back home. 
The Love Tester in a Nashville bar. Like I said, sexy.

But man, this vacation...

I went to Nashville, Indiana. Sounds like a joke, 
right? I know it doesn't sound like a place you take unpaid time off work to go see. Frankly, I thought the same. I went up there to see my longtime late-nite TV idol, Joe Bob Briggs, host a B Movie Festival at the Brown County Playhouse. The show was great, of course; I mean, this guy's my hero. He could've stood on stage and spun plates -- poorly -- and I would've thought it was genius. But it was when I left the 
theater, when I walked down the main drag of the town, and when I branched off into the little avenues and plazas of Nashville, with their casual diners and low-key coffee shops, knick-knack craft boutiques and bookstores that I really began to feel transported, almost out-of-body. I felt like I lived there.

I felt like I could live there. 

I kept thinking about Nashville, even after a quick detour in beautiful Chicago. And after an eleven hour-plus drive home, I got on the Internet, and began researching what it would take to live there. 

Like I said, vacations can be dangerous.

But why do I feel they're dangerous? Because they let me sample something else for a change?  

When I was a kid, I actively tried breaking through to my adult self, spinning into internal monologue, trying to give that guy twenty years down the pike one simple message: "You're free, stupid. You don't have to go to school; you don't have parents telling you what to do. You are your own agent!" 

I guess you're right, you schizophrenic ten-year old jerk. Only problem is, you're also not. Let's go back to "The Graduate".

Ben isn't his own agent, even though he is a lone gun. He stands to lose A LOT with his flash impulse to get Elaine. For one thing, ending up with Elaine would mean going head-to-head with her mother, whom he's just spent the last hour of the flick with in a secret sexy rendezvous. Yes, getting Elaine would expose the illicit affair with Mrs. Robinson, which would unravel dealings between Ben's father and his law partner, Mister Robinson. And now that Ben has complicated matters further by running off with the daughter, Ben and Elaine -- bankrolled by their parents all their lives -- will now be financially severed and on their own. And say goodbye, Ben, to any future job offers, as your entire network of professional contacts lies in your disgraced father's address book. Drag.

Getting the picture? There are consequences to scrubbing routine. You can't just start from scratch. It'd be something if I could tell that ten-year old jerk this, but then again, maybe better not to. It would crush his spirits and encourage him to do even WORSE in school. Next stop for him: the corner liquor store and a Kellog's Fun Pack of Wild Irish Rose.

One of the great filmmakers ever is Albert Brooks, just because he doesn't take shit from "The Graduate". I think his entire career has been based on re-writing the ending to that movie, or at least elaborating on it.

Life is good! (as long as we've got the Nest Egg)
Like Ben, Albert Brooks's protagonists (also played by Albert Brooks) make wily, impulsive decisions which alter their entire lives. Also like Ben, these choices are made as an illogical reaction to an immediate problem. Ben needs to escape with Elaine before she marries some other doof, just as Robert Cole in "Modern Romance" needs to marry his girlfriend before she dumps him. In "Lost in America", David Howard decides to 'drop out of society' after being fired from his job.

"The Graduate" is great because anyone who has ever had a flash impulse can relate to it; we may find it cathartic to find Ben throwing his future away in one grand romantic gesture. We may find it so great, in fact, that we misinterpret the ending as a triumph of human courage. Now, I know many folks may watch the movie and see the ending for the downer it really is, but the first time I saw it I genuinely thought it was more uplifting than "The Shawshank Redemption" -- until I got a little salt on my skin and noticed the dire consequences our impulsive actions really weigh on us. This, of course, was around the time I began to notice Albert Brooks.  

I made a big mistake.
Brooks is a guy who dives in head first, shows the grim face of what happens to people after they're impulsive. Unlike "The Graduate", he makes no attempt to disguise the nightmare of it all. This is why Brooks movies always start where "The Graduate" left off -- you know, after the giddiness fades. For Robert Cole, he becomes miserable in his relationship; For David Howard, he loses all his money -- his 'Nest Egg' -- in Vegas. Of course, Brooks's movies are billed as comedies, but they're in no way funny to the people who are in them. That's why they work. They let us sit back, laugh and scoff at our alternate realities -- the paths we chose not to take, thanks to our natural fear of scrubbing routine.  

So yes, I've been doing a lot of thinking since vacation. I've been thinking about moving. Thinking that I like Nashville, Indiana. I liked the people, and who I was when I was there. It was definitely a small town with a modicum of tourism because it was small, but not exploitative in that secluded mountain quaintness style like you might find in Gatlinburg, Tennessee or Helen, Georgia. It made me connect with that ten-year old jerk rattling off mission statements: maybe I am free; sure I'd get into a bevy of financial problems, and consequences of that sort will follow me if I up and move...but, most likely, it'll only hurt for a short while, and before you know it, I'll be upright and on the ground again...right?

See, all week I've been coming back to the same spot: am I really thinking clearly, or is this just an impulsive desire to scrub routine? Does it really matter, anyway?

Think for a second if Albert Brooks did "The Graduate", and the flick started right when Ben and Elaine hop the bus. Where would those forlorn faces, having just turned a distinct one-eighty, take them? First, they'd probably go get some dinner; Ben did just drive half-way up the Northern coast of California without stopping to eat, and Elaine was probably saving her appetite for the wedding reception later that night. But after that, it would most likely turn into a nightmare of bad decisions and harsh, unforeseen logistics. Oh, and let's not forget they've only been on one date, so there's a metric ton of flaws they don't know about each other. Remember "Lost in America", when David's wife, Linda, reveals she has a gambling problem -- after she loses the Nest Egg? And they're MARRIED for God's sake!

But even Brooks, practical storyteller that he is, wouldn't leave it in the dumps. Well, the ending might still be a little sour -- even open-ended -- but there is always that resolve that "The Graduate" can't give it's characters. Just look at David Howard in "Lost in America". This guy has eight hundred bucks to his name, taken away from over $100k after a single night's layover in Sin City. He's a bum with a motor home, forced to take a job as a school crossing guard in Safford, Arizona. When it looks like he can't get any lower, he has a revelation: this sucks. 

"Just run me over while you're at it. That's ok!"
He sees that he's no good on his own. Dropping out of society was a bad idea, and he finds that he actually needs 'to eat shit'. He needs to be a part of that corporate machine, fall in line with the degrading white collar pecking order. So, he packs up and moves to the city to pursue his old lifestyle -- except now he has an improved perspective.

So this is some hot, good news for the choices we make, whether they be impulsive or planned: the more unfortunate path is the one where you don't scrub routine. In fact, it really makes you dumb. Sure, maybe the worker bee, humdrum life I'm living really is meant for me -- as it's meant for David Howard. Maybe the life that waits for me in Nashville, Indiana will find me broken and destitute, but, if nothing else, I'll be wiser -- not dumber! I know 'wiser' don't always cut the moose, or put bread on the table...but these days, after college is over and all I have to do is work, what else can I trust in to do new things with this life, or learn about this world?

Again, my God, this could just be impulse rationalization taking over my brain, tempting me to ruin my life. How can I know for sure?

Well, here's one last thing...

The Law of Gravity says everything must come down to its proper place. A ball can sit on the ground for a hundred years. It may be flicked up the slope for a few chaotic, disorienting seconds, but it'll always find its place again: back on the ground. Ben knows he wants something different. It may be Elaine Robinson, or it may just be to get his sneakers dirty. But he has to try something new, if only to see where he'll end up. David Howard may not know this when he 'drops out of society', but he definitely knows it after his wife gets a management job at Der Weinershnitzel.   

Sure, a ball doesn't have a mouth, and it doesn't have to eat -- but, yeah, it knows where it'll end up, even after a little rolling around. I guess that would be good enough for me. 

Ramen's still .25 cents a pack, right?

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