I am riding Amtrak from Baltimore to New York City after an afternoon meeting with some teachers and administrators. The session was good—an auspicious start to a new partnership. On the other hand, they always seem to be auspicious starts, and they almost always end up as nightmares of misunderstanding and missed opportunities.
Sitting behind me is a charming young French woman who is talking with a beefy young American man. Or it’s a charming French girl and a beefy American boy. They are tiptoeing precariously on that perilous ledge between the end of kid-dom and the beginning of person-hood—that ledge you don’t notice until you’re well on the other side of it, looking back.
She has been doing most of the talking—some of it about herself, some of it about America, some of it, most charmingly, about English. She says all French-speakers have trouble differentiating between sheet and shit when they speak. Earnest Beefy Boy tries his best to teach her.
All in all, the conversation is banal and not worth eavesdropping on. But at one point, when I become bored with my book and lean back in my seat, watching New Jersey pass by, I think of these two and their more glamorous counterparts in film, as played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. And I say to myself, Look—here is a perfect movie moment happening right before your eyes. Or, rather, behind your back. Because, while it seems banal to me, it is clear that Earnest Beefy Boy is finding the moment exhilarating and magical and once-in-a-lifetime…even if he’s not in Vienna...and even if she eventually does get off the train without him. And I say to myself, Isn’t that interesting—how movies can externalize and make visible to observers what is truly magical only to those who live it themselves. And then I say to myself, And I am the observer here, not the live-r.
It’s a melancholy thought for a summer afternoon, but perhaps an appropriate thought. Here I am in my mid-forties, on a business trip, wearing a suit, with a cell phone earpiece wedged in my ear. I was never the Earnest Beefy Boy, but I am certainly no longer the Whatever-Kind-Of-Boy I was. There may be other Perfect Movie Moments waiting for me in my future, but this particular genre—the exhilarating romance of meeting strangers on a train—is not something for which I can send in my headshot and resume. I am no longer What They Are Looking For in the role. In fact, perhaps with a touch more grey in my hair to help sell it, I could be cast, now, as the Earnest Beefy Boy’s father.
And this is only a melancholy thought because we do not make movies about the Romances of life beyond being EBB’s. For us, nothing but dullness and drudgery lie beyond First Love. Our entire culture is Romeo and Juliet: young love is exciting, but let’s kill them off before they settle down and raise kids. If there is a Romance of raising children, it is not a story we know how to tell. If there is a Romance of being someone’s life partner, we can’t see it.
Pop Quiz: name a sexy married couple in movies or on TV. I can reach back to Nick and Nora Charles, and then…I’m not sure. Perhaps the TV show Hart to Hart, though I never watched it. We all know that on TV shows, a couple actually getting together is the kiss of death. Flirtation keeps a show going; consummation kills it. It is The End of everything we’re interested in. The rest of it—the making a life with someone, growing with them, compromising with them, celebrating their victories and mourning their defeats—all of that—is massively uninteresting to us, though it is what most of us spend most of our adult lives doing. We ignore it in our dramas and simply mock it in our comedies—and even when we mock adulthood, we do it from a remove. The fat, bald dad and the sexy, frustrated mom are just that—dad and mom to the kids, not particularly interesting in themselves. If plots do focus on their trials and tribulations, they focus either on the adults’ problems with their own parents, or on trivia—like whether goofy dad gets to play golf with his idiot friends.
At the front end—the people embarking on adulthood—we have some occasional focus. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy made it abundantly clear that men in their 20s didn’t know how to act or dress like grown-ups. Movies like Knocked Up focus on the challenge—and need—to step up and “act like a man.” Interestingly, though, the minute someone does “man up,” as they say, we lose interest. Grow up—we insist…but pssst: if you do, you’ll become invisible.
And so we keep our eyes firmly on our past, and wonder why we’re not still there. And we work out feverishly and dye our hair and get liposuction and god-knows-what-else to make a desperate case that we are still there. We are! We should be! The Charming French Girl should talk to me!
Well, I’m sure I didn’t have as many Perfect Movie Moments as some did in their 20s or 30s, but I surely did have some. And those Perfect Moments haven’t gone away in my 40s. They’ve just changed.
Last weekend, we took the kids to a minor league baseball game in honor of their uncle, my brother, visiting. It was a perfect night for a ball game—cool and clear. The kids were well behaved and had a lot of fun. At the very end, after the fireworks, the kids were allowed to run the bases. I stood in the stands and watched Thing 1, age seven, take off and run—an unbroken, open-field sprint, of the kind he doesn’t often have space or inspiration for. And as I watched him discover his long and lanky legs, stretching them out and pushing them forward and really running, I started cheering absurdly and waving my arms around like an idiot, as though it were the Big Race and he was Saving the Team or something. It was a completely inconsequential moment. It changed nothing. It led to nothing. It probably, in the great scheme of things, meant nothing, even to him. And yet, there he was, my boy, discovering some sliver of some part of his potential and living purely and ecstatically in the moment. And there I was, his dad, beaming with pride and cheering him on.
In a movie, I’m sure such a scene would be used to show the dad as a fool. But in my actual life, the life I'm living right now, day to day, I wouldn’t trade the moment for all the strangers on all the trains in the world.