Maybe I'm numbing
It's hard to come to grips with the reality that just happened, even to myself.
9,000 miles?? REALLY? In a 1966 convertible with no A/C and no cruise control? And with the top down 70% of the time? Through 21 states over a span of one month? Across TX and the Gulf Shores, down to Orlando, along the coast of Northern FL to South Carolina and then up into the Smokies? Across TN and up to Chicago - to the upper Wisconsin lakeshore and then again full across to Montana, dropping down through Yellowstone and then Salt Lake and thru Nevada and then home?
Maybe it was a dream.
I don't say that facetiously, reality is bizarre sometimes.
For example when you're doing 600+ miles from Fargo to Billings and the road has literally no bends - like for a hundred miles - you wonder things like:
"Was I born on this road?"
"Will I die on this road?
"Have I really appreciated my bed? Like the actual softness of it, the smell of clean sheets, the peacefulness of the morning between 6:30 and 7 ish?"
And then inevitably on to food:
"What does the first bite of a rib-eye steak taste like?"
Is different. Every trip unique. I've said it before but here it is fresh:
"We find after years of struggle that we don't take a trip, a trip takes us." - John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley In Search of America
So this trip, which bore similarities to other trips, such as when I bought the convertible in the first place, landed in Indianapolis and then drove the Northern route back through the SD Badlands and Mount Rushmore, through Montana and Idaho and Nevada, to the soul searching trip of four years ago, mimicking Steinbeck's route pretty well, in fact doing the same 10,000 miles over four months, is different.
Different how? Well for one...
The thing of which we cannot speak
When a District-9 like formation appears hovering over the world, it makes things different.
Back to death
I was in Tennessee on July 3rd at a friends' house with four kids and one (inevitably) started talking about Star Wars because of a t-shirt he saw me wearing in my latest movie. The boy in the house, about 10 I think, asked if I knew about Star Wars. I said, yeah I know a little.
I asked the boy, "do you remember when Obi Wan died?"
The boy's face dropped a bit, and he admitted yes, he did remember.
I know as a five year old kid I was the most angry I'd ever been at a movie and whoever made the movie when I saw the onscreen death live in '77.
I continued "Why did Obi Wan have to die?"
"Well," he thought, I guess because he was old and he couldn't fight Darth Vader.
"Good answer" I said, "but what happened after Obi Wan died? Who saved the day by swinging across the canyon and saving Princess Leia?"
The boy thought for a minute. His face brightened a bit.
"Right, I said. And as long as Obi Wan remained Luke would have remained Luke the farmer, would have continued to rely on Obi Wan, used him as a crutch, for instruction but also assuming that he would always know what to do, would protect and have wisdom that Luke simply didn't have yet - even just based on life experience."
"But most importantly," I said "Obi Wan let himself be killed. Do you see that?"
The boy looked confused again.
"He let himself be killed so Luke could step right into the empty space that opened up when he died. If Obi Wan had lived Luke wouldn't have grown up." I finished and let him sit with that one.
The boy thought for a moment and I could see the wheels turning.
"Ohhhh" he said.
Again herrre's Blake!
Regular readers may tire but man he just nails it. Blake Snyder the screenwriting guru labels this moment in his seminal Hollywood-changing screenwriting 101 book Save The Cat! the 'Whiff of Death.'
Why do we need death in a 90 minute screenplay? Even in a comedy? Well glad you asked...
In a nutshell, death brings life.
From a forest fire to a good steak, death actually produces new beginnings. But I did say I'd use a comedy example right? Ok let's look at a pure comedy like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. The 'whiff of death' is perfectly placed around the All is Lost moment towards the end of Act II. I know "english please" - and I said I'd keep it short so here goes. Before we can wrap up Act II - the upside down world where everything crazy happened - and we enter the going forward world of Act III, our hero or heroine has to literally lose everything right? They've gotta be tested and pushed to the absolute brink.
Remember Job? Read your Bible because even if you're not a follower of Jesus it's full of great (and relevant even to the sleaziest Hollywood producer) stories and story archetypes. Job loses everything as a test from Satan to prove to God that Job only trusts God when everything's going well. His crops, his livestock, his home, then his family and finally his health and yep even his friends. I've no idea if this is the all-time first example of this losing everything thing but the story of Job is pretty old as far as historical writings so it's probably pretty close.
Talk about whiff of death! Let's squeeze the rental car between two semi-trucks on the freeway in the middle of the night because it's going the WRONG WAY! And speaking of Satan let's even dress up John Candy as the forked one himself! Genius!
That's how close to death Steve Martin needs to get to realize that his family is the most important thing. I know you're tearing up even now right? Because death in a good story - even the whiff of death - NEVER gets old. Never tires. Never goes out of style.
For followers who already know the story my whiff of death on this epic 9,000 mile trip actually came early. It was more like Mufasa than Obi Wan.
Day three from Los Angeles and we had already bombed through El Paso to a little artsy community in the South Western part of TX called Marfa. Known for the 'Marfa lights' and a Prada store in the middle of nowhere it's actually got more going on than you might think.
The quick = a beautiful sunset - searching for the Marfa lights - driving back to the campsite when a solo antelope quietly saunters off the plains and into my lane while I'm looking at a gorgeous Texas sky and BAM!
How gorgeous was the sunset to distract me? This:
Once I calmed down and came to grips with dent number four to the Chrysler I drug the beautiful beast off the road and made my peace with taking its life. A bit more than just a whiff eh?
So did it work?
In a nutshell -
After the hit, after the car slid sideways on the wide Texas blacktop, then slid the other way bouncing into the ditch on the other side of the road and stopped I wondered if we were done. For a brief moment I thought of what really mattered. Did my 'America Unmasked' project come to mind? My opinions on the Corona Virus or sheltering in place orders? Did my inevitable job search which would most likely commence upon my return come to mind?
I thought about one thing: surviving. I thought about not flipping the car. About living another day and paying more attention while driving. Did I need to be reminded to pay more attention to driving at the beginning or at the end of a crazy long road trip across a new-normal Covid-America?
See what I mean? Crazy how this stuff works out.
I needed the whiff of death of hitting that antelope to take the trip - and therefore life - seriously.
I know, I'm sure Mrs. Antelope appreciates the lesson too.
Cool streets don't matter
I should be honest - I have an extreme pendulum swing of success when it comes to letting go. At moments I can toss something harmful away like a sack of wet mice - quit an awful job, put an end to a debilitating pattern, or rid myself of a burden at 2am in a rash state of clarity. But at other times I can linger waaay too long on a failed relationship, on a dream that's passed and needs to be put to rest, etc.
So back to John.
If you know Steinbeck you know he's from the Salinas Valley in California, a central coast farmland of migrant workers and nearby touristy seafood. In the first chapter the reader learns that he doesn't live in his hometown as a semi-retired and world-known author, he resides on the posh end of Long Island, in Sag Harbor.
When he passes through his home of Salinas on this trip it's with good intentions, dropping into a favorite bar to see what's changed, and what hasn't, when he runs smack into reality.
His home isn't what he remembers. He notes something so interesting: that there are two versions of home and they are colliding. His memory of home is colliding with the reality of a bar that looks more dingy, a street thats more worn, friends that have died and have left an emptiness in their absence.
He recoils at this, at the reality of memories vs. change.
His next action?
Get the hell out.
So when did my home die?
I'm thinking there are three spots where my home could have died:
- 2007-08 when my roommates got married and moved out and I quit my sales job to move to LA to write screenplays. I left and had no regrets.
- 2011 when my dad died (even though he didn't live here) and I felt less of a connection to places in general. Or finally...
- 2016 when I took the a soul searching road trip for four months thinking I might not come back at all.
But it doesn't really matter does it. What matters is acknowledging that it is in fact dead. Not a bad death. Not an evil death. Not a good death. Just a death. Firm and done. A death that means life is somewhere other than here.
"But you can't find happiness by moving Alden, c'mon man"
Nope you sure can't.
But what if you're happy now and you take your happy with you?
Then it doesn't matter where you are right? Here. There. On the side of the road in Texas with a bloody headlight or on a beautiful beach in South Carolina enjoying one of the better road trips you've ever taken.
If one is truly happy, and free of burdens or expectations (from which its taken a looong time to wrestle away from) then it just doesn't matter where the road leads right? As long as it's somewhere that life can flourish. Somewhere that community can be found, that a soul can be at peace and work can be fulfilling, or at least profitable.
Can I visit? Maybe. Maybe not. But the sooner I pay my respects the sooner I can move on, not to grieve, but to live.
I'm thankful for death. Death that brings life. For an amazing trip and even a new dent in the Chrysler, because that smack may just have smacked me to seek not just a new job or project or film, but to better make my days count.
How do I make my days count when I've already made films, traveled well, cultivated friendships, and built memories?
As my roadtrip co-pilot said towards the end of the road:
"Great trip but 28 days in that car is rough - if you find a woman who can stand seven hold on to her tight and do whatever to keep her happy" - Thanh Ly
Yup time to go fertilize daffodils.