The Wisdom of the Ordinary

“Sometimes I dream of being a good father and good husband. Sometimes that feels really close, but other times it just seems silly, and that it would ruin my life… If I’m totally honest with myself, I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have been in a really nice, caring relationship.”

Jesse, in Before Sunrise, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan

 

16092263739_4d743c338dAs I write this, Richard Linklater’s feature film Boyhood is enjoying a good deal of ‘Oscar buzz.’ The movie, shot over a 12-year period with the same set of actors, has received five separate nominations for an Oscar, and has just won ‘Best Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.

I’ve long been a fan of Linklater’s work, ever since first viewing Slacker in 1991. I haven’t yet seen Boyhood. I’m sure it’s a fine movie, but I also wonder if Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy of movies, employing the same set of actors over a nearly 20-year period, isn’t just as worthy an accomplishment.

Linklater is an unusual filmic storyteller in a number of ways, not the least of which is his propensity to focus in upon intellectual concerns in his movies, as opposed to the emotional terrain traversed in more conventional films. The quote above is taken from the first of the movies comprising the Before trilogy. It tells the story of two young people who meet on a train approaching Vienna one evening, and then, in unplanned fashion, get off the train together in Vienna, and spend the entire night ‘walking and talking’ through the streets. Hardly the stuff of your typical American movie.

They debate questions like that quoted above: whether it is better to excel at some particular practice, be it creative or commercial or academic, than it is to be a good father, husband, wife or mother. I don’t want to be unfair to the script—a counter argument to the position quoted above is immediately offered by another character—but I think that the question is often misconstrued. For most of us, it’s not quite an either-or proposition.

Those who truly excel at a practice do so through some rare combination of talent, drive and luck. The talent quotient is ‘god given,’ if you will; the drive portion often does indeed come at the expense of personal relationships, and the luck component; well, there isn’t much any of us can do about ensuring that happens for us. Good luck typically amounts to being in the right place at the right time with the right ‘product.’

It’s a mug’s game for the 95% of us who are not the overachievers to compare ourselves to the 5% who are, even though this is precisely what celebrity culture would have us do on a daily basis. We’re better off looking to the wisdom of older, ordinary people, those who’ve lived, loved and worked in a more quotidian realm. These folks will have come through the bulk of their lives to a point where they’re feeling more or less content, having learned some important lessons along the way, and they will now likely be willing to share some of what they’ve learned. This is exactly what I attempted to do in a personal documentary I made few years back called What Happyns (available for free streaming here).

To measure yourself against the rich, famous or powerful is a surefire way to make yourself feel inadequate, if not miserable. No, better to understand that it’s a regular game you’re playing, alongside regular people. The rewards that come with great riches, fame and power are of course material, but they’re also largely ego-based. To achieve great success in a career is to feel privileged, exceptional. But beyond a certain point in your life you’ll come to realize that those sorts of rewards don’t mean so much.

We should all applaud the achievements of Richard Linklater, if only because his movies make us (me) think, rather than just feel. Tip your hat to the guy, say thanks, and then press on in your ordinary life. It’s all you’ll ever need.

Where We Live

“Chicago, on the other hand, was not built for people to come together but for them to be safely apart. Size, power, and the need for privacy seemed to be the dominant dimensions of its architecture. Vast as it is, Chicago ignored the distinctions between freedom and isolation, between independence and selfishness, between privacy and loneliness.”

             Aleksandar Hemon, from The Book Of My Lives

 

Aleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, where he knew his neighbours and they knew him, where anonymity was “well-nigh impossible.” He was stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, so settled there, learning English and before long becoming an accomplished writer. He eventually grew to appreciate Chicago, even writing an article entitled 20 Reasons Why I Do Not Wish To Leave Chicago in 2000, but, as indicated by the passage quoted above, it was not an easy adjustment.

He walked about the city endlessly, trying to know its neighbourhoods, seeking out a connection like the one he knew with Sarajevo, with the residents and the built environment that would help tell him who he was.

Growing up in a small town, as an angst-ridden teenager I couldn’t wait to escape to the anonymity of a big city. I regularly walked about town as well, and I clearly recall finding insufferable the knowledge that, as I walked about, I was constantly being observed by people I knew, either from their passing vehicles, or out the windows of their homes and businesses.

Home version 1 domo k photo
Home version 1
domo k photo

As with nearly all the immaterial conditions of our lives, when it comes to the distinctions Hemon mentions, between “freedom and isolation,” between “privacy and loneliness,” we seek a balance not easily achieved. In Vancouver, the neighbourhood my wife and I live in—that is the zone where we actively know and interact with certain people—is immediate, within a few blocks of where we reside. Beyond that small zone, anonymity is not hard to attain.

On Galiano, our home is secluded, at the end of a long wooded lane; we can sometimes hear but never see our neighbours. Privacy is guaranteed, though, as we move about on the island, we are rarely anonymous. But the balance is off; especially during the long, dark winter months the isolation is too much, requiring an effort to get out and interact, or travel to the city.

Home version 2 p. sebastien photo
Home version 2
p. sebastien photo

One unavoidable factor in this consideration is that we are all the malleable product of our immediate social and physical environment. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but inevitably you will become a different person as you stay in different places. As much as anything, the ‘climate of opinion’ that you are living within will seep through your pores, into your bones, eventually causing you to think, feel and behave differently, if only it is to sometimes remain silent. And this is never more so than it is with children.

Thus it behooves us to think carefully about, and hopefully choose just as carefully where we will live. Especially so if you have, or plan to have children. They will be different beings, depending on where you choose to raise them.

There is a time in your life when it is easier to resettle, and it is earlier in your life, not later. We all know of people who have tried to make this transition at the age of retirement, and how problematic that has been. When you are young, eager to engage socially and professionally, recreationally and vocationally, it happens naturally, as a consequence of that needed engagement.

I like to think that my wife and I have achieved some kind of balance, living both downtown and at the end of a long wooded island lane, but life never stops throwing changes at us, and so it requires constant adjustment. The scales tip easily, and so we have to constantly seek a new balance, a new sense of community. Walking about helps it seems, and that happens for us more often in the city. On Galiano we are more often out of doors, more active in ways other than walking, and that too helps.

Choosing where to live is not so much about choosing the city or the country or both. It’s about choosing who you want to be, or become.