I’ll keep this brief, but I want to let you, my blog readers, know that I started my podcast! It’s not the education podcast I envisioned when I posted about this a few months ago, but rather a show about stories of all kinds–books, movies, and anything else with a story arc (though, as I hope I showed in this first episode, that term “story arc” is a bit slippery). I’ll keep my ruminations about online teaching and learning here on the blog, and my observations about literature on the podcast–though there may be some crossover from time to time. If you like stories, listen to Episode 1 and let me know what you think!
Very early tomorrow morning, my fiance is arriving in Pittsburgh on a train to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I am already here at my parents’ house, benefiting from a work schedule that I admit is almost embarrassingly privileged (I get the whole week off) and the fact that I finished up last week at a conference in Baltimore, about 3.5 hours from my parents. Jordan, who had to work this week like a normal person, is taking an overnight train and then hitching a ride back to the Midwest with me on Friday.
Although it means waking up at an ungodly hour, I am excited to see Jordan at the station. (I’m thinking about making a little sign with his name on it.) There seems to be something inherently romantic, or at least heartwarming, about meeting loved ones at transportation hubs on holidays–just watch the end of Love Actually. Bonus points if it’s in a train station, which is inherently more romantic than an airport–just watch the middle of White Christmas. But my mom and I both went to a different movie reference today: We imagined being late to the station tomorrow morning (a distinct possibility; let’s be honest) and finding Jordan sitting forlornly on a bench with his mittens on and all his worldly possessions (or, you know, his overnight bag) sitting next to him, like Del Griffith at the end of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a movie that is actually about Thanksgiving and that I have written about twice over the past year. (This post is about the movie’s theme of “radical hospitality,” as I put it; this one consists mainly of an embarrassing story about something dumb I did, but it does reference the film several times and is also of historical interest since I wrote it shortly after meeting Jordan).
I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here: There’s something special about picking a beloved face out of a crowd. There is something special, too, about the look on the face of the person you have come to pick up. I know from my own experience that even if, unlike Del Griffith, you know someone is coming for you, there’s still a moment of relief: “Oh, they didn’t forget me.”
Keep those feelings in your heart as you celebrate Thanksgiving this week. Don’t take for granted the beloved faces around you. And don’t forget about the people who feel like they have been forgotten. Fred Rogers used to remind us to look for the child in each person we speak with. I would add: Look for the child who is afraid of not getting picked up after school. I think there’s a little bit of that child in all of us still.
In a post this past November, I argued that the John Hughes classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is about radical hospitality. I would now like to add that it is also about learning to be calm during travel mishaps. I mean, duh–but I’ve really come to need that lesson over the past few days. I’ll explain momentarily, but first, can I take a John Candy detour?
Okay. I watched The Great Outdoors for the first time recently. It’s no Planes, Trains; in fact, it’s basically just a loosely plotted series of sight gags related to the outdoors–waterskiing, racoons getting into the trash, comedic bear attacks, you get the picture. But what makes it a delight is the actors. Dan Ackroyd plays a horrible person, but he’s very good at it, and he comes around in the end. John Candy plays that character he’s so good at playing–an affable, long-suffering, optimistic on others’ behalf, Really Good Guy. I have no idea what he was like as an actual human being, but I have a hard time believing he wasn’t at least a little bit like this character type he made famous. I think we need more guys like him, in movies and in life.
Now back to the topic at hand. I was supposed to fly to Manchester, UK, last Friday for a week with my dad, who is working over there. When I got to the airport and tried to check in, I learned, to my horror (not an overstatement), that my passport was expired. It was devastating on a number of levels, perhaps the deepest being that it was a shameful mistake on my part. I take pride in being on top of the details of my life or at least appearing to be, but over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly absent-minded, whether because I’m getting older or because I have too much to keep track of (probably both). Often, I can get away with making a joke of my forgetfulness, but there was no humor to be found in this passport screw-up. I have no doubt that many of the well-traveled people I’ve told this story to over the past few days (including some of you reading this post) have been puzzled and silently judgmental over my failure to check on something so obvious. Thank you for keeping it to yourselves.
There followed a series of emotional phone calls to my dad, the US State Department expedited passport automatic scheduling service, American Airlines, Walgreens (to find out if they take passport photos all day), my mom (basically just to cry), the guy I’d met on eHarmony and had talked to for the first time that very afternoon (who was kind enough to call again and make sure I was okay after I texted him the story), and a friend I’d been meaning to visit. I came up with a plan: apply in person for an expedited passport in Detroit Monday morning (the closest and earliest I could get an appointment), reschedule my flight for June 26 (today), and try to distract myself over the weekend. I ended up traveling two hours south to the Michigan-Indiana border to spend Saturday and Sunday with my friend. She was a gracious last-minute hostess and even took me on a kayaking trip down the St. Joseph River that was as relaxing as anything I’ve experienced in a long time. (I mean the part where we were being carried downstream. Upriver was harder.) And, as it turned out, my friend lives less than half an hour away from my eHarmony guy, so I got to meet him Sunday afternoon, more than a week earlier than we had thought we’d be able to meet, and that was lovely too.
I got the passport on Monday, a story in itself that I won’t take the time to share here. Today, I was understandably anxious about checking in, so I showed up at the airport excessively early. (I won’t tell you how early because I’m embarrassed.) There were no mishaps.
Somewhere in the midst of my rushing around and hardcore crying on Friday evening, I came up with a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles mantra for the weekend: Be more like Del and less like Neal. Neal Page (Steve Martin) has many good qualities, but I simply meant that I should enjoy the adventure, mishaps and all. As I’ve written before on this blog, mishaps make good stories.
This past weekend, my family watched the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) like we do every Thanksgiving. This movie works so well because the two main characters, played by Steve Martin and John Candy, subvert stereotypes that are often present in run-of-the-mill comedies. Martin’s character, Neal Page, is a twist on the workaholic dad character so common in 1980s and 90s family comedies. Unlike most of those characters, Neal desperately wants to get home to his family, but can’t because of a relentless series of logistical mishaps. He also embodies the tightly-wound neurotic character type, but whereas that type often appears as an antagonist or as merely the butt of unkind humor, Neal, as the point of view character of the film, is utterly sympathetic. Candy’s character, Del Griffith, (SPOILER ALERT–but seriously, you’ve had 31 years to see this movie) is a homeless widower, a character who might be a tiresomely pathetic victim in a lesser movie, but he’s also that annoying guy who sits next to you on an airplane and talks your ear off. But as we, through Neal, get to know Del, we are led into sympathy with him as well, and we come to understand that he talks because he’s lonely. He is vulnerable not only because he is a homeless widower but also because he is a traveling salesman–someone who, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, survives by the good will of others–but he is also incredibly savvy and resilient.
I realized this year, more than ever before, how much I relate to Neal Page, especially in his very physical and verbal displays of frustration. I really see myself in the scene where he throws an almost acrobatic tantrum–and literally throws his car rental agreement–in the remote parking lot where he gets stranded after he gets dropped off at the alleged parking space of a rental car that doesn’t exist. Co-workers probably think Neal is a calm, mild-mannered guy, but he has high standards for himself, other people, and the universe at large, and when those standards aren’t met, he doesn’t know what to do. So he explodes, and sometimes he hurts people. I can relate, so very much. (I gave a major character in the zombie apocalypse story I just finished writing, Adrian Fallon, this same flaw. I also realized after watching the movie on Friday how much the road trip elements of my story had been influenced by Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.)
I think nearly everyone can relate to Neal–who, again, is the character through whom we experience the story–in one respect. The whole way through the film, we’ve been imagining, along with Neal, these idyllic scenes of what his family must be doing at home. Through him, we’ve experienced the gradual stripping away of comforts he has always taken for granted–money, transportation, warmth, privacy, security. (These are things, by the way, that Del, a perpetual traveler, cannot take for granted. I think the heavy trunk he carries around represents the burden of the constant stress of the road.) By the end, we, along with Neal, want nothing more than to go home, take a shower, eat Thanksgiving dinner, and go to bed. Yet (spoiler again) Neal makes the radical decision to turn around and invite Del to share Thanksgiving, one of the most intimate holidays, with his family. There’s a lot of talk today in the blogosphere, the publishing industry, churches, etc. about “radical hospitality.” Planes, Trains, and Automobiles shows us, profoundly, that tired, frustrated, flawed people are the ones who can best show such hospitality.