November 21, 2010

Out of Jersey City, Into the Wild

So here I am, back at the keys, fresh off the boat; the ferry, that is, running from the World Financial Center to the Jersey City Harbor.  Though on my last day as an employee of Arch Insurance Group, Inc., I used my car to get to the office at Harborside Plaza.  I stayed just long enough to say a few goodbyes and throw four boxes of my things into the back of the car - having spent six years on the job that comes out to 18 months per box - and I was off, and OFF, for 2.5 weeks, something I haven't experienced in many years.

I luxuriated in the non-congested midday Holland Tunnel.  The chilly November sun of lower Manhattan washed over me, flooded my Honda with light, flooded my head.  The moment screamed for a  Harry Nilsson CD.  I spent the afternoon at home, "decompressing."  On the walk to pick up Junior from after-school I felt energy coursing through my fingers, my shoulders settling down, down, down.  Two weeks of notifying people, wrapping up files, transferring emails and personal documents, boxing up crap, saying goodbye to people by phone, in person, via email; the exit interview, turning in the laptop, ID cards, corporate credit card, Blackberry.  All of that build-up until finally it was time to really FEEL the ending, to live the ending, to turn off the lights and lock the door behind me.

Almost immediately I felt the loss of the Blackberry.  I mean it in a good way; I realized how much of a yoke on my concentration it had become, how infrequently I really needed to read that new email right away.  A tool of convenience?  Absolutely, in the best and worst sense.  It organized my life in a way that just can't be done toting around a Date Planner or scribbling Post-its to yourself twenty times a day.  But quickly, my first resolution: when I get my new work Blackberry, not to carry it around with me all the time.  To leave it home as much as possible, especially weekends.  To keep it turned off on my commute to work.  Etcetera.  (Freshly formed resolutions are about as stable as a souffle, so let's review this one in three months.)

That same day I watched the movie Into the Wild.  I had promised my friend and world-famous philosopher, Ira Saiger, that I would watch the movie before his birthday, which was the next day.  It is the story of Christopher McCandless who, upon graduating from Emory University in 1990, embarks on a two-year odyssey through America, in the process removing all encumbrances from his life: passport, money, family, car, lodging and, eventually, companionship.  His journey ends in the Alaskan wilderness, alone in the wild, dead at age 24.  

The movie brilliantly brings alive Chris's story.  Emile Hirsch leads a remarkably gifted cast.  Sean Penn beautifully picks and chooses from Chris's life story to show us who he was and what he lived through.  And the cinematography is inspired, elevating but not overshadowing the material.  It is a mystery to me why movies like this don't get more attention, more adulation, though A.O. Scott did praise it back in 2007 for being "alive to the mysteries and difficulties of experience in a way that very few recent American movies have been."  Well said.

Chris McCandless was a genuine idealist who lived his ideals all the way to their ultimate logic.  In Into the Wild he quotes Henry David Thoreau and channels him too, at one point declaring that true happiness lies in nature, not companionship.  He explains that he set all of his remaining money on fire because "money makes people cautious."  Chris lives monastically, ruthlessly shedding as many skins as he can discern, trying to get to an essential truth.  As I watched this movie, having left a job that same day, I felt that Chris McCandless's life was a reminder that we are defined just as much by what we are not as by what we are.  

So what am I?  What am I not?  Chris McCandless thought he knew, thought he had found his place in the world when he stumbled upon an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan territories, and there he lived his final days.  But even in his most extreme days of existence, Chris maintained a connection to others: he wrote.  He kept a detailed written account of everything that happened to him out in the wild.  His journals are the only record of what happened to him in Alaska.  In fact, he kept a journal throughout his two-year adventure.  Chris might have believed happiness existed in nature and not in companionship, yet even he felt an irreducible desire to share his experience.  

When people have asked me what I plan on doing with my time off, I have named various errands and to-do lists.  But most of all, I want to write.  Sports, politics, family, movies, food, and one big project.  Can't wait.  And I have so many friends whose commitment to their writing is an inspiration for me.  Let's see if I can build a habit in 2.5 weeks.

I shed a skin on Friday.  Snakes shed skin when they become too big for the old skin.  By the time it is shed the old skin is almost transparent, colorless.  

Sounds about right.


Mojo Hoops said...

Yay! Write write right!

Andy said...

I loved this - absolutely loved it.

It happens that I love the movie 'Into the Wild,' too, but the confluence of your seeing it just at the time that you shed a skin you'd been wearing for six (and/or McCandless and/or Thoreau) said so many things that are transcendant:

- "...we are defined just as much by what we are not as by what we are..."

- "money makes people cautious"

- "Chris might have believed happiness existed in nature and not in companionship, yet even he felt an irreducible desire to share his experience"

I wish you great luck in this new venture, and writing about it, and connecting about it - I will be there to witness it.

We are all witnesses, in fact...