• Peter Alson

What Are We Doing Here?

Updated: Mar 18

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It’s occurred to me, since I’ve not confined my subject matter in this blog to anything in particular save what’s on my mind at a particular moment, that at times what’s on my mind may seem trivial or unimportant when measured against the huge issues that face the planet—climate change, income inequality, war, hunger, racism, among others—or when measured against the personal issues that many of us have to deal with whether we like it or not. Just to take a brief inventory, right now I have a number of friends on the brink of bankruptcy; I have a friend who just lost her husband to cancer; I have a friend engaged in a horrible custody battle with her ex-husband; in my own life, I lost my stepmother a little over a year ago, and my 95-year-old dad is in a nursing home beset by dementia. So why am I writing reviews of movies and rants about the pitch count in baseball? Is it a way of avoiding the big, painful stuff?

Maybe. It’s definitely occurred to me, although I do think there’s room to explore both. I remember a couple years ago Alice and I going to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibit at the Gagosian gallery on 24th Street. The scale, scope and magnitude of Kiefer’s work was staggering. Afterwards, we stopped in at a friend’s gallery down the block. The work there seemed small, colorless and insignificant to us after having our minds blown by Kiefer. It was like trying to read almost anything after reading Tolstoy. Or write anything for that matter.

But then I remember what a therapist once said to me when I was feeling ashamed to be talking about my small problems when there were so many people out there who had troubles far far worse than I. She said, “Your life is what it is. And theirs is what it is. Your problems are no less important to you than theirs are to them. There’s no need for you to compare yourself to them—or anyone.”

I think of my nine-year-old daughter and what constitutes a problem for her. Maybe her mother and I have decided to limit her TV watching time to 45 minutes a day or we’ve told that she can’t get a pet hamster. For her, that’s a crisis. For us it might be that our furnace is acting funky and it’s getting cold out and neither our handyman nor the plumbing people who installed it can figure out what’s wrong.

Then there are the Mets. Is it wrong for a 60-year-old man to be as unreasonably happy as I am because his team is two wins away from playing in the World Series? I remember a summer when I was much younger and trying to figure out my life, and my dad was going through a rough period of his own, and we spent a good part of a lost summer together watching a fine Mets team get eliminated on one of the last days of the season. The moment it happened, the season abruptly over, my dad turned to me, shook his head and said, “Baseball is not the answer.” I think I might have laughed at the time. But now I feel not only was he wrong, but that baseball might be every bit as important as the miracle drug that saves your life when all else seems hopeless.

In the great Preston Sturgis movie Sullivan’s Travels, a wealthy movie director who makes popular comedies, decides that what he does is frivolous, and that he wants to make a socially relevant film about the downtrodden. But what he learns is that his shallow comedies actually mean more to the people whose plight he longs to dramatize than would the “important” film he feels duty-bound to create.

It should be clear to anyone reading this by now that this is not a linear or logical argument. The search for meaning never is. I think of that moment in Manhattan when Woody Allen asks himself, what makes life worth living. “I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing and Willie Mays, and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and Louie Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, naturally, “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, Tracy’s face …”

Or Crash Davis, in Bull Durham, telling Annie Savoy what he believes in: “I believe in the soul. The cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter…”

I’m not going to solve the problems of the world here–not that I won’t occasionally try. Mostly I’m just going to think out loud, and hope that some of the things I’m thinking about will have meaning to someone else large, small or in between, and that if they don’t necessarily inform, they will at least entertain.

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