Saturday afternoon, I was sobbing in a car.
I was listening to a little bit of This American Life. It was the episode, 20 Acts in 60 Minutes. It was a rebroadcast from back in 2003. And I’d heard the whole thing at least two times before. But it got to the last act, “The Greatest Moment I Ever Saw On a Stage.” It’s the story of these girls at a detention facility putting on a show for their families — mostly their mothers and grandmothers. It’s just three minutes long. Go and listen. I’ll wait.
And it made me sob as I was driving around the rainy streets. And it made me sob every other time I had heard it. And after I left the car (I didn’t even hear all of it this time), I still kept breaking down. I’m doing it to a lesser extent as I write this. And it’s just sentimental nonsense. It strikes very sharply at my strong feelings about the bounds between parents and children — especially when one or both are not at their best. But mostly, it made me cry because pretty much everything makes me cry. I cried when I saw President Obama cry. Crying is something I am very good at.
But it was not always so. When I was younger, I could barely cry. I was raised to be stoic. But I remember when that all changed. It was my first year of graduate school. A friend of mine had given me a box of VHS tapes that he had recorded off PBS. These included some things I loved: The Day the Universe Changed; the first Connections; The Voyage of Charles Darwin; and my absolute favorite, In Search of the Trojan War. But it also contained The Adams Chronicles, which I had never seen.
So one Sunday, I just watched it from beginning to end — all 13 hours. It was not my intent to watch the whole thing. But it was such a parade of death, I hoped that it would get better. It seemed to frame everyone’s life as: what they did before they had a profoundly sad deathbed scene. Not only did this play into my sentimentality about familial relationships, it fed into my great fear of death. At that time, I really was disturbed about death. Now I don’t know what the big deal was. It is hard to regain that state of mind. But it bothered me greatly. I guess it has something to do with being too attached to the world. Now I think of Simon Stimson’s outburst at the end of Our Town:
Regardless, I probably spent half of those 13 hours sobbing. And that seems to have been it. There was a wall that somehow kept back the sadness of life and the sentimentality toward idealized relationships and the rage about the constant injustices of life. And then it was gone and the emotions flowed like the waters of the Kangding-Luding flood. So I am a sobbing and blubbering fool. But it is preferable to the alternative. I don’t do stoic well.