Virtue & Mischief: Forks in the road


Yogi Berra once advised Joe Garagiola that “when you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Legend has it that Yogi was offering Garagiola inept driving directions to his home when serving up this particular malapropism.

Whatever its original context, we employ it to highlight the difficulty of making certain decisions and our occasional inability to choose (and accept the consequences of those choices) with conviction.

Many years ago, when I was a clinical psychology graduate student in Pennsylvania, I counseled a middle-aged man (a fellow roughly the age I am now) who was emotionally tortured by a series of decisions he had made as a young man. He ruminated on three or four of these decisions constantly. Granted, the situations at issue involved life-altering, far-reaching choices. But 30 years on, they continued to dominate his life, making it nearly impossible for him to live in the present, to accomplish necessary daily tasks, to perform reasonably well at his job, or to enjoy a normal family life. His obsession with them, and his inability to go back in time to alter them, were driving him crazy.

Flash forward to March 2017. This past weekend, Krista contacted Grandma and arranged for her to watch the amigos while we took a couple of hours for a much-needed date night. We enjoyed a casual meal together and then drove to a local theater to take in “La La Land,” one of this year’s more critically acclaimed movies. Krista loves most musicals, and the trailers for this one instantly appealed to her. The prospect of watching Ryan Gosling glide and simmer for two hours probably didn’t hurt, either.

I was more circumspect, however. I like old-fashioned entertainment as much as anyone (and more than most), but some sort of goofy homage to Los Angeles and the entertainment industry is—how to put this in a family friendly column?—not exactly my cup of Tazo. As we handed our tickets to the gentleman at the entrance, he struck up a brief conversation with us that generated more concern.

“Ah…La La Land, eh? My wife and I saw that the other day. I love movies, obviously, but…um…I didn’t really get it, you know?” He noticed alarm register on our faces. “But, hey, my wife loved it!”

Krista exhaled. I mentally noted that, hey, it’s all about spending time with Krista and, by golly, if she’s happy then I’m happy. Probably. Most of the time.

“Enjoy the show!” the gentleman chirped as we sauntered to theater # 6. I grabbed Krista’s hand, we found two seats, front and center, and settled in for the previews and the movie.

As the movie proceeded, I could see Krista was spellbound. I liked it a lot, too, but was more gratified that my long-suffering wife was enjoying it so much. (She asks so little from me, and usually that’s precisely what I deliver.) If she’s happy, I’m happy, I repeated silently to myself.

The plot of the film is quite simple, but it’s worth rehashing quickly to return to my opening point. A young man and young woman, Sebastian and Mia, meet by chance during a traffic jam on an L.A. highway. The man is rude and abrupt, but surely figures they’ll never see each other again, so who cares? We learn gradually that she is a struggling actress and he is a struggling jazz pianist with dreams of opening a classic jazz joint one day. Defying the odds, they cross paths again when she walks into a restaurant where he’s playing banal Christmas tunes (much to his dismay and frustration). When he breaks into a jazzy, impromptu riff the stuffy owner cans him. Mia is sympathetic and attempts to convey how much she enjoyed his playing. He brushes past her without a word. They see each other again in a comic turn at a Hollywood Hills party, bringing to mind the old James Bond adage that “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” Perhaps the fates are involved.

At this point their romantic relationship begins in earnest, and the plot follows a fairly typical trajectory: They fall in love, they support each other’s dreams, they pursue those dreams, they meet with occasional professional failure, their romance is challenged by the pursuit of those dreams and the grim demands of doing what it takes to pay everyday bills. At the end of the movie, we are abruptly sent forward in time five years. We’re not sure where life has ushered them until it unfolds before our eyes: Mia has become uber-successful in the movie industry. She dresses and moves like the movie star she has become, has a winsome husband (NOT Sebastian) and a beautiful toddler.

She and her husband leave for their child with a sitter (or a nanny?) for an engagement, but—this is Los Angeles, after all—are caught in a traffic jam that will make them late. They elect to take an off-ramp conveniently located right where they’re stuck and eat out. As they walk back to their parked car after their meal, they come across an interesting-looking jazz joint and enter. As they find seats in the establishment, Mia—this is a Hollywood movie, after all—sees it is Sebastian’s dream come true. It is his place and his band and when he prepares to play he sees her, too. Their eyes lock. He hesitates a moment, then begins playing a tune that has special meaning for them both. As he plays, the movie sweeps us into an alternative, truncated version of the past several years, a version that ultimately has Mia and Sebastian staying together, having their own toddler together, celebrating wedded and professional bliss together. This version is catalyzed into existence by one or two different crucial choices made along the way. We, the audience, want it to be so. Alas, as Sebastian concludes we are returned from the alternate/dream plot to reality. They are haunted just a touch by what might have been, but they smile at each other in acknowledgement: We’ve achieved some dreams and are living fulfilled and successful lives.

We are not bitter. We live in the present. We are not obsessed by the past. We are not crazy.

By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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