Friday, January 27, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Life in Progress

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

There's a small moment, just a short scene, from the 1997 crime-comedy classic Grosse Pointe Blank that's always stuck with me. John Cusack's character, professional assassin Martin Blank, is attending his ten year high school reunion. He's catching up with an old friend who recently had a baby. She asks Martin to hold the infant. He hesitates. Once holding the child though, this hardened and cynical man, swimming in a sea of amorality in his daily existence as a hitman, is stopped dead in his tracks by the overwhelming power of holding a new life. Queen's and David Bowie's beautiful 1981 song "Under Pressure" underscores the moment perfectly.

When I saw the film in 1997, just before college graduation, the scene was a close proximity to how I'd have reacted if you handed me a baby: reticent, confused, awestruck. Over the years, I could understand the allure, but the fear and anxiety of caring for them was always overwhelming in its abstractness. You can't really test them out, after all. Once you commit to children, you're in for life. They're counting on you.

Life is always in progress. It leads us through peaks and valleys, each providing opportunities for progress. Sometimes we seem stuck in a stasis period. During those times it feels like progress is stalled, or has taken a prolonged vacation from our lives. But then life resumes, progress returns, and before we realize it, things are vastly different than they were just a few years before.

One of those "life in progress" moments happened when my wife gave birth to our kids. Now the baby scene in Grosse Pointe Blank hit me in a more visceral manner. In Martin's subtly shifting range of emotions on display, I see a man coming to terms with his own mortality through the big, beautiful, innocent eyes of a newborn. In those eyes lie an infinite number of possibilities, not yet extinguished, all still within reach. Maybe there is more for Martin than being a contract killer. Maybe love, and even a family, are real possibilities for him. And for me. And for you.

There are forces at play in the universe that are immune to our cynicism, that can still reach behind our carefully constructed barriers, built out of skepticism and sarcasm, to tug at our hearts. It's eye-opening to realize this; freeing, even. I'm still an optimistic pessimist, the same one I was in '97 while watching Grosse Pointe Blank for the first time. That '90s kid, and all that gave shape to him, is still part of me, no doubt about it. But having kids has brought my optimism to the forefront in ways I never imagined. Why? Because when you first hold your children and see those big, beautiful, innocent eyes staring back at you, it's easy to let hope win out in the end.

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