Last night I watched the film Liberal Arts, which is written and directed by and also starring Josh Radnor from How I met your mother. I am not a huge fan of the show, but it isn’t because I don’t like Radnor, and this film is about as far from the show as you can get. It is really good.
It is considered a coming of age film, which I particularly liked because the protagonist is 35. He returns to his alma mater to farewell his ‘second favorite professor’ who is reluctantly retiring after 37 years of higher education. There are many authentic and authentically awkward moments, which made me wonder how much was scripted and how much evolved organically through improvisation while the cameras were rolling. One of the characters – a Drama major – even notes that life is not scripted; it is just one long improvisation, which may be a clue. Regardless, the acting is lovely.
While studying my own Liberal Arts degree – double major of English Literature and Theater Arts, “just to make sure I was completely unemployable”, as Radnor’s Jessie says of his own education – I was never that good at improvisation. I always preferred scripted performance to the ‘be amazingly clever and witty on the spot’ school of acting. I watched in awe as many of my classmates took the stage time and time again, scriptless, and came up with improvisational gold.
Through the awe, the gnawing nerves ate away at my stomach while I waited my turn on the stage. With a script in hand I felt invincible. With a chair and an empty stage, I got stage fright. In the film, Radnor’s Jessie oscillates between distressed and uncomfortable when he is ‘off-book’. In his personal life he relies too heavily on snippets from the classics and professionally, his trite, seemingly scripted responses have no effect on the young minds he is trying to inspire. It is only when he throws the scripts away that he has any kind of real connection with people and in being authentic, he comes of age.
So, let’s get back to me, the wary improviser. How has that played out in my own life? Well, professionally I am typically a good improviser. I store a lot of information in my head, and my brain tends to know when it is connected to other stored information. If a meeting or a lesson plan or training session goes off on an unexpected tangent, I tend to excel. I can think on my feet and make quick decisions. Professionally, I have had many milestones that have been a ‘coming of age’ and I am looking ahead to the next one.
But what about my personal life? Last night, as I walked home through my neighborhood where I have lived for the past 4 years, I asked myself about my own coming of age. “When was it?” “Has it happened yet?” I have certainly experienced some significant transformations in the past 20 years of my adulthood.
In the film, an almost unrecognizable Zac Efron pontificates about the incredible feat that is a caterpillar turning itself into a butterfly. And he is right; that is amazing if you stop to think about it. At some point I did really think about it, because I have a butterfly tattoo and I chose it for its homage to the idea of transformation. As I watched the scene I reminded myself to remind myself of that fact more often. Transformation is very, very beautiful.
So, as I further ponder my own coming of age, I realize that there have been many moments that define some form of transformation, and that I want there to be many more. Those moments, those decisions, those risks that we take that shape us into a more real, more complete and more beautiful human being, those are the times when we ‘come of age’.
The very exquisite Richard Jenkins, who portrays the reluctant retiree, responds to Jessie’s question, “Do you think of this place as a prison?” with “Every place is a prison if you never leave.” That line resonated with me, because I have an internal kinetic-ness that makes me want to go, well, everywhere. In my life, many of my coming of age moments have been around departures to somewhere new. Moving to LA, moving to London, moving to Sydney, coming here to Seattle four years ago to live with Ben – all highly significant times in my life when I stretched myself, faced my fears and went for it.
These defining moments are different for everyone, however. For me, traveling and living in different places is innate to my contentment, but Jenkins’ line about every place being prison if you don’t leave is not true for everyone.
I know 8 couples who are currently expecting a baby (7 for the first time), and I cannot express how much I admire their selflessness and courage. My sister and brother-in-law became parents for the first time about 15 months ago and I am in awe of how brilliantly they parent my (clever and beautiful) nephew. Talk about a coming of age!
So, back to my questions, “When was my coming of age?” and “Has it happened yet?” The answers are, “Many, many times before,” and “Not yet.”