The Thin Line Between Success and Something Else

Five years into my graduate school career, I was in a bind. The guaranteed money provided by my school had come to an end, and I had no recourse but to stitch together external funding sources  for however long it would take to finish my dissertation. I applied left and right for fellowships and grants: some abroad, some domestic, some residential and some not. I must have submitted 30-some-odd applications. I ended up getting a single offer. From Harvard, of all places.

A couple years later, as I was finishing my dissertation, I found myself officially on the job market for the first time. I was fairly agnostic about the academic world, and thus was pretty selective about the positions I applied for in the field. At the same time, I looked to jobs in the research and policymaking worlds, as well as postdoctoral fellowships that would allow me to bolster my résumé. I submitted at least 40 or 50 applications over the course of the year, if not more. I ended up with a single interview. It turned into my lone offer.

It is almost comical how many times I have encountered similar such crossroads the last five or six years of my professional life, and ended up being rescued by a single opportunity in the nick of time. I have never juggled multiple job offers, never gotten the chance to play one institute off the other while enjoying the stability of an ongoing contract. My safety nets have centered on time off at my sister’s place or on plans to secure undetermined courses to teach at unspecified colleges in a hypothetical town I would have to move to.

Naturally, this is my own doing. I chose to pursue a doctorate in the social sciences, after all. I did it at a university not ranked in the top 25, at a time when top-tier schools have increasing difficulty placing their alumni. I forged on despite apprehension about joining academia, at a time when the path within that world had become limited, and the path outside that world called into question the utility of the degree at all. And I finished despite the fact that I saw the entire system in the process of being devalued.

But putting aside my poor understanding of macroeconomic trends – or my inability to make career decisions accordingly – there is something darkly humorous about the fact that life has been this game of inches. That my résumé at face value might look somewhat impressive from the outside but belies myriad near misses and close calls, glosses over my dependence upon circumstances well outside my control and the series of lottery tickets I have managed to scrape up in the right place at the right time.

A good friend and I often joked about whether we would be the least successful people to have spent time – if fleetingly, on a fellowship – at Harvard. We were in the midst of a frustrating application season, as recipients of one rejection after another. But we were looking in the rearview mirror too, both being similarly attuned to how close we were to nothing before ending up there in the first place.* Indeed, the breadth of our experiences – then and since – have only reaffirmed the thin line between success and lack thereof.

*I was on a waitlist for one other fellowship before ultimately being rejected: at Stanford. To recap, my literal options: Harvard, maybe Stanford, nothing.

I wonder sometimes if my story is not exceptional, only the one I feel most acutely. I wonder if I linger too much on the scenarios that did not come to be. Mostly though, I wonder whether another person, another personality molded by a different upbringing and environment, would look at these same events through the lens of just rewards rather than coincidence, ascribe them to hard work rather than luck. Whether they would come to take these outcomes for granted, and to eventually believe that they deserved it.

Regardless of anyone else however, I am well aware of the ever-present precariousness of my situation, and of the fragility of it all. It’s another way in which I’ve been lucky, I suppose. There’s this great saying from Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” People like me – we’re constantly reminded that we didn’t. I prefer it that way.

Blood and Water

What is it about family that can be so frustrating, difficult, even infuriating? My mom sometimes reminiscences about how patient, how obedient, how “good” I used to be, wonders what changed. I tell her it’s because I’m not a child. I have thoughts and beliefs of my own, draw upon experiences and knowledge that I have acquired. And because I no longer take what she says at face value, because she no longer thinks on my behalf, I appear more disobedient in her eyes.

I wonder though if there’s more to it than that, than my growing up.

I have this image of myself as a person, an image of who I am and who I aspire to be. There’s a bit of embellishment, naturally, a bit of it skewed favorably on my behalf. I imagine that is the case with all of us. We have this slightly idealized image of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. And with family, I think, their vision of us – and for us – is every bit as fleshed out, as real and fully-formed and stubborn, as our own.

My third or fourth grade class hosted an open house. On my featured art,work my family noticed that I signed my birthyear instead of the current year, and they teased me about it. I felt embarrassed and I got mad. In turn, they got mad at me for taking it too seriously. It felt demoralizing to lose control of the situation, to be painted as this goof, then a brat.

These two images of the self – the one we envision, the one envisioned by family – are not altogether independent nor irreconcilable, of course. But I think the external image held by family appears to them as more true because of its basis in history, whereas our internal self appears to them only as a tiny slice of what they believe to be true. In other words, the image we cultivate and present to the world is inevitably, constantly, and fundamentally challenged by family.

But how well do they know us, really? I’ve seen my family about three or four times in the last four years. They don’t really understand what I do, workwise. And they’ve met only some of my friends, fleetingly. Our daily realities are just so far apart, and not only geographically.

The dynamic works both ways. There’s a reason why we prep ourselves before spending extended time with family. We anticipate what is to come, because we too have fostered an image of who and what they are. We too fit their present self into a far greater narrative of what we “know” them to be – interacting on multiple levels, across myriad moments. And because of this, we not only confirm our vision and our narrative but project those outwards.

In my junior year of high school, I retook the Scholastic Aptitude Test but received a disappointing score. I got home and told my mom, and her face said enough. Before she verbally reacted, I left the house and drove around for hours, going nowhere, avoiding confrontation. It was the environment she had fostered. …Asian parents.

There’s more to it though. The relationship between the images, which interact and are inextricably linked. The fact that we can have so little in common yet still retain an elemental, intangible bond in which family appears as a reflection of our own self. The subsequent effect of seeing in someone the traits that are so familiar to what we see in ourselves – good and bad, only far more exaggerated, or at least far more obvious.

One Christmas, short on ideas, I found a little holiday gift pack for my sister: a stuffed penguin, hot chocolate mix, and marshmallows. Completely independent of me, she – needing a gift for an exchange at her friend’s party that year – somehow ended up buying that very same pack at the very same department store.

Family thus forces us to reflect. Even if we acknowledge the biased lens through which we see ourselves, we look and make ourselves out to be an improved specimen, a 2.0. Because to see any alternative suggests something far worse – a hypocrisy in which we can recognize the flaws in those who reflect ourselves the most (even if in an elemental, intangible manner) and yet choose not to address them, in effect turning our backs to self-betterment.

My mom’s martyrdom, her hard-headedness, her pettiness and long-memory, her judgmental nature and fear of so many things and self-doubt and need for validation. The way she sees love, the way she has to be all-in. All of that is me.

It feels odd, the whole of it. Perhaps the lack of choice exacerbates the frustrating, difficult, infuriating moments, with an undercurrent of feeling that we cannot be comforted, let alone rescued, by the simple recognition of agency, of effort, of desire – as we might with such moments in the context of friendships or partnerships. In contrast, family, in all but the most extreme situation, exists unquestioned and unchallenged.

A good friend made fun of me harshly at a movie theater because I thought that Finding Forrester was non-fiction. He was tactless; I was embarrassed.* I went off to the bathroom to get some space. But then I got over it. I had to, enough at least to drive him home. That’s the best analogy I have for family. Family is stuck in a car together.

*It is kind of funny to reflect on these things that seemed to matter so much in the moment.

So we question and challenge by other means. We make less effort to suppress our frustration. We act more pettily, brushing aside the image of the self they present and imposing the grand narrative over them – their every action thus a confirmation of what we already know to be true. We push a little harder understanding that there is an element of non-choice to the matter. We take family for granted.

Then again, I don’t have a relationship with my dad, so I guess family can be a choice too.

Family is difficult. It seems to get moreso. But maybe that’s just me.

Man in the Mirror

A few years ago when I was living in Boston, my friend Jim and I ran into a mutual acquaintance on the train. Neither of us particularly liked this guy. He was the stereotype of an Ivy Leaguer: too confident in his own intelligence, too eager to let the world know. As we ran in the same social circle however, we greeted him politely, made small talk until he reached his station. After, Jim and I did a quick post-mortem. “Man,” he observed with amusement. “You could barely look him in the eye.”

I hadn’t realized my disgust was that evident.

The interaction resurfaced in my thoughts this past weekend. See, my sister and brother-in-law are in town, visiting. And yesterday after a museum but before dinner, I led them to a coffee shop for a brief respite. Immediately, I could tell my sister was displeased. She apparently wanted to go straight to dinner, though she hadn’t been that vocal about it. And so, she pointedly didn’t order anything, asked passive-aggressively why I took them to this particular cafe, and then admonished her husband for something completely unrelated.

My brother-in-law and I stayed quiet. We exchanged knowing looks, and later, a short word. We both recognized what had happened, that she had taken her frustration with the situation out on him. It was tense for a while after. In fact, it took dinner and a movie before the cloud really lifted. But details aside, it was just fascinating to see the situation play out, both 1) to know someone so well that I could recognize how the scenario was unfolding, as though in slow motion, and 2) to share that knowledge with someone just as familiar with my sister and her temperament, if not more so.

I am my sister, though mine has always been more of a simmer than a boil. Indeed, I have always been aware of the transparency of my own feelings. But, and this was a lesson perhaps first driven home by Jim, I can still severely underestimate the degree to which I am transparent about my feelings, can still remain painfully unaware of how I come off to others. And the fact that I have felt more intensely these recent years suggests a further amplification of that effect.

I think about all this for a number of reasons, fundamentally because I think we should always strive for self-improvement, and a little healthy introspection is critical in that regard. I think about this because I feel genuine connection with less people in my current circumstance than my previous one, and as a result must tread more cautiously. I think about this too in the context of evolving relationships – more infrequent and primarily digitized – with friends and family no longer in my geographic vicinity.

Everything, I think, stems from the fact that I am all-in with people. I could not contain my disgust for even a few minutes on a public train because I had categorized that guy. I did not care to play nice because he was not my friend and would not be my friend, and represented someone who simply could not be my friend. Someone once described my relationships “like mafia.” It’s an extreme characterization, especially in light of some lost friendships over the years*, but there is something to that – for better or worse.

*Um, in nonviolent ways.

I judge people too easily, too wholly. I let my feelings with the negative aspects of their beings dictate my feelings about them as a totality, and I define those negative aspects by projecting qualities I find off-putting for my own existence (if sometimes to my detriment): Confidence bordering on arrogance, ease nearing lack of self-awareness, pride to the point of egoism. Perhaps I am perplexed by and even slightly envious of those who appear not as insecure, self-conscious, or simply lost as I feel at times.

From that, it follows that I can be too close-minded, too dismissive; all too often unwilling to grant second chances for perceived slights of personality. I focus too much on – not necessarily the wrong thing, but the only thing, at least as I see fit. I see a colleague who chats incessantly about his hobbies as an attention whore rather than an excitable, multi-faceted, even lonely soul. I am annoyed enough by the persistent humblebragging of an acquaintance that I overlook his obvious work ethic and intellect, his obvious professional insecurities.

From that, it follows that I demand too much of those I do let in, and am unfairly disappointed when they do not meet my arbitrary standards, even as they remain oblivious of the grievances I hold them accountable for. I simmer rather than boil over, I simmer and hold onto things far too long. I remain needy and insecure, wanting constant validation even when it is so clearly inherent in the nature of the relationship. And, falling back on the mafia conceit, I am far too willing to cut bait – to rid myself of the grays of situations, of relationships.

There is progress to be made then. Even if I cannot change who I am fundamentally, even if I do not think I want to. I can still be better to those in and out, from best friend to casual acquaintance on a train, whether in outward treatment or simply in how I perceive. Given how I am, after all, the internal is bound to seep into the external anyway. As for my sister? She apologized the day after, acknowledged she was irritable from hunger. I was touched. She wouldn’t have done that five years ago. I told her I should have communicated better myself. We’re all striving for self-improvement, it seems.


My Schwarzenegger Saga

The context

I was all of eight years old when my cousin, quite irresponsibly, took me to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It was one of the first theatrical experiences I can recall, and still one of the most indelible. The movie remains my favorite of all time. The action is breathtaking, the effects spellbinding. The story – simple in structure, complicated in implication – persistent and tense. And the cast of characters include the most memorable of the genre: the battle-hardened heroine; the relentless, terrifying villain; and the hero, an outdated machine bonded to a boy.

Over the course of my adolescence, I watched Terminator 2 dozens upon dozens of times. A local television channel in Los Angeles had a limited film library, and resorted to broadcasting the movie basically every other weekend. I undoubtedly have seen it more than any other movie, if in bits and pieces, and in edited form. Still, I couldn’t get enough. I purchased the metallic limited edition DVD when it came out in 2000. Even now, more than 25 years after its original theatrical release, I can give you a near scene by scene recitation.

The set-up

I don’t know if anyone in the world was more excited than I was when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came out in 2003. Judging by its eventual box office, I represented the exception. But I was psyched. I was old enough then – at 20 – to appreciate how rare an opportunity it was to be able to revisit my nostalgia. I basically had the chance to relive the experience of watching my favorite movie onscreen. I didn’t care that James Cameron wasn’t involved, that Linda Hamilton had moved on. This was essentially my Phantom Menace, except not shitty.*

*I saw Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine six times in theaters. In hindsight, I would say it’s a solid but forgettable movie, with a wonderful twist, and one jaw-dropping setpiece. Beyond that, it’s a poor man’s Terminator 2.

A few months before the movie’s release, I got wind of an event at the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention downtown. To my delight, it advertised a poster giveaway and centerpiece panel for Terminator 3: with director Jonathan Mostow, special effects wizard Stan Winston, stars Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, and yes – Arnold Schwarzenegger. The flyer even promised that the entire panel would stick around to sign autographs after the fact – even Arnie, “for a very limited time.” I could not have been more excited.

The story

Somehow, I had a friend who lived literally on the same street as the convention locale, a block over. He generously offered to let me spend the night at his place. I figured we would play some videogames and chill for a bit, leaving me a few hours of rest for my big day ahead (like the rest of the world, he didn’t care about Terminator 3). My plan was to then walk over to the convention early Saturday morning, jump to the head of the line, claim my free poster, sit through the panel, and reach the holy grail: meet Arnold and claim his signature. It was kismet.

After what felt like weeks of waiting, the big night before finally arrived. I had just a bag of essentials when my friend came to pick me up. I was psyched. As we turned onto his street, however, I noticed a few people already camped outside the convention – yes, a good 12 hours early. Immediately, I panicked. I didn’t gather my thoughts or think logistics, didn’t weigh my options at my friend’s apartment. Instead, with a self-created sense of urgency, I asked to be dropped off. Without a sleeping bag, without a blanket, without any kind of preparation or foresight.

As my friend’s car pulled off, I was left with five or six strangers who shared my mission. I felt relived, even proud, as I had assured myself a meet-and-greet. After all, even the most extreme interpretations of “very limited time” had to include the first ten people, I figured. Of the group, I was the youngest by at least a decade. These were convention veterans, many of whom knew each other. They acknowledged my existence, but not much more. Some had chairs, blankets, light sources, food and drinks. I had a single sweater. And 12 hours to kill.

It was one of the longest nights of my life. I had nothing to do, no light with which to read.* I tried to go to sleep, but without cover or anything to soften the sidewalks of South Central LA, it was impossible. I would be jolted awake by the cold every 10 minutes. Every couple of hours, I asked someone to watch my spot, then used the bathroom at the 24-hour fast food restaurant across the street: a Yoshinoya with barred windows. Over the course of that night, I came to re-evaluate my life choices many times over. Only the thought of meeting Arnold sustained me over the hours.**

*I might have had a cell phone, but it was 2003. The only entertainment it offered was ‘snake.’

**like Bart Simpson at Kamp Krusty.

Eventually, against all odds, morning came. The line behind me grew significantly, and a couple of people even jumped ahead, unbelievably, as apparently some of the night crew had the audacity to hold spots for friends. Still, I was too tired, too secure in my knowledge that I would make the cut, to pick a fight. As opening hour approached, the convention organizers came to pass out tickets confirming our line order. I was #9 or #13, in that range. They spread the word: yes, Arnold was coming. Yes, Arnold would stick around for a few minutes. My excitement returned.

The convention doors opened. We had some time to kill before the panel was scheduled to start, so I made my way around the sales floor, checked out the Terminator movie props that had been set up, pretended I cared about anything other than the chance to meet the star of my favorite movie of all time. Eventually, I made my way to the stage, to reap the benefits of a long, cold, uncomfortable, sleepless night on the street. I was in the front row. As the crowd filled in, my night crew brethren joined me up front – we exchanged knowing nods of shared experience.

We started a little late, naturally, but the panel participants were finally brought in one by one. Of course, Arnold drew thunderous applause. The panel took their seats, less than 50 feet from where I sat. I don’t remember much about the content of the discussion. It took every last inch of me to stay awake, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I did for the duration. I was too tired, too excited, too hungry, too everything. It was only as the panel came to its end that I became aware of my surroundings, that I became reacquainted with the situation once again.

Then I heard the moderator thank Arnold – and only Arnold – for his attendance.

I saw Arnold stand and acknowledge the crowd.

I saw Arnold move away from the table.

And I saw Arnold step toward the building exit.

All of this happened in slow motion.

There was a dreadfully slow churning of the cogs in my brain as the horrible realization finally seeped through. I glanced over at the other front row attendees, and they had the same quizzical look on their faces as I presume I had, as their brains put two and two together. One or two guys hopped up, but the rest of us sat in shock.* Arnold was leaving. I tried to process everything, but I couldn’t. No autograph, no handshake, no meet, no explanation. Nothing. The moderator’s voice droned on in the background, selling us on the idea of meeting everyone else.

*I learned later that they made a beeline to the exit door, and one was successful in acquiring an autograph as Arnold left. Like I said, veterans.

I ended up with a poster signed by everybody else who was there. I didn’t say much to any of them. A couple of the other night crew recovered, even thanked the panelists for sticking around. But I was in shock. I had spent a night on the street and ended up with a Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines poster signed by Jonathan Mostow, Stan Winston, Kristanna Loken, and Nick Stahl. There was no one to complain to: it was clear that the convention organizers had simply promised something they should not have. It was, as a naive 20 year old, a bubble burst.

The punchline

I ended up graduating college in June 2005. They sent my diploma over later that year. Having attended a University of California, there were four official signatures on it: the provost, the chancellor, the university president, and the president of the regents. The last was a position held by the state governor. In 2005, the Governor of California was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So I eventually got a printed autograph after all. Never got to meet him though.

The epilogue

In 2009, I tried to attend the red carpet premiere of Terminator: Salvation at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with a pass for non-guaranteed seats for the public. I drove 50 miles from home, arriving four hours early for the event. There were maybe 20 people in line when I arrived. But it didn’t move. At all. For four hours. Finally, they allowed two small groups into the 1,152 capacity theater. I was now fourth from the front. Then security came: No one else was getting in – go home. So I retrieved my car, paid the $10 for parking, and drove the 50 miles back.

(Photo by Gage Skidmore, Peoria, AZ, via Wikimedia Commons)

Revisiting the Doctorate

When I first floated the idea of going to graduate school, I was a third year in college, visiting one of my teaching assistants at his office hours. His office was literally the size of a broom closet, and he had to pull chairs out into the corridor for us to have space to chat. I felt a bit embarrassed for him. Anyhow, we got to talking, and he asked about my post-graduation plans. I hadn’t thought about it much, so I threw out some generic answers, including graduate school – almost on a lark. His reaction was swift. Grad school, he all but admonished, was not to be taken lightly. I had to be passionate about the subject, the field. It was, he impressed upon me, not a casual option.

Looking back, the encounter was a microcosm of the graduate school experience: a myth about the purity of research and pedagogy, characterized too often by an inflated sense of importance and very real flagellation, hierarchical to its own detriment. These were traits perpetuated across the whole of the enterprise. Academe’s worst qualities seemed to manifest especially in the social sciences, comprised of far too many self-righteous individuals who had something to say about every aspect of society while lacking the basic social skills to actually exist in it.*

*I was once subject to a chain of emails in which graduate students struggled to get past the pedantry of naming a union (let alone forming one), because the word “union” had connotations to be argued over, just as “collective” did, or “association,” or every other word in the world.

I lived, as you might surmise, a normal existence even as a graduate student. Of course I had stressful days and weeks, especially as deadlines loomed. But I never felt snowed under the way many of my colleagues seemed to, my life far from the manner in which they presented their existence, as Sisyphus perpetually pushing the boulder uphill. I don’t know whether I was balanced or apathetic; perhaps both. But I progressed through the program, passion be damned. I managed to watch an obscene amount of movies, hold season tickets to my baseball team, take extended summer road trips. It was just more school.

I did attend conferences, managed to publish once or twice, but unsurprisingly, I never was the model academic. I did not network at these conferences, did not succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. I secured a couple of external fellowships, but never did transition neatly into a tenure-track position at a research university – despite what my adviser so clearly hoped and inelegantly (even unprofessionally) pushed for. I resisted. Even now, I continue to find myself, seemingly further and further from academia. My ability to finish the degree seemed to be a victory for normal people.

It’s difficult to overstate how little difference the doctorate makes in my life on a daily basis, even as I recognize its role in my career path. On rare occasion, I might chat with someone and learn they had begun the process and moved onto something else, or are just now considering going down that route. I might encounter people who look at it with a sense of reverence; this includes a supervisor who had a obvious chip on his shoulder about not having the degree himself. In such circumstances, I find myself asking what the degree means to me. I think about whether I would recommend the pursuit to others, and – ultimately – whether I regret that seven and a half years.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with newfound knowledge would have no second thought about their actions in almost any circumstance – a conversation, a relationship, a career choice. But regret is a strong word. I wonder whether having regret entails envisioning a completely altered existence, a la Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, or whether it represents a lone item of change that can be isolated from a life otherwise left untouched. I make that distinction because I need it. I do not regret pursuing my doctorate, but I would never do it if I had known then what I know now.

I do not regret because I grew up in graduate school. After a miserable four years in college, it was as a graduate student that I found my self-worth again. I became comfortable with who I was, even found some people who liked that person. I gleaned a genuine sense of accomplishment from the work, through shallow measures like departmental and school recognition, but also through regular interactions with students and colleagues and professors. I finished on my own terms, as I mentioned above – a balanced individual. And I have been able to shift from that pursuit to where I am now.

But I would never do it knowing then what I know now. I might have pursued a masters, and nothing more, knowing that the difference between it and a doctorate is all but negligible outside academia, easily overcome by real-world experience. I would forgo a degree that leads to a career path that promises no job security let alone a job, that ignores geographic preference, that bleeds over the notion of balance. I would turn away from a degree that means so much only to such a narrow community, driven by those who are all too eager to feed into its esoteric and self-sustaining nature.

In retrospect, my teaching assistant had it almost right. Passion about the subject, the field, might really be necessary – but not for graduate school per say. Clearly I’ve proven him wrong on that front. But I think it helps in the long run, in academia. It sustains people as they trudge on, through a game that never ends, a ladder that keeps climbing. There’s delusion in that passion, for sure, righteousness too, maybe pure survival sprinkled in. But there’s also genuine belief, the kind I never had. Whatever it is, it’s something to hold onto as the environment – anachronistic and unwilling to change – envelops their lives.

I have my degree. I have no regret. But I would not do it knowing what I know now. It makes me wonder whether I was simply not smart enough then to fail.

(Photo by GregsWikidContributions, CC BY-SA 4.0,, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Most Watchable Movie Ever Made

And now, for something completely meaningless…

In May 2015, news came out that Warner Bros. had greenlit a new version of the 1993 action-thriller The Fugitive. There was scant detail provided – whether the project would be a sequel or reboot or remake, if Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones would be involved, and so forth – and that remains the case to this day. The only piece of information I could find concerns the involvement of screenwriter Christina Hodson, credited with 2016’s Shut In (owner of a sparkling 3% on Rotten Tomatoes).

There are no original ideas in Hollywood, of course. Books, television shows, video games, board games, toys, and even phone apps have made the leap to the silver screen in recent years. Everything that has been proven to sell once, in any medium, has been recycled to sell again, time and time again. By one count, there will be 43 sequels, reboots, and remakes in 2017. This includes Universal trying to refranchise The Mummy into their monsterverse, and Kenneth Branagh revisiting the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express (based on the Agatha Christie novel), for starters.

However, there is something about the idea of touching The Fugitive I find especially egregious. As I glance at entertainment news almost two years later, I find myself even now dreading the inevitable update that lists the director or actors involved in the project. I realize that The Fugitive itself originated on television in the 1960s, and inspired another short-lived television reboot in the early 2000s – the property is hardly an “original.” But my problem with a movie redo is simple. The Fugitive is perfect. It is immensely watchable and rewatchable. It holds up in every aspect.

For starters, the script of The Fugitive is expertly crafted. The prologue establishes its premise in mere minutes. The wife of Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) is murdered, he accused and found guilty of the crime. Flashbacks trace the couple’s last night together, spent at a fundraising event. The scenes are casual, seemingly nonchalant, but, unbeknownst to us at this point, hints. For now though, we simply follow Kimble – to the emergency surgery he is called in to perform, then back home where he finds his dead wife, and her killer, the one-armed man. We know Kimble is innocent. But we also know how it looks.

Kimble escapes, of course, in a sensational bus-train crash sequence as memorable an action setpiece as any in cinematic history. That’s when the movie truly begins. We have Kimble on the run, desperate to buy time both to clear his name and to uncover the truth behind his wife’s murder. And we have Deputy Samuel Gerard (Jones) and his team of US Marshals, tasked with finding an escaped murderer and bringing him to justice. “I’m not trying to solve a puzzle here,” Gerard says. “Well, I am,” Kimble responds.

It is precisely the puzzle that separates The Fugitive from any number of chase thrillers, providing the narrative much depth. While the entire first act is about Kimble wrestling to stay free in the immediate aftermath of his escape (including a highway chase scene), the movie evolves deftly and begins to ebb and flow with the puzzle rather than the chase. It’s an effective shift, one necessary to maintaining the integrity of Kimble’s character. Yes, Kimble is a smart man – probably smarter than his pursuers – but it is because of his mission that he puts himself at risk of capture.

The refocus on the murder also frees the movie from any sort of monotony with the extended cat-and-mouse between Gerard and Kimble. Indeed, the script feels well-balanced throughout. Following the iconic encounter at the dam that ends the first act (“I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care.”), we have a break in the chase, as Kimble returns to Chicago and formulates his plan, while the marshals move to capture the other fugitive from the escape. These scenes work to remind us of the characters’ underlying motivations, in the process contributing to their development.

Even without the physical presence of the marshals, Kimble’s predicament lends urgency to every scene. The drug sting and arrest of his landlady’s son is a heartpounding sequence that captures the walls seemingly caving in on Kimble – in the aftermath, Ford conveys this perfect mixture of relief and exhaustion and downright terror. The hospital sequence is no less tense, as we are reminded of the threat he faces even from a suspicious lab technician or a doctor. That he is making progress in his search for the one-armed man only underlines the stakes for our protagonist.

By the time we reach the end of the second act then, it seems almost an inevitability that the two sides will circle back on one another again. That the scene takes place in the wolf’s den – as Kimble visits a jail to see if an armed robber now behind bars is his one-armed man – only ratchets up the tension tenfold (there is a fantastic visual of Kimble shrinking in the back of an elevator filled with cops). This is a purposeful encounter for the narrative. Even if they cross paths purely by accident – with Gerard looking into the one-armed man himself – we are reminded of the precariousness of Kimble’s situation, the relentlessness of the man on his tail.

It is with the subsequent fall of the first big chess piece – when Kimble identifies Fredrick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas) as the one-armed man – that the movie shifts once more. The strands hinted at in the prologue, and pursued in the second act, start to come together as the movie barrels towards its conclusion. The separate worlds inhabited by the main characters merge almost fully now as Kimble clues the marshals in on his investigation (while necessarily keeping them at arm’s length). They’re not quite on the same side, but at least now they’re asking the same questions.

As Kimble and Gerard work individually to unravel the puzzle, Sykes comes to the forefront – dragging with him from the shadows the individuals who orchestrated the murder. The movie does this naturally, effectively: we have moved from the question of who killed Kimble’s wife to why Kimble’s wife was killed. And as Kimble finally pieces everything together, we do too, culminating in a series of onscreen showdowns. Kimble with the one-armed man, then with the mastermind, then with Gerard. It is an immensely satisfying finale.

There is not a wasted scene or line to be found in The Fugitive. Every thread comes back around, big and small. For instance, the push-and-pull over jurisdiction is a recurring theme, with the marshals clashing with local authorities from the outset (leading to Jones’ famous “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse” line). Thus, late in the movie, when Sykes’ murder of a cop is blamed on Kimble, there are consequences for the marshals too. “Chicago PD will eat him alive!” They’re chomping at the bit to kill a man that the marshals want captured. It adds another realistic dimension to the final confrontation.

Indeed, the film oozes of authenticity. Some of it is almost forgettable: the throwaway line that references prank calls from people pretending to be Kimble on the hotline, the internal monologue of a nurse as she attends to an elderly patient. There are small human moments: the old guard who saves himself from the bus-train crash and then tells a white lie about the circumstances of Kimble’s escape. Then there are the constants: the easy banter among the marshals that reveal their camaraderie, the doctor who cannot turn his back on the hippocratic oath even on the lam. All of it works in service of more fully-realized characters, of a more fully-realized world.

There are too many reasons why The Fugitive works as well as it does. The movie takes a situation already imbued with urgency and adds a mystery on top. It sets up the highest of stakes, with the truth encompassing not only vindication in the face of execution but vengeance as well. It paces itself, balancing its disparate elements and worlds, with three crescendos that find the main characters at very different places in their respective missions. It is rich in dialogue, and propelled further by the power of the performances. The Fugitive is as smart, thrilling, and fun a movie as you will ever see.

And it is utterly timeless.

The Enveloping Darkness

It is impossible to get away from it.

The guide for my bike tour brings it up, unprompted, in the context of the upcoming Dutch elections. “We have a Dutch Trump,” he says with a sigh of resignation. We nod sullenly.

At the museum, the turbaned security guard almost lights up when he finds out I’m from the U.S. “It’s scary over there,” he exclaims as he peruses my small backpack. “And it’s only been two weeks.” I concur.

I hear chatter every single day from my hallway at work, mostly the American colleagues as they recap in excruciating detail the latest items on the newswire. From a couple of doors down, it sounds like a circlejerk of righteousness, of outrage – a genuine echo chamber.

I’m fatigued, personally. I don’t really feel the need to talk about it anymore, at least not for now, not aloud. How many ways can one express anger anyhow? Or frustration or despair or concern. How many times can one be affirmed by like-minded friends or colleagues, even strangers, without actually moving forward?

I’m already too deep in as it stands*. I clutch for my phone in bed, refreshing Twitter or the New York Times or Reddit at 1 am to see if the President has done anything further to destroy the country I loved, far too blindly, before I go to sleep. I do the same in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep. That seems to happen more these days.

*I’m writing about the topic again, for starters.

I don’t think I can do this for four years. To think this way, to feel this way. To wake up with a sense of dread and despair. I tell myself it will not last four years. But who knows, really? What if it’s eight?

There are other aspects of it I’ve been thinking more recently. Maybe it’s a stages of grief thing. Maybe I’m just compelled by a need to make more sense of it all, to not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

It says something us as a country – about me as an individual – that it took this to squelch our collective apathy. There, after all, exists an ironic undercurrent in our outrage: of ethnocentrism, of nationalism, of an affirmation of the kind of American exceptionalism that the rest of the world finds fanciful if not altogether repugnant.

I cannot help but see that it is only in the recognition of the fragility of our progress and our institutions that most of us finally seem to understand the fragility of all progress and all institutions. It is only in our despair that most of us are compelled to movement. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter how or when we got here but only that we are here now.

This whole environment is strange. It feels wrong to be selfish in times like this. To be concerned for instance about impending professional uncertainty, to dwell upon intense personal emotion, to muster care over any number of matters, some more frivolous than others. There are far more important things going on.

Then again, there always have been.

I don’t know. I think that’s what it comes down to. I just don’t know. The spectrum of possibility is vast. The possibility for disaster ever-present.

I ponder when people talk about the banality of evil someday if this will be an example that they cite. If there is or will be a line crossed that all of us will only recognize in hindsight. If there will be enough pieces of America left for the next administration to pick up and try to make whole again.

Like I said, it is impossible to get away from it.

It is ubiquitous, all-encompassing, penetrating. Not confined to newspaper stories or small talk or social media posts. No, it is a part of life now – of the way we think and see and feel, almost every second of every day.

So I wonder. In these trying times, I wonder if maintaining a sense of perspective will come at the cost of losing myself in the process, of invalidating everything to do with the immediacy of my own life.

It seems like a selfish thought. It is. But maybe I need to feel selfish again too. To feel just a twinge of normalcy amidst this most abnormal time. To have a center from which I have again a sense of footing, and can try to make sense of the environment that surrounds us all.

(Photo by C. E. Price [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Trying to get it together, always.

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