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Moving Pains 14 min read

Moving Pains

Moving as an act of love, plus Johnny Cash, art imitating life, Roger Ebert on why you should go to the movies, and much more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I spent a good chunk of the weekend helping my girlfriend move into a new apartment. On Saturday, after we’d stopped for the day, she commented from her side of the booth at one of our favorite local spots to eat about how good my mood was.

And she was right; I was happy.

In a quiet way, I’d come to think of helping someone move as the sixth love language. (There are five of them, right?) That’s a fairly recent development. I think I’ve always considered the act as a nice one to do for a person, implicitly a show of caring and love; I’ve helped plenty of people move in my life and thought little of it.

But after my dad passed in April, I was left with the last big thing we did together: move me from Wyoming to Missouri. It was a huge undertaking, and one he made without question. As big as it was, it paled in comparison to the time he’d helped me move before: from Tennessee to Wyoming.

I’d made no effort to ask for help. I was going to go it alone. Not for any particular reason: not pride, not aversion to the idea of him helping, not for lack of getting along. Nothing like that. Mostly, it just seemed too big a thing to ask.

I didn’t even realize how badly I needed his help until he offered it, freely. It was a big deal for him to take off days of work to go with me. His offer was last-minute, and I was grateful beyond words.

We backed a U-Haul as far back to our carport as it would go, and we packed up under the dark clouds of an evening rain. I had a lot of stuff, and none it the kind of college furniture that one would toss about with reckless abandon, unconcerned with its fate for the ease of replacing it. No, this was a grown-up’s furniture, stuff to keep, stuff to be proud of, stuff made of honest-to-god wood, stained dark and pretty.

Dad would have been a good engineer if he’d had a head for numbers. He was full of conceptual smarts when it came to problem-solving and a wealth of practical know-how to achieve the desired result. It was humbling (and in its very specific way, touching) to see him troubleshoot issues related to keeping this nice furniture so well cinched in place that it wouldn’t sustain even a scratch. His investment in doing the job, not merely competently but as perfectly as possible, from such an unexpected participant…well, even now, the thought of it chokes me up. It did when he was alive, and it does so doubly now that he’s gone.

And then we set out driving. He took the first shift, and I don’t remember when exactly I switched off, but I do remember how long it took us to make the drive: 23 hours, 45 minutes, straight through.

I remember the excitement he couldn’t contain as we neared Gillette, where out in the distance, he could make out the tiny specks of far-away pronghorn antelope. He treated seeing them as if we’d seen a white-tailed deer back home: something rare due to the creature’s natural skittishness. Little did we know that they’re all over the place out there, and even in town, they’ll walk along the roadsides and into neighborhoods and onto the tee boxes of the local golf course. He couldn’t believe that last part, when I called him a month or so later to tell him I was about to hit a drive and the antelope couldn’t be bothered to move.

We unpacked in a whirlwind, and we ate a singular meal in the middle of the afternoon. It was essentially breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And we came back and promptly fell asleep, both in my giant bed, because I didn’t yet have a couch. We awoke early in the morning, and set out to do it all over again in reverse.

The only thing he “got” out of the trip was a quick stop at Devils Tower, not far from Gillette, on our way back east. We got out and walked around the base of the giant rock formation, America’s first national monument, in the early morning briskness, the air thin to our unacclimated lungs, and the visit much too short.

We marveled at the effectiveness of blunt repetition of advertising for Wall Drug in South Dakota, though we didn’t take the time to stop for its promised 5-cent coffee. The signs seemed to be every 100 feet, and I think we read every one aloud or at least pointed out its existence with a "There's another one." We drove and drove and drove, this time in a rental car and able to shave a few hours off the return trip time; it only took is 20 hours and 45 minutes that time. And just like that, it was done. Like it was no big deal, this crazy trip we’d just made.

It was two years later, when I asked for his help outright this time. It was another whirlwind trip with more challenges (I was still testing positive for COVID-19, a week and a half after getting it for the first time two years into the pandemic).

I watched the same diligence and care put into organizing and packing my stuff as two years before, but this time with more stuff but also a little more experience on our part. It was a quick few days of packing, and I remember how touched I was that he scrubbed the blackened drip pans around the eyes of the stove as well as the inside of it, all because the check-out guide had said those would be areas that would be checked. I remember him feeling a bit deflated when the woman came by for the walk-through, and she gave hardly a second glance to his freshly scrubbed stove. But damn if it didn’t look good though.

I had hired movers, to make our lives easier; his the life of a man in his mid-60s, mine the life of a lazy and deliriously sick boy half his age. He seemed uncertain of how to handle the movers’ presence, as if he didn’t want them have to actually move anything heavy or large or in any way pose an inconvenience to them. I’d taken out a crisp $100 bill with which to tip them for less than an hour’s worth of work. As I handed it over, a look of genuine appreciation appeared on the men’s faces, and not two seconds later, he was trying to do the exact same thing. Realizing he wasn’t first on the scene didn’t deter him though; he put it in the other mover’s pocket and said now they each had one. Plus the original fee for their services, it ended up being quite a profitable 45 minutes for those two.

We drove back to Missouri, and the next morning, we attacked the task of unloading the truck before the humidity became unbearable. We finished around midday, and then, without any pomp or circumstance (or really even a proper break to catch his breath), he said that he should probably get on the road for the seven-hour drive back to Tennessee. And just like that, he was gone. Like it was no big deal, this crazy trip we’d just made.

I wish, in those final weeks when we were in the hospital and he could hear us and talk just fine, that I’d taken a minute to thank him again for those monumental acts of kindness that doubled as fairly everyday acts of fatherhood. I said it in the moment that day we looked around the living room of the new house with few items in a designated place, unaware of the significance it would hold less than a year later. I cried as he drove away from my house in Missouri, chest heaving with sobs that were purely from an overwhelming sense of gratitude at how lucky I was to have him in my life. I know I’d have never gotten through it if I’d tried to convey all of that to him as he sat in his hospital bed, so, regrettably, I didn’t even try.

I wish that I’d said it in those final few days in our living room, as he labored to breathe in a state of sleep that couldn’t be pierced, as I searched for something, anything, to say in hopes that he was hearing us beneath his inability to respond.

But it was his spirit that filled me up over the weekend, as I helped my girlfriend in a manner that paled in comparison to what my dad did for me. It was easy to feel love he so freely and nonchalantly gave in those massive moves, and it was even easier to channel it as, for once, the mover, not the movee.

Ten Worth Your Time

1. One of the great things about the tiny town where I was born and raised was its proximity to great musical influences. It’s just two hours from Memphis and its rhythm and blues sounds. It’s less than three hours to Nashville, the world capital of country music. It’s barely an hour from Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Just barely more than an hour to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and all the great music produced on the banks of the Tennessee River. It’s just 45 minutes south of Jackson, Tennessee, the longtime home of Carl Perkins. These were the thoughts running through my head as I read a this story by William Ferris in Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities, after my dear friend and mentor Berkley Hudson sent me the link. (Humanities had just last year published a story related to one of Dr. Hudson’s most-recent projects—O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.) Place was important to the inimitable Johnny Cash, too, and Ferris connected his music to his home in a beautifully written piece:

Cash’s roots were humble. He grew up on government-granted land in the Arkansas Delta, and that hardscrabble world of poor farmers helped define his musical career. During his early years as a musician, he performed for small audiences like the Merigold High School junior class in Merigold, Mississippi, a Delta town with a population of 664. In 1955, the class planned a fund-raiser to support their trip to Washington and invited Elvis Presley to perform at the event. Their classmate Larry Speakes—who later served as White House press secretary during the Ronald Reagan administration—and his band had recently played on the same stage with Elvis at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, where he met Bob Neal, Presley’s manager at the time. Speakes phoned Neal, who told him that Presley’s fee to do the show would be $85, which Speakes said they could not afford. Neal then offered to send both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins for $35, and Speakes readily accepted.

2. One of the reasons I can’t quit Twitter just yet is I love the way publications recirculate their stories. It’s an inspiration, really, for what I want this newsletter and my blog to be: time capsules of what some of our best storytelling (so if a person were to stumble upon it one day in the future, they’d get as much joy as I did from finding old stories). I also like to circulate those older stories myself, as a way of celebrating the timeless quality of good stories and writing. This New Yorker story was one that I missed from last year; I don’t remember it at all, but it’s title—“The Terrifying Car Crash That Inspired a Masterpiece”—was enough to catch my attention when I saw it flash by on Twitter. It reminds me of a newspaper feature story that I might have written had I lived near where this wreck happened and learned of its connection to the a piece of literature.

3. The “masterpiece” was an old piece of short fiction from Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son that originally ran in The Paris Review, and it’s a good example of the style that made Johnson so famous.

4. This close overlap of fact and fiction brought to mind the building blocks of fiction: Where do you get your inspiration for story? Is it purely imagined or a lightly disguised recollection of your own experiences? There are different practitioners and adherents to each camp, and there is undeniably blending of the two. A wonderful audiobook that I’m currently listening to is the backstory of a famous example of the latter: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. In the book Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, the author, Lesley M. M. Blume, tells Hemingway’s biography and highlights how his life became the foundation for his breakout novel. One passage from the introductory chapter goes like this:

During such moments of despair, it’s unlikely that Hemingway realized that he was actually one of the luckier writers in modern history. Circumstances often seemed to conspire in his favor. All of the right things made their way to him at the right moment—motivated mentors, publisher patrons, wealthy wives, and a trove of material just when he needed it most in the form of some delectably bad behavior among his peers, which he promptly translated into his groundbreaking debut novel…published in 1926. In the book’s pages, those co-opted antics—benders, hangovers, affairs, betrayals—took on a new and loftier guise of their own: experimental literature.

Later in the chapter:

When the sun also rises was released a year later, those who had been translated onto its pages were incredulous that it was being marketed as fiction. “When I first read it, I couldn’t see what everyone was getting so excited about,” recalled Donald Ogden Stewart, a best=selling humor author who’d been part of the Pamplona entourage. Hemingway repurposed him into the book’s comic foil Bill Gorton. In his eyes, The Sun Also Rises was “nothing but a report on what happened. This is journalism.” Stewart was not the only one who believed that Hemingway had showed his reporting chops and nothing more. He’d even written the whole thing as if delivering a juicy scoop on deadline. … Cannell, Loeb, Lady Duff Twydsen, and the other figures who had inspired the book’s characters reacted to The Sun Also Rises with varying degrees of rage and dismay. Not only did the book depict in painful detail events that had transpired in Paris and Pamplona, but also vast swaths of their personal backgrounds had been blatantly used as the characters’ biographies.” Here’s an episode of The Art of Manliness podcast with Blume discussing the book and Hemingway’s legacy.

5. In another example of art imitating life (but perhaps not quite to the degree of roman à clef as Hemingway’s novel), I’m currently reading a paperback copy of Alex Gilvarry’s Eastman Was Here. I’m only a few chapters in at this point, but I’m really enjoying the tone of it so far. The character of Alan Eastman is based not-so-loosely on Norman Mailer, and it depicts Eastman, a public intellectual of waning relevance, taking a big swing to return to literary form by taking a trip to Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War to send back dispatches in hopes of bucking up a newspaper’s readership. Here’s a Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author as he reflects on Mailer as inspiration and his book as a feminist text.

6. My Vietnam War kick of late has included more than just Eastman Was Here. After recently listening to the JFK episode of The Rewatchables podcast, in which they talked about Oliver Stone’s formative experience in the Vietnam War, I decided to watch the documentary Hearts and Minds, which I first saw when I was in college. It’s an all-time great film, not just a great Vietnam War film. But great Vietnam War films is the subject of a new miniseries that will air in The Big Picture podcast feed, put out by Brian Raftery who might have one of the coolest gigs going right now for The Ringer. Check out a quick preview interview with Raftery from last week’s episode.

7. While on the topic of Ratery, let me take a chance to highlight his previous miniseries, which also aired on The Big Picture’s feed (and is definitely the reason why I think he has the coolest gig going right now): Gene and Roger, an in-depth look at the iconic duo of film critics. Listen to the first episode here.

8. Roger Ebert, the patron saint of movie-going, had a simple belief in the power of a communal theater experience. It’s a belief I happen to share, and I’m hoping the heights of Barbenheimer can be maintained for the rest of the year, if not in perpetuity.

9. For every action there is an equal opposite reaction. We learned that in grade-school physics, and the journalistic version in response to Ebert’s earnest support of the theater experience is this short piece from the Washington Post which amounts to little more than a nationwide round-up of terrible behavior in movie theaters. I can 100% confirm that people’s manners in movie theaters have deteriorated over the past few years, and it’s complicated for a movie-lover like me to see a crowded parking lot because for as much as I might love it for the theater industry, I don’t really look forward to sharing the theater with lots of people. It increases the chance for nonsense, and while I want to be the sort of enlightened soul who can read a passage like this one—Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert on stress and personal trauma, says this behavior could be linked to a string of recent events. “It is clear that the past three years have been challenging for many people in our country. We have experienced a series of collective traumas, cascading one to the next, which for many has been almost too much to bear. The combination of the pandemic, inflation, mass shootings, climate-related disasters, political polarization and so on, has taxed our capacity to cope,” Cohen Silver said in an email. “It is important to recognize this reality as we examine behavior this summer.”—and think, “Sure, that makes sense. Bless their hearts, actually.” But, no. I am not so pure of heart. I think most people are just self-absorbed assholes in these situations, and they do not, in the slightest, care about what their actions mean for other people. It makes me want to stay home and watch my new giant TV, if I’m being honest. But I’ll never actually be able to stay away; as our queen Nicole Kidman taught us, “Heartbreak feels good in a place like this,” and that place, is, of course, a theater.

10. If you go back to the sixth entry on this list, where I talk about The Big Picture episode where you can check out the interview with Brian Raftery, you’ll notice that episode is not at all dedicated to Raftery’s interview. It’s only a short bit at the beginning of the episode, while the majority of its runtime is dedicated to the genre of film the guys refer to as “Garbage Fish,” or, put another way, ridiculous films in which the bad guy (or hero, depending on your view) is often a shark. Now, the granddaddy of them all of shark films is Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and is WAY too good a film to be considered a “Garbage Fish” flick. (In fact, the guys declare Jaws 2 too good for the category as well.) Over on Kottke, Jason recently linked to a video about how Spielberg’s secret sauce is wonder—“that alchemical mix of fear and astonishment of the unknown.” It’s a great video essay by the channel Nerdstalgia, and I’ll likely be subscribing to get more from it.

More From Me

Over on my blog , I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

A New TV Was Worth The Wait: Sometimes a title just tells you everything you need to know.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

7/31: Top Chef, S9 (2); CALIFORNIA SPLIT
8/1: Top Chef, S10 (2); CITIZEN KANE*
8/2: Justified: City Primeval (2); OCEAN’S 13*; OCEAN’S 12*; BLOW OUT
8/3: Top Chef, S10 (2); Hijack
8/4: Top Chef, S10 (3); Hijack (2); Ninth House-Leigh Bardugo
8/6: Top Chef, S10 (8)