Am I the only one who is impressed by the people who can sum up a movie or book’s plot in just one sentence? I went to the internet movie data base today to look up Billy Crystal’s comedy, City Slickers, and their plot summary line reads: “A mid-life crisis plagued man and his friends find renewal and purpose on a cattle driving vacation.” If you’ve ever seen this film, you’ll agree that this sentence pretty much covers the gist of the 112 minute movie. I wish I could do that, define the whole the plot line of story with such brevity.
It’s too bad people rarely put epitaphs on tombstones anymore. Okay, so I admit that reading headstones in old cemeteries might be a strange hobby, but I’ve probably had stranger hobbies in my life. I guess even back in my twenties I was impressed that some of those epitaphs could sum up a person’s whole life with just a few short sentences, like the one-line plot summaries used in the review business. Here’s a few of my favorite epitaphs:
“Here lies the body of poor Aunt Charlotte. Born a virgin, died a harlot. For 16 years she kept her virginity. A damn'd long time for this vicinity.” Death Valley, California
“Here lies an Atheist, All dressed up, And no place to go.” Thurmont, Maryland
“Here lies the father of 29. He would have had more, But he didn't have time.” Moultrie, Georgia
“Here lays Butch. We planted him raw. He was quick on the trigger, But slow on the draw.” Silver City, Nevada
“She lived with her husband fifty years, And died in the confident hope of a better life.” Burlington, Vermont
“Here lies the body of a man who died. Nobody mourned - nobody cried. How he lived - how he fared, nobody knows - nobody cared.” Oconto Falls, Wisconsin
If epitaphs were fashionable again, have you ever thought about what you’d put on your tombstone? Would your perception of yourself in epitaph agree with something your family or friends might say? For me, they probably wouldn’t. Would anyone’s? I wonder. I might say: “Here lies quirky Jean Riva who spent her life marching to the beat of a different drummer.” My friends and family might say: “It took 60 odd years for Jean to share her thoughts, but when she started she wouldn’t shut up.”
In most movies and books there are several lines that will stick with you long after the film has ended. They might be something thought-provoking or funny or a spark a genuine emotion that speaks to your heart. For me, it’s often the light bulb moment when a character vocalizes a morsel of enlightenment that just happens to be the whole essence of the story. In City Slickers, that “ah, ha!” dialog happened about half way through the movie and then again near the end. The first dialog was between an aging old cowboy, Curly, and Bill Crystal’s character, Mitch.
“Life is about one thing,” Curly said, holding up one finger for emphasis.
And what is that?” Mitch asks.
“When you figure that out you will begin to live,” Curly answered and rode away on his horse.
When Mitch repeated Curly’s line---life is about one thing---to his friends later in the movie, one of them also asked, “And what is that?”
Mitch replied something like: “I can’t tell you that. It’s different for each of us. It’s up to each of us to figure that out for ourselves.”
Isn’t that a powerful statement---that life is about just one thing? The premise that our whole life boils down into finding that one meaningful thing that keeps us happy and engaged and moving forward is intriguing, isn’t it. If a person was into passing on mystical advice per their tombstone art, that’s epitaph material if I ever heard it. Where’s my marble carving tools? I think I’ve found a new project…..
“Go and find your smile,” Mitch’s wife had told him near the beginning of City Slickers and when he came back from his vacation in Colorado, he pointed to his glowing face and said, “Look what I found.” So, boys and girls if you are still reading this essay, this is your assignment: go out and find that one thing that puts meaning in your life and your smile is sure to follow. Life is brief. Think about what you’d want your epitaph to say someday, then spend the rest of your life living up to those words. It’s the best cure for your mid-life crisis.
Jean Riva ©
Painting: The Horse Rustler by William Herbert Dunton 1878-1939