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Golden Opportunities

It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. — Roy Disney

A tight shot on George Clooney’s face opened and drew back, across the bare hotel room in which he sat, beyond the walls of the building, and further still, until he was nothing more than the silhouette of a lone man in one of a hundred windows. I recognized the image from my father’s description — this was the scene that had resonated with Dad, the one that had prompted his trademark chuff, that emotionally loaded vocal burst he expels in those extraordinary instances he can’t find words.

Like my father, David and I had gone to see Up in the Air for a number of reasons, not the least of which is our dedication to our frequent flyer program. Last year, Dad flew over 100,000 miles on United Airlines. He’s approaching one million miles total. The highest level I reached was Premiere Executive, or 50,000 miles in a year. That was a few years ago, before the economy tanked. Now I’m lucky if I can scrape together the 25,000 a year that keeps me enjoying the perks of the lowest level. As travel fiends, we pride ourselves on knowing the tricks to getting ahead in the air.

“Well, that was a bummer,” I said to David as we left the theater. What I’d expected to be a funny, upbeat flick about the ins and outs of flying turned out to be a morose parable about priorities. It wasn’t the long shot that got me so much as the scene in which the frequent flyer (Clooney) is preparing for his sister’s wedding. He offers but is denied the opportunity to walk her down the aisle; a moment later, he asks what time he is needed at the big event and is told to arrive when all the other guests are expected. After years of being the absent family member, he’d been relegated to the role of acquaintance.

“Did that movie make you feel like you don’t spend enough time with your family?” I asked David. We’d been home for about an hour, most of which we’d spent working on the 1500-piece puzzle I’d dumped onto the granite counter in our kitchen.

“Are you feeling guilty?” David asked. “Wait, what am I thinking — of course you are,” he said. He looked up at me to confirm he was right before he continued. “I don’t know why. You’re not like that character at all. You see your family all the time.”

To David, whose siblings and parents all live in different cities, it may seem as though I see my family “all the time.” But though my sisters and parents live locally, I only see the clan en masse at choice events (e.g., birthday parties or holiday barbecues). To my family, the majority of whom congregate every single weekend, I’m the absentee member.

“I know,” I said, bringing an end to the conversation by way of tacit agreement. I found an end piece and added it to a growing pile. As with every other aspect of my life, I have a particular method for piecing together puzzles.

I stepped away from the counter to check email on my phone. That’s when I saw Fely-Jo’s message. “Oh. My. God. Fely-Jo wants to know if I want to go with her to some red-carpet party for the Golden Globes,” I said, scrolling through the message.

“What does that mean?” David asked.

“I don’t know. That’s all she says. Maybe a viewing party? Whatever it is, it sounds like fun! Oh, wait… Sunday. This Sunday? Shit, shit, shit. That might not work. Liam’s birthday party is Sunday.”

“Just find out the details and don’t stress,” David said. “You might be able to do both.”

After a bout of phone tag, I finally connected with Fely-Jo the following morning. I thought the invitation was to an event in San Diego, but Fely-Jo clarified that it was the red carpet she was inviting me to. She’d won a lottery at work for two seats in the bleachers alongside the infamous carpet for the preshow. “We’ll be driven there and dropped off right where the limos drop the stars,” she explained. “We might even get on camera! How fun will that be? You have to let me know in the next hour, though, because they need a head count.”

The excitement in Fely-Jo’s voice was so contagious, I almost said yes without thinking. But something nagged at the back of my mind, and I told her, “Can I call you right back?” I hung up the phone and turned to David. “It’s in L.A.”

“You know if you do that, that’s the only thing you can do all day,” David said.

“It sounds like fun,” I said.

“It does,” David agreed. I knew what he was doing. It was clear in his gentle tone, his agreeability — he was playing the role of devil’s advocate, waiting for me to arrive at the correct conclusion to my conundrum.

I picked up the phone and dialed Fely-Jo’s number. “It kills me to tell you no,” I said when she answered. “I’m so honored you’d think of me…and I’m torn, I really am. I mean, if it was any other day, I’d be all over it. But this Sunday is my nephew’s birthday party, and I already said I was going.”

“I’m sure they’d understand,” said Fely-Jo, and she was right. If I asked their advice, my sisters would probably insist I go to L.A. But this wasn’t about them understanding. Liam had just turned eight. Maybe he wouldn’t notice if one fewer aunt was at the family shindig. But it didn’t matter — I wanted to show up, as I had said I would. To back out of plans because something came along that sounded “more fun” was to become that which I deplored.

All of the decisions we make in life add up to who we are. We are our choices. If I chose to blow off my nephew’s birthday party so that I could frolic in sight of some of my favorite celebrities, I’d be choosing strangers over loved ones.

As Liam opened his present (books David had selected titled The Way the World Works and Everyday Science Explained), I thought of George Clooney, acting disconsolate as his character’s priorities shifted a little too late.

“Thanks for coming,” said Heather. She smiled with pride as her son began reading the index aloud.

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I said. “In fact, I’d rather be right here than anywhere else, even the red carpet at the Golden Globes.”

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