Rooting around for the meaning of life

Terrence Malick's film includes amazing actual footage of the real Tree of Life!

Terrence Malick’s much ballyhooed film “The Tree of Life” tackles the Big Questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? But that’s just the beginning. It also asks the Ultimate Questions: “Why does God allow evil and pain and sorrow to exist? Does God even exist? And what the hell happens to us when we die?

Sorry, seekers. Malick gives it the old college try, but that’s the problem. I hoped for great things from this movie but instead found myself looking at a series of images and a superficial story that looked to me like the brainchild of a college sophomore with a double major in literature and philosophy and a great eye and technical skill with the camera.

Malick’s conclusion, the best I can reckon — after being bombarded for a couple of hours with an endless cascade of lovely images of newborn babies and volcanic eruptions and ocean waves and glimmering galaxies and Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain — is that life is beautiful but it’s also a great mystery that we keep trying to solve but never will because God works in mysterious ways.

Amen. But I knew that already and could have saved myself about twenty bucks and about two and half hours of tedium.

If you don’t mind the prospect of sitting there patiently and politely as God loads up the slide-projector carousel and shows you hundreds of His vacation photos, then go see “The Tree of Life.” But if you’re like me and have trouble sitting still for that sort of thing, then skip the movie and go re-read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

Down a lazy river

Wading River winds its way quietly through New Jersey's Pine Barrens.

We’re paddling an aluminum canoe down the Wading River, which — at least at this time of year — is more accurately a glorified stream, hardly worthy of its designation as a river but certainly ideal for wading — moving slowly, meandering through the cool, dark Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, hardly moving in spots and barely deep enough to float a canoe without scraping along the sandy bottom.
The river’s water is the color of rust — I assume from something residing in the pine bark or the rich damp soil.

Most of all my paddling companion and I savor what is often a pure and total silence, broken only by the splash of our paddles and the occasional whispered “Isn’t this beautiful?”

But just as we round a bend in the Wading River, the world turns topsy-turvy. We get hung up on a barely submerged log which lurks in the tea-colored water, just beneath the surface. The canoe gets turned sideways. One of us tries pushing off the log. The other tries using a paddles to push off the riverbank. Suddenly I am submerged, feet seeking the bottom, mind asking whither the light and whence the air.

The answer comes within seconds as I push up out of the water and back into the bright and breathing world. I seek and find my canoeing cohort, then lunge for my “Mick’s Canoe Rentals” baseball cap,” then join forces to tip over the water-filled canoe, then praise the gods of nature and the consumer economy when I discover with wonder that my brand-new iPhone has survived its river plunge thanks to that amazing technological innovation known as the ziploc bag — although there’s a flipside to this wonder…my companion’s phone, also ziplocked, does not survive — we actually hear it sizzle as its circuits and chips first fry then die.

Canoe dry and pointed in the right direction once again, we continue, warning the occasional inner-tuber to get out of our way if they value their lives and limbs…watching the riverbanks hopefully for signs of alligators…daydreaming about Bogart and Hepburn aboard the African Queen…sun burning our arms, legs and faces…blue sky through the pine trees looking like it never ends…finally completing our voyage from Hawkin Bridge to Evans Bridge, somehow making the three-hour journey in about two-and-a-half, and so we sit on the sandy beach and sip from a water bottle and eat cheddar-cheese Combos as we wait for a rickety old school bus to come and take us away from nirvana’s luminous shore.