1988: You Got a Tree Star, I Want a Ticket to Anywhere

For the four years before I joined the Welman clan, my sister was content calling our parents Mommy and Daddy. When I showed up and started to talk though, I would exclusively refer to Dolores as “Mother”. Daddy was still Daddy (and oddly remains so to this day—one of the odd frozen in time things that happens when you lose a parent very young, I suppose), but even my sister switched to calling her Mother.

There are a lot of pop culture artifacts I associate with Mother, like the incredible 1996 movie Mother, which I have written about before. Another one is a saccharine-sweet but still very touching lullaby sung to some baby penguins by some tweenage Chipettes in The Chipmunk Adventure (if you click, grab a tissue).

And then there is The Land Before Time. It is the story of Littlefoot being separated from his mother, whom he calls Mother. The tiny dinosaur is left with no one to help lead him through the literal end of the world.  He just has a leaf. Yeah, if you haven’t seen it, Mother taught Littlefoot about the precious “tree stars” hanging from the trees. They are scarce in the end of the dinosaur era, but the promise of endless tree stars in the Great Valley keeps Littlefoot going.

Hope isn’t as easy as those Obama posters made it out to be though. It takes a certain amount of courage to hope for something. Yes, it helps you set goals and strive for things, but you also run the risk of getting your hopes up only to have them fall flat. With the other virtues, love and charity, you get warned about how one-sided these things can be. Hope, on the other hand, that is the virtue where you might end up disappointed the most. You don’t expect anything in return for being charitable. Every other movie or TV show warns you to guard your heart in matters of love, but hope is one of those things that creeps in when you’re not paying attention, and you really only comprehend how hopeful you were when you get let down.

Hope drove Littlefoot and friends to the great valley, which is mostly what we remember from the movie. What you may not remember is the sheer devastation Littlefoot experiences when he sees what he believes is his dead mother alive and in the distance, only to discover it was his shadow. I guess you could argue that hope of seeing his mother again was what pushed him to go forward on his journey, but as Buzzfeed notes, even as an adult, the grim picture of hope this movie quietly paints while the story is foregrounded with cartoon dinos so cute the girl ones even have Kewpie Doll eyelashes.

The very concept makes for a dire story and makes for some exponentially slim chances the dinos would have survived long enough for 13 direct-to-video sequels. Those watching know the dinosaurs don’t make it in the long run. Yeah the Great Valley is fine and dandy, but a global extinction is just around the corner, so how big of a victory is this really? Throw in the fact that the little girl who voiced Ducky was brutally murdered by her father before the movie was released, and you basically have a Don Bluth-helmed need to get a Prozac scrip.

Things rarely got that dire on Unsolved Mysteries, but there were the occasional stories that got the update treatment with Robert Stack informing viewers that yes, this missing person is actually dead. By and large though, the unsolved component of the show left a lot of room for hope, particularly when the updates were of a happier nature.

I particularly enjoyed the adoption stories, what with being adopted. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I don’t have much motivation to hunt down my birth parents, but as a kid I certainly held out hope that they might seek me out. Every adopted person is different, but I think there are a large number of us out there that can’t shake that tiny voice reminding you your original set of parents didn’t want you. In reality, giving a child up for adoption and a shot at a better life is such a remarkable sign of love, but as a kid I didn’t quite grasp that yet, so I tuned into Lifetime daily to catch Unsolved Mysteries reruns, hoping I would stumble upon a mystery where the answer was me. I would ballpark that I’ve seen about 150 different episodes over my life.

I find it kind of strange Unsolved Mysteries hasn’t been rebooted lately. The internet has solved many of our mysteries, but seemingly weekly we hear a case like those missing boys on the boat whose parents will forever hold on to the hope their kids survived and floated off to Cuba or something never to be heard from again. Perhaps with technology the way it is these days, there isn’t as much hope at our disposal. It is hard to hold out hope believing your kid accidentally floated a makeshift raft to another country if they never log into Facebook again. For the parents, no amount of inactivity will destroy the hope really, but for the rest of us voyeuristic observers, we need a little more to go on before hoping for anything but the worst.

So that might explain why Unsolved Mysteries never really took off a second time despite three reboots by three different networks. I would like to believe it is the absence of Stack, who if you don’t know, had an impressive film resume before hosting the show. Dennis Farina tried to fill Stack’s shoes, but it didn’t last but a couple of years.

Meanwhile, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car doesn’t suffer in the slightest from its numerous substitute Chapmans doing their cover versions of the song (my favorite is Christian Kane). If you’re not familiar with what this song is about, a Chapman website explains that it isn’t as autobiographical as you might think. It draws from her experiences in poorer neighborhoods, but also draws from the prevailing attitude of the working class that you have to keep going because things will have to get better one of these days.

In other words, it is a song about hope. How riding in a car with your significant other talking about what things will get better can feel like the world is full of so many possibilities, but when it slows done nothing much is different. There will still be more car rides though and, in turn, more hope. Conceptually, this has all the makings of a good country song, which might explain why so many country and folk artists choose to cover it. In country, the prevailing sentiment is “yes things are bad, but they are bound to get better eventually,” which is a notion Fast Car pretty directly addresses.

Unlike most of these country songs, which end on a more hopeful note, Chapman’s concludes with a little bit of doubt.

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
You leave tonight or live and die this way

There is a big difference between hoping and actually making something happen. Hoping can be a very passive activity. If you don’t try to do things to turn those hopes into reality, it will remain a daydream much of the time.

That notion is what connects me to this song so much. I adore Littlefoot, but can’t help but feel like he is an animated Don Quixote on a fool’s quest. When you lose a loved one, you do have to find a way to keep hope alive and keep yourself going, but wandering the Earth in the middle of the apocalypse hoping a leaf can help you find sanctuary is both futile and a little delusional.

Maybe Fast Car is telling us the same thing though, just on a slower trajectory. It will end for all of us eventually, but sitting idly by since we’ll end up in the ground no matter what is, at its core, an excuse to be passive. Maybe I need to start carrying around a
folded up leaf in my pocket to remind me to appreciate and fight for every good day I can. At the very least I need to keep hold of that feeling I could be someone.

 

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