“The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen”
—“The Garden,” from Clockwork Angels (2012); lyrics by Neil Peart
2112, the trippy sci-fi concept album and breakout opus from enduring Canadian prog-rock band Rush, turns forty this month. The music of Rush has had a profound influence on my own art and worldview, so the occasion of 2112’s anniversary—and what’s an anniversary but an acknowledgment of the future’s disappearance into memory?—is one I am compelled to observe with no small degree of private rumination (meaning I won’t bore you with it here).
Consider for a moment, though, some other things turning forty this year, in no particular order: Richard Donner’s horror classic The Omen. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Apple, Inc. NASA’s first Mars landing. Ebola. The laser printer. The Toronto Blue Jays. The Muppet Show. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something…
WORKS IN PROGRESS
At the beginning of my thirty-ninth year, I initiated, either by coincidence or subconscious design, a trio of unrelated long-term projects. The first, of course, was my novel. After years spent trying to sell mid-budgeted genre material to an industry that was no longer buying—I’d signed with my first manager, after all, at twenty-two—I walked away from screenwriting. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a difficult choice—any more than climbing off the Titanic and into a life raft would’ve been—but I certainly felt the weight of it. I’d spent thirteen years in Hollywood, after all, playing the game, fostering relationships, taking meetings, pitching production companies, cranking out specs, and dealing with more industry assholes afflicted with an incurable condition aptly termed “confidence without competence,” and quitting meant, in many respects, starting from zero again: None of my hard-earned associations in Tinseltown would be worth a damn in the new frontier of publishing. All the sacrifices—uprooting my life to Los Angeles in the first place—could be deemed, from a certain point of view, in vain. But I knew this much: Staying the course, to use a tired cliché now forever associated with epic geopolitical failure, was only going to result in more squandered time, more second-guessing down the road. And with forty looming, I felt I didn’t have any more time to screw around.
It was the best professional decision I ever made. I’m in the most creatively happy and productive period of my life, and my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is a source of pride and personal delight I can’t wait to release into the world.
The second undertaking? I started working with a physical trainer. I’d been going to the gym regularly for years (one of the benefits of working from home), and had succeeded in losing—and keeping off—quite a bit of weight. But, I wasn’t built—I wasn’t particularly muscular. As dorky as it is to admit this, I looked to Harrison Ford as a model: He was forty, after all, when he made Temple of Doom, and he’s in terrific shape in that film. Sure, he’s not boasting the kind of physique his contemporaries Stallone and Schwarzenegger were circa 1984, but that’s exactly the point: He looks realistically lean, solid. And I thought, “Gee, if I could get in that kind of condition—go into my forties in the best physical shape of my life—that would be a great gift to myself.” So, for the last year, I’ve been strength-training six mornings a week. There are plenty of other ways I’d rather be spending that time (those would be, in descending order, sleeping, eating pancakes, writing), but I’ve had the self-discipline, after years of habituating myself to sit down at a desk and grind out words every day, to maintain the regimen week to week, even on vacation. (To be clear: I’m not yet ready to invite physical comparison with seventy-three-year-old Harrison from The Force Awakens let alone the man in his Temple of Doom prime; I don’t want to offer any false impressions here.)
I’ve also been, along with my wife, raising and training a puppy (who just turned one, on the subject of momentous birthdays), an opportunity that presented itself rather unexpectedly last June. Now, I hadn’t owned a puppy since I was eleven, and, in retrospect, I don’t think we did that particular dog, a nine-pound poodle named Pokey, many favors. Among other indignities, we lost him regularly. We lost him in the Bronx. We lost him in the Poconos. We lost him in the Hamptons. We lost him in Paramus. (It certainly didn’t help, it occurs to me now, that I never walked him on a leash.) Amazingly, he always returned home, usually with an unmistakably pissed-off look on his face. He was an exceptionally bright animal—smarter than most people I’ve known (how I wish that were hyperbole)—and he lived, despite everything, to nearly the age of sixteen. After having been by my side through the tail end of elementary school, junior high, high school, college, and my first job out of college, Pokey died about a year after I moved to L.A.; I wasn’t with him at the time. Such is the bitter nature of sacrifice.
Pokey’s amazing run of luck notwithstanding, I’ve grown far too cautious in my adulthood to condone, let alone practice, such a laissez-faire policy of dog ownership. As such, the new pup, DCI John Luther, attends weekly classes in obedience, agility, and tricks; he’s even learning, per his Southern California heritage, to ride a skateboard. I have no doubt I’d be further along with the manuscript if Luther weren’t taking up such a fair amount of my time, but he’s made our life an infinitely happier one, and healed my broken heart after the premature death of our last dog, Truman. Pets are a good reminder that this world we’ve co-opted isn’t, all evidence to the contrary, exclusively about us.
STEP BY STEP
If there’s one commonality amongst those three endeavors, it’s this: They are, all of them, projects of such incremental progress, it can seem, from day to day and week to week and even month to month, as if no appreciable gains are being made at all. Am I any closer to a finished manuscript? Have I developed even a little noticeable muscle tone after six months of lifting these goddamn weights every morning? Will this dog ever learn to obey a simple command? Is any of this making a bit of difference?
It’s only perspective—acquired over time—that provides a definitive answer to those uncertainties:
Perspective and wisdom are what we get in return for the trials of experience and the unwanted inevitability of aging. Everything we’re doing is adding up, is conforming to the laws of cause and consequence, hard as it can be to see or to measure such glacial progression. That we can’t gauge it is part of the reason we have come to depend so reliably on fiction. Stories, by design, tend to be about the Big Events—and the Big Changes they bring about—but real life is mostly incremental. Stories are magical because they are life, compressed—a sequence of progressive little moments, thematically unified, culminating in a climactic crisis that, ideally, forces personal growth and rewards the abiding hero (and, by extension, the audience) with the gratification of catharsis. In fiction, stumbling blocks and false victories are part of the joy of the experience, because we know they will make the final, inevitable reward all the sweeter, but we have no such assurances in life: Pushing through doesn’t guarantee success. And the victories, when and if they come, are seldom heralded by some third-act, skin-of-the-teeth triumph, but instead sneak up quietly: They are the moments when a chapter you’ve produced seems too good to have come from your own keyboard; when the sleeve of your T-shirt hugs your flexed bicep a little tighter than it did when you wore it last; when you suddenly realize the dog hasn’t relieved himself indoors in many, many weeks—when the hell did he stop doing that? In life, markers of growth tend not to arrive at instances of four-alarm catastrophe so much as assert themselves through gentle, unannounced epiphanies, spurred to consciousness by the recognition of some minor variation in the norm, made manifest by temporal perspective only. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is designed to unfold in its compact, familiar pattern, but our own haphazard journeys, on the other hand, aren’t beholden to prescribed “beats”—change instead occurs, by and large, in barely perceptible degrees.
So it’s only perspective that affords me the clarity to realize, for instance, how rich my skill set has become in the last decade, something I can objectively quantify and appreciate. Or how many words I’ve produced (84,418 thus far) for the first draft of EFRI. Or how much muscle I’ve put on. Or, on the subject of cumulative procurements, how few friends I’ve accrued over the course of a lifetime.
You didn’t interpret that last sentence negatively, I should hope? None of us have very many friends, and anyone who thinks they do is a fool, or otherwise far more fortunate than I—and I’ve yet to meet a luckier man in that particular regard.
I can’t speak to how this applies to other industries (just as fittingly, I’d wager), but it’s important for creative professionals—writers and filmmakers, aspiring and otherwise—to understand that you have no friends in this business. Your colleagues aren’t necessarily your friends, much as you might have in common. In the end, they’re vying for the same finite breaks as you, so don’t confuse camaraderie—which has its own type of value—for friendship. Your agents/managers certainly aren’t your friends. Never forget, no matter the opportunities they may facilitate for you, the nature of their existence is parasitic: They’re only looking out for your professional interests insofar as those align with their professional interests. That’s not to say it can’t be a mutually fruitful affiliation, but don’t mistake it for what it isn’t. In a creative business like Hollywood, we spend a lot of time with likeminded colleagues bonding over common cultural touchstones, developing our wildest fantasies into saleable products in a collaborative atmosphere, investing our time and shared passions in projects that we all want the best for; under those circumstances, it can be easy to confuse what is at heart a working relationship for something more profound—a friendship. It is no such thing. Differences in taste and opinion or unexpected changes in priority are often—usually—the death knell of such associations, no matter how secure they seemed as recently as last week; at any moment, happenstance can expose their fundamental fragility, and that’s not the stuff of friendship.
Which is not to say that’s a bad thing. Are you friends with your accountant? Your barber? Your doctor? Of course not. Those are unambiguously transactional relationships, and so should be the case with your representation. The sheer amount of schmoozing required in Tinseltown, however, and the fact that we lay our souls bare in the material we produce, often leads us to believe the people with whom we’re working are more than mere business advisors or colleagues—that they are, in fact, friends. They aren’t—nor should they be.
Friends are something else all together. It’s no surprise the definition of friendship has become muddled in a digital world where “friends” are made every day through the mindless, mostly passive act of clicking “Accept” on our social-media platforms; these relationships, such as they are, carry with them no emotion, no obligation, no weight. It’s tantamount to collecting baseball cards (not even sure if people still do that, actually): They are pictures and names and stats that exist merely as abstractions of flesh-and-blood people. It’s not to say, as human connections, they’re altogether worthless—they certainly needn’t be—but they don’t fit the definition of “friend” as I first came to understand it on the streets of the Bronx many years ago. Of all the associations in your life—all the friends—ask yourself how many of those people, with no uncertainty, would walk through the fire with you.
The list narrows considerably, doesn’t it?
Over the course of my life, I’ve been blessed to count at least four contemporaries as true-blue friends—I’m talking the kind of people that would drop what they were doing to fly across the country for me, if that’s what was needed—which, in my experience, is at minimum three more than most folks ever get to lay claim to. One of those friends, Chip, I met at six weeks of age, so I guess you could say we’re celebrating our fortieth anniversary, too. He recently reminded me, quite happily, that I’ve been creating things that go bump in the night since way back when: He sent me, for my birthday, a framed picture of the Floating Invisible Blue Shark (hey, it’s no dumber than Sharknado), a spectral menace that used to terrorize us in the hallways of our eight-story building—well, it terrorized me; Chip’s nerves were shattered only by my unpredictably erratic shrieks at the “sight” of the beast—and even attacked us at one point in the clothing racks of Caldor on Central Avenue in Yonkers, which I can assure you created quite the scene.
How many friends know something like that about you? How many would even care enough to remember something so ephemeral, from so damn long ago? How many could celebrate your fortieth birthday with such a specific, ridiculous, embarrassing, wonderfully thoughtful memento?
Two other friends, Matt and his brother Sean, I made in the fourth grade, at nine years old (Chip’s a year older, so we traveled in different circles at school). Sure, Chip, Matt, Sean, and I did the stuff all kids that age do together: played Lazer Tag with needlessly aggressive enthusiasm in the basement and stairwells of the buildings where we lived (once again, my eternal apologies to Mr. Gluckman in 8C); inadvertently shattered endless pieces of glassware beating the shit out of each other with pillows (and if those weren’t available, we just bare-knuckled our way through it); watched R-rated movies well after the rest of the household had gone to bed. But, even at ten, eleven, twelve years old, our shared experiences weren’t limited to mere afternoon play dates, to boys-will-be-boys tomfoolery: We nursed each other through things like our parents’ alcoholism, their divorces, through the kind of domestic dysfunction we were too young to consciously recognize let alone clinically identify—the kind of family problems families don’t want to talk about. Those relationships were at once innocent and profound; they were like nothing I’ve experienced since. I could wax philosophical about them all day, but why bother when the great Stephen King, in his novella The Body, already said it perfectly:
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.”
The one exception came just a few years later, at nineteen, when in college I made a different kind of friend—one of the opposite sex—from a remarkably similar familial and socioeconomic background as my own, fell in love with her, and then began dating (in that order). She and I celebrated our twentieth anniversary a few months ago (I guess this is just one of those watershed years that happen now and then), and I’m delighted to say that, in addition to that lasting union, those three guys who were my best friends way back when are still my best friends today. These are people—our relationships forged in the hearth of innocence—with whom I’ve shared untold laughs, who’ve taken care of me when I was sick (and I don’t mean that metaphorically), who’ve criticized me when I was wrong, who’ve contributed notes and their own professional expertise to my work, and who’ve remained loyal friends even—especially—when I’ve been undeserving of their friendship. You cannot imagine the shit I’ve been through over the past twenty years with Kristin, thirty years with Matt and Sean, and forty years with Chip—all the little adventures and walks through the fire together that have added up to a lifetime of solidarity, bonds so precious and rare that, despite the widening of my world in early adulthood through (egads!) middle age, I’ve yet to form another so powerful since. Friends are perhaps the one thing you don’t amass more of with age and experience (well, that and hair), but your appreciation for the ones you’ve been lucky enough to make—and to keep—only deepens exponentially with each passing year. Mine does, anyway.
“We are young
Wandering the face of the earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we’re only immortal—
For a limited time”
—“Dreamline,” from Roll the Bones (1991); lyrics by Peart
On the subject of accretion and the passage of time, I haven’t yet achieved everything I’d set out to do, professionally and personally, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel, to some extent, pressure from the turning pages of the calendar; the path to some ambitions has proven more gradual than I’d estimated in my youthful naïveté. This is forty? It isn’t necessarily what I expected it would be. But, as all those years of once–future time have incrementally disappeared into memory, Chip, Matt, Sean, and Kristin are some of the special friends made along the way with whom I’ve been blessed, over and over again, to experience a million little hopeful moments of forever. There are worse ways to grow older.