I turned 45 two days ago, but my wife and I postponed my birthday celebration till this week because we were too pooped to party. She had just wrapped a variety of roles in a new children's musical adaptation of Cinder Edna, and I finished the first draft of my new book. (More on that in a minute.) Tonight she's making me and her parents filets mignons--it seems my birthday got blended into her father's birthday and actual Father's Day--and then tomorrow night we're going out for pizza and Man of Steel with three dozen of our closest friends. I'm pretty stoked.
About that book: I'm calling it a memoir, though it isn't mine. I was intrigued enough to help Gary Klein write an account of his most famous public debacle. (Klein, you may remember, was involved in that fiasco out on Santa Catalina Island the day of the quake.) Once I got into his story, it really started rolling, and the first draft was finished right on the schedule--to the exact date, in fact--that I'd established several months ago. Now it goes into the softcopy equivalent of a drawer for a month or two while I try to forget every word of it. That way, when I come back to it for the revision process, I'll be able to work on it fresh, assessing it the way a new reader would. Once I'm happy with the writing, I'll run it by Gary for one last-fact check and anecdote hunt, and then it'll be time to start looking for representation. That's an emotionally draining process that can take over a year. In the meantime, a select few of you will be asked to read it early. If you're chosen and agree to help out, I can only hope you'll be as supportive as you are honest...and vice versa.
One of the few birthday treats I allowed myself in advance of tonight was a massage yesterday afternoon. It was my third time going to the same masseuse, so we're slowly getting to know each other while she tenderized my back like a chicken fried steak. She asked me what it was like to be 45. It was the day before her own 30th birthday, so age was on her mind. I started to tell her about noisy knees, lactose intolerance, weird hair products for people who don't have hair, all that Louis C.K. it's-rough-being-old kind of stuff. She didn't care about any of that. She's a dancer and yoga enthusiast, so she probably figures her body will stay bulletproof till she's well into her dotage. What she wanted to know was how it felt to be 45, meaning how is my thinking and emotional nature different from hers. Of course, I'm about as different from a 30-year-old German-born yoga enthusiast as I am from your average bonobo, so I didn't know where to begin. Instead, I thought about ways I may or may not feel different from when I was 25.
Why 25? Because in addition to my 45th birthday, this is the 20th anniversary of the week I graduated from my undergrad alma mater, East Central University. (If you graduated with me, congratulations; you're old now, too.) I loved ECU. I loved being an undergraduate college student. I loved my friends and wild parties and writing and learning and acting in five plays a year and sorority girls and for that matter, non-sorority girls and knowing I was where I belonged. If I became friends with someone at ECU, chances are we're still friends now. Some of those people are as close to me as anyone in my family, and I wouldn't trade my time there for a Harvard degree. I mean that.
Two decades ago, no one in our computer science department had heard of a JPEG. If you wanted to find something out, you went to an actual library (though we did have a computerized card catalog, on Apple IIe computers that could just about multiply numbers). AIDS was still an illness that affected young people's sex lives, as was Christian fundamentalism. President Clinton had been in office for about five months. People still had newspaper subscriptions. Jurassic Park was only a book, and no one doubted Han Solo shot first. All in all, it was just like today except everything was different.
So how am I different at age 45 than how I was then? I think the biggest difference is I still thought I had an outside chance at one day being COOL. I write COOL in all-caps because I'm trying to get at something bigger than the word, like YOLO or YWHW or TCBY. When I was young, whether I could've articulated it or not, I wanted to be COOL more than anything, and I honestly believed I might achieve it. What is COOL? God, it's everything. It's charisma and sexual attractiveness and fortune and fame and respect and a distinctive fashion sense and a great sense of humor and a reputation for trouble, but not like Amanda Bynes. It's about everyone remembering your name and maybe even spelling it correctly. It's about knowing that if life is a game, you've already won it with plenty of time to run out the clock and do illegal victory dances in the end zone and collect phone numbers from cheerleaders.
Why did I do theatre? It made me feel COOL.
Why did I write fiction? I liked inventing people and situations and writing jokes that were COOL.
Why did I move back to L.A., not just L.A. but actual Hollywood, and scratch and claw my way into the movie business as--try not to swoon--a glorified CopyMax clerk at GloboToad? Bet your ass it was COOL. I got to go to movie premieres. I roamed free on the studio backlot. I've been insulted by Joss Whedon, my friend, so good luck hurting my feelings. I'm not some bald math nerd with a Ben & Jerry's gut and a self-aggrandizing website; I've walked the surface of Planet COOL.
Except the thing is, I wasn't that COOL. I was kinda cool. I was lower-case cool. None of the dozens of celebrities I've met could pick me out of a lineup. They were COOL. I wasn't. I was just there. I've had a book published, and then my publisher went out of business five months later. How 'bout them apples? Story of my life, man. Story of my not-so-cool life. But I'm here, as Elaine Stritch would say. I'm still working. I put myself out there. I just don't believe for one second that I'm ever going to be Stephen King or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Come to think of it, both of those guys have dealt with substance abuse, so maybe it's all for the best. COOL can wear a brother out. In some ways, COOL is overrated.
I can honestly say I have few regrets when it comes to things I've done. I wish I hadn't given my ex-wife the silent treatment, but Lord knows how things would've gone if I'd talked. I wish I had a better handle on juggling two virtues I deeply respect, namely kindness and honesty. I'm sorry for times I've lost my temper or developed a persecution complex...but really, not that much. It all worked out okay.
I do, however, regret things I haven't done. I've never tried a hallucinogen or visited the Playboy mansion or, well, I could name several other things Gary Klein has done and I haven't. It may seem strange to you that I'm sitting here wishing I'd committed more sins, but one big way I've changed since I was 25 is I don't believe in an absolute moral authority anymore. Not that I believed in a personal God when I was 25, mind you--if anything, I was a more devout atheist then, as I was still a new convert--but I did believe some things were more right than others and so, in my reductivist logic, there had to be a set of things that were most right of all. I let that go a long time ago.
Of course, it's more right to not kill someone than to kill someone. It's important to tell the truth and be faithful to your spouse and support those in need and refrain from making fun of people as perilously troubled as, say, that poor Amanda Bynes. But is it more right to sleep with one person in your life than with 10? Or 20? Or 100? Is there a more right or wrong way to sleep with consenting adults? What if you bought them all breakfast the next morning? Is sex more or less wrong depending on the adults with whom you knock boots? Is smoking a joint more or less wrong than downing a six-pack? What about harder drugs? It's not simply that I don't have a definite answer for these questions anymore; it's that I don't think anyone else does, either. And before you say "well, the Bible says," no, it doesn't. The Bible hero-worships people like David and Solomon, whose sex lives put Ke$ha's to shame. The Bible doesn't say word one about masturbation or abortion or sexting. When the Bible does dictate morality, it's hard to take it seriously, because you just read a verse that said "here's how it's okay to have sex slaves and stone people in the public square and kill every man, woman and child who own real estate you want." I've realized in the last few decades that morality and ethics are no more or less than the decisions we make, day by day, moment by moment, about how good we can be to other people while still being great to ourselves. And that's okay.
If I could impart one useful life lesson to my 20-year-old self, it'd be this: Carv, you have a tendency right now to be nicer to people than they have been to you. As Stephen Chbosky says, "We accept the love we think we deserve." Try to believe you deserve better love. I mean, it's fine, good love will find you down the road either way, but maybe you'll have more fun before you get there. And maybe you won't be as depressed, which'll pacify some of those paranoid feelings, which'll make you more likely to be open to others.
Ah, but who am I kidding? I wouldn't have listened to me then. I barely listen to me now. I'm pretty fortunate that anyone does. It's okay being 45, at least the way I've managed to do it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I can hear those bacon-wrapped filets mignons hitting the skillet. Happy birthday to me!