A bullshit artist looks at forty

Here I am back in my hometown of Chicago, slouching toward the birth of the new year, the year in which I’ll hit the big four-oh. Maybe it’s too soon to start in with the hand-wringing that usually accompanies the reaching of the rough middle point of one’s journey across this great green and blue rock. But navel gazing is a specialty of us writer-types, especially those of us educated by the MFA writing program industry.

Midlife crises are nothing new to me. I’ve been having them on and off since my teens when a sudden growth spurt ended my unlikely gymnastics career. I then turned to tennis, the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, a stint with a rock band, a pair of failed attempts at the Foreign Service Exam, three stabs over a fifteen year period at writing a Great American Novel, a solid near miss at writing for the screen and my current preoccupation with making a (low-budget) feature film of some sort.

Most of these endeavors have involved storytelling of one form or another. Partner that with my career in public relations and institutional communications, and it involves a whole lot of fiction. In short: bullshit. This penchant for stories arises mainly from a hell of a lot of movies and books over the years. I love both of these forms, and not a few of them have changed the course of my life as I’ve struck out in a new direction dragging my wife and kid along as I go. Books are dangerous and powerful things. Sometimes. Other times they put you to sleep. Often, at their best, they just make you smile and lay the pages in your lap, closing your eyes and savoring the funny way they make your brain feel.

Storytelling is an art and a craft and a compulsion. Some people do it really, really well. Some are just pretty good. Most suck at it. I haven’t quite figured out where I fit on that spectrum. What I do know, though, is that I’ve run out of roughly half of the time endowed to me to find out. And now the chances will grow slimmer with each passing minute. This doesn’t frighten or frustrate me that much. Sure I sense the sand slipping through the hourglass. But I’m also starting to approach an acceptance of the fact that I may never really know.

As a writer, I’ve been good enough to show well in a contest here or there. Outside my day job, I’ve earned a grand total of less than five thousand dollars for my scribblings. Not bad, actually. How many people have hobbies that pay them back? How many people approach, say, the watching of television like a part-time job? Instead, I tell stories. Sometimes people read them. Sometimes they even pay me for them.

Add to that a few plane tickets to LA, and one dinner in particular in Santa Monica that I recall where a producer asked me, without irony, who I’d like to play the lead role in the film of a screenplay I’d written. “What about Leonardo DiCaprio?” I asked. The producer frowned. I thought he might laugh. But he didn’t. He was thinking. “No,” he said, “don’t think we could get him. Who else?”

That film didn’t get produced. Neither did the next half dozen scripts I wrote outside of one short film, which I made myself with the help of friends. That turned out to be one of the more exhilarating storytelling experiences in this long, ambling and not very lucrative part-time career.

And while all of this other stuff was going on, this reading and writing and filmmaking, etc, I’ve wound up having a fairly rewarding actual career in another aspect of the bullshit biz. I’ve clawed my way up to middle management in a PR shop for a state institution, which sounds quite horrid but actually isn’t. I have no problems punching a clock, growing up as I did in a union household. My old man counted money in a dingy, smoky vault below crooked horse tracks under the direction of a state racing commission and various and occasionally nefarious wealthy families. For fun he golfs, dotes on a fancy car and for many years cared for and operated a speedboat, treating a host of family and friends to lake holidays over the years.

Instead of speedboating, I make up stories in my spare time. Instead of planning the union picnic, I make super low-budget movies. My endeavors may be a tad Quixotic compared to my father’s and his race track friends’, but they’re no less enjoyable.

I don’t want to give the actual, paying job short shrift. I’ve had some nice rewards, not the least of which being health benefits and a steady paycheck that over the years has enabled world travel and helped with the acquisition of not a few nice bottles of wine. We sent our daughter to a solid private preschool. Cutting corners means forgoing a vacation rental in favor of tent  camping or putting off buying a new lens for my camera for a month or two. We’re not rich. We’ll never be rich. But, right now, anyway, we’re not hurting.

And building websites and helping put together marketing campaigns online has brought some creative satisfaction and a bit of recognition. It amuses me that I get to travel around the country and give presentations to folks about some of the things I do on a job I never expected or wanted in the first place. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate or enjoy said job. It’s just that I always thought I’d be doing something else. Like cashing checks from New York publishers or Los Angeles producers.

But I’ve learned that this isn’t really how the world works. Maybe for some people, but not for the vast majority. As I slouch toward forty, I’m realizing that this kind of sucks, but then it’s also not really that bad. If I could have my choice of a career, I’d be sitting in a book-stuffed cabin near Sisters, Oregon with a view of the three volcanic peaks, hacking away at a vintage typewriter, amassing pages, which I’d slip into an envelope and send to an agent. Every so often, a check would come in the mail. I’d occasionally get up to split wood and feed the fireplace. I’d pick my daughter up from school and then fix dinner for the family. In the evenings we’d watch Francis Ford Coppola movies or I’d actually have time to read the New Yorker weekly. On weekends I’d fish for trout or sketch landscapes. Maybe I’d take photographs of flowers with a macro lens.

But that’s not how it works. Maybe reaching forty means that you begin to accept and realize what’s fantasy and what’s not. Right now my goals are less ambitious than the National Book Awards or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I’d like to get a little nicer house so that we can have guests without feeling cramped. I’d like a six-burner stove and more time to cook. I’d like to be a little less stressed at work and have a little more time to engage in bullshit artistry: I’d like to take a shot at another novel or script. Maybe one will be something I’m really, really pleased with, whether or not it’s ever published or produced. I want to fish more, go backpacking with my daughter, and increase the number of times per year that my wife and I take in dinner and a show.

All of these goals seem reasonable. I even hope to accomplish one or two of them in 2011. And the rest should be easily attainable sometime over the next forty years.

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