Be 50, Play 30
They say that moments before your death, your life will flash before your eyes. I’m here to tell you this is not strictly true.
They say that moments before your death, your life will flash before your eyes. I’m here to tell you that this is not strictly true.
Here’s how I know: I went to Hawaii a few years ago because I wanted to learn how to surf.
I lived in Los Angeles for years – most of them spent steps away from the beach – and I have always wanted to be one of those wet-suited guys fast-trotting along the beach path, long boards under their arms, heading out to catch the “killer waves” or “awesome breaks” or “unreal curls” or whatever it is those guys are talking about.
What they are talking about, I now know, is the incredible feeling of standing on a piece of curved fiberglass, wind in your face, and riding a foaming mass of water as it races to land.
I mean, I guess that’s what they’re talking about. I spent a lot of my time paddling furiously against the current until my arms hung loosely off my shoulders like empty shirt sleeves. Then, exhausted from paddling, I frantically tried to position a slippery, unwieldy platform to catch a giant wave, which, if I was lucky enough to catch, would toss me in the air nanoseconds after I barely managed myself into a lame-looking half-crouch.
“This is the part of the movie where I die,” I thought after a particularly fierce wipe-out. And as another rolling wave crested into my face, I suddenly flashed on this:
Once, many years ago, during a casting session for a new television series I was producing, I ran into a former high-school classmate. I had just stepped out to refill my coffee, and there she was: still as pretty as she was in high school, sitting with a dozen or so other actresses, ready to audition for me, my producing partner, and our casting staff.
"Hey!" I shouted.
"Hey!" she shouted back.
We gave each other a little squeeze and a peck on the cheek.
"How long has it been?" I asked, and as I started to mentally calculate the intervening years, I felt her hand close tightly around my wrist.
"Do you have a sec?" she asked.
I walked with her to the coffee machine. She whispered frantically. "See, I play twenty-to-thirty, okay?”
“I aim for twenty-five. Thirty at the max.”
"But we were in the same high school class," I said, still not getting it. She looked at me for a moment, eyes wide and fierce, like she was trying to drill her meaning into my head.
"Oh," I said, finally getting it. “Oh."
"It's just, you know, the business," she said, with a little eye-roll and a shake of the head, as if to say, you know how shallow people can be, but what can you do?
"Should I pretend not to know you?"
“Oh God,” she said, “Would you? That would be fantastic of you.”
I'm too old, even for people my own age.
At the time, I was barely forty, which in politics, business, and finance might qualify as young, or young-ish, but in the worlds of Hollywood and surfing, is distinctly over-the-hill. And I was older that forty when I tried to learn to surf.
As I climbed, exhausted and humiliated, back on my board for another round with Neptune, paddling against the unrelenting current, arms like overcooked fettuccine, I wondered what I must look like from the shore: a tragically, obviously unfit non-athlete battering himself against a force of nature that can pulverize rock into sand, sink impregnable ocean liners, and swallow old guys like me for breakfast.
Or did I look like a heroic romantic idealist, a guy who refused to let Time and Advancing Age hold him back from his mighty quest?
I might have even looked, to the beach folks squinting into the Hawaii sun, like a young man, a guy who half-trots along the beach path in his wetsuit. Or did I look like a…
“Screw this,” I suddenly thought, interrupting myself.
And I went back to the hotel and drank Mai Tais for the rest of the afternoon and read the Financial Times, like a man at peace with his age.
Because I don’t need to go on vacation to learn how to paddle against the current. I don’t need to fly five hours to Hawaii to feel the sensation of fighting an impossible tide.
That, in a nutshell, is what Hollywood is all about: flailing, wiping out, beating against the waves, all for a few moments of effortless, windswept gliding along the crest, all for the people on the beach to shield the sun from their eyes and point and say, “Look at that guy! What is he, thirty?”
I still think I am and certainly look like mid-twenties, imposing athlete. I am not anymore. Far from it. I remember crashing into a very tough and fit young man in Central Park. He was rollerblading; I was riding my bike. (He swerved into me, but it does not matter.). We both end up on the ground, fortunately by the side of the road, on soft grass. I figured he would get up and confront me. My adrenaline was surging as this tattooed monster walked towards me. Then he said, "Sir, are you OK? I hope you are not hurt. Here let me help you up." I would have preferred the assault, but he was afraid he had injured an old man. He was also very polite and well-spoken, so I was also guilty of misjudging him entirely. Getting old...
I've been thinking about age for the last 4 days, primarily because that's when I turned 69. I keep wondering....how can that be? People keep saying, "you don't look 69" and it doesn't make it much better. What's the best I can look? 65 or even 60? That's still not a bonus. And that's what I thought of when your mentioned your highschool friend. Love your writing, Rob!