Tag Archives: age

The Curse of 32: On Keeping Artistic Ambitions Alive

The Death's Head Constellation
The Death’s Head Constellation

I swear every word of the following story is true, not in that fake “based on actual events” way, but in that it happened as it’s written.

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I’d been up making music until birds were chirping over my headphones. My parents left for work while I was sleeping. I woke up in the mid afternoon.

A ray of light reached into my bedroom, further than the windows in the house had ever permitted it. It stretched in real time, bending around the threshold, a sunshine snake, slithering through the shadows. It stretched across the carpet, settling on the tip of my mattress. My socks hung over the edge, blooming with harsh blinding light.

I knew I was awake, but my body hadn’t caught on, it refused to acknowledge my commands. Underneath the covers, the only thing I could move was my eyes. The light traveled up the bed, refracting as it went. There were terrible faces in that angry rainbow, furrowed brows, beady eyes, flaring nostrils, and hungry mouths. The prism projected teeth all over me.

I tried to scream but my lips refused to part. I felt like an ant stuck in honey beneath a powerful magnifying glass, a vampire who’d mistaken overcast for nightfall only to realize it was midday. Never in all of my life had I been so afraid of the daylight.

Straining my brain, I tried to fire my nerves up manually. I could feel my inner ears, if I worked the muscle I could make a clicking sound. Recoiling from the technicolor teeth moving up my stomach, I took control of my neck back. Turning my head from side to side, I tugged on my spinal cord, praying my motor functions would start back up again.

The next thing I remember, I was on all fours, crawling up from the carpet. I’d broken sleep’s hold on me. The light had receded, but everything about my bedroom still felt wrong. The dimensions were correct, but I knew it was counterfeit, a dream set trying to pass itself as the waking world.

Tugging the blinds up, I expected to see a matte painting where my neighbor’s house had been. Stepping into the hall, I expected to cross over from my habitat into an alien spacecraft. Entering the kitchen, I expected a legion of demons to pop out and yell, “Surprise!”

None of that happened.

I was on my feet, I’d regained my balance but dream logic still made a sick kind of sense. This was before I knew anything about night terrors, sleep paralysis, or hypnopompic hallucinations. As far as I knew, reality had warped to deliver a message. The Sandman came bearing a premonition.

Teenage Prophecy

My dream left the residue of an idea that had never occurred to me before: I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

Looking around the kitchen, I felt like I was visiting a memory. I didn’t understand why I was living at my parents’ house, why I was still in Minnesota, why I wasn’t touring with my band. It felt like I’d Quantum Leaped into my younger self and I was going to have to go back to high school again.

That notion that there would always be time to pursue my passions was gone. I had precious few years to leave my mark on music before I’d be out of sync with my generation. I was self taught, late to the scene, and not exactly magazine cover material, with my bulb nose and pox marked skin. Music was my life but it felt like my tune was already fading, like the universe had a reason for claiming so many rockstars at 27.

I wondered why I was single, why I couldn’t see wedding bells from where I was standing, why I hadn’t changed my life to accommodate a baby. What kind of father would I make with my duct tape bracelets, torn sleeved shirts, and safety pins running down my jeans?

Thinking into my cereal, I waited for the sensation to pass. It didn’t. I was having a midlife crisis. I didn’t have an urge to buy a motorcycle, have an office affair, or study World War 2, but I was doing an inventory of everything I’d done and everything I had left to do. There was a lingering feeling that I was already expiring. This thought became impossible to banish. The more I tried to dismiss it, the more certain I became of it. I was staring down the other side of the hill, realizing the cost of being an old soul.

I was 16. I did the math. I had to leave my mark soon, because at 32 I was marked for death. After that morning, I saw the number everywhere. All those people jumping at the number 23, they had it backwards.

I laughed off Nostradamus’s date with the Apocalypse, wrote a satirical song about Y2K,  and slept in on the last day of the Mayan Calendar. I was comfortable in the knowledge that the world couldn’t end before I did.

That music career never happened, I’d spent most of the time pursuing writing. My lyrics took on too many verses and I just kept going with them, following the words away from the notes. I started calling my songs poems, until they took on chapter headings. Still, the change in medium never made me feel like I’d bought myself any more time. Plenty of authors emerge later in life, but I knew that when the clock struck 32 I’d have to put my pencil down and turn whatever I had in.

Shaking the Curse

I never knew how my life was going to end. I imagined a scenario from one of the Final Destination movies. I’d trip on a marble, accidentally setting off a Rube Goldberg machine of death. Somehow, a weathervane would roll down a roof, knock a rusty gutter loose, and hit me into a fence at the precise moment lightning struck it.

My depression tried to convince me the prophecy was going to be self-fulfilling. It said, “You can’t run from me forever. At 32, I’m going to catch up with you.”

I’m not going to lie, my depression gave it the good college try, but that option was never on the table, not with two Game of Thrones books pending, not with an Aphex Twin album just over the horizon, and not before I could leave my own meaningful impression.

As far as reasons for living go, I could do worse than having a slew of works in progress.

I’ve never understood the phrase, “Live everyday like it might be your last,” because if we all did who’d waste precious seconds doing laundry, mowing the lawn, or writing checks for the utilities? Some of us would be so polarized with fear that we wouldn’t decide on anything, we’d shiver beneath the covers waiting. We’d write bucket lists so long we wouldn’t have time to scratch off a single thing. We’d go through our contacts, saying our goodbyes all day long.

If a writer lived every day like it was their last, they’d post a blog entry and shun every long term project with any intellectual investment. I know that platitude was never meant to be taken literally, but I started to when my superstition caught up with me. I became hyper critical, a perfectionist with limited output, wondering if I died tomorrow, would the piece I was writing be the note I wanted to go out on.

What did that kind of pressure teach me? There are better ways to say “Carpe Diem,” without imagining my own imminent doom.

At 32, I’ve tried to be as prolific as possible, hyper-blogging, working on the novel, writing more short stories than ever before. Still, death has been a constant theme, lurking between the lines, waiting for it’s time to shine.

I consider myself a skeptic. This is my one last lingering thread of superstition. I can’t wait to cut it. My birthday is on Monday. I’ll be 33 and my deadly premonition will have reached its expiration. This weekend, I’ve been looking both ways three or four times before crossing the street, checking the sky for falling pianos, anvils, and loose jet engines.

If you’re reading this, it means I made it. That the self-fulfilling prophecy didn’t get me. I’ve outlived the curse and I have no idea what happens next.

I know this all sounds silly, like the ravings of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, but this means there’s still time. Time to perfect my craft, to get my name out there, and to make something of it. Time for love, terrible remakes of great movies, and a chance to tinker with virtual reality.

That 16 year old prophecy didn’t come true. If there are such things as psychics, I don’t have their gifts. That, or I was actually having a mid-midlife crisis and 64 is the number I should be watching out for. Better yet, maybe I was having an eighth of life crisis, and I’ll live to be 128, at which time I’ll be cryogenically frozen to be thawed out when death isn’t even a thing. Yup, that’s the option I’m going with.

If I were Immortal

"Don't you want to play a little chess first?"
“Don’t you want to play a little Chess first?”

The Clock’s Ticking

A pundit on the talk show circuit, calling herself the ‘Princeton Mom,’ urges young girls to “Find a husband while they’re still in college.” Shaming the bar scene, she says the pickings get slimmer for women waiting until they find a career.

While she doesn’t feel the same rules apply to men, a study by Indiana University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, shows that children of older fathers have a higher risk of developing mental illness. On top of that, New York University’s Langone Medical Center found that marriage lowers disease, depression, and the death rate in men.

I’m pretty sure these studies were commissioned by my parents.

LinkedIn keeps emailing me reminders to congratulate my friends on their promotions. Facebook’s ‘Like’ algorithm fills my news feed with wedding announcements and infants. Match.com keeps telling me to finish my registration.

Alright internet, I get the hint.

There’s a clock, with hands governed by biology, and markings agreed upon by society. The hands advance, reducing our metabolisms, bringing us grey hairs, and crow’s feet. The markings tell us when we ought to be done with our graduate degrees, when we should have careers, and life partners. I’ve watched the hands cross those marks, while I’ve labored to become an author. A five year plan came and went, while I worked dead end jobs, and typed through the evenings.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes 10,000 hours of practice, roughly ten years, to be an expert at something. My artistic pursuits have set me on a narrow path.

I hear the clock ticking. The Grimm Reaper’s scythe swings like a pendulum. Every time I look up, it lowers an inch. For some life is a journey, for others a destination, and for too many of us it’s a countdown. Every day is a life event we’re racing toward. We’re late for a very important date.

If only this pressure wasn’t there.

2. Swing and a Miss

What I’d Do if I were Immortal

Everyone knows what they’d do if they won the lottery, but few could tell you what they’d do if they were immortal. Most folks don’t dabble in the thought unless they’re plotting a vampire novel. It’s counterintuitive; life is short, we’re supposed to make the most of it. That ticking clock is all that gets some folks out of bed, but what if it wasn’t a motivating factor? Indulge me in this thought experiment.

What would you do if you were immortal?

Me, I would go to law school so I could write a proper legal thriller. I’d study abnormal psychology so I could write my mysteries with authority. I’d dual major in philosophy and information technology, so that my science fiction was informed by reality.

My quest for research and reference material would take me around the world. I’d go to the empty Chinese cities, built before the population could afford them. Investigating the dormant halls of the largest mall in the world, I’d map the ruins of a future civilization. Trudging through the overgrowth on these unopened buildings, their architecture would inspire my atmosphere.

I’d join up with ghost hunters, not to chase spirit orbs or follow trails of ectoplasm, but to get inside their heads, to study the living’s obsession with the dead.

If I were immortal I’d master every medium. I’d rotate around recording studios, from the strings, to the sticks, to the keys. Clutching the microphone, I’d bottom out my baritone, and break glass with my falsetto. I’d beatbox, I’d scratch records, I’d learn to play the theremin.

I’d paint across canvases and digital touch screens, in watercolors and 3-D vectors. I’d draw from memory and from dreams. I’d wander the country with a camera, collecting textures, fresh layers for my Photoshop collages.

Laying out my emotions in black box theaters, I’d project myself to arena balconies, going out into the aisles to touch the audience in their seats.

From film to video game development, I’d become an expert in all the things I’m told I’ve aged out of.

This is my mental montage. At the end of yours ask yourself, which of your options seems the most appealing, which ones seem like they’re within the realm of reason?

Start there and run down the list. No one’s telling you to abandon your family or quit your day job, but of the time you have left, some of it can be spent pursuing these passions.

Devote the time you can. Whenever you’re watching TV just because it’s on, you have a moment to work with. Whenever you’re getting lost clicking through a rabbit hole of trending topics, you could be working on a project. Whenever you’re venting only to find it isn’t helping, there just might be another solution.

All that time you’ve wasted dwelling on the past, start spending some of it in the present. There’s an art shaped hole in your life, fill it.

3. Not Today

Bloom on Your Terms

Denis Leary has a standup routine where he sets the rule, “If you’re not what you want to be by the time you’re 35, you’re never going to be.”

Tell that to Raymond Chandler, the father of the modern noir, who started writing at 44. Tell that to Charles Bukowski who was 49 when his first collection was published. Tell that to David Seidler, who came to Hollywood at the age of 40, winning an Oscar for The King’s Speech at 77. These examples might be rare, but they happen.

I can’t help but wonder how many great works we’ve lost, because their authors had succumb to ageism, because they let someone else put an expiration date on their dreams.

This clock isn’t atomic. The units for measuring life events aren’t universal, they’re on a sliding scale. The markings on the clock are just a form of peer pressure that lingered past our high school years. Adolescence doesn’t end when it’s convenient. The socially acceptable grace period for self discovery should be extended.

We don’t all bloom at the same time, but some of our petals come out more refined.

You’re not immortal, but don’t let your peers push aside your passions, don’t live for admiration at your high school reunion, and don’t deny yourself life experiences based on artificial expiration dates.