The Jack I knew had a wry wit and a fixed smirk that entrenched the laugh lines around his eyes. His eyes, which were impossible to ignore, sparkled an ocean blue. When you looked in them, you’d be hard pressed to find any trace of the fact that some seventy-five years ago, Jack served as a sergeant in the American army. War seemed like an unnatural place for him to be. Though I suppose that should be said of most.
Soon after the war, Jack met his life’s partner Jimmy. They would open a successful drapery business together. They worked and loved through the years in a rarified air we’d all be lucky to breathe. At some point they would move to a peaceful one story house in a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles. And some years after that, my parents moved in next door.
Jimmy passed before I was old enough to know him, but for the entirety of my life I had the great joy of knowing Jack. One time as kids, my brother and I were left at home alone for a brief moment in the daylight hours. When we were spooked by what I recall as a benign force, a noise or a shadow, we had no way to call out to our parents. It was the 90’s, as people of the age loved reminding each other. So instead, we ran next door to Jack. We didn’t know him particularly well, we were kids. But he welcomed us over as if it were normal, as if we weren’t uprooting his day with our childhood neuroses. He calmed us down until our parents got home, not a hint of inconvenience. That’s just the way Jack was. The second you met him, you knew him. And he wanted you to.
Over the years we’d pay him sporadic visits. The time between them didn’t matter, he lived in the moment. And in every moment shared with him, we felt genuinely important.
Last month, Jack passed away. He was 103 years old. As I sat at his funeral and listened to the packed congregation share stories, I confirmed what I already assumed, that Jack was this way to everyone. He exuded kindness wherever he stood, which was a lot of places.
Up until only a few years ago, Jack traveled the world by himself. He was revered in Japan as a designer, and travelled there frequently throughout his life. He flew to Machu Pichu, to the Amazon, to the Pyramids. In my mind, someone like Jack should have in the final years of his life expressed some sort of exhaustion or completeness. But from I could tell, he never tired of the world. For him, it was an endless source of meaning. There were still people he’d yet to meet, a rare few places he’d yet to travel. Had his body not made the choice for him, it’s obvious that Jack would still be throwing the proverbial dart at a spinning globe.
I’ve been thinking about Jack. I can’t ignore the correlation of his longevity to his severe lack of stagnation. I think the heart stops beating when it has little reason to. And I’ve felt at moments in my life that those reasons can be hard to come by.
Even if you like what you do for a living, work isn’t enough. It is, however, the majority of what you do. Maybe you get a couple hours in the evening to enjoy the moments the rest of your day pays for. One or two nights on the weekend to stay up late and feel electric. But one day you might wake up, more time passed than ahead, unable to remember why you worked so hard.
We all spin those plates in different ways to keep afloat the menagerie of our survival. Day after day, we run from one thing to the next. The rent check, the insurance, the taxes, the resume drafts and the interviews, the network and the new work. Conference calls, meetings, billable hours spreadsheet. Change trains, fill your tank, one-handed breakfast sandwich to go. Your doctor has notes, a line at the pharmacy, and pills that look like placebos. The ill-defined specter of the DOW’s position leers at the back of your neck. Google how an IRA works. Toss out those tomatoes because you didn’t have time to cook this week. Feel bad. Give change to the guy outside Starbucks. Feel good. Swear to volunteer, put some money in savings, take it out for an emergency. Buy a new phone. Buy a new computer. Buy, buy, buy. Scroll, click, double-click. Spin, spin, spin. Sip a drink, brush your teeth, take your eyes out. Sleep.
And you wake up some day, unsure where it began. Or where you are. But too afraid to pause for fear of any plates crashing to the floor. To pivot at all almost assuredly requires this. And so you don’t. You stagnate. Your heart beats fast, stagnation can be exhausting. But it beats out of obligation.
At some point in the last few years, this feeling arrived in me. And you must know, I happen to like what I do for a living. As a commercial director, days are nebulous, but pretty satisfying. I get to flex a creative muscle for a living. I like taking a batch of sometimes incongruous ideas and spinning them into something beautiful. I like collaborating and I like leading. In fact, I like to work hard.
Nevertheless, I found myself stuck in the spin cycle of a personal routine, one that was crafted to be predictable. Comfort is an incredible force and very difficult to give up. It is the thing you spin for, really. To take a chance, the chance that some plate might fall, would be to throw into peril the paid for apartment and disposable income and the cushy LA days that seamlessly fade into years.
Comfort isn’t free, though. At least, it’s not absolute. It’s a goose feather pillow with a single needle buried somewhere inside. Some day it will come to prick you. That needle is the day you wake up, some time down the line, unable to change the lack of choice you made. Maybe it isn’t today or tomorrow. I couldn’t even see that day, it was so far away. I didn’t have to. The very notion of its existence was the sole reason to rise up and spin these plates again at a neurotic pace. Keep this life afloat, never mind the purpose, the purpose will come. Let the day’s assembly of duties consume you enough so that if and when that needle pokes through, you will at least be able to say you tried. Work long and hard enough to avoid that feeling of regret some day, even if you’ve forgotten what it is you’re working so hard for. So I kept spinning. Spinning and spinning in the hope it would serve some purpose, knowing at a minimum it would serve to protect my feelings one morning years from now.
And then, a strong wind blew in. I paused. My heart stopped altogether. And in the distance I heard some faint crashing sound as I looked into her eyes and fell in love.
It had to be that. Because if it were anything else, I would have shut the door on the draft. That too had become a rote exercise over the years. But I didn’t, even if I had some cause to.
She lives in New York, a continent away from my comfortable hometown of Los Angeles. That would be uncomfortable enough to put a stop to it. And yet, after we met, we spent day after day talking over the phone. I was and am so utterly thankful to have met in the modern age. Those computers and phones I worked so hard to buy, it turns out, achieved some deeper purpose other than to be bought. They allowed us to date from different oceans.
We both knew it was remarkable, but not sustainable. Watching a glass fill with water isn’t the same as drinking it. There comes a point where the screen dividing you becomes more noticeable, more infuriating. And so I committed to a change. I pushed the door open wider and let the draft turn into a breeze.
As I type this late on a Tuesday, I notice that in exactly thirty-four minutes I will be thirty-four years old. If you’d asked me a year ago if I would be spending my next birthday searching for apartments in New York, well, it would be a surprise. It would have to be a damn good reason, I’d have probably thought. To disrupt all this comfort I’ve worked so hard for, the plates spinning at due speed.
Within the next couple months, I will be moving my life to Brooklyn, NY. The times at large are changing under our feet, and it appears I’ve begun to grip on for the ride. I can’t wait to begin this new chapter. I will be taking some plates with me (taxes I suppose). I wish I could bring more, like my friends and my parents, who I will miss more than I can express. But again I take some solace in the modern world, thankful for the ability to travel back as spontaneously as Jack.
A place is just a place. Los Angeles has been my residence for thirty-four years, but my home is with a select few people. From what I gathered, Jack didn’t travel just to tick a name off a list. He went to meet people, to engage with new and different lives. To expand his home outward in the same way he let us into his as kids.
I think about having a family in a way I never did ten years ago. Or at least, it’s not so abstract. And I think about what to tell this hypothetical little person what life will be like by the time they’re eighteen. Beats me. In the twelve years since I graduated film school, movies have been shot on telephones.
I guess I’ve realized that gripping onto any set plan so tightly is more futile now than it’s ever been. What I’ve experienced in NY with this person who collided into my life is something I couldn’t have predicted or planned. No amount of spinning my routine would have ever guaranteed such a thing.
The irony of it all is I feel more comfortable now than I ever did. Real comfort, not manufactured. It’s not predicated on time sheets or bills or the DOW, whatever that is. All it required me to do was to stop spinning for five minutes. Long enough to lock eyes.
I’ve always disliked when people have a good day and then pretend to know the secrets of the universe. I want to point my hands at you and tell you to just stop what you’re doing and you’ll figure it out. But I don’t know that. If anything this good could be planned, then it surely would have been bought by a conglomerate and shipped through Amazon Prime by now.
What I can tell you is that a plate falling, a plan failing, is not a bad thing. Because you just bought yourself a minute to rest. To reassess. Maybe you find nothing in that moment. Maybe everything.
I will continue to direct, just as I’ve done. I’ll be writing, hopefully more than I did last year. I’ll be living that freelance dream-slash-nightmare because I’m too spoiled to work in an office. Some things never change.
But I will be doing it all with a smile in my mind, and a heart that beats for a good reason. The best reason, who just fell asleep on me.
And I just turned a year older.