Tomorrow I turn 50. I’m fairly sure at this point that my dream of playing in the NBA will not be realized. I think the rock-star dream might be gone, too — I never advanced beyond the blistering guitar solos I played on the tennis racket in my bedroom. (Van Halen, if you can rig a Wilson T2000, I can fill in for Eddie as needed.)
It’s natural, I guess, that I’m drawn more lately to people who built careers that last. Tim Duncan is my favorite athlete because he has been so good for so long with so little drama. Bruce Springsteen gives everything he’s got for three hours a night until his black shirt (and it is always a black shirt) is soaked with sweat. The great magician Ricky Jay spends hours alone, shuffling cards, until it seems as if he can move them with his mind. This is the trick of all great artists. Work and work and work until it no longer looks like working.
The one thing I’ve learned in half a century is that it’s ALL work, even the fun things. Getting in shape is work. Marriage is work. Being a good son and brother and friend is work. Having a dog is work. Owning a house is work. I have a bad habit of getting mad when easy things don’t turn out to be easy — one of the few things that makes me really angry is when a simple tool won’t work right. But everything worthwhile involves effort and failure and frustration and mistakes. The payoff comes in those moments when you’ve done the work and the joy you get out of it feels effortless.
This past year, work-wise, was a lot of failure and frustration. I had a great job doing stories I love and then I got let go. I’ve scrambled around trying to make a living and find a stable spot to land, even if I have to build it myself. Lots of other people are in the same situation or worse. I’ve been lucky in countless ways. But now I start to feel the creep of time. Turning 50 means you’re clearly on the back nine of life’s golf course. The mystery is, you never know which hole you’re playing.
Over the years, there’s been one deep philosophical pothead question that I keep chewing on. Can God allow himself to be surprised? Most of the time I think of it in terms of sports. If the Super Bowl is tied after the third quarter, can God will himself to NOT know how the game turns out so he can enjoy the ending like everybody else?
Uncertainty can eat at you. But I think knowing the future is worse. What good is life if you’re never surprised? As a writer, it always helps if you know the ending of a story — that way, everything else you write can lead up to it. But sometimes you don’t know the ending. Sometimes you get way deep into the middle, and it feels like you’ve been working on the thing, oh, I don’t know, 50 years. You panic, you sweat, you struggle. But eventually you find a way through. Those are the most satisfying stories of all.