Monday, July 5, 2010

Living the Examined Life.

Los Angeles is an interesting city.  So very different from New York or Chicago.  And I don't mean just geographically, although that's certainly true.  There are six million stories in the Naked City, I think is how the old phrase went.  Well, it's true here, too.  I don't know this city, yet.  Not like I eventually got to know NY or Chicago.  If something is not in Glendale or Burbank or North Hollywood or...well, anywhere outside of 'the valley,' I don't really know it.

When I log onto something so pedestrian as, say, Facebook, I realize just how little I know of this city.  People are out doing things at places I've never even heard of, have no idea where they are, not even a clue as to how to get there, even if I were so inclined to do so.  I wonder how long that will last?  I feel a bit like the character in Lyle Kessler's marvelous play, ORPHANS, the young man that has no idea where he is until he finally, after many years, gets his hand on a map.

It took me about a year to get the lay of the land when I moved to New York many eons ago.  After that, I finally felt I had an inkling as to the general idea of where things were.  Took me a little longer in Chicago, but eventually in that city, too, I began to understand where I was over a period of time.

It's disconcerting, this ignorance of where things are in the City of Angels.  Makes me feel like I'm still a visitor here.  I look around, talk to people I've met here, and realize they don't seem to suffer from the same sense of being lost.  They seem to know where they are and how to get to somewhere else at any given time.  Now, I know this feeling is only fleeting.  It happened to me in the other two cities I chose to call home for many years, too.  And eventually, one day arrived, and I no longer felt that way.  It's a vulnerable feeling that I'm not terribly fond of.

A theme I have explored tangentially in my writing is this wary and suspicious feeling I have about not just growing older, moving into a middle-aged, calmer, less hectic period of existence we all find ourselves as we age, but growing older without regret, growing older with grace.  One of the many beautiful and ephemeral things about youth is the idea that one is the center of the universe.  The unspoken and sometimes unconscious thought that if it ain't happening to me, it ain't happening.  What an egotistical line of thought and yet, at the same time, vastly preferred to the knowledge one gains upon aging that we are not the center of the universe.  That, in fact, other things are happening all around us, things we're not a part of, that are important and fulfilling as well.

Most writers, to a certain extent, feel like outsiders.  Observers.  Collectors of minutiae.  Vats for storing images and moments to be examined at a later time, perhaps, in a play or novel or short story.  And consequently, I think, most writers feel as though they don't belong to a moment so much as have been called upon to remember a moment.  That's our job, we become the designated drivers of memory.  And it seems for many of us, there comes a day when we realize we weren't really a part of our little history, the passing of our lives, so much as the chronicler of the days and weeks and years and decades that have sped along so unbelievably quick.

And then, if my own experience is any indication, there comes a day when we realize that the things that are happening elsewhere, other places, with other people, aren't that enviable in the first place.  That settling down with a wife or husband or children or whatever is sometimes the only destination that makes any sense.  Time passes everybody by and T. Wolfe nailed it when he suggested none of us could go home again, ever.

When I was first starting out in New York, I worked as a waiter in this restaurant where everyone seemed to go out at night and have a wonderful, indescribably fantastic time.  I mostly worked the lunch shift and I was surrounded by a set of smart and hip and up and coming artists and actors.  I felt as though I were none of those things.  I would spend my nights in rehearsal somewhere or working on a new project or writing into the wee, small hours on a new play.  There was, at that time, a cool, new place in Chelsea that everyone was going called Limelight (I'm dating myself here).  It was a club, a former church, in fact, that had been turned into a nightclub with several different large rooms that specialized in different forms of entertainment.  It catered to the young and hip, of course, and didn't distinguish between the 'straight' crowd or the 'gay' crowd or 'women' or 'druggies' or anyone else.  As I understood it, there was a place for everyone in that club.

Now, I have never been a 'club' kinda guy.  They've always bored me, frankly.  And it was during this period of my time in NY that I really grasped that for the first time.  One night, I decided to take my new friends up on a night out at The Limelight.  They had been inviting me out for months.  I was really excited.  Finally, I had a night where I didn't have a rehearsal or some other pressing piece of 'stuff' in my life.  I could attend the cool functions of the in-crowd.  So I met up with a bunch of them around ten o'clock that night, outside the ex-church-turned-Gomorrah.  We waited in line for a long time, finally got let in, and walked straight into a wall of sound.  Impossible to communicate it was so loud.  And as the night wore on and I watched and recorded the festivities, I began to realize how utterly pointless and time-wasting this was.  This is what I had been missing?  A shoulder-to-shoulder night of swaying and sweating in an old church, mindless grins plastered on everyone's faces, stripped to the waist and dancing (I never cared for dancing), precariously holding a plastic cup of Corona, a whole brigade of young hipsters carefully eyeing the other side of the room to see if perhaps something more engaging was happening there?  This was it?

It takes a night like that every now and then to make one realize that the grass is not greener next door, that the life one has carefully sculpted for oneself is exactly the life one wants.  And more importantly, there is a reason for wanting that life.  Because it fits.  Because it is the life envisioned.  The other life, the one hears about and sometimes lives vicariously, is a mirage.  It is the life left unexamined.  It is usually just a lie.

So I remember being with the group of young up and comers, the hip crowd, the beautiful and handsome, the stripped-to-the waist dancers the following day at work.  A little hung over, certainly tired from the long night, and listening to the stories of how much fun was had, how crazy the night had been, how unexpected and surprising, how unimaginably, well, fun.  And I grasped how much I enjoyed my own life, how my choices to live the way I do, to daily examine the things I find important to me, to be with the people I've chosen to be all of this is not an accident, but rather a sure and carefully planned path.

But, you know, it takes one of those nights now and then, even at my age, to make one appreciate and savor the quiet and centered life that has been chosen.  It takes a night like that to make one satisfied with a new book or a new play or a new conversation.  It takes a night of the unexamined life to truly comprehend the examined life.

Youth is indeed wasted on the young.  GB Shaw definitely named this feeling for all of us, we older and wiser souls of the examined life.

So it's good to be reminded I don't know where I am half the time in Los Angeles.  It's good to feel like life is happening elsewhere.  I need to feel that now and again, because it makes the realizations I occasionally have much sweeter.  I am exactly where I want to be.  And though I may not know how to get to Studio City or China Town or Manhattan Beach, I know how to get to my own desires and promises.  Because they're all here, right in front of me, all the destinations of a lifetime of careful choices about what's important and what's not.  I'm in my own limelight, the one I've created for myself, the only limelight that matters.  Because the grass in my yard is blindingly green.  And I made it that way just for me.  And the really cool thing is knowing that.

See you tomorrow.