I turned 60 years old back at the beginning of this summer. Can you believe it? I can’t. For most of my life I have felt 35 years old. I felt 35 when I was 10 years old (which is why I was such a no fun stick in the mud back then!) and I still feel 35 years old today even though my body is starting to tell me differently. And I have to admit that arriving in this new decade of age has colored my notions of what I want to do in the years still ahead. Unlike when I turned 20 or 30 or 40 or 50, for the first time, I can honestly say that I am starting to catch sight up ahead of the end of this journey that we call Life. While I have no plans to “exit, stage left” any time soon ("Heavens to Murgatroyd!"), it would also be silly for me to not admit that the finish line is starting to appear around the bend like one of those bright lights Wile E. Coyote can see approaching in countless Road Runner cartoons (and we all know how that turned out!).
Realistically, I have around 20 years left to do what I want to do, maybe a bit more. And my recent health scares in 2022 have contributed to this perspective. This week’s loss of one of my favorite authors David McCullough (age 89) and another of the iconic singers from my youth Olivia Newton-John (age 73) reinforced this. Too dark? Too much of a downer? Hey, welcome to 60! (Yeah, I know 60 is supposed to be the new 40).
But this summer I find myself, right or wrongly, in the mindset of Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) toward the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) where he stands on the finished bridge, staring into a beautiful sunset and observes:
“It's been a good life. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer to the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents? What difference your being here at any time made to anything? Or if it made any difference at all, really? Particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking's very healthy, but I must admit I've had some thoughts along those lines from time to time.”
I have very few regrets about my life and feel that it has, by and large, been a wonderful life. I have met some amazing people and am happy to still call many of them friends. But like George Bailey in that Frank Capra classic, I also find that several of the things that I most wanted to achieve in my life has not happened (almost exclusively in creative terms). I am sure I am not alone in feeling this way. We all fail to achieve some kind of dream or another in each of our lives. And most of what constitutes maturity is being able to come to terms with those disappointments without making an ass of ourselves (like George does before his guardian angel Clarence intercedes).
But I don’t want to become like one of my favorite writers Truman Capote (1924-1984) who spend the last 20 years of his life vainly trying to finish what he believe to be his literary masterpiece Answered Prayers and never being able to do so for a variety of reasons. Nor do I want to be another of my favorite authors Mary Lee Settle (1918-2005) who spent her career putting off her dream project (a novel about Thomas Jefferson) over and over until when she finally found the time to start writing it, she contracted cancer and died.
So what do I still want to do with my life?
Well, I still have about a half a dozen horror stories to share of which The Girl In the Basement is the first. A couple of period thrillers (Eagle Claw, The Great American Airship Mystery, Royally Dangerous). A pair of Sci-fi stories including Way Out. A couple of movie industry tales too (Me & Michael Cimino, Pure Cinema, Idyll Soldiers, Last Night In Babylon). All of them are in various forms of incompletion from outline to multiple drafts.
Paramount in importance for me are the trilogy of novels about my alter ego Paul Ruddick and his growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. I have been working off and on on them for decades. American Kids needs one more rewrite but I plan to now get it out next summer. Mountain Cross (which many preview readers consider the best thing I have ever written) is about 3/4s done. And Movie Me is a quarter written with a pretty good outline on how to finish it. Many people have asked me what novels about attending high school in the late 1970s or college in the 1980s has to say to people here in the 2020s but the events of the last couple years have convinced me that what they have to say are even more relevant today than they were ten year ago. In short, younger people, what goes around comes around. Or as Mark Twain once said: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” I plan to focus on getting these out over the next couple years.
And then there is Carnivorous River, my Gone With the Wind scale retelling of the Johnstown Flood. I have worked off and on this book for the past 30 years and have about 700 pages of it written. I figure I am about halfway. And while it may seem like an obscure subject matter, it too has become more and more relevant the more climate change extends its hand across our globe and class and economic differences threaten to tear our society apart. Don’t worry, I promise to make it entertaining in a John Jakes sort of way. FYI, this is the title the late great David McCullough (unintentionally) gave me the only time I met him. I am planning to have this tome out in 2029 (the 130th anniversary).
So that is my general plan of attack for the next ten years. And I will leave it to posterity to decide whether any of it as any value at all.
Of course, the real lesson George Bailey learns at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life is that his single-minded focus on what he hasn’t achieved has prevented him from seeing the many good things he had done and achieved. As George’s guardian angel Clarence tells him, “You really had a wonderful life.” And it is just as much about helping other peoples’ dreams come true as it is about working to realize your own. And I plan to do that too. Or as the Wizard tells the Tin Man at the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939): “And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is not judged by how much you love but by how much you are loved by others.”
Speaking for myself, it has been a wonderful 60 years filled with moments and people I will continue to treasure. Now let’s make the next 20 years just as good.
Please click below and join me in singing along with the late great Harry Chapin in the song “Circle” (part of the greatest concert I ever attended). Thank you for letting me be a part of your life. Thank you for being a part of mine.