The Broken Parts

I THOUGHT THERE WOULD BE A COUCH. 

I’d never been to see a therapist, but I’ve been to a shit-ton of movies and well, there’s always a couch in the movies. There’s almost always a happy ending, too, which should have been my first clue that art does not imitate life, but mocks it. 

Instead of one big couch there were two chairs and three smaller sofas arranged in a semi-circle. “Sit anywhere you like,” she said, which is not what you say to someone who can’t even decide what flavor of hummus to buy (hey “pumpkin” hummus, you know you’re ridiculous, right?) I picked the seat furthest from her, the one with the most pillows, where I could sink into the soft leather like a dead weight subsumed by quicksand.

Now I’m not going to go down a mental health rabbit hole and bare my soul in some desperate cry for attention. That’s what all my work emails are for. But I do want to stop pretending that everything is okay – because after a pandemic, contracting Covid, and a myriad of other life changes and pressures, everything is definitely not fucking okay.

I spent so much time pursuing fiction that I couldn’t separate it from reality. The fiction – that life was great, that I was some high-powered executive, that nothing bothered me and I got along with everyone and I was always funny – was so much more interesting. And who doesn’t want to be interesting? So I played the part, taking “all the world’s a stage” to heart and being the person I was expected to be but who didn’t exist.

So many people spend their lives manifesting conceit, projecting perfection, making every moment memorable if not instantly Instragammable. And they are rarely satisfied, always looking with longing at all those other “happy” people who must be doing something right because God knows I’m never that happy and why the hell is that? 

Because in our search for perfection, for acceptance, we ignore the broken parts that make up who we are. But the fact is we are all constructed from strewn pieces. It’s those individual imperfections that come together and make us whole. 

I used to hate the broken parts. I still do, though not as much and not as often. I now know that broken can make you better; that hiding behind fiction doesn’t guarantee a happily ever after.

I will still have moments where nothing seems to matter. There will still be times when I smile to keep from screaming; when I will let the quicksand drag me down. 

But I’ll keep trying. Broken parts and all.

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Hugging the Porcupine

I’VE ALWAYS HAD A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE UNKNOWN.

I love that it fascinates me, inspires me, drives me. But I embrace it as you would hug a porcupine — very carefully and not without a huge dose of What the Fuck Was I Thinking.

I hate myself for feeling this way. Not only is it counterproductive to, you know, living, but it’s also what all of us experience every day, all the time. So get over it already.

“Unknown” is our default programming. It’s the factory setting for humanity. Yet we spend an inordinate amount of time planning in the false hope that we will then follow that plan. We crave order, but we live in a world ruled by entropy. Chaos is our king.

And still it bothers me. I “what if” myself like crazy, playing out a thousand multiverse scenarios for every stupid decision I make. It’s hard to just go with the flow when all you see is a raging tsunami coming to drown you in a wave of missed opportunities and regret.

The pandemic took these fears, these innate aversions to the unknown, and plopped them in our faces, on our couches, in our fresh baked sourdough, and on every one of our uncomfortable Zoom calls. Suddenly nothing was certain or would ever be again. We woke up to the true nature of existence. The pandemic re-booted our operating system so that now we would function normally, as in constantly scared shitless about the future normally.

What happened next? What did we do once the immediate threat was over, and we realized that pandemics were going to be with us for a long time, perhaps forever? How did we — a lot of us anyway — decide to live the rest of our lives?

We hugged the porcupine. We told fear to fuck right off. We embraced the unknown like a long-lost relative — not always comfortably, but hey you can’t choose your family. You just have to learn to live with them.

The Great Resignation is just one example of how people now not only accept the unknown but seek it out. We’ve responded to our new programming like a thirsty man to a glass of water. After all, what is “risk” in a world where an invisible microbe can kill you without warning, where your right to live is no greater than another person’s “right” to be an asshole?

Life has always been short — nasty and brutish, too, if you ask Hobbes. But while our life expectancy hasn’t changed much in the last few years, what we expect from life has.

I thought I knew this after my brain tumor in 1993. I would tell myself that “life is short” so don’t waste a second doing something you don’t want to do.

I thought I realized it when my daughter left for college, promising myself to pay more attention from now on, telling myself that I’ll never get back all those years of parenting in absentia.

I discovered it again on New Year’s Eve 2020, struggling to breathe and wondering whether my final resting place would be a parking lot in Irvine. Laying there, listening to machines speaking to each other in melancholy rhythm, I expected more out of 54 years. I expected life to do better by me, and I was kinda pissed that it had let me down.

But not anymore. From now on, I own the unknown. I decide what I should expect from life, from my decisions — good, bad, or monumentally fucked up. And you should too.

As Glinda the Good Witch told Dorothy, “You always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” So go ahead, hug the porcupine — it may hurt, but at least you will know you’re still alive.

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Looking Ahead to “Hindsight”

IT’S TRADITION here at Below the Fold to share an early excerpt from the next book project. Okay not tradition in like the traditional sense, more in the “well I’ve done it before and I haven’t died from embarrassment yet so what the hell why not” sense.

Plus there’s the added benefit of looking back years later and realizing how awful it was. Good masochism takes time, people. Take it from me, a triple black belt in poor decision making.

“Mercy” is still in the editing phase; it’s been pored over more times by more people than an election ballot in Arizona. So while that especially excruciating exercise takes the few remaining years off of my life, I’m exploring the world of “Hindsight,” where a perfect virtual experience becomes a real nightmare. It’s a story for the whole family — if an entire family disappearing is your idea of wholesome entertainment. If so shame on you (but also buy this book.)

I’m also working on a Below the Fold anthology, complete with some new essays and updates/commentary on the classics. But that’s for another post. In the meantime, and while we wait for “Mercy” to see the light of day, Here’s a brief peek at “Hindsight”:

The technician gives me a thumbs up as she removes the haptic harness, carefully unfastening the magnetic straps while I regain my balance and natural senses. The world – the real one – slowly comes back into focus, as if adjusting a camera lens. And once again, reality is just another disappointment.

I wonder what would happen if I didn’t regain full consciousness, whether they would give me more time to recover or if they would just cart me off to long-term rehab – affectionately known around Hindsight as the Omelet House, because, you know, that’s where they send all the broken eggs. But not me, I’m too hard-boiled for that (see what I did there? Dad jokes, I’ve got a million of ‘em.)

Still, I understand why some people become omelets, why it can be almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Because Hindsight isn’t virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a toy.

This is a time machine.

And more than anything, I want to go back.

I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore

I’m surrounded by driverless cars and mindless people.

This is the future my past never predicted – where thinking for yourself has become, if not obsolete, then essentially unnecessary. And why not? Computers are fast, precise, and obedient. The most advanced A.I. and quantum technology can even anticipate our needs and sense our emotions. We don’t need to ask Alexa or say “hey” to Siri, because they already know what we want and by the way the drone just dropped your package on the porch.

In many ways this is the world we always wanted, the one romanticized by futurists and promised by tech heads and Comic-Con attendees alike. And there are lots of benefits too, don’t get me wrong.

Want to hear a song from 30 years ago? Ask and ye shall receive “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thank you very much. Can’t remember how Battlestar Galactica ended (not the original one-and-done version from the ‘70s but the 21st century reboot where you couldn’t tell a Cylon from a Caprican)? Just pick from one of any number of streaming services sending instant geekification to the screen of your choice. Life today isn’t a restricted menu, it’s a 24-hour buffet and vomitorium so there’s always room for the next meal.

Yes, we advanced. Not because we needed to, but because we could.

Early humans invented the wheel out of necessity (it being the mother of invention and all.) We created tools to survive, and medicines to cure disease and extend lifespans. But once our needs were covered, once our comfort exceeded our expectations, we advanced for mere challenge and thrill. We did more because we could do more, and more was the preferred state over less. “Anything worth doing is overdoing” the old saying went, and boy did we ever.

Before I go on, I should make one thing clear: I’m not a Luddite. I have the latest iPhone and couldn’t live without the Internet (can anyone?) Autonomous vehicles made our streets safer. And oh, by the way, did I mention that I just returned from a trip into a virtual world and am counting the days until I can do it again? I’m not looking for a cure to our modern complacency, I’m a proud and willing symptom. I’m a damaged blood cell grateful for the disease.

But some things are worth preserving – a sticky movie theater floor, the sound a needle makes when it drops onto a vinyl record. The future shouldn’t cancel the past, no matter how painful it might be. And it can be excruciatingly painful.

You see, the past for me isn’t nostalgia. It’s not history.

It’s regret.

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This is How It Feels

THIS IS HOW IT FEELS.

Not elation but relief. Not celebration but reflection. Not an end but perhaps a new beginning.

Guilty verdicts for Derek Chauvin in the murder (we can now say murder) of George Floyd won’t erase centuries-old systemic racism. It won’t heal a broken America, won’t eradicate discrimination, won’t make us safer. We still have much work to do.

But I remember Rodney King — we had a video then, too. I remember Amadou Diallo, unarmed, in a doorway, shot 41 times. I remember Trayvon Martin, killed for walking while wearing a hoodie. And while nothing can bring them, or George Floyd, or 13-year-old Adam Toledo back to life, today’s verdict’s in the Chauvin case can give us hope that justice is possible, and that anyone can be held accountable.

So many of us don’t know this feeling. We don’t know what it’s like to cry tears of joy, to believe that the future is brighter, to think that we as a nation can rise above our basest selves. We are, after all, a country of fragments; a people fragmented. We are a labyrinthine expanse so loosely bound as if against nature.

But this is how it feels when America does something right for all Americans. This is what we mean by one nation with liberty and justice for all.

Yes, we are a country of fragments. But while the pieces don’t always fit, once in a while we do come together.

I can get used to this. I hope we all get used to this.

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Speakers for the Dead

ON THE FIRST DAY I WASHED MY HANDS OF IT.

Lots of soap, two “happy birthdays.” Rinse and repeat. 

After the first week my daughter came home because of it; graduated college in our living room thanks to it. 

For months we distanced from it, Zoomed and baked bread and watched everything on the Internet to keep our minds numb to it. My job changed during it (in some ways for the better, in many ways not.)

Some wanted to ignore it, to wish it away, to live in a land of make believe. Too many of us did, and never lived to regret it. 

Two days before Christmas, I got it.

On New Year’s Eve, I thought it got me. 

Now one year from Day One, I’ve still got it – not an active virus, but the lingering reminders like headaches and pain. Not the disease but the guilt of survival, the Post Traumatic Covid Disorder that keeps me out of the room where I quarantined, and that makes any slight discomfort a sign of irreversible doom.

The truth is, what happened to me – to most of us – was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the hardship and despair endured by those who lost their jobs, their health, their loved ones, their lives.

You were pissed because on day 71 you couldn’t get haircut? You were angry because on day 183 you couldn’t sit inside a restaurant? You complained because on day 236 you couldn’t go to a football game?

C’mon. Seriously, get real. You need a reason? I’ll give you 528,000 reasons and counting, counting, counting.

We, the ones still here, are the speakers for the dead. We speak for them and stand for them and goddammit we wear masks and get vaccinated for them too.

Don’t wash your hands of it. Don’t ever wash your hands of this responsibility.

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I See Kobe

I SEE KOBE.

Not the undefendable jumper or the unapologetic swagger. Not the 81-point masterpiece or reducing opponents to pieces. Not the championships or the Larry O’Brien embrace, with Shaq at his side and champagne on his face.

I see those moments too, but mostly I see Kobe shopping at Fashion Island. I see him getting coffee at the Lost Bean in Costa Mesa. I see him at Javier’s or at Mastro’s enjoying a meal, at Fletcher Jones picking up his new Maybach or driving along Newport Coast.

I see Kobe whenever I ride my bike on PCH, whenever I pass John Wayne Airport, whenever I see a sunset over Newport and realize we both shared that experience. Because Kobe Bryant, for all his accolades and global fame, was one of us.

He may have played in Los Angeles, but Kobe belonged to Orange County. This was home, where he raised his kids and ran his business. You can hardly go anywhere around here without seeing Kobe Bryant – and when he died almost one year and a million tears ago, on a quiet and deceptively normal Sunday morning, everyone felt it.

January 26, 2020 is burned into our memories, into our collective consciousness. We lost a friend and a neighbor, a father and a son. We lost so many other Orange County friends and families on that devastating day, too. One year later and it still seems unreal.

With apologies to Philly, Kobe is ours now. And he is still here, still with us, still smiling and inspiring us. You just need to know where to look.

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Taking it One Breath at a Time

I SPENT NEW YEAR’S EVE IN A MAKESHIFT TENT outside Hoag Hospital in Irvine, Calif., wondering whether my next breath would be the last.

I had good reason: my Covid symptoms were getting worse, causing my throat to conspire against my lungs. Every breath felt futile, like climbing a hill made of quicksand. I was cold, shivering under blinding spotlights, waiting for the doctors to do something, anything, to ease the suffering or end it.

And then I took a breath. It hurt, as in eyes watering pain hurt, but I took it anyway. And then when I had no other choice, I took the next one, and the next. I didn’t focus on breathing anymore – I focused on just one breath, just one inhale, as best I could. The next breath was all that mattered.

I’m doing better now, and for that I’m grateful. I’m still having trouble breathing, requiring some external support and multiple inhalers. My condition may be temporary or it may be indefinite – Covid doesn’t make any promises.

I first learned this life lesson almost 30 years ago, when I could have died from a tumor in my head, and still could die any minute if I have another bad seizure (thanks to the side effects of the removal of said tumor.) But so what? Life is never guaranteed. That’s why it’s supposed to be precious.

You get the next breath. That’s it. You get the next breath and the next one and the one after that, on and on until the breaths are spent.

Don’t worry about what you would do with your last breath, with your final moment. Don’t look so far ahead that you can’t see what’s right in front of you – a family who loves you, friends who care about you, a world that gave you its oxygen to breathe in the first place.

Just take it all in, one breath at a time.

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When a Number Becomes a Name

WE’VE ALL SEEN THE STATS.

As of this writing: Nearly 18 million cases in the United States and 317,000 deaths. My home state of California is breaking records every day. ICU space is at 0% here with no improvement in sight.

This is horrible and sad. But for most people that’s where it ends — we give our thoughts and prayers and then go back to wondering when we can eat inside a restaurant again.

Because at the proverbial end of the day these are just numbers. It’s math, and if there’s one thing Americans can agree on, it’s that most of us suck at math.

Numbers are cold, impersonal. The numbers for Covid are downright incomprehensible, so much so that some wonder whether all the precautions and protocols add up to making any difference.

The numbers don’t mean anything — until a number becomes a name.

When you can put a face on a statistic, it’s different. It’s personal. Because if it happens to someone you know, then it can happen to you.

I don’t see numbers anymore. Instead I see a colleague juggling childcare and work while his spouse is quarantined with symptoms. I see relatives in the hospital, a close friend smiling despite the breathing tubes.

The numbers now have faces and families, people I know and care about. Before this latest surge I felt sympathy, but now I feel fear. And I feel anger toward those who can’t see past the numbers, if they even believe those numbers in the first place.

No, a mask isn’t perfect. No, closing restaurants and gyms won’t stop every case. But doing something is better than nothing, and doing nothing means you are a selfish piece of shit. You aren’t a patriot, you are just an asshole without a mask.

Go watch a friend or relative fight for their life because of your bullshit conspiracy theories, and then tell me how your “rights” are more important. I’m sure everyone at the funeral will love to hear your Ted Talk on civil liberties.

This will get worse before it gets better. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to protect ourselves and each other. The virus wants to treat us all like numbers — it’s up to us to treat each other like human beings.

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Welcome Back, America

WE MISSED YOU.

I know, we’re the ones who kicked you out. Sorry about that. It wasn’t all of us, though — it wasn’t even a majority of us (we’ll talk about that Electoral College thing later.) But we’re here for you now, and we’d love for you to stay if you’ll have us.

Sorry about the mess too, we kinda trashed the place while you were gone. Lost our fucking minds for a while. And to be honest, it’s gonna take a long time to clean this place up. Will probably need a Roomba the size of an asteroid.

But don’t worry, we’ll help. This was our fault after all. We’re the ones who took your values and trampled them like meth addicts at a rave. We let racism run unfettered, legitimized ignorance, embraced the basest instincts of a species untethered by common principles of respect and decency.

We saw a naked emperor and praised his beautiful robes, defended his fascism as “just speaking his mind” or “taking charge.” We fell so far down the well, America, there was barely any more light.

But we made it back, by the throat and by the vote. For the first time in history we defeated fascism on our own shores, storming the ballot boxes from sea to shining sea.

We did it for you, America. Truth is, we need you. if we learned anything these past four years, it’s that we can’t do this on our own.

Please don’t leave us again. Please don’t let us abandon you. We’ve learned our lesson and we promise to do better, to be better. We are still your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. And we need you now more than ever.

Welcome back, America. Welcome home.

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What’s Next: Why the West Wing Still Matters

THE MOST PRETENTIOUS THING YOU CAN DO IN HOLLYWOOD is say that a television show is “so much more than a television show.” The second most pretentious thing you can do is start a podcast just so you can talk in public with your famous friends, but I love Rob Lowe so dammit, he gets a pass.

Since I’m not in Hollywood, however, I can be as pretentious as I want. So here’s the truth in all its dramatic glory: The West Wing is the living, breathing, online streaming soul of the American Dream.

Just as NASA inspired a generation of Americans to go to space, the West Wing inspired a generation of young Americans to go into politics. My daughter is one of them — I sometimes think she went to college in Washington D.C. just on the off chance she might run into C.J. Cregg doing “The Jackal” in a Georgetown bar.

But what I didn’t know — until this week — was that The West Wing inspired at least one person to become an American.

A new colleague told me, very matter-of-fact, that the West Wing is the reason he is in America. A TV show he watched while going to school in the United States, halfway around the world from his home and family, is why he’s still here today.

“If this show was America, I wanted to be part of it,” he said. “It was that simple.”

A TV show? Stop it. That’s like the aliens in “Galaxy Quest” believing Tim Allen was really a starship captain, not an actor who played one in a TV series.

But no, this really happened. A TV show had become a promise of something better, a blueprint for What’s Possible. A young man changed his entire life not to go into politics, but because of an idea called the United States.

That promise remains unfulfilled, as we’re all painfully aware. The West Wing now looks less like fiction and more like farce, a poke in the eye, a comedia acta for the modern cynic (the Latin was for you, President Bartlet.) The show’s ideas and ideals are now so foreign it’s hard to believe they ever existed.

But the West Wing still matters. It still has the potential to be a force for change, if we want it to be. It once convinced an immigrant to make a life in an imaginary world; it can help us find that place again, and make it real.

(For a refreshing West Wing fix, check out the special cast reunion performance on HBO Max and listen to a refreshingly unpretentious Rob Lowe’s podcast interview with West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Okay, now what’s next?)

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