“It’s impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty-five…” – James Michener, The Drifters
“What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do.” – John Updike, from…?
The Pixar film Up presents itself as for children. It is animated; it features talking dogs, floating houses, and nefarious schemes. But for adults it contains one of the most remarkable – and remarkably close-to-the-bone – opening sequences in recent movie history:
In the early part of the twentieth century, a young boy named Carl watches a newsreel about an explorer named Charles Muntz. Afterward, infatuated with Muntz and his trip to Paradise Falls, South America, Carl races up and down the streets near his home pretending to be Muntz. In a nearby abandoned house, he meets a girl named Ellie. She shares his obsession with Muntz and describes to him her dream of moving their clubhouse to Paradise Falls.
Cut to: Carl and Ellie’s marriage. As a sort of montage we see their entire married life – their clubhouse remodeled into their home; their jobs as balloon-maker and zookeeper respectively; a touching scene of a silhouetted Ellie in a hospital room, crying (she has either had a miscarriage or learned she is inferitle). In their living room is a shrine to Paradise Falls, and before this shrine is jar. As the couple grows older, they fill the jar with coins for their trip Paradise Falls, only to see it emptied again in times of financial crisis.
One day, when the couple is old, stooped and gray, Carl finally buys two plane tickets to Paradise Falls. He invites Ellie out for a picnic on their favorite hill in the park, where we have already seen them lying hand-in-hand at various ages, staring up at the clouds. Midway to the top of the hill, Ellie falls and doesn’t get up. She is ill. She is taken to the hospital, where she dies. They never make it to Paradise Falls.
It was John Lennon who most famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” If I had to choose one phrase to sum up the opening sequence of Up, this would be it. It’s not just that we put things off until it’s too late; it’s that the decisions we make get in the way of the reasons we make them. We go to law school to support our true passion; the law consumes so much of us that we don’t ever get around to pursuing that passion. Or else accidents happen: wives get pregnant; parents get sick; money we intended for other purposes is spent. Sometimes we just keep saying tomorrow until there is no tomorrow left.
As an opening to a major Hollywood production, and one for children at that, the beginning of Up is formally and thematically shocking. We expect our stories to start in media res, but this opening functions as back story, a prelude to the main event. But more than that, it is its bleakness that disarms us. The lack of resolution. Or at least tidy resolution – death resolves us all, of course. But while in the conventional movie, death comes with a speech or one last grand, redemptive gesture, here it comes in the middle of life, leaving many things undone. Words unspoken. Dreams unrealized.
We are disarmed not by the artfulness of the sequence but by a graceful artlessness we recognize as truth. It acts as a corrective to the too-neat narratives of Hollywood that force a calming order on life.
By the time you read this, I will be thirty years old. That’s 10,957 days, counting leap years. 262,968 hours, 15,778,080 minutes, 946,684,800 seconds. Etc. I break it down this way not because it’s an original way of looking at it, but to illustrate how meaningless such a measurement is. Divided into its smallest units, the number becomes as incomprehensible as records of the dead – days fallen, left behind.
Thirty years is, of course, thirty revolutions of the earth around the sun: this is what it generally means to us. Seasons change, holidays come and go, the ball in Time Square drops and we imagine a fresh start. And maybe there is something innate in such a cycle, something our bodies respond to in a way outside the understanding of science. Or maybe it’s just a convenient cultural marker, a way for us to talk about units of change.
Because that’s all time is: a measurement of change.
But does change always – for lack of a better word – change at the same rate? Anyone who has arrived at this number will tell you there are different ways of being thirty. Some people seem to have it all figured out: they are married, or taking the bar exam, or buying their first home. Others work at McDonalds, drink with their friends after work, perhaps move to another town when things get stagnant. Some don’t even make it to thirty. For everyone who has it figured out, there are probably ten who don’t; and those that claim they do are often just striking a confident pose.
What does it even mean to be thirty? What separates it from being twenty- nine years and three hundred and sixty-four days old? Nothing, scientifically. At least nothing that separates it from any other day tacked on– just another step in the slow decomposition of the body that starts at around twenty-five, I’m told.
But culturally, it does mean something. A lot.
Eighteen. Twenty-one. Thirty, forty, sixty-five. I have left out a couple, I’m sure, but these are the big ones – the birthdays that we are judged by. In this society, we don’t have true rites of passage, though we do have unofficial ones. At eighteen you are a man, generally expected to move out of your parent’s house. You can die at war, vote, smoke cigarettes and look at pornography. At twenty-one, you can drink. At thirty…
Ah, but there’s the crux. These first two ages are defined by privileges and their attendant responsibilities. What can you do at thirty that you can’t at twenty-nine? To the best of my reckoning, it’s not what you can do, but what others expect of you. What the pressure of their expectations can do to you.
For the past ten years or so I’ve lived in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s a city of three hundred thousand, the third biggest in the state. There are two universities, three more colleges. Dozens of bars, plenty of coffee shops, a few used book stores. As a friend of mine puts it, it is a “great place to be in your early twenties, but not such a great place to be in your late twenties.”
This is because it is a college town – as you age, the people around you don’t. Or rather, they graduate, move on, are replaced by another group of undergrads. There is not much reason to stay beside inertia. There are not many jobs for recent graduates – it’s pretty much all bartending or tenure-track professorships. Greensboro is called the Gate City, and though it got this name because it acted as a train hub for much of the state, it has come to mean something different to the current residents: the city as a way station, as a place to catch your breath before diving into real life.
For this reason, those that stay here are generally failures in one way or another. Take, for example, a bar I’ll call the Pizzeria. On any given Friday night – in fact, on any given Monday afternoon – you can find the same five people hunched at the bar, deep in their cups. It’s tempting to judge these people – as, in fact, I now am – because frankly it’s a lot of fun. But more than that, it sets up a distance between you and them – insulates you from becoming one of their ilk. Because when you’re twenty-nine and it’s three o’ clock in the afternoon and you’re in the same bar you’ve been going to since you were allowed to drink (for the braver of us, even earlier than that) you are, to all outside appearances, one of them. A nobody, a failure. A townie. It is only in your mind that you are different.
One day, you tell yourself. One day I will write that novel I have been dreaming of. One day I will meet a nice girl and get married. One day I will leave this place. This is the insidious part of being a twenty-first century American: it’s not just that others judge you by what you have or have not achieved, it’s that you judge yourself. It gets so you don’t want to answer one of the most basic questions: “What have you been doing?” Because the answer, if not nothing, is at least nothing worth talking about. By which you mean: nothing that won’t diminish me in your eyes, and in doing so, in my own.
So you find ways to make yourself sound better, more promising than you are. These are not lies exactly, but a positive spin on reality. You become a PR man for your own life. “I am thinking about applying to grad school,” you say. Translation: I have looked up some schools online and dreamed about how nice it would be to attend one. Or: “I might move to New York. I have some good connections up there.” Translation: I know a few struggling actors.
Still, a young person now has certain freedoms, freedoms our parents gained us through years of costly and painful rebellion (or so the story goes – more likely it was just a gradual loosening of the belt that started generations before). These freedoms are by and large negative ones: the freedom not to marry at eighteen, not to have three children by twenty-five, not to pick one job and stick with it until your pension kicks in. These are good freedoms – nothing is gained by committing to so much so early, except maybe the illusion of adulthood. But I also wonder if it isn’t part of the problem. You take away all restraints and there’s nothing left. You end up floating in air, untethered as Carl Frederickson’s house in Up. Except instead of floating toward Paradise Falls and a kind of redemption, you are drifting toward nothing at all.
The themes in the opening of Up are not particularly new. That they can be expressed in a single song lyric by one of our most universally loved musicians proves that. And nor was John Lennon the originator of that aphorism: a quick Wikipedia search shows that William Gaddis, Lily Tomlin, and even Reader’s Digest have been credited with the phrase.
Nor is Up the first work of fiction to dramatize it. One of the great – and until recently, greatly neglected – twentieth-century American novelists, Richard Yates, made dashed hopes the subject of his most affecting fictions. The short story “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired” deals with a talentless sculptor and mother of two who cannot square the life she dreams of leading with the one she ends up leading. This character, probably based on Yates’s own mother, appears in several others works, including the novels The Easter Parade and A Special Providence. As the title of the latter indicates – and this could be the title of any of Yates’s books – she is the subject of a biting authorial irony, as well as a source of pity and frustration for the people around her.
But mothers are not the only ones to see their hopes dashed. Shattered illusions are Yates’s great theme, and nowhere does he treat them more completely and devastatingly than in his acknowledged masterpiece, Revolutionary Road. Set in the early 1960s, it tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple who move to suburbia, but consider themselves different from the bland conservatism that threatens to swallow them. April has dreams of acting, while Frank has a desire to do something vaguely artistic; in the meantime, Frank goes to work at the same company his father did and April becomes a housewife. In despair over their failing marriage, they hatch a plan to move to Paris: April will work and Frank will take the time to figure out his “purpose.” But April becomes pregnant and Frank, who was beginning to have doubts about the plan, receives a lucrative job offer. April, desperate not to lose what she sees as their last chance at happiness, administers a self-abortion and dies. Frank is left shattered and empty.
This is Up if the movie ended after the first fifteen minutes – and if Carl and Ellie, and not life’s vagaries, were responsible for the failure to live out their dreams. In Up, Carl is redeemed by his friendship with Russell – a Wilderness Scout who is a younger version of himself – and a belated journey to Paradise Falls, where he learns that the life you dream of leading is not always the one you’re supposed to lead. There is no such redemption for Frank Wheeler: by foolishly clinging to his dreams he destroys the possibility of ever realizing them.
So what is Yates’s solution then? Submit to our bland fate? Apparently not: the reason we identify with the Wheelers is that they are the only characters in the novel who still have the ability to dream. If we give up our dreams, then we are like Mr. Givings, the husband of the Wheelers’ real estate agent. Tired of his wife’s constant gossiping, he turns off his hearing aid so as not to listen to her. This is the novel’s final image: a woman’s lips moving soundlessly, a man engulfed in his own silent world.
My parents divorced when I was two years old. I went to live with my mother. While I was too young to have been traumatized by the event – and the word “trauma” should probably be reserved for events like rape and genocide – I do remember the subsequent years of fatherly neglect. I would wait by the door for him to pick me up; he was hours, sometimes days, late. I don’t remember being upset by this, either – though I do remember the elation when he did arrive – but it must have bothered me on some level, because we still have a hard time interacting.
We’ve only recently begun to repair our relationship. I’ve spent a chunk of the last two summers with him in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina, helping him renovate his Queen Anne-style home. He pays me in food and lodging and whatever cash I need. The work needs to be done – and he would have to pay a skilled laborer more – but mostly it’s an excuse for us to hang out.
We talk about our lives, which have taken remarkably similar paths in some ways and have diverged in others. Like me, he took most of his twenties to finish his undergrad (I still have not quite done that). Like me, he spent most of that time flitting from city to city, traveling around Latin America, and working low-paying, unskilled jobs. But he also married my mother when he was twenty-two and had me he was twenty-five – two experiences I can’t imagine going through now, let alone at that age. I can’t help but think that if he had waited he might have been a better father: the proof is that I have two happy, well-adjusted half-brothers, Graham and Jacob, and that he and my step-mother have no intention of divorce. The proof is that he is here for me, finally, now.
It was he who shared with me the Michener quote that is one of the epigraphs of this piece. We were talking about Up, which he had seen with Graham and Jacob when it was in the theater. Their uncle, my father’s brother-in-law, was with them. During the opening sequence, he kept leaning across the aisle and pretending to smack Jacob in the head.
“I thought you said this was a funny movie,” he would say.
He was playing around, but there’s some truth there, too. For adults, the opening of this movie registers as a painful recognition: we don’t end up doing most of the things we plan to do. I told my father how, now that I was approaching thirty, I could see the sad truth of this idea.
And that’s when he quoted, or misquoted, Michener to me. “You know Michener said it was impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty,” he said. “So I guess you’ve still got… what? A month?”
“But Updike said ‘What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do,’” I shot back.
So which is it? And are the two even mutually exclusive? The Michener quote is from a novel about twenty-somethings bumming around Europe, a book that begins with the sentence “Youth is truth.” As such, it embodies the romantic idea that the purpose of youth is not to accomplish anything, but to accumulate experience. That this is, in a way, its own accomplishment.
While I couldn’t find the source of the Updike quote – too many random bits of data floating around in my thirty-year-old skull – I suspect it is from one of the Rabbit novels. Perhaps Rabbit thinks it about himself, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of his own dreams. Or perhaps it is in Rabbit is Rich, and he thinks it about his son Nelson, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of youth. Either way, the meaning is the same – something akin to “strike while the iron is hot.” That this phrase should be uttered by a writer who was printed in the New Yorker while still in college, who published his first novel at twenty-five and his first masterpiece just a few years later, is hardly surprising. It was probably this attitude that allowed him to accomplish such things.
But maybe these two statements can be squared. Maybe the time we spend doing “nothing” can be seen as a way of doing something. We might not publish (or even complete) a novel at twenty-five, but we might make the mistakes and accumulate the experiences which allow us to publish that novel later. And maybe this is what Michener really means: that youth is a time of preparation, that as long as a person spends their formative years, well, being formed, then they are not wasted. If so, it’s not what a person doesn’t do before thirty that they’ll never do, but what a person doesn’t get ready to do. Hence, Michener and Updike are not expressing opposite sentiments but two shades of the same optimism.
Or maybe this is a last lingering bit of my youthful romanticism. Maybe it’s an elaborate justification for all the time I’ve wasted. Can’t it be these things and also be true?
Another book turned movie, The Natural, offers us the solution that Yates’s relentlessly bleak Revolutionary Road refuses. Like Up, it focuses on what we do after our dreams are shattered. Roy Hobbs is a preternaturally gifted baseball player who has his career cut short because of a senseless crime. As he lies in a hospital bed, lamenting the choices he made, he receives the following piece of advice from his one-time lover, Iris.
“You know, I always thought we had two lives,” she says.
“How…what do you mean?” Roy asks.
“The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.”
The meaning is clear: Roy is still a young man. There is a lot of life ahead of him – he can lead it with the knowledge he has gained from his past mistakes. He doesn’t have to wait until he is old and alone like Carl for redemption.
I, for one, look forward to a decade of no more wasted time. Of course, according to Michener – the true version of the quote, not the one my father misremembered – I’ve got five more years.