How much do you believe you change every seven years? Does your personality, the essence of who you are, evolve? Or is it simply the surface stuff—your demeanor, knowledge, looks, attitude, situation--that shifts?
If you aren’t sure, or want to see that question played out cinematically, catch 56 Up. Currently playing in some U.S. theaters, 56 Up is an acclaimed British TV documentary series. It began in 1964 with the release of 7 Up, a look at a group of U.K. children at age seven. The filmmakers asked them what their dreams were for the future, what they liked, disliked. The same group of Britons have gone before the cameras every seven years since. With the recent release of 56 Up, we see how those cute kids have evolved in middle-aged adults.
The entire series is a powerful, unique record of how we age, the choices we make, the dreams we defer, the relationships we develop. The movie left me wondering: What would my own 56 Up look like?
Age 7. I’m a gregarious kid living with my family in Greensboro, N.C.. I wander the neighborhood, entering neighbors’ homes through their unlocked doors, asking what they’re having for dinner, and if it pleases me, asking if I might join them. Miraculously, no one seems to mind in the least. I spend hours drawing cartoons using the downstairs hallway as my desk, causing everyone to step around me. Here, too, no one seems to mind. I feel safe, loved, and because I’m the only boy with four older sisters and I'm the youngest child, special. (My sisters would lovingly add “spoiled.”) I’m having a great childhood.
|Me at about 6 years old, on "The Old Rebel" TV show|
Age 14. I'm skinny, with braces and a bad shag haircut, and most of the time, I want to disappear. I've become the butt of jokes in school, the last one to be picked for any sport in P.E. I’m completely inept at sports and not doing well academically. I spend many hours in my room, drawing cartoons, writing plays and stories. Not even the teachers in my school seem to be on my side. During a social studies class, everyone has to go to the front of the room and present a book report. As I try to present mine, homophobic hecklers in the class mock me, calling me “Sweets” and other such names loudly enough for everyone to hear. The teacher tells them to stop, but they don’t, and he says nothing more. I can barely speak as I stand before the class, fearful and hurt. This moment creates a dread of public speaking that remained with me for decades. Completely alone, the only thing that gets me through is the knowledge that one day, I'll leave my hometown forever. (Note: Not surprisingly, I haven't found any photos of me around this age. But if I find one, I'll upload it.)
Age 21. I’m an English major at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. I’m running and working out, to build up my ‘stick arms’ and fill out my spindly legs. My grades are excellent. My teachers praise my term papers. I have many friends. I visit New York City for the first time, tagging along with my roommate’s drama class. For four or five days, we go to Broadway shows. My love of the theater is set afire. And one day, bored in biology class, I make a list of the things I want after graduation: 1. To be a professional writer. 2. To live in a big city. 3. To have a lifelong partner.
|Circa 1979, striking a pose with my sweet grandmother "Sissie"|
Age 28. I’ve achieved all three things on my to-do list. I’m employed as a correspondent for a computer business weekly, and I write travel and other freelance articles for national magazines. I live in Atlanta with Nick, who has been my partner now for five years. My job requires me to travel frequently, which I love to do: New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, New York. And yet, I’m discontent. As I sense 30 approaching, something seems missing—until I visit California for the first time, on a vacation with Nick and our good friend Edward.
|With my friend Edward, my first trip to San Francisco, 1986|
Age 35. By this point, Nick and I have been living in San Francisco for six years. I’m working at the best job I’ve ever had, as an editor for Macworld magazine. During those heady economic times, the magazine takes the editorial staff to a working retreat in Hawaii. I love my co-workers; there are few if any ‘divas’ to make life miserable. Nick and I had made three ridiculously fun trips to Europe by now. I have everything, it seems.
|With Nick and our pet ducks Dickie and Dee Dee, Florence, 1992|
Except, as events unfold, my father. As he’s dying of cancer, I fly to Greensboro for a visit. My family and I have decided it’s time to bring in hospice care. The last time I see my father alive, he's in bed, surrounded by my sisters and my mother, making jokes with the hospice worker who’s come to meet him. I look into my father’s eyes before I leave to catch my plane back to San Francisco. He knows, as do I, that this is goodbye, yet we don't say it. Off I go to the airport, only to discover my flight has been delayed, and then delayed again, and once more delayed. I spend at least five hours waiting in the airport, all the while thinking: I should be with my father. Finally, I board the flight, I return to San Francisco, and I live with this regret (and others) still, 20 years later.
Age 42: I’m self-employed and doing well. Nick and I have bought a condo in San Francisco with great views of the city. I’ve been writing a novel for two years and enjoying it immensely. One Friday, in July, Nick tries calling his mother, as he does every Friday. But Mrs. P, as we called her, doesn’t answer. That’s not too unusual. On Fridays she is usually getting her hair done and after that, buying a sub sandwich for lunch. Or she’s playing golf. As night falls and there's still no answer at Mrs. P’s home, a sense of dread creeps in. We make up reasons why she might not be answering—she has been known to accidentally leave the phone off the hook. The next morning, I awaken uncharacteristically early. Immediately I dial Mrs. P’s phone; no answer. Nick calls his former sister-in-law, Margaret, and another family friend, Nancy Lee. Together they go to Mrs. P’s, as they have a key to her apartment. They find her, still in her bathrobe, on the bed. Mrs. P’s death leaves a void in my life that has yet to be filled and never will be. During her memorial, I am one of the eulogists. As I walk to the podium, my mind flashes back to that horrible social studies class when I was 14. None of that matters anymore. Before a chapel packed with mourners, I tell my favorite Mrs. P stories with ease (see the video clip of my eulogy, below). I talk about the unique relationship she and I had, and my heart is full of loss and gratitude.
Age 49: The year before, I'd faced one of the biggest challenges of my adult life: My sisters and I had to move our mother, against her will, out of the home she’d lived in for nearly 50 years, due to her advancing dementia. And so, at age 49, I join a therapy group. I'm fearful of doing it, and yet, I knew I had to. It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Every week, for the following five years, I learn a little more about how to undo the old behaviors I developed when I was younger—things that protected me then but got in my way now. I learn how to be vulnerable in front of others (not easy for me to do, when I had to present the strongest possible façade to survive my teenage years).
|With my sweet (and feisty) mother, 2007|
Since I was 49, my life has been filled with many positive changes. After all those years, my love for theater was rekindled during a trip to New York when I was 50. Since then, I’ve written a full-length play and have had, to date, four productions of my short plays. A fifth one is scheduled this April. I co-authored a book for Random House. I started this blog and have met many fabulous people through it. My relationship with Nick grows stronger and deeper every day. I am blessed with loving friends and family.
Having turned 55 this week, days after seeing 56 Up, I couldn't help but look back at where I've been, and ahead to where I may be going. Have I become a different person throughout my own seven-year intervals? In some ways, yes. But in a sense, everything that’s happened has helped me return to the seven-year-old I once was: a boy full of hope and without fear, a kid who sprawled out on the floor drawing for hours, contentedly lost in a world of his own making.
What would your version of 56 Up look like?