Every year for his birthday, I write a note to my buddy Paul K. Sloan. Paul died on the 89th floor of the South Tower, World Trade Center on 9/11/01. Usually it’s a pair of letters. The first (uncensored) is hand-written and put in the box. And the second has the good parts taken out and made suitable for publication. This year for his 40th, there’s only one letter.
40. You’re 40 today. Fuck.
At least that’s what I thought on my 40th. I did the “It’s just another day” thing in public but privately I was like, I’m so fucked. Two other thoughts occurred to me that day—and while this letter is for you/should be about you—please indulge me for a second.
- I still feel 19 but my body doesn’t. It doesn’t feel 22 either. Or 27 or even 34. It definitely feels 40.
- By 40 you should have all the shit figured out. Or at least know how to present yourself to the rest of the world that you have all the shit figured out. I mean, four fucking decades. That’s PLENTY of time to get meaningful stuff done. To go to school, get in a little trouble, have a little too much fun, make friends, lose friends, find a career, marry, travel, start a family, make a little money, give a little back, watch Vacation a bunch and figure out what the rest of your life looks like. No, it’s not check-the-boxes for everyone. Rather, everyone’s boxes are different and sometimes we don’t really know what they are till we check them. But for me I know FOR SURE while I’ve done some things I’m proud of (and other things I’m not) there’s still a lot of empty space where some of those check marks should be.
…And the reality of it is, maybe some stuff doesn’t get done, ever. Or maybe it’s time to suck it up, write it down and do it one by one.
I mention this—the second point especially—because you were infinitely better about making lists and seeing them through. You stayed organized and purpose-driven. You defied odds and completed your goals whether they were attainable or made sense or not. It was something, the main thing really, I admired about you growing up.
The truth of my end of the friendship, The Plan, was/is that I thought if I just stuck with you long enough either some of that would rub off on me or you would get to a station in life where you’d extend your hand down from the cliff’s edge and pull me up to where you were. And we could enjoy the view together.
Is that a lazy way of looking at things? Perhaps. Was I more than willing to ride your coattails anyway—or at least use your future vacation home at will? Absolutely.
One thing people looking at our relationship never really got was why you were such an apologist for me. We were young, sure, but you had to make excuses for my behavior and at the same time were very vocal when you didn’t agree with whatever-it-was that I was doing. You never threw me under the bus. You never made fun of me in a way that was demeaning or spiteful. And if you had something to say, you said it to my face.
When you died, it’s the loss of that that I felt.
I am, as ever, sickened and crippled by the way it went down. The fear and panic that must have set in when it occurred to you that you were actually not going to live through the day. No more hearing that one song for the first time. No more half-read books to recommend. No more of that odd quiet that sets in just as it starts to rain or snow. No more electric hum in your throat after the lights dim but before the first note of a concert. No more waking up next to someone you love and admiring them as they sleep. No more Sunday afternoon reading the hangover away with each section of the New York Times and watching TNT on mute before you remember to call your mother. No more of that singular, invincible rush of the time clock shaking on the near horizon as you enter the finish corral of a race.
I still double over when I imagine you realizing, “Well, this is it. This really is fucking it.” I can see you putting a dip in, tilting your head back and forcing a smile through the tears as you learn the good news is you’re about to make history. The bad news, it’s because you’re going to get murdered by an airplane. Was there a moment you closed your eyes, said a little prayer and hoped against all things physically possible that you could rewind the clock two hours and wake up once more in your studio and do it all differently? Or did you say damn, at least they could’ve let me grab lunch first.
You couldn’t undo it. None of us could. I spent years trying. Nothing. And if I’m being totally honest, it was the time to come without you that I dreaded most. That moment of panic stretched out over whatever was left of the rest of my lifetime. It still scares the shit out of me if I think about it too much.
When I say yours was a personal loss, maybe the most profound of my life, I mean it in every selfish way imaginable.
You were my North Star, my mentor, my best audience and my harshest critic. At some point, maybe four or five years after you passed, I realized you weren’t coming back. Not to this place. Not to this earth. And not to my life. And while that should’ve been an epiphany, a moment of clarity and healing and resolve—the ultimate coming to grips with reality—it simply ushered in a vaguely self-destructive phase where my hobbies included doing whatever I wanted to do and isolating myself from whomever wanted to get in the way of that.
It’s probably the point where most people get into drugs or drink all the time and soon hit rock bottom choking on their puke while writhing on some sandpaper sheets. But to me, it was more like just being a dying leaf in the early fall, disconnecting gently from its branch and slowly twisting to the ground. Then being swept up in the gutter water, flipping and churning—about to disappear down the grate. Not going out with a bang or a flourish, but just kind of this slow float along the gurgling stream. Letting it take me where it would. Where did he go? I don’t know. He just sort of vanished.
Then very recently—probably coinciding with the death of my father and birth of my son—I decided that way, while easy and not at all controversial, or meaningful, wouldn’t make you very proud. Taking that route isn’t the reason you stepped up for me so many times. Going out like that would mean I was a waste of time for you. And you were not a time-waster.
So I got back on my little leaf and started paddling upstream. Maybe I’m not in the metaphorical (or physical) gutter anymore, but I’m a long ways from where we started. Some days, I look to the top of that tree and the task of climbing back up seems impossible. And I have to do it with that much less energy, stamina, will-power and, frankly, sleep.
But I have to try.
I decided for your 40th, I’d set a few new goals. They are:
- Be a better father and partner—and not just say that. Like actually be better. Be present. Listen. Participate. Pull my head out of my ass myself when it needs a tug. Don’t make anyone else line up a team of horses to uncork it for me. Don’t just talk about it either. Fucking do it.
- Use my talent. I blog. Everyone blogs. I have three novels in various stages of completion, which means I have zero novels. But writing today isn’t just writing. It’s not just ‘putting something up’ (<-air quotes) and expecting people to hoist me on their shoulders and give it 10,000 likes and share it with all their equally bored coworkers. It’s a fucking grind. It’s playing the stupid game. It’s connecting with editors and agents—which is code for being annoying till you’re accepted. It’s submitting (and being rejected) over and over and over. I have skin the thickness of origami paper and a porcelain ego. And even when I do write something great, if one person (yes, just one) doesn’t IMMEDIATELY lavish praise, I tend to move on. That works when you’re 23 (sorta)…but now shit’s getting real. I’m convinced that most people can do what I do. Those who end up making something that lasts just have that much more dickish belief in themselves and their work. And they won’t stop till you believe it too. I need a little more of that.
- I believe that science pretty much explains everything. We live. We die. Someday, all we know and all we don’t know is going to implode and (maybe) start over with a single particle. The afterlife isn’t a thing as much as it is something we wish were a thing. HOWEVER, there is a part of me—a strange, nagging, unpopped popcorn kernel at the bottom of the bag—that believes, counter to everything that makes sense, that I’ll see you again. Maybe I feel like I’m owed that because we didn’t get to say good-bye the first time. Whatever. Laugh if you want. Tell me it’s impossible. I get it. We all have to have faith in something. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So that’s me.
As far as you go, I can’t help but wonder what it’d all be like with you still here. And before I let myself slip into that silly speculation, I want thank you for showing me how easy it is to love the departed mostly because they’re no longer around to make mistakes. You did one better and didn’t make many while you were here. You certainly didn’t choose your final act, this I know. But oh, you made it such a tough one to follow anyway. If I sound a little annoyed by that, I am. Because I know above all things, you were just a guy trying to figure it out like the rest of us guys. But there’s also this other thing. More than anyone I know, you deserved more days to show up, fuck up, make it up and then shine. And I will always, always have to bury or at least try not to misdirect the anger and guilt that comes from knowing you can’t.
By now, you’d have probably married. If your siblings are any indicator you’d have at least a couple kids in tow. I imagine you’d have made it back to the West Coast, but maybe not. Maybe you’d be in Manhattan or Boston or the Hamptons. Maybe you’d be in Texas coaching football for a junior college getting ready to make a step up. Maybe you’d be back at Brown teaching history or maybe you’d be volunteering in Novato as a Jr. Mustangs strength and conditioning coach. Who the fuck knows. I do know you’d still be a Giants fan even though you’d hate most current Giants fans. You’d still make fun of but secretly like Steely Dan. You’d still (reluctantly) crack a 40 when nobody’s looking. I don’t know much, but I know a little about how you were hard-coded.
I think for your 40th we would have raged. And by rage I mean stay up past 11 and listen to Radiohead. Then again, maybe not. I stopped by Kayser’s 40th with Robin and baby Beau a week ago and pretty much by the time we got up to wine country we were burnt and basically pulled the plug and headed back right before dinner. It was kind of a dick move, but we were in bed by like 8:30, so who’s the real winner? Again, I blame 40.
Maybe I’d have sucked it up for some kind of combo party with the two of you. Or maybe I would’ve ditched out on you guys altogether and you would’ve called me an asshole and reminded me that before I had a kid I acted like a jerk and ruined everyone’s good time by being an idiot and then as soon as I have a kid it’s like, Oh, I get it…this is hard. You liked having the difficult conversations with me.
So, yeah, Paul. Happy Birthday bro. This is your letter this year. Sorry it wasn’t better or more profound. I still talk to you like a crazy person when things get tough. I still look at the sky and yell out your name when I’m alone and the expanse seems never-ending but almost attainable. I still feel you running next to me, pushing, telling me this it, this is all I get, and maybe go a little faster.
Fuck man. It’s all bullshit, you know.
I just miss you.