Today’s post is from the “Love, Joe” newsletter I send out weekly to survivors of tragedy and those looking to know they’re not broken. I wanted to share it here, because hey, it’s my birthday and I get to do what I want on my birthday.
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“I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay…
I will sing, sing a new song.”
— U2, “40”
# 141: 40
…I guess it would have been slightly more poetic to wait a week so that newsletter #140 would coincide with my 40th birthday? Oh well, I’ve never really been much of a planner. I’m too impulsive and, frankly, would rather you have a newsletter each week than not have one, even if does lead to unceremonious numbering schemes.
At any rate, I’m 40 today. The big 4-0. The age everyone talks about being “the new 30” or “…and FABULOUS” and any other number of sayings meant to curb the sting of realizing your life is statistically half over. Everyone keeps asking me “How do you feel? Do you feel old? Has it hit you yet?”
The answers to each those questions is “Not really.”
I don’t feel old. I feel like I’ve aged, but to be absolutely frank, I’ve been through enough shit in my life starting at an exceptionally young age that my mental age exceeded 40 about 20 years ago. So the idea that my life is “half over” is actually laughable.
I’ve been physically dead four times in my life. If you start from my last near-death experience, I’m now at 200% of my proposed lifespan, and if you start from the day of my birth (when doctors had to recusitate me three times), I’m roughly 584,010% over my lifespan (584,000 days in 40 years, plus the 10 leap years I’ve lived through).
So my perspective on life and lifespans being as tilted as it is, I don’t really see 40 as some milepost on the highway of life marking how much further I have before I reach the end. I don’t really think of my lifespan in that way. It has, however, given me a really good reason to look back at the past 40 years and what I’ve been through and where I’ve come from and try to make sense of it all.
The truth: I can’t. Because none of it really makes much sense at all. If you’ve ever read Calvin & Hobbes, then this will make perfect sense: My life has essentially been one really long game of Calvinball.
I died when I was born (three times, in fact, across 14 days), due to the fact that my mother had prenatal pneumonia. I spent the first 14 days of my life in the NICU, and my parents had no insurance, so my father blamed the resulting bankruptcy due to the medical bills on me. Combined with his alcoholism, this made childhood an unbearable kind of crazy, until my mother took my sister and I away. A few years later, she gave him another shot.
It did not work out so well. So in the middle of the night after an attempt by a drunken madman to kill us, we left again and lived with my grandfather. A few years later, we met the man who would ultimately become my adopted father. We went from living in inner city Atlanta to suburban Jonesboro, and as such, went from being made fun of for being the only white kids in all-black schools to being made fun of for being the only white kids in mostly-white schools who liked “black” music, clothing and culture.
School was, in a word, weird.
In high school, amidst football and wrestling honors (and hating literally everyone on my teams), I met a few misfits who liked comics and rap music and anime and hardcore rock music and chess and video games. I’m not sure how that happened, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like an outcast. It took a bit, but by my senior year, I quit trying to fit in by buying the right clothes and wishing to be invited to the “cool” parties and ultimately turned our school on its ear when it came to what was “cool” and what was COOL. I beat up bullies and got away with it. I was able to get Akira and Ghost in the Shell added to the art class AND video production cirriculum. I want to say “I didn’t care and it was awesome” but that’s not true. I DID care. I cared about art. I cared about music. I cared about my friends and the people who were unfairly targeted for being who they are by people who got their jollies from hurting them. What I didn’t care about was being “cool.” I thought I was the super uncoolest. I thought people thought I was an idiot and a weirdo and broken in so many ways.
I had no idea then, but that was actually cool. Because I didn’t have anyone to disappoint, I was free to do what I felt was right.
College lasted a whole 6 months. I dropped out to join the dot-com rush. I figured, I could pay to learn stuff that would be out of date by the time I could use it, or I could go get paid to be a part of something I loved and believed in. That led me to one of the craziest career paths anyone in my peer group has seen. When the dotcom industry fell apart, I turned to writing. I wrote a blog in the evenings to stave off the boredom. I put out a blog-to-book. I wrote for tech and game magazines, which led to writing for news publications and op-ed spots.
The writing led to screenwriting gigs, and ultimately I got to produce shows some of the first web video channels for Turner, TechTV and Fark. That led to opportunities in advertising and studio work. I got to open my own studio in 2012, after working for Fark for 7 years.
I got really fat about halfway during that period. One day in 2007, I had a scare that made me turn my physical fitness around. I needed to lose weight and get fit. As per my usual, I needed a goal to focus on. I decided I’d walk on to a professional football team. I lost nearly 100 lbs and actually made my goals come true.
Meanwhile, my birthdays became internet-legendary for being horrifically screwed up. Besides the near-death experiences (3 the day I was born, 1 during a car crash on my 20th birthday), I had surgeries, got deathly ill, lost a lawsuit, was punched by a war protester, and ultimately found out my wife of 11 years was having an affair, all on my birthdays.
A lot of things I was doing during those years ultimately pointed to a need for external validation. I needed the world to love me, because my parents didn’t love me enough and I didn’t love myself at all. In 2011, I had a total mental breakdown and spent some days in the hospital after trying to kill myself. When I came out, I began doing serious work; work I am still doing to this day. I had to learn how to be a real person. I had to learn how to fulfill myself and find validation in my own work, thoughts, life and love. It ultimately led to the end of my marriage, as my wife who was my princess on a pedestal had come down to eye-level. She admitted that my finding myself and learning how to take care of myself made her realize how much she missed the attention, despite knowing that it was unhealthy. Ironic that she was one of the biggest motivators for me to begin that journey. She wanted me alive and healthy and safe, and I wanted to be that way for her.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to make someone else your whole life when you begin living it for yourself. And no matter how much that other person may want it for you, they’re going to feel displaced when they aren’t your sun and moon anymore.
I divorced her when she decided to have the affair. Shortly after that, my company folded due to being screwed badly by one of our clients. I lost my business, my marriage, my house, my stuff, and most of my friends in the period of about six months. Had I not had the collapse in 2011, I wouldn’t have had the tools to survive that crash in 2013. But thankfully, the work that I began doing to figure out how to live a whole life and take care of myself saved me from letting that event — without question the worst period of my life — from killing me.
I consider that the fifth death experience, because the man I was before that died in that time. Who I became out of that experience is fundamentally different. And yet, sitting here reflecting on it, I realize how much of myself I still am. I still fight bullies. I still try to help those who are in pain. I still take non-traditional paths to get places that, at the time I may not know I want to get to, but ultimately end up being exactly where I need to be. I still rise to challenges. I still refuse to let setbacks — even the ones as severe as death — stop me.
Four years to the day after finding out my wife was having an affair, and 20 years to the day after being literally killed and then brought back to life in a car crash, and 40 years after dying as an infant, I can tell you that hitting 40 isn’t even on the top 300 things I am worried about when it comes to my life.
What does worry me: The past few weeks, I’ve found myself disappearing into old escapes to cope with pain and chaos. I have this book I really want to write, and every time I sit down to work on it, panic or malaise or some other internal strife holds me back. I’ve gotten lazy in the gym. I’ve stopped challenging myself.
I think through all of the chaos of the world and in my life, I got exhausted. I yell, and no one is listening because everyone else is yelling, too. I write, and no one is reading because everyone else is writing too. I see so many things going downhill backwards at high speed in the world. In my own life, there are definitely moments where I begin realizing I’m climbing the same damn mountains I’ve already summited before, and the thought of having to go that distance all over again is not just daunting — it terrifies me.
In my career, in my fitness, in my life in general… I am scared. And it’s so much easier to be lazy and hide in video games and pizza and alcohol.
This week, something in me sparked a bit. It’s just a tiny spark, and I’m doing whatever I can to billow it into a flame. I feel it burning in me, ever so dimly and barely warm, but it’s there. The fire is so close to catching. And that’s why I’m sharing this with you today. I want to make myself accountable. I want to bring it to you and say “hey, I’m trying to make this a thing. Help me.”
For my 40th birthday, I want to give myself the gift of waking up and getting back to what I do best: making shit happen.
Sure the mountain is high and the face of it steep. But I’ve done this before. Goddammit, I can do it again.
The U2 song I quoted above has been with me most of my life. They were my first “favorite band” and remain there. So many of their songs are permanently pegged to memories in my life, and listening to them instantly brings back those memories. The song 40, however, really only meant something to me because that’s what they closed their concerts with (and I’ve seen them live literally over 100 times). So it’s always been special for that.
Some part of me has always thought that the day I turned 40, I’d listen to that song and something would ping in me. I wasn’t wrong. I’m not much for traditionally religious stuff, and the understanding I have of God isn’t one that allows for it to simply reach down and fix me. But, I do feel that we are of God, and God is in us, and to that end, I believe that through my experiences, over and over again, I was brought from the pit, out of the miry clay.
And today, I will sing a new song. And if it happens again, I’ll find a way out of THAT pit, and sing again. And again. And again.
Forever, until I’m unable.
Sing it with me.
Your quote-as-an-image of the day:
— Love, Joe
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