Suggested Song: Downtown Train, Tom Waits
Suggested Drink: Thurston Howl, rum, brandy, gin, pineapple and grapefruit juices. (to sooth those weathered pipes)

I’ve wanted to be rock star since I was young. I gave it the old college try as a teen, then surrendered to the odds and went off to college. But I never gave up on the dream. I kept on writing music and making bedroom demos through my 20s, and recorded a proper studio album in my 30s. It was a decent effort, but my voice just didn’t have that edgy rock n roll bark that I so loved hearing in the greats: Daltrey, Waits, Cobain, Bon Scott. I couldn’t find my howl.

A lot of us are inspired but mediocre at things we really love, particularly when we’re young. Passion and effort aren’t always enough, unfortunately. But there are plenty of examples of mediocrity flowering into something truly special in later years. Consider Czech composer Leos Janacek. He penned a respectable piece at 22 in the late 1800s, and then spent his next 30 years mostly doing folklore research. Janacek kept plugging away in his spare time but didn’t find real renown until 62, with the completion of his opera Janufa, to be followed by Sinfonietta and then many other classics.

Why his later-in-life bloom? Maybe he finally had time on his hands to immerse more deeply, or it was the continued honing of his talent, or the inspired provocation drawn from his ache for the beautiful Kamila, married and 35 years younger, for whom he took a hard tumble just about the time Janufa was in work. Love bloomed, he soared, the rest is for us to enjoy.

Another good example is Charles Bukowski. At 24 his “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” got published to some decent reviews. Then he went on a prolonged bender and deep dive into the seedier side of life. Like Janacek, Bukowski kept at his craft but had little to show for it. His real break through came at 51 with “Post Office,” which he wrote in 3 weeks after quitting the Postal Service in LA as a carrier. (I picked up a copy at City Lights in SF earlier this year. What a great read.)

I was at a Chagall exhibit in Aix-en-Provence last week, at the beautiful Hôtel Caumont in the center of town. Chagall established himself as a transcendent and successful painter early in life, and unlike Janacek and Bukowski kept the acclaim rolling. But what I admire most about Chagall is his leap into distinctly different and challenging forms of art in his later years: ceramics and stone sculpture and stained glass, starting in his mid 60s. You think I’m this, but now I’m that. Allez allez, keep up!

Maybe you’re in your 50s or older and thinking that the window of passion possibilities has long closed. That comes down to the commitment you are ready to make and embarrassment you are willing to suffer. But who cares about embarrassment? No one will say at your funeral, yeah she was great at X but really embarrassed herself at that Y thing she so loved. No, a best friend or sibling or child will say that you had a real passion for Y and immersed yourself deeply in it. You will produce something authentic that people will either embrace or reject, but everyone will respect the effort.

I went back into the recording studio last year with a binder full of songs and a talented bunch of musicians. A new album after a 25-year pause, this was my Janacek moment in more ways than one.

Why now? My confidence was buoyed by the inspired material and quality of the crew, but more than that my voice had taken on, finally, enough gravel to sing what I wanted to hear. Age and more than a few Bukowski evenings had lined those silky pipes with a rough patina of smoky leather. It just wasn’t my time at 30. It might be now. I’ve found my howl.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Wall of Death, Richard & Linda Thompson
Suggested Drink: a frothy pint of Guinness. Let the toasts begin.

I was in Nashville last week for a funeral and had been invited to say a few words on behalf of my family. This kind of duty can make people squirm. To be honest I don’t mind it. It provides a rare chance to reconnect with that soulful raconteur within, a genetic companion from my paternal grandfather, who was an Irish preacher of the good word.

Toasts spill out with ease, but eulogies can be tough to get right when the material is thin. This was not the case in Nashville. In fact my challenge was less what to say and more what to leave out. For my oldest sister had suddenly departed a life of beautiful breadth and depth. She was a traveler and seeker, a generous giver and curious student, strong when strength was needed, vulnerable when our own failings were being shared.

Life is short so enjoy it now.

This popular call to carpe diem always gets a good airing at funerals and wakes. It never quite hit the intended mark for me.

Life is short. Not necessarily. All that we know for sure is that none of us have any idea for sure. Children die unexpectedly and wrinkled up folks live past 100 and most of us get plunked down somewhere in between.

I never heard my grandmother Magill say life was short. For her, life was one long adventure. She escaped the crossroads of a Pennsylvania village and ventured off to college at the dawn of the Roosevelt era – Teddy that is – when a woman’s place was well understood: hands on the pot and babies on the hip. Work and wonder would carry her on to Puerto Rico, up to Manhattan (where a degree from Columbia was added), down to deep, deep Alabama, and then overseas to the Egyptian Sudan where she married my grandfather; the one and the same mentioned above.

Grammy lived to 100 and my sister to 67. I lost a close childhood friend at 19. We can’t waste time trying to size up our allotted sand in the hourglass. Life is unpredictable. Isn’t the key to get in a grand story worth sharing?

Enjoy it now. I don’t propose suffering now, but there is more to life than margaritas deck-side. If we want our eulogists’ writing assignment to be easy then we need lead lives worth retelling. And we’re all going to have someone retelling our stories, right? No one gets out of here alive.

So my point is this: go bold, go deep, do it now. Your remaining days may not be short. You may have decades left to create a magic that reflects all the best of your gifts and passions. Then again, you may have one more day. Be the author of the narrative you want delivered on that sunny day in the chapel, or it may fall to someone much less vested in making you sound amazing. Offer a highlight reel that can’t be cut and cropped; one that keeps everyone roused and laughing between tears.

Put a pint in my hand and I’ll stay full of barley-inspired toasts to you for many a round. But if you want deeper reflections on a life that truly mattered, that left everyone who knew and touched you in a better place, take the leap now. Uncover, develop, and share that bold gift as only you can.

Dedicated to J. Catherine. You made my job so easy sister.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

 

 

Suggested drink: Champagne (your favorite, it’s the holidays!)
Suggested song: You Get What You Give, The New Radicals

What is your big gift for the holidays? No, I don’t mean what are you getting, I mean what are you offering? We each have a special gift and an obligation to share it with the world. I believe this, do you?

The self-improvement aisle is lined with books on finding purpose in life. The authors treat its fulfilment as a key to happiness and benefit to you, the seeker. But isn’t it more importantly your obligation? If you’re like me you’ve sucked a hell of a lot more out of this world than you’ve put back: a half-life of durable and consumable stuff, art straw-artand music, food and wine, the love and generosity of others, …everything that nourished your life and gave it definition. Now is the time to reverse the net flow.

It’s an ugly, uncertain time we live in today where ignorance is celebrated and consumerism is king. Bigger, faster, harder, wrapped in a tidy bow of obliviousness. These hallmarks of the moment will end soon enough, one through the will of the many, and one by the hammer of nature. But it won’t be pretty.

More than ever we need enlightenment and beauty to counter the tide, … and this is where your obligation begins. You have an amazing, inimitable gift to offer the world. It’s unique, a result of your one-of-a-kind DNA predisposition plus singular history of upbringing, education, experience, and personal community of friends, family, and colleagues. No one else has the exact same set of resources, skills, and interests. Align that with an ambition of deep personal meaning and you are better prepared and motivated than anyone else on this planet to do at least one incredible thing, to offer at least one amazing gift.

Sunsets are for Sissies

I wrote an essay with that title in 2015 (to read click here) in which I argued we are better prepared at 60 to pursue something truly significant and life defining than at 25. We have more time, more experience, more money, and a lot more maturity, as summed up in the following table.

age-table

If you are at midlife and considering retirement and what next?, now is not the time to downshift into a recliner by the sea, comparing daily golf scores and evening sunsets. You’re better prepared then ever to leave your mark on this world, and that’s not just a pleasant dream to imagine over icy margaritas, that’s your gift and obligation. Allez!

Suggested Song: When I’m 64, Beatles
Suggested Drink: Accelerator cocktail, cherry brandy, peppermint schnapps, vodka

It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams. – Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

porchswingsWe humans are a curious species. Half of our lives are spent developing into interesting, capable creatures. We get degrees, build careers, save money, acquire knowledge and experience, hone interests, learn from mistakes, gain compassion and learn to love. From molehill to mountain we slowly, steadily grow our possibilities and potential. And at the peak of our prowess we downshift to the “good life” and atrophy into a retiring sunset.

Wasted potential is everyone’s loss. We harangue the young about squandered time when their hourglass is mostly full, and then become the worst violators when ours is half empty. At a time when creativity in all its forms is most needed and appreciated on this planet, the surrender of our talents to the porch swing and wine cave is a communal loss.

How do we stack up at midlife against our younger selves in the capacity to achieve great things? The following table displays a brief summary.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 11.01.19

Oh to be young again, just starting out and facing adventure, pursuing such promise, the exciting unknown of the roads ahead. Most of us were balancing a host of obligations and still seeking our balance. We were finishing studies and starting careers, probably the first of a series as we pinballed through different ideas and experiences. We were discovering ourselves and uncovering new interests, but generating income was the primary concern and motivator. Time was consumed with work and kids, and the emotional child inside lingered well past the twenties (speaking for myself). Our time and resources for pursuing grand ventures outside conventional careers were limited in all manner of ways: our finances, support networks, bases of knowledge, and emotional maturity.

pool diveThese factors that hobble our passion plans start to dissipate by midlife, leaving us well armed for the pursuit of grand ambitions. Kids graduate from our daily lives at about the time our core careers are winding down, leaving us with more time, fewer distractions, and more disposable income. We have been well educated, trained and retrained through our university and working years, gained knowledge, and as importantly gained perspective and balance. Our rolodexes are full of people who can help, or people who know people who can help. At midlife we have the time and resources, the maturity and experience, and we have interests that are blossoming into real passions. This is when we retire to porch swings and sunsets?

We humans are a curious species, it is true. Our interests shift to the deep end of the pool with age, the lure of the profound not marked firstly by splashy income, but personal achievement, meaning, and the possibility of leaving something big behind. We’re taking better care of physical and emotional selves than did our parents; 60 is the new 40; interpreneurs are the new entrepreneurs. Now is the moment to accelerate into the experience, to dive deep. There will be time for sunsets down the road.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested drink: Rum punch recipe, pineapple juice, orange juice, Bambarra rum, grenadine
Suggested song: Kokomo, Beach Boys

We descended on Turks & Caicos last week to celebrate the 50th birthday of a great friend. There were 25 or so in the group, arriving in clumps as summer schedules allowed, couples and singles and kids in tow for the family few.

The Caribbean is wilting in July and between the pool and beach we were growing gills by the end of the week. Constant hydration was le rigueur, with a steady water infusion plus rotating lineup of cold Presidente beer, rosé wine and local rum punch as the sun dipped from noon to night.

conchSea life

Turks & Caicos has the third largest coral reef in the world. Its beaches have been voted the most beautiful, it’s diving the most stunning on this planet by Tripadvisor and others. The water is warm and calm and visibility exceeds 100 feet, sometimes more. Needless to say the boating and snorkelling is unforgettable.

The variety of sea life darting over and through the vibrant coral is a visual feast, from spinning swarms of tiny forage fish to solitary predators gliding majestically over the sandy floor. Blue tangs and bar jack, eagle rays and lemon sharks and barracuda, parrotfish and trumpet fish and damselfish, … and conch. Oh the conch! This large spiral sea snail is the sought-after celebrity of Turks & Caicos and served in most every eatery, as raw ceviche, over tender leaves of salad, deep fried into fritters, however you enjoy it. It’s the royal plate for the well-heeled to the flip-flopped. It’s colorful, delicious, and makes for one hell of a sea horn. Yes, by week’s end we grew gills and had conch coming out of our ears.

IMG_0229Land life

The birthday party group at Turks was as diverse as the fish in the crystalline blue sea. We were old and young, gay and straight, black and white and beige and olive, carnivores and herbivores and pescetarians, liberal and conservative, wealthy and not nearly so, some overworked and a few unemployed, flying in from all points on the globe. Among us were doctors and consultants and professionals of every stripe, restaurateurs and a bartender, jewelry shop owners and a jewelry designer, musicians and writers (who isn’t these days?), a physical therapist and a garbage man, students and grandmothers. Who am I missing?

I’m convinced that this variety was key to the unending smiles, hugs, and the warm and familial vibe of the amazing week. We open ourselves to the diversity of colors around us and our worlds become richer and vastly more fascinating. Among our immediate and extended networks, and networks beyond that, we have the diversity of the boundless sea. Why limit our reach to fish of our own color and stripe?

The merits of openness extend beyond simply more interesting rum cocktail conversation. Many of us have grand ambitions that profit from a wide spectrum of connections, experiences and advice from all walks of life and corners of the sea. Limit your network and you limit your possibilities. Teach, learn, grow, … now where’s that rum punch?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence