I am in a cult.
Not one with an Indian twist, nor a homegrown one full of fervid believers waiting for a modern-day Shabtai Tzvi to fly us all to a New Jerusalem. No, my cult is more like that of those UFO suicides in Rancho Santa Fe waiting for the spaceship to take them away to a far better place.
My cult is called Hollywood.
Listen. Look closely. Around the city, rolling out of bed as noon creeps across La Brea, the cultists rise — stumbling toward acting classes, to one-minute voice auditions, which take an hour of driving to reach. Sobbing over laptops at Borders, destroying cinematic lives only to revive them by the third act, hoping an element (translation: producer/director/star who counts) might catch sight out of the corner of his eye and ask, “say, what’s that you’re writing?” Meeting with closed-lipped French financiers, droll bondsmen or 26-year-olds with Mammon shining from under their clipped fingernails like Kohanim stocking the effulgence of God.
We type, emote, pitch, hype and train with all our hearts and all our souls and all our beings, hastening that redemptive moment when the spaceship will descend from the Studio Tower and lift us up out of our middle class lives into the Empyrean. It happened to Lana Turner. It happened to the guys who created South Park. It could happen to you.
The realization that Los Angeles is a big, sprawling Spaceship Cult came to me during one of those “Why I Hate This Town” discussions. An actor friend, moving back to Manhattan, complained to me that relationships here just didn’t seem real.
I know the malady. It’s part of being in the cult, like wearing orange shirts. In Los Angeles, appointments are not permitted to be fixed. Instead, they hover, jittery and tentative. Commitments break. Conversations begin on the fly and end in call-waiting beeps or sprints to flashing parking meters. Friends fade in and out of focus, as those whom we swore were intimates now cast their eyes on the next table, where the people carry a better class of cell phone.
And so I hugged my pal and packed him off, mulling the effect my cult was having on my life. I was wondering (again) how healthy this city is for me when my Sunday New York Times arrived with its revelatory special magazine issue — “Money on the Mind.” In one article, a cognitive therapist who specializes in such things, remarks on my generation of “money obsessives,” who he describes as often being “messianics who believe they were put on earth to achieve wealth and distinction.” So! Those of us in Entertainment L.A., as the X-Filiacs say, are not alone.
It’s a generation thing. We late boomers work not for the next world but for the next million. Messianic release has shrunk from the world-historical to the quarterly financial. Beam us up, Alan Greenspan. These days, being in your 30s and not being a millionaire seems somehow irresponsible. Hollywood, the insinuation of the lottery mentality, and especially this bull market have conspired to recklessly ratchet up the bar for our already vaulting ambitions.
In the reigning cult, the present is no longer good enough. The future is where it’s at, baby. Just one more script. One more 20-bagger stock pick. Don’t get too comfortable, dude, ’cause we’re on the way up and out. Bellevue, Wash. Deer Valley, Utah. Nirvana.
Everybody is always already leaving.
But I turned 37 this summer, and my desire to stay is beginning to outstrip my desire to leave. Maybe it’s seeing the baby fat on my son’s stomach contract into hard muscle — or that I can already hear his voice calling “so long, Dad!” as he heads off to Harvard (11 years from now). Maybe it’s that I’ve bought a house and a minivan. Maybe it’s genetic programming — but today, I want today.
I had heard the wisdom in my youth, best put by two of my favorite strains of eastern religion, Zen Buddhism (“The key to enlightenment — when you walk, walk. When you eat, eat.”) and Jewish Hippie Buddhism (“Be here now!”). And in my sojourns in the world of Yeshiva, I came to understand that brachot, a hundred daily blessings, could theoretically root one firmly in a connoisseurship of the present by focusing one’s attention and appreciation of the world before us. Intellectually, I got it, but I always had one eye on the material prize that was my American Jewish Boy birthright — a prize that resided firmly in the future.
Careening toward 40, I find it harder and harder to convince myself that I don’t reside there with it, and worse — I may never!
For the first time, I’m getting comfortable with the idea of staying put. I reach out to my neighbors a little more even as they race by in their 4x4s, their UV1,000,000 sunglasses apparently filtering me out along with those bad solar rays. I tend my garden for my pleasure rather than merely as a clever real estate enhancing ploy. I take classes that I would have labeled self-indulgent a year ago. And I put away the act breakdowns and network notes on Shabbat.
I figure I’m roughly halfway through with life, if everything goes well. And if the spaceship comes — whether it launches from Andromeda, or in the form of a check from Michael Eisner’s vast treasury, or as even as the seed of the House of David — I want it to find me living, not waiting.
Adam Gilad lives and writes in Topanga. If you see him waving in the road, please don’t run him over. He can otherwise be reached at AGGPRODS@aol.com