When I look back on this blog, I smile at the young 34-year-old me that moved to LA. I was full of it, and completely sure that I was going to conquer the world of screenwriting. I was going to write films that touched people, moved them and made them think.
My greatest hope was that one day I would be in a bar and overhear a conversation between two people about a movie that I wrote; that both had seen it, loved it for different reasons and talked about it incessantly as I listened on, a gleeful fly on a wall.
And who knows, that may still happen. But in 1996 it was the only thing that could happen that was going to bring any happiness to my life or give it any meaning.
I actually used to play this stupid game; if I was heading for a green light a long way off and I made it before it went red, it was a sign that this was my year. Three of them in a day meant an Oscar. Don’t ask me where or how I cooked up these rules. I blame my superstition on a lack of religion as I grew up.
But this is a harder game to play than you would think. The traffic lights in LA aren’t synched. So your chances of catching a green are seriously low. Driving home 5 years ago down Venice Blvd at 2am is all the evidence you need to prove this savagely poor piece of urban planning.
Anyway, lights aside, back to the meaning of life. So from 1996 – 2011 I had to be able to point at a flickering screen and say, “See, I mattered.” Nothing else was important, nothing else could be considered.
Nowadays, I have a broader view of it all. Which is to say that I have no idea of what that flickering screen is that I’m going to point at. I had something of a breakthrough, an evolution thanks to Paul, who always seems to play the more sensible side of my head.
While I was railing against the injustices of the job at Chiat that I had taken on, accusing it of every crime under the sun that it could inflict on an artist; they hijacked my life, they’re stifling my creative soul, they’re putting me through a machine etc etc . I came to the conclusion that it was one big fucking red light.
Paul was the one who pointed out that I had taken the job of my own volition. And that I stayed. So I actually, really, in some way, deep down, I wanted to be there.
After I sulked in the corner for a few hours to consider this undeniable truth, Paul also pointed out that maybe this job was a gift. Maybe it was the thing that I’d been waiting for all this time. Maybe this job or what this job could turn into was the whole reason I came to LA with a suitcase of clothes 8 years ago.
Maybe it was a metaphorical green light.
And in that stupid “catch a green” competition I played against myself, I did notice that I’d been catching more greens in the last few years. Maybe Paul was right. The lights certainly were.
2013 was actually the first year since I landed in La-La that I hadn’t had my dark April 4th celebration/flagellation. That was the day I set foot here for the first time in 2006, and it’s passing was a time to think about what a failure I was that I hadn’t had a single movie made. Like Scarlett O’Hara holding a handful of earth to the sky, I’d promise myself by April 4th next year I’d be shooting something. But despite my best efforts, April 4th would roll round to laugh at my empty-handed self again. Because the thing that I’d been waiting for hadn’t happened. Every April 4th was red light day.
This year however, it came and went unnoticed, as unremarkable and remarkable as a normal day can be.
So now I stare into the depths of the future with a warm, patient reserve; I’m on the right path, I don’t know where it goes, but to be OK with the not knowing makes me feels more like I am in control. Fuck the lights, I don’t have the wheel.
Now that I’m in my 40s, I do wonder though, what is the thing that I’m going to leave behind? I’ve heard a lot of my straight male friends talk about having to go through this process when they have their first kid, or when a parent dies. Neither’s likely to happen to me anytime soon but at what might be close to the halfway point of my life, I wonder when I’m gone if anyone will know that I was here. Maybe that’s an orange light.
So here’s a story about a legacy.
I know a man called Ed. I don’t know him well. I only met him once. But he was a great friend to Paul, something of a father figure. And in our early days of dating, Ed was a man writ large on Paul’s past and present as we revealed all the ugly secrets about ourselves to each other and the people who helped make us better versions of ourselves. I loved Ed before I ever met him.
Ed had been a brilliant computer designer. In fact something that you’re using right now might have a lot of Ed in it. He was in Silicon Valley working with Microsoft. He was a Jobs or an Ive before being a computer guy was cool in way, shape or form.
The other thing that he excelled at was drinking. He was kind of a genius at it. And like all brilliant drinkers, it was the thing that derailed him.
You’ve heard this part of the story many times before; loses his job, loses his family, loses his house, loses his friends, loses his clothes, loses himself. Ends up living under a bridge, drunk on anything he could get his hands on. I’ve never even seen a red light like that. I don’t even know what it looks like. And I hope to God that none of you ever have or ever do.
But then he got sober, got a place to sleep, got a job, got friends, got a life.
If I’d been through that, just the fact that I was breathing and looked like I was normal again would have been enough for me. Maybe I’ll be someone in my next life.
But Ed didn’t stop there. A man as smart as that made his intelligence and bluntness felt everywhere. Paul met him around this time and they forged a friendship that I can only say I admire. To say that you came to this earth, crashed and burned, and then rose to be loved again, that would be enough. For me anyway, I wouldn’t want to ask for anything more, I’d be too afraid.
So, one day Ed was waiting for a friend at a government office somewhere and to pass the time, he took an aptitude test that was kicking around.
He filled it out, handed it in, picked up his friend and thought nothing else of it.
Until the phone rang one day.
It was a guy from the government. Apparently Ed had scored off the charts. Literally. No one had every made the score he made. Not even the smart people who designed the test.
He was offered, make that begged, to take any problem he saw with the city and fix it up.
Ed chose the traffic lights.
Ed sat down, took the whole of the county’s and different cities’ grids apart, wrote entire new algorithms to connect them all and reprogrammed LA’s traffic system. An old guy who’d been living under a bridge.
Now LA’s a bitch. And even he complained that he couldn’t make all of it fit together the way he wanted. But when the city pushed the button on Ed’s programming about 5 years ago, LA flowed better for it.
Millions of people all over this strange little city by the sea woke up one day and got to work easier, didn’t have accidents, felt less stress, spent more time with the people they loved.
Ed’s the reason I caught more greens. Ed’s the reason I met the man I live with. Ed’s the reason that everything is just a little bit better in LA.
If you asked Ed when he was inventing computer systems at aged 25 what his legacy would be, I don’t think revamping the world of traffic lights would have been his first thought.
But it’s been the most lasting.
Catching all those greens made me a lucky man. Maybe lucky enough that something I haven’t even conceived of yet might touch a few million people and make their lives better.
So as you’re driving around LA enjoy that next green light, tip your hat to Ed, and know that you’re going to leave something important behind too. Probably the last thing you can think of.