How I Learned the American Dream is Just an Illusion
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
"UNPLUGGED" - CHAPTER TWO
Beginning July 25, I will release a new chapter from my book, Unplugged: Awakening to a World of Illusions, in a serialized format to my subscribers on a weekly basis. Subscribe here for the next installment.
"The reason they call it the American Dream
is because you have to be asleep to believe it."
— George Carlin
The world doesn’t make much sense to most people anymore.
If you ask them when it all started, they’ll probably point to the Coronavirus pandemic and the chaos from the lockdowns, or the drama from the 2020 presidential election. Some people may even mark 2016, the year Donald Trump seized the White House, as the start of our collective descent into madness. But that’s not the way it happened for me. Ten years ago I felt the world slipping into insanity.
I might have plugged along a lot longer, not paying much attention to the fact that the world was going to hell in a dump truck, if my own life hadn’t started falling apart. I guess we can look the other way when the plumbing breaks in a neighborhood on the other side of town, but when pipes start rupturing in our own home, we have to sit up and pay attention. When I felt myself rupturing inside, I decided to pay attention -- and when I looked closer, I could see why it was happening. The way I was making a “living” was killing me.
Speaking of what I do for a “living,” I’m an entertainment lawyer. That may sound exciting and even kind of glamorous, but it’s not. It’s just another hustle. Life in Hollywood has always been a hustle, but ten years ago I could see it was getting a lot worse. That’s when a low-level panic started seeping into the business. Companies desperately positioning themselves for an uncertain new media landscape, feverishly consolidating and cutting budgets. No one knew when the next “restructuring” was going to shake them out. No matter what title we had or how much money we made, no one felt secure. We were all low-hanging fruit, ripe to be plucked.
The last fifty years have taught me that we can do things that don’t make sense, and tell ourselves that they do, for months. Maybe even a lifetime. But the moment we get clarity and see that we’re rushing headlong down a path that leads to a dead end, we only have two choices: keep moving in the same direction, slip into denial, and implode; or acknowledge what’s happening, turn around, and save ourselves. I reached that crossroads a decade ago. That’s when I decided to turn around and save myself.
But that was just the beginning of a long journey. Because in the process of trying to save myself, I discovered why the world was spinning out of control.
Awakening To The Illusion
I spent my life chasing the American Dream I thought would lead to a better life.
I was born into a solidly middle-class family in the 1960s, when education was widely viewed as the ticket to “success.” My parents sacrificed to send me to a prep school in southern California, and I leapfrogged to an Ivy League college and law school, believing that jumping through the “right” hoops, especially the highest ones, would reward me with a fulfilling career and financial security. I worked hard and followed the rules.
But somewhere along the way, while I was busy jumping through hoops, the American Dream I had been chasing quietly faded to black. And I hadn’t noticed.
Historian James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” in his 1931 tome The Epic of America to describe “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Back then, the American Dream was a carrot-on-a-stick that enticed white men, but in the decades that followed any red-blooded American with an ounce of spunk and imagination could chase it. Even a little black girl like me, growing up in L.A. in the 70s in the wake of the Watts riots, could dream.
I grew up believing that success was within anyone’s reach. If we came from a lower-class family, we dreamed of moving to the middle-class, and if we started out in the middle-class, we dreamed of moving to the upper class. Even if we started out in the upper class, we still dreamed, because we could always do better. That was the tried-and-true formula: work hard, build on what you’re given, then pay it forward.
I even worked in an industry built on dreams. Hollywood lures people from all walks of life with the promise of success. I surrounded myself with people who pursued a “better” and “richer” life so relentlessly that it became an addiction. We used screens and devices to project our own desires onto others, embedding the Dream into the American psyche. We kept the hunger alive.
Believing in the Dream got me to buy into the System and play along, even when it meant making painful choices and sacrificing things I could never recover. I was convinced that one day all the craziness I put up with would pay off, if I just hung in. But the day I realized that my life had stopped making sense, I was forced to ask myself if it was worth it to keep hanging in. That’s when I decided to take a closer look at the American Dream I was chasing — what it was intended to be, what I had expected it to be, and how it was working out for me.
It turns out that Adams’ didn’t believe the Dream was about making money or socio-economic advancement; it was about improving the quality of one’s life. Adams believed the promise of America was much more than “material plenty” and that getting “stuff” shouldn’t come at the expense of our humanity, spirituality, and morality. Against the backdrop of the greed and exorbitance of the 1920s that would ultimately lead to the Great Depression, The Epic of America was an ominous warning that in their single-minded pursuit of a better lifestyle, many Americans were neglecting to live.
When I looked at my own life, I realized I had been focused on the “better” and “richer” parts of the Dream, grinding away hours to make as much money as possible, but I hadn’t worked nearly as hard to make my life “fuller.” I had more education than my parents and the kind of an income that gave me a nice home, guaranteed I always had enough food in the fridge, and allowed me to be an early adopter of the coolest gadgets. But it was debatable whether my life was more satisfying than my parents,’ and I was definitely lagging in the spiritual development department.
But when I pulled focus, I could see that the Dream wasn’t just failing me. I didn’t know anyone who was actuallyliving the life they were so busy chasing. Everyone was being squeezed, working longer and harder to keep what they had and losing hope of any chance to pay their “success” forward to their kids. We were all running faster just to keep up, as if someone had quietly ticked up the speed on our economic treadmills and added time to our workouts.
One afternoon in the spring of 2010, after a phone call with a client, I woke up to the reality of what my life had become. That’s when it all came to a head and everything changed.
Tired Of Dealing With This Shit
I had just gotten off the phone with Drake, a creative executive at VH1, the cable network I had worked at since 2003. Like everyone else who was paid to do what he did, Drake was just fighting to get his mind-numbing shows on the air in a business littered with mind-numbing shows. I could smell his fear and desperation, even over the phone.
Drake had called to see if I had gotten a talent agreement signed so he could start production on a pilot on Monday. But it was 7:30 on Friday evening, and he was running out of time. He didn't care that the actor’s lawyer had lied and told me he would sign, then decided to hold out for more money because he was the star of the show. He didn’t care that I had been stalking the lawyer all day, and he wasn’t returning my calls or emails. All that mattered was that what Drake needed done hadn’t been done yet.
“If we don’t have that guy on set Monday, I’m fucked,” Drake said.
I remained calm, because that’s what I was paid to do: focus, maintain and problem-solve while people around me freaked out.
“I don’t know what else to do at this point,” I said, “except maybe camp out on his lawyer’s house with the agreement.”
Drake gave this some thought. “Huh. That’s an idea. You got an address?” His voice was deadpan.
For a few moments, there was awkward silence as I stared at the phone. “He knows I’m joking, right? He doesn’t seriously expect me to wait on the dude’s porch, does he?”
Finally, Drake sighed. “Okay, I’ll call the agent to see if he can apply pressure.” He paused, then added wryly: “Hope you weren’t planning on doing anything else this weekend.”
And just like that, Drake had casually reminded me that his problem was now my problem. My problem because my family was still patiently waiting to have dinner with me at the end of a long day. My problem because in between spending my precious free time with them I would have to find time to play games with a slippery lawyer who was holding our production hostage.
This is the way I’d lived this way for years: jumping whenever anyone called, being hounded to make things happen that I had no control over, channeling stress that others passed along to me, dealing with personalities that danced on the razor’s edge of psychopathy. But it felt different this time, and the moment I hung up I realized why. Like a camel burdened by the weight of one too many straws, I could feel my back breaking. I was losing the energy to keep jumping on command and putting my life on hold to deal with other people’s irrelevant-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things-shit.
I was done.
It had taken many years for the straws to accumulate. Once upon a time, jumping had come easily; I had played these annoying games with the greatest of ease. Once upon a time, I had found it mildly entertaining to deal with crazy people, filing the experiences away as anecdotes shared over lunch or drinks: “Oh, he’s so fucking nuts! You won’t believe what he did to me on our last deal.” Chuckle, chuckle, wink, wink.
Back then I had been a different person: young, single, and devoid of any responsibility or passion outside of my work. A fully-stocked fridge meant a week’s worth of Lean Cuisines and a bottle of Chardonnay. Leaving the office at seven o’clock was an “early” night. I brought my Blackberry with me everywhere I went -- to the bathroom and even the Stairmaster – so I could stay on top of every email and reassure the people I worked with that I was a team player, willing to sacrifice anything just to succeed.
My job was my life, and my life was my job.
But that changed when I actually “got a life,” when I fell in love with my life partner, Lisa, and we adopted our son, Morgan. Having a family profoundly transforms us in ways we don’t realize, sometimes until years later. The experience brought a new dimension to my life and gave me a reason to get up in the morning, beyond picking up a paycheck or receiving the obligatory email for a job well done. It gifted me with a sense of balance and forced me to stop normalizing the insanity of a life in perpetual motion. It forced me to “re-set” my priorities and stop jumping whenever the phone rang or a frantic email hit my inbox; to stop listening absently to what people were saying to me as my hand crept to a nearby device, or my mind drifted to what was waiting for me on my desk. Having a family forced me to remind myself, over and over, “Even if other people think this is a normal way to move through the world, I know it’s not normal.”
The natural progression of life is a shifting of gears that brings us to a higher elevation, when the unhealthy things that once seemed normal to us somehow become unbearable. As we move higher, we can see how far we’ve come and who we used to be. And we wonder how we could possibly have lived a life “down there, that way” for so long. It’s a shift that most of us make, gradually, as we age into our careers, and if we do it right the shift is seamless; our gears don’t grind.
But after my call with Drake, I realized my gears were grinding — hard. I’d been trying to reach a higher elevation, but the increasing demands of my career were making it almost impossible to gain any altitude. The violent grinding of gears and the sense that my engine might stall and strand me at an unbearably low elevation was what finally forced me to acknowledge that my life made no damn sense anymore.
It was a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee-burning moment that would yield a series of other revelations and prompt me to embark on a journey that would lead me, like breadcrumbs on an unmarked path, to the Veil. During my journey, I would learn that the American Dream is just one of many illusions I had embraced all my life. And with each step I took towards the Veil, I came closer to seeing more of them.
The Veil hides many things from all of us. What it hid from me for so long was that the American Dream wasn’t something I had been living; it was more like a coma from which I was slowly awakening.
We Make More Money Than Our Parents,
But We’re Not Doing As Well As Our Parents
I used to feel guilty for questioning the kind of life I was leading and whether I was happy leading it, because people with my income are supposed to be thankful for our success and proud of what we’ve accomplished. But the day I decided to save myself, I realized I was done with guilt.
I was earning more than 97% of Americans and seven times more than the combined income of my parents when they were my age, which put us in the upper-middle-class. But when I took a deep-dive into our finances, I could see that these numbers missed the big picture: we weren’t holding onto most of our income – not because we were living “large” or because we were poor money managers. It was happening because of something that politicians never mention when they’re running for office and pundits never discuss when feigning concern for the impending extinction of the middle-class.
The problem was purchasing power.
It hit me one Saturday morning when I checked our bank account and noticed that half the money from my Friday paycheck had already been drained for pre-authorized debits. So Lisa and I decided to do the responsible thing: tighten our budget. We sat down and made a list of how much we were paying for the things we needed to live and how much we were spending on frivolous stuff. That’s when I realized something that had eluded me for most of my working life: the number of dollars in our bank account wasn’t what mattered most; what mattered was how much we could buy with those dollars, and the dollars in our pockets were buying a whole lot less than they did for our parents. They weren’t even buying as much as the dollars I’d earned a few years earlier.
And that’s what led to my first a-ha! moment: if the money I was making wasn’t going as far, then getting more of it merely created the illusion of wealth. The idea that more money = more wealth was the foundation of the scheme that had kept most Americans in a coma for decades, convincing us to break our backs to “get ahead” when the best that most of us could hope to do was keep up with the cost of living. Inflation has been with us for decades, but policymakers and media pundits have always ignored how bad it really is. (That’s changed since the Coronavirus pandemic because inflation is almost impossible to ignore now. But we’re still not talking about what’s really causing it. In Chapter Ten we’ll get into why our money isn’t buying as much as it used to. There’s a lot more to this story than you might think).
The more money = more wealth illusion had led to a stealth “re-branding” of the classes.
Recent studies have found that fewer Americans hold rank in the middle class, although many in the trenches realized this a long time ago without the benefit of academic research. But there’s an uglier truth economic “experts” don’t acknowledge: the entire class structure has completely shifted over the last half century. Fifty years ago, pole vaulting into the middle-class meant earning enough money to cover all basic living expenses, owning a home in a decent neighborhood, providing a college education for our kids, having a decent rainy day savings, and eventually retiring.
But that’s not how so-called middle-class families lives today. Most can barely make ends meet, struggle to keep a roof over their heads, can't afford to send their children to college, and have no shot at retirement. Fifty years ago, these people would have been part of the lower class, but now they’ve been upgraded to the middle class. And the people who can still manage to own a home in a decent neighborhood, send their kids to college, and save any money for retirement? They’ve been upgraded to the upper middle class. That's how stealth class re-branding works.
On paper, our income technically made us part of the “upper middle class,” but that was only because we needed an upper middle-class income to match the quality of life our middle-class parents had. Whether it was a car repair, filling up at the gas station, a co-pay for a doctor’s visit, a night out at a decent restaurant, tickets to a movie, groceries, or clothes, it had all become sooo expensive over the past few decades, and especially the past few years. We never gave much thought to how fast money was leaving our pockets because we always had just enough coming in, but we were missing the bigger picture: we never had much money left.
Housing seemed to be the biggest culprit of class slippage. Armed with an upper-middle-class income, we wouldn’t come close to affording the Southern California home Lisa’s middle class parents purchased in Santa Barbara for $55,000 in the 1960s and had recently sold for a whopping two million dollars. Although the real estate market has gone parabolic in the wake of the pandemic, the signs of housing crisis were all around us decades before the country locked down; they just weren’t as obvious. But that’s the purpose of illusions: they hide problem so we don’t focus on them. By the time most of us see what’s really happening, it’s too late to take action.
Housing wasn’t the only thing keeping us from matching the quality of life the prior generation had taken for granted; we paid dearly for organic groceries (translation: the GMO-and-pesticide-free fruits and veggies our parents were able to buy on a fraction of our income). Lisa and I wanted to send Morgan to the schools we’d attended, but tuition had jumped ten-fold. Our folks had retired comfortably with pensions and Social Security, but any shot we had at retirement would be tied to a menopausal stock market that seemed to crash every ten years.
And then there were taxes.
No one wants to make a stink about paying taxes because we feel obligated to contribute to the System, and we feel guilty if we complain. As long as we’re not wondering where our next meal is coming from and we can put gas in our cars without breaking a sweat, we’re conditioned to pay and keep quiet. Don’t get me wrong; I care about my country and my community, and I think people with higher incomes should pay more taxes. But the whole tax set-up was starting to feel funky to me, and when I pulled focus I was able to pinpoint where the funkiness was coming from.
The government seemed more concerned with taking from my paycheck and less concerned with how much it was leaving me to live on. Whenever my salary went up, it was always less than the actual increase in the cost of living – sometimes a lot less – yet the I.R.S. expected me to fork over the same amount (if not more) for taxes. It was like being in a vise, relentlessly squeezed from both ends.
When I looked beyond my bubble, I could see the situation was much worse for people who made less than I did. The twenty-something assistants in my office who struggled to pay student loans and hang on to apartments hit with regular rent hikes were lucky to see near-invisible pay bumps every other year. Whether we were Gen-Xers or Millennials, we were in more or less the same boat: taxes seemed to be completely disconnected from the reality of how expensive it was getting to maintain our standard of living.
But what bothered me most was the fact that I couldn’t see where my tax dollars were going. If we had lived in Europe or Canada, I could have rationalized handing over half of my income for universal health care, subsidized college tuition, childcare, paid sick leave, and the other yummy perks in those countries. Yet in the U.S., we had to find room in our budget to pay for all those things ourselves after taxes, even as the cost of living raced up each year.
Our tax dollars were supposed to support critical infrastructure, but public schools were failing, and streets, bridges, and power grids were decaying. The government services that were likely to provide the most bang for my buck – Medicare and Social Security — were ones I’d have to wait thirty years to enjoy (if they managed to survive that long).
The government was draining trillions in tax dollars from our pockets, leaving us with less to live on each year, and yet the country was in piss poor condition. So where the hell was all the money going?
I Don’t Have Time To Enjoy What I’m Working So Hard To Get
It wasn’t just getting more expensive to live; it was getting harder to earn the money we needed to live.
The hours I spent in the office had gotten a lot longer since I entered the workforce twenty years earlier. Projects were coming faster than I could keep up with them, my days were filled with meetings where a lot was discussed butnot much was accomplished, and I spent more time eating lunch in my office or skipping it altogether. I was losing vast amounts of time. Time to spend with my family, read a good book, linger in a bath, exercise, sleep more than six hours, play games with my son, count the stars at night, connect with my partner and contemplate our journey together, hang out with friends who were on the same journey, and spend with my parents on the final leg of theirs.
Most importantly, I didn’t have time to think because I spent most of my waking hours trying to acquire the thing that was supposed to make my life “better”: money.
Nearly every second of my day was accounted for, an incessant busy-ness that my dad, who had always prided himself on working hard, couldn’t begin to wrap his head around. Sometimes he would call as I was rushing to put Morgan to bed and catch me for a “conversation snack” (because that’s all it really was; I didn’t have time for a full-on conversation).
“Hey dad, what’s up?”
“We hadn’t heard from you in a few days. Just checking in to see how you’re doing.”
“Things are great.” (Who was I kidding?) “How’s mom?”
“She’s good. You should give her a call —”
“Yep, totally on my to-do list for this weekend. But I can’t talk now, sorry. Just got home from work.”
“Seems like all you do is work,” my dad would say, trying to hide the concern in his voice. “Don’t you ever stop?”
“Doesn’t seem like much of a life.”
Tell me about it, I would think to myself.
It was a Cats In The Cradle moment on steroids.
When I was a kid in the ‘70s my parents got home from work by five o’clock, we ate dinner by six, and my dad read to me in bed by seven. Thirty-five years later, everything had been pushed back a couple of hours. I was lucky to be home by seven-thirty, dashing in to catch the last bits of dinner with my family, and I did most of my reading to our son on the weekends. Sometimes, on my after-dark commute home, I would look at my reflection in the rearview mirror and think, “Damn, there are only twenty-four freaking hours in the day. How many more of them am I going to have to give up? What’s life going to look like for Morgan when he’s my age? Where in God's name does this end?”
Everyone I knew was quietly working themselves to death.
I heard heartbreaking stories from colleagues of part-time relationships with children, offspring seen for minutes over breakfast and moments before bedtime. We weren’t just grinding away in the office; smartphones guaranteed that when we left work, we never really left work. I “rolled” calls during my commute home and checked emails when I sat down for dinner. And the emails would keep coming. In the morning, I would see exchanges between colleagues after midnight and wonder, “WTF, don’t these people ever sleep? Do I work with vampires?”
A life in perpetual motion put strain on my relationship with Lisa. Sometimes she would catch me picking up my Blackberry at dinner and complain that I wasn't “present.” I was with her, but I wasn’t “with” her.
“Please put that thing down!” she would implore. “Can’t you make time to eat dinner with us?”
“Babe, it’s dinner time for everyone else on this chain, and I’m the only one who hasn’t chimed in. How do you think it makes me look if I don’t respond?”
“Uh, like you have a life?”
“That’s not the way I need to look,” I would shoot back defensively. Didn’t she understand that this was what it took to just stay in the game, so I could put the food we were eating on the table?
“You know you’re just indulging people who have no respect for boundaries, right?”
She was right, of course. I catered to the whims of busy-ness freaks, but I knew Hollywood wasn’t the only industry in a busy-ness bubble; companies everywhere were turning into busy-ness factories. There was nowhere to run or hide.
We were all trapped in the freak show now.
My Job Can Vanish Overnight, And Then What?
My parents had earned modest (but steady) government salaries that kept our family fed and clothed, sometimes with enough cash left over for the occasional car repair or a trip to Vegas. But that didn’t stop them from dreaming of a better life for me, one that would allow me to do more than just meet my basic needs with a little room to breathe. They hustled to give me the best education they could afford, and I had used it to build a successful career so I could have a bigger cushion than they did.
But the day I decided to save myself, I realized that even though I was making more money than my parents, my cushion really wasn’t bigger, and I wasn’t breathing easier. I was always terrified that my rickety rung on the class ladder would give way.
By the time I was 40, I was dodging the shadow of something that looms over most American workers now: the periodic “restructuring.” Two generations ago people never left their jobs, and their jobs never left them. Telling an entire group of workers to take a hike — not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because they’re financially inconvenient — is a modern phenomenon that’s reached epic proportions in the last decade.
The periodic “restructuring” is like a nasty disease that can strike anytime. No job is secure, even if a company reports glowing numbers. In fact, the greatest danger to any employee is when a company has given a stellar earnings report or added an “asset” to its portfolio that’s supposed to bring in more money; after bragging to Wall Street about their accomplishments, the decisionmakers have to find enough cash to back their hype. Laying off employees is always their first move.
I remember the day I learned that earnings reports meant jack. I had just gotten out of a weekly staff meeting and learned that our parent company, Viacom, had beat quarterly earning’s expectations. The announcement delivered the sugar rush Wall Street wanted, and the company’s stock perked up. Everyone was super excited, because who doesn’t want to be part of a winning team? But I was more excited for another reason: our department had been hit with a slew of work, and I was hoping my boss, Gerard, would give me the green light to hire another lawyer. After all, the company was making lots of money, so the timing seemed perfect.
I called him after the meeting to discuss my staffing needs.
“Here’s the thing,” Gerard said after listening to my pitch. “Now isn’t a good time to add heads.”
“Really? But when would be a better time?” I asked. “Earnings were great, right?”
“Yeah, but not great enough,” Gerard said. Then, lowering his voice: “And just between you and me…I think we may have to lose some people soon. Keep it under your hat, though.”
Keep it under my hat? I wasn’t even sure what I was hearing. The company was making so much money that it might have to get rid of people? It made no sense.
“Um…okay,” I managed, wrestling with my confusion.
“I’m pretty sure your team is safe, but probably best to lay low. Okay?”
From that point on I understood the illusion of a profitable company. No matter how much money a company made, employees would always find themselves playing a game of musical chairs: every twelve to eighteen months, the music would stop, the company would restructure, and we prayed we would still have a chair when the music started up again.
Every other week, news would break about some studio, network, or production company being gobbled up in a merger or acquisition, and I would hear about a colleague who had gotten their walking papers.
“It’s crazy. Howard at (fill in the blank) hasn’t been returning any of my calls.”
“Didn’t you hear? They let him go two weeks ago.”
“So who’s running the department?”
“What department? They cleaned out his entire team after the merger.”
It was like hydrogen bombs were being randomly dropped all over the city, leaving ugly craters where careers and lives used to be.
I hadn’t seen any of this coming, of course. By the time I graduated from college the workplace had already morphed from what it had looked like in my parents’ generation, and my expectations had changed. I’d been conditioned to believe that stability was overrated; savvy professionals kept their options open, leap-frogging between jobs to move up the career ladder. Leaving a company was often (ironically) the only way to get more money, but armed with an ever-expanding resume, I was confident I would always land on my feet.
Except that’s not how it was playing out. It was getting harder for people like me to find a place to park themselves because the employment landscape had shifted so dramatically. In the wake of relentless mergers and consolidations, finding a job paying a comparable salary had become increasingly difficult because of simple math: fewer employers + fewer positions = way fewer employment opportunities.
Our employment options were also dwindling for another, completely counter-intuitive reason: the experience we meticulously packed onto our resumes was becoming a liability. At the height of our careers, we were biding our time until someone less experienced and less expensive replaced us. Sure, our cheaper replacements might make more mistakes, and they might not know how to fix them, but unless their screw-ups were big enough to cause huge losses or litigation, upper management didn’t care. Saving money now was worth the risk. As I crept closer to the Veil, I would notice a recurring theme: nearly every problem I saw around me – whether it was one I faced personally or one plaguing society, at large – always came down to money.
When I took a long, hard look at where I was in the game, I knew the music was going to stop at some point and my chair would disappear. It was only a matter of time. And when my time came, I would have to scramble like hell to keep from sliding down the ladder.
What The Hell Am I Doing With My Life?
I’d been laser-focused on advancing my career, but by my mid-forties I reached a point where titles and money weren’t enough. I could see that I was trading them for things that had no price tag. How much money was it worth to sit for hours in traffic so I could get to my desk? To stress myself out trying to meet deadlines and expectations? To spend hours away from my family, missing moments that would never come again? To endure monthly bouts of insomnia or the lower back pain that came from being glued to my desk?
I had arrived at that place James Truslow Adams had written about a century earlier, an awareness that a “better and richer and fuller” life didn’t mean acquiring “stuff”; it meant pursuing a livelihood that fulfilled the deep spiritual and intellectual longing every human being needs.
But that wasn’t happening for me. My job had become soul crushing, devoid of any meaning or purpose. Like everything else, it made no damn sense anymore.
Imagine that humanity is cruising along in a Boeing 747, and the pilots suddenly make a fatal error. Without warning, the plane loses two of its engines. The crew knows the end is near, but they try to keep everyone calm as the plane loses altitude. Now, think of the heads of Hollywood studios and networks as flight attendants on this doomed craft, dutifully dispensing oxygen masks to passengers as it plummets to earth. It’s their job to keep everyone distracted and high on the wild ride down, to stop them from full-on losing their minds and storming the cockpit -- pummeling the negligent pilots (or worse) as the earth rushes to meet them. And it was my job to help them do it.
For nearly a decade I’d been stuck in the bowels of unscripted a/k/a “reality” television, but there was nothing “real” about what we were making. We were creating the illusion of reality, a glimpse into the pseudo-real lives of people who were so messed up they made viewers plagued by job insecurity, family stress, and a deteriorating lifestyle feel better about themselves.
I closed deals with low-level “celebrities” who were desperate enough to let cameras follow them 24/7. Our networkj pioneered the docu-style programming known as “celeb-reality.” If you were a former “celeb” recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction (or better yet, still battling one) or if you had suffered public humiliation (maybe leaked sex tapes or soliciting prostitution), there was a reality show with your name on it. Making crappy television required a lot of hands, and I used mine to negotiate deals with actors, writers, directors, and producers so the network could capture every delicious, disastrous moment on camera.
I experienced my first stomach churn when I negotiated a deal with Corey Haim in 2005. Haim starred in the acclaimed coming-of-age film Lucas and the campy vampire thriller Lost Boys and had been one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood in the 80s. But by the time his deal came across my desk, he was a drug addict living with his mother in a one-bedroom Toronto apartment. Everyone knew Haim was desperate for a comeback, so I was charged with negotiating an agreement -- for pennies on the dollar -- with a man who should have been in rehab.
From the beginning, I sensed that Haim’s emotional state was precarious. During pre-production, I became his off-the-books therapist, fielding late-night calls so he could “talk through things.” Haim was a gentle soul and clearlyterrified by the thought of failing again, and I worried that the stress of being judged by ratings might be more than he could handle. I remember speaking to Donny, one of the show’s creative executives, on the eve production.
“Corey called and asked me to help him set the clock on his DVD player,” I told him.
Donny laughed. “So is it working now?” He didn’t seem concerned that the star of his show was so lonely he had to call the network’s lawyer for a friendly ear.
“The guy sounds worse every time I talk to him. I think he really needs help.”
“And when this show is a hit, he’ll get the money to get all the help he needs,” Donny assured me. “It’s going to change his life.”
VH1 pulled the plug on the show after we shot the pilot. The project went to A&E, where it ran for two seasons. I didn’t think about Haim again until I picked up a copy of Variety a few years later and saw he had died, destitute and alone, after obtaining a massive amount prescription drugs. He was 38 years old. It was my first brush with Hollywood tragedy, and it left me feeling hollow and dirty. I couldn’t help but think that I had played a small part in pushing a fragile soul closer to the edge.
From there, it was a quick descent into Dante’s TV inferno as VH1 devolved from a channel featuring make-believe celebrities to a home for former porn stars and half-naked hoochies catfighting and cursing on camera. The low point came during the taping of an episode of Flavor of Love, a competition/elimination series headlined by former Public Enemy rapper and bachelor Flavor Flav. One afternoon I received a frantic call from a creative executive: a female participant had literally shit herself on set. The woman apparently told the production crew that she needed to relieve herself, but they had insisted she stay put so they could keep filming. A five-minute break would have cost the producers money they didn’t want to spend, so she was left with no option but to relieve herself on the spot.
Once again, it all came down to money.
There was widespread finger pointing as everyone wondered how something so unthinkable could have happened. Who had seen this coming and looked the other way? But as I drove home that night, I knew who was to blame. We were all responsible for the woman’s humiliation. We were so busy handing out oxygen masks that we couldn’t see that parts of the plane were coming loose all around us. That’s when I realized I had to find a parachute and bail out soon.
Every night, as I left the office and zombie-walked to my car, it felt as though another little piece of my soul had gone missing – maybe a piece I’d left at my desk, in the elevator, or by the microwave in the lunch room. I could feel the holes they left getting bigger, and I wondered if I would ever gather the missing pieces again. In the end, that’s probably why I was paid as much as I was to do what I did.
After all, souls don’t come cheap.
It Feels Like There’s Something Bigger That I’m Missing…
In the months following my wake-up call with Drake, when I finally made the decision to turn around and save myself, I started stealing morsels of time here and there, giving more thought to the implications of my slow-motionrevelations. Sometimes, when I wasn’t rolling calls during my long commute or when I was walking down the street to grab a salad for lunch, my thoughts would drift in silence. And I would gently work the splinter in my mind.
Those precious moments taught me how our most important thoughts are born in stillness. They prompted me to take a deeper look at what was happening around me, and to realize that it wasn’t just my life that no longer made sense; there were a lot of other things that had stopped making sense, too.
The world was starting to feel like a place I didn’t recognize anymore; I just couldn’t figure out why it was happening, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the things I saw changing were somehow all connected. But when I was finally able to still my mind, thoughts that had been quietly lurking for years suddenly emerged from the shadows. Things I hadn’t paid much attention to before were almost impossible to ignore now:
· Why did it feel like the economy was healthy than we were always told it was?
· Why was it that no matter who was elected to office, or which party they belonged to, the general direction of the country never really seemed to change in a way that made my life better?
· Why did it feel like the War on Terror was doing more to annoy and inconvenience us than to keep us safe?
· Why did it feel like whenever I read or watched the news, the information seemed biased or slanted?
· Why, after all the progress we had made since the Civil Rights movement, did it seem like the divide between black and white Americans was suddenly wider than ever?
· And most of all, why did I have the nagging sense that there was something else — something much bigger —behind all of this? Something that wasn’t in clear view or being openly discussed?
These were unsettling thoughts that I couldn’t share with most people I knew. They were thoughts that would ultimately alienate me from many of my friends and colleagues. But they would kick-start the journey that would eventually lead me to the Veil and change my life forever.
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