What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

Stephen Fry

A young friend asked my ten-year-old niece a standard question that many adults ask children, but I never do: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A fashion designer,” she replied.

“This is new,” my sister, her mother, said nonchalantly; the career question changes often with children, as it should: They cannot conceive yet what they will be doing. This is why I never ask children that question; they have not evolved enough, have not completed that inner transformational growth spurt. How can they possibly know what head space they will be in to choose a career path?

You can’t know what you want to be when you grown up until you grow up.

I knew what I wanted to “be,” or more accurately what my profession would be, very early. (It’s noteworthy that the correlation between what you do and who you are is established very early on in many cultures. Many people’s last names reflect an ancestor’s profession.) I’ve had a vocation since my late teens; I think most professional creatives are the same. But I’m also extremely immature by many measures of what that means for a man my age, namely in critical lifestyle areas that are used to measure achievement and responsibility. Therefore, the inverse isn’t true: You aren’t grown up just because you know what you want to do when you grow up. In fact, in the creative professions, you’ve got a shitload of evolving and fine tuning to do before you can get anywhere. Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours of practice can take forever.

The friend who asked the question of my niece didn’t graduate high school until he was twenty. In his native Denmark young adults are encouraged to explore their options and directions by taking time out of school before making their decision. He went to live in Berlin for a year and a half when he was seventeen, then went back to boarding school. That sounds absolutely reasonable to me. Danes are cool that way.

My vocation began to form earlier than my late teens. From the moment I stepped on stage in as part of a high-school performance when I was twelve and in grade school, I knew was going to be an actor. That calling persisted until twelfth grade, when I directed my first play, and loved the process more than anything else. I decided that maybe I wasn’t as good an actor as I needed to be in order to make a career out of it.

The problem with pursuing live theater is I didn’t watch much of it, wasn’t really a fanatic about it, and you need to be. But I watched films, constantly. I was often at the run-down Thalia for their Fellini and Goddard retrospectives. The monthly schedule from Film Forum was part of the perpetual clutter on my desk, screenings circled in red pen. It was a natural progression that in my first and only year in college, while coming out of a screening of Hiroshima Mon Amour, I declared that I wanted to be a film director. I was still directing theater, staging pieces that were subversive even by the standards of progressive Wesleyan University, but film called me like a siren. I have been crashing against her rocks ever since.

In mid-middle age, I still don’t consider myself grown up. I’m just an aging young person. I live a considerably different life than most people: I have few responsibilities, no dependents, only the bare minimum possessions that are necessary for subsistence and to do my work. I live with a roommate nearly half my age, and it bothers me not the least that this isn’t the convention. Once you stop measuring your life against standards imposed by others, you begin to look different to yourself.

I lost everything five years ago under the tsunami of the Great Recession. I haven’t rebuilt it back to what it was, or even tried to. There are many reasons, primary amongst which is I don’t want to risk losing everything again. Literally having nothing to lose is incredibly liberating. In the fashionable parlance of Mark Manson, I have zero fucks to give. I am actually happier now than I was when I lived the life of Riley. Until I am financially more stable, meaning there’s a sizable slush fund shoring up my acquisitions, I ain’t gonna try to fix what ain’t broken.

In the rare moments I beat myself up over what I don’t have compared to most people my age — it’s particularly hard to hang out in the mini-palaces of highly successful creatives — I ask myself some basic questions:

  • Am I comfortable? Yes. I have a roof over my head, albeit tiny and simple, and a pleasing garden outside. I live in a perfect climate. My bed is so comfortable I have a problem getting out of it.
  • Do I have food and sustenance? Yes. I am a pretty good cook, in fact, so I’m constantly watching my diet to manage my weight.
  • Is my health good? Yes, excellent. I don’t just work out, I train five or six days a week. I haven’t had so much as a cold in years. I don’t count the recurring Delhi belly I’ve had since I’ve been in India; let’s think of that as a flush.
  • Am I content? For the most part, yes. Our survival instincts tend to focus us on the negative more than the positive. BEing aware of that is critical. I conducted a test about a year ago over a few weeks. I counted how many days I was upbeat and happy, and how many I wasn’t. The positive outweighed the negative by around five to one.
  • Am I doing what I want? Yes. Things could move a bit faster, but I should know by now that patience is not just a virtue, but a weapon and an essential tool in my profession. Better a late-life career than none at all.

Most grown ups I know, or people I feel are more grown up than I am, are both parents and successful professionals. They look forward to retirement some day. In fact, they are working towards retirement some day; it’s their goal. I, who have pursued my vocation through both rags to riches to rags again, never intend to retire. You do not give up what you love, and I am completely monogamous to my career. When asked by an actress one day after we’d wrapped a shoot how I would like to die, I replied, “On set, after calling ‘Cut!’ on a perfect take.”

I don’t take vacations, either. To me, vacations are like birthdays or public holidays: they’re either for children who need a break from the drudgery of school or people who don’t love what they do and need a break to recharge. I do know a few creative professionals who take vacations, usually because of their children or because they’ve just wrapped a physically debilitating project, but they don’t need to: We don’t have a fixed schedule, we report to nobody but ourselves. True, we have stressors like anyone else, but they aren’t the same as people with ‘real jobs’; if you aren’t used to the physical and mental costs of running a creative enterprise, you aren’t yet a professional.

I would like to say that not having children preserves youthfulness, but I don’t think this is true. I know as many bouncy, carefree rakes with kids as I do dull, fuddy-duddy childless spinsters and bachelors.

A creative-professional friend who recently had a baby in early middle age posted this on Facebook: “Once upon a time I would sleep for days due to depression and a need for escapism. I’d wake up exhausted. Now three straight hours [of sleep] is great. Five and I celebrate the luxury of feeling so well rested. Amazing what babies can do.”

It’s not children or a household that bestow the gravitas of responsibility on you, but how you evolve personally. I always seemed five or six years older when I was a young man. Now it’s almost the reverse, or so they tell me. Personally, I think I look my age, I just look good for my age because I exercise so regularly, and exercise is the only fountain of youth. Well, that and a filthy mind.

There is likely a disconnect between the way I feel inside and my appearance to others. I look like a mid-life Ernest Hemingway and convey his authority, but inside I am twenty-five. I don’t feel it, I am it. I’m not alone: If I see the meme “Inside every older person is a young person wondering what the hell happened” on my social-media feeds one more time, I’m going to block the person who posted it. But it is a truism.

I date much younger men. Not on purpose; I would date someone more or less my own age if I could find one within my extremely specific taste range who wasn’t already settled down and contemplating the proverbial pasture already. Many Gheys have something of a reverse Oedipal complex, and they act on it. I consider myself behaving age appropriately if I date someone over thirty, which is already twenty years younger than I am. Otherwise, they tend to be in their early to mid twenties. They certainly aren’t after me for my money; they always make a point of paying for themselves; they are invariably hotter than anything I was hooking up with when I was younger, so why not?

Intergenerational relationships are frowned upon by many Str8s; studies show that May-December partnerships are far more prevalent among same-sex couples. Str8s tend to see that there is an ulterior motive, an agenda on the young person’s part that has nothing to do with real romance and sexual attraction.

I was talking to my sister the other day about Stephen Fry marrying his longtime boyfriend, who is thirty years his junior. Fry is an amazing person on many levels, but amazingly good-looking he is not. I listened to her opinion with interest. “It’s because he’s rich and powerful,” she said. “That’s why younger women are with those horrible older men, with that awful old skin and everything. How could they possibly be attracted to them?”

I explained that it is different for us same-sexers. Fry is brilliant, a great wit, a classic British genius of the arts. He drives around London in an unlicensed black cab to cut through the traffic, hardly a very “adult” thing to do. He’s a legend. He’s apparently as delightful in person as he is in public. Why would a young man thirty years younger not genuinely love that despite money and fame? The options in mainstream glitter-and-rainbow-flag Homolandia are pretty bleak from an intelligent and discerning person’s standpoint, especially if he doesn’t like the (justifiably) stereotypical effeminate queens.

And something tells me Fry has a big dick. It’s that huge, generous face, those big hands, the confidence.

I could see my sister’s expression change during our conversation as she processed the logic of what I was saying, the examples I was giving; after all, her Don Juan brother, who has been in a relationship with a guy twenty-one years his junior for five years, was sitting opposite her. And there is no way any young man is interested in me for anything other than who I am. Not only is there nothing in the piggy bank, I’ve pawned it.

“Maybe I’m just looking at it from a straight woman’s perspective,” she concluded. But I don’t think there’s a difference. I think people are merely conditioned by social norms of what’s acceptable, and LGBT folk tend not to abide by normative behaviors.

I’m often told to date guys more my own age, as if that would solve my chronic romantic strife. But if a forty-five-year-old has a twenty-five-year-old living inside him, as I do at fifty-one, what’s the difference? Why shouldn’t I date the real thing?

The most frequent retort, mainly from women, is an older person has nothing to say to someone old enough to be his child. That’s illogical. I have so much to talk about with Chris that I’ll hang up after an hour-and-a-half phone call — ours is a long-distance relationship — and slap my forehead for forgetting things I’d wanted to discuss with him. Nobody is or has ever been as compatible with me on an intellectual, creative and philosophical level as Chris. Yet by all measures, including mine, it is the worst romance in the history of bad romances from a logistical standpoint, which is largely his fault, although not entirely his fault. But there is still plenty to talk about, plenty of road to share together, plenty of growth opportunity, as business people would say.

It is particularly difficult for me to cope with Chris and his weirdness while I’m in India; I can expect nothing from him, rely on him for nothing. I am surrounded by people in happy, stable relationships, much of which is due to Indian cultural constraints; with fewer options, less dissatisfaction, more tolerance, simpler expectations, Indian relationships seem to weather the ups and downs with greater success. The boundaries by which they are surrounded provide both protection and balance.

When I am here, I yearn more than usual for Chris to come home to roost, to stop his walkabouts, to stop running, to grow up, which I know he will do eventually. Then I would settle down myself, again, and create a home with him. I would stop giving the books I read away, or returning them to libraries after I’ve finished. I would stack them on a shelf in the library where he and I read at night, sitting opposite each other like that scene in A Single Man. We cook well together. We even exercise well together; we met in a gym, like many a traditional Ancient Greek, older-younger romance.

There is no growing up, only growing old. We develop in different ways at different speeds. In many ways Chris is miles ahead of where I was at thirty; in others, he’s an ingénue, and a bit of a “fucking pussy” about certain things, as I remind him constantly, namely being uncomfortable in a same-sex relationship. It’s a minor but constant source of irritation that he still can’t get it together to be in a steady relationship with me at the age of thirty, that he continues to feel compromised, repelled by his sexuality. He lets the influence of loud, garish, embarrassing mainstream gay culture to influence him, to mess with his mind, to derail us as a couple time and again. But he gets better. He is evolving. And as long as evolution is there, we can’t help but continue to grow up, both of us. Together.


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