I WAS PLAYING around in the surf one day in Hawaii and someone zoomed passed me on a boogie board and I thought, “That’s amazing!”. And then someone went by on a surfboard and I thought, “That’s even more amazing!”. It’s hard to explain how invigorating and joyful surfing is.

WHENEVER I SURF, I feel something deep inside me. That’s the same feeling I have when playing on stage in front of a lot of people.

OUR CHANGING THINKING on spirituality fascinates me. Where quantum physics meets with philosophy meets with mathematics meets with engineering; how they’re all coming to the same place from different starting points and how the numbers and teachings vindicate one another. We’re all one. We’re indivisible.

THAT KIND OF IDEA is not for everyone. You basically have to say goodbye to everything you thought was real. It gets craaazy!

WHEN I LISTEN TO MUSIC—even classical music—I have a tendency to imagine that all the instruments are guitars and that makes it all so much more interesting. Play an oboe passage on guitar and it can sound amazing. Translate a French horn passage in the harmonics of a guitar and the result can just be incredible.

I KNOW ONE DAY my children will come into a lot of money and that bothers me. I still don’t know what I’m going to do about that, especially as I grew up with very little and know that when I had some disposable income I went a bit crazy. I’ve had pretty much everything I’ve ever dreamt of having.

THE TRICK always is to want what you already have, not to keep on wanting.

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER and inspiring to be a rock musician, I was taken with rock ’n’ roll’s glamour, the romanticising of the lifestyle. Well, then you experience it—and it’s all bollocks.

BELIEVING in sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll is a quick way to ruin your life. Pretty much all of my peers bought into all that and didn’t come out at the end of it—addictions, narcissism, just inappropriate behaviour, all that changes people for the worse. The problem is that it seems like a good idea at the time. Yes, it was fun, but every day I have regrets [about it].

WHERE METALLICA STANDS in culture is very important to me. The band just gets bigger every year and when people hear your music for the first time when they’re younger, they just latch on to it. There’s only a handful of bands that are like that. In our case, it speaks to people who are pissed off and don’t know why, people who haven’t had enough of a voice or who haven’t yet found a way to express it.

WHEN we’ve all run out our lives, Metallica will still be this living entity. For some reason, it’s so much bigger than the four of us [band members].

IT’S SO HARD to find stage clothes—something that’s unique, that you don’t see everywhere but has a flashiness to it because it also needs to be something you can see from 50 feet away.

WEAR ALL BLACK—as you do in heavy metal—and the stage gets dark and then suddenly it’s like, “Where’s Kirk gone?” It took time for me to realise you can really express yourself through clothing and that clothing can be fun.

WHEN I WAS YOUNGER I never really understood what machismo was. And then one day I realised I was neck-deep in it. All my friends, my father, my uncles and cousins—they were macho so I was naturally drawn to that way of thinking. It wasn’t like we were all Clint Eastwood exactly but there is a covert kind of machismo—the aggression and hostility, the need to be the toughest guy in the room. For me that even meant writing tough, scary riffs. It’s still hard for me to write happy-sounding music. It needs to sound like scraping a shovel along concrete.

I TELL MY CHILDREN never to feel pressured by dad’s day job [or] by the idea that they have to rise to some kind of standard [of success]. I tell them to just try to do what makes you happy—as long as it contributes to your well-being—and pray that you can make a living from it.

THAT and be nice to people.

I DON’T KNOW where the points come from but you get extra points for being nice to people. It makes you a lot more positive. And positivity is progress.

I’M A HABITUAL COLLECTOR, BRO. My friend called me the other day and asked me, “Why do you collect plastic bags?”. And I thought ‘I’ve been completely rumbled here’ because I do. I have OCD and collect anything.

I’M AT THAT AGE when I can look back on my life and see patterns when I go hard on certain things—guitars, vehicles, watches... plastic bags.

THE TRICK IS to not care what people think [about you]—not the way you’re dressed or your music or anything.

EVERYONE WILL HAVE AN OPINION—that’s what my parents told me—and it just doesn’t matter, especially since everyone’s opinion is coloured by where they are at in their lives.

UNFORTUNATELY, social media has turned that around.

I have lived in the same apartment block for more than a decade. Real estate being as it is in this country, especially in the city where I live, everyone here is holding. Not one of the owners has sold in the entire time I’ve been here. We have watched one another grow up, settle down, have kids. The carpets smell like 1976. It is a time capsule in concrete.

A few years ago, my upstairs neighbour died. This is a polite way of saying he dropped dead of a heart attack, out of nowhere, and they still haven’t figured out why. I really loved this neighbour. He had always been so thoughtful and generous with me. He was only a few years past 40.

At his wake—which, for some reason, was vastly more upsetting to me than my own father’s funeral—they played "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem. Perhaps for the first time, death no longer felt like an abstract concept. It didn’t just happen to people beyond retirement age; the old, infirm and grey. Someone had died who adored the same music I did. He was older than me, but we were part of the same generation. I had never considered my own mortality before, but now, as LCD frontman James Murphy sang the same refrain over and over, and men cried quietly into their lagers as they stared out at the sea, it was all I could think about.

Culturally, men are less likely than women to ruminate on their own mortality, but we are preternaturally obsessed with the idea of legacy. Some of the most famous men in history (Napoleon, Alexander the Great, 50 Cent) spent much of their lives thinking about what would happen after they died and how they would be remembered, even though, at least from what I can ascertain, they never actually considered how and when they might die. Even regular, everyday men like me retain trace elements of this sort of ego. We talk about ancient, irrelevant ideas like ‘family lines’ and ‘lineage’. We fast-forward to the statues of us erected in public squares, the memorial plaques detailing our achievements, forgetting the bit where we stop breathing.

The very fact that we’re more likely to indulge ourselves in risky, dangerous behaviour shows we seldom entertain the notion of death, at least not seriously. No doubt, this in part influences why we typically die younger than women. It’s not called a "never-say-die" attitude by mistake. Yet I often think about it now. It creeps into my subconscious, mostly during mundane parts of the day, this corporeality. I notice my body more. I consider the very real prospect of its deletion, and that I ultimately have very little control over when or how this happens. I consider how annoying it will be for my next of kin to sell my vinyl collection and my many hardback books.

I suspect this dawning understanding of the finiteness of life is not unrelated to becoming a parent for the first time, in seeing aspects of yourself reborn as a new entity. Major milestones such as this typically correspond with the age at which men draft wills. But I’m less interested in the logistics of one’s life ending than in what it actually means. Though I am (hopefully) nowhere near dying, I find the inevitability of death for all of us fascinating. What will it mean when my first friend dies? Will I die first or will my partner? How will my family and social networks shift and change over time, rendering previously permanent structures impermanent?

Dad would be a good person to talk to about death, except that he never really talked about it. I was too young in any case, barely midway through my twenties when he passed. It was a bulletproof age. I smoked imported cigarettes. I drove recklessly. Took drugs. Had unprotected sex. When you are so pumped full of life, fingertips almost crackling with it, death is the last thing you want to talk about, and your old man is the last person you want to discuss it with.

My father was a GP, which means he wasn’t interfacing with death every day, but he still encountered it regularly. He sent patients off to hospital for scans that revealed they had tumours. On the way back to his car each evening, he stopped in and made the rounds of the local nursing home, where many were in a protracted state of decline, usually from dementia. Some of his other patients were heroin addicts; not all of them survived.

I thought Dad was old then, but he wasn’t, really. He had just been haunted and dying the whole time, right in front of me. At 36, I am already older than he was when he had me. After he died, three of my good friends’ fathers passed away in quick succession. The ones with cancer went slow, the ones that took their own lives vanished in an instant. Because it had happened to me first, I became an unofficial counsellor to them, a bunch of men in our late twenties, suddenly all very concerned with death.

Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd-century Roman emperor and stoic philosopher once again in vogue with self-help podcasters the world over, posited that knowing life could end tomorrow influences how you live it today. And while the deaths of those closest to me (whether familial or proximal) made me question how I move through the world, I would argue that what it really granted me was a level of empathy that I didn’t naturally have before. To make life less about my own mental state, in the traditional Stoic sense, and more about the mental state of those around me. Dad would have had a lot to say about this, I think.

I think about my neighbour every time I pass his widow and their gorgeous black dog on our staircase. He clearly left a lasting impression on the people around him, though I doubt he ever spent any time planning or thinking about his own funeral. My father famously hadn’t taken out life insurance when he died. We all live forever, until we don’t.

It took a long time for me to be able to listen to "All My Friends" again. It’s a song about being stuck between what you want to do and what you should do. It’s a song about regret, about the transience of friendships. But mostly it’s a song about ageing, which my neighbour never had the chance to do. James Murphy released it when he was 36—my age—as a reflection on the best years of his life. What if they had also been the final years of his life? Would the song have sounded different?

Either way, it’s possible Murphy would have written that famous refrain in exactly the same way: where are your friends tonight? This, ultimately, is what facing death has made me truly understand. Your best and only life is never just about you.

Originally published on Esquire AUS

Siri Stafford/GETTY

I’d seen the word on social media. Mid. The show was mid. The song was mid. The rapper was mid. So many shows, songs, rappers and more are unknown to me, trees in the now-bewildering wilderness of pop culture that the young navigate effortlessly.

But I rapidly deduced that mid is not good. Mid is mediocre. Middle of the road. Meh.

And then I realised—I am mid.

The pandemic made my midness unavoidable. Until then, I could convince myself that I looked 10 years younger than I was, and looking good is halfway to feeling good. But in the Age of the Mask, my face of denial was shrouded. Suddenly all I saw were eyes. Nothing I did to my visage or hair could perform a trompe l’oeil and camouflage how my age was now inscribed in the lines and wrinkles around my eyes, underlined emphatically by a duo of bags that got heavier every year. The young, in contrast, showed off their youth effortlessly with the smooth and unblemished canvas framing their eyes. Every moment of fleeting eye contact with both young and old reminded me of the threat of mortal illness as well as the inevitable slow motion of ageing.

Funny how I trembled when I turned 40, more than a decade ago. How youthful 40 now seems. But I remind myself that at that middling age, when I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist, there was no published novel. I also had not wanted to be a father, that death sentence, yet that is what I became. When my son was born, my life, as I knew it, was over.

I was 42.

I had just finished the first draft of my novel, and my most important job was to watch over my son at night to make sure he lived. From late in the evening until 3am, I rewrote the novel while watching little Oedipus sleep in the same room, swaddled on the futon. Anytime he stirred, I stuck a bottle of formula in his mouth. From 3am until his mother took over childcare duty at 5am, I sipped my own formula—single malt Scotch—and wondered: Was I a failure? Was I ever going to publish this novel? Was I middle-aged? How does one know for sure?

Statistically, the average middle age for American men begins just past the mid-30s, since the average American male’s life span is 73.5 years of age. As a country, America can be considered rather mid, with the United States ranking below Albania and above Croatia. Hong Kong tops the charts at 83.2 years. Our average must be brought down by a daily drip of government-subsidised corn fructose and the lack of universal health care, as well as a toxic mix of economic inequality and depression, gun violence and opioids.

If I am statistically average, then I have been middle-aged for 15 years. I tell myself I am not afraid of Death. Easy to say until one sees the Great Funeral Director’s hand on the switch, ready to turn off one’s light. I will admit that with the shadow of mortality falling on my toes, I bought a sports car at the age of 43. A used grey Infiniti coupe with automatic transmission, the nicest car I had yet owned but far cheaper than a brand-new Honda Accord. Not a sports car by the definition of connoisseurs. Not a Corvette; not red. The car even had a back seat that could fit a car seat and my son.

Even my midlife crisis was mid.

I examined my son, destined to kill me and usurp me, at least symbolically. Cute little guy. Could he escape his destiny? Could I escape mine? Perhaps if I read him more books? Spent more time with him? Took him to more Little League baseball games? Thankfully, he quit baseball after a year, but then took up soccer with great enthusiasm. I bought him shin guards and cleats, watched him and his Neon Knights practise while I sat on a tattered beach chair, angling my umbrella to ward the sun off my pale legs. Was this happiness? Was this what a writer does?

The long middle of a story is the hardest part for me as a writer. The beginning, far in the past. The ending, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is good for a writer to be unaware of the conclusion. If the end startles the writer, it likely will surprise the reader, too.

Pssst—the hero dies.


I didn’t hear that.

I used to think that writing was a ticket to immortality. Who needed children when one’s progeny was one’s books? In my teens and early 20s, I longed for fame and glory. I didn’t think much about how the names of the immortals were relatively few, while libraries were filled with thousands of books by writers I had never heard of before, some of them quite famous in their time. And some authors whose names dominated only a decade or two ago are rarely mentioned today, now that their life force no longer animates the literary scene.

When it comes to literary fame—which is not really that famous—I have more than some authors and less than others. But whenever I am tempted to believe my own hype, I read my one-star reviews — Bafflingly overpraised! Absurdist and repulsive! Pure garbage!—and recall that I live not far from Hollywood. When I tell people in Los Angeles that I’m a writer—no one cares.

And if no one cares, why should I?

That seems to be the greatest freedom in being mid, at least for me. To be middle-aged is not necessarily to be mid, particularly if one feels that one is at the peak of one’s powers. But to acknowledge that one’s accomplishments, great or small, hardly matter to most people and may one day fade into the dust, rendering one mid or even forgotten—might that actually be liberating rather than depressing?

When I was younger, I cared very much what people thought of me and my work. Part of me, because I am human, still does. But an even greater part of me does not. I had an inkling of what it meant not to care when I wrote my first novel; I was already old for an aspiring novelist.

I had written a short-story collection while yearning for the attention of editors, publishers and agents. When I realised that the power brokers did not care about my book or middle-aged me, I was free. Not to care. To do exactly as I pleased. Because I was mid.

It’s hard not to care in your teens and 20s. But as I looked at my son, turning two, three, four, I saw how he was almost literally carefree, except for wondering if he would get all the toys and treats he wanted. But he also simply did not pay attention to rules, expectations, conventions. You’ll find out, I thought grimly. That’s the way life is.

And maybe he will submit to the borders of adulthood. But at five years of age, he wrote and drew his own comic book, Chicken of the Sea, about restless chickens who run off from the farm to become pirates under the command of a rat captain. I was amazed. I could never have come up with that story. Because I cared about things like reality. How realistic. And how limiting.

So in my mid years, I try not to give a damn about unimportant things and unimportant people. The important people—friends and family, children and partner—still concern me. Writing, too, because it remains my passion. After I publish a book, I do keep an eye on how it fares in the world, vulnerable as I am to desire and vanity. But in the midst of writing a book—the art is all that matters.

The result is that the stack of books I have authored grows little by little, outnumbering my children in quantity. But never in height. Or weight. Or even, perhaps, in quality. If you had told me, in my youth, that I would be a father and love fatherhood and adore a daughter and a son I did not want or even dream of at the time, I would not have believed you. Down that road of family and stability, love and care, lay mediocrity. And perhaps that is true. But what is also true is that if my story concluded here, midway, I could live, and perhaps die, with being mid. Not the happiest of endings, but happy enough. And no one would be more surprised than me.

Originally published on Esquire US

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The novelty of being a big city lad, strolling into a sexy London glass office with a latte in hand (as they do in the movies) doesn’t last long. By the time I was 30, on paper, I’d made it. I was working at a top television network, with a comfortable salary and business trips to Manhattan. I had a bachelor pad, bought nice clothes, and partied weekends. It was exactly what I pictured growing up, but I wasn’t happy.

The traditional outlook on life has always been to work hard, get married, buy a house, and at least for millennials, allocation of ‘fun’ is slotted in at the end, for retirement. That’s assuming we’re lucky enough to make it to our 60s. Spending the next 30+ years of my life in an office cubicle and mind-numbing marketing meetings was, to me, pure torture. I decided enough was enough.

The First Step

In 2016 I sold my things and moved to Tokyo on an English teaching visa, interning part-time as an entertainment reporter for a local paper. It was a chance to go to free gigs, make new friends, and get out there. Months later, came the big break. A friend moved to Singapore as editor of an airline magazine, and they needed a travel writer in Japan. I was now getting paid to write and explore.

The lack of English-speaking reporters in the region, at least compared to back home, meant I was able to secure a steady flow of work covering Japan. Eventually, I ditched the English teaching job to write full-time, forfeiting the visa. That was fine as I could work anywhere with a good Wi-Fi connection.

Being used to a routine, things were tough in the beginning. You never know when the next job is coming, and finding a new place to set up shop can be stressful. Things have got easier, especially post-pandemic now that digital nomads have surged (131 per cent since 2019, according to Forbes). I’ve spent extended time in Da Nang, Bali and Kuala Lumpur, meccas for remote workers, thanks to special digital nomad visas, flexible co-working spaces and value long-stay rentals and travel.

Every day isn’t coconut cocktails on the beach. I still go to an office. I make my own hours and choose when and where I want to work. I’m based between the US and the UK. I rented desks or WFH, but you’ll find me and my laptop all over the place. Mostly in coffee shops and hotel rooms. I also try to make the most of transit time that can sometimes be a challenge. For example, on the Caledonian Sleeper train to Inverness, though the purpose was to sleep, I stayed up all night to meet a last-minute deadline. A couple of weeks later I sailed the Indian Ganges on a boutique rivercruise called Uniworld. It was pretty remote, and l got frustrated with Internet speeds. Maybe it was a sign to switch off and enjoy the ride.

Conclusion

Though the money I earn now is far less than before, so are my outgoings. I used to live rather excessively. But now I don’t need the latest gadgets, a car, or a swanky downtown apartment. Why? Because I get plenty of enrichment on the job. One week I can be surrounded by rescued elephants in Chiang Mai. And the next I’ll be surrounded by celebrity chefs at The Dorchester in Mayfair. In a single year, I can check off more bucket list activities than one could in a lifetime. I’ve had to make a whole new list, actually. Things I've done: hot air ballooning, snowmobiling, and safari; interviewed Sir Richard Branson and Michelle Yeoh. I’ve even written two best-selling guidebooks.

Before leaving the rat race, my stories weren’t particularly noteworthy. Unless you’re into drunken anecdotes, but everything that’s happened in recent years would make a real page-turner of a biography. I skim my travel journals in disbelief. Best of all, I’ve been able to share many special moments with the people I care about. Working remotely means more time with loved ones and less time with Karen from advertising. It’s ironic because we all know time is finite. And yet,most people prioritise making money in the hopes of using it later to live their best lives. Think about all the things that make you happy. Travel, music, cooking, sports, spouse, kids…How much time are you dedicating to them? Are you justifying a lack of time now for more later? I’m always conscious that later often becomes never, and remember, never is the saddest thing anyone could work toward.

James Wong can be reached here.

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