A Lesson In Life From Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox

Actor Michael J. Fox has written a new book aimed at graduates called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future. Bryan Adams hide caption

itoggle caption Bryan Adams

When Michael J. Fox left high school in British Columbia, Canada, to become an actor, a social studies teacher told him, "You're making a big mistake, Fox. You won't be cute forever."

Fox says he replied, "Maybe just long enough, sir. Maybe just long enough."

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned
By Michael J. Fox
Hardcover, 112 pages
Hyperion
List price: $17.99

Read An Excerpt

As the commencement season approaches, Fox, who proudly calls himself a graduate of the "University of the Universal," has written a small book aimed at graduates, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, in which he shares some lessons from his own life.

"I always felt that I came up short in the education department," Fox tells NPR's Scott Simon. "But I've come to the conclusion that we all get an education. And somehow over the years, I managed to get one."

Fifteen years after leaving high school, Fox went back and got his GED at the urging of his 4-year-old.

Lesson In Economics

Fox breaks his book down into specific disciplines — similar to a degree program. Under the "economics" section, Fox discusses learning about money as a young working actor in Los Angeles. He says in his first year, he made about $50,000 — but spent $75,000.

Audio Extra

"That was my first lesson in economics: That doesn't work," says Fox.

Fox went on to play the fiscally conservative Alex P. Keaton on the show Family Ties.

"It's ironic that now as I'm a fundraiser for a [Parkinson's disease research] foundation, some of our biggest supporters are people on Wall Street and in the financial industry — hedge fund managers and stuff — that grew up idolizing Alex Keaton," he says. "So it's come around in this weird karmic way that these people who I was satirizing ended up being my biggest benefactors."

During his time on Family Ties, Fox also shot Back to the Future.

"In the same kind of way the math didn't work in the economics, the math didn't work in a temporal sense," he says.

He would work from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Family Ties. Then he would shoot Back to the Future from 6 p.m. to 4 or 5 a.m.

"A teamster literally would pick me up from bed and throw me in the shower and then at the end of the day reverse the process," he says.

Learning From Loss

Fox says that he thinks people learn more from disappointment than success.

"There's always failure. And there's always disappointment. And there's always loss. But the secret is learning from the loss, and realizing that none of those holes are vacuums," he says.

Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, says in the book that he learns from his illness.

"Right as I speak to you now, I'm waiting for a pill to kick in, which is not helping me out and not kicking in," he says. "And so, I have a choice: I can either kind of quit and say, 'Well, this is not ideal, I'm going to give in.' Or you can just push through."

He says much of the time, his pills are working and he feels great. He has to remind other people — and himself — that his natural state is halting and tremulous.

"But I'm always happy either way," he says. "So when it comes to me, body language lies."

Excerpt: 'A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Future'

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned
By Michael J. Fox
Hardcover, 112 pages
Hyperion
List price: $17.99

When Am I Ever Gonna Use This Stuff?

AS FOR MY OWN TRUNCATED SECONDARY EDUCATION, my head was in the clouds as my mom would say, or if you asked my father, up my ass.

In the outright creative subjects (drama, music, creative writing, other art electives, drawing, painting, and printmaking) I'd bring home A's. But any subject based on fixed rules, like math or chemistry or physics, sent my grades into free fall; the gold stars and smiley faces from grade school were long gone.

At report card time, I'd try to explain to my exasperated mother: "These are absolutes, Mom. They're boring. Take math, two plus two equals four. I mean, that's already on the books, right? Somebody's already nailed that down. What do they need me for? If someone's got a handle on how to get it to add up to five, count me in." Mom would sigh and hurry to sign the report card before Dad got home.

When red flags began to pop up on the school front, blue veins would pop up on Dad's forehead. A barely passing grade, or a call from school about a trip to the principal's office, prompted a harsh reprimand from Dad, followed by a probative grilling as to what the hell I was thinking and demands that I get my "ducks in a row forthwith." I wasn't failing out of rebellion though; I wasn't angry at my parents, or anybody else. Yet throughout junior high, my academic grades continued to plummet. The reprisals from Dad, once automatic, tapered off as he accepted their futility. He'd curl his lip, throw up his hands, and stalk off — that is, if I didn't slink off first.

By the time I entered high school, I had forsaken academics altogether in favor of my burgeoning acting career. An aptitude had become a passion and flowered into a dream. During much of the fall of 1978, I was going to school by day and performing at night in a long-running hit play at the Vancouver Arts Club, the big Equity theater company in town. I'd work at the theater until well after midnight every night, climb out of bed in the morning, go through the I'm-off-to-class motions, scramble into my pickup truck, proceed to the nearest park, pull under the cool shade of a maple tree, fish a foam pad out of the cab, slap it down in the bed of the truck, and go back to sleep.

My first class in the morning was drama, and I found myself in the strange position of receiving solid reviews for my professional acting at the same time I was flunking high school drama for too many absences. I pointed this irony out to my drama teacher, angling for credit for work experience. No soap. Truth is, her hands were tied by administrative policy.

Over time, it became clear that I was flunking just about every class I had. I gave notice that I would not be returning for classes in the spring. I made the rounds at school, cleaned out my locker, and said good-bye to friends and those teachers with whom I was still on speaking terms. Doubt about the wisdom of my decision was nearly unanimous. I remember one exchange, in particular, with a social studies teacher. "You're making a big mistake, Fox," he warned. "You're not going to be cute forever." I thought about this for a beat, shot him a smile, and replied, "Maybe just long enough, sir. Maybe just long enough."

My dad agreed to drive me down to Los Angeles to find an agent and begin to build a career. You might have expected him to protest, but having only stayed in school through eighth grade himself, he reasoned that although I was a screw-up in school, I was already making a decent wage as an actor. Of the move to California, he said, "Hey, if you're going to be a lumberjack, you'd better go to the forest."

Whoa, you the high school or college grad might be thinking right now. That's a helluva lot different from my experience. I don't know ... is it? As I reflect on it now, it seems fairly representative of the rite of passage that millions of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds go through every year. My leaving home was analogous to the experience of any fledgling college student. I gave myself four years to achieve my goal of becoming a steadily working actor, and what's more, I had a leg up on many of my peers heading off to State U. in that I already had my major, recognizing of course that it was not one offered by my erstwhile high school.

So my dad drove me to L.A. just like your parents likely drove you to Kenyon or Ball State, or whichever school of your choosing chose to have you. And the next four years provided as intense an undergraduate experience as one would expect from any college career, replete with parties and heavy workloads, not enough spare time, too much spare time, parties, deadlines, successes, failures, parties, heartaches, girlfriends, parties, ex-girlfriends, future girlfriends, parties, and a graduation of sorts. Was I nervous at first? Were you? Me neither, not really. I was pumped. I knew this was the next step for me, although one of the reasons it might have been so easy to make up my mind was that my brain, like the brain of any eighteen-year-old, was still under construction (trust me, I know from brains).

Teenagers blithely skip off to uncertain futures, while their parents sit weeping curbside in the Volvo, because the adolescent brain isn't yet formed enough to recognize and evaluate risk. That's why we can talk young men and women into fighting wars, and MTV and ESPN 2 are crowded with tattooed mohawk-wearers leaping buses on skateboards. The prefrontal cortex, sometimes known as the seat of reason, is the part of the brain that we use to make decisions. It's our bulwark against banzai behavior. A teenager's prefrontal cortex is still growing, still connecting up with other parts of the brain. It's the amygdala, home base for gut reactions and raw emotion, that's going full blast at this point. Not a lot of reasoned thinking going on there.

With so many immediate considerations to deal with, I don't know if my parents had time to ponder the broader implications of the odyssey I was embarking upon. As removed as they were from the world of showbiz, they might not have been informed enough to have specific fears, but they were still visited by worries that I could very well be sucked into a whirling vortex of depravity, exposed to a nonstop bacchanalia — a moveable feast of drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and brazen sexuality.

Sure, all that happened, but the party, it turned out, wasn't in Hollywood, but Westwood, the campus of UCLA. While I had no connection to the academic life at the university, I had become friends with three transfer students from the University of Maine, frat brothers who were living off campus while waiting for space to open up at the fraternity house. Temporarily occupying the apartment next to mine, the Maine-iacs (as I referred to them) were dealing with Orono-to-L.A. culture shock every bit as jarring for them as my own Canada-to-California adjustment. It was easy to recognize aspects of my own experience in theirs. Young, far from home, hoping to measure up to some still undefined standard, they studied their textbooks in pursuit of better grades, just as I pored over scripts in pursuit of better jobs.

Although we went our separate ways during work and school hours, my friends provided me with an entree into what were easily the best parts of life on campus — free beer and college girls. I remember thinking at the time that our situations were similar, but I allowed myself extra points for the pressure that came with trying to find the next job. "You've got it easy," I'd tell them. "Your parents bought you four more years of high school."

This was wrongheaded on a number of levels. For starters, college is a lot more demanding than high school — not that the demands of high school were all that familiar to me, given that I had made little effort to meet them. The other flaw in my pronouncement was that it made an easy assumption about who was footing the bill. My perception, rooted in my Canadian working-class background, was that behind each of these partying coeds were a beneficent and indulging American mom and pop, happily forking over cash to the university, who in turn would feed and water the kid for however long it took for the prefrontal cortex and amygdala to assume their proper weights in the balance of influence.

Floating my "four more years of high school" theory would provoke an earful in response. Did I have any idea what kinds of loans these guys were carrying? I had to admit, I didn't. Much of the expense of their formal education was front-loaded, whereas with my experiential education, I was, in effect, running a tab; especially dangerous, as I'll point out shortly, when you can't do basic math. So, we all felt the weight of expectation. Still, I felt more comfortable not to be carrying all that debt before I had even decided what was worth going into debt for.

Despite being an indifferent high school student, I always enjoyed reading, and was familiar with the story of Sisyphus. I pictured the Maine-iacs, with their student loans, as each having to push a large rock up a mountain. I began to understand that the rock was not the debt, but their course load. The debt was the mountain. Me, I was just dancing on the edge of a cliff.

So each of us, whether they off to college or me off to Hollywood, could be described as full of bluster and bravado, high expectations and low reservations. What separated us, perhaps, was that I lacked a blueprint.

As an exercise, I recently picked up a course catalogue from Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. Reading through the curriculum, I recognized how my life experiences could fit into a prescribed outline for an undergraduate education: the one I had supposedly missed out on. Laying out a series of typical college courses, as described in the catalogue, can help make a case that I have, to some extent, fulfilled the requirements for each particular course while having absolutely no idea I was doing it.

I might have skipped class, but I didn't miss any lessons.

Excerpted from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned by Michael J. Fox. Copyright 2010 by Michael J. Fox. Reprinted by permission of Hyperion.

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