Michael J. Fox Lives in the Present
‘No Time Like the Future’ Is Fox’s Fourth Book
By Charles Donelan | March 25, 2021
Harry and Meghan are not the only royals to arrive in Montecito this year. Michael J. Fox and his wife, Tracy Pollan, have been here since the fall, enjoying some respite from the cold New York City winter and using their new home as a base in which to pod with their four adult children.
I spoke with Fox for almost an hour on Zoom last week. He truly is a prince of a human. Wise, courageous, and humble in the face of overwhelming challenges, Fox has dared more in his life than most of us will ever imagine. Diagnosed at age 29 with early onset Parkinson’s disease, he has sustained an extraordinary career through sheer determination and nearly unfathomable resiliency. Married for more than three decades to the love of his life, the proud father of a handsome family, and one of the most distinguished and prolific actors in American history, he’s now written four books, including his latest, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, which hit the New York Times best-seller list immediately upon publication in November of 2020.
As with his previous memoirs, Lucky Man and Always Looking Up, this one features the same self-effacing wit and absence of sentimentality that makes Fox’s voice as a writer so distinctive. Unlike more traditional autobiographers, Fox recounts much of his past through the lens of the lyrical present tense. This choice gives a jaunty immediacy to his frequent encounters with physical peril.
Recalling a tumble he took while hiking in Bhutan in the eastern Himalaya, Fox writes, “It occurs to me that I am about to do an ugly face plant, with momentum,” and continues the narration as though it were happening right in the moment. “Quick decision: tamp the velocity of falling forward and down by throwing myself sideways. In doing this, I take a shortcut thirty feet through the brush to the next switchback.” The reader learns to accept, as Fox has done, a reality in which abrupt departures from the vertical are only a single misstep away.
Elsewhere, he uses the present tense to lend gentle irony to another perennial Parkinsonian dilemma — the unpredictability of one’s movement around others. “I love my mother too much to give her a hug,” he writes in a chapter titled “Unsafe at Any Speed,” underlining the way in which his condition often renders everyday life’s instinctive gestures self-conscious and alien.
As it accumulates over time, however, the impact of this narrative technique sends the reader another deeper message that is more powerful for being implicit. This man refuses the verdict of time and its mournful refrain of “was” and “were.” In the book’s penultimate chapter, Fox waxes philosophical, writing that when he visits “the past now, it is for wisdom and experience, not for regret or shame.” Acknowledging the limitations imposed on him by his body and by mortality, he vows to remain in the moment, writing that:
Whatever my physical circumstances are today, I will deal with them and remain present. If I fall, I will rise up. As for the future, I haven’t been there yet. I only know that I have one. Until I don’t. The last thing we run out of is the future.
A Year of Living Dangerously
While many of the stories in No Time Like the Future revolve around Fox’s family and friends having fun and living fulfilling lives, at its core, there’s a sequence of frightening brushes with serious illness and even potential death. A tumor on his spine sends Fox to the hospital for a highly invasive, intricate surgical procedure. The rehabilitation he undergoes to be able to walk again goes well … until it doesn’t. An unexpected fall that takes place in his kitchen results in a broken arm and an emotional setback that sends this inveterate optimist into an uncharacteristic spiral of self-doubt. Talking about this, he’s disarmingly matter-of-fact, saying, “Parkinson’s Disease? That was nobody’s fault. The tumor on my spine? The same. But that broken arm? That was on me. I lost out to my impulse to go faster.”
Unable to write by hand or type effectively, Fox and his longtime producing partner, Nelle Fortenberry, have developed a routine that allows him to compose clear and literate prose by dictation. They meet on FaceTime, and she types as fast as he speaks — no mean feat. During our interview, I was struck by the high degree of focus he maintains, regardless of what’s happening in his body. He compared what’s involved in sitting still for him to the building-block game Jenga. As soon as he reaches equilibrium, something shifts and he needs to rebalance himself. In another memorable metaphor, Fox told me that people sometimes forget that for him there’s “always a schnauzer tugging at my pants leg.”
Fortunately for Fox, most of the medical mishaps that he details in the book occurred in 2018, before the COVID pandemic hit, rendering extended hospital stays more complicated and dangerous for everyone. The writing of the book, however, did continue through the first six months of quarantine, a fact that he acknowledges had an impact on the tone, if not the content.
Surrounded by people going through an unprecedented period of grief and loss, he became self-conscious about publishing a work that he describes as written from an “eyeball-to-navel perspective.” As a result, he added an eloquent epilogue in which he describes the way he and his children drew closer as a family unit holed up together, and how his heart went out to the heroic frontline health-care workers he had come to know so well from his stints at Johns Hopkins and Mount Sinai.
Zoom to the Future
Zooming with Michael J. Fox flows as naturally as the plot of a well-scripted sitcom. Alone in a pristine white room in view of a cluster of shaggy eucalyptus trees, he maintains eye contact and listens thoughtfully to every word. The various shifts in position he must make to maintain that Jenga-like bodily equilibrium gradually fade from one’s consciousness as the beating heart of a phenomenal performer comes to the fore.
He’s nearing the end of his fifties, but one still sees in flashes the dynamic physicality that made him a major movie and television star before he turned 30. The uncanny agility that was his trademark when he portrayed Marty McFly in Back to the Future hasn’t vanished, but it has been transformed into a new kind of grace. On the subject of finding himself working again in such programs as Boston Legal, Rescue Me, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Good Wife, Fox hews to a simple formula of “less to work with; more to accomplish.”
Although she doesn’t make an appearance during our interview, it’s abundantly clear that Tracy Pollan is never far from Fox’s mind, either in the book’s narrative or in everyday life. The couple had only been married a short time when he received the devastating Parkinson’s diagnosis. Although it is now 30 years ago, Fox still remembers the moment he broke the news to Tracy, telling her that though his symptoms were still barely noticeable, the disease was like “a truck coming. We can’t see it yet, and we don’t know how fast it’s moving, but one thing is certain — at some point I will be hit.”
He sees the years 1994 and 1995 as the period when his “acceptance began,” and he freely acknowledges that, in order to make genuine progress, he had to quit consuming alcohol. “I tried to drink my way out of it for a while,” he told me, adding with a wry expression, “It didn’t work.”
Asked to explain how he manages to avoid sentimentality when writing about devastating challenges, the answer comes immediately: “Tracy is not sentimental.” Elaborating on this shared sensibility, Fox says that in his mind, “sentimentality is in the same family as pity. There’s kismet, but some things just are.”
The book is infused with Fox’s sometimes mischievous sense of humor. When, after a particularly rough patch, a nurse politely asks him how he is feeling, Fox replies simply, “perforated.” At heart, he remains the young wise guy who left Canada for Hollywood without finishing college.
Speaking of his childhood, he describes his father, who died when Fox was in his twenties, as a bundle of contradictions, “a hard-ass and sentimental both.” Recalling how his father strove to please the family at Christmastime, he lingers over a memory of his dad sitting quietly, admiring the lights on the tree. This long-standing loss is underscored in the book under the chapter title “My Two Dads.” The second dad, Tracy’s father, Stephen Pollan, became a powerful presence in Fox’s life. In fact, it’s Stephen Pollan’s death that marks the beginning of what Fox terms as his horrible year, 2018.
A Wide Frame of Reference
Without ever slipping into the didactic or the pretentious, No Time Like the Future evinces the presence of a mind that’s widely read and well-informed about a remarkably broad range of things. Playing golf with pals like George Stephanopoulos and Harlan Coben may seem like exactly the kind of life a television megastar might lead, and that’s certainly in there, but so are references to Anna Deavere Smith and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Tracy’s brother Michael, he of The Botany of Desire and How to Change Your Mind, turns in a cameo or two, just enough to remind you that this is a milieu that’s hardly restricted to film and television stars.
In a poignant chapter set at the annual gala for the Fox Foundation, an enormously successful Parkinson’s research foundation he started, Michael turns the spotlight on Jimmy Choi, a Parkinson’s patient from Illinois whose story was turned into a short film for the event. It’s Fox’s gift to see others clearly and to respond to them with genuine empathy that brings the book’s many characters and settings into a unified whole.
This empathy is expansive. In the book, Fox reflects on his aging dog, Gus, a faithful companion whose physical deterioration strikes him as cruelly abrupt. After all, a dog is old at age 12, something that seems, when compared to the long lives of such random creatures as a certain sea urchin, to be harshly unfair.
In another moment of interspecies identification, Fox writes about a New Year’s 1999 family vacation in the Virgin Islands. It is a time when he’s about to retire from Spin City and when he’s contemplating the start of the Fox Foundation. His mind is full of critical decisions when, while snorkeling in the warm Caribbean waters, he encounters a giant old sea turtle. In one of the book’s rare past-tense passages, he sees something of himself in the animal’s weathered shell and ragged fins.
Something had taken a chunk out of his right front fin, and a nasty scar marked his beak. We swam together for a while. The guy had obviously been through a lot, and had earned the right to go where he wanted. He imbued me with a measure of his will. Sure, it might be easier to just flow with the current, but sometimes you have to risk charting a new course.
A full two decades later, that turtle’s significance returns. Fox decides it’s time to get a tattoo. After the trauma of his broken arm and the extraordinary battle he had waged with the tumor on his spine, he is reminded of that oceanic encounter, and he goes off to a certain “Mr. K” in SoHo for the image of a black-and-gray sea turtle that now swims on the inside of his right forearm.
For most of us, the idea of getting your first tattoo at age 58 seems anomalous. After all, aren’t tattoos the kind of thing that you either have or don’t have by the time you’re 40? Yet in many ways, this turtle, whose image is graphically repeated before each section of No Time Like the Future, epitomizes the man Michael J. Fox has become — battered and scarred, yes, but still swimming toward a new adventure. “The last thing we run out of is the future.”