My Birthday Problem

On most days, my mother, the most manipulative and emotionally scarring narcissist I have ever known, would spend the entire evening feeling sorry for herself, tanking herself up on a box of cheap wine and lounging about like a squeamish lout on the couch. I don’t know how many times she asked us to refill her glass because she could never be bothered to get up, but it was surely somewhere in the thousands.

On any given night, my mother would shamble into drunken oblivion. Yet there was nothing more horrifying than the occasion of her birthday to reveal the full depth of her affliction. The hell of it was that we were too young to see it.

We loved her, even with all the Gehenna she marched us through. We hated to see her sad. We tried so desperately to please her. We didn’t understand that she had a much bigger problem.

So when her birthday rolled around, no amount of celebrating her life would suffice. She could not summon gratitude for having a loving family or a stable job. She could not find any real reason — and there were many — to be alive. She could not stretch one inch outside herself. My mother wanted attention, but she would never spell out the deranged egocentric fantasy she truly craved. Her true ideas, never expressed, were grandiose and delusional. Here was a woman incapable of apologizing for her mistakes or seeing what had gone wrong, much less right. Her solution to her self-pity involved the world stopping everything that it was doing to celebrate her existence in the most unvoiced yet extravagant way. What I think she sought was a deranged and surreal scenario not unlike that old Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life,” in which a tyrannical boy with demonic powers has everyone in town doing anything he wants. What the boy cannot see, what he refuses to consider for even a second, is how these obliging and miserable adults must live out this perdition. The people around him are never once allowed to be themselves as they serve his every whim.

When it came to my own birthday, I never wanted anything big, just some basic acknowledgment that I existed from the people who were dear to me. But my mother did a number on me. And as much as it hurts me to say this, I want to be able to live with myself. I have a very serious birthday problem. I am certain that some of you do too, whether it is tied up in comparable abuse or some other hangup. But I am here to tell you that this is okay and that you don’t have to be ashamed. I’m hoping that those of us who suffer from paralyzing birthday anxieties can come together and tell ourselves that it is perfectly reasonable for us to celebrate our lives. We can beat this in the same way that we have stared down other demons. If you need someone to tell you that you matter, I urge you to email me and, whoever you are, I will be happy to celebrate your existence each year. Because I know too well what you’re feeling.

There was my twentieth birthday in which I was trapped in a remote cabin and my mother spoke to me in her high quavering voice and treated me as if I were a boy of five. I was still trying to figure out how to be a man in the wake of abusive father figures, and I just couldn’t take this bullshit anymore. I felt enraged and humiliated for being infantilized on a day that was supposed to be mine, especially since I could not escape the cabin. So I stormed off in shame and beat my fists into a metal sign until my knuckles were red and raw. And since it was a very small community, the commotion caused by my machine gun-like flailing had the cabin owner calling the police. I recall hiding behind a tree as the police car’s bright searchlight flooded its blinding circle onto the dark waters of the tranquil creek that lined the ragtag cluster of cabins, in search of the violent perpetrator apparently at large. My sister and her now husband found me and escorted me back to the cabin, holding me, knowing why I needed to sob and why I couldn’t. I couldn’t cry. Because who knew what this would do to my mother?

I spent my twenty-first birthday in Reno and had a lot of fun.

It’s hardly an accident that I first started smoking on my twenty-second birthday. I did so out of boredom, walking the streets of San Francisco by myself and feigning adulthood. There was a part of me cultivating a leisurely form of self-destruction that would grow and bite me in the ass years later. When Kurt Vonnegut replied to interviewers that he was committing suicide by cigarette, I knew what he meant.

I tried to win my birthday back over the years, but couldn’t. You couldn’t beat the house.

There was the time in which I asked twenty people (no expectations, no gifts necessary; in fact, I’m happy to buy you a drink like they do in Britain!) to meet in a bar on my birthday. Nobody showed.

Today, I do not smoke. Or I try not to.

My self-pity grew over the years. I felt terrible and birthdays were a big part of this. But there was also a burgeoning desire to rid myself of the pain. I wanted to feel good about myself without shame. Could this actually happen?

A few days before my forty-first birthday, which is today, I suffered the worst insomnia I had experienced in three years. Couldn’t sleep. Had to cancel a date with a very kind woman.

This is all greatly ridiculous. Because I’ll feel perfectly myself once my birthday has passed.

In the past, people have tried to step in and give me a good birthday. They didn’t know how. I was always a terrible member of the thinktank masterminding the plans. I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself in the way that my mother had, but I can’t say that there haven’t been birthdays where I worked my way to the end of the bottle and utterly despised myself.

I don’t want to hate myself anymore. And I don’t want to inflict any of this on anyone.

Friends, knowing my hangups, have understandable worries about even mentioning my birthday. They saunter around the subject like a trepidatious sous chef walking on eggshells in a chaotic kitchen.

Friends also point to my resilience, which they claim is unmatched by anyone else they know. And they know people who are far more accomplished than me.

I have no problem hanging out with my friends any other time of the year. But I have always felt deeply ashamed at doing anything good for myself on the day that it counts.

Is that terrible? It certainly feels that way.

So I am saying something now, risking ridicule from the rubberneckers who still want me dead because they have invented some wrong idea of me that is considerably less distorted and monstrous than the false and bestial image I spent many years perfecting. Because now, more than any other year, I know that my life is worth something.

It is very hard for me to say all this. It has taken me more than four decades to get here. My existence is worth celebrating. I love being alive. I have a great deal to be thankful for. I am neither washed up nor finished. I’m just getting started. I’m working on many magnificent projects right now and am supremely indebted to some exuberant Scotsmen who were gracious enough to help me get back on the horse. And to anyone who has been kind to me during the past year, I cannot possibly convey how much your generosity has meant to me.

For those who have had to endure my birthday blues over the years, please know that I am more contrite than you can ever know. But I want to be honest now.

In his wry and endlessly thoughtful book, Faking It, which is a fantastic volume if you’re interested in the bottomless pit of hypocrisy and self-illusion, the marvelous thinker William Ian Miller observes:

Be careful what you pretend to be. Toughness, or a certain hardness, is a very useful trait to have, but the person who undertakes a pose of hardness or flippancy to protect what he fears is his core vulnerable sweetness may end with his sweetness shrunk to invisibility or inaccessible behind the ramparts, though he maintains the belief that his toughness is only a pose.

For a very long time, I have feigned being hard or insouciant about this birthday business, pretending that it is “just another day.” What I have feared (aside from becoming my mother, who I both am and am not) is capitulating to the pose that my birthday does not matter rather than being candid about the reality that I, like countless others, carry a modest vanity one day each year that I am deeply abashed about. That my forty-first birthday will be the first in more than a decade in which I will not share a bed with anyone speaks volumes about how I have gone out of my way to smother the act of being myself by projecting some version of my intimate core onto others willing to be intimate with me. I trace the beginnings of this to the blonde bombshell who smiled at me on my seventeenth birthday as we went to see Hot Shots! at a movie theater long closed. It is a sick and dishonest practice, but then I had the worst possible example growing up.

So here is what I am doing. Tonight I will be having a marvelously low-key dinner. Alone. I will be eating a slice of chocolate cake. Alone. And I am going to have a great goddam time doing this. Because if I can’t respect myself, then how can I expect anything from other people? I cannot leech on geniality in the way that my mother did.

It could take me many years before I can invite other people to celebrate my birthday. But the one thing I can do, starting this year, is to stop wielding my birthday around like a loaded gun. If I don’t commit myself to a happy time, then I’ll never have it. Of course, any birthday wishes from others are very welcome. There’s no sense in denying this anymore. But I will not retreat to any couch.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one. There is no pat remedy and I’d be kidding myself if I really believed that what I’m doing this year will flense my soul entirely of this predicament. But it’s a new year. I’ve just had my eyes checked and I have a new pair of glasses. This is the longest I’ve stared into the mirror. I am liking more of what I see. He is worth celebrating. And if he expects to give lavishly and effortlessly to others, as is his incurable habit, then he must give to himself first.

Mashup of Drafts (With Annotations)

I cannot be bothered to write anything of importance at the present time. Therefore, I offer the following post composed entirely of random sentences from other posts that I started in 2009, and I never finished, and that I have no real intention of finishing (with pertinent annotations):

I am in Midtown Manhattan, where the streets have no name. [1] Thanks to the dependable rage and knee-jerk regularities of the big crunching boot known as the Internet, Billy Bob Thornton has, in the past four days, been widely derided for his boorish appearance on a CBC radio program. [2] We make drinking within the realm of financial possibility while we tax the fuck out of cigarettes. So let’s take this oxidized sportster out for a spin, shall we? There is a part of me that might feel like one of those hokey magicians playing a PTA meeting for $75, the type who attempts to pass off that all-too-simple trick of squeezing water behind your elbow as cutting-edge.[3] Some figure who genuinely wallows in the suffering of others. Some savage soul who wants to kick in the teeth of anyone really. But I’m sure they’ll both choke on their free foie gras at some junket later in the year.[4] Never mind that I offered counsel and empathy when his personal life was falling apart. There is nothing entertaining, thoughtful, funny, literary, or striking about any of the material that is regularly posted here.[5] Last night, as I rested my freshly pedicured feet on my manservant’s lithe and writhing back, I found myself exceptionally alarmed. Our team of researchers, using the finest investigative techniques that microfiche has to offer, have located an essay written in 1983 by a hotheaded young man, who reportedly beat an Apple IIe with a baseball bat just after banging out the deranged essay reprinted for our readership below.[6] The box, the simple box, the box that rhymes with fox, the box you get back from the bagel shop that has your lox, may be the art form of the 21st century.[7]

[1] Careful readers of op-ed columns in a certain newspaper will likely see what I was satirizing. One common quality of these abandoned drafts is the fixation I have on the New York Times. This says more about me than the New York Times.

[2] I have been building up to an enormous essay about masculinity that I need to get out of my system. The theme has recurred in numerous drafts over the past eighteen months and there have been pitches to numerous outlets. Alas, nobody is really interested in the topic. Except that they are interested, as the near two million people who watched that YouTube video demonstrates.

[3] This metaphor was rooted in personal experience. And I’m going to have to figure out another applicable essay to get it in. When I was a boy, I would often attend Parents Without Partners outings with my then single mother, who was looking to get lucky and who, as it turned out, was extremely miserable. While adults gathered together for mediocre potluck dishes, I was left to wander the floors of some meeting room with frayed beige walls — the kind you found quite often in the mid-1980s that was often turned into a makeshift dance hall but that had not been architecturally designed for that purpose. But everybody knew that all the single parents were pinching pennies, with varying results and outright poor children with holes in their shirts and unwashed shorts pretending to be middle-class. There, I’d talk with other nervous kids, who were all likewise abandoned by their parents and were in need of a sad social fix. The adults often hired a cheap magician: someone who needed some pocket money, but who had certainly not made professional magic a full-time job. The kids didn’t care to be condescended to. And for some reason, they often looked to me. Because I tended to have a very loud voice and say things that apparently you weren’t allowed to say. (Or so many adults frequently told me. There was one particularly pious gentleman who took my mother aside outside of a church and said, “There’s something of the devil in that boy.” These days, it’s more or less the same thing. Except that the adults take other adults aside to talk shit about me and use four-letter words to describe how terrible I am. And it’s all a bit awkward because I’m now an adult.)

Anyway, I would often raise my hand when the magician asked for a volunteer. And if he was ever a bit condescending to my fellow kids, I would then expose all of his trickery to the audience, pointing specifically to the sponge behind my elbow and exposing the mechanisms of his act during the course of the show. I was truly a little asshole. But one such magician took me aside after his act, and he was very kind to me. And he asked me if everything was okay at home. I told him no. And he said I should perform magic shows because the other kids were very amused by my antics. And I remember that magician’s kindness any time I see some troubled kid trying to figure shit out, and I try and do something about it.

[4] This seemed a particularly vicious thing to say. One often writes in the moment and is astonished to see what one has written later.

[5] This sentence was written during the morose early days of quitting smoking.

[6] A chasm of memories I haven’t thought about in years have provoked ancillary imagery. It is no accident that violence remains a constant motif.

[7] I don’t believe any writer should be hindered by singsong prose. Some “literary” authors would be better off writing children’s books and rediscovering why they enjoy writing in the first place. It is very sad to have seen them deteriorate.

Just a Poker Game

On the evening of December 4, 2008, I came to realize that the next day would be December 5, 2008. This date, in and of itself, did not puzzle me, although it bears some minor importance to me for personal reasons I won’t bore you with. I began to recognize that the day would drift into another a little more than two hours before the stroke of midnight. The recognition of this change came after a long day of work, in which I had fallen fast asleep after I had committed approximately eleven hours (perhaps more) of creative labor. It also came after I watched, for the first time, an episode of The Office on an actual television, as opposed to some illicit download with the advertisements stripped. Now I had not watched an episode of anything on television for quite some time, and there seemed to me more commercials than were absolutely necessary. Whether the strange amalgam of television comedy and commercials caused me to dwell upon the shifting day, I do not know. I only know that I was trying to zone out and that I was trying to do so in a way that was similar to how other people who worked nine-to-five jobs lived their lives.

A friend from another nation whom I had not seen in two and a half years had been staying with us, and he was a bit stunned by how I had changed. He decided to leave at the last moment for a bed and breakfast, but never offered me a specific reason or a goodbye. His wife had ordered him away. I have not yet met my friend’s wife, and I would like to. But I do know that he had come on a plane before her, stayed with us, and the two of us had imbibed quite a bit of Jim Beam. I knew what I was getting into, but I felt the crushing hangover from this crazed carousing the next morning and it nearly killed me, but I pressed on with my labor. It’s what I do. I had two interviews to conduct. This type of labor was foreign to my friend. He was shocked to see me up at 6:00 AM, and stood at attention when I made coffee and secured bagels to ensure that everyone would have some breakfast to get through the day. But he didn’t understand that I had to work, and that I was committed to my strange job, as low-paying (and often non-paying) as it is.

More than a decade ago, I thought my friend was helping me. He encouraged a shy kid to be true to himself. He was kind to me, and I tried to be as kind as I could right back. I got a late start, but I got a start nonetheless, and I am grateful to him. But now that I have become truer to who I am, I’m wondering if I was actually helping him. Did he see something in me, even in a prototypical form, that might have been a clue to his own identity? In all these years, has he been hiding behind something that is not what he is, but that, in a great twist of irony, helped me to become who I am? This unexpected understanding has made me feel treacherous in some way, but I know that it’s not my fault.

The late John Leonard once said that it takes a long time to grow new friends, but what he didn’t observe was that it sometimes takes a much longer time for older friends to come to terms with how they’ve changed, and that sometimes the divide can’t be crossed. We become lost and occupied in our baroque lives, reuniting with longtime pals after many years and regularly hanging out with the current friends within our circles. Sometimes, the gaps between years are negligible, and it’s easy to pick up where things left off. It’s like a pleasant game of poker in which all the hands have remained face-down on the table, and the players have had the decency not to look at the cards. Despite the thick film of dust that has settled upon the green felt, all the participants play the game through. But there are other times in which the moment has passed, and some don’t wish to marvel at the great changes in others. It’s just an old card game that can’t be reinvented, rethought, or improved upon. And the cards languish until they are reshuffled by other parties. But it’s still a great pity that the people before never finished their game. As old as poker is, it can still conclude any number of ways. And even if you lose the current hand, you might win on the next one. It’s only a pleasant card game. Nothing competitive. Just a good way of getting to know another person. Even the ones you thought you understood.

Contents of Box

  • A yellow legal-sized writing pad containing mysterious ideas and plans.
  • An issue of Mike Hampton’s Hot Zombie Chicks.
  • Minidisc case reading “Babbling — Raw #7. Also, The Babbling Project #1.” (No minidisc.)
  • Minidisc case reading “1. Babble 2 6/6/00.” (No minidisc.)
  • Mindisc (with case) reading “Babbling #8.”
  • Y adapter for telephone line.
  • Minidisc case — scratched and unmarked. (No minidisc.)
  • Floppy disk with label scratching out Intellipoint driver, reading “ME — Startup.”
  • Floppy disk (unmarked, unlabeled).
  • Various audiocassettes from November 2004 containing interviews that I conducted to research a still unfinished polyamory play.
  • Minidisc, with case reading “The Babbling Project #2.”
  • Blue Sharpie
  • Box of Bostich No. 10 1000 mini staples
  • Unlabeled green floppy disk
  • Floppy disk reading “Creative stuff began @ work I”
  • Damaged minidisc with Chet Atkins and mysterious “Test 7/21/00” label.
  • Blue Pocket Etch A Sketch
  • CD — containing driver for Olympus digital camera I no longer own.
  • Unusued Ampex magnetic tape still in shrink wrap.
  • 3M Recording Tape containing audio for uncompleted film.
  • Many business cards.
  • Many mysterious microcassettes — what’s on them?
  • An incomplete San Francisco Secondary Schools Pass.
  • A minicomic — Melina Mena’s Sour Milk Sea.
  • A 2004 monthly calendar designed by my friend Tom Working.
  • A strange package containing an adaptation cable for a video card that was fried sometime in 2005.
  • A small bottle of Advil PM. (It’s still good! The expiration date is 10/09.)
  • Many 3×5 index cards.
  • A red Bostitch mini stapler.
  • Many VHS videotapes containing (among many movies) Soapdish, episodes of the animated Star Trek series, episodes of Blake’s 7, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, episodes of Doctor Who and Monty Python, Twelve Angry Men, Sullivan’s Travels, Miracle Mile, episodes of The Simpsons, episodes of The Prisoner, Quick Change, an HBO special starring Rowan Atkinson, Suspiria, and Poison Ivy (recorded, no doubt, because of the promise of Sara Gilbert and Drew Barrymore naked).
  • A pair of red scissors.
  • A small journal I had forgotten about that contains the sentence, written in 1999, “I am slightly fearful of being laced with Judeo-Christian nonsense.”
  • A CD containing photos of a play I wrote and directed many years ago for a small venue.
  • An additional CD containing the sound cues for Wrestling an Alligator.
  • A mysterious 5 1/4″ floppy — what’s on it? how to transfer?
  • Numerous writing instruments.
  • An unopened box containing a corner brace — 1-1/2 in. x 3/4 in.
  • A student ID from 1991 in which I actually had hair.
  • A Swingline package containing 5,000 standard staples.
  • A floppy labeled, “YES! 4/97 Job Search.”
  • A floppy labeled, “Servant of Society.”
  • A receipt from Stacey’s Bookstore, dated 05/04/07, for Bleak House. (I still haven’t finished that book.)
  • The Fat Camille Omnibus 2007 by Camille Offenbach.
  • Another minicomic: Nitsy and Bitsy.
  • A CD labeled “80s MP3s.” (Shudder.)
  • An undeveloped roll of Fujicolor film from who knows when. (What pictures are on this?)
  • Julia Wertz’s I Saw You…: Missed Connection Comics #1.
  • A handout for an improv class that I took in 2005.
  • A handout from MUNI on “Ballpark Service Tickets and Fares.
  • A spare serial drive cable.
  • 2 AA batteries — still good?
  • A UHU STIC gluestick.
  • Many DV tapes — containing what?
  • Two VGA to DFI adapters.
  • Printout of Segundo scheduling spreadsheet from 2006.
  • 16mm yellow leader tape.

Most of this will probably be thrown away. But unfortunately, I’m too curious about the data that might be on some of these tapes. I’m additionally curious as to where I obtained some of this stuff. This curiosity, I suppose, is the problem with moving. When setting up in the new digs, I will likely expend a considerable amount of time trying to find a use for nearly everything on this list.

Class Distinctions

Back in the days when I played at the gilded trap known as the nine-to-five rap, there were often times in which my failure to distinguish social hierarchies was at odds with policies practiced off the clock. There was a night when I went out to dinner with my fellow co-workers. One of those terrible fusion places. The kind of place not so keen on food and atmosphere and social camaraderie, but where the individual goes to be seen. I have never cared too much about being seen, but I do like to have a good time, even if my own social tendencies sometimes get me in trouble.

waiter1.jpgThe place pounded bad house music at deafening levels. There was very little light, save for a strip of green neon snaking around the perimeter of the bar. The waitstaff were clad in black, murky figures who sneaked up on tables like highwaymen descending upon a stagecoach. I kept feeling around for my wallet just to be sure.

It was clear from the stray sentences that managed to penetrate through the deplorable four four beat that my co-workers had class aspirations. Their fun was tied into the consumption of material goods. Whether spending every spare dollar on needless decor, drinks tabs that extended into a three digit sum in mere hours, or the blow that one secretary snorted in the restroom with a file clerk two decades her junior. (“I still have my tits,” she once said to me, little realizing that my interest in breasts had to be justified with some minimum but by no means unreasonable level of smarts.)

waiter2.jpgI lost interest in the talk of a reality television show I had never watched and began observing a server who reminded me very much of one of the attorneys at the firm I was then toiling at. She had spent a good deal of time perfecting her posture, had carefully kept up her skin, and was in her early thirties. Roughly around the same age. The resemblance was so similar to me that I could imagine her replacing a tray with an attache.

I pointed out these physical and behavioral similarities to the group. They looked, conceding that there was some resemblance. But the secretary, slamming down her fifth straight shot of Jamison’s, waved her finger imprecisely in my direction and insisted, “But [attorney name’s excised] is beautiful!”

The waitress and the attorney were indeed both beautiful. But I didn’t really see why one would be more beautiful than the other. The only real difference was the vocation and the amount of take home pay.

But I suppose that if you look through a haze of drug and drink and drudgery, your sense of the world grows distorted. The ugly takes on a sudden allure. The tendrils of stasis start to resemble upward mobility. And beauty, which takes on many forms great and small and shouldn’t have a price tag, is hopelessly cross-stitched into commodity.