Last night, I performed at "This Much Is True." This was my first time doing anything along the lines of storytelling since my stand-up days. I could talk about anything I wanted. The only criteria was that it had to be true. This was a tough assignment for me. I wasn't able to come up with one story. What I came up with was a collection of smaller stories all around having birthdays.
The place was packed. I went second and was nervous as hell, but once I started, that melted away. The audience was great.
Deanna Moffitt and Scott Whitehair were the co-hosts. All the stories were touching and compelling. They do this show once a month and it's free. Only in Chicago. Check it out. Get there early.
For those of you unable to make it or missed my slot, here's a posting of my story. Keep in mind, it's written to be performed. Poor grammar abounds and there are a few stage directions.
Even though mine is six months away, I’ve been thinking a lot about birthdays.
Two years ago, I called my brother to see what he was doing for his 50th birthday. He said he would probably just get drunk. I found this unacceptable. “You’re turning 50. That’s huge. That’s half a century. Think of something you want to do, and I’ll drive to Ohio and celebrate with you. On me. “
I called him back a week later. He had a plan. Let’s go to the local sushi restaurant and then get drunk. Also unacceptable. He could do that anytime. More importantly, he lives in a small town along Lake Erie. I’m not going to partake in Lake Erie sushi. I told him he needed to think bigger. Let me do the planning.
I got on-line and started hunting. Found out Cleveland had a House of Blues. Good sign. Playing on my brother’s birthday…“Wish You Were Here” – the Midwest’s best Pink Floyd tribute band – a fierce competition, I’m sure. They would be performing, in it’s entirety, the album “Dark Side of the Moon.” This was a huge bingo in the 50th birthday search. My brother went to high school in the 70s. He smoked pot. He smoked pot and he listened to Pink Floyd. He would love this. I bought tickets, rented a car, drove to Ohio, the band really did put on a great show. He had a good time. Mission accomplished.
I bring it up because next year, I turn 50. 50. What the hell? How can something be so imminent and, yet, surprising. And I’m not sure how, or even if, I want to celebrate. Just getting drunk is sounding pretty good. Thinking about it has had me looking over previous birthdays.
Now, I enjoy birthdays. Turning 30, turning 40, no big deal. Good times. Smooth transitions. I’ve had intimate birthday celebrations, I’ve had parties, I’ve had tacked-on parties that came after a show or an event.
I will say this…Cake and blowing out a candle… essential to a good birthday.
I have never had a surprise party. Except year zero, when I was born. That’s the ultimate surprise party. Hanging out in a very warm, dark place finding just doing this (hold up hand and wiggles fingers) immensely entertaining. Then, sudden, bright lights and my first birthday spanking. Naked. Crying. No cake. Not a good birthday.
I’ve had great birthdays, lame ones, and just okay ones. I have only had two difficult birthdays.
The first one was when I turned six in kindergarten. Now, it’s not like I was lamenting turning six. “Oh, man, the first half of my first decade is over. It’s all down hill from here. Life sucks. I’ve had it up to here with finger painting and sounding out words. Look at those kids in daycare (shake fist). They don’t know. They don’t know.” Up until then, every birthday was one hell of a party. Lots of family – aunts, uncles, cousins – a pile of presents and cake and ice cream. And you were expected to make a big mess and end up wearing most of your cake. Birthdays were awesome. But nobody warned me that things would change when I turned six. There was no party that year. Cake came after our regular dinner. Just the immediate family. Then we watched TV. Only two presents. A toy bow and arrow, which was cool, but failed in its ability to inflict any real damage on my siblings. The other present, the omen of birthdays to come, the sign that I was getting older, was a shirt. A shirt? A short-sleeved dress shirt I could wear to school. They gave me something I needed. Something that was useful. For a six year old, they may as well have given me a tube of toothpaste. “Here, Son. Go crazy. We know how much you love fluoride.”
But I learned something. I knew then, that for me to have a good birthday, I’d have to take matters into my own hands. I made sure that every year, I asked for one thing that I really wanted and then mercilessly hounded my parents to deliver. Now, I kept it real. I wasn’t asking for a fully functioning chocolate spaceship that ran on the blood of fairies. Or even a pony. Nothing too expensive. Nothing that could not be obtained. I made sure I got something I really, really wanted. If they wanted to throw in a shirt or socks or toothpaste, whatever, fine. Just make sure I get that one thing.
The best example I can think of was in the sixth grade. Little background, I grew up in a trailer park. Along a river. Near woods and a dairy farm. A reluctant member of Future Rednecks of America. My friend, Butch, who lived a few trailers down, bragged to me that on his birthday, his dad let him hold his handgun. For my 12th birthday, I didn’t ask for a bike or a baseball mitt or to cradle a firearm. I asked for a briefcase. Although, I didn’t call it a briefcase. I called it an attaché case. Why did I want an attaché case? As I explained to my foolish parents, every top secret agent on television had an attaché case. James Bond, Maxwell Smart, all the men from UNCLE. All had attaché cases. And they were cool. My parents tried to reason me out of it. I couldn’t take it to school. My books wouldn’t fit in it and it wouldn’t fit in my desk. Next year, in junior high, it wouldn’t fit in my locker. I held my ground. There was nothing I wanted more in the world than an attaché case. And that year, on my 12th birthday, I got one.
I was ecstatic. It didn’t come with any secret compartments, knock out gas, or spring-loaded knives. Apparently, those aren’t standard. But what I had was a good start to becoming a secret agent. Sleek, black, little latches that could be locked with a tiny key. I put comic books and monster magazines in it and carried it everywhere. The playground, church, on the bus, even school. Kept it right next to my desk. Rode my banana seat bike holding it with one hand. No one mistook me for a secret agent, but I felt like one. My love affair with my attaché case lasted forever, a full week. I was 12. I got tired of lugging it around. I decided that a very funny thing to do would be to empty it and fill it with shaving cream. No one would open a briefcase and expect a sea of minty foam. So, that’s what I did. And it was funny. To everyone except my dad whose new can of Barbisol did nothing but fizzle when he went to shave. That was a good birthday.
The only other difficult birthday I had was when I turned 25. In this case, it had nothing to do with any celebration. It had to do with me being unhappy with where I was in my life. I wasn’t on SNL. I wasn’t a movie star. I didn’t have my own sitcom. I was bar backing at a meat market called Corvette’s in a Ramada Inn in Cincinnati. Very, very far away from anything I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t rubbing elbows with celebrities. I was rubbing elbows with rapidly aging salesmen and divorced women, former disco queens and kings, who wore too much Jungle Gardenia and Old Spice Musk. Also, on that very day, in addition to refilling ice bins and beer coolers, I had to dress up like a sea-faring fisherman, who for some odd reason also wore a scuba mask and snorkel, and offers customers fried calamari from a fishing net. I argued with the inconsistency of a scuba mask and yellow slicker, the Gorton fisherman steers the ship, not dives into the ocean to grab up fish sticks by hand. But management vetoed me down. It was humiliating, but that difficult birthday was also a turning point. I took matters into my own hands, again. I told the manager I wanted to stop bar backing and be a club dj. It was the closest step I could think of to make that would, even vaguely, put to use my college theater education. He put me on the happy hour shift where I could play whatever I wanted. While the nighttime djs were playing extended dance mixes of Madonna tunes, I played classic rock before anyone called it that. The Doobie Brothers, ELO, Steely Dan. I was cool, again. And I got out of there early enough to be able to hit local open mics and work on a stand-up act. A year later, I was on the road working fulltime as a comic.
Some of my best birthdays have been those planned by girlfriends. If you’re in a relationship and your partner doesn’t know how to plan a birthday celebration for you, get out. It’s not a good relationship. I had a girlfriend where on her birthday, I got a suite at a hotel downtown, tickets to the matinee of Wicked, dinner and drinking at a Mediterranean restaurant that had belly dancing and belly dancing lessons. It was an event. When my birthday rolled around, she had planned nothing. We ended up going to a restaurant we heard about that was only okay and then walking around. It was so ridiculously low-key and unplanned that I thought, okay, well, she’s obviously putting me on. I’ll turn a corner and see a big party of my friends jump out from behind a dumpster and yell, “Surprise.” Nope. No cake. No candles. Relationship doomed.
Best all-time birthday was my 33rd. I invited a bunch of my friends to join me for pizza, cake, ice cream and video games at Chuck E. Cheese. And something you may not know about Chuck E. Cheese, but makes sense when you think about all the parents who go there, they serve beer. It was a blast. It was on a weeknight, so there weren’t a lot of kids around. They let us play in the ball pit. In retrospect, I’m a little grossed out by that. At the time, after a few beers, it rocked.
So, I’m turning 50 next year. I’m not on SNL, which I’m okay with, but it would be nice to be asked. I’m not a movie star. I don’t have my own sitcom. I’m not 100% happy with where I’m at in my life, but I’m pretty happy. I’m at about 85%. I love my job. I have good friends. It’s not like my 25th birthday, half of my life ago.
For my 50th. I feel like I should do something big, like jump out of an airplane. With a parachute. Or do something meaningful, like volunteer at a homeless shelter. I’m just kidding about that one. Hitting the half-century mark really does feel like “getting old and no turning back.” What I learned from my brother is that it’s easy to want to celebrate turning 50 if you’re not the one turning 50. Some good friends, a cake and just getting drunk sounds pretty good.