It’s my birthday today and I’m watching your birthday, a present from
my wife. I’m newly 41, solidly into a new decade, old enough to think
“already? again?” instead of “Yay! Cake!”. This year, perhaps for the
first time since I was 14, I’m having a good birthday.
I didn’t know your name before Thanksgiving. I’d seen you in a couple
of movies, and in Glee, a show I watch only so I understand what my
wife might say about it. If I have to watch it without her, I fast
forward past the singing and dancing to get to the plot portions so
I’m not constantly asking “Why’s he doing that?” later. You were “that
guy”, and that’s nothing to do with you because many actors are that
guy. I now know the name of Patrick Fischler because he was that guy
three times in a night.
Driving from Chicago to Madison to have Thanksgiving with friends, my
wife wanted to play the The Tobolowsky Files, a podcast she had
discovered that week. I wanted to listen to Desert Island Discs,
another podcast I had also recently discovered, but my phone hadn’t
downloaded them. I wasn’t keen on her podcasts choices, which are
often a couple of TK trying to be morning drive-time buddy radio,
proudly celebrating their ignorance. There’s no there there. My hopes
were not high.
Our rule is the driver gets to choose the tunes. I need to listen to
talk radio of some sort. Podcasts are a godsend, but in a pinch, the
crazy late night shows on AM radio will do. I’ve even listened to the
religious stations. The Tobolowsky Files would have to do. We got
through two episodes before we got to Madison. They didn’t suck.
After Thanksgiving, I drove again. We listened to more Tobolowsky
Files, this time because I chose to.
Since Thanksgiving, we haven’t gone anywhere so we’ve had no shared
listening. I had wanted wait for a trip so we could listen to you at
the same time. If we get out of sync, the dinner talk is just going to
be Tobolowsky spoilers.
I distracted myself with Louis CK, whom I had avoided because everyone
fawned over his show. I relented, watched both seasons of his latest
show and a couple of his comedy specials, all in three days. In the
depression of exhausting one interest, I snuck a couple of episodes of
The Tobolowsky Files. I wouldn’t tell my wife, and I’ll only listen to
a couple episodes.
I listened the first episodes again. Then I figured I’d stop at
episode 10, a nice even number, but I went past that telling myself
I’d stop at 15, another multiple of 5, and soon I’d given up all
pretense of waiting to listen with my wife. I even had admit to her
that I was listening to them without her because I wanted to tell her
these cool things you were talking about and I couldn’t pretend you
were some other podcast because she would hear these stories
eventually. I’d have to change all of the details, like the movies.
I’d have to sneak these fake movies into IMDb and have to come up with
story about them missing from Netflix. It was easier to lie for a
But, back to my birthday. I want to stay in Solvang, a town I’ve
driven past many times but never stopped. We’d spend Christmas in
Pebble Beach, but if we showed up a couple of days early we can drive
down for a couple of days. Solvang ended up being much farther from
San Francisco than I thought it would be, so we got to listen to a lot
more of you. That doesn’t explain much about my birthday though.
Three years ago I came to grips with the idea that I had to enjoy my
birthday, whether I liked it or not. I’d been married for eight years
and there’s no escaping the birthdays when you’re married. For as long
as I can remember, literally, I’ve hated birthday parties. One of my
earliest memories, perhaps my second earliest memory, was a birthday
party; I was four, maybe five. It might have been kindergarten because
I have the feeling that some of the other kids I knew from somewhere,
but I also remember not really knowing them or being friends with any
of them. I remember sitting across the dinner table eating the
birthday cake when one of the kids sitting on the other side, the cool
side of the table with the chairs to the wall, said he was taking back
his present, Tonto’s horse. I remember the old dolls, or action
figures, or whatever unfeminine thing they were called. There was the
GI Joe with actual scruff on his face, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto,
each of whom also had their horses. Next to a Tonka dump truck, those
were about the coolest toys a kid could have, and even though know one
knew it and I was too little to understand it even if I knew, I was as
the tail end of an era in toys. Three or four years later, George
Lucas would be raking in money with the merchandising rights to Star
Wars, a movie I saw in a drive-in when I was seven.
In the last days of the Lone Ranger, at my birthday party, my Tonto
would no longer have to walk. Scout had shown up, without saying
anything about where he’d been, taking up where he had left off,
carrying Tonto to whatever danger was waiting for Kemo Sabe. It would
be years before I’d hear Bill Cosby’s interpretation of that
relationship, but I think I already understood it. If it came down to
one horse, Tonto was walking.
I said something. I don’t know what I said or who I said it to, but at
five years old who really knows what they are saying or why? That same
year, I remember sitting on the bumper of a utility truck. My parents
were mad. They kept asking me why I didn’t. I had no idea. They kept
asking, so I just made something up. Then I got in trouble for lying.
You can’t win.
Whatever it was annoyed the boy who had given Scout to me and he
decided to take it back, becoming what I’d later learn was we call an
“Indian giver”, although in this case, he was taking from my Indian.
Even at that young age, to the best of my memory, I realized that no
gift is truly free. I didn’t really understand the extent of that, but
I remember thinking that I had to be careful about what I accepted. I
have a few more memories like that from school: Jeff promised me his
Batman car but reneged as retaliation for some slight when I was on
the monkey bars. Gifts were favors, in the sense of the ribbons that
fair maidens attached to knights going off to battle—a mark of
ownership not only to others but to the knight himself. Nothing is
bestowed without some hope of return, tangible or otherwise.
From there, on each birthday I learned more about gifts. They are
centerpiece of birthday parties and some holidays. They are the
ritual. They are easy in form but tough in function, and they were
more trouble than they were worth. Besides the obligation, presents
are a comment on what people think of your life; sometimes they were
people’s hopes and sometime their disappointments. Some signify
nothing, being completely thoughtless executions of ritual.
Around age 14, I just stopped altogether. I felt brazen enough to
refuse a party and presents, and announced that to my parents. They
were dysfunctional enough to let it go, as they would many other
things. They didn’t participate seriously or enthusiastically, so
there was one thing less to worry them. As each birthday approached,
I’d hope that it wouldn’t come up and it would pass unnoticed, or, at
While in college, birthdays were easier. Christmas break would start
and everyone would leave. I didn’t go home for breaks, so I spend my
birthdays all alone. I didn’t do anything for them, and I didn’t tell
anyone about them. It’s not like anyone would be around, anyone. Since
I was a hard-core science major, a double major even, I also didn’t
have time for girls (that’s a whole other story), so I didn’t have to
deal with that (a major mistake I’d remedy if life gave me a do over).
I survived through grad school in the same way.
So, three years ago, a long time after school, I changed the tenor of
my birthdays. As I joke now, if I can’t eat it or fuck it, I don’t
want it. That’s a crude expression of what I eventually refined to
what I do know. I don’t want anything tangible; I want experiences.
They don’t have to be fancy. I’m not looking for adventures, as you
explain about the modern honeymoon.
I was standing on the Red Line El platform at Howard in Chicago, where
I was living, against my will and only because my wife got work there.
She asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, which was the next
week. I saw the Skokie Flyer, the Yellow Line train that had two
stops: Howard and Skokie. I’d never taken it. I had no reason to take
it. I decided that I wanted a mini-adventure for my birthday. We’d
take the Skokie Flyer, see what’s on the other side, and do that. We
wouldn’t make reservations at Morton’s, get tickets for a show, or
plan at all.
The end of the Yellow Line is a bus terminal, and the bus goes to the
mall. That’s all there is, not counting the closed Starbucks and the
Kiss and Ride. We ate at California Pizza Kitchen; I had a BBQ Chicken
Pizza. It’s a meal I normally reserve for the road. We took the bus
all the way home. We didn’t need the Skokie Flyer at all.
The next year, two years ago, I wanted to stay the night at the Drake,
the hotel at the top of Michigan Avenue. I see that hotel for 15
minutes when I run south along the lake. It comes into view a bit
after Fullerton and after that it’s a straight shot south with no
obstructions as I run. At night—I usually run at night—the Drake’s
bright red sign is my beacon for two miles. We had a nice room facing
north. My wife made a carrot cake that she carefully brought on a
regular dinner plate. I woke up early the next morning to buy her a
cake carrier to take the rest home.
That’s when I decided that each subsequent birthday I’d do something
that had nagged at me that year. It didn’t have to be fancy or
sophisticated, complicated or planned, big, epic, or important. It
just had to be something that I had been denying myself. It would be
something shared instead of exchanged, and would only exist in that
moment. There wouldn’t be anything left over.
This year I wanted a bucket of chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken,
some biscuits, and the KFC cole slaw. A bucket, not a plastic dish or
a small box. I wanted a bucket like the old days. I had told this to
my friend Margot and she laughed, saying that was “yummy”, until I
called her after having my breast and thigh, two biscuits, and cole
slaw, when she said “You actually did that?”. Birthdays are a special
time of the year, and now that I’m 41, so is KFC. They both come only
once a year now.
My birthday wasn’t over though. My wife had downloaded from iTunes
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party to watch on my birthday. We
watched it after having carrot cake muffins (not a whole cake this
year). She just said “I wanted you to see it on your birthday”, and I think that’s all I’ve
ever wanted from a birthday, even if it took me 41 tries to get it.
That, and my trip to Solvang, is all I need.
Thank you for sharing your birthday for my birthday.