The Joy Menu #30: Birthday
Your author celebrates 39, with a memory and a castle.
Hi readers and friends, a quick note before the note.
If you read this regularly, you’ve probably noticed the focus has shifted of late — from being “about creativity” in general, to focusing specifically on my relationship to creativity vis-à-vis my father, to my father’s story, and to our relationships with art.
When I began this project thirty weeks ago, I had an idea of what I was doing, but I knew I had to be open to “finding my voice” in this form (these notes are, after all, “first drafts”). In exploring my relationship to creativity — the “story of my creative life” — I discovered that at the heart of that relationship, beneath the top soil of that story, lived a deeper and more intimate narrative: that of a father and a son, and of a young man coming of age in a family with a specific outlook on art and life: because of immigration, cultural exchange, personal influence, and other factors I’m still discovering.
I’m happy with this shift, because I am enjoying the process of unearthing, processing, and telling these stories — and I’m flattered that you take time out of your day to read them. But I wanted to note the shift, before I “rebrand” the introductory page and welcome text, and before I double-down on this narrative. This is an experiment and an experience, and you all are a part of it as much as I am.
So thanks for joining me on the ride, and if you have comments, suggestions, questions, or even critiques, just hit reply and write. And, as always, if you know anyone who might enjoy reading, feel free to forward this — or any installment — their way. Readers keep me accountable, and bring me joy.
And at the end of the day, joy is what this project is all about.
Yesterday was not my birthday.
The day before yesterday was my birthday.
For much of my life, my father thought my birthday was 4-4-82. His had been 8-8-50 and my sister’s 6-6-79. I guess the pattern seemed important, and the 3rd wasn’t so far from the 4th.
When I was a teenager, he helped me open my first savings account — you can imagine what birthday he filled in on the forms. That issue followed me for a decade. (“I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t grant you access to your account; the information you’re giving us isn’t correct.”)
I could milk that error for its metaphorical value (a fundamental disconnect; a disappointment from birth; a misaligned desire around who I could be). But that wasn’t the case.
He was the person I called for from the crib — I said “Allah,” neither his name, nor our god. But just the same for my underdeveloped vocal apparatus; it was in his arms I wanted to be held, in his warmth I sought comfort, in his embrace I felt safest and most soothed.
And while I was always more like my mother (sensitive, introspective, affable in groups), I think I needed — even at that age — his brooding intensity, his sturdy reliability, and his masculine decisiveness to balance my own nature.
Between my father and I there was never trouble. Only twice do I remember crossing him. And both times he let it be.
Which, I’ve been told (by some ex-girlfriends), is a kind of trouble in and of itself.
Childhood birthdays were always nerve wracking affairs. The invitations, the kids from school. The tests of popularity and friendship. The intensity of being the Center of Attention.
When my birthday comes around, I often think of one in particular: the one at Castle Park. I would have been seven, eight, or nine.
Castle Park, in my young mind, was as potent as a local Disneyland, as alluring as a neighborhood Six Flags. The eponymous fortress at its center — four concrete walls and a sandpit — was an ideal vehicle for imaginative play (as well as a faultless venue for cuts, scrapes, and bruises): forty feet tall, carved with spires and lined with moats, jagged with lookout points and dugouts meant to be filled with spears and lava buckets, and mounted with severed heads on pikes. Or so I saw it at the time.
That day, before we were set free to scramble like knights errant over that sturdy citadel, my father was left alone with all the invited boys. I don’t know why this was the case, but I knew enough to realize it was an unusual situation. (Fathers worked in those days; they didn’t host gameplay or organize impromptu events). For some reason — probably because in an earlier moment I had requested it — he counted us off for a game of baseball, a sport he neither played, nor liked.
And that’s when things went haywire.
What I remember is: I wasn’t counted off onto the team I wanted to be on, and rather than complain, or yell, or even or shrug it off, I imploded in a mode of acute overwhelm — I stormed away to weep inconsolably under the gazebo on the other side of the park.
My father continued to host the game.
I don’t remember if he came over to comfort me, to try and wrest me from my stupor, or not. All I know is I felt frustrated at what was happening, furious at myself for letting it happen, and embarrassed for not being able to stop.
I knew I was ruining my party, being immature, and causing strife. And worst of all, I knew I was doing it at my father’s expense. My father, who so rarely spent time like this — playing — who normally would have been at work, or worrying about work, or sitting in his chair reading after work.
Eventually, the mothers returned and the cake was cut. I was sung to, feted with gifts, and sent with the other boys to get our cuts and bruises on the concrete castle jungle gym.
But I felt guilty about it for years. Embarrassed for myself, and for my father. That I’d let an unutterable emotion sweep me from my father’s side; that I’d descended into blubbering at a time when firmness and athleticism were desired.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see him standing there: counting off the boys, with me and then without me, leading them in a game he certainty did not want to play, as he eyeing me in his periphery as I wept.
Do I feel that I abandoned him? That I embarrassed him? That I let him down?
Did I feel that I’d lost out on his embrace, his attention, his time?
Even typing it out now, these are feelings I nearly begin to feel again.
I am now 39. Do I remember my father at 39?
Vaguely. I remember when my mother turned 40, which would have made him 39. I remember his soft humor at the idea of my mother getting “old.” I remember his tender teasing, his softhearted razzes about her age.
As with most things experienced by Boomers, everyone seemed to “discover” age forty around that time. Suddenly everything was 40: the jokes, the talk shows, the movies. “Being forty” cards overflowed the supermarket shelves like piles of glossy GMO apples.
I remember noticing my father’s good-natured ticklishness about 40 because my father was rarely in sync with what his contemporaries were experiencing. His coming-of-age had been markedly unlike the majority of theirs:
While they screamed at the Beatles on Ed Sullivan (and my mother among them), South Africa’s middle class had yet to get TV. The “invasion” of his childhood wasn’t the pop culture influence of a former colonial superpower, but the insurgence of an indigenous claim in the Border War to the west.
While his American contemporaries braved muddy fields to hear Hendrix play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he slept in a military jeep while the generals he chauffeured prepared for war. And when Americans got drafted or avoided fighting in Vietnam, my father sat in a flea-infested military jail for refusing the serve his reserve duty in the West Bank.
So the fact that it felt surprising — and charming — to see him laugh along with the “over the hill” birthday trend was because he’d rarely laughed along with, or given much stock in, the way other parents glorifying their 1960s.
My father was 39. He had three kids under age 11. A new mortgage. Was four years into a new career. He lived 7,000 miles away from his family. He was an immigrant, a foreigner, a man apart.
He turned 39 a month after my mother turned 40. It was 1989. I was seven.
It may have been the year of the breakdown at Castle Park. Or another year, when my birthday was filled with laughter and smiles, and no one at the party cried even a tear.
Onward toward creative joy,