December 29th, 2013 - Grant Faulkner
Opening scene: I’m working on my laptop on my parents’ couch in their home in Oskaloosa, Iowa. I’ve flown there from San Francisco. I have a migraine. One of my first migraines ever, so I don’t even know that it’s a migraine. I only know my head hurts worse than a normal headache, and the words stumble awkwardly from my brain to the page and back.
I’m putting the finishing touches on a year-end fundraising appeal for the creative writing nonprofit I lead. Here’s the thing about being the executive director of a nonprofit: you always need money. You can never rest. Even on your birthday. Yes, it’s my birthday, my 49th birthday, and I’m a birthday person, a self-indulgent and just plain selfish birthday person, and I’m chagrined that the world doesn’t support good causes enough to give me a break on my birthday.
a selfish birthday person
But I don’t write that. I write how stories connect us, how our imagination transforms the world in magical ways, how the world progresses one story at a time. I believe all of that deeply, I’ve devoted my life to it, but I have a migraine, and the noise of my family in the kitchen is making it difficult to write. Not just the noise, but their togetherness. Which I want to be a part of.
Birthdays are a time for math. There are the eras when getting older is a good thing—when you’re 16 and can drive a car, when you become an official adult at 18, when you turn 19 and can drink (at least in my era)—each year promising new adventures, new opportunities. But then there are the eras where you get older—older as in older, as in leaving things behind—and while you might say age holds new adventures, one of those adventures is the end of age: death. And it’s getting closer. When I turned 40, I remarked to a friend who was in his 70s that 40 was the new 30. He told me, no, 40 is 40.
So I must have been thinking something like, “Oh, shit, 49 years old, that means I’m going to be 50 next year, which means I’m old, officially old.” It’s true, the AARP sends you its initial barrage of never-ending mail when you turn 50. But since I was still just 49, a young ‘un, I didn’t yet know how different my 50s would be: how mortality peeks its head over the horizon and winks at you, and then, now that I’m 59, how I see it staring at me with a menacing glare.
I’m a selfish birthday person for several reasons. One, because I’m a middle child, so I’m hard wired to lay claim to any moment where I can get attention. To add to my chip on my shoulder, my birthday falls on a day right in the cross-hairs between Christmas and New Year’s, when no one really wants to celebrate it. Several years before this, after a string of neglected and dispiriting birthdays, I was on a vacation with friends. When I asked them to join me for a few birthday drinks in the hot tub, I could tell they were too pooped to celebrate. Even on a vacation. I resigned myself to sit in the jacuzzi alone with a cold beer until one self-sacrificing friend joined me, clearly out of duty.
I made the promise then that I’d celebrate all future birthdays by myself. It would be a day without the complications of others. I would decide exactly what I wanted to do and experience it alone. This worked because I love being alone, and, especially after years of parenthood, solitude is its own magical gift. So a tradition was born, and I loved my solitary birthdays—birthdays of espresso and Italian pastries at Café Trieste in North Beach, a day at the Kabuki Hot Springs, martinis accompanied by a jukebox full of Maria Callas’ opera at Strada—all in the same day!
But on this day, December 29, 2013, I had to sacrifice my streak of fulsome, decadent birthdays to come home with my brother and sister to visit my parents because they’d suddenly become too old to travel to see us for the holidays.
Once I finished my fundraising appeal, I made my way to the kitchen, and everyone asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. The pickings were slim. The choices were a movie, or a movie. Fortunately, American Hustle was playing at a tawdry cineplex on the outskirts of Ottumwa. With a population of 25,000, twice that of Oskaloosa, it had a Target, whereas we only had a Kmart. That might not mean much to someone not from the Midwest, but it was all you needed to know about the difference between the two towns. Oskaloosa was decidedly a blue-light special kind of town.
I’d always had a fascination with Ottumwa. My father told me it was once known as “Little Chicago” because of its mafia connections. It was a river town. A meat packing town. A rough place. Its claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of Radar O’Reilly from MASH, and then later, notoriously, to Tom Arnold (Roseanne Barr’s ex-husband). Perhaps its most significant citizen, though, was Tom Arnold’s sister, Lori, known as the “Queen of Meth,” because she had a meth production and distribution operation based on a 170-acre ranch outside Ottumwa that grossed more than $200,000 per week at its peak. It turns out some Iowans had a taste for meth.
But that’s a story for another time.
We drove to Ottumwa, the five of us in a single car. It was one of those cold, windswept Iowa winter days. The kind where all of the leaves have been stripped from the trees and the frozen hardness of the ground permeates the feel of life. It was a day of greyness, a hard, gun-metal greyness. A relentless greyness. A greyness that put in question why anyone stayed in this place, why my family had farmed on this land for generations in a losing battle to make a living. I loved this land so much, though. Perhaps because its bareness had, in its strange way, invited my dreams to exist.
The cineplex usually just showed superhero and action movies, so the fact that American Hustle was showing was a small miracle. It was a film made by one of my favorite directors, David O. Russell, and starred Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper. It was a movie about people doing con jobs in order to be real in life—to touch something bigger through power and money. Gaudy 70s garb. Characters on the brink of imploding. Everyone wanting. And wanting more. Christian Bale had a belly the size of a beer keg and a torturously complicated comb-over that made me pledge to start taking better care of myself. Even though everyone was scamming each other, somehow a genuine love survived at the center of it all. It was a movie about the reinvention of self. A theme for every birthday.
Afterward, we drove around Ottumwa’s deserted streets looking for a restaurant to eat in. I was hopeful we could find a classic Iowa steakhouse, but there was nothing open that looked appetizing. The curse of my birthday had returned. We decided to drive home and eat leftovers.
As we drove, we were cloaked in a drape of quiet darkness, skitters of snow shooting into the headlights. We’d been together so often on such drives, driving home from Des Moines after a day of shopping, a performance at the Civic Center, a day at the art museum. We could be defined as a family in motion, moving away from our small town toward any sophistication we could cull from our nearby surroundings, eventually moving away to a bigger world beyond Iowa. We were fundamentally creatures of aspiration. My father was the first from his family to leave the farm and go to college, and then he became a lawyer who was known as the best-dressed man in town. My mother, an antique collector, made our home into a decorator’s showcase. My brother moved to Los Angeles to work with celebrities to decorate their homes. My sister left to go to an Ivy League school. And I set out to write stories, and to live a life worthy of stories.
That was the last time we were in a car together, just the five of us. My parents’ health quickly declined afterward. My father would be dead in just four years.
Now, ironically, I take the same heart medications that he took in his final years. All of life has been similar to writing that fundraising appeal: having a vision, trying to transform life into something better, asking the world for support, working to the point of exhaustion. I drank too much. I slept too little. I asked too much of life. I asked too much of myself. As Christian Bale learned in the movie, there are only so many ways to try to comb your hair over to cover your baldness.
Birthdays are about math. With my heart condition, my odds of being alive five years from now are supposedly only 50%. Who knows. I eat my broccoli. I don’t drink my drinks. I pray to a God I don’t believe in. But math, as much as it might damn, also gives clarity. When I think back to this day now, this day I wanted more from, I wouldn’t trade it for any of the pleasures I would have soaked myself in if I’d celebrated the day by myself in San Francisco.
A good birthday is simply one that happens, I now know. Preferably with others.
a blurry photo from a blurry day
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the co-founder of 100 Word Story, and the co-host of the Write-minded podcast.
He recently published The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story. He's also published All the Comfort Sin Can Provide; Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories; and Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo.
His stories have been widely anthologized and his essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.