Today is my 46th birthday and I’m following my wife Kendall’s practice of looking at the films that were released not in the year of my birth but in the year of my “age”—1946. The winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year was William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.” I take that as a good sign, especially since 45’s winner was “The Lost Weekend” (a story of raging alcoholism) and 47’s was “Gentleman’s Agreement (a story of raging anti-Semitism). Will I one day look back at these as the best years of my life? It’s quite possible. Despite the heartaches and neuroses that have led me to this point, and despite the physical signs of the aging process that can’t be staved off any longer, it is still a relatively happy and healthy time in my life, knock on wood and spit three times, poo poo poo. It’s a questioning time, God knows, but one that I do believe I will look back on with fondness and nostalgia when I’m about to face my own Fade to White. Of course it seems completely surreal to me that I’m 46. How did that happen? I thought I was always going to be “the young one.” Thanks to starting school early and skipping third grade, I was always the youngest kid in all of my social groups and in most of my early jobs. No matter what indecision or angst I was suffering through, I would always calm myself with the thought that I had all the time in the world ahead of me to figure out my life. Not so much the case anymore. At best, and I mean BEST, I am halfway through my life. So what do I make of these past 16,790 days? What have I been doing for those 402,960 hours? Have I wasted a lot of those 24,177,600 minutes? Squandered many of those 1,450,656,000 seconds? (Oh my God, I’ve been alive for almost a BILLION AND A HALF seconds??)
I’m always surprised when I hear people talking about their childhoods or high school or college years as the best years of their lives. Most of my childhood seems very inaccessible to me, like I’m trying to tune in an old Philco black-and-white set that has a lot of static and problems with the vertical hold. The memories that I am finally able call up and write about in here tend to be focused on the cultural markers that implanted themselves in my consciousness whether it’s “Zoom,” “The Waltons,” Julie Newmar, or not going to the New York World’s Fair. For someone whose past seems like a vast terrain of repressed or nonexistent memories, it’s funny how often I try to evoke those years. Is that the raison d’etre of my blog? (Now that I’m 46, can I get away with using terms like raison d’etre?)
I am wracking my brain and I can barely remember a handful of my birthdays. What’s up with that? The only vivid memory I have of a birthday celebration with my family is from September 4, 1970. My mother had organized a themed party for our family dinner. The theme? Happy faces. In later years I had nothing but contempt for the inane yellow symbol that had swept the country in the early 70s. But on this night I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. My mother had hung mobiles from our kitchen ceiling containing dozens of inflated yellow happy faces. She had a happy face tablecloth and happy face napkins, happy face plates and cups, happy face wrapping paper covering my fantastic new portable record player (that played LPs as well as 45s and 78s), and a happy face birthday cake. I remember sitting there in that sea of idiotic yellow faces with my parents and my brother and sister thinking that I had the most loving family in the world and that no one had ever had a better birthday. How could I possibly know that my parents would be divorced a few scant months later and that my mother would be out of our house never to return? It’s funny—I’ve always remembered this birthday but I never thought of the time line until just now. No wonder I’ve always considered this family gathering as the happiest one in my life—it was probably the last one. God only knows what my parents were already going through at that time. My mother must have purchased those endless smiley faces hoping that their blank stares would mask the ugliness that was spreading like mold throughout our house. For me it worked. “Have a nice day!”
I’ve always known that I was born a month premature, but the details of that are lost now that my mother is dead and my father’s memory is spotty about such things. In one version my mother’s labor was induced by her doctor who either got the date wrong or didn’t want to change an upcoming vacation. I had to be kept in an incubator and I soon developed thrush, a disease in the mouth involving the same fungus that exists in vaginal yeast infections (oy). I couldn’t eat and started losing weight even though I was already very tiny and I had to stay in the hospital for weeks. I’ve known this story all my life but it was only this morning that I suddenly started wondering whether some of my “issues” regarding attachment, abandonment, and intimacy could be related to this traumatic entry into the world. One thing that definitely resulted from my condition—my mother was so freaked out that I was so tiny and thin that she started overfeeding me to the level of a Strasbourg goose being plumped up for foie gras. I soon went from being a skinny preemie to a roly poly Michelin baby.
This morning Kendall took Leah and me to a delicious over-the-top brunch at Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hilton. We wondered why we were passing hundreds of musicians and security guards as we made our way into the hotel until we suddenly found ourselves in a gigantic ballroom surrounded by huge caricatures of Jerry Lewis’s face. We had wandered onto the set of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, a staple of my birthday weekends (remember the year Dean Martin walked on the set, ending his long-time feud with Jer?). This telethon further induced my parents to overfeed us, lest we start looking like Jerry’s Kids. When we got to the restaurant we realized that almost everyone in there was either from the telethon’s crew or about to appear on the show. Visiting the Beverly Hilton is already like being in a 1972 time warp, but when you’re surrounded by dozens of people you last saw on an episode of “Love American Style” or “Marcus Welby M.D.,” the vision is complete.
Important cultural figures born on September 4th include Daniel Burnham (1846), the Chicago architect who built the world’s first skyscraper, the Reliance Building at State and Washington, which my grandfather owned for 62 years and renamed the Karoll’s Building until he lost it to bankruptcy in the early 90s (it is now the beautifully restored Hotel Burnham); Howard Morris (1919) who was the voice of some of my favorite childhood cartoon characters including Atom Ant, Beetle Bailey, Jughead Jones, and Winnie the Pooh’s Gopher; Dick York (1928) who was the original kinder/gentler Darrin on “Bewitched”; Leonard Frey (1938) who played Mottel “Even a tailor deserves some happiness!” Chomzoil in “Fiddler on the Roof”; and, born in Nairobi, Kenya, on September 4, 2179, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, communications officer for the Starship Enterprise (I told you I was a geek!).
“The Best Years of Our Lives” is not exactly the happy-go-lucky film its title implies. It’s about three American servicemen who return home after the war to find their lives irrevocably changed by their experiences. They each have a difficult time coping with the changes that have taken place in themselves and in the world around them but in the end they come to terms with their disabilities and traumas. They learn to accept that the past they know will never return and to embrace the realities of their present-day lives. Maybe this film is the perfect model for my 46th year!