Since reaching my majority, birthdays have been fraught for me.
It’s not so much because I’ve feared the rolling-over of the odometer to this or that number, but because I don’t know what to do with birthdays. And something tells me they need to be noted somehow, if only to maintain a loose grip on time.1
Now it’s easy enough to default to a special dinner out, or to coerce some friends into sponsoring one in. Even a big trip isn’t hard to wrangle, especially for the “zero” years. For my 36th, a rather theatrical friend even treated me to a novel celebration that included a one-on-one sharing of journal-style entries on my life, with a ritualistic ingestion of wine-soaked strawberries to punctuate each year.2
For my 43rd birthday, though, I finally took a real risk and threw myself a real party. I’d hosted one for my 38th, but it was strictly a small-potatoes, have-a-few-friends-up-to-the-new-pad sort of deal, the sort of affair where if only you, your boyfriend, and a few losers with nothing else to do of a Saturday night turn up, you can totally play it off as intentional.
This time, I went way out, for me, for then, on a limb. I approached some friends who owned a restaurant about taking it over for the night. I wore contacts and makeup and a, for me, even still, cute outfit. I bought a basket of disposable cameras3 for group documentation. Most critically, I invited my friends, all my friends, from all my various interests, rather than just the jocks or the burnouts or the West Siders or the East Siders or the nerds or the theater nerds or the other theater nerds. (I jest, but only slightly, the narcissism of minor differences is never so pronounced as it is when you get groups of performers together.) I invited guys I’d dated whom I was now friends with. In fact, I think the only people I didn’t invite were two guys who’d dumped me, and I still invited our mutual friends.
There were reasons for this rather dramatic change of affairs, this freaky, new-found bravery.
You see, in 2001, just two days before my last Big Round Number Birthday, the world blew up.4 A year later, on my 41st birthday, I was hospitalized with my Crohn’s onset: I got a colonoscopy and the nurses got my cake. Not exactly sweet times at the disco. (Although that bloody epiphany is still my all-time greatest birthday gift to date.) And the following year, I spent my birthday in Florida watching my 70-year-old father dying. Neither of which things, for the record, is any fun. At all.
Which is why, in 2003, 50 or so of my closest friends who’d never laid eyes on each other before found ourselves at an Argentinean restaurant in a Hollywood strip mall, eating SCD-legal food and drinking SCD-legal adult beverages at my “Breaking the Birthday Hex” party.
I was never so nervous before, never so happy during, never so gratified after any birthday thing I’d done, ever.
Not because my friends finally met in a gigantic DIY celebration of kumbaya spirit: after some perfunctory politenesses, people pretty much drifted off to whatever groups they self-selected for and I pretty much bounced from table to table for the balance of the evening. I was happy during and gratified after because I was nervous before, because in throwing this particular party in this particular way, I did something I was afraid of. It was absolutely the scariest and most wonderful gift I’d ever given myself.
From my perspective eight years further down the road, the Breaking the Birthday Hex celebration marked a huge step forward for me when it came to owning my life and integrating it into my life’s work. My bloody epiphany may have woken me up and the autobiographical play (with music!) that I’d co-written, produced and performed earlier that year certainly gave me a huge surge of confidence, but this was mine, all mine. It was a decision I made, not one that was thrust upon me, and it was my name alone on the marquee. Friends contributed, of course, there would have been no party were it not for my restaurant-owning friends. But it would have been Colleen’s Dud Party, not Colleen’s Restaurant-Owning Friends’ DÃ©bÃ¢cle, had things gone south.
I came out of that birthday feeling more like myself than I had since I was 10, and stronger than I had, ever. I think it’s no coincidence that less than a month later, I took my first of what has turned out to be many solo road trips, or that less than two months later, I launched communicatrix-dot-com. I’d finally started to live out loud.
But never REALLY loud. Since Breaking the Birthday Hex, I’ve plugged away at things assiduously, but quietly, as quietly as one can plug, anyway, when one’s plugging-away takes place principally via the internet. I have put my time and energies into building a body of work, this blog, then this newsletter, this column, this speaking (so called)-career.
Along the way, I’ve met a lot of people. A lot of very different people. Yes, we’re all special snowflakes, but like snowflakes, we cluster. You will not find much overlap between the attendees at a typical Toastmasters meeting (if there’s even one of those) and the people whose work populated the leaderboard of Dean Allen’s late, lamented Favrd. Nor will you find many, if any, of either of those two clusters hanging out at a Biznik meetup or talking shop on kernspiracy or hanging out on the actor boards. If there even still are actor boards in 2011.
For my birthday this year, I need everyone at the same metaphorical table, or at least in the same metaphorical Argentinean restaurant. I am as nervous about doing that as I am that my Big Scary Birthday thing will be a whopping and highly public flop. Which you’ll understand when you see what it is, next Monday. You’ll either be all “Wow! That is big and scary and I’M IN!” or you won’t. And if you’re not, make no mistake: it will flop. Highly and publicly.
Make no mistake: I want to succeed. Both because it will be awesome for a whole lot of people if I can pull this off and because I am one of the most competitive motherfuckers on the planet.
But even if it flops, I will have tried. No one will die. (Well, not because of this, anyway.) It’s almost guaranteed that a handful of people, young girls, whom I might argue are some of the most important people, period, will be better off. All of these are good things. Especially the part about people not dying. Almost always good when that doesn’t happen.
So hold a good thought for me. Really, less a thought for me in particular than for anyone out there beholding the Scary while doing it anyway. I don’t care who it is or how easy it looks from the outside, IT AIN’T. Even if you’re looking up. Maybe especially then. The landmarks become familiar as you circle the mountain upward but the air gets thinner and the path, narrower. That can be hard on older bones.
Did I mention I’m turning 50?
1This goes double for someone living as I do: childless, in endlessly sunny Southern California. With neither height notches on the doorframe nor seasons to mark it, one runs the risk of discovering that time is not, in fact, infinite juuuust as it’s about to run out. I’ve witnessed a few of those deathbed wakeup calls, brother, and they ain’t pretty.
2It was not at all unpleasant; it was also not at all something I’d even think about trying past age 35. And even then, make sure you have cab fare home.
3Kids, ask your grandparents.
4By sheer chance, I’d had to reschedule my 40th birthday to take place a month earlier: a madcap, Manhattan weekend with my then-boyfriend and my dad. It was a lovely trip and celebration. For obvious reasons, the actual day was rather grim.