When I was a kid my father took me to monster trucks once, for my birthday. Now that I’m an adult he never lets me forget that. He never lets me forget how excited and happy I was on that day.
Other kids got great big birthday parties. Other kids got to go to the big amusement park or professional baseball games or professional wrestling or a concert or a trip to a comic book convention. Or something like that at least. And most kids got something like that most years. I got it once. I don’t remember complaining.
I’m older now and, as routinely as the bills come, my father guilts me for not spending enough time with him. But when I do, it’s mostly him detailing and perhaps conflating and dramatizing his ailments. Or it’s long-winded reruns of his analyses of sports and politics and daytime TV, stuff I’ve already heard at least a half dozen times all the way down to the tiniest detail of the name and rank and department of the bailiff on Judge Ross (retired Las Angeles Sheriff’s Department captain Bruce Thomas). Based on the multiple physical and personality descriptions of Judge Ross and Captain Thomas, I feel I know them well, without having seen the show. And I’ve been well schooled on the psychological insights into the former librarian whose wife died 20 years ago, who hoards books all the way outside his house, the result of the emotional or psychological attachment to his long dead wife. And how, though he deserves sympathy, the stacks of books piled outside affect the property value of the neighbor, who’s suing for $15,000. I’ve heard this one and the story lines of disgruntled ex-lovers and co-workers and neighbors and business partners. I’ve learned to disrupt these retelling at the beginning, jumping to the conclusion as proof. For example, my brief retelling of how the defendant, without proper documentation of home prices and offers made and/or declined, lost the case. But not without Judge Ross’ proper scolding to the defendant for his neighborly discourtesy and willful lack of effort into confronting or addressing his troubles -my telling, proof that it can be abbreviated into seconds instead of drawn out into minutes for the sole sake of drawing out.
Or he spends a quarter of an hour describing a movie that if I was that interested in, I’d simply watch or already would have. Or emphasizing how his favorite book and film are To Kill a Mockingbird. Occasionally he’s asked what my favorites books and films are, which was generally just a lead-in to stating his. Or occasionally he’ll ask, “Do you know what my favorite book is?” and if I’m distracted or in little mood to play along, I’ve answered, “What is it again?” He’s answered disappointingly “To Kill a Mockingbird” but if I returned the question, he’d have no answer.
Or I entertain his disdain of onions and a 12 minute story about how a friend stopped over and then went into town and ordered cheese coneys with no onion but when his friend got back they had onion on them. And how when you order something without onion and they give it to you with onion, how that really pisses you off. And how when you order something without onion and they give it to you with onion, how it’s a real pain in the ass to pick all those onions off. How diced onions are way more of a pain in the ass to remove from chili dogs than sliced onion would be on a hamburger. You see, sliced onion comes off in slabs. You don’t have to pick it all out with a fork. And how even when you pick off all the onion with a fork, some of the onion taste still sticks with the meat sauce. And how some of the onion was under the cheese so you gotta removed the cheese to remove the onion and then put the cheese back on the coney. And how next time when his friend goes to pick up that order, he oughta check before he leaves to make sure there aren’t any onions on the coneys, even though he ordered them that way. Cause sometimes they mess up the order and cause onions have a nasty odor that just don’t sit right with him. His mother used to try to trick him into eating onions (the particulars of which I hope we avoid cause I’ve heard each of those attempts at bulbous maternal subterfuge a dozen times) but she never did cause he’s so sensitive to the foul taste of onions.
All that, you see, over onions on chili dogs. 12 minutes is a long time to talk about onions on chili dogs. Most pop songs only last 3 minutes and most, even the most unimaginative and manufactured stuff, would be better at 12 minutes than a deconstruction of the consternation over onions on chili dogs. And mind you, this blindness to the awareness of spending a precious afternoon with your son talking about onions and Judge Ross isn’t a mental fault (i.e a matter of physiological cognitive impairment), it’s a fault of personality.
But once every coupla months, out of guilt, I’ll go ahead and call and mark out a Saturday or Sunday for him. It’s a day I could be spending with a friend I rarely see or other family that are far less passive/aggressive with our relationship. Or a day I could get something done that really needs to get done but I hate doing, like taxes or staining the deck. Or even something fun or novel that, with every year that passes that I don’t find the time for, I realize it was an opportunity lost. Something fun or novel irretrievably lost in a life full of the bland and boring and routine.
Inevitably, I say that I’ll make the time, the time he laments I never make, and ask simply that he decides what he wants to do with it. And when the time comes and I ask, “So what are we gonna do?” the answer is also invariably, “I don’t know. You decide.” I’ve explained that nobody knows better what he’d rather do with these “precious moments” together than him. I offer this instance of my life as something that should be of value to him, since it’s of value to me. But not of enough value that, with enough time to decide what to do with it, to make a decision.
This got me to thinking about that birthday and the monster truck rally. I was never the kid to cry, “You never do for my birthday what Johnny or Paula or Evan’s parents do for them. Their birthday’s an extravaganza every year. But not poor, ole me. I only got that once.”
But if I had and my father had much sympathy, he might have replied, “You’re right. How about this year and from here on out, we do whatever you want since this is your special day.”
So my birthday approaches and my father says one week in advance, “Start thinking about your birthday. We can have a big party at McDonald’s or Chuck E. Cheese or go to Fantasy Farm or Kings Island or see the Reds or WWF or monster trucks. Or whatever movie you want or whatever else you want to do. Or would you rather have a gift of your choice?”
My birthday rolls around and that morning my father ask, “So what are we gonna do?” and my response is, “I don’t know.” But he’s still the selfish parent. And because I didn’t decide, I spent that Saturday watching TV all afternoon and night, alone and sad. But it wasn’t my father that gave me a birthday of nothing but television, it was me.
Or in the case of our time spent together now, “I don’t know” leads to an afternoon spent between four walls (his or mine) rehashing a disdain of onions and deconstructions of Judge Ross episodes. Is this how he imagined it would be 40 years ago? Instead of fishing or travel, it would be wasted afternoons wasting the afternoon? Precious time just sending and receiving static?
Would it be any wonder if my father never asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday again? Any wonder after that why I just got a shitty card with a $20 bill?