Happy birthday to me

My birthday is next week. Sunday, December 4, to be exact. I wasn’t thinking of doing much, but I don’t want to end up like some of my friends who, unlike me, are reclusive sorts who emerge from their dank, squalid flats only to grab groceries, score weed and report for jury duty, and they aren’t really into their birthdays that much. You hang out with them one day, doing very little of consequence, and you find out a week later, by accident, that it was their birthday, and all you did to celebrate it was watch some shit on telly.

Honestly, I don’t understand these people. If you can’t celebrate your birthday, shit, what can you celebrate? On my birthday, I revel in my own self-indulgence. I organise and announce my own birthday party, preferably at a spacious bar with plenty of cheap drinks, invite any friend within a 100-mile radius and then kick back and enjoy a drunken evening with my closest associates. That’s what a birthday is supposed to be about – your most beloved cronies, gathered around a large table, talking shit and enjoying one another’s company.

This is a yearly ritual for me, inviting all my pals in my chosen area and begging them to come and chill out with me. Birthdays are our checkpoints, the times we can sit back and reflect on how much has changed in a year, discover whether we’ve moved forward, or backwards, or whether we were running on the spot for all those months.

It really only started with my 30th birthday, in Camden Town, London. It was a crazy time; my mate Ross organised it and we ended up in some bar or the other with Rowan, Sarah, Sergio, Joe and some others. Ross, bless him, even got me a birthday cake. I don’t remember much else of that evening, although from the photos, I must have had quite a time (there is one of me kissing a girl I don’t know who, I am told, was also celebrating her birthday that day). There were also text messages on my phone that I did not send… I think… including one to a girl I fancied at the time that went something like this:

Her (responding to a text from my phone): Are you drunk?

My phone: Yes! So come and take advantage!

Her: OK. Where are you?

No reply.

Bastards!

And so it went from year to year, the only blip being a couple years ago when I was under strict doctor’s orders to take it easy. Still, I insisted on travelling some distance to attend an office Christmas dinner at which everyone surprised me with a drunken rendition of Happy Birthday and a cake.

Last year, it was surreal. I was in Covent Garden, with just a handful of buddies, when I was introduced to this almost preternaturally attractive girl who won my heart by buying me shots all evening. At the end of the night, she came over to me, gave me a hug, told me it was great to meet me, then took my right hand and put it on her left breast. I didn’t see her again until about a month ago, when I learned she was a nurse named Kate that I had quite a connection with, and we sat down over a couple drinks, and she denied the whole birthday thing, but I knew she was full of shit and I liked her anyway.

And that leads us to this one. Another year gone, and I will start this birthday, as always, uninspired, unmotivated, undisciplined, unworthy… But then I will find myself at a bar somewhere, having scrounged together the few real friends I have in London willing to come out on a Saturday night. And I will drink and smile and laugh, and all will be well. My birthday always reminds me how lucky I am to have people who care about me, a decent job that pays the bills, a roof over my head, and good health.

I will not allow myself to be one of those birthday people, the ones who get all freaked out about their age, ohmigod I’m almost 40, I’m not married, I haven’t achieved this or that, I’m wasting everyone’s time, boo fucking hoo. That will not be me. I will drink and I will smile and I will laugh, and all will be well, oh yes, it sure as shit better be. I will not wallow, become depressed, wonder how in the world I ended up here, ended up doing this, ended up acting this way, ended up thinking this.

True, I don’t always feel like I have it all together. Of course, maybe no one ever really does. But next week is my birthday and goddammit it, I’m going to celebrate, even if there really isn’t anything special to celebrate. I am not going to let anything get in the way of a drunken birthday. If I’m going to earn any kind of small victory, it will be that.

Happy birthday to me…

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Snapshots of a life

What’s heaven like? I know what I want heaven to be. I want heaven to be The Truman Show of my life. Somehow, some way, God had little invisible cameramen following every moment of my life, from birth, and he sat down with his little angel Martin Scorcese and edited the thing together into a real-time, neatly packaged narrative.

That’s what I want. I want to relive my life, except as an observer. I want to see it all like a movie: the great moments, the humiliating ones, the banal day-to-day drudgery. I want to laugh at how silly my friend John looked at 14, how scared my dog was at four weeks old, what exactly that first kiss was like. I want to relive it all. It would be like having a permanent mirror on my bedroom ceiling. (Though I think I may ask Morgan Freeman to edit out bits like the sleeping and masturbation. I think he’d do that for me. He is, after all, God, and he is wise and kind.)

It just all seems so important. I want to make certain I don’t forget any of it.

Oh, and the lessons I would learn! What did I learn from this point to the next one? Did this tragedy make me a wiser person? Did I really tell her I was going to call her that night, or was she right to be mad? Just who was that giving me bunny ears in that class photo anyway? Did my family do anything traumatic to me as a child that I’ve repressed? Just where in the world did I get that haircut? Did I ever improve after my initial, clumsy attempts at cunnilingus? And, at last, I can find out: Do these jeans make my arse look big?

Unfortunately, I have no idea if the afterlife is like this. As far as I know, it’s utter blackness, or, even worse, a television that only plays Channel Five. But my general principle stands: I want to remember it all. I want to see a snapshot of a friend of mine from, say, 10 years ago, remark on how they’ve changed, or how they’re the same clown they were when they peed their pants watching Friday the 13th when we were kids.

So I take pictures. Oh, do I take a lot of pictures. You know that guy who, when you’re out drinking some night, suddenly pops up out of nowhere and flashes a camera in your face? I’m that guy. Before I went digital, I used to go through film like cups of coffee. I was perpetually buying film, waiting for it to be developed, taking pictures, add add add, more more more. I want it all chronicled. I must remember.

I started putting together my first scrapbook/photo album the day after I graduated from college. Since then, I have filled nine huge, fat ones. It’s all there. This is as close to the Jehovah-directed video I’m waiting for as I’m going to get.

It is only special pictures that are included in my albums. They have to remind me of a moment, a night, an experience, something. I have to be able to legitimately describe the circumstances behind a photo in four-to-five sentences; otherwise, it’s in the discard pile.

Well, the other evening, I sat around, alone and forlorn (it was a Tuesday, after all). It was a total country-music day: mah girl left me, mah boss on mah case, mah dawg done died. I was at home, trying to find the right music to fit my mood, when I looked in the corner, and saw my stack of old photo albums. I started flipping through the first one, with the posed, “professionally”-taken shots of an ex-girlfriend and me. And the thought occurred to me… what if I counted every single photo of every single person in my albums – physical, digital, or those ubiquitous Facebook ones – and tallied them? Would I learn anything? Would I come to any kind of realisation about my life, how I got here, where I’m going… stuff like that?

And so I started making a list. Everyone who appears in my albums… they’re all there. This list is my life in outline form. It was an irresistible project.

Maniacally, I started putting it together over about half a bottle of Angostura 1824 rum and a Nirvana playlist. Did I learn anything? No. But I did get drunk, and it was endless fun. I highly suggest you try it.

I even set up some ground rules.

First and last names. A requirement. If I couldn’t remember both names of a person in a photo within a pre-determined 15-minute period, they weren’t included. I was not allowed to call a friend and ask. So my apologies in advance to Melanie Somethingorother, that one guy who lived down the hall in the Mona campus years, and that one chick, you know, the one with the big teeth, total horse face, dated Jeff, you remember her, right? Those guys are in the pictures, but not on the list.

Famous people. Totally included, as long as I was in the room with the celebrity when the pictures were taken or if I took the picture myself. It amuses me immensely that I have more pictures of David Beckham than the girl whom I took to my college graduation ball.

Maiden names: If I met the person before they were married, her maiden name is used, even if the majority of pictures are from after the name was changed. Essentially, I’m just using the name I know them as. (And for the record, ladies, keep your name. Guys suck. Your name is probably better anyway, unless it’s something ridiculous, like Pitzer or Fullalove.)

The fickle laws of chance and opportunity. This is hardly a ranking of how important people have been to me, in order. Circumstances dictate my photo output. In London, I took more photos than I did in New York. And remember, my first album didn’t begin until after college graduation. School and college friends get short-shrifted. On the other hand, if I went to your wedding, odds are good that your number is pumped up, even though I might not actually even like you all that much.

Prominence. You need not be the centre of a shot to have a photo counted. Even if you’re in the side of the frame, picking your nose, it’s a point for you. But we need to see your face; a foot that looks kind of like yours, except with less mould, doesn’t show up on the scorecard. Also, my list is not indicative of anything, and there won’t be descriptions of anyone on there. It’s just the names. Their relevance in my life is something I’ll keep to myself. To protect their privacy, you see.

Cleavage. Any shot with a woman showing cleavage was counted twice. OK, that’s not true… but how awesome is it that I have cleavage shots in my photo albums? I should make a special album just of those and keep it at my bedside.

This project works on two levels, if and when I finally complete it and publish the list on this blog. First, it allows me to see just how prominent some people have been in my album and let them know just how many photos of them are currently in my closet. Secondly, it will allow my friends to search their names on Google, realise I’ve included them, and then hunt me down and kill me.

Thank you for letting me do this.

The cult of self-esteem

Some of my teacher friends may disagree with me, but I’m a tad worried about some of the lessons being taught to young children these days.

That’s because in practising today’s cult of building “self-esteem,” almost everything that a child does is absolutely, fantastically, incredibly, unbelievably just soooo fucking wonderful. As in the mother at Gatwick airport a few weeks ago: “Oh, you’re doing that soooo well, Thomas. Fantastic!” (To a boy playing with a little car and making an awful sound that I think was supposed to be a police siren.) Or, to her young daughter throwing a ball up in the air and catching it: “Honey, you did that so well. I’m soooo proud of you!”

Shit, I thought. Wouldn’t a simple, “Good work, keep it up” be enough? I mean, what are these poor children going to do for an encore?

Really, I never knew the word “so” could have so many syllables or that when it comes to virtually every one of a child’s activities there are only varying degrees of “wonderful”. But it’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this. In run into it in shopping centres and supermarkets — all those places where young children often gather with their parents. It’s even happing in our schools too.

But there is something even worse than such excruciatingly effusive praise for every benign activity. There is, for example, the mother in a restaurant last week talking to a child who had finally stopped screaming demands and was now sitting still for a few minutes: “You’re doing very well now. Mummy is soooo proud of you.” Or, back at Gatwick, “Thomas, that was soooo nice to let Sarah play with your ball without getting upset. You’re just great!”

I am not a child psychology expert. Shit, I’m not even a parent. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that such worshipping at the shrine of self-esteem only builds a certain amount of self-centredness and a false sense of self — a real Tower of Babel — that can’t help but one day come crashing down around the child.

Case in point: a recent Reuters report noted that while today’s District of Columbia high school students rank at the bottom among students in the United States in mathematics skills, they are tops among the world’s students in how they feel about their mathematics skills. Well now, how the fuck is such a child going to feel when they can’t get a job after leaving school? I mean, it’s hard enough already even when you have a Masters degree!

It’s no surprise that some of today’s most popular child-rearing books instruct parents to criticise wrong behaviour but never the child who committed it. In other words, say to your child, “It’s not nice to say that to your sister.” But surely, separating actions from the child committing them teaches little ones that they are not responsible for their behaviour. And isn’t this the very thing, so widespread today, which cause great personal misery and societal dysfunction? Besides, how can a child not responsible for their actions then have an appropriate sense of satisfaction when behaving well? After all — when one extends the principle — if they shouldn’t be criticised when they behave badly, then neither should there be praise for a good performance! No wonder the children raised according to this cult of self-esteem seem so often to be the most tyrannical and unhappy of creatures.

Of course children can behave badly, or be unkind or selfish or rude, and it doesn’t help anyone, least of all the child, to pretend otherwise. Rather than teaching them to separate themselves from wrong behaviour, isn’t it better for a child to learn how to guard against such self-destructive tendencies? Only then can they move toward that which they can honestly feel good about.

Of course, praise for children is very important and should be given whenever appropriate. Children have great inherent worth because they are the future. And a sense of honest self-esteem and of being loved unconditionally is crucially important to a child. But we do them no favours when we portray for them an unrealistic picture that is often either too easy or too hard to live up to.

My fight with Mike Tyson

We all have our demons. Some of us have been so hurt by past relationships that we can’t open ourselves up to other people anymore. Some have been stricken by family tragedy and have trouble seeing a reason for anything. Some of us can’t handle heights, some of us are mortified by snakes, some of us are freaked out by clowns. Whichever. There’s always something.

My demon lay dormant for over two decades, but he returned last week, unrelenting as ever.

My parents, different, I suspect, than many today, never had a problem with their children watching too much television. We were always encouraged to go out and play, sports, hide-and-seek, hell, even doctor, anything to get us out of the house and away from the brain rot of popular entertainment. In the long run, this might have been beneficial for me, but at the time, it made me the lamest kid in the neighbourhood. Not only did I have no idea what was happening on any of the hot cartoons, but I was also so nerdy that (get this) I didn’t even have a Nintendo. That’s right; while the other kids were mastering Pac Man, Frogger, Excitebike and Metroid, I was plopped in the driveway with my siblings with a football, a book and an admonition to “stay outside and enjoy the fresh air.”

I’m not sure these restrictions had the desired effect. Rather than roll in the weeds and become one with nature, I instead found friends who had cooler parents, and I’d play their Nintendo. Poor bastards. I’d show up at their door, they’d sigh, let me in and hand me the controller. Occasionally, we’d find a two-player game like Contra or Tecmo Bowl, but usually, I had only one game in mind, a game that could only be played solo.

I had an obsession, recklessly unhealthy, with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. It was all I wanted to play and all I wanted to think about. I’ll never forget the first time. I was visiting my cousin Sheldon, and he told me about this awesome new game. “At the end, you get to fight Mike Tyson. But I can’t get that far.” He handed me the controller and I battled Glass Joe, notoriously the worst video boxer since the advent of sound. In a three-round slobber-knocker, I defeated him with a TKO at 2:54, and I was hooked. I wanted Tyson, and I would do whatever it took to take him out. I am certain that there are friends’ parents, if I suddenly became a serial killer and they were interviewed as a “concerned neighbour,” would have little more to say than, “He was a quiet sort. All I remember is him playing Nintendo. That boxing game. Actually, it did seem like he was screaming a lot at the television. Had violent outbursts.”

Kids today must wonder about society’s fascination with Mike Tyson. He’s now (justifiably) considered bit of a caricature, and before that, a monster who bit people in the ring and threatened to eat other boxers’ children. He was feared in the same way we fear the wild-eyed, unshaven man screaming at nobody in the street. He was unpredictable, unhinged and pathetic, a circus sideshow, a car wreck we couldn’t take our eyes off. He was a disintegrated man.

But it’s important to remember, in the late ’80s, when Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a 250-pound, tightly wound, ready-to-snap mound of endless muscle, no man was considered more indestructible than Kid Dynamite. Grown men who were paid millions of dollars to punch other men in the face, men nearly a foot taller and a decade older than Tyson, would cower at the mere mention of his name. Michael Spinks, considered one of the best boxers in the world at the time, faced Tyson in a match hyped as an impending classic. But when the bell rang, you could see Spinks’ legs quivering from outer space. Ninety seconds later, Spinks was flat on his back, spasming, humiliated, and Tyson was forever a chiseled god, the physical incarnation of the power of intimidation. He was 21 years old, and he was the baddest man who ever lived.

And he was mine. I worked myself up through the ranks, compiling the Minor, Major and World Titles with nary a second thought. My eyes never wavered. Tyson was toast. After easily dispatching the pectoral-gyrating Super Macho Man, I faced Tyson for the first time. Now, any of you familiar with the game (anyone?) will know that in the first 90 seconds of a match with Iron Mike, any punch he hits you with will knock you down. It took 30 seconds for me to be floored three times. But I practiced and practiced, even discovering the code you can plug in to skip all other fighter and battle Tyson directly. I eventually figured out how to avoid all those 90-second punches, and how to knock him down, and when to dodge, and when to sneak in a quick uppercut. But I couldn’t beat him. I would be far ahead on points, needing only to survive the third round. I would always choke. Somehow, someway, I would blow it, and he’d beat me, and he’d flex his deltoid and wink at me. I hated that fucker. Nothing I tried worked. All my friends, they could take him. Some could even knock him out. Not me. He haunted my dreams. I played so much I started to think my father looked a little like Piston Honda. But when it came to Tyson, I was always pushing that rock up the hill.

Then came February 10, 1990, in Tokyo, against Buster Douglas. My father and I were watching an English football game that night and would occasionally flip channels to make sure we didn’t miss the inevitable Tyson knockout. Every time we flipped back, however, we were amazed to find the fight was still going. In fact, Tyson appeared to be, what?, losing. No matter: He’ll find that one punch and he’ll drop this chump. And he did, almost. He flattened Douglas with a quick uppercut, but the big dude didn’t stay down. And then, in the 10th round, the unthinkable happened, and Tyson went down, and he didn’t get back up, and someone had solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, slaughtered Jabba the Hut’s underground pet, penetrated the impenetrable fortress.

That night, I stayed up late and fought Tyson. I beat him on points. But I played him again the next day, and he destroyed me as he always had before. As the mysteries of pubic hair began to reveal their true purpose, my enthusiasm for the game wavered, and eventually I gave away my Nintendo to a younger cousin and went to college, and grownup land, and all that fucked-up shit that never allows you to win on points. And I never beat Tyson again.

Then, the other night: a couple mates and I were helping a friend clear out his garage and lo and behold, there sitting on a shelf was that parental replacement, the Nintendo. And sitting next to it, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I was helpless against its charms. Work had to stop. I grabbed the cartridge, blowing the dust off it started up against Glass Joe. It was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. I remembered how to beat each guy. I withstood Bald Bull’s charge, Glass Tiger’s weird magic circle thing, Mr. Sandman’s devastating super uppercut. I beat everyone, including Super Macho Man, setting up a rematch that was years in the making.

And I got scared. I told my friends the whole story, about how I always choked against Iron Mike, how much pain and misery and self-doubt this stupid game, and that stupid guy, had caused me. One of the guys, the one who owned the Nintendo, scoffed, saying that beating Tyson was second nature to him at this point. I begged him to take over for me. I can’t stand the disappointment. I can’t come this far, this many years removed, just to lose again. You can beat him. I want to see him beat. I can’t handle another loss.

Another mate spoke up: “For Christ’s sake, David… If you keep thinking you’re a loser, you’ll always be one. You’ve earned this match. You’re good at this. You can beat him. Don’t walk away now because you’re afraid to lose. You can’t live life trying not to lose. You have to play to win. Now go beat him.”

And I was fired up. My revenge against Tyson was delayed, it would not be denied. I grabbed the controller out of his hand, to the cheers of the crowd. I pressed start, and we were off. I avoided the first 90 seconds of punches and went on the attack. The first round ended with neither of us being knocked down. I had his power low, however, and I took him down early in the second. He got up and peppered me with some nasty jabs, and I was down. But Little Mac popped back up, and we were into the third round. Down he went again. I now had enough points (6,000, if memory serves me correctly) to win, if only I could survive. The room was silent. One minute to go. One poorly timed jab. Down I went. I did not get back up. With six seconds left, Iron Mike flexed his muscle and winked at me.

I looked at my friend who had delivered the rousing speech. I eyed him closely.

“I think I’ve proven my point.” I then flipped him the controller and went back to the garage, more certain than ever that playing not to lose in life is the safest, most self-preserving option I’ve come up with so far.