So last week, I had one of those milestone birthdays. In five years, with a little luck and a good wind behind me, I will officially reach 75, the half-way-point to middle age. What can I say. Longevity runs in the family.
Even überflu couldn’t put a damper on the celebrations. Or that “Lousy Phil Lanier.” That’s what my dearly departed and daft mom used to call my best friend since before the dawn of the dinosaurs. Phil’s 36 hours older than me. Every April 5 on his birthday, he wisely forewarns me of all the problems, challenges and untested legalities that lie ahead on April 7, on my birthday. For nearly six decades, we’ve never missed assaulting the other with ballads in the key of R-ruptured flat so irredeemably inappropriate, acres of university Fruitcake Gender Studies departments slither about, hands bent to claws, crouched and hissing as if spritzed by holy water.
On April 5 and 7, we start innocently with “Happy birthday to you, you were born in a zoo…” From there, the lyrics cascade madly over a cliff. We awkwardly croon bad marriage choices, firings, lack of writing talent or failure to reach even the minimum qualities of mulch. Long John Silver would blush.
Many years ago, Lanier flew to Florida to visit his dad. Like clockwork, I got my birthday call and Philly belted out ribald lyrics about disease-ridden prostitutes (who looked like ex-spouses, girlfriends and male algebra teachers), my inability to write on a sub-chimpanzee level and, Phil’s favorite fencing target: my weight. Best friends, 60 years, we’ve never had an argument. Or harsh words. As it’s been from teen to senior, that Florida call, we laughed our heinies off, then exchanged reports. I asked how his Pops was doing.
There are things you’ll never forget.
“Dad passed away about 20 minutes ago.”
Phil added that unless it involved a stewardess in a bikini, or watching a re-run of “Adam-12,” he couldn’t let anything get in the way of wishing me a happy birthday.
And there is the best of all birthday presents. Illness? Loss? Disaster? A perfect spring day? Nothing — nothing — can get in the way of friendship.
Last birthday? I spent 14 hours of it on the phone. Fourteen hours. Just to show my life is not a complete emotional wreck, let the record reflect that people were calling ME, not the other way around. I laughed so much I hurt. That last call ended at 4 a.m. Two old Newhall friends handed me a present so loving it brought me to tears. Quarantined or not, I was with special people who so cared about me, with whom I had shared joy, comfort and certainly tragedy. My kid-brother-like substance Wilbur reminded me of when we were lifeguards at a redneck Soledad Canyon campground in the 1970s. It’s summer, maybe 200 people in the water. A giant with a farmer’s tan was standing on the thick safety line that separates the deep from shallow ends. A safety No-No. I stood on my tower, raised my bullhorn and yelled: “Off the — R O P E S!!” except my voice cracked and the “ROPES!!” came out sort of castrato. Windshields exploded. Coyotes. Birds. Yangy teenage girls. Everything in a 3-mile radius was silent. Then? They started laughing. While people were probably drowning, Willie was lying on the concrete, sobbing, pointing at me while hysterically laughing at my cartoon mouse vibrato.
Try living that one down.
I had another present, dropped on my doorstep last week.
It was a quote, from the motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, who tweaked it from a saying by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
The Holmes/Dyer suggestion?
“Don’t die with your music still in you.”
I had heard this before and rediscovered the wisdom while doing a little research. More than hitting the lottery or getting a new $96,000 pickup truck, I needed to hear that. In these junior varsity plague times, I’ve been working on my next novel. There’s been a few glitches. There always are. You see, underneath my heart for years is the uncomfortable nettle. It’s that awful French word — manqué.
“Having failed to become what one might have been.”
Up until my birthday, I was terrified of that adjective, of the possibility that I would never become the author I was meant to be. I was given a wonderful birthday gift. Too early to tell? Have I been cured?
All of us have that music within. It’s not one song. It’s many. I’ve a lawyer pal who plays in a pop band, a doctor who plays the banjo, a carpenter who writes songs, a developer who takes his golf to a zen level. Another friend vowed, years ago, near 50, that he was going to become a cowboy. He did. Still another pal died in his 90s years ago, but not before earning his first black belt in karate in his 80s and opening his own dojo.
“Don’t die with your music still in you.”
Is there a more profound tragedy to find a corpse — your corpse — filled with music?
John Boston is a local writer. Sometimes, when the wind’s just right, he wreaks of music.