Sometimes, it takes a while to put feelings into words; words into thoughts; and thoughts into an electronic email platform used to communicate with almost a thousand people. But just in time to celebrate my birthday this year--after a few months of uncommon silence-- I’ve found time to rehash some of my favorite, most taboo, and heartfelt birthdays.
Let’s start from the beginning....
Friday, October 1st: 1982, Day 1
Most people aren’t able to retell with acute detail the story of their birth. But not me. No sir. I am the exception. I remember every detail from start to stop. After all, I was there. I was hot, irritable, and to boot, I suffered the most overwhelming, intense and stifling wave of claustrophobia. I’d simply outgrown the apartment. Therefore, I packed my bags, cleaned my dishes, left a note for the next tenant, and took down my paintings from the walls. It was time to leave. What does one do when confronted with such extremes of human discomfort, asphyxiation, and early onset infant paranoia? He kicks, naturally, and claws his way towards the first beam of light he sees and never looks back. While my graceful backstroke into the sterile but warm embrace of a one Dr. Wesley F. Prater on the third floor of the Mississippi Baptist Medical Center at 2:26AM was likely of grand stamina and Olympic merit, somehow my 22 year old mother and 23 year old father had an entirely different interpretation of my arrival. I didn’t care. Unlike most newborns, I didn’t have a first coo or hum. I, instead, communicated immediately in full sentences, “can someone get me a fresh towel… and a martini?”
Thursday, October 1st: 1987, Day 1,825
By this point, my memory was fully developed, sound, and completely unshakeable. I loved Heman, adored She-Ra, and hated their nemesis Skelator. This brisk afternoon at Our Kids Treehouse Preschool in Terrell, Texas around lunch time, not far from my mother’s job as a substitute teacher at a local high school, out of nowhere, a cake! It was mostly purple and themed after the sinuous cartoon hunk, his athletic Amazonian honey pot, and their bony-- yet incredibly muscular-- rival. I thanked my mom for having the cake baked in my favorite flavor-- martini.
Days 1,826 through 4,744
While I was an 80s baby, I was most certainly a 90s kid. The next several years were a wash, with all the typical celebrations one might expect during his young formative years: balloons, singing, sweet things to eat, family and friends. Yet while I was safe in a microcosm of love and protection, my awareness began to grow. I remember things like the War on Drugs; Just Say No; the rise of the AIDS crisis; beanie babies; pogs; Whitney Houston’s Star Spangled Banner; and I recall on TV one day lots of people speaking German and a big wall falling down. Was there an entire world beyond our little home at 1715 Rocky Place Court, in Dallas, TX, 75227? But moreso, how are some people able to buy gin, vermouth, and queen olives, but not me?! The world became big, confusing, and radically unjust.
Thursday, October 1st: 1998, Day 5,840
Sweet Sixteen. Belle of the ball. There I stood, happy and surrounded by my closest friends and peers atop the rooftop deck of The Green Room Restaurant and Bar. Thank you mom for out doing yourself and completely spoiling the heck out of me and my friends with pizza and a DJ. It was a magical night that I’ll remember forever. Why you didn’t allow us open bar, I’ll never know. But no matter. Two of my friends and I did shots in the bathroom with liquor stolen from one of their dad’s cabinets. It was like a bad Saved by the Bell episode. Slater kept watch for Principal Belding while Zack and I dared the other to go first. It was all so dumb but sort of lovely too. Why does no one ever tell you that human metabolism is so high at 16, that alcohol in small amounts is basically water? I felt nothing and at the same time felt that I betrayed my dearest friend-- the martini.
Sunday, October 1st: 2000, Day 6,570
I got a call from my dad to come over and spend the weekend with him. While I was an older teen, attending an arts high school, and by this time student body president, spending too much time with the parents would totally cramp my style. Ego aside, I went to spend time at my dad’s. And guess who got a 1995, White Ford F-150 out of the deal?! My dad. I, instead, was gifted his old 1984 Chevrolet Tahoe. My first car and gas prices the lowest they have been in my entire life! Super unleaded was 98 cents a gallon! Thanks Clinton. Now… about the legal martini age.
Wednesday, October 1st: 2003, Day 7,665
Well well, guess who can finally buy alcohol and drink it, legally, and in public? No more stealing away to the restrooms. No more asking wet nurse for a refill. No. Instead it was I who held the keys to the booze wagon dag’nabbit. And it was I, who on this birthday, was going to drive it until the wheels fell off, damn it! I proudly walked into Ponce de Leon Liquors in Coral Gables, FL, near the university where I was a music student. Chest high, I casually roamed the aisles for what felt like hours. What would it be Travis, I’m sorry, I mean… Mr. Whitlock? Smirnoff, Beefeater, Jack Daniels? Each bottle seemed to tempt and entice me in just the most nuanced and individualized way, “Pick me. Take me!” A completely indifferent cashier rang me up. “$13.47...anything else?” But wait. My ID? Doesn’t he want to see it? My inner Pretty Woman screamed, “Look, I got money to spend in here!” But nothing. No greeting. No “it must be your first time to buy liquor for yourself,” grin. Nothing! He didn’t even check my ID. That bottle of Bacardi Razz sat on my bookshelf for a solid month, a symbol that, with age, hope is bust; nothing has meaning; and eventually I'd probably have to shop for my own coffin. But hey, the silver lining… I could finally order a martini--- anywhere in the world.
I’ll spare the details of all the birthdays that followed. People tend to have some sort of crisis at 25. I, instead, had to find my own health insurance, and if I wanted to rent a car to get to the appointment, I could. 28? I don’t remember ever being 28. I do remember having finished two graduate degrees and was well into my Chicago years by this point. At 30 the world just became dumb. I didn't see what the big deal was turning 30. At the time I was working two jobs and owned a 2008 silver Milano Scooter that I keenly named Delphine. Turns up Delphine needed an oil change on my 30th birthday and the weather was nice. So, I did that in my neighbor’s backyard all while listening to him grieve over a sister who died the week before of multiple sclerosis.
31-35? Meh. Let’s just call those The Blurry Years, with no particular highlight worth mention. I did plan a dinner for my 36th. But it took the group of 12 so long to sort the bill and pay, that I just slapped $40 on the table and announced that I was leaving to get drunk across the street. In grand Travis Whitlock fashion I yelled, “If you’re coming, see you there. If you’re not? Thanks for whatever this was... see ya later!” Three of my friends were waiting for me-- Martini 1, Negroni, and Martini 2. The dolls that they were, my dinner guests eventually wrapped up and joined me across the way.
Right now...Tuesday, October 1st: 2019, Day 13,505
While a lady never tells her age-- I’m no lady and hardly a gentleman for that matter-- today I celebrate another year. I’ve dropped enough clues and dates that I would seriously wonder about your math skills if you are not able to deduce just how old I am. But for the impaired or mathematically disabled, today I’m 37. Yep. I’m basically dead. I’ve started to codify my will, a sustainably equitable 401k, and I wonder whether or not this weird mole under my arm is diabetes, fiybromyalgia, or multiple sclerosis! I’m pretty sure I have both dementia during the day and Alzheimer’s at night. You don’t even want to see me at the grocery store nowadays. I tried one of those shopping scooters, the motorized kind up front near customer service, just to “get an idea.” And hand to Jesus, I am certain that rheumatoid arthritis keeps me up at night along with the hypertension, the IBS, and the acid reflux. I’m a mess. That’s life, right? One big, ugly, lovely, beautiful, gone-too-soon mess. I’m starting to be ok with that.
Happy Birthday, me.
I love you, me.
You’ve come a long way, me.
There is so much more you will accomplish, me....
But first… martini?
Impromptu Parody of Traditional Holiday Verse in a Bad English Accent to Make It More Entertaining0:00
I'm going to read this to you... click above!
'Twas the day Christmas, when all through the house
the family was eating and aunt Jean stained her blouse.
Mom grabbed the fabric, Febreezed it with care,
Thank goodness it's wool, cashmere's a nightmare!
All of the children were snug on the couch
Stuffing their faces and filling their pouch.
Visions of Netflix danced wide'cross their eyes
Johnny's nineteen...still believes in Yule lies.
Out on the lawn, near the door, rose a sound.
I paused the Pandora and headed abound.
Goodness, what joy. The postage was extra...
Holiday miracle! Amazon shipped my Alexa!
The smell of the gingerbread wafts in the air,
Why is our house like a festive daycare?
When what to our souls did cause a great strife,
Uncle Jerry arrived with his 27 young wife!
Then, there we sat, each one his own quirk,
No, grandma Edith please don't show us your twerk!
Is this really Christmas, oh dear I must ask?
Mmm, not sure that it matters, in my pocket's the flask.
Then came the moment we dreaded in fear,
Did Auntie Rebecca consume too much beer?
"Well you are her husband... just make her stop!"
"Ok. But stop shouting and go find her top!"
Oh Joseph, oh Mary can this circus get worse?
Yes. Hold your horses wait for the next verse...
No topic, no subject could make the room more jump,
Than Auntie Patty's adulation of Trump!
Sidestepping her comments, we shut that down quick
But none for better, for outcries from cousin Rick:
"Look, this isn't easy and there's no better way..."
Jenny, his sister, "We know that you're gay."
More rapid than fire that feeds upon air,
Papa came in to sit in his armchair.
He twitched his left eye, then called us by name.
The tone in his voice was absent of all shame:
"Now Jeannie, and Edith, Rebecca, and Pat...
Oh, Jenny and Ricky, gather kids, come get sat.
Take your place here beside me, let's all get real close
You are my loved ones, raise your glass and let's toast!
Who cares if you're messy, a drunk, or a gay...
You are my family and I want you this way.
I look 'round this room, and am completely awestruck.
I love you all and you're annoying as @#$."
And there we all sat, tightly together
(If God you can hear me, last not this forever.)
And just in the end before breaking free,
He hugged us all tight, then let us be.
We looked at this man and with utter repute
His claims, we all knew, we'd never dispute.
He looked at us all, before saying goodnight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and please no one fight..."
This is the open forum and final area of my research fun. Here's the moment when I hear from you. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on happiness. How does it unfold in your life? How do you know when you are happy? Comment below...
Picture this. Me sitting in a chic Chicago cafe, just having paid $5 for an Arnold Palmer on a strangely humid afternoon in fall. Deep in thought, typing wildly. I admit my cliché badge is prominently on display. I’m entirely aware that several months have passed since my last email and that my annual letter has arrived every August for the past 8 years, but the delay has not been without reason. I’ve been conducting research and can finally share some results.
Over the summer my mom called. Usual subjects-- weather, work, and when do I plan to move back home, buy the house next door, start a family, and provide her with eight grand kids? Reassuring her that’s all underway, thankfully, a different topic arose. We talked about what my life was like when I was younger. She recalled, I was usually practicing, prepping a performance, or packing for an adventure in a new place altogether. “This is when you were happiest,” she offered. Great thing about mothers is that they are likely the only consistent witness of our development throughout life. They are probably the only people who possess any real accuracy when comparing their adult child to the rugrat who once didn’t eat his peas, struggled with organic chemistry, or bought his first car. They know us well. Point being, her comment did two things. One, it simply reminded me of values that I hold; and two, our conversation resonated such that it required me to think more intentionally about happiness. This has been my research-- exploring what happiness might mean day-to-day. Here is what I’ve discovered, and here are the questions I’ve posed around this sometimes not so clear cut, perhaps esoteric, often elusive, yet deeply rewarding concept.
Happiness is a noun.
Weird. Like a glass a water, a piece of tree bark, or the fuzz between your toes when you take off your socks, happiness is supposedly a tangible thing. If you reach for it, it's just going to be there-- like a coffee table book or a broom at the back of a closet, right? Easy. But according to all-knowing Siri and a dusty dictionary I checked, happiness is the state of being happy. Hmm... "a state of being" that's also readily available like chalk, hand sanitizer, or sand on a beach? I'll leave the philosophy to the pros and avoid getting too Descartes-y, but that’s already kinda trippy, non? By comparison, it's as if just recognizing the glass of water on the coffee table automatically quenches our thirst, but without ever having swallowed any. God forbid there be yard work or a heat advisory. Bluntly put, happiness is weird and it's a complicated idea right out the proverbial box, regardless if you've mastered it or, like most of us amateurs, if you're still parsing it out.
Over or underwhelmed?
I read a book that had me envision a see saw. On one end I was to place the concept of being overwhelmed-- like cooking dinner for 40 people, operating on a US president, or whatever would fall conceptually into this camp. On the other side, I was asked to place the opposite, the concept of being underwhelmed-- a dead end relationship, small avenues for professional growth and self empowerment, or perhaps a bowl of plain oatmeal with no toppings. We all hate that. Then it was posed, “what direction should the see saw tip?” Well, that’s like asking what pit I would want to fall into first-- lions, or sleeping lions? Either way, I end up a tall and handsome piece of catnip. No thanks. The answer is neither side. Instead the author describes that happiness lies in our ability to simply be whelmed, being whelmed is enough. By doing so, we actively avoid the extreme ends of the metaphorical scale and avoid the imbalances that delay, and even deter, happiness. Recognizing when the scale begins to tip and teeter is what's key. The goal, is to gradually eliminate the extra weight.
Pencil yourself in
I was in England over the summer. During my travel, I passed through Penrith, a small and dusty town in the far north, yet with epic scenes and lovely, lovely locals. This is what some might describe as the middle of nowhere. I decided to have lunch in a pub hundreds of miles from anything, literally an-y-thing. It sat a few kilometers from the base of a very large hill that reached upward, infinitely into a grey and foggy sky. The old cobbled building was surrounded by herds of sheep basking the in damp English countryside. Clusters of carefree ewes scattered themselves wildly across a lush field, wet and green as far as I could see. Before eating, I chatted briefly with a herdsman and his wife to learn that, not once, in 30 years, have they ever missed having tea together in the pub. Come rain, shine, or winds the couple showed up, no matter what. That astonished me as their story was corroborated by other regulars of the pub... While many of us map out the day to pick up the dry cleaning, take the kids to rehearsal, and to get the Buick an oil change, I wonder: who among us makes time each day for happiness-- not that it is a byproduct or an afterthought; but instead, re-framed, that it also becomes just as important to the day, that happiness becomes a beautiful habit and our most necessary chore? Two people definitely have me beat.
Happiness requires the right equipment.
A tricky thing happiness is. It sometimes feels as though it exists at the top of a mountain, and below near the base, we peer up and scream, "how the mother fricking frick do I get waaay up there? I don't climb. I can barely make it through Zumba!" With self-discovery as our only guide, we set out onto a bumpy terrain, just hoping to arrive somewhere near the top. But what good is this type of hope, especially without a helmet, a harness, and a few sturdy ropes? In spite of how narrow or intricate the path, and in addition to a general sense of the route, it's important to gather and maintain any required tools. Happiness is no different. Like scaling Kilimanjaro, it demands a mix of both simple and sometimes more intricate inner tools to help achieve it. Challenge is, there is no catalogue, no app, or no such archive to which we can turn to order our supplies. In fact, there really is no definitive map. Instead, here is where the work is done and the effort we must supply. Here is where we must learn to take stock. Here is where it's imperative to identify what is critical and necessary for the climb.
Purpose. It's the most important thing.
I'll end this year's annual letter by harping back to a subject I wrote about when I crafted a Fulbright proposal and was rejected for the third time. It's linked so closely to the theme of this letter. I wrote about purpose. More specifically, I wrote a little about Downton Abbey, Isobel Crawley, and a compelling monologue she gave before leaving the Abbey. She says, "It might surprise you that I wish to leave such a paradise, but I require that I be useful. I must go where I have purpose. It is the only way to see and feel my happiness." What is so striking about this concept is the suggestion that each of us posses a similar inward compass. That each of us is innately guided by the same identical nudge that directs us, ushering us towards the bastion of our values; towards the richness of purpose; and towards the very center of complete, abiding, and sublimely rhapsodic happiness.
Thanks to the 73 friends and family who helped make my birthday just a little more fun this year by participating in my birthday quiz. That everyone is able to know the answers, here is the answer key and the correct responses to all my quirky, silly questions. Congrats to the top three scores-- you three will be getting a prize.Thanks for playing!---
How long have I lived in Chicago?
11 years, 3 months, 4 weeks, 3 days
I have a few nicknames. What's the one that's followed me since grade school?
Number one country I want to visit.
When I gotta have it, I gotta have it...
Sounds true, Sounds fake: I first encountered Miley Cyrus when she was drunk, twerking on a golf cart in a park in Chicago.
I have a tattoo of a ________ on my _________.
Sorry, but I just can't.
I freakishly know a lot about these historical figures, because they are my favorites.
Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, Cleopatra VI, Elizabeth I
I hate, yes hate, these creatures with all my being.
We all have stupid, irrational fears. Which one seems like mine?
Kids under 5, for whatever reason, always seem to want to fight me and would win.
Bake me a birthday cake, you think I'd devour.
Chocolcate: Fudge Frosting and Ganache Filling
Carrot: Butter Cream Frosting
Likely true or totally false: I was a certified development coach for the United State Tennis Association from 2005 to 2007.
But, for real, my fantasy job is....
mastering the upper tiers of espionage and being a spy
I'm likely to rent a...
Superstition I've held since grade school
Never spliting a pole when walking in a group
Im 100%, no joke, hands down...
TW's number ONE top pet peeve
Talking over others
I am from________ but was born in_________.
Dallas, TX; Jackson MS
Tell me, what is my FULL Christian name?
Travis Earl Whitlock
Hypothetical: A driver cuts me off in traffic. I respond by...
accepting the situation as a minor frustration; but then later that night, by candle light, pray to the biggest, meanest, most horrible demon in Hell to visit the transgressor and eat their soul
We all have an inner diva. Who's mine?
I went to the same high school as Eryka Badu, Roy Hargrove, and Nora Jones.
My absolute FAVORITE thing.
I am a...
Some of you, I have known for centuries, others maybe just half a century. Regardless, here is your moment of truth. Test your luck! How much do you really know about Travis Whitlock? Now is your time to shine, or utterly fail. Top 3 scores will win a prize-- yes a PRIZE-- and bragging rights, whatever they are worth.
1. Sharpen your virtual pencil, sit comfortably, and link below to the quiz. Although there is no timer, you can only submit your answers once. Choose wisely.
2. There is a possible 100 points. 24 questions. 1 Free response. The free response is not weighted and won't count against you-- unless I don't like what you put.
3. You will be ranked against your peers. The top % of respondents get a prize-- something stupid and dumb, after all it's my birthday, you should be sending me stuff.
4. Use your noggin. Some of the questions are tricky on purpose. Take your time, shouldn't require more than 6 or 7 minutes if you've taken everything I've ever said to heart and listened/observed me carefully ever since knowing each other.
5. This is the linchpin of our friendship. Score below 30 points, we're over. I'm deleting you from not only my phone and Facebook, but also from my memory. No pressure.
6. I love you. I'm expecting 100%. Don't disappoint me.
7. Good luck
This past summer I spent almost 3 weeks exploring the UK. I travelled all over and spent most of my time in the far north, in the Lake Discrict. Below are highlights from my travels. I have tons of pictures. I travelled to Lake Windemere, Penrith, Blackpool, Manchester, Salford, Pooley Bridge, York, Aira Force, Ullswater, Bowness of Windemere, Patterdale, Glenridding, Chorley, and of course London. Great friends helped make this dream a reality.
Tis the season for Netflix, Redbox, and ham!
Whether you've been naughty or nice; whether sleigh bells are ringing bright and loud; or whether it's as simple as leftovers and a phone call, may this holiday season be bright and full of family, friends, and delicious treats!
Here it is again, the ultimate holiday granting permission to sample, eat, bake, and taste everything in sight-- Thanksgiving!
As we enter a season of thanks celebrated by food, family, and friends, remember the greatest ingredient of all is still good ol' fashioned L-O-V-E.... oh, and butter.
No matter where you are this Thanksgiving or at who's table you find yourself sitting, embrace the spirit of thanks and share it with anyone you can.
Have a slice for me.