FRESH YARN presents:

SOTERIOPHOBIA: The Annual Birthday Revue
By Todd Levin

Dear Mom,

Your birthday is coming up, I see. I hope you don't think I've forgotten. I just wanted to write you this letter to discuss your birthday plans. As your children, Julie, Danny and I want to try something different this year. Before you rend any fabric, hear me out, please.

As you know, each year we celebrate your birthday the same way -- with a fictional, simulated crisis call. At some hour (preferably pre-breakfast or post-television) during the daylong stretch of your birthday, one of us places a frantic telephone call to you. The nature of the call is usually this: some emergency has occurred -- preferably a life-and-death type of situation, such as a car-jacking or emergency experimental heart surgery -- and we saw fit to call you in the middle of the crisis, not wanting to miss out on what could be our very last opportunity to wish you a happy birthday. It is no secret that, to you, this kind of sentiment is the greatest gift of all.

Did you know we used to trade off making calls each year? But now that we've grown older and our lives have become more complicated (with spouses and children for Julie, and Word Jumbles for Danny -- his constant, almost daily, obligation), the responsibility has lately fallen on my shoulders with the greatest frequency. After all, I am the one with a background in acting. I'm sure you'll recall a certain community theatre production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible in which I played the totemic, but thematically essential, role of Plymouth Rock. Remember how I spent two weeks living in a rock quarry to prepare for that role? You brought me a baloney sandwich every day. I never ate them because I was reluctant to break character, but your efforts still meant a tremendous amount to me.

While acting skills have never been essential in properly celebrating your birthday, they have nonetheless proven most advantageous. When placing a crisis call we always felt the presentation should be as naturalistic as possible, for the greatest effect. I have access to an endless library of sound effects cassettes and, in a pinch, can call on the services of a fellow thespian to play the role of an axe murderer, kidnapper, dog catcher, or lifeguard gone berserk, if required. I think these elements have always helped you really suspend disbelief -- that's stage talk, meant to describe the way you felt when we went to see Miss Saigon at the Averill Park High School and that giant papier maché helicopter descended from the wings at the end of the production. The helicopter didn't look especially realistic -- it was lumpy, and I'm pretty sure they were just re-using the whale model they'd built for the previous winter's production of Moby Dick. Ah, but in the moment we believed it was a real U.S. Army helicopter. Well, I believed it anyway. And the Vietnam vet in the audience who climbed onstage and tried to board the half-painted prop helicopter believed it, too. And that's precisely what I mean by suspension of disbelief. I realize you've always been in on our game, that you've been vaguely aware that each crisis call is an elaborately staged sham, and I appreciate you never calling us on it. But I also know, even with the knowledge that these crises are all just hokum and high theater, you still seem to feel all the same emotions you would feel if one of us really were calling you while being attacked by mummies.

For a long time, Julie, Danny and I would call you on your birthday with a simple "Happy birthday" and "I love you" (or, in my case, a simple "I'm almost done blaming you for my personal shortcomings.") I worry that small gesture left you feeling unsatisfied and under-appreciated somehow. There was always an air of, "That's it?" in your expressions of gratitude. Or maybe it was the way you'd actually say, "That's it?" and slam down the telephone receiver that created this particular air. Either way, there was certainly an air.

But now, when one of us calls to say "These men with Uzis are about to throw me in the back of a windowless van and I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday before they erase my mind, change my name to 'Opal' and coerce me into joining their eco-terrorist faction," I really think you see the work. You can probably imagine the conference calls and script meetings. You can sense we went to great lengths to perfectly match the Lebanese dialect, even if it's only heard as a muffled voice in the background. And you seem to appreciate finer details, like the sound of a 1978 Chevrolet van engine revving or a lifeless 140-pound female body being dragged across loose gravel by its arms. You have a way of taking all of the horrible, life-threatening details, assimilating them, and adding them up to signify a profound and unconditional love from your children.

And while we we're not always comfortable with the morbid themes we explore and execute for our crisis call each year, we know what it means to you and that knowledge has made the planning bearable, and the production somewhat more enjoyable. But it's work -- between craft services, late nights in the editing suite, and dealing with the often-unsavory union bosses. And it's not that we don't think you're worth it. We really do. But we are getting older, as are you, and I think it's time I asked you, as a representative of your three children: This year, how would you feel about dinner at Applebee's?

With love,
Todd (the one with glasses)

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