Shell Shocked: Happy Birthday to You
Happy 2011, everyone. It’s the year of another birthday. For some of you it’s a festive, celebratory occasion. For others, it’s a day of foreboding. After all, if you’ve reached a certain number of birthdays so far you begin to wonder how many more are left. After all, we’re all mere mortals.
But this isn’t about foreboding. It’s about how different people celebrate their birthday. That once-a-year day where you get more attention paid to you than all others. We all celebrate birthdays in different ways. Some of us are in denial about it, particularly once you pass the age of forty.
Others maintain a go-for-broke attitude about birthdays. Do you remember what the first President Bush did when he reached his 80th birthday? He jumped out of a plane – literally. No, he didn’t do it because he couldn’t take being eighty and was displaying suicidal tendencies. He claimed that he wanted to demonstrate that being eighty wasn’t an impediment to daring and outrageousness. He had never sky dived before and decided that his eightieth birthday was the perfect occasion to do so. He might have planned this event some fifty years earlier during a boy’s night out. He might have said, “Guys, if I live to be eighty I’m going to go sky diving.” Did he take an oath that should he live to be eighty he would put a parachute on and jump out of a plane?
Or did he have a few glasses of wine the night before his eightieth birthday and say to Barbara, “By God, I’m eighty tomorrow. I’m going to jump out of a plane.” And did Barbara say, “Well, if you jump out of a plane at eighty, you’re going to have to climb Mt. Everest at ninety.”
Other people celebrate their birthdays in more traditional ways, like walking barefoot on hot coals. Or padlocking their rooms and refusing to come out until the next day. Or drinking two quarts of vodka upon awakening to blot out the meaning and significance of a birthday.
Some folks get very philosophical and begin to address the age-old question: what’s the meaning of life. And they spend their entire birthdays agonizing over this question and forget to celebrate.
Some of you choose the denial route and develop a convenient case of amnesia on your birthday. “My birthday? No, I don’t think so. My birthday is actually in… February? Or is it March? Let me think about that. Wouldn’t you know it? I simply can’t remember when it is.”
And some of you become indignant if every single person you come into contact with doesn’t call attention to your birthday. You could be hailing a taxi in Minneapolis and when the taxi driver doesn’t begin a conversation with you right away, you say:
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know what today is?” The taxi driver looks through the rear view mirror and has a puzzled expression on his face. “Are you talking to me?” he says. “Yes, of course, I’m talking to you. Aren’t you forgetting something? It’s my birthday.”
“Oh, of course. How could I forget? Happy birthday, sir,” the taxi driver responded.
Birthdays do give pause to your entire life. We think about past birthdays and how we celebrated. We remember milestone birthdays. When I turned thirty, some friends put me in a rocking chair and covered me with a blanket. They kept repeating: “Old, old, old.” At thirty?
When I turned forty I said to myself that had I been a major league baseball player I would be pretty much retiring by this time. Wouldn’t have much juice left in my bat and wouldn’t be able to hit the blazing fast ball anymore.
When I turned fifty, a friend gave me a coloring book as a gag gift. The idea was that at fifty you begin to drift back into your childhood and regress somewhat. There was no truth to that theory even though I joined a coloring book club and was proud to display my newfound artistic skills at Big Arts exhibits.
Last week a cousin of mine celebrated his forty-second birthday. We all went out to dinner and I gave him the perfect gift for someone of his age and stature: A Spiderman comic book. He appreciated the gesture by immediately disavowing any familial relationship to me.
My wife is the perfect example of the best way to celebrate a birthday – forget that she has one, will accept presents on any day of the year but her birthday and slams me in the kisser if I ever tell anyone how old she is.
Ah, birthdays – can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Happy birthday.