Birthday Musings

Two days ago, I completed my 55th trip around the Sun, with a little help from the Earth doing its orbit thing. My wife Carrie remembers her dad reaching 55, announcing “I am now the speed limit!” I mentioned this to my sister, who remembered our dad saying something similar. So that’s been an easy go-to dad joke, but since the freeway speed limit has changed, I’ll have to wait another twenty years to use it. I tried “I am the rural speed limit!” and it didn’t kill.

Of course, I got “the Birthday Song” sung to me—over the phone, by my mom, bless her heart. But not by my wife: she’s not a fan of the ditty, and although I appreciated my mother’s performance, I generally agree. With all the creativity on this planet, how can it be that cultures everywhere belt out the same banal tune for one’s special day? We once watched a movie in which a family launched into a not-that-bad—and more importantly—different birthday song. Although happily surprised, we let the moment pass, never learned it, and now can’t remember the film’s title. I enjoy writing songs; how hard would it be to come up with an alternate birthday jingle to promote among the extended family? It wouldn’t even have to be universal. But no, I can’t seem to follow through. The Birthday Song has some type of paralyzing control over me and presumably over artists everywhere.

Greeting card phrases for anyone hitting a decade milestone (starting at thirty), or for anyone above fifty in general, are predominantly about exploiting the birthday person’s decrepit state with snarky punchlines. Not particularly celebratory, like an anniversary or graduation card, or sappy, like a valentine. It would be nice to get something like “Well, my friend, you made it to sixty,” then inside the card “You have so much yet to offer this world. Please take your meds and stay hydrated.” Right to the point, sincere, and in cursive font, of course. But we’re so programmed with the mock-the-old-person cards that this might be taken as sarcasm. I suppose we must accept the sentiment of a “Remember the time… / when you remembered things?” card or anything in that vein when it comes.

I still receive birthday money. By check—in the physical mail.  So, I’m bringing up Mom again. Perhaps my mother has been too enduring in her consistent and punctual generosity on birthdays and Christmas. To myself, to Carrie, my siblings, and all the grandchildren, on calendar cue. It has become sort of a budgetary expectation, part of the fixed income. We count on it, often finding ourselves pre-spending the known payout.  This year, I advanced myself a new pair of eyeglasses: I ordered them a few weeks ago, they arrived Saturday, and I paid myself back Monday when her check cleared. I did the math right and came out about $1.82 ahead on the deal so I generously left that untouched, to bolster our account balance. I realize this is not cool, but it’s hard to break out of the seasonal pattern. And it’s better than what one or more of her grandchildren have done (who may or may not have been my children): requesting their “birthday payment” early. Understandably, my mom didn’t take well to entitled requests for advances on her generosity. But they have tried for this more than once, either unaware or unconcerned about deflating her motivation for generosity and possibly bringing down the whole institution. So risky.

For those with the “love language” of gift-giving, there’s much at stake on one’s birthday. Gift-givers have a heightened appreciation for receiving gifts, which can make for a great day. Yet if the birthday person holds others to their own lofty standards (thoughtfulness, specificity, value, creativity), it might be yet another let-down. My advice to those of you in this predicament: enough with the hints and high hopes; Simply buy yourself all the perfect items you want, wrap them up as you would for someone else, and open them on that special day among friends and family. It’ll work for you and will also make a bold statement to them about how they could have nailed it better.

What’s the most coveted birthday year numeral? On the low end, we have many competing ones: 13 celebrates becoming a teenager, while 15 is, for many, the special quinceañera. For non-Latinos, “Sweet 16” is considered magical, though not so much a formal rite-of-passage, especially for the lads. Eighteen and 21 get their value it seems from the legal opportunity to pursue vices (depending on state laws), and of course, for the cherished opportunity to be dutiful: voting in an election, fighting for one’s country, or paying one’s own car insurance.

In the higher numerals, it’s all about the decade, as if the base-ten number system somehow imparts extra value to ten percent of our days.  In retrospect, 38 was a great year, but I sure didn’t see that coming based on the birthday year banter. With 40 right around the corner I could easily have lost focus. I enjoyed wonderful parties for my fortieth and fiftieth but in my estimation, deserved a bigger affair for my year 52 accomplishments. Maybe we could just pass off most years as a wash and in the ones where everything came together, a person could declare, “This year rocked—I’m pulling out all the stops for my last day of Thirty-Seven!” although that would run the risk of guests showing up a day late. But back to the numerals themselves, why not simply get stoked about even numbers (or odd ones, if that’s what you are into), making half of the birthdays an excuse for greater festivity? Or if that’s going overboard because the frequency waters down the specialness, how about any multiples other than ten, for example: Sweet 16, Thriving 32, Fabulous 48, Superior 64…could you get fired up for those?

Planning a birthday surprise party for someone? Consider this: you are most likely to successfully pull off a surprise party for someone that didn’t anticipate it, which is to say, didn’t want it.

My 55th was perfect: a few perfectly practical gifts from my wife and a lazy Sunday at home with her, enjoying steak dinner and football on TV.  To each of my readers, Happy Birthday in advance!

Copyright © 2022 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.

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