Monday, March 19, 2007

a double-digit birthday

I just don’t get birthdays.

Weddings and funerals, now those I understand. Weddings solemnify the consolidation of several individuals' credit card debts, bookshelves, kitchenware, and possibly gene pools. It’s no wonder newlyweds smash cake on each others’ faces so forcefully; they’ve gotten a glimpse into the future and now they’re hopping mad. Funerals? They need little explanation. They’re your last chance to demonstrate that you can actually throw a decent party, if only by proxy.

Divorce? People have their own private ways of celebrating divorces. Most involve bad behavior and non-premium alcoholic beverages that come in economy-sized containers – Old Fedcal, Senorita Tequila, or Pink Zinfandel in the big box.

Look: we celebrate the anniversary of Elvis’s untimely demise, not his birthday. We hunker down in front of the tube with our peach Sealtest ice cream and Seconal and remember and remember until we’re fat and stuporous.

Birthdays only make sense if everybody gets the day off. If you’re Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, for example, but not if you’re Millard Fillmore or Ulysses S. Grant. And certainly not if you’re Zachary Taylor, who died of what amounts to acute Independence Day dyspepsia after having eaten: “a hasty snack of iced milk, cold cherries and pickled cucumbers.”

What, no herring?

Holidays make sense too – they mark the passing of the seasons. And they make it possible to light fireworks or dress as a member of a different gender than usual or eat until you’re bloated and bilious. They may even have appealing mascots, like Christmas or Easter (and here I’m talking about S. Claus or the E. Bunny, not J. Sus; I’m suspecting that your misinterpretation of the word “mascot” is deliberate and disingenuous). There’s a house down the hill from ours that is inevitably festooned with appropriately colored thematic lights for every holiday. Right now, you can still see the green shamrocks of Saint Patrick’s Day, although I’m sure they’ll tastefully disappear within the week.

Basically, birthdays just commemorate the fact that you’ve muddled through yet another year without dying. This is of little note unless you’re in the single or triple digits. Double digit birthdays have little to recommend them, even if the flip of the year puts you into a whole new demographic category, opening the floodgates for a new advertising barrage.

Birthdays are also used as opportunities to fete someone who’s already famous. Then there’s no issue about who’ll come to your birthday party. Everyone will, of course. And everyone will bring a camera with the hope that you’ll get drunk and become publishably unphotogenic and garrulous. That your nose’ll turn red, your eyes’ll turn into puffy little slits, and you’ll say something that’ll make you the next candidate for rehab. Thar’s gold in them thar candids.

But really there’s no point to birthdays for the rest of us.

Birthdays have been on my mind since I just had one. I seem to have one almost every year, it seems. I’m starting to detect a pattern. I’ll keep taking data though; there’s no need to jump to unwarranted conclusions.

Birthdays are a lot like showers – it seems like no sooner than you’ve dried out from the last one, then it’s time for yet another. They’re thankless, birthdays and showers are. Thankless. They just go to show that even after all this time, you're all wet.

Maybe it’s that I don’t like the inevitable calculation of “do enough people like me to constitute a decent party?” And “if I put all those people in one place, will they perhaps gang up and beat the shit out of me?” A birthday party is a recipe for rejection and paranoia. At least it’s a recipe for having friends goad you into floating a Marshmallow Peep on a lake of Jack Daniels, setting the whole mess on fire, and drinking it down in one fiery gulp.

You wouldn’t do that if it weren’t your birthday.

I remember very few of my birthdays growing up. Very few. My parents made me organize my own birthday parties and I've always procrastinated when it comes to planning social events. So these parties were pretty lackluster affairs, the result of six or seven desperate, anxiety-ridden last-minute phone calls. Would Leanne Goetz and Denise Ewing actually come over, or was that overreaching my social status? Was Cheryl Parana still my friend, or had she noticed how unpopular I was? Was it okay to invite Dore Fingerhut even after she moved to a new neighborhood?

No Truman Capote, I. No parties in George Plimpton’s penthouse. When I was in the single digits, it was all with the miniature golf and do-it-yourself sundaes. Maybe a sleep-over, although I can’t remember ever hosting one myself as a child. The only upside – and my brother remembers this too – is that it was one of the few occasions that our parents thought worthy of serious junk food like Marshmallow Fluff.

Marshmallow Fluff. It’s like Jell-o or Spam. The color and texture should warn you off, but instead it beckons you: “eat me. EAT ME.” Marshmallow Fluff is hypnotically white and miraculously adhesive. It was the only upside of my childhood birthday parties. There was usually some left over to eat in peace in the aftermath of the trauma the actual event.

My parents believed wholeheartedly in intellectual improvement, so I got a lot of science and history books as birthday gifts. Unfortunately I was an avid reader of trashy fiction – spy stories and adventure novels – not the high-minded non-fiction my parents thoughtfully supplied me with. Seaborg’s Elements of the Universe and The Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History stood on the second highest bookshelf, unopened, dust jackets pristine. The only book of that genre I really got into was The Golden Book of Facts and Figures, a fantastic compendium of trivia. It had lists of things like The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and The Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The US Presidents listed in chronological order with brief biographical sketches. State birds and wildflowers. That kind of thing.

Gifts of this sort did little to enliven a birthday party though; it wasn’t as though my little chums were clamoring for me to let loose with that section about the storming of the Bastille or the elements beyond Uranium. No. We’d rehash rock-n-roll gossip (was it true that the Beatles were all dropping acid now?) and cuteness ratings (Davy Jones or Peter Tork? Mark Lindsay or Brian Jones?).

My recollection is that when you were 9, there were only 5 appropriate birthday presents:

  1. An album that contained at least two hit singles by the original artists (so not 101 Strings plays the Beatles Greatest Hits);

  2. Creepy Crawlers;

  3. Anything related to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth characters, especially Rat Fink;

  4. whatever the cool new universally fetishized item was; and

  5. cash.

The first four were gifts that your friends could be trusted to purchase; the last was the only thing any unsupervised adult was capable of delivering. Not acceptable were:

  1. dolls (which I was desperately afraid of);

  2. anything deemed educational; and

  3. corny shit related to developing good habits and eradicating bad ones (and here I’m not referring to methadone, but rather to the Berenstain Bears).

So the best 9th birthday gift came from my friend Dore, who gave me a copy of Rubber Soul with two Creepy Crawler bats taped to the front.

That was boss. Totally boss.

It’s harder to know what to want when you’re no longer 9. By the time you’re 30, your allowance is bigger, so you’ve bought every Creepy Crawler you desire. You’re past the age of the Birthday Toot or the Birthday Beer Bong. (If there’s a Seven Ages of Man, there’s also a Seven Ages of Gifts.) You’re stuck. And people start buying you age-appropriate gifts. Thoughtful things. Tasteful things. Practical things. Of course, my Fellowes Powershred Model 120C-2 rocks, but at its confetti-producing heart, it’s an enormously practical birthday gift.

By midday on my birthday – after several stray birthday cards had arrived via US Mail mixed in with our normal assortment of American Express refrigerator magnets, real estate ads, and Valpak coupons – I had almost convinced myself that I could simply ignore the passing of another year boundary. I wasn’t dead yet (I even checked my pulse to corroborate this intuition), and I was showing signs of surviving the day itself. I shuffled downstairs to the mail slot and scooped up a small pile of envelopes. Not dead. But mighty glum.

Marcia’s birthday card cheered me up by addressing my mood rather than by harping on the birthday aspect. I do still want to smack somebody, perhaps even Mr. Bush (the Shrubster, not Poppy) or his evil penguin puppetmaster. (I have to admit: Jon Steward does a dreadful imitation of Dick Cheney by conflating him with the Burgess Meredith character. And yet I still can’t do any better.)

I was still glum, but I’d made it through the day.

I didn’t really cheer up until my brother’s gift arrived the next day. I’d wondered why he’d asked me if FedEx had brought the package yet when we talked on the phone the day before. We usually exchange gifts that aren’t particularly time-sensitive. Gifts like socks, used book gift cards, and small yet powerful kitchen appliances. We seldom send each other crustaceans or whole trout -- items that would tend to stink if not delivered promptly. What difference would it make if the package showed up on my birthday proper, or the next day, which would seem to be virtually indistinguishable? Even if it were the coveted Anne of Green Gables outfit from CATPRIN for Lumpy to wear while he was shredding the living room couch, one day wasn’t going to make a big difference. As the CATPRIN website promises in an almost poetic intro:
CAT PRIN -- the tailor for a cat you know -- it is -- fact which will become dearer than former if a cat has clothes on.

Don't you doubt? "Although I want to dress with dress extravagant with my cat, doesn't a cat dislike having" clothes on? It is impossible that continue for time long to be sure, and you continue dressing a cat. But about [ to which you dress a cat and take a commemorative photo on special days, such as a birthday of a cat, ] is OK.

In my mind’s eye, I could dress Lumpy as Anne of Green Gables the day after my birthday, and just say I’d done it on my birthday. I could even fudge the camera’s time stamp. Who’d know? Anyway, it makes more sense to spend the day in the ER the day after your birthday, rather than on your birthday, where someone might notice and make a fuss. I can’t imagine Lumpy maintaining the placid demeanor of the CATPRIN model if I affixed a mop of curly red hair to his scarred and torn gray ears. After all, there’s still pigeon blood on the dining room ceiling.

So when the gift arrived the day after my birthday, I struggled through the FedEx packaging and bubble wrap, confused by the NY return address. How could it be a CATPRIN costume if it wasn’t from Tokyo? The contents – such as they were – were equally inscrutable. The package held no instructions, no documentation, no frills. It just had a packing order and an odd assemblage of power supplies, colored wires with shrink tubing over the connections to the power supplies, connectors, and… sunglasses. Sunglasses? Sunglasses?

Sunglasses. It was indeed something wearable. I could wear it; Lumpy could wear it (with about as much enthusiasm as the Anne of Green Gables getup, I’m afraid); Burning Man hipsters could wear it.

Once I’d figured out what was in the package, I couldn’t wait ‘til it was dark to try it out. So I stood in the closet for the better portion of the afternoon, admiring my new look in the mirror.

Good thing I like hanging out in my closet; it’s the perfect venue for showing off my new firefly-like glow without venturing outside of the house.

9 volts later, my birthday glumness was dispelled. Anyone’d feel better – significantly cheered up – if they put this on.

What a great birthday present! Something not aimed at my demographic. Something impractical. Something electroluminescent. Something worn by the Borg in Star Trek (and possibly by Trekkies at the Trek Convention), by aliens in Dark City, by astronauts in Lost in Space. Something not available in the Sky Mall catalog. Something with a web site that has spelling errors, uses the word ‘utilize’ to excess, sports a ‘cease and desist’ notice directed toward the legions of potential copyright and patent infringers, and has what looks to be a three person user community. It’s refreshingly unprofessional.

And it's Boss. So Boss. As boss as Rubber Soul with two creepy crawler bats.

I made it through another year.

Happy birthday.


Anonymous Kristina said...

Happy late birthday, Cathy. I just can't get that excited about birthdays any more either, however this post made me laugh out loud many times. I really need to scan in that photo of the male Siamese cat I had once who loved wearing a red frilly dress around the house. Cheers, -k

8:41 PM  
Anonymous linda ringwood said...

Belated Happy Birthday Cathy! too is not very fond of the idea of throwing a big bash on my birthday but I do like peeping into stuffs and composing them in my u can have a look at it as I have just posted stuffs on a very intereting topic....would be glad to have ur opinion there...cheers :)

4:04 AM  
Anonymous tori said...

You have seen these right?

I hate birthdays too. Mine was on the same day as another family member so we were always forced to celebrate(?) together which I felt added extra special forced enjoyment awfulness. I feel most pain for people who have their birthdays on holidays and receive presents wrapped in the color theme of that holiday...every single year.

I think belated wishes are the best. They come at random, don't have anything to do with the day you receive them, and sometimes come from people you don't even know very well. That's a little boss at least? Mazal Tov!

9:22 AM  

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