On my thirteenth birthday, parties and multiple presents suddenly ceased. There was no special stature afforded me on the anniversary of my birth. My father slipped out the backdoor as he did each morning and left for work. The kitchen was choked with the usual frenetic preparations for school obscured in a haze of fried bacon and burned toast. My mother mentioned that my birthday dinner of hamburgers would be warming in the oven when I got home from football practice, as she and my father were out entertaining clients that evening. It seemed as though I was no longer a “cute” puppy worthy of special attention. I stared at the ground not wanting to cry and secretly wished stigmata would appear on my palms to reveal my deep spiritual martyrdom. My only birthday present, a baseball glove, had been purchased weeks before and immediately put to use. My only other gift was a bizarre offering from my grandfather, whom I was now certain, was slipping into senility. Instead of my annual birthday card replete with a crisp $10 bill, he sent me a coffee can full of pennies and peppermints.
That night, I surveyed the wreckage of my birthday and considered the cruel net present value of my waning childhood — pennies, mints and a shriveled burger on a stale bun. My older brother sensed my dejection and confirmed my worst fears: “Dude, your birthdays are over…” My dog Max trotted over and flopped next to me with a heavy sigh. I looked at him and he seemed to be saying, “Don’t look at me. I don’t even know how old I am.”
Denial became anger. My friend, Gary, was having his Bar Mitzvah. I was not even sure what this ancient rite of passage entailed but I heard it meant money, presents, cake and the ability to invite girls to a party. Now I wanted to be Jewish. Gary would be carried in a chair as everyone celebrated the fact he had become a man. People would stuff money in his trousers like a Chippendale’s dancer. He might even grow a beard right then and there from the sheer testosterone of so many acknowledging his manhood. And here I sat, the Protestant nobody, eating a stale burger and counting out $3.23 in pennies that smelled like Maxwell House. I suddenly realized that birthdays, like hormones, changed.
In the post pubescent teenage years, each birthday is an event in two phases: the perfunctory family celebration, endured by the teen like a morning in church, followed by a “bash.” In the lexicon of the ‘70s, a successful bash was defined as an event with no adult supervision, limited police intervention and no one getting sick in your car. In your twenties, the festivities involved an evening out with everyone, I mean everyone — friends, coworkers, and that Romanian immigrant you met who was bussing your table at the wine bar in Century City. Then birthdays become justification for self-indulgence and life lessons. The “I made it” mentality kicks in and you seek to reward yourself. This leads to an extension course at the school of hard knocks as your celebrations take a bizarre turn — resulting in waking up the next day with a fat lip, no idea where you parked and a $1000 wad of your VISA receipts signed by someone named Little Ray.
In your thirties and forties, you celebrate your birth anniversary with the parents of your children’s friends who have become your friends. You realize your social circle is now completely composed of those who live in your dimension. Their unwavering companionship is your gift. They offer you understanding and never question why your foxhole smells the way it does. Their foxhole is in the same shape. You dream of the perfect adult birthday present: zero accountability for 24 hours — everyone just leaves you alone. All you want is to sleep in, work out, play a little golf, maybe get a massage or haircut. You want to eat something unhealthy, watch your favorites on TV and not be told to turn the channel, clean a dish, pick up a kid or move a trash can.
In your fifties, you begin to dread birthdays like the snap of a latex glove preceding a prostate exam: “This may feel a little uncomfortable.” You mourn the passing of each year and consider celebrating the day of your birth tantamount to dancing on your own grave. Some regress, anxiously looking in their life’s rear view mirror to inventory all regrets. The day becomes an unnecessary black Sabbath of angst and meaningless self-pity. This may culminate in the rash purchase of a sports car or, worse yet, running off with your personal trainer (Porsche and Viagra ads actively target these unfortunates.) Yet most of us avoid these irrational impulses and pay homage only to birthdates divisible by five. We use the “in between” birthdays as justification for binging on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
As you get on in years, you appreciate every birthday you’re granted but prefer celebrating in privacy, perhaps just a quiet dinner with another couple or someone older than you. You buy all your own birthday presents because you are no longer willing to be gracious. Hell, it hasn’t really been about you for the last 20 years. You eventually get to a point where you don’t want to see anyone, including yourself in the mirror. A great birthday is simply a day when all your body parts obey.
Birthdays follow a cunning symmetry in life. As an infant, your first few find you wetting your pants and rubbing cake all over your face while unfamiliar people crowd around you and take flash photos. You really haven’t a clue as to what’s happening or why that fat woman with blue hair keeps pinching your cheek. You get angry when someone you don’t know sits next to you — that seat was reserved for your imaginary friend. Then 80 years later life comes full circle and you’re once again wetting your pants, wondering what’s going on and missing your mouth with cake by a country mile. You still get angry when someone sits next to you as you tell everyone repeatedly that this seat is reserved for Lana Turner. They don’t listen, so you hurl your cake and it just happens to hit your stuck-up daughter-in-law in the face, who runs from the room crying, claiming after all these years you still hate her.
Now that is a great birthday.