Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Birthdays

I hate birthdays.

Allow me to restate that, in case you think (for some strange reason) that I’m taken to hyperbole: Birthdays are worse than the fucking Nazis. They’re worse than the black death. They’re worse than the Carrot Top movie.

Okay, okay, maybe that last one is going too far, but suffice it to say that I really hate them. When I say I hate birthdays, I mean that I loathe them with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. If engineers could find a way to draw power from my hatred of birthdays at a mere 0.1% efficiency, humanity would instantly become a type II civilization, and I could finally check that off my bucket list.

Birthdays. Ugh.

For one thing, I don’t get the celebration.

So you’re another year older. Fantastic. It’s not much of an achievement though, is it? You didn't do anything difficult or clever. It’s just aging. It doesn’t take any special skill to move forward on the causal axis of time, so why should there be prizes for it? You wouldn’t give me a present for being gravitationally bound to the Earth's surface, would you? Would manifesting the weak nuclear force from my constituent atoms be a cause for celebration? Of course not.

The way I see it, my friends are just celebrating the fact that I’m one year closer to death, and they’re one year closer to finally being rid of me. The presents are given, no doubt, to distract from this grim reality.

People complain, “you’re just not getting into the birthday spirit.” To which I say, what birthday spirit? Because that is so not a thing. Oh sure, plenty of cultures celebrate coming of age ceremonies, but those milestones really start to taper off once you hit 21. As near as I can tell from some brief research, the tradition of celebrating adult birthdays with presents and parties didn't start until the Romans entered their truly decadent phase and were looking for any excuse to get drunk and eat until they puked. I bet the very first birthday parties were suggested by some enterprising businessman trying to make a quick denarius. The vaunted "birthday spirit” isn't some jolly personification of cheer—it's just a sleazy merchant in a toga, trying to unload a surplus of stuffed dormice and rancid fish sauce.

Perhaps I could ignore all that if I had a better run of birthdays growing up. “Oh?” you ask. “Did some of your birthdays not turn out well? I never would have guessed.”

To which I reply: don’t get cute, asshole. But yes, now that you mention it, many of my birthdays weren't quite what I hoped for, especially in comparison to those of my friends. You see, I went to an expensive parochial school, which my grandparents (who raised me, because my actual parents were useless) could only afford with a special scholarship. Translation: The other kids' parents were approximately a bazillion times richer than mine, leaving me ashamed and embarrassed by my own feeble birthday celebrations. My classmates would have lavish, themed parties with clowns, magicians, and once the entire starting lineup of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Although, on reflection, that last one might have been a dream I had. (They did all turn into scorpions and I had to fly out through a window to get away.)

And that was when the other kids even wanted to invite me. More than once, a classmate would be walking down the rows of chairs, handing out invitations, and pause very pointedly in front of me. “Ahem,” the teacher would say, at the front of the class. “May I remind you all that you're only allowed to give out invitations in class if you give them to everyone.” Yeah, that was a school rule. In fact, I think they eventually named it after me.

As for my own birthday celebrations, they usually involved a handful of my closest (read, “least distant”) friends and a trip to the movies, the science museum, or a putt-putt golf course. Not a proper birthday party, mind you—just a sort of day out. Because, once my grandparents saw what these places charged for children’s birthday parties, the celebration was invariably scaled back to the price of admission and a dozen cupcakes from Winn Dixie.

Happy Birthday You Suck

Things did not improve as I got older. By the time I was a teenager, I'd already come to see birthdays as hollow, dreadful affairs. Granted, a lot of that was my fault, because I was an extremely ungrateful teen. Indeed, ungrateful doesn't begin to cover it. If, as a birthday present, my grandparents had somehow arranged to get me on a NASA mission to the moon, I would have scoffed and said, “What, not Mars? People have already been to the moon, you know.”

However, I think you'll agree that my own crankiness doesn’t let them off the hook for the year they forgot my birthday entirely.

Did your eyes just run back over that sentence in disbelief? Did you silently mouth, "Surely not!"? I don't blame you, but it's true.

It was my sixteenth birthday, in fact. Kind of a big one, right? Yeah, I think I once read that sixteen is a significant milestone or something. I hadn't had an actual party in years, and wasn't expecting one that year, but we usually celebrated in some way or another. You know, dinner at a nice restaurant, a trip to the beach, or putt-putt golf. (Yes, my family has a disturbing obsession with celebratory mini-golf.) But on my sixteenth birthday, I came home to find nothing. No preparation, no cake, no reservations, no present on the table.

Holy crap, I thought, they’re throwing me a surprise party!

Even to my cynical teenage mind, the prospect was exciting. Who all would be there, I wondered, and were my friends from school involved?

But then the hours crept on, the sun set, and still there was no surprise party.

Boy, they sure are milking the suspense, I thought, shaking with anticipation.

Then, at around 8:30pm, my grandmother snuck out the front door to go and "get cigarettes." Last minute preparations, perhaps? I snuck glances at the street outside, watching for arriving guests. None appeared. Maybe grandpa was going to make an excuse to take me somewhere, and the party would be there?

And then my grandmother came back at nine, carrying an undecorated angelfood cake and a stuffed animal wrapped in a brown paper bag. “Surprise!” she said, in her faded Scottish accent. “Happy birthday!”

I finally realized that there would be no surprise party, that indeed she had forgotten my birthday entirely until half an hour earlier. I stood staring at her, attempting to permanently blind her with the intensity of my baleful glare.

My grandfather shuffled in from the living room, looking confused. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Ack! Don’t be daft, Henry,” my grandmother said. And then she repeated to me, “Happy birthday.” This was obviously a hint to him.

Grandpa looked at me, frowned, and then said, “Bullshit! It’s not your birthday.”

These words were spoken in a tone that conveyed not mere disbelief, but a fiercely indignant, preemptive attack on the very possibility that it could possibly be my birthday. It was the kind of voice that innocent people use when they're suddenly accused of high treason.

I forced a smile and said, “Thank you.” And I only managed that because I was so stunned. It certainly wasn't gratitude, which I didn't possess even when they actually deserved it.

Grandpa was still chewing over the problem, his eyes darting back and forth between grandma and me. “Is it your birthday?” he asked, about as tactfully as a cornered rhinoceros.

My grandmother shook her head at him and said, “Get yer heed oot a yer breeker, Henry!" Her lost accent had a tendency to rally whenever she was agitated. "Yea know it’s her birthday."

Grandpa looked at me and said, “I, ummm...  Surprise!”

Nice save, Pop. Nice save.

Naturally, I got every last thing I asked for that year. It was just a few days late.

So, you know, net win.

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