The Birthday Industrial Complex

sven_davis2Happy birthday to you…” You know the song, it’s one of the most widely known songs in the English language, translated and widely used in 18 more.

“Happy birthday to youuu…”

At a typical party, everybody starts singing the song at the same time, but in 12 different keys. By the second line, dominant voices have begun to define a common melody, and other voices are shifting to match it. It’s still too early to say whether everybody will be on the same note by the end. Third line:

“Happy birthday dear Richard…”

Getting close, but oh no! The line fractures into a chaos of different versions of his name plus several nicknames, and some, friends of friends, are mumbling because they don’t know his name at all. Worse, there are some trained singers in the crowd who can’t help but harmonize, thinking they’re adding color to the song but are confusing the non-singers, who are now accidentally singing a few words in what are normally very challenging, avant-garde micro-tonal intervals. Heading towards the big finish now …

“Happy birthday to you!”

Finally. Candles are blown out or shot glasses are drained, or both, and the party moves on.

Planning for your birthday can be tricky. As it approaches, there’s that whole “what are we going to do this time” thing. Friends start to ask about whether there will be some sort of celebration. If you want to just have a big dinner party in a private restaurant venue like the Backstage Lounge, that’s easy. If you want to have 40 friends skydive together and form a big peace sign in the air, that’s going to take a lot of work. Your partner, if you have one, is generally expected to do a good chunk of the planing and execution. That’s a lot of work for the skydiver’s wife, but at least he knows what he wants. If you’re kind of “meh” about the whole thing, it’s your partner who ends up looking lame about your birthday because in our culture it seems they’re the ones expected to make something great happen. The whole thing can get ugly and awkward, and the easiest thing may be to tell everybody you’ll be out of town. Don’t worry if you can’t afford a trip, you don’t have to actually go. Just stock up on movies and frozen pizza and stay away from the windows for a few days.

Personally, I’m somewhat ambivalent about my birthday. It makes me self-conscious. I used to lie about the actual date… well, to be more precise, I made people guess what my birthday was, and acted absolutely incredulous when they guessed correctly. “Who told you?” I’d demand. “Nobody, I swear!” they’d say, so happy about their psychic abilities. That kind of thing sounds mean to me now and I no longer do it, but I did like getting birthday cards all through the year.

My birthday falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is when most people are in party overload anyway. I’ve always wanted to have a summer birthday to allow for outdoorsy group activities, which would be fun for everybody and wouldn’t feel so all about me. I’m going to move it to August one of these years. If birthdays can be adjusted for Jesus and George Washington, I don’t see why they can’t be moved for us. After the Sept. 11 attacks, that became a pretty crappy birthday. Just move it. Tax day? Feb. 29? Super Bowl Sunday? Same birthday as another family member? Move it.

Birthdays aren’t just about celebrating your birth, they’re also a chance to be confronted with the reality of how long it’s been since that day. Holy cow, we think, how did we manage to get this old? But as they say, getting old is tough, but consider the alternative. As we get older, and gravity seems to act most strongly on out outer surfaces, birthdays become more like a celebration of survival. 80 years? Well played, sir. Still, if you really want to hand out annual achievement awards, look to wedding anniversaries. They stayed alive AND they stayed married. Good on you, mate. My parents just celebrated 50 years together! That puts them in a pretty elite club these days. Please join me in raising a glass to them.

Which birthdays are most important? It’s interesting how we consider multiples of five and ten to be more important birthdays. It’s one of those things that feels like it’s important but it doesn’t really mean anything at all. There are a few milestones with some significance, like 13 (teenager), 18 (can go to adult prison), 21 (can drink too much and do something stupid enough to go to adult prison), 50 (time for the colonoscopy), and finally the golden age of senior discounts.

Personally I’m more excited by prime numbers, which get farther apart as the numbers get higher. My mother had a creative approach; I remember a party where she celebrated the 13th anniversary of her 29th birthday.

So to all of you having a birthday this year: Happy Birthday! For your present I got you this page in the paper; use it to fold into a nifty party hat!

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