I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of pretending to be excited every time it’s somebody’s birthday, you know what I mean? What is the big deal? How many times do we have to celebrate that someone was born?
Every year, over and over… All you did was not die for twelve months.
That’s all you’ve done, as far as I can tell. Now those astrology things where they tell you all the people that have the same birthday as you? It’s always an odd group of people too, isn’t it? It’s like Ed Asner, Elijah Muhammad and Secretariat.
— Jerry’s opening monologue on Seinfeld, “The Outing,” originally aired Feb. 11, 1993 (which just happened to be my sister’s birthday, but never mind)
Birthdays are like genitals: Everybody’s got one, but not everybody knows what to do with it, or even wants to deal with the whole business at all. Nevertheless, there inevitably comes the day that you must deal, and guess which day that is. You, dear reader, know what that’s like, for you, too, have that one day out of the year that’s Your Special Day. Yes, it is, it’s special.
Worship me, for I am Birthday Man, deity for a day. I am expected to spend the entire 24 hours in a constant state of unnatural Happy Happiness Squared, with a frozen rictus smile on my face. I’m having a HAPPY BIRTHDAY, dammit. So leave me alone while I do that.
Yes, that’s my favorite Seinfeld routine (the one about baseball fans being loyal to laundry coming in a close second). Yes, I didn’t die for 12 months, so let’s have some cake!Ah, the tyranny of the birthday ritual. It will envelop you, whether you like it or not, and demand your fealty to the foolishness. Let’s have the courage to call birthdays what they really are: The biggest gratuitous ego trip this side of a wedding, at a tiny fraction of the cost and hassle. Plus, unlike a wedding (unless you’re a completely off-the-rails celebrity), you get to have one every year!
The American Way of Birthdays has long served me as one of the innumerable subjects I know which are deserving of crankiness. It’s not, of course, just the anniversary of your birth. It’s Acknowledge My Existence Day — for most of us, barring a time of spectacular public acclaim, the greatest burst of recognition we’ll get until the eulogy, or at least the retirement party. Great accomplishment? Sure, wink wink. Celebrating one’s birthday is, like organized religion or televised singing contests, a social convention we generally don’t question, even though it’s of very questionable validity.
For all my cynicism, mind you, I don’t want to deny little kids their birthday fun. I’ve got two six-year-olds of my own, after all, and I recognize that when you’re dealing with developing little bodies and minds birthdays are a useful marker, appropriate, and fun. But after one’s 12th birthday — or at the outside, the confirmation/bar or bat mitzvah/sweet 16/quinceañera — it becomes another story. Like continuing to hang out your stocking for Santa, or keeping up the traditions of the tooth fairy, milk and cookies, and bedwetting well into your 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, the birthday-candle, balloons, and the singing of a certain stupid, ubiquitous song should raise some eyebrows, at the least. But somehow, that doesn’t happen, and the foolishness is given a free pass. (And don’t get me started on Halloween costumes.)
Face it: nobody really cares that it’s somebody’s birthday, we just pretend to care because we want them to pretend to care when it’s ours. It’s like Santa Claus, or your salary, or how many times a year you have sex: Once you’re over a certain age, it becomes a conspiracy of silence, about which the less said, the better.
“So you’ve been an abject failure in every area of your life? Cheer up, at least you still get to have a birthday. Have some freakin’ cake and balloons! You’re a year older!”
Acknowledge my existence, world. Please? (This also explains the existence of blogs and karaoke. We must have our say, even if we don’t know what we’re saying and nobody else wants to hear it.)
The acknowledging takes the form of…oh, you know, cards and candles and conical hats and (for those in technical adulthood) visits to a bar and multiple toasts all ’round. The corporate world, of course, takes notice of Your Day in its own bastardized, sanitized-to-the-point-of-screaming-boredom way with balloons and crepe paper ’round the cubicle and the occasional potluck to take the edge off the daily desperation and the drudgery of which no end ever comes.
Then, of course, there’s the big birthday game-changer of recent years: Facebook, which notifies you every time one of your friends has a birthday, which for some of us means two, three, or even four obligatory greetings in an average day. Every day is somebody else’s birthday: There is no escape, and the cycle will keep repeating itself day after day, year after year, ad infinitum. Last month, David Plotz explored the phenomenon on slate.com to good effect in “My Fake Facebook Birthdays,” which explored what happened when he set his birthday to three successive dates in July: predictably, most of his friends, or “friends,” didn’t notice at all, just relieved that they didn’t have to send out an actual card, with a stamp on it and everything, and even put it in a mailbox. Hey, this is 2011!
In any case, it’s not my birthday anymore. It’s not even my birthday month. Not until next year, anyway. The balloons are deflated, the candles blown out, the cake long passed through various digestive tracts until…well, one need not go into details. Suffice it to say, the party has moved on to another table.
Not fair. Sob.
I want every day to be my birthday.
I want to be God.
To be continued…