It’s a conspiracy, you know, the whole birthday thing.
A long, long time ago Egyptians celebrated the anniversary date marking when the Pharaoh became Pharaoh, transforming from him a man into a deity. Pharaoh was the only one who got a party, and the party wasn’t on the day he was actually popped out of his human mother, because he wasn’t really born until he was made Pharaoh.
The ancient Greeks believed that a spirit attended the birth of each and every human, so the anniversary of that event called for celebration with candles to honor the spirit (or keep it away; it’s not entirely clear).
The Romans took birthday bash to a new level, celebrating actual birth date anniversaries just for the hell of a having a good party. But only for men.
Then, sometime around the 4th century, Christians got this crazy idea: hey, what if we set up a birthday party for Jesus to recruit all those Saturnalia pagans? Super! Presents!
Sometime around the 12th century, women were allowed to celebrate birthdays; history is maddeningly unclear on details for this development.
The modern idea of birthday celebrations – for people of all ages, particularly children – didn’t materialize until the 1800s. Written birth records and centralized record keeping made birthday tracking easier. Near the end of the 19th century as attitudes toward children and childhood evolved, birthday celebrations became a thing, though mostly for the affluent.
Affluent families spent money on birthday blow-outs for their children, and the butcher, baker and candlestick maker all took notice. Super! A new market for cake!
If you didn’t grow up in a birthday kind of family, then you might be thinking: ha! knew it was a bunch of commercial hooey. But if you did grow up in a birthday kind of family, as I did, then you might instead be thinking: so don’t care; give me more cake! Also, champagne. Because, birthday!
If I could think of enough funny stories to make it worth your time, I’d chronicle my entire birthday party history and call it 51 Things to Do on Your Birthday: a guide for every age. Instead I’ll share just four:
On my third birthday I was with my parents in Colorado Springs. My father said: she’s three; she won’t even remember; we’ll celebrate when we get home. My mother said: um, Birthday! and then rounded up the other children in the motel (all strangers), procured cake and candles and threw an impromptu party.
When I turned 16 my mother threw a surprise party, a luncheon at our rental house on Walnut Grove. She invited 10 of my closest friends and had a fancy lunch table set, her attempt to prove that everything in our lives was fine fine fine, which, really, it wasn’t. Even if it had been, though, what I took away from this event was that I hate surprise parties. I hate them. I hate surprise parties. Truly, if you ever learn that someone is planning a surprise party for me, you must intervene on my behalf.
On my 18th birthday my mother took me to Justine’s, which once was a very fancy and special restaurant, and then it went belly-up, and now it’s getting a do-over. Anyway, it was a very fancy, very expensive restaurant that served fancy French food. We went, just the two of us, to celebrate my coming of age. My mother gave me a black leather pocketbook.
At 25 I decided to take birthday party festivities into my own hands. With the help of a friend – an older friend who realized the importance of throwing parties while in one’s 20s, before life gets complicated – I had a party-party, complete with grown-up food and grown-up drinks and live music and midnight swimming. With variation in size, menu and venue, every birthday since then has been celebrated similarly.
I have also always had a good memory for other people’s birthday dates. Catherine’s is February 2, the same as Lacy and Farrah Fawcett and Groundhog Day. Matt, Lee and Pam are New Year’s Eve babies, except that Pam really isn’t; her mother decided New Year’s Eve sounded like a more festive day for celebrating, so she decided what her daughter didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her (plus, party!).
I remember these dates, and scores of others, because remembering dates, names and numbers is a thing for me and always has been. I’ve joked, though not really jokingly, that I want the marker on my ashes to read: she was remembering people’s birthdays before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.
All of which is to say, the birthday thing is what I do. It is what I have always done.
Understand, then, that I’ve had to come to terms with the whole Facebook birthday concept. June 14 and December 18 and September 21 and March 5 (and more) are special in my mind without that damned notification popping up. I know already! Facebook, you’re stealing my thing!
I joined Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare at the same time, in 2009, when it became clear that understanding social media would be fundamentally important for my job. I made it one year on Foursquare (really, what’s the point?), but have tried to hold my own with the other two, more successfully on one than the other. I jumped into Instagram pretty much right from the start, but I can’t really keep up – which is the same problem I have with Twitter. When I’m curious to find creative ideas I’ll dive into Pinterest, but (at my friend Angie’s sage advising) only if I set a timer in advance. My daughter says I’m not the Snapchat type. Oh, and LinkedIn; I forget about LinkedIn; I think I’m not alone in forgetting. Poor LinkedIn.
So, mostly because I’m old, Facebook is where I interact with people I don’t see often in real life. For a while I thought it was a good decision, and then I thought it was a terrible decision, and now I take it as a good decision for me. I like keeping up with what my friends are doing, what they’re reading and what’s going on in their lives. I like that they can keep up with me in this same way. I don’t even mind the Facebook memories, reminders of how quickly my children have grown, of the dogs I’ve loved and lost.
But the birthday drill felt empty and impersonal to me, with no way of differentiating who was a close enough friend to be stamped in my memory (or on my birthday calendar, which we’ll talk about another time) and who was merely an acquaintance. If something in our relationship, even a distant past, is special enough that I remember your birthday without a prompt, then you are special to me in a way that other friends and acquaintances are not. If you are one of these special friends, then I will always think of you fondly on your birthday, whether I’ve spoken to you in years or not. I am glad you were born; and that’s that.
If our friendship is not of this sort, however, and I were to see you at Walgreens one day where you might be, possibly, buying three bags of Ghirardelli Dark & Sea Salt Caramel chocolate squares, explaining with mild embarrassment: today’s my birthday; I’m treating myself, I would wish you “happy birthday!” with enthusiasm and without hesitation. Of course I would wish you happy birthday; we are friends, and it is your birthday, even if it’s not one of the birthdays in my gray matter data bank.
And that’s how I got over it, the Facebook conundrum. Sending wishes on a timeline doesn’t diminish any other good thought, word or deed. For me, when I write “happy birthday!” to a third-cousin-twice-removed kind of friend, it prompts a memory of how we know one another. As someone put it to me last week, if I wouldn’t take five seconds to send you a birthday cheer on Facebook, then we probably shouldn’t be friends on Facebook anyway. Indeed; amen.
(Side note: if we are Facebook friends and you are thinking: I didn’t get a birthday greeting on my birthday! please understand that I really do try to keep up; I try; mostly on my tiny iPhone screen, I really do try. #iworksohard #imomsohard #itrysohard)
The flip side of Facebook birthday notifications, of course, is being on the receiving end, as I was last week.
A couple of years ago, following the fine example of my friend born on July 7 (who is as decent a human being as any I know), I committed to writing a response to each and every single birthday wish. Because I am undeservedly lucky and have a number of friends saying “hey!” on my day, responding to them all is an all-day endeavor – and totally worth it, I’ll add.
So, on Wednesday-last I heard from friends I’ve known since pre-kindergarten, friends I know but have never met in person, and everyone in between. With each wish, each reply I had a cheerful memory from a specific time in my life. It was a very good day.
The weekend before my birthday, December 29 and February 13 invited Bernard and me to dinner. When September 28 introduced me to these friends, 25 years ago now, I had no inkling of the friendship that would follow, of how we would be friends, then drift apart, then become friends again, in earnest. We’ve enjoyed all manner of celebration together, these friends and I – births and deaths and holidays and block parties. We share a love for wine and art and books, and I always enjoy being with them. After dinner, when I thanked them for the treat, they said: you always remember other people’s birthdays, and we wanted to celebrate yours. And I laughed and told them about wanting my memorial marker to set the record straight between Mark Zuckerberg and me.
The day after my birthday, Facebook gave me one final pop of celebration: a slideshow compilation of what friends had written, embellished with animated candles and fireworks and birthday cake. And what I thought was this:
It is a fortunate thing to reach 51, an age that still feels like 35 to me even if the sales clerks in Lululemon clearly regard me as an ancient relic, too feeble in body and mind to operate the Point of Sale device at checkout. It is a fortunate thing to cross into the second half century in good health, good spirits and surrounded by wonderful friends. It is good, all of it; and I am grateful.
The morning of my birthday, as I was busy writing acknowledgements, I scrolled past a friend’s status noting her addition to the #FirstSevenJobs thread. And I remembered hearing the story on Marketplace and thinking, as I often think when I hear stories like that: I could join the conversation! I could Tweet! Only I was driving, which is almost always what I’m doing when I hear a story that makes me think this thought. And what happened next is what always happens: by the time I get either to a temporary stopping place or home, I’ve moved on and forgotten entirely.
Then, there it was, early Wednesday morning, in my friend’s feed. And my first thought was: Fuck! I meant to do that but I’m old and forgot! Again! (Also, I’m not ever, ever going to get the whole Twitter thing. I don’t have eight witty 140 character insights to contribute on a daily basis. But I can’t walk away from Twitter because I’d miss @nprscottsimon, and really, that man is a national treasure. Also, also, I retweet things so I can find them again, even though I know there are other, better ways of electronic clipping. #old #creatureofhabit)
Anyway, I heard the story and then saw my friend’s list (which was embellished with detail, because, Facebook, 140 characters pshaw), and it took me a minute to compile my own list, the path from neighborhood babysitter to my present position being way more than seven straight hops.
And then the kettle whistled, and my daughter came downstairs for breakfast, and I drove carpool, and I drove to work, and I started writing this post in my head, thinking about birthdays and Facebook and friends and getting old and wandering around in life before finally, maybe, finding a hint of the right path.
#FirstSevenJobs – babysitter, sales clerk, office clerk, resume writer, secretary, teacher, caterer.
Clearly I am not in Buzz Aldrin’s league. I am OK with that.
Food | Week of August 15, 2016
Turkey Burgers | Sweet Potato Fries
Linguini with Lemon, Parsley & Baby Clams
(cook linguini; toss with olive oil, fresh garlic, lemon juice, Italian parsley, and canned baby clams; salt to taste; serve with Parm; that’s it)
Farmers Market Salad | Grilled Chicken