Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Hear It's Your Birthday!

“If it weren't for the honor of the thing ... I'd just as soon pass.”
Abraham Lincoln's favorite joke, about a man who had been tarred, feathered and ridden out of town.

Few things in life change more radically than our attitude toward birthdays.

The single-digit years are all about acquiring age. You're six, then six and a quarter (although you have no concept of what a quarter year is), then six and a half, six and three-quarters and finally seven ...

Whew! That seemed to take forever.

There is not a day in the long, long year when you don't know exactly how far away your next birthday is. Depending on the time and season it happens to fall, you contemplate how it compares to Christmas, gift-wise. It's probably a one-gift event, as opposed to the multiple gifts that Santa will bring, but might it be combined into one giant birthday/Christmas mega gift? Maybe a pony? Or a little sister? Or a go-cart?

As you hit double digits there's a three-year limbo land where you are really just waiting to become a teenager. Teens have a reputation: sullen, moody, rebellious, complicated. You can't convincingly pull off any of those qualities at ages 10, 11 or 12. (Unless you're ridiculously, bizarrely, prematurely mature like LeBron James or Ellen Page.) So you impatiently await each birthday, while getting the last bits of fun from your still-age-appropriate toy soldiers or dolls.

Ahhh, the teen years. The first few months of teenhood are for testing boundaries, but the urge to get older is still very strong. After all, although 13 and 14 are technically teen years, the real fun doesn't start until 16 or 17, right?

So every birthday is a step up.

As a late teen you have life pretty well figured out. Of course, adults never listen to you or let you do anything cool or have a clue how difficult it is to be you. That's okay though. Soon, as the birthdays accumulate, you and your gang will be running things. Then they'll see.

But here it comes … age 20 … your first tiny speed bump in life. Twenty! Two-oh. Two decades. A fifth of a century. A cause for pause. It's a little startling, but you've always wanted to be at an age where people take you seriously.

Except they don't, do they?

Sure, you keep climbing into your 20s, but now the whole environment has changed. You're not the mature student anymore, the grizzled senior. Now you're the kid at work. The real world is not here to accommodate you. And about that work … no one ever really explained how looking down the barrel of 50 years of 40-hour weeks can make you want to pull the covers over your head, stick your thumb in your mouth and spend a week in bed.

With great effort, you resist that urge and jump into the work force like a good citizen. But it's your first inkling that somehow life seems to be speeding up on you.

So you keep having birthdays (which is the good news, as they say, considering the alternative), but they almost imperceptibly become less and less fun. Yeah, 32 … you're getting up there. Yeah, 37 … somebody gives you a walking cane as a gag gift. Uh oh, 39 … the next one's a biggie!

And then you get one more five star birthday! Sometimes it's 40, sometimes it's 50 … one of those zero years is deemed significant by those closest to you and they make a big deal out of it. Anything from an expensive dinner out, to a surprise party, to a Caribbean cruise, just to let you know that your friends and family will really miss you when you die.


Yep, people are thinking about your mortality. (Don't worry, they're mostly against it.) When did that happen? There you were, the promising future of youth ... and before you can turn around ... you're the approaching specter of death? Where was your window of opportunity? When was your time for being in charge of things? There was so much you meant to do. Where did the time go? When did a year get so short?

But there are no answers forthcoming. You vaguely remember hearing these questions somewhere before … oh, yeah … it was from the old-timers, many years ago. Oh, crap.

Your age seems to be climbing faster than the tote board on a Jerry Lewis telethon. (Somebody turn off those phones!)

And so now each birthday is both an accomplishment (it's too late for you to die young now) and a reminder that there are a finite number of birthdays left. Those sounds you hear as you get in and out of a chair are the grunts of the elderly, and they're coming from you.

You don't remember when you started, but you read the obituaries every day now, and you're seeing some of the same people from your past that you saw in the wedding announcements decades ago. (Sometimes it's even the same picture since, for some inexplicable reason, survivors of the deceased often choose a 30-year-old picture to serve as our last look.)

It can all be a little scary, this accumulating of birthdays. I try to stay positive with this thought:

Even though this is the oldest you've ever been, it's the youngest you'll ever be again.

(It didn't really help all that much, did it?)


  1. I was just talking about this with a friend because our 4-year-olds are 6 months apart and you could tell that it BLEW THEIR MINDS that they'd be in kindergarten at the same time. Six LOOOONG months! She commented that some day her son would be glad to be the younger one but for now mine was so pleased to hear that he'd always be older... by six whole months. :)

  2. Funny how time speeds up and slows down, isn't it??