Thursday, October 19, 2006

#151 - Birthday Gifts

Another birthday has come and (just yesterday) gone. This is not one of those birthdays that one would consider a milestone, and I don't. 48 is just 48. It's middle age. It's not one year before 50. And I'm not one of those who gets morbid about my personal aging. Why worry? The fact that I'm developing many of the same creaks and groans that my parents have or had just confirms that I am indeed their son.

Howsoever be it, I'm now one day overdue for my annual birthday essay. Here it is:

Perspective is everything. It defines our realities and forms our opinions. It drives our belief systems and establishes how we understand the world around us. Watching how my perspective has changed over the years has been a fascinating journey of discovery.

I loved birthdays as a kid. What kid doesn't? It's a chance to indulge - and be indulged - in a little unadulterated personal greed. What gifties am I going to receive this year? Am I going to get that latest toy that's being mercilessly pounded into my psyche during my cartoon shows every day? Or will it be (horrors!) underwear?

As the big day approached, the sense of anticipation was very nearly overwhelming. I'd get so excited that sleep - always a challenge for me as a youngster - was just about impossible. Plus, my days were filled with pestering Mom for clues as to what I was getting. Actually, "pestering" might be putting it mildly. "Parental abuse" might be more appropo in today's litigious society.

One year (this is a true story) I just couldn't wait. I knew that Mom's favorite hiding place for presents was the closet in her bedroom. This was generally safe because we only entered that room on pain of death. Not from Mom, of course... Dad valued his privacy, and we only entered the master bedroom with fear and trepidation. However, need to know what (or IF) I was getting overrode my usual caution that year. While Mom was out shopping one afternoon, I took advantage and slipped into her room. Up on a shelf I found what must be my pending gift: a brand-new cassette tape recorder. (Toldja I was getting old. This passed for "high tech" in 1970.)

I was of course thrilled. I loved tape recorders, and often "borrowed" Mom's old Craig reel-to-reel that she transcribed patriarchal blessings from to record my own versions of radio programs or comedy records that I listened to from time to time. (If anyone out there found a strange reference to something out of Cosby's "Noah" routine in their blessing, I sincerely apologize. I'm fairly certain the Spirit wouldn't be quoting Cosby in a patriarchal blessing.) I couldn't help myself. I had to take it out of the box and examine it. When I was done, I placed everything carefully back in the box (including the bubble wrap), resealed it, and placed it back on the shelf. Mission accomplished!

On the day of my birthday, I acted appropriately surprised to see this wonderful machine as it was presented to me. How wonderful, I exclaimed! A tape recorder! Can't wait! To demonstrate my mastery of new technologies, I got everything out of the box, put in the batteries and turned it on. Imagine my dismay to have everyone hear, in my reedy soprano voice, "Happy birthday to me... Happy birthday to me...!"

Oops. Appropriate surprise was instantly replaced with appropriate contrition.

One birthday tradition began as a child that has stayed with me ever since: I rarely ever have birthday cakes, and never from my family. No, this is October, and October means pumpkin pies. For the sake of my mother, I will refrain from repeating our legendary pumpkin pie story in this essay. However, no birthday celebration - however informal - is official until I have consumed at least one full pumpkin pie. Or the equivalent thereof, by weight.

As a teenager the nature of birthdays changed. For one thing, I never knew what to ask for as a teenager. I was (theoretically) too old for toys, and things like books or music were always hit or miss with me. Mom finally had to throw up her hands and admit that even she didn't know what I'd like, and I believe that's about when I started getting money instead of wrapped presents.

As an adult, I found my tastes for birthdays changing again. I no longer anticipated them with any real fondness. I was another year older, but not, it seemed, any more mature. I began to long for acceptance as an authority figure similar to Dad. Dad was the go-to guy for hard-to-solve adult situations. What, exactly is a mortgage? Is $350 a month too much for an apartment? People went to authorities like Dad for those questions, myself included. People didn't come to me with those questions.

(People still don't. People apparently know better.)

By that time, birthdays were best spent quietly with family, enjoying the more clever cards that came my way. This is where we discovered that Mom actually has a pretty wicked sense of humor underneath that saintly exterior. Mom's cards frequently had me rolling on the floor.

Only one birthday between 21 and 35 stands out in memory. My 30th. For this birthday, my then-wife and the kids conspired to give me a full black-arm-band affair, complete with black balloons and black crepe. They invited some of our friends over for a surprise party. The fact that the screen door fell off its hinges when I walked in should have tipped me off. My daughter, bless her black little heart, gave her aged and decrepit father a tube of Poli-fix creme and a can of Turtle Wax (for my forehead). I remember certainly feeling older that night.

I have since divorced, remarried, and have two younger kids now; the older ones having grown up and moved away. Far away. Probably as far as they could arrange and not leave the country legally. (I tease; my kids love me, although I was shocked - shocked - to get a happy birthday call yesterday from my son. I was pretty sure he'd learned his phone habits from his Dad, which means actively ignoring the instrument unless a limb is coming off your body. Still, we had a nice chat, and my daughter phoned in her best wishes as well.)

With younger kids, my birthdays are once again filled with wonder and surprise. For instance, I wonder what the kids will do to for me this year? Oh, look! (Surprise!) A handmade birthday card! Fortunately, their writing skills have increased exponentially the last couple of years, and I can actually understand the cards without having to interpret sanskrit. This saves Daddy having to hem and haw and guess what the card actually represents. The girls label everything now, and this helps their communication-challenged father tremendously.

This year Daddy also got a gift, and one that Daddy will likely enjoy tremendously. I got a copy of Railroad Simulator® that will probably make Mrs. Woody a computer widow once again. At least for a few weeks.

But the fun part is, that's all I really want for my birthday. Whatever my family gives me, even if it's just hugs and kisses, is what I want for my birthday. The fact that they want to make a big deal out of it is all the big deal I need for my birthday. What, you may ask, did I do for my birthday last night? I bought KFC for dinner (like I'm going to cook on my birthday!), then took my family with me to rehearsal last night. They just wanted to be with Daddy.

Birthdays like that I will take year after year after year.

Pass the pie.

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