It’s not my birthday
It’s not today
It’s not my birthday, so why do you lunge out at me?
When the word comes down, “Never more will be around”
Though I’ll wish you were there, I was less than we could bear
And I’m not the only dust my mother raised
I am not the only dust my mother raised “It’s Not My Birthday,” They Might Be Giants
Note: The following was written on or around my most recent birthday. Since many of our posts are asynchronous, there is no way it is being posted on my actual birthday. In fact, this post represents thoughts and feelings that are several months gone by. Note as well, the clever epigraph. Today I post this in honor of my father’s birthday.
Birthdays are strange things. Some cultures make a big deal of them—a birthday can be like Christmas and Mardi Gras combined. In others, you have to pay to feed and entertain your friends. Some even—gasp—treat them like normal days. Should the day you separated from your mother be such a big deal when you would have certainly perished without round-the-clock care? Why not celebrate conception days (apart from the unknown dates and the yuck factor)?
In our culture, generally speaking, we set up birthdays to get steadily worse as we age. When we’re children, birthdays are prime acquisition and requisition opportunities. We count down the days to dessert, theme parties, and presents from doting elders. As we enter adolescence, birthdays become a series of transformative milestones: at 13 you’re a teenager, at 16 you can drive, at 18 you can vote (or, more importantly, buy pornography and cigarettes). This trend continues into your twenties: 20 is a nice round number and at 21 you can drink (legally). Even if the rest of the twenties are somewhat anticlimactic by comparison, for most of us they are still filled with lubricated celebrations and a suspension of normal behavior and responsibilities.
Even 30 is (a bit) exciting. And then? If you don’t grow up and get a job, have a family and all that jazz, birthdays just become another excuse to overindulge except that the cast of companions dwindles (as everyone else grows up and gets a life). The party becomes a routine; the routine gets old; and the clock moves faster and faster.
So at some point, I figure, we all start to think: what the hell are birthdays for? Do we want to mark that we’re another year older? I guess it is important to mark the cycle of a year, to stop and recognize how we’ve changed and what we’ve gained. But, on the other hand, marking the turn in the year and tallying up debits and credits also brings into focus what we’ve lost.
And this is the truth of human life—the longer we live the more opportunity we have to develop attachments to things (people) that we will definitely lose (unless we predecease all of our attachments). The horror of this truth is strong enough that it persuaded ancient Stoic philosophers to develop ways of living that downplay attachments altogether.
(See, for instance, the work of Seneca the Younger, who quips in On the Brevity of Life that while most people complain that life is too short they are dead wrong. Life is plenty long; most of us just waste it.)
The obvious outcome is that while we define ourselves on a day-to-day basis by what we have (a spouse, children, family, job, things, etc.) as we age, perversely, we become defined by what we’ve lost (hair! Health. Loved ones.) So while birthdays and holidays are the appropriate time to be thankful for what we have, they are ultimately and inevitably the time we take measure of what is gone. As we age, we become defined not by what we are but by what we are not; note: we cannot keep track of the years we have left, so we keep track of the years that are gone. To be human, fundamentally, is to be defined by loss.
This is my first birthday without my father. On his birthdays, he always demanded only one thing: to be left alone. I am, for the first time, starting to understand that request. Who wants to be reminded of one year passing faster than the year before? Who wants to be reminded of the rapidly approaching end? I don’t know what my father really believed—I think he had some faith in an afterlife. My hope is that when I go, I will be proved suddenly wrong. (If I am right, I will never know it.)
My father also spent nearly every birthday recounting his age in relation to his father’s. My grandfather died at 49; my father was convinced he would expire by the same time. He made it a dozen years longer. Am I going to spend the rest of my life thinking about that number (61)? Am I already more than half-way there? Or can I assume an even dozen to spare?
I have written before about what my father meant to me. The Younger J has also written about how disappointed he would be to find me spending the remaining (good years) of my life fretting about him. I have a good job; I have a great family; and I think I have good health. But the truth is, I am not really worrying about him, about whether or not he knew he was alone when he died or about whether or not he regretted all the things he didn’t do. I am really upset about me. Nothing teaches you about your own mortality like becoming and losing a father in the same year.
When my wife asks me what I want for my birthday, I pause and tell her the truth: my father back, my parents solvent, my siblings well. I daydream about being able to choose between something gigantic like world peace and my father’s life along with the thoughts that would run through my head as I hesitated. None of this is fair, of course—but some portion of grief is always an expression of self-indulgence.
So this year I can measure what I have lost at about my height, my weight plus 28 years (less a considerable amount of hair). I miss him, truly; but I really miss the sense of security of knowing he was there. Now, I must be him—a ‘father’ to my own siblings, a caretaker (from afar) for my mother, and a father to his grandchildren. Let me be clear: I don’t feel cheated or burdened. I just wish I could have asked him more about it first.
What a great way to spend a birthday. Shall I lighten it up, cheaply?
There is nothing more annoying than the “Happy Birthday Song” (except for updates of it performed in theme restaurants). So, for my birthday, I have come up with some other birthday songs. Unbirthday songs. Celebrate with me: it’s not your birthday, not today.
- “Unhappy Birthday”, The Smiths
What A better way to desacralize the birthday than to cheat someone else of his joy. Note the nice connection to mortality in the lyrics:
I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday
Because you’re evil
And you lie
And if you should die
I may feel slightly sad
(but I won’t cry)
- “Gemini (Birthday Song)” Why?
Why? is one of my favorite bands with one of the most recognizable and distinct sounds out there. This is the first song by the band I ever fell in love with. I am not precisely sure why this is a birthday song, but again, there’s a nice sense of the meaning of mortality in marking the passing of another year:
Then I wept
with my face in your night shirt,
trying hard as hell to say
“until death separates us,”
loosening the skin on your breastbone,
I painted your nails
and you sleep
while I write all this down.
- “It’s Your Birthday,” 50 Cent
Does this song have to be explained? This one goes out to everyone who’s sharing my birthday (even though it isn’t his or hers) and still wants to party like its 1999:
We gonna party like it’s your birthday
We gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday
And you know we don’t give a fuck, it’s not your birthday
- “Birthday,” Sugarcubes
Birthday blues? There’s only one way to deny it—engage in activities that transcend your mortal bounds! Sow those oats! Bjork’s quirky band the Sugarcubes gave the world this song with strange but somewhat understandable lyrics. That is, if the bird is what I think it is. If it isn’t phallic, then I am clueless:
Today is a birthday
They’re smoking cigars
He’s got A chain of flowers
and sows a bird in her knickers
- “Birthday Sex,” Jeremih
Staying with the theme more subtly established by the Sugarcubes, who doesn’t want birthday action? (as much as most of us don’t want to hear about it…). What is interesting about this song is that the male singer is characterizing his couch lovemaking session as a gift for the woman, which, of course, is the way it always works out. Right?
It’s your birthday so I know you want to ride out
even if we only go out to my house
sip more weezy as we sit upon my couch,
feels good, but I know you want to cry out.
- “Birthday Song” Ben Lee
And to end: a warning about the motivations and consequences of birthday parties.
Staying up ’til dawn won’t take its toll
‘Til we get old
And drinking is just the way
We keep away the cold