Monday, June 21, 2004

And (hopefully not) many more ...

This should prove to be my last blog article about birthdays for a while. The topic is tired, and so am I. However, I wanted to hold on to one last tangent before I leave.

Yesterday, I pondered the thought of reversing the traditional birthday emphasis. Instead of a person being celebrated on the day of his or her birth, that perhaps it would make more sense to celebrate the efforts of the parents of that person.

That’s kind of an interesting thought the more I think about it. The argument against this would be on two fronts: Mothers and fathers would be honored sporadically all year long, and some parents would need to be honored more times than others in one year.

The more cynical among us will point out that moving Mother’s Day and Father’s Day from their official observance might cause Hallmark to lose a hefty chunk of change (perhaps a third of their annual revenues, and the resulting dip in the economy would be disastrous.

Personally, I think decentralizing the holiday would save us from the deluge of tacky cards we have to wade through each year. (Here’s more about the more complete history of Mothers Day, if you’re interested). And it would also eliminate 90% of the birthday cards purchased by friends and extended family.

But irrespective of the economics of our holiday traditions, I think that perhaps mothers and fathers SHOULD be honored in different ways and at unofficial times. My mother bore and raised four male children. That experience and the perseverance it must have taken is surely different than that of a parent who raised a single daughter, or even more children than my parents. So maybe the celebrations should be nonstandard expressions, driven by the sentiments of children in recognition of their birth, which signified the beginning of the “mothering” experience. And the same goes for fathers.

So maybe birthdays should be about celebrating the contributions of the parents who were actually present for the birth. Just a thought, hopefully to be fleshed out sometime in the future.

A birthday follow-up

Well, like any journalist, I am flattered when my writing receives attention. And when a particular Weblog post (or story) receives attention, it is only wise to follow it up with a few thoughts and reflections.

My last post, which rehashed some of my classic sentiments concerning the celebration of birthdays, was apparently very popular with my family and friends. Or perhaps unpopular. Either way, it received a lot of attention and discussion.

And I suspect this was not wholly because I emailed an advanced teaser of it and asked them to read it. :-)

Over the weekend, there was much discussion about both my post and the parody of the post that my brother posted one day later (his birthday is actually the day after mine, making us 8 years and 1 day apart in age). Unfortunately, most of this dialogue occurred offline (my family does not seem willing to make use of the comment button beneath my posts and would rather call or talk in person), so there exists no electronic reference to it. Suffice to say, it was both interesting and quite amusing.

However, my girlfriend’s reaction to my birthday has challenged some of my feelings about my approach to these celebrations, so much so that I’d wager next year’s post about birthdays will look very different. As I stated before, my birthday is not a particularly special event for me. If I am to be honored, I would prefer that people do it for things I have accomplish, not for merely having emerged from my mother’s body (an accomplishment to which nearly every person who has ever lived can lay claim). In fact, if anything, I think we should start celebrating mother’s day on their children’s birthday, for they are the ones who actually underwent Herculean effort on that day.

But this is a digression.

My girlfriend had a tough experience with my birthday this year. For reasons that I will make clear below, it was mostly my fault.

I had told her about my dread of birthday celebrations, and made it clear that I was not in the mood for a gaudy celebration. And she seemed to understand that, but I think we were both unprepared for the reality of what that was going to look like to her.

The day of my birthday, I was at the Austin campus of Apple Computer, receiving training on Apple’s latest server platform, OSX 10.3 (“Panther”). I had already been there for three days in a row, and found the classes extremely useful, but exhausting.

So on that Thursday, I left the Apple campus a little after 5 p.m. and battled the unbelievable Austin traffic for about an hour. I got home long enough to check my mail and then head out to a committee meeting at church. That meeting ran until 9 p.m., and afterwards I began running errands for the mass of birthday parties that weekend.

I got home after 10 p.m. having not eaten dinner and after having a tense phone conversation with a friend. When I entered my apartment, I saw a mass of Spongebob balloons and knew that my girlfriend was in the middle of a birthday surprise.

We had a pleasant evening, but I was exhausted and we didn’t do much. Mainly eating birthday cake and talking. The next morning I packed up for the trip to Fairfield and went to my last day of training at Apple.

My girlfriend was sad that day, and I couldn’t get her to tell me why. I called her several times and she just said she was tired. Finally, she told me that she felt like she had failed to make my birthday special. After I returned from the trip, we talked about it more, and it turns out she was most hurt at my suggestion that I was going to give some of the Spongebob balloons she had given me to my nieces and nephew over the weekend.

I had asked her if this was ok, but in retrospect, I think that perhaps it was insensitive to even suggest it. And I began to rethink my birthday philosophy.

I’ve always tolerated my birthday celebrations for the sake of others. But maybe that’s just not enough for the ones I love. Maybe it would be more sensitive and understanding to enjoy my birthday.

I feel like the pain I caused my girlfriend could have been avoided if I had simply cleared time in my schedule and ensured an evening of fun. Celebrating my birthday was not my priority that day, and as a result, I hurt my girlfriend’s feelings when her expectations for my happiness didn’t seem to be met. Maybe I owed it to her to enjoy her expressions of affection.

Maybe I need to allow others more joy in my celebrations.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

30 and not dead yet.

Wow. 30. Three decades. Since I live in North America, that’s roughly 1/3 of my life span that is now over, if I take care of myself.

For Americans, I suppose we can break down our “typical” lives into trimesters: first 30 years of growth and adaptation, 30 years of prime adulthood and 30 years of reduced activity and declining health. Of course, this model is highly subjective and culturally relative. If I lived in Zambia, I would have lived more than 3/4 of my expected life span already.

As I enter the second of three phases, I don’t feel a sense of loss, but one of purpose. Yes, I am no longer “developing” in the physical sense. I am a shade under 6’4 and am not likely to ever increase in height (though I could potentially decrease later in life). But I AM continuing to develop mentally (having just recently graduated from Texas with a Ph.D., I’m still very hungry for mental stimulation) and spiritually.

So, I guess I’m officially in my “prime” (though my brothers and younger friends might be quick to point out that my “prime” was over at 24).

But as today is my 30th birthday, I am driven to reflect on the concept of celebrating these days. I am normally very tense about my birthday, and usually am not anxious to make a big production out of it. Receiving gifts can be the most stressful part of the equation for me. You see, I think presents are a judgment on a relationship. They are a testament to how well you know and understand a person. And that's why I try to keep from testing people, because it's embarrassing. And because I know that I'm a difficult person to really understand. So I'd normally prefer to just not put people to a test that they are going to find quite difficult.

My parents are adamant about celebrating my birthday. So I usually slink off and let them do it in a mass celebration (of my brother's birthday, mine and Father's Day, and this year we’re rolling in my 5-year-old nephew and my sister-in-law too). And just to get it over with quick and move on.

I know I frustrate them sometimes, because they have no idea what to get me, which is kind of the point.

Until last year, my closest friends in Austin had missed three of my birthdays in a row. Last year would have been #4, were it not for an entry in a palm pilot. I am normally a master at slipping through the cracks.

Christmas is easier to take, because there are traditions and default gifts that make it easier to express wishes without having to display an accurate knowledge of the person in question.

I guess the real issue boils down to the fact that I don't like attention or recognition. And specifically, I don't like to be recognized in public.

Maybe it's really that I struggled so hard with humility in my early 20s. I was pretty … well, cocky, and maybe this attitude about my birthday is one of the leftover controls from that era.

I guess other issue is that I know how much my friends love and respect me. And I don't feel the need to make them express it, because it just comes out naturally in little ways.

But last year was the year I gave in, and I will probably never again be able to slip beneath the radar. This year, they actually caught me by surprise and we had a quiet celebration over dinner (I was very touched).

Don't misunderstand me. I LOVE giving gifts. It's the receiving I'm not too fond of.

I love finding that unexpected something that expresses exactly how I think about a person. It's like a mental challenge, a puzzle that can be solved in many different ways.

Suffice to say I would trade my own "special day" for someone else's. Or maybe if we could spread it out, and everyone would treat me just 1/365th nicer EVERY day ...

But don't get me wrong, I love celebrating other people's birthdays, if only to be able to really tell them how much I appreciate them. Call it a double-standard.