Afterthoughts: Happy Returns

Birthdays aren’t what they used to be. I’m OK with that.


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It’s my birthday this month. Don’t worry about sending me a present; my birthday falls early on the calendar page. By the time most of you get this issue, I’ll already be a year older, and a little fatter from cake and ice cream.

Actually, I’m not sure about the cake. Birthdays, for me, have become low-key affairs in recent years. I’ll get cards and calls from my family, sure—my mom, in particular, is fond of waking me by holding her phone up to a stereo blasting the Beatle’s “Birthday”—but apart from that, not much fuss gets made on my special day.

The idea of a non-birthday birthday would have horrified small-kid me. Birthday parties are, after all, one of childhood’s banner events. I can still recall not only the awesome presents I scored—a bmx bike! a microscope! a radio-controlled model airplane!—but even specific cakes from which I blew out candles. There was the coconut dobash from Komoda Bakery, the German chocolate sheet cake that came topped with a wind-up toy car, the oversize ice-cream cake from Baskin Robbins. I remember childhood cakes the way other people remember the birth of their first-born.

Even back then, there were warning signs it wouldn’t always be this way. While my sisters and I got balloons and streamers and songs, my dad’s birthday was an almost complete non-event. I remember my mom taking us to Liberty House one year to buy him socks as a present. Not even fun, fancy argyle socks. Regular, black, business socks. “Don’t worry,” my mom said. “He’ll love them.”

I doubted that. But then, despite my pity, my dad always seemed pretty content with his average, normal, do-nothing birthday. He appeared to genuinely love the socks and undershirts we gave him. Of course, he also enjoyed things like oatmeal with nutritional yeast and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, so I chalked it up to general dad weirdness.

As soon as I moved out on my own, I started to understand. For awhile, in my early 20s, I actively disliked birthdays. Far from being happy occasions, they became milestones of mopeyness, reminders of how little of my life plan I had figured out. The clock was ticking, the unknown future looming; who could eat cake at a time like this!? My life, and my birthday moods, have improved quite a bit since then—but I’ve settled into a genial indifference about the whole thing.

I have embraced one exciting new development in the field of birthday celebration science: the Facebook birthday avalanche.

If you’re not a social network kind of person, here’s how it works: Facebook will, if you tell it your birth date, publish a reminder on all your friends’ Facebook home pages. “Michael Keany’s birthday is today.” Anyone who clicks that link gets a pop-up box with the command, “Write a birthday wish on his timeline.” A lot of people obediently do just that, and voila—a deluge of well wishes for the birthday boy.

I used to keep the birthdate section of my profile empty, on the grounds that I had zero interest in hearing from the kind of people who thought a dashed-off online platitude constituted any kind of meaningful interaction.

I’ve changed my mind. Facebook’s birthday scheme is the greatest thing in the world. Sure, it takes all of two seconds to type “HBD, man!” onto my page. And, sure, a large percentage of the people leaving the Facebook posts are the kind of friends who give me a quick nod and wave when I run into them once a year at the mall. The important thing is how it feels to have more than 70 friends wish you a happy birthday. It feels GREAT. For one day, you’re the most popular person in town and, even if the rush is shallow and fleeting, it’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to the feeling of a childhood birthday bash.

You can skip throwing me a party. Just Facebook me.

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