My birthday was last week. It was a work day, and happened to be the day of a sexual harassment prevention training. That might sound like a poor way to spend a birthday, but it was actually fine. Sitting in a conference room and listening to a lecture can be a pleasant change of pace, you know? Afterwards we played bingo and I won a candy bar.
In any case, I don’t have a great track record with birthdays. Sophomore year of high school, I refused to plan anything despite my mother’s pestering, so she invited two friends over as a surprise. It was a little embarrassing, but we had a nice time. My friend Becca gave me a copy of White Oleander, which I loved. Still, I wonder now why I was so resistant to celebrate; why it seemed like “too much” to make a big deal out of my own birthday. It’s something I’ve done repeatedly with special occasions since. Why?
Two years ago, I spent the morning of my birthday at the Savannah DMV. This was my own fault: I had failed to realize that I would not be able to renew my Minnesota license long-distance, and needed to trade it for a Georgia one immediately. So I skipped an inking class, took the bus south on Abercorn and walked past a series of strip malls until I found the right building. To my happy surprise, the line was short and the photo came out halfway decent. Happy birthday to me.
On the bus ride back, I listened to a redneck tease his girlfriend in an exaggerated accent, “Ef yew saw a crack pahp on the ground, wid yew pick it up an smoak it?” When the girlfriend got off the bus, he scanned the remaining passengers and his eyes landed on me. In an offhand voice he muttered, “damn you look cute in them little glasses.”
I was wearing a variation of the art school uniform: black jeans, gray v-neck sweater with a collared shirt underneath. And, of course, thick black glasses. It’s a uniform that, in Savannah especially, I hoped made me less of a target to men. (Unfortunately, no such uniform exists for women.) Maybe if we hadn’t been on the bus, or if the man had been older, the comment would have creeped me out more. But in that moment, it just seemed silly. I almost laughed at him. Instead I found a seat between two old ladies and pulled out a book.
Somehow that comment jogged me out of whatever self-pitying “but it’s my birthday” mood I’d been in. That bus ride: that was it. That was my real life. For better and worse, it was my own choices that had brought me to Savannah, my own choice not to look into license renewal sooner. I was an adult and these were my decisions and this was my life. There was no one else to blame, and that was a good thing.
I think one reason people downplay birthdays and other milestones is because these occasions are a reminder of how much time is passed, and how many opportunities are no longer on the table. By not acknowledging those markers, it can be easier to pretend that one’s current life is only a disguise; that the real you will emerge shortly.
So, like I said, last week it really was a fine birthday. Despite life’s inevitable mundanity and bullshit, I feel extremely lucky right now. I like my job; I like city; I like my life. I like what I’ve chosen.
A few days after my birthday, another coworker had one. He turned sixty-two. To celebrate, he brought in an almond coffee cake from my favorite bakery in Minneapolis, still warm. A birthday tradition to which we might all aspire.