I stole this image from the website of a road construction and maintenance company in Western Canada that happens to have been established in the same year I was born. My deepest apologies to the Canadian graphic designer I'm ripping off.
A few minutes before midnight on November 26th I wandered out of my room to make myself some dinner – because on the bizarre, semi-nocturnal sleep schedule I’ve taken to these past few months, I now eat my evening meal in the middle of the night. My roommates joined me in the kitchen as I applied peanut butter to bread, but our conversation came to a stop when the green luminescent clock on our oven hit 12:00, at which point both of them started alternately high fiving and hugging me, asking if I felt any different now that I was 25.
That’s sort of the go-to ironic question to ask somebody on their birthday, immediately after saying, “Happy birthday!” and before saying, “Well, I’ve got to run, but I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday!” It’s a pretty safe question to ask because we all take for granted that nobody feels inherently different on their birthday than they did the day before. It’s not like your body starts pumping out new chemicals when it realizes you’re wearing a party hat and eating sheet cake; there isn’t some exclusive set of feelings behind a velvet rope with a sign reading ‘YOU MUST BE THIS OLD TO FEEL THESE THINGS.’
This is why I’m so surprised to realize that I actually do feel different now that I’m 25.
I’ve written in the past about my mixed feelings regarding my birthday. Because I feel uncomfortable throwing a party in my own honor, and also because I don’t like it when a room full of people sings to me, I’ve made a point of keeping my last few birthdays as low key as possible.
And by and large, I’ve succeeded – there have been no big parties and relatively few choruses of ‘happy birthday.’ My birthday wish for nobody to make a big deal about my birthday almost always comes true because I don’t plan a party and don’t tell people when my birthday is. And, like clockwork, every birthday ends with me sitting alone at my computer, feeling no different than I did the day before – in fact, not feeling much of anything. Every year, I take that absence of feeling to mean that I really just don’t care that much about my birthday, which is all the justification I need to do the same nothing next year.
I have no doubt that I would have spent this birthday eating Indian takeout while watching Deadwood or MST3k were it not for the fact that a bunch of friends and I spent the Saturday before my birthday shooting a script I’d written. Since most of the crew was our friends working for free, I figured the least I could do was throw them a kickass wrap party at my place. By chance, the best day to do it happened to be the day before Thanksgiving – November 27th – and that’s how I wound up accidentally throwing myself a birthday party.
When I was a kid there was an episode of some children’s show – Shining Time Station, I think, or maybe it was Wishbone – that took place on one of the adult characters’ birthday, and he explained to the kids how as you get older birthdays are less about the presents and more about sharing memories and experiences with the people you love. At the age of 5 I wrote off that rather beautiful sentiment as bullshit, because everybody knew that birthdays were all about acquiring the latest and greatest Lego sets. The love of your friends and family cannot be assembled into a pirate ship, which makes it a terrible gift.
And 20 years later I was sitting on my couch, looking at my living room packed with boisterous partygoers and thinking to myself, Holy shit – all these cool, interesting, delightful people are here of their own free will, and while I did promise that there would be a little free booze and cheese dip, it seems like the main reason they came was because they’re my friends. And even if they did only come for the cheese dip, it’s cheese dip I invented and made myself, so if nothing else at least I know I’m really good at making cheese dip.
Five year old me would have been outraged by the gifts I received this year – a couple of photographs, some thoughtful cards, a particularly sweet text message. A dozen tiny yellow plastic pirates could not sail around a bathtub in any of these things, and yet they mean more to me than almost any other gift I’ve received in recent memory.
At one point my cousin and his girlfriend arrived with a birthday cake, and before I knew it candles had been lit and everybody was singing to me. In the past, this was my nightmare – when I was younger I would lie awake the night before my birthday, dreading the moment that I would be forced to try and figure out what facial expression to make as a bunch of people sang and waved burning baked goods in my face.
But this year it didn’t even bug me. Maybe it was because I’d been drinking for three and a half hours at that point. Maybe it was because I was too overwhelmed by the number of people in my life who care about me to feel anything other than a sort of generalized, all encompassing joy. Or maybe it was because I know from experience that my cousin’s girlfriend makes incredible cakes, and I was just too busy being excited to eat this one to go through any of the traditional awkwardness or embarrassment.
Truman Capps is, all things considered, glad that he was born.