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You get to be a certain age and birthdays start blending together. Some still stand out though—the traumas and the triumphs, impossible to duplicate, clearly deserving of recognition. As a longtime creator of low-budget theater, I like a little spectacle, though there are instances where it was the wrong kind of drama that made these occasions so memorable. The following nine birthdays bested the Malibu Barbies and party streamers of 43 others, leaving the sort of lasting impressions I’ll take to my grave, though I do aspire to rack up a few more contenders en route.
Age 9: Best Maintenance of the Status Quo
Every girl in my second-grade class celebrated her birthday at Farrell’s, a Gay 90s-themed restaurant in the Castleton Mall. Convention dictated that even cake lovers would opt for The Zoo, a punchbowl of disgustingly mismatched ice cream flavors, sundae toppings, and plastic animals, delivered by two extroverted young men in arm garters, who tore around the dining floor with the Zoo on a stretcher, accompanied by sirens and a pigtailed waitress on bass drum. It was, for all practical purposes, my introduction to guerrilla theater, and a persuasive argument for not underwriting your low-pay acting career in a restaurant catering to children.
Age 12: Most Regrettable
A seemingly minor transgression on my part caused my mother to dump my best friend from the list of approved guests for my upcoming slumber party. It was ruined before it started, but the almost-12-year-old-me was so short on character, I went ahead and had the dumb thing anyway. I’m sorry, Anna.
Age 21: Most Stressful / Most Thoughtful
My college boyfriend, knowing that birthdays were important to me, thought it would be fun to pretend that he had forgotten mine. I spent the day stiffening my upper lip, inwardly gutted that the only person to acknowledge the significance of the date was my landlord, which may be why I dislike red roses to this day. When my boyfriend finally called to say his rehearsal was keeping him late, I glumly made my way to a kegger at a popular classmate’s. Upon arrival, I was hustled into a side room, where my boyfriend had arranged for a number of friends to act out Winnie the Pooh, Chapter 6—“In Which Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents”. I was given a script with Eeyore’s lines highlighted. At the end of the skit, I was presented with a giant red balloon, just like a certain sad sack donkey. Better than a rose, for sure.
Age 29: Lucky Number
Is a massive potluck brunch a sign of bohemian maturity? My boyfriend, Greg, and I decided to pull out all the (low budget) stops for my 29th birthday on March 29th. It cost 29¢ to mail each of my homemade invitations—an auspicious sign—and one guest brought his toddler daughter, an unbelievably exotic thing to have in our apartment at the time.
Age 30: Most Memorable, Though Surely Not in the Way I Would Have Anticipated
This felt like it would be a much bigger milestone than 21 (see above). My theater company was scheduled to fly into Bucharest the day before, to perform in a festival several hours drive away. Shortly after our arrival, a massive blizzard stranded our bus in the middle of rural Transylvania.
It would have been jollier had we had heat…or food.
It would have been jollier had we had heat…or food. One company member was succumbing to the flu. Another was stricken by her inability to make good on the nutritional regimen her therapist had prescribed. The rest peered hollowly from nests they’d constructed from the entire contents of their backpacks. By the time we reached the festival hotel, a grim Socialist holdover, I was 30 and the only thing I was interested in was a face plant.
Age 40: An Excellent Excuse to Buy That Red Swing Dress with the Halter Style Bodice
Ten years (and two kids) further out from that freezing Romanian school bus, I was getting to be a pretty dab hand at throwing children’s birthday parties and decided that was exactly the sort of festive energy I craved for the Big 4-0.
If only Smartphones and social media had existed back then.
As always, we shook our guests down with a potluck, but made it worth their while by hiring a vintage Hawaiian swing band and renting a quirky two-room museum with a very photogenic chair guaranteed to make even the most reserved adult plus-one channel Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann. I was pleased—and surprised—by the popularity of the make your own newspaper hat station. Tragically, there are just a handful of photos documenting this highly photogenic event. If only Smartphones and social media had existed back then.
Age 47: Most Shocking
Later I realized that I have whole categories of friends that my husband isn’t aware of.
Wanna surprise someone? Throw her a surprise party on her 47th birthday. It’s possible my husband Greg got the idea from me having done the same on his 37th. It was a genuine ambush, though later I realized that I have whole categories of friends that my husband isn’t aware of. Word to the wise—if you want to make sure all your people receive an invite for your surprise party, make sure you keep everybody’s contact information in one handy, easy to steal file (like a paper address book). Fortunately, all in attendance were extremely talented and game karaoke participants.
Age 50 – The Golden Jubilee
As you may have gleaned I’m not the type to mark my 50th trip ‘round the sun hiking up some bucket list mountain. Instead, I talked the pastor of a church where some friends and I got together to mess around with improv once a week into letting me rent the parish hall, an atmospheric, high-ceilinged, about-to-be construction site large enough to accommodate over a hundred people (and all the covered dishes their hostess characteristically demanded, as tribute). Other than the homemade photo booth—a conscious ploy to not repeat 40’s lack of evidence—the highlight was the unbridled, non-stop dancing on the part of our teenage guests.
Age 52 – Zoo Redux or Ghost of Birthday Present
My most recent birthday was a marathon of sleeping, soaking, and stuffing myself in a 24-hour Korean bathhouse complex in New Jersey. The sex-segregated, no-clothes-allowed first floor was a great morale booster. How incredibly life affirming to be surrounded by all that unretouched, unconcerned female flesh—wrinkled, firm, flabby, lean, scarred, tattooed, all marked by life to varying degrees. The cumulative effect was glorious, and deeply relaxing to the sucked-in stomach muscles of self judgement. And while Thomas Mann’s observation that you can’t go back home to your childhood is not without merit, the Patbingsu shaved ice confection I ordered in the bathhouse café came pretty damn close to the Farrell’s Zoo of my youth.