Friday, March 7, 2014

Notes on Birthdays

How Picard and I both feel about birthdays.
Sad birthday to it,
Sad birthday to it,
Sad birthday to the human,
Sad birthday to it.
—"Gollum Sings You Sad Birthday," James Walters

I turned 27 a few weeks ago, and this past weekend I had a birthday party with some friends. Both events were excellent.

My earliest birthday memory is associated not with my birthday but a friend's. He was a kid I knew from camp, and I kind of idolized him, so I was stoked to go to his birthday party. I have no clear memory of the party itself (there was, most likely, Nintendo), but it must have been a heck of a time, because when I awoke the next day and went looking for my clothes so I could change out of my PJs, my pants were nowhere to be found. "Pantsless James" was my nickname in that household from then on.

My worst birthday was undoubtedly the one during my sixth grade year; I'd just entered a new school system, and I invited two friends to come to a birthday bowling party. Neither showed up, so I glumly bowled with my dad and and ate my birthday cake by myself. Of course, looking back, I know it would have still been a terrible party if they'd showed up, since they didn't know each other or me very well and we were all awkward tweens.

Best birthday is a tossup. I've had lots of good birthdays: when I started college, I realized that only I had the power to make my birthdays awesome now, and I decided to pursue that with gusto. A typical birthday for me these days is an excuse to invite a crowd of people over to my house for pizza and conversation. If possible, I hold it jointly with friends whose birthday is at the same time, so we can have my friends and their friends also. My goal at these parties is to get people from unrelated friend groups to talk to each other. There's something magical about introducing two people who seem like they'll get along, and then discovering that, hey, they like each other, and you were the reason they met!

This year's birthday party had the fewest friends I've invited in a while, in part because it was not a joint birthday party with anyone else. Happily, we did have enough people to play my one of my favorite party games. I'm not sure of the name, but it's a kind of race: there are two teams, each sitting in a straight line. The people in the line hold hands with the folks next to them, and close their eyes. The last person in each line holds a spoon over a metal pot. The first person in each line has their eyes open, and is watching someone flip a quarter. When the quarter comes up heads, the person watching the quarter on each team squeezes the hand of the person next to them, and that person squeezes the next hand, and so on; when the last person feels their hand squeezed, they bang the pot with the spoon, and whichever team bangs the pot first, gets a point. Players rotate through all positions, and when everyone has had a turn to bang the pot and watch the quarter, the points are tallied and the team with the most wins!

These were the participants.

I like explaining things to people, so not only is playing this game fun, teaching people the game is fun for me, too. I have to plan quickly in my head how to lay it out, how to word things so it's not confusing, and I have to stay on my toes to notice anything going wrong, anything I missed in the initial description. The game went smoothly; we ended up creating a penalty for false starts, because there were a lot of accidental hand squeezes at the start of the game.

As far as I can recall, this is the first year when I did something special on my birthday itself, rather than just enjoying myself at my party. 2013 wasn't really the hottest year for movies, but there were a few I'd missed and really wanted to see. I took my birthday off from work, and I tracked down times to go see Her and Inside Llewyn Davis; the latter I wanted to see because I try to see anything the Coen Bros make, and the former because it was the first new film The Dissolve has given a perfect rating to. Also, they both sounded cool.

And they were! I loved Her's ability to use a sci-fi premise to explore human emotions and experiences, through questions about artificial intelligence and the possibility of intimacy without physical presence. And I loved Inside Llewyn Davis's clear affection for the music and the period it depicted, contrasted with the detachment of its main character. I ended up crossing Chicago in a blizzard to get to the movie theater, the Landmark Century, and I hung out in one of my favorite bookstores, Unabridged Bookstore, in between the films. As I headed home, I called my parents, and they graciously wished me a happy birthday from a sweltering canyon in Arizona where they were on vacation.

Birthdays are great, but typically a birthday can only be really great if I choose to make it so.

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